During our time in Santiago one restaurant in particular became something of a regular stop for us, both for its fairly priced good local food (the roast partridge was our favourite) and the fact that we became friends with Sergio, the guy who ran it.
So friendly did we become with Sergio that one Sunday he invited us and some other of our new acquaintances to visit him at his cabin in the countryside south of the city. There he would show us his small holding where, in addition to growing all his own herbs and vegetables, he also raised rabbit, chicken and partridge for the restaurant. The idea was that we should get to him mid afternoon so that after looking over the farm he would feed us a leisurely Sunday lunch of his own roast suckling pig.
Unfortunately we never got to see Sergio’s farm or eat his Sunday lunch. The girl driving us was an old friend of his and should have known the route as she claimed to have been to his country home many times, but for whatever reason, she became hopelessly lost soon after leaving the main road. So, instead of dining on roast suckling pig and washing it down with copious amounts of the excellent local cab’ we spent hour after hour driving along the dirt roads between the rural towns of Rancagua and San Fernando. By the time we returned to Santiago later that evening, weary, hungry and thirsty, the main memory of our aimless tour had been getting stuck behind a pair of Holstein cows fornicating in the middle of the road – a formidable sight I have never seen repeated, even on the cow-strewn roads of India!
(Sergio, true to his kindly “sympatico” nature, rather than be angry, took pity and gave us a complementary slap-up dinner at the restaurant the following evening…)
Our final excursion from Santiago was a day-trip to the famous port city (and the seat of Chile’s parliament – an astonishing example of late 20th century brutalist architecture) – Valparaiso.
Most of what I thought I knew about Valparaiso was from old novels and black and white movies. But modern Valparaiso had about as much in common with those preconceptions as does Casablanca with its 1942 Hollywood counterpart.
So imagine my reality shock when walking into a “typical sailors'” bar (as described in our travel book) on the port itself and instead of seeing a scene from To Have and have Not – with a Hoagy Carmichael-type gently tinkling the ivories in a corner, while a Lauren Bacall lookalike leaned against the piano, wiggling her hips provocatively, warbling a soft, sexy accompaniment – we were confronted with a dysptopian, murky prediction of the bar set from Blade Runner. Admittedly, there were no androids (at least I don’t think there were) and no actual freaks of human nature; but this was the most intimidating, grim and unwelcoming drinking establishment we had ever encountered. Not only was there no Humphrey Bogart-like character in the bar, Bogart at his toughest would have been fearful of entering. The thing I remember mostly now was the greyness of the place – everything was either painted or coated grey – and peering through an almost tangible fug of cigarette smoke towards a bar, at which were seated about half-a-dozen men who looked as if they had been selected from central casting, under the “maritime-thug” label.
As a seasoned traveler I’m well used to entering bars and pubs where one’s presence is made to feel surplus to requirements, either by the regular drinkers, the tavern-keepers or both. But never – not in deepest Wiltshire, not in the roughest part of Marseilles and not even as a Pom in an Aussie pub in Perth full of Aussie miners, with an Ashes cricket match on the TV – have I felt the level of sheer dread, merely at the thought of approaching a bar, that I experienced that day in Valparaiso. Needless to say, we went somewhere else…
As a fitting to finale to our trip, on our very last day in Chile, Dido had somehow arranged for a meeting with Chile’s top academic in the field of South American folk music and dance. Among other things she was keen to learn more from him about the native dances of Chile, especially the history of the national dance of Chile, the famous Cueca.
The good professor – who shall remain nameless – manifested as a human whirlwind. A cross between the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and a classical ballet dancer, from the instant he welcomed us into his small office at the University of Santiago until the time it came for us to leave he was in perpetual motion. We never sat down during the hour or so we were with him and neither did he and I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. In fact, thinking about it now, I don’t think that the professor was physically capable of sitting down, any more than a goldfish can stop swimming. Occasionally, as he considered one of Dido’s many queries, he would momentarily hover on one leg balancing himself by making elegant conductor-like movements with his outstretched arms. Then, as an answer came to him he would pirouette back into spinning mode, all the time grabbing papers and pamphlets from the top of shelves and filing cabinets – before seemingly in one motion, depositing them in an ever-growing pile in Dido’s grateful arms.
Like his beloved Chile, the professor was quirky and rewarding in equal measure, and we will never forget him or his equally weird and wonderful country.