Those of you familiar with my posts might already have seen my cartoon record of our trip to Chile in 1991. Well, here are some images from that same wondrous journey, from photos taken just months after the new democracy had been born. From the man moodily anticipating his bowl of chicken cazuela in a Santiago soup cafe to the gentleman posing dignified and proud before his humble Antofagasta home, the people of of this amazing country were an endless source of photogenic fascination. But of all the images here, the unfocused and shaky picture of two waitresses doing an impromptu cueca (Chile’s famous national dance) remains one my most cherished visual records from all of my many travels…
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.
A few hours following our brush with the youthful vigilantes our car broke down. The good news was that we had only just passed by a small town so the walk back for assistance wouldn’t be too long – the bad news, was that it was a Sunday and we didn’t have high expectations of finding a mechanic who would be working. As it happened, our ballet friend spoke good Spanish so Dido sent the two of us off back to town on foot while she stayed to mind the car.
The walk back to the town, including a fruitless hunt for a mechanic, took us around an hour I guess, and we were both in low spirits as we began the traipse back to Dido with the bad news. Our despair turned to puzzlement however as soon as our car came back into view. At first, we both thought that the shimmering heat-haze rising from the distant tarmac was playing tricks with our eyes: We thought we could see our car with its bonnet raised, and several motorcycles with flashing blue lights parked behind it; and then as our pace instinctively quickened and we got nearer, we thought we could make out two policemen ostentatiously directing traffic passed our car; and then (by now we had broken into a jog) we thought we could make out a line of traffic cones placed around our car. And as we got closer, and realised that our eyes were not deceiving us, our puzzlement was increased by the fact, that of Dido, there was absolutely not a trace…
When we reached the car, we passed by three parked police motorcycles, and approached the fist of the two cops directing the traffic. Our ballet friend asked him what had happened and he merely gestured with his head towards the front of the car and as we walked round we at last understood why Dido had apparently disappeared: In what remains one of the most surreal scenes of all our many weeks in Chile (which the drawing below barely does justice to) she was in fact immersed beneath the bonnet, leaning into the engine, together with a third policeman on he left and a man in bluejeans on her right.
What had apparently occurred was that twenty minutes after we left for the town, the three motorcycle cops appeared on the scene. After Dido – doing her “best blonde damsel in distress routine” – explained the problem one of them took a look under the bonnet and diagnosed a loose alternator belt. A few minutes later they hailed down a passing truck belonging to a local mechanic. Although he protested that it was his day off and he was on his way to his mother’s for Sunday lunch they insisted that he fix our car first. He grumpily confirmed that it was the alternator belt, but that without the kit from his garage he would need two spare pairs of hands if he was to fix the problem in situ.
It seemed that, in common with their Guardia Civil Traffico cousins in Spain, the Chilean carabineros had an ethos that cars broken down on the highway must be got moving again at all costs. Hence, Dido coerced into immersing herself in car engine together with a policeman, holding on with all their combined might to a clamp, while the mechanic tightened the belt sufficiently for us to make it back to Santiago.
After many weeks in Chile we remained uncomfortable around the carabineros, and so it took a while for the fact to sink in that we owed those three cops an enormous debt of gratitude…
We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was (and is still) one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is truly infectious, so that she has this knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays.
I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, somehow, and before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft.
I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill.
Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us.
Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the very far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture below describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club.
My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!
(Readers interested in learning more about the remarkable Georgina Gubbins can visit her website here: http://www.georginagubbins.cl/)
So mortified was I from my disastrous jet-lag experience at the start of the trip at the Italian restaurant in Antofagasta, I still had misgivings about entering another such establishment some ten weeks later. However, we’d reached that stage again where we were keen for an alternative to Chilean cooking and thus decided to chance our palettes on a highly-recommended uptown tratoria.
As things turned out the food was indeed excellent and I managed to avoid losing consciousness for the entire meal. But even if I had suffered a freak recurrence of that temporary narcolepsy I doubt very much that I would have actually fallen asleep at this particular restaurant; for this particular restaurant was “blessed” with the presence of a singing maitre d. And the singing maitre d didn’t merely sing the occasional refrain from a popular tune; he didn’t restrict himself to the odd verse from o sole mio; this was no mere gondola crooner; no, this guy fancied himself as the real, full-on, operatic deal.
The only time he stopped singing was when he had to talk to his guests, and even then he didn’t so much talk as warble in a form of recitative – whether recommending a wine or pointing out the way to the toilets.
At first, both the novelty of the experience, and the fact he did have a decent enough little tenor voice meant that we didn’t find the singing too intrusive upon our dining – which was after all, our primary reason for being at the tratoria. But after about half-an-hour it began to irk, and then it began to grate, until by the time he warbled to us the deserts of the day we were ready to throttle him – but then something much better happened.
A diner at a neighbouring table, with a far bigger and better tenor voice decided to sing back at the maitre d. The maitre d in turn, not getting the message, and not knowing when he was beaten sang back – louder! This then descended into an all out competition, culminating in the two men not so much singing at each other, but actually screaming. It ended eventually- much to the relief of everyone in the restaurant – when the maitre d’s voice finally cracked, breaking down into a pathetic croak…
The second of the two fruit checks took place on the border of the Atacama and Coquimbo regions. The bad thing, was that it was in the middle of the night and we were woken from our sleep, but the good news was that on this occasion we weren’t forced off the bus. For whatever reason the policemen concentrated this time on examining the luggage holds and it wasn’t long before their search paid fruit or, to be more precise, onions – a bloody-great crate of prime cooking onions. Now it was the coach driver who received the wagging finger treatment as he was asked to explain the presence of the contraband Allium bulbs. Somehow it was obvious to the carabineros that he was the guilty party and the poor chap was taken away to a little booth by the side of the road where he was interrogated for the next hour or so. Eventually, evidently chastened and downcast he was returned to us and permitted to continue driving us to Santiago…
As much as were enjoying the Chilean diet, after several weeks in the country we felt the need for a change. Having spent a great deal of time in Israel we both had passion for Middle Eastern cuisine – Jewish and Arab. So one evening when we stumbled upon a Palestinian restaurant near our hotel in Santiago we thought we’d give it a go. So long as we observed Basil Fawlty’s wise dictum; not to “mention the war” – or wars in this case – we presumed that we could relax and enjoy some fine Arab cooking. However, the meal we were served up had about as much relationship to the exquisite humus and salads of Abu Shukri in Jerusalem, or the sumptuous seafood and grilled meats of the Crusaders in Caesarea as a Birmingham balti chicken has to do with real Indian street food – i.e. not very much. The two memorable things about the meal was the fact that everything presented to us was grey in colour and utterly tasteless, from the cement-like humus and baba ganush to Dido’s choice of main course – supposedly braised, whole poussin, stuffed with cracked wheat and apricots (yes, grey apricots). But the piece de resistance for awfulness was my main course. What I was thinking when I ordered stuffed sheep’s intestine is one thing, but even allowing for my foolhardyness, nobody could have expected what was placed before me that evening – including all the other diners who used their menus to screen themselves from the revolting sight of my dish. I suppose I was anticipating something along the lines of haggis or Balkan-style stuffed “kishke”, both of which I love. But this was, as depicted in the picture below, simply a steaming hot pile of sheep intestine in all its unadulterated gory, glory – somehow stuffed with rice (dried-out grey rice in keeping with the rest of the meal). Worse still was the smell; reminiscent of compost and dirty damp towels – it made Dido come close to retching. And the fact that the head waiter stood over me, oozing pride for his establishment’s signature dish, eager to see how much I liked it made this one of the most potentially awkward dining experiences of my life. But then fate smiled on us! The intestine, having the texture of tyre rubber meant that my knife couldn’t make the slightest impression on it. The waiter slapped his head as if to chastise himself for his remissness and went back to the kitchen to get me a sharper implement. At this, without needing to utter a word to each other, we stood up, slammed more than enough money on the table to cover the bill and marched full-speed to the exit…
About halfway through our stay in Chile we decided to take a few days off and visit the lake district. We booked the train for the overnight journey from Santiago to Puerto Varas and believed we had reserved a compartment. However, we were disappointed to discover on boarding that we were in a couchette with half-dozen other people. A short time out of Santiago Dido went looking for the loo. She returned in an animated state saying that the next carriage comprised only compartments, and that they were all empty. When the porter then came to clip our tickets I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to a compartment to which he shrugged, smiled and muttered under his breath ‘perhaps’… Without thinking I reached into my pocket, and pulled out about $40.00 worth of Chilean Pesos from my wallet . Then, checking his expression and seeing that he was receptive I discreetly slipped the money into his hand. ‘Twenty minutes’ he said gesturing with his head back towards the next carriage; ‘I will prepare the first compartment for you’. And good to his word, the compartment was prepared. It was beautiful: Old British rolling stock from the age of steam, like a scene from From Russia with Love or Murder on Orient Express; only slightly faded, deep green velvet drapes and furniture and shimmering mahogany paneling. The porter had immaculately turned down the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets on the two broad bunk beds, in addition to his final touch – two expertly prepared pisco sours in old-style crystal cocktail glasses placed on the little pull out table. We were in romantic heaven, and needless to say we enjoyed one of the best nights of our trip…
On our second night in Santiago we were taken out to supper by one of Dido’s contacts at Sename (Chile’s National Youth Service – responsible for the protection of the legal rights of children and adolescents, among other things). He had helped Dido plan her trip from the UK and would be her main facilitator while we were in Chile. A warm and exuberant young man as I recall and, accompanied by his equally charming fiancee, he gave us a lovely night out on the town. This was to be the first of many enjoyable dining experiences throughout our long trip, highlighted by our host’s impromptu collaboration – on vocals and percussion – with a passing guitar-playing serenader. What the performance lacked in fine harmonies and tunefulness it more than made up for with sheer gusto and enthusiasm…
The next day we went to the Sename HQ in Santiago for a meeting with our host of the previous evening. The two things to bear in mind at this point in the proceedings are that Dido’s Spanish was still embryonic and we were a young European couple entering a complex devoted to issues related to parent-less children. However, neither of these two key factors prepared us for what was about to happen when we found ourselves sitting in an office opposite a smiling, affable woman who we assumed was our friend’s secretary. We must have been sitting with this kindly lady for about five minutes exchanging what we thought were pleasantries – her in pigeon English and Dido in pigeon Spanish – when the office door finally opened. But, instead of seeing our friend, a grinning nurse (at least she was wearing a nurse-type uniform) walked in holding a bonny baby boy in her outstretched arms. Before we knew or understood the mix-up in progress, Dido found herself with said bonny baby boy sitting on her lap smiling expectantly into her eyes. Then, after a moment or two we realised that we had been misdirected to the adoptions section of the building instead of our contact’s admin’ office. Eventually, our friend appeared and cleared up the confusion. But, as we left her office, the lady, asked us if we wouldn’t like the baby in any case, even suggesting that we could pick him up at the end of our stay in Chile. She was serious…
Dido’s first port of call was the small Atacama Desert town of San Pedro – just over 1000 miles north of Santiago. We decided to use the same mode of transport that most Chileans used then for such long journeys – the famous Tramaca coach. Being only the start of the trip we were as-yet uncertain of how our funds would hold out, so rather than travel in the relative luxury of the cama bus with their lauded 1st class aircraft seats and cocktails, and airline-style meals served by attentive stewards, we opted for the regular-seated bus. We would be traveling to San Pedro in three stages, stopping first for a day at the port of Antofagasta – a journey of twenty-five hours. Initially, apart from the stunningly beautiful landscapes we motored through, there was nothing remarkable about the coach journey itself. But then we stopped for a driver’s rest break and it was like no driver’s rest break on any coach journey we had ever encountered before. As the doors of the coach opened a virtual caravan of peddlers and food sellers streamed onto the vehicle, offering assorted newspapers and magazines, all sorts of drinks, from fresh juices to beer and tasty things to eat. Most delicious of all were the empanadas, fried and baked – reminiscent of Cornish pasties – filled with either cheese, tuna or meat. And there were also huge, green, sweet ripe palta – known to just about everyone else in the world beyond the borders of Chile and Peru as avocado…
In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. Because it was going to be a long trip – about three months in all – and we had been married less than a year we decided that I would go along too. As it happened, Dido required her work with the kids to be recorded and as I had some experience with cameras she appointed me her video cameraman.
When we arrived in the country, Chile had been a democracy about the same length of time that we had been married, so this was a dramatic voyage of discovery in more ways than one. In fact, looking back on that trip now after nearly a quarter of century, I think that Dido and I agree that it remains one of the two or three most remarkable experiences of our time together.
We had decided to keep a written journal of the trip even before we left England, but within a few days of our arrival so many weird and wonderful – not to mention hysterical – things had happened to us that I decided to record the most amusing and surreal in a series of cartoons.
Presented here are those thirty-three pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is no breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries.
These pictures are a humorous and very affectionate record of all aspects of the then new democratic Chile through the eyes of two wide-eyed newly-weds.
In the words of Inti Illimani – “VIVA CHILE”!!
When we arrived at Santiago Airport we were virtually kidnapped by a trolley porter who then took us through the red channel. When we were then searched by fearsome looking Carabineros and I couldn’t find the paperwork for the large video camera in my possession. My explanation that the camera was not new and the property of the Ealing Educational Authority failed to impress the policemen who then separated me from Dido and escorted me – with the camera – to a small room by the side of the customs hall. Once in the room they told me to sit down on a low wooden chair in the corner and to keep the camera on my lap. There was a glass window in the middle of the opposite wall through which I could see a very worried Dido still standing among all our ransacked baggage and suit cases. For about twenty minutes I was left alone with one Carabinero, who stood leaning against the door just staring at me expressionlessly. Then two more policemen entered the room and – ignoring me completely – turned on a TV fixed to a bracket suspended from the low ceiling. There was a football match on and soon all three men were totally engrossed, occasionally shouting at the screen. At first I’d been too frightened by my predicament to take much notice of the game, but as the minutes passed I realised it was an international game and one of the teams was Chile. And then, as fear turned to boredom I began to watch the match too until I finally recognised one of the Chilean players. Without thinking, at the moment I recalled his name I blurted it out, “Ivan Zamorano!” The three jackbooted Carabineros all instantly turned to look at me with looks of amazement on their faces. Then, one of them who spoke English asked me, “Zamorano! You know him?” “Of course! He plays in Italy for Internazionale” I replied, then added, lying through my teeth, “He’s one of my favourite players. I’m a big fan!” And with that it was as if I had turned on a switch. Next thing I knew, the three men were all smiles and charm personified and I was being escorted back to Dido, with our camera and sent on our way. Who says football is just a game…The first thing you noticed upon arrival in Santiago back in 1991 (I’m sure it’s improved by now) is an all pervading smell from the heavy smog, trapped over the city by the surrounding mountains. The smell was distinct and highly reminiscent of burnt cooking oil. The only way to be outside and escape the smog was to climb the famous Cerro San Cristobal hill that rises some 300 meters above the city. However, the problem with this was that the climb was steep and until one emerged from the polluted air very painful on the lungs. Still, the rewards were both clean air, and once at the top, beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary, stunning views of the Andes rising above the city like a sheer and mighty snow-capped parapet.
There must have been many culprits responsible for Santiago’s poor air quality back then, but I guess the greatest contribution were the hundreds (if not thousands) of small buses speeding about all over town, belching great gobs of black sooty exhaust from their tin chimneys. More daunting than their exhaust though, at least to the newly arrived foreign traveler was negotiating how to use the things. Each minibus had its own peculiar route scrawled on its side in barely legible graffiti-like writing. Then, once one had decided to gamble on a particular vehicle, and waved it down – there didn’t seem to be any official bus-stops – one had to literally leap on before the impatient driver lurched off almost immediately. On several occasions either I or Dido were too slow and ended up being dragged along the curb, holding onto the door rail for dear life.