Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Santiago; notes from the back seat of a taxi

Tuesday, June 2

On the streets, in a cab, in Santiago. Riding in the backseat. Laptop open. Eyes wide open.

Cabbies here are crazy. Not the crazy of Amman, where EVERYONE drives crazy but everyone drives the same and you never feel like you’re a heartbeat away from an accident. Here there are so many distractions, so much traffic, so much noise coming out of the stereo and drivers typically with headphones in both ears that you definitely have the Disney’s California Adventure thing going through your head as you drive. On the other hand we always get where we’re going.

And in now almost five weeks on the road I’ve actually never seen an accident on the road. In DC you see them it feels like every day.

The weather is picture perfect. You get 10 of these days a year in DC and it seems like they happen here most days. Along the streets, looking out the cab window, the buildings are flushed with color. Its like San Francisco color (ala Haight Ashbury) but classic European architecture. The park to the left is flush with green and the light here, which is completely unlike the light in the northern hemisphere, hues everything in amber.

You are surrounded by mountains. They rise up at the end of city streets and over the tops of the towers. White caps in the Andes. Dirt brown slopes along the lower perimeter in which Santiago is placed. One moment it feels like lower Manhattan. The next like Denver with the Rockies in the distance.

In the front seat last night driving back from a site visit to the Penalonen, a sports center in which we are performing tonight, Chris took to making a “ding, ding, ding” sound everytime we passed a Chinese restaurant or carryout. It was like a constant bell. Never seen so many Chinese restaurants in my life.

The driver stops at a light and hails a street vendor to buy a pack of gum. Trucks laden with water tanks crosses in front. There is water in such abundance all around.

Its about 65 degrees. Things move at a pace that is neither weekday nor weekend.

Yesterday a wonderful woman stepping in to help host us and I were walking the streets between a lunch and stop at the Teatro Municipal. She was talking about (the driver just took out one headphone to talk on his cell while changing gears in his clutch/manual transmission auto. We’re going about 45 miles an hour, changing lanes and passing an ambulance on the way to the hospital with an emergency passenger inside) how different Chileans are from other Latin Americans. She’s Argentine (before us the mountains rise at an incredible slope, filling the sky) and has lived in many lands before coming here to settle for the second time. As we walked past the Presidential palace she took a breath. It was the breath of memory. “In Allende this is where the military bombed the palace. Theere were planes in the air, and rockets fired from this plaza. It was the start of Pinochet.” “1973, yes?”

“Yes, September 11, 1973.”

“September 11?”

“September 11.”

“It was the start of all the changes,” she said. “There was a curfew for years. No one could be out on the streets after 6pm. Can you imagine? People were very afraid. They couldn’t trust anyone so they turned to family. They became insular, quiet. It’s the thing they live with now. Then the curfew went to 8 or 10. Then to 2. The Dictator years. They haven’t come out of that yet.”
It was hard to imagine this in a thriving street filled with people passing through. Chileans are kind, gracious, elegant and so filled with hospitality. They go out of their way for you as easily as they draw breath. Its hard to picture this city empty at night. Yet it is quiet. It’s a subtle thing, but you can feel it. I thought it had to do with being, as they like to say, “at the end of the world.”

But its more than that.

We drive past a shanty shop in the poorest part of Santiago. A man is making an incredible and elegantly detailed door, hand carving the wood. He is bathed in sunlight in the cusp of the mountains growing ever larger before us. The buildings are low to the ground, not too far from shacks and yet clearly cared for. It isn’t poor in the way it is at home. There is small industry, handcrafting art everywhere in is seems every doorway. And then someone is selling tires out of a garage beside a fresh vegetables stand where the colors are so deep that you realize at home you don’t even know what fresh is.

Pulling into the stadium now (yes, stadium – more on that later)…..

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