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December 11

December 11, 2008

Over the past few days, I had somehow rationalised myself into line with the popularly held view that Buenos Aires is a “better” city than Santiago de Chile – more vibrant, more interesting, grander, more wonderful; but now that we are back in Santiago after an absence of two months, I am rejecting that idea. This place is more amiable, sunnier, and in my opinion preferable to BA.

I’m not sure I will be able to put my finger on why, but you could take the understated grandeur of the Alameda vs. the self-consciously epic width of Nueve de julio as a touchstone. Santiago is simply a large city – Buenos Aires thinks it’s a gift to cities. And in Buenos Aires, I thought I detected the unpleasant lingering odour of social stratification a little too often. Granted I am a degenerate at the moment, with my old and filthy clothing and broken boots, but in Baires there were a few too many skinny old women in designer jeans looking upon me as if upon a leper. All that vented, in general we see so little of each place we visit that it’s only our few and specific experiences, and our mood at the time that end up being generalised to these overall feelings; we came to Santiago first on an emotional upswing, and to Buenos Aires on a downswing.

We hadn’t planned to be here of course, and have a two night stay only thanks to the wilful screwing up of our travel arrangements by Aerolineas Argentinas, which must be locked in close competition with American Airlines for the title of world’s worst airline (both have the initials “AA” — chance, or coincidence?). They suck! But all the same, the prospect of an unplanned, enforced rest day wasn’t entirely miserable.

Over breakfast, I was struck by reminiscences on this return to Luz Azul Hostel, remembering the exact photographs of backpackers hanging on the wall, the faces of the counter staff, the Concha y Toro wineglasses arrayed on the kitchen shelf, the particular type of marmalade in the included breakfast, the endearingly misspelt English signage around the place. If Santiago felt like home (like Australia) the first time we came here, it feels doubly so as one of the only places we’ve doubled back on in eight or nine months of travel.

We went out to do some sort-of Christmas shopping. I imagine people back home will be waiting for exotic gifts from far lands, and a few of you might end up getting them, but I’m goddamned sick of looking at souvenirs. If I never see another souvenir in my life it won’t be too long a wait. To be honest I would love to fly back into Australia and just buy my friends and family books and CDs from Dymocks and JB Hi-Fi or something – whilst my rational mind can still occasionally perceive the merit of the ornaments and so on in the tourist shops, there is something the rest of it has begun to resent deeply about the relentless cheap commodification of geographical locality.

We walked along the Alameda, anyway, and we did find Cerro Santa Lucia, a high steep hill in the heart of Santiago, at the foot of which was located a quasi-official Mapuche arts emporium which wasn’t, at least, purveying rubbish. They even had some nice T-shirts. Above this commercial hustle, we signed into the parks and gardens of the terraced hill themselves. On the lower level, a grand, deep fountain was surrounded by signs warning against bathing, and it was hot enough weather that I could really understand the temptation.

There were botanic displays, small war memorials, a monument to Chilean youth, and as we clambered up onto the narrower upper slopes, a high landing with diverse plantings and coin-operated telescopes, dedicated to Charles Darwin. It has been pleasant to see how much Darwin is honoured in Chile, although I’m uncertain how this lionisation (heh – amusing word to use in relation to an evolutionary theorist) of the scientist interplays with the vast cohorts of Catholics and Evangelicals here. Can’t see it happening in the US, though: people would assume it was ideologically motivated.

From the peak of Cerro Santa Lucia, the three hundred and sixty degree panorama revealed to us the true bulk of Santiago, which is quite impressive. The high-rise zone of the central business district extends for great distances in all directions from this point, and hints properly at the eight million inhabitants whose dwellings and workplaces span an even greater urbanised surface. On the ground downtown, Santiago feels smaller than that, perhaps like a half-Melbourne or a twice-Perth.

Descending to the footpath and below, we got back onto the Escuela Militar subway line and made our way to bustling Tobalaba and certain specialty stores which will remain nameless, following those up with a cocktail apiece at a trendy, expensive street bar called Pub Licity. I hadn’t had a Bloody Mary since the one the steward mixed me so expertly on our Trans-Atlantic flight in early July. Hmm, actually, I think I might’ve had one in Guatemala. Oh well, I hadn’t had one in a long time.

We took the subway back to the hostel and began resting in earnest. The day wore on a bit faster than we ha expected. By coincidence, the two guys from Melbourne we’d intersected with here two months ago were back in Santiago at the same time as us. They are two brutishly huge lads in their mid-twenties just outside the top ranks of professional football in Australia. One of them, Jordan something, is going to be playing first team for the Port Adelaide Magpies next season. One of them declared “I haven’t had a beer out of my hand since I last saw you!”, but both of them were pretty worried by how much detriment to their physical conditioning two months of partying on cheap booze had caused. Unlike us, they’d headed north, going around Peru, Bolivia and Brazil and back south through Argentina.

While watching “Gossip Girl” on the hostel TV (highly trashy), we discussed such chestnuts as the composition of the backline of the Carlton ’95 premiership team (I could only remember Sexton, Dean, Whitehead, and Silvagni) and “reformed” drug abuser Ben Cousins’ prospects of getting picked up in the AFL draft.

I dropped off “Kingfishers Catch Fire” in the book exchange and started in on a re-read of Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” as Max prepared for a hostel event called “Takillers!”, a lesson in Chilean cocktail mixing followed by a group disco visit. It sounded a bit intense for me given we had to be at the airport at seven o’clock in the morning. “Hannibal” came on on the telly so I watched that with a couple of the other lazy hostel bums (God, I’ve watched a lot of crap lately). Somewhere in the middle of that the cocktail mixing began out on the upstairs terrace, and I was laid out on my top bunk finishing off more of “Kidnapped” as the partygoers wound out the door. O Davey Balfour, you really were a daft bastard.

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