Santiago wasn’t my preference for starting off in South America. I’d hoped (for no particular reason, I have to admit) to start in Buenos Aires. But in early 2012, Qantas stopped their SYD-EZE flights and replaced them with SYD-SCL, so there was nothing for it but to accept that our oneworld explorer was taking us to Chile first. (A pity: the Sydney-Santiago flight is basically east from Sydney; the shortest way to Buenos Aires is over Antarctica, which would have been a much more interesting way to spend the thirteen or so hours.) But having said all that, I certainly had no reason to expect anything but good things from Chile, and so we arrived excited to be in South America (finally!). And tired. We arrived very tired.
After a ‘break’ in our travels in Adelaide, we’d once more hit the metaphorical road courtesy of the 6am flight to Sydney, on New Year’s Eve. Then we left Sydney, as scheduled, on a 11.25am flight, on New Year’s Eve. And we arrived in Santiago, as scheduled, at 10am. On New Year’s Eve. Damned international date line. Obviously, this meant we were looking forward to New Year’s in South America. Right after a good long afternoon nap.
And New Year’s did deliver. We missed the fireworks, as it happens. We figured that ordering a simple dinner at 10.30pm at a pub was probably leaving plenty of time to get back into town ten minutes’ walk away for the bright lights at midnight. It turns out that was a little ambitious – not really leaving quite enough time for South American service to kick into gear. So we wished the bar staff a feliz año nuevo moments after finishing our food, and contented ourselves with just listening to the fireworks display. But we’d walked through town earlier in the evening, before dinner, and amused ourselves with all the party hats and confetti rockets on sale on the street. And as we walked back against the prevailing foot traffic as it returned from the celebrations, we got enough of a feel for the festivities to keep us heartily entertained for the evening. Especially since by that stage we were pretty keen on getting back to some shuteye anyway.
And we enjoyed the rest of our time in Santiago, too. Admittedly on January 1 we didn’t leave the hostel: it turns out the jet lag from flying due east for pretty much sixteen hours takes a while to get through: the encore to the previous day’s afternoon nap was a little more time-consuming. But our walking tour around town on the 2nd showed us a friendly and pleasant, if unremarkable, town.
Although when I say unremarkable, I’m overlooking one thing which was described to us which I should most definitely remark on: the apparently quite Chilean feature that is ‘café con piernas’ or literally ‘coffee with legs’. From what I gathered, it’s basically the strip club equivalent of coffee: blackened windows on a café, so that from outside you can’t see the ridiculously scantily clad women serving espresso. Apparently some things in South America are done a little differently than elsewhere.
Still, even despite our jet lag, we’d been easily capable of appreciating the relaxed café (not, not those cafés) and bar culture – especially in the Bellavista area, near our hostel. Also of appreciating the carbohydrate-laden goodness of the chorrillana, a French fry + steak + sausage + onion + egg concoction which is perhaps best described as “the late-night kebab place’s leftovers, aux frites”. Or perhaps it’s best described in mouth-watering picture form:
But the most entertaining aspect of our visit – and certainly the one I’ll remember most vividly, for better or worse, came a few days later, passing through Santiago again after visiting Valparaíso and before flying out to Easter Island the next day. Sitting at a table in a trendy-ish pub in a trendy-ish area of Santiago, out on the street mid-afternoon on a trendy-ish Saturday evening, I had my phone literally snatched out of my hand from behind as I was drinking a beer and reading a cached copy of the Wikitravel article about Easter Island. And I’d only just started the beer, for heaven’s sake.
Anyway, the guy bolted, and I bolted after him, to the bemused looks (I’m told) of everyone else in the pub. About a kilometre later, after an entertaining sprint across a whole heap of bitumen (I was barefoot, having kicked off the thongs/flip-flops I started in at around the same time I managed to gulp down the mouthful of beer I was halfway through imbibing on what was apparently the start line), we got ’im. I say “we” because it wasn’t actually me that caught the guy. I was about five metres behind at the time. The guy got caught by a random onlooker who’d been driving by and seen me chasing and heard me shouting, and – as he told me later, after a bit of a dilemma concerning who was the good guy and who was the bad guy, a dilemma he resolved by observing that I was chasing in bare feet which were now bleeding relatively obviously – quickly turned his car around, followed the guy towards the park he was (stupidly) running towards, and jumped out to join the chase. Before grabbing José (yes, it turns out the bad guy’s name was José – congratulations must go to my friend Simon for being the first to get in a “no way, José” joke on Facebook) in a headlock and holding him there until the Carabiñeros de Chile arrived. (In addition to this very gentlemanly gentleman, there were a tonne of others who had helped as well: driving cars up onto the footpath to get in José’s way, for example. Muchas graçias to all of them.)
So actually my outstanding memory from Santiago is of running hell-for-leather through its streets yelling ‘ladrón, ladrón’ (‘thief, thief’) before eventually running down some guy with a dirty porno mo who subsequently complained – in some torrent of Spanish I mostly didn’t understand, when finally in police custody – about how horrible we Americans are. But hey, it was a particularly satisfying experience. As was driving in the cop car back past the pub where it all started, looking for Chris so I could get back the stuff I’d left behind at the pub, only to be given a generous and full-hearted round of applause by most of the street as I waved my retrieved phone in response to their questioning looks as to whether I’d caught the guy.
And hopefully, the next five hours that I spent waiting in a police station and the Ministry of Justice were worthwhile – with any luck, the guy will have been convicted of ‘robo por sorpresa’ (robbery by surprise) at his court date the next morning. At least, I’d like to think that’s what will have happened. Otherwise the only benefit to those five hours will have been my amusement at being thrown into the first environment where I really actually genuinely needed to be able to understand Spanish: trying to communicate a sworn police statement, when the police officers spoke no English at all, and the Justice Department lawyer spoke little enough English that his preferred method of self-expression was to type stuff into Google Translate. (This was the point when I realised that maybe I knew more Spanish than I realised: when I noticed that it was easier to read what he typed in in Spanish than it was to try to figure out the slightly mangled English that Google Translate was producing in response.)
In any case, I doubt I’ll ever find out whether that evening of Español was in vain, though. Around the time of José’s court date, I was already en route to the airport to fly out to Easter Island.