Published May 15, 2005

Santiago is very European town; it could pass for a French or Spanish city, with parts of historical beauty and parts of awful ’80s architecture and parts of deteriorating ’50s concrete buildings. The people are also very European, with only, apparently, the road workers and cooks showing much Indian ethnic background. This makes for a very different feel than most of Latin America — especially Mexico, to which I’m somewhat used — and it means that Santiago mostly lacks the “exotic” women I typically go for. Also, it’s not that I’m all that, but I’m kind of used to the Mexican women checking me out. In fact, I’ve been hit on even in front of the Wonderful Girlfriend. Maybe it’s the camera around my neck, or the little memo pad in which I take notes, or the not-in-style clothes, but the women in Santiago won’t even make eye contact. Apart from that, this town is a ton of fun.

Today’s fun came in two flavors, split by a simple but tasty lunch, and bookended by a dinner adventure. The earlier portion of the day took place at the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, which was absolutely incredible. Some lucky people will be receiving postcards, and it’s too bad I can’t send all you all postcards because it’s difficult to explain how stunning some of the pieces there were.

The tour started with these pounded gold and copper masks and nosepieces (!) worn by shamans in the region that is now Colombia (that would make them Pre-Columbian Pre-Colombians). Apparently, metals were believed to hold particular power, so, by combining precious metals into the right alloys, and then making these alloys into masks that looked like various animals, shamans could enter the parallel worlds inhabited by these animals.

Apart from dressing up like animals, shamans were known for sitting down; being seated was a sign of authority. Shamans also had the often-exclusive right to chew coca leaves, and smoke various hallucinogens; by becoming intoxicated in these ways, the shamans would be able to enter the aforementioned parallel worlds. One of the hallucinogens was teonanácatal, a mushroom that, according to the display, “produce[d] hallucinations of little men who resolve difficulties.” We could all use to be shamans in a religion that lets us sit down, get high, and see little men who do all our dirty work.

The museum featured a large number of half-person, half-animal figures, made in both precious metal and in clay. These charms, bowls, and other adornments are believed to represent individuals who have been able to live in both the animal and human planes of existence, something only possible for very powerful shamans and leaders.

There were also more disturbing objects. There were many ceremonial axes, used by shamans who were described as “covered in blood”. Display cases were filled with sculptures of, and freizes depicted, warriors executing other warriors, from some cultures that were almost incessantly at war. There were pots that were filled with the intermingled bones of the dead of a village and animal bones, and then buried, to signify how all life merged into one group. Mummies of children whose “soft tissues” had been replaced with “dirt and bark” predated the first Egyptian mummies by 2000 years. There were bowls from human sacrifices — and from the sacrifices of parrots, who had been taught to speak and who thus were considerd humans (sorry, Junior). And there was the statue of the god Xipe Totec, which translates as “Our Flayed Lord”. Xipe was a god who wore the flayed skin of humans, and the statue showed that very clearly, with hands hanging off the sleeves, extra genitals, and a stretched set of lips providing a cut-out for the god’s lips.

Obviously, I really loved the museum of Pre-Columbian art, and I’d highly recommend that anyone who visits Santiago makes a stop there. After that appetizing stop, I ran into some friends and ate at a little cafe serving typical foods near the Plaza de Armas, the square I visited yesterday. There I had a great lunch of Ave Chorrillano, fries covered with onions sauteed in egg and topped with cubed chicken breast. It was tasty and filling, although the fresh orange-banana juice that I had with it was no better than I’d expect from a carton in the refrigerator case in your typical American supermarket.

The afternoon was filled with the Cerro Santa Lucia. Originally an eyesore in the middle of Santiago, this “pile of rocks” was, in 1875, made into a park with paths up and down it, beautiful trees and plants, and battlements and a church terraced into the rock; a truly beautiful, and surprisingly quiet, park in the middle of the city. I walked from the base to the top of the several-hundred meter-high cerro on several shallow paths, lined with trees, and steep staircases, stopping at flat terraces with small castles and chateaux, statues, pools, fountains and fruit standes on them. At the top of the cerro I stood on some battlements that gave a 360° view of the city stretching around me (and of the taller Cerro San Cristóbal). I also got great views of what must be the main hobby of the younger inhabitants of Santiago, making out in public. This was a great place to tramp around alone, and I took more than two rolls of shots of it, coming when I get home, I promise.

Dinner was a long trip into downtown, followed by the discovery that the restaurant we had been recommended (by people including the concierge, no less!) was closed. We chose a tiny place down the alley from our initial target and got a great fish meal; unfortunately, the kitchen was totally overwhelmed when ten people just showed up, and we were served in a somewhat chaotic manner. To make up for it, we served the first bottle of wine only to people who hadn’t gotten their dinners yet, and that substantially improved spirits. The owner/maitre’d made valiant efforts with his limited, but surprisingly unaccented, English (actually, I haven’t heard a Chilean with a strong accent yet), and the three of us who spoke Spanish managed to make ourselves collectively understood. I had a great grilled bluefish, others had grilled or fried bluefish or cod. Make sure to order yours “sin mantequilla”, or without butter, which the Chileans seem to like to use everywhere. Walking back, and catching one of Santiago’s frightening minibuses — the only things I’ve seen in the city so far that are broken down and covered with graffiti — at midnight was an adventure too. Especially with the midget who begged for money with the story that her mother needed a surgery and was haunted by spirits, too (she did a pretty good imitation of the awful sounds the spirits made).

I did learn a few more things about Chile today, too:

  • The Coke is sweetened with sugar, which means that I can drink it (otherwise the corn syrup sweetener is a problem for my allergies)
  • There are TVs in the subway stations
  • They use the same subway cars here and in Paris
  • I look like a sucker to the high-class beggars who have mimeographed fundraising petitions and who run up to me at top speed
  • Normal people seem to speak to me in Spanish, but people in the tourist trade can apparently tell and speak to me in English even when I speak Spanish back
  • Streetwalkers come out after midnight
  • The reverse of the “Do Not Disturb” sign is not also “Do Not Disturb”, it’s “Please Clean Room”
  • Women walk alone after midnight (and not just the streetwalkers mentioned above)

So that’s it for Santiago, Day 2. Tomorrow: actual school work!