Santiago, sleeping like a baby on the bus (for once!), and Osorno - the town that time forgot...
One of the most interesting yet precarious things about travelling and taking in so many new destinations is just never knowing what the next place is going to be like, and how it is going to make you feel. Sure you can read about the attractions, accommodation, and top eating-spots in The Rough Guide or Lonely Planet, but it’s impossible to predict how the atmosphere of a new town or city is going to hit you when you get out of the bus, or when you emerge from the airport. There’s absolutely no knowing how it’s going to mingle with your state of mind and the people you meet there, and every time it’s like a unique kind of chemistry experiment that will pop and fizzle to form the basis of your memories.
I thought of this when I hit Osorno, my first stop off point in Chile, and a place not billed for great things according to my guide book. It’s supposed really to be just a transport hub town and, indeed, it doesn’t really seem like more than that at first. However, with its rickety wooden Germanic style houses (there is a distinct Bavarian influence in this part of Chile due to much German settlement in the nineteenth century), and its rather dreary feel, it stirred up strange feelings of nostalgia in me. If any of you reading (like my old Meoncross schoolfriends) know Titchfield or Stubbington near to where I grew up, you’ll be familiar with those slightly sorry-for-themselves looking shops with yellow cellophane in the windows to stop the items on display from fading in the sun (although whether this would actually make the balls of knitting wool, or care-assistant/school dinner lady uniforms on sale any less desirable is questionable). As I walked away from the very retro brown bus station in Osorno, I encountered several of these sorts of shop, and many tired looking arcades with baseball capped Chilean teenage boys inside playing Space Invaders. Could this tired little town have been making a bid for the most depressing location on earth? Some might say, but, being me, I kind of relish these funny little destinations. With tea-shops, an empty precinct, and shabby looking bars with happy-hour specials pronounced on sheets of neon paper pasted to their windows (with smiley faces drawn inside all the ‘o’s and zeros), Osorno felt like many of my childhood seaside holiday destinations (Isle of Wight, Eastbourne, Blackpool) rolled into one and plonked onto the northerly reaches of Chilean Patagonia. Not a place to linger (I wasn’t after that much of a trip down memory lane).
However, Osorno was a fair enough ‘stop off’ place for one afternoon. It was somewhere I was able to get some Chilean money out (I’m back to crazy, confusing money here – it’s about 890 odd Chilean pesos to the pound), and also buy a new adaptor to deal with Chilean electricity sockets. I purchased this from a pretty dingy looking hardware store where I was greeted with noticeably contrasting enthusiasm by a shop keeper who looked like he hadn’t changed his shop around, or sold anything to anyone else, since the 70s (think Chilean Ronnie Barker in ‘Open All Hours’!). I then killed time by visiting two very dusty small-town museums where, once again, the museum attendants leapt upon my rare appearance as a visitor with delight, giving me unsolicited (or rather enforced) personalised guided tours, and making me feel almost like the kind of curiosity (foreign visitor – 2009!) that should be put in one of the display cases along with the rest of the creepy taxidermy. I was won over in some respects by this very eager friendliness. However, it also made me feel kind of sad. So too did my attempt to find something decent for dinner before my overnight bus journey to Santiago. This ended up being a sorrowfully wilted salad served up to me in an empty tea-room by a thin woman in an old-fashioned black and white pinafore-d waitress ‘uniform’. Her face was kindly but over lined for her age.
Oddly enough, I was zapped straight back into the 21st century when I boarded my bus for Santiago. I treated myself to a ‘cama’ class ticket and thanked myself for this, as I had what felt like the best night's sleep in ages during the 10 hour journey. The seat flipped back almost into a bed with loads of leg room, there were snuggly soft blankets and pillows, and, perhaps best of all, blissful silence (all those who wanted to watch the inane rom-com on the telly had been given little earplugs for the purpose). Ah, bus travel is getting good again – I’ll be ‘cama’-ing it all the way on my next few overnight trips (I might even opt for a few more overnighters if I can’t find Couchsurfers to stay with in certain destinations - this kind of comfort definitely beats shared smelly hostels)!
Reaching Santiago at 7.30am on Sunday seemed surreal as I was suddenly deposited in a bus station teeming with pimply Chilean youths all in Metallica and Iron Maiden t-shirts. Those who had sufficient testosterone to grow them had goatee beards, and those who didn’t made up for it in terms of (what my parents might term) ‘grunginess’ by sporting greasy ponytails and piercings. A lot of them were eating equally greasy looking hot-dogs smothered in ketchup, mayonnaise and mashed avocado for breakfast (I later discovered that this – an ‘Italiano’ – is Santiago’s signature snack food). What was going on here, I asked myself? Had I arrived at some heavy metal convention? Did Iron Maiden still exist, and could they be playing a gig here? I wasn’t sure, and it hurt my head to think about it. I rubbed my bleary eyes and went to the station toilets to clean my teeth, wondering if Chile could get any stranger…
My mission was to get to Couchsurfer Carlos’ flat and, thanks to his excellent instructions and Santiago’s super easy and efficient metro-system, this was no problem at all. And, when I found Carlos, what a keen, kind and unflappable kind of host he turned out to be?! I’m so glad (once again) that the whole somewhat lottery-like Couchsurfing system landed me with him, and that things turned out the way they did. Just as I arrived another German girl was leaving (Carlos only joined Couchsurfing last year and has already hosted over 40 people), and, with a smile and not a hint of feeling harassed, he made fresh coffee and changed the sheets on the inflatable mattress in his lounge. Then, once I had showered and sorted myself out, he offered to take me out on a bit of a tour around his city.
It was, I thought, very generous of Carlos to sacrifice his Sunday showing me round the places that he must see every day, and that he must have visited countless times. However, I think he actually enjoyed it as his enthusiasm really shone through. Carlos works for the Chilean Ministry of Transport, helping to plan the country’s public transport systems (something that, from what I have seen so far, Chile must be pretty successful at – as mentioned, their buses and metro are great). If he ever gets tired of the day job, though, I reckon he would make a fantastic tour guide! In the space of an afternoon (which didn’t actually feel that rushed), we managed to fit in pretty much all of the things that I had planned to do in two days in Santiago. I think that is because, in spite of its enormity and populace (Santiago is home to six million of Chile’s 15 million population), the city doesn’t actually have all that much in terms of tourist ‘attractions’. What it does have, it does well, though, and we visited a couple of really great museums and galleries (the anthropological Museo Precolombino, and the Museo de Bellos Artes being the ‘big ones’). Many of these are free on Sunday, which was a great bonus.
Carlos introduced me to a lot of interesting ‘Chileno’ things yesterday, and the first was a drink (well, a sort of drink) called ‘mote con huesillos’, which can be bought from stands all over Santiago. At first, when he described it as a sort of ‘peach tea with corn in it’ I was doubtful that I would like it (especially when I could see the corn kernels floating around in the glass, along with bits of dried peach!). However, come about 1.30pm, after an hour and a half of museum hopping and walking around Santiago, my stomach was beginning to growl slightly and I was in need of something (especially as I knew we weren’t going to stop for lunch until far later - Sunday lunch in Santiago is a late affair, and Carlos had a place in mind at the fish market). Therefore, I followed Carlos in ordering myself a small glassful of the funny peachy affair, and I actually ended up pleasantly surprised. The ‘tea’ part of it is very sweet, so it gives you an instant sugar rush, whereas the ‘corn’ (with which you are given a plastic spoon to eat) provides a bit more long term sustenance. It’s kind of like one of those ‘meal in a glass’ type things, I suppose, and Carlos said that he and his friends often order a large takeaway glassful of the stuff to spoon and slurp down when they don’t have time to stop for a proper lunch.
Luckily we did have time to stop for a proper lunch later (well, a late lunch/early dinner), when we hit the ‘mercado central’ and went to ‘Donde Augusto’. This is a famous Santiago fish and seafood restaurant where, following Carlos’ suggestion, I ordered an amazing fish and seafood soup that seemed to offer up all the bounty of the sea (clams, prawns, mussels, several different types of fish) in a delicate orange broth. Delicious…
After that it was a wander through the bohemian (and slightly Camden-esque right down to the Chilean goths hawking stencil tattoos and incense burners!) barrio of Bella Vista, and up a steep ‘ascensor’ to the top of the ‘Cerro San Cristobal’ hill. Here, rather like a miniture echo of Christ in Rio, stands a white stone statue of (yep, here she is again!) the Virgin Mary, which is very famous, and which was visited by the Pope some years ago. It was, indeed, a graceful and impressive statue, touching on account of all the candles and ‘requests’ (for restored health, the well-being of loved ones etc.) that had been placed around it by the visiting faithful. What was equally, if not more, impressive for me, though, was the wonderful panorama of Santiago that looking out from the hill afforded – it really was glorious at sunset.
Later that evening, when we finally felt ready to eat again, I knocked up yet another apple crumble (I’ve warned my Mum now, that although there’s a lot of English food that I miss, I don’t really want to see another apple crumble for a long time!). This seemed to hit Carlos’ sweet-tooth spot on. While I was preparing it, he mixed up some great ‘pisco sours’. Apparently, Peru and Chile are at loggerheads over who can lay claim to first creating pisco – the brandy like drink at the basis of this potent cocktail. I wasn’t too bothered about the history, though, and was more keen on savouring the taste, which was sharp, sour and tangy. Not sure if it tops a caipirinha for my tastebuds, but I guess I ought to get used to it, as I think I’ll be drinking quite a lot of it over the coming weeks!
So that was Santiago - short and sweet. Today was nice, actually, because, having ‘done’ all the ‘sights’ yesterday I felt freer to enjoy the city in a more casual fashion (I did a really nice run around one of the city parks this morning, and then went back to Bella Vista to wander round and have lunch this afternoon). Now I’m bussing it to Valparaiso – a short 1 ½ hour bus ride from Santiago, and apparently an enchanting old fashioned port set at the foot of steep hills set with colourful little houses. Sounds lovely, and I’m looking forward to it (oh, and by the way, Carlos explained that there was some kind of Pepsi sponsored heavy metal concert going on in Santiago over the weekend, hence all the Iron Maiden t-shirts!).