Santiago: A Beautiful, Humming, Charming City

I’ve been in Chile for over two weeks now, and I think it’s time to take stock of how things are going:

I’m still alive.

I’ve started teaching.

I’ve begun taking Spanish lessons.

I’ve walked around the city a lot, and have even taken two walking tours.

I’ve made some friends.

I’ve gotten the hang of public transport.

I’m still homeless.

Homeless guy doesn't give a crap
I use the term “homeless” quite wrongly. I’m nothing like this guy, who wandered through our tour group asking for money and reeking to high Heaven. What a champion.

Overall, things are going splendidly. Except for the homelessness thing. But that should be resolved in the next couple of days. I’ve already checked out a few apartments, and I think I’ve found one that I’m willing to commit to. The only other occupant is a Chilean photographer named Nathan. He doesn’t speak any English, but I find him to be friendly and easy going. And I like the idea of living with a Chilean – it’ll help me develop my Spanish. So we’ll see.

And I’m not entirely homeless, either. I’m still staying at the same hostel I moved into when I got here. I’ve begun to bond with a few of the other “lifers” who have been staying here for a long time. There’s Elliott, an Australian fellow who intends to ride his bicycle around South America. He ordered a trailer from Poland, which he can attach to his bike to transport his luggage. Unfortunately, the trailer got stuck at customs in Chile, and Elliott has been stuck here for days upon days, waiting for his trailer to be release so he can continue on with his adventure.

The outside of my hostel. It communicates how eco friendly the place is. Although it's also entirely possible that some vandals did this.
The outside of my hostel. It communicates how eco friendly the place is. Although it’s also entirely possible that some vandals did this.

Then there’s Angela, who is from the Italian part of Switzerland, and who has been living in South America for so long that she now speaks Spanish fluently. She used to work at the hostel where we’re staying, but she resigned with the intention of finding work as a masseuse in another part of Chile. Hers is a bit of a long story, but after a bit of a runaround she has come back to stay at Ecohostel while she continues to look for work. So on most days I find myself sitting in the courtyard with Elliott and Angela, talking about nonsense or really deep issues. I guess we’ve developed one of those casual, accidental friendships that creeps up on you and takes you by surprise. A few days ago Elliott suggested we pool our resources and make a group meal. So we bought a few more ingredients, and then took the kitchen by storm. Elliott did most of the cooking, while Angela chopped vegetables with almost psychotic zeal. There wasn’t much for me to do, so I offered to wash the dishes afterwards. It was a good teambuilding moment, and after that we’ve sought out each other’s company when we’re at the hostel with nothing to do.

Elliot. Or Master Chef Elliott, as I have just this instant decided to call him.
Elliot. Or Master Chef Elliott, as I have just this instant decided to call him.
Cooking up a storm with Angela and Elliott. Well, they're doing the cooking, I'm just cracking wise and taking pictures.
Cooking up a storm with Angela and Elliott. Well, they’re doing the cooking, I’m just cracking wise and taking pictures.
The trick is to put the chopped onions in first, put the garlic in with the mushrooms, and remove the spatula before eating.
The trick is to put the chopped onions in first, put the garlic in with the mushrooms, and remove the spatula before eating.

Things are going well outside of my place of temporary residence, too. Let me tell you about Santiago:

It’s beautiful, humming, charming city. Of course, it’s February, the month where everyone leaves the city and heads to the coast. I’ve been told that from the start of March, the population of this city is going to double. That means that the streets will be crazy-crowded. I’m bracing for the worst.

In the meantime, I can’t get over how much I love this place. It’s a city of pedestrians. People walk everywhere. There are parks all over the city where dogs are welcome to frolic.

Dog parks full of dogs! This is one of my favourite things about this city.
Dog parks full of dogs! This is one of my favourite things about this city.

Gravel paths have been created in every park to assist the copious amounts of runners and cyclists in getting their daily exercise. They drive on the right side of the road here, so I have a tendency to walk into people a lot.

There was a puppet show happening in the park the other day. I love how the girl in yellow is looking at her dad as if to check that he's following the plot.
There was a puppet show happening in the park the other day. I love how the girl in yellow is looking at her dad as if to check that he’s following the plot.

Everyone here is an artist. Most locals are extravagantly painted in bright, creative tattoos. Their hair is wild and styled and shaved off in places. They dress up so colourfully, and expressively, and always impressively. And before I go off on some poetical tangent, let me say that there are musicians everywhere. I’ve walked around this city a great deal. Most places I go to, especially in the evenings, there are people playing various instruments: guitars, violins, accordions, even drums that are mounted on their backs. Sometimes there are bands of people. Sometimes there are singers. The other day I got onto a bus with two men who were rapping in Spanish with the aid of a portable microphone and speaker.

This jolly band set themselves up in front of the entrance to the underground. Isn't that nice? Kinda wanted to use the subway, but I guess I'll just walk now.
This jolly band set themselves up in front of the entrance to the underground. Isn’t that nice? Kinda wanted to use the subway, but I guess I’ll just walk now.
Sure, this guy may look like a sad little drummer, drumming in front of a pizza joint, but his neat beats had me tapping my feet.
Sure, this guy may look like a sad little drummer, drumming in front of a pizza joint, but his neat beats had me tapping my feet.

The streets are painted in all sorts of marvelous graffiti, some of which was commissioned by the government. During a walking tour, I was shown some impressive murals that were painted by a prominent Chilean artist who now lives in Europe. I forget his name.

Look at these murals. Look at them. They're massive, and they signify things which are important and which I can't remember.
Look at these murals. Look at them. They’re massive, and they signify things which are important and which I can’t remember.

In the evenings, performers take to the streets, and display their craft for the motorists stopped at traffic lights. I’ve seen skills on the streets of Santiago that would look right at home inside a professional theatre. At one intersection I stopped to watch one woman who would balance on a unicycle while simultaneously juggling and balancing a football on her foot. My favourite thing about her was the way she’d bow her head and warmly smile at any motorist who gave her money. She seemed like she was genuinely having fun.

On other occasions I saw a couple perform some impressive gymnastics, and a gentleman on stilts juggling flaming batons.

Santiago is a city of creativity, and I feel as if I’ll never get bored here. There is a theatre on just about every street. There are markets everywhere. Things that are alternative are welcomed here. Creativity is celebrated.

You know those women who are tables? Here's one of them.
You know those women who are also tables? Here’s one of them.

 

A unicycle, juggling batons, and a football. Put these things together and you've got... Well you've got those things acting independently of each other.
A unicycle, juggling batons, and a football. Put these things together and you’ve got… Well you’ve got those things acting independently of each other.
If you don't tip this man, he will throw a tiny woman through your windscreen.
If you don’t tip this man, he will throw a tiny woman through your windscreen.

 

When I first arrived in Santiago, I caught wind of a pub crawl that was happening the following Saturday. The event was advertised in English, so I went there hoping to meet some English-speaking friends.

It was due to start at 22.00, and I arrived there right on time. This of course meant that I was the first one there. I paid an entrance fee at the door, was given a wristband, and was ushered into the back of the bar. There, I discovered a small courtyard, at the back of which was a table laid out with plastic cups. Behind the table were two Chilean women, each holding a large bottle of beer. They greeted me in English and filled a cup for me. I went and stood off to one side, and a few moments later a group of four people walked in, and as they walked past me to get to the table I heard that they were speaking English. Once they had collected their free beer, I approached and introduced myself. The group was from the United States. Their names were Ariana (Ari), Holly, Faye, and Eric. They were friendly, and I enjoyed talking to them. My enjoyment increased when they told me that they were doing a teaching course in Santiago, after which they planned to stay and find work as English teachers. This was good. It meant a possible connection to a social network.

More people began arriving, and everyone was happy to mingle and strike up conversations with strangers. I met Aliya, a lovely French girl who had come to Santiago to study. I met Joel, who was a bushy-haired Australian who had stepped off the plane a few hours before, and was travelling around South America. I also spoke to a Kiwi woman named Dotre (pronounced “daughter”), and a couple from Sweden, whose names I have since forgotten.

It was a wonderful night, and I met some lovely people, but by the end of it I’d only gotten the contact information of Ari. I didn’t mind about this in the least. I enjoyed talking to Ari, and I knew that through her I’d probably get to see the other North Americans again (I gather that, in Chile, it’s important to not refer to people from the United States as “Americans.” Understandably so, since Chileans are Americans too). I was excited at the prospect of having a group of friends from the United States.

I saw Ari a few more times over the next few days, and our friendship has grown into something pretty solid. In this beautiful, humming, charming city, Ari is a good, reliable presence, and that’s reassuring.

This is Ari. One day she'll see this blog, and she'll say, "I can't believe you put that photo into your blog." And I'll say, "I like this photo on account of how much sex appeal I have in it."
This is Ari. One day she’ll see this blog, and she’ll say, “I can’t believe you put that photo into your blog.” And I’ll say, “I like this photo on account of how casually sexy we are in it.”

I also have a job now. I’m teaching English as I had intended, and I have a total of one student. His name is Rolando, and he runs a soap and shampoo factory way out in the western part of the city. To get there, I have to take a subway (a metro) across about twelve stops, ride a bus for about eight minutes, and then walk two blocks in order to get to his factory where the classes take place. On my first day teaching him, as I rode the metro with Robert (who is one of my bosses and the coordinator of my classes with Rolando), he explained to me that Rolando was a businessman who likes routine and structure. There was talk about the possibility that, if he liked my teaching, then he’d sign up some of his employees to also take English lessons with the company I work for. I felt like this put pressure on me to create a good impression – a daunting task when I considered that Rolando was probably going to be a surly, difficult student.

But I was put at ease within moments of meeting him. He greeted us warmly and was quick to make jokes. After Robert took his leave (he had come with me on the first day to make sure I found the place alright), I found that Rolando was a keen student. He focused hard on what I was saying, and made an effort to get everything right. He really does have an ordered mind. He has a way of explaining himself clearly and concisely. So, despite the travelling, I quite enjoy teaching Rolando.

The metro. An underground labyrinth of machinery and darkness. Just twelve rand gets you in.
The metro. An underground labyrinth of machinery and darkness. Just twelve rand gets you in.

Meanwhile, back at the company I work for, I have started taking Spanish lessons. When I went for my job interview, I asked if Spanish lessons were available, and Daniel (my main boss) told me that the company didn’t offer any. But when I went back again a few days later to sit in on a grammar class, Daniel called me into his office and told me that he’d arranged for another one of the teachers to teach me Spanish. The teacher in question, a woman named Harper, is from the United States. Daniel assured me that her Spanish is impeccable, and that she’d be a perfect candidate to teach me the language because she’d be able to teach me from the perspective of an English speaker. Harper is great. She’s easy to talk to, and she has an impressive grasp of English and Spanish grammar. Hopefully, with her help, I’ll be having conversations in Spanish before long.

I also met some other teachers who have just started teaching at the company. Their names are Kristen, Jordan, John, and Dorian. They were all very friendly to me, and they seemed keen to be friends instead of just work colleagues. I’m sure I’ll be socializing with them a lot more in the future.

So, dear reader, I’m getting there. I’ve almost gotten my claws into this beautiful, humming, charming city. I just need to find a place to live, and then I’ll be set. If all goes well, that last part will be settled by the time I write again.

Watch this space.

The magnificent Virgin Mary looks out over Santiago. What have those grand eyes seen? They've seen Santiago. I just told you that.
The magnificent Virgin Mary looks out over Santiago. What have those grand eyes seen?
They’ve seen Santiago. I just told you that.

 

You can read my other blog about Chile in Fishbowl Magazine: http://fishbowl.za.com/chileans-warm-or-chilly/

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