The Andes mountains loom like unforgiving sentinels over Santiago, their icy tops glistening with fresh sunlight. Beneath them, I see pole after pole of Chilean flags flying high, their blue, red and white colours flapping listlessly in the biting winter breeze. They stand perched above the haphazard houses that line Emiliano Zapata, my street in Recoleta, for no reason other than that Chileans love their nation.The homes here have no uniform standard, so you may just as easily find a bungalow painted pink as you would a three-storey beast of modernity, or a property that has grown substantially from its humble beginnings as occupied land. This is a place where the middle-class rub their shoulders with everyone. The streets come alive on Dieciocho (18th September national holiday) when neighbors enjoy the cueca together or during a televised football game during summer when couches and TV’s are brought onto the street. The elderly sit on their front steps for their daily cahuin (gossip) and visits to the local corner store involve long waits while the store owner checks up on the latest happenings in the neighborhood.
I have lived in Recoleta for two years, down Zapata and also in El Salto, an area close to the hills with tiny brightly colored houses . When I first arrived I saw only the potholes in the roads that caused the traffic to constantly stop and start, and the broken pavements that made walking with a pushchair more like a lesson in off-roading. I saw the street dogs -the real Don’s of the barrio – dictating the passage of both cars and pedestrians by either refusing to move or by chasing and biting holes in the tyres of cars they did not like. I saw the flaites on the corners with their baseball caps and Nike knock-offs, lolling about purposelessly until their after-dark misdemeanors began. In short, I felt dirty and more than a little scared here, particularly because then I could not understand a single word anyone was saying …
But there is more to Recoleta than just the modification of a Spanish that is already difficult to understand.There is also much more than the street dogs and the rather enthusiastic bureaucracy of the Recoleta municipalidad. Recoleta is a place with a long history, from being an early settlement of indigenous (Mapuche and Inca) to the growing district of La Chimba under Spanish rule, through to today where it thrives as a residential area that is dominated by migrants. Patronato, where you will find the La Vega market and an assortment of imported-from-China clothes shops, is said to be home to the largest population of Palestinian’s outside of Palestine, along with people from many other nations. It abounds in stores selling foodstuffs from Korea, takeaway kebab restaurants, and even high end dining experiences (such as Vietnam Discovery).
Recoleta is also home to the national cementary, both of which make wonderful ways to while away a few hours (and a good place to buy cheap flowers!). There is a top-quality park (lovingly maintained by workers who have done an excellent job) known as the Parque de la Infancia that will delight children of all ages thanks to its water fountains, train ride, tree huts and ginormous slides.
Even the local council, despite it’s difficulties, is going the extra mile by developing its Escuela Abierta programme to offer more opportunities to the Recoleta youth. They constantly organize events in the local estadio, such as the recent Indigenous Festival, and they have also implemented a small recycling centre and worm farm.
Bellavista is also (mostly, as half is technically Providencia) in Recoleta, an area famed for it’s nightlife and restaurants. My favorite eating spot here is “Como Agua Para Chocolate” which is a restaurant so dripping with romance it has a flower-filled fountain.
However, my number one place to eat is not in Bellavista, or in Patronato’s Tirso Molina. It is, in fact, close to my home and so tiny that sometimes you knock your chair against the next table’s. It’s staffed by the same people everyday who live above and it really feels as though you are eating in their dining room (because technically you are!). “Santa Rosa de Lima“ is a Peruvian restaurant that offers an all-day week-day colacion for 2.200 pesos that includes breads, starter, main and side dish. The food is Peruvian and delicious, but the desserts – especially the suspiro Limeno – are truly heavenly. This is not a five-star experience, but in my opinion sometimes the best food spots do not have menu’s containing trout and foie gras or lots and lots of numbers at the bottom of the bill.
I do not see the poor side of Recoleta now. This is not to say that I am blind, because it exists here as it does everywhere else. I know that my neighbors struggle and that many sell drugs. I know that many people here work long hours and gain little monetary rewards. I also know that some cause problems and that my window that faces the street sometimes witnesses knife fights and even gun shots. But I also know that people often throw meat over our gates for our dog – just because they care – and that my tattooed neighbor has cleaned himself up completely for his new daughter, who is Emilio’s age and lovely. Every house here has a personality and many are well-tended to – even though there is no grass I watch my neighbor get up every morning in the freezing cold and fastidiously sweep the area in front of her house. This is also the place that bred my partner Luis and that, despite everything, helped him to grow into the incredible man he is today. And it is for these reasons that I refuse to condemn the people here – many of whom are victims of circumstance – or eagerly wait to move away. There are many things I do not like but there are many that I love, and it only takes a moment to find something wonderful (just sometimes takes a little searching for, that’s all). I am proud to call Recoleta my home and it truly is – my blood is English, my memories kiwi but at heart I am Recoletana.
See my pictures on Instagram: @helen_luise #queridarecoleta
For more information about Recoleta visit: www.recoleta.cl