Notes from the Street: Luis’ Story

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The simple truth is that I would not be living in Santiago if there was no Luis.

We met dancing Cueca in New Zealand and then I followed him to Chile … after just one night together. It was an amazing one, to be fair.

“Are you out of your flaming mind?!” was the general reaction from most of my friends. “He is going to rob you of your organs and sell them on the black market!” My latino friends all warned me with complete sincerity. My parents just looked at each other with a knowing look and then gave us their blessing. I was 24 with enough worldly experience to see me through an infatuation in Chile, they reckoned. They were, of course, correct. Four years later with a baby, a house and our own travel memories, our relationship is pretty solid. No regrets is a motto worth living by, I think. Making excuses just wastes time.

I love Luis but that is not why I am writing this. I am writing this because although Luis is Chilean, he breaks every stereotypical mould. When I created Organizacion Ojos Abiertos I thought of him, growing up within the public school system in Chile. His life has been by no means easy, but he has achieved his goals and overcome many obstacles. For that, he is my inspiration.

Luis

Luis’ mother went into labour in the house that is today occupied by Luis’ brother and his partner. He was born within the public healthcare system here in Recoleta, and spent the first years of his life living down Victor Cuccuini. His parents separated when he was eleven, at which time he went to live with his father, a corner store owner, and his brother (older by one year). The separation was not easy, particularly because Luis’ father was unable to even boil an egg. I am not sure how they managed with such limited survival skills, but survive they did, albeit with much comida charra (junk food). Over the next eight years, the family moved around multiple times, across Recoleta then into Huechuraba (Antigua) and even to Curepto, a small town in the south near to Curico. Luis was a bright boy but his attention at school was always … somewhere else. Being one number in a class of over forty meant his skills were never recognized and his participation never encouraged. His final high schools exams (PSUs) were not the best.

He did, however, manage to go to a professional institute for higher education, studying for a degree in International Business. He studied full-time and then came home to work nights in his own corner store. His father and uncles all ran stores and thought it was a good way of earning an income, and when Luis’ father began to work as a taxi driver he offered his store to Luis to buy. The store was in Huechuraba and was very popular. Sometimes it was too popular and attracted the wrong kind of attention, so Luis would fire a gun into the air to scare people when they broke in.

It is difficult to escape drugs in any country. In New Zealand, ecstasy, marijuana and ADHD medication were trending when I was at school. In Luis’ time it was horse tranquilizers, cocaine and pasta base (derivative of cocaine-making process mixed with toxic chemicals). The latter is a highly addictive substance that is very prominent in lower-income barrios because it is cheap. It gives a big high but also has an intense down that is very difficult to shake off. Cocaine was, and still is, very popular. When you play with drugs, however, you enter into an underworld that has very different rules.

People do drugs for all different reasons, whether they be for recreation or for emotional survival, and this mixing of motivations and levels of addictions makes for an unequal playing field. Disagreements can quickly turn into something serious when one’s senses are impaired, and this is exactly what happened the night Luis’ brother was stabbed in the back. Multiple times he was attacked – here in Recoleta – and at the end he was unable to move and thought to be dead. He spent three months in hospital and many more months re-learning how to walk and co-ordinate his body. Today his body bears only the scars of this ordeal, but the mental wounds have been enough to stop Luis, his family and their close friends, to all cease using hard drugs.

Luis travelled to New Zealand on a one year working holiday visa in 2011 without knowing a single word of English. He did so because he wanted to learn about the world, its people and its languages. This in itself is inspiring, because all of his childhood friends still live down Cuccuini and have rarely left Santiago. Once in New Zealand, he navigated the strange culture and found friends, which eventually led him to that fateful night with me.

Luis has travelled, speaks English fluently, has two stable jobs driving a taxi and a bus, owns property and jointly owns cars that work as taxis. It could have been very easy for his life to go differently. He could have easily become addicted to drugs, like several of his friends. He could have gone to jail, like another friend. He could also have zero assets or speak little English or have travelled not at all. He has done so much with so little behind him, and very often without any guidance or support at all. I am intensely proud of him and for that he is my inspiration. His story I tell to teenagers who think they cannot do much with their lives. I tell them to follow their dreams – no matter how unlikely they may seem – and, most importantly, to have no regrets.

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Mission: To Uncover Recoleta´s Beauty

It is always my mission to find the beautiful. It exists in every person and every thing, all it takes a little searching for. When I first arrived in Recoleta, I was overwhelmed by three things: the smell, the dogs, the flaites. But now I don’t notice any of them. Do you know what I do see? Beauty. One of my favorite places to discover it is amongst the houses. I love to see how people put loving attention into their properties. They paint bright colours, sweep their streets, tend to elaborate gardens, trim trees on the footpath, plant fruit trees in unlikely places and have plants on their balconies. I also notice how many of them will put out plastic bowls of water for the street dogs and give them food. Here are some of my favorite residential shots (mind you, everything looks lovely under a ray of sunshine!):

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Notes from the Street: Manuel & The Taxi Pirata

“Never trust a Chilean!”

Not quite what I had expected Manuel to say after telling him how much I loved living in Chile. What on Earth, I wondered, had caused such as explosive statement?

“They will be the first to talk about you behind your back.  They are lazy and will think nothing of taking you for a ride.  Trust me … NEVER TRUST A CHILEAN!”

Ironically, Manuel works in the profession that has the biggest reputation for ripping off people. He is a taxi driver, and works the day shift for a company that has an office near to where I live. The cars are not official and they do not use a meter, and as such offer cheaper fares than your regular black and yellow official taxi.

I seem to be the only gringa in Santiago that has rarely had a problem in a Santiago taxi. I actually love taking them. The majority of my Spanish vocabulary has come courtesy of taxistas, who all seem to have a burning interest in what I am doing here. I enjoy talking to them, but I do suppose I am biased because Luis is also a taxi driver.

Manuel has to be my all time favorite driver. Middle-aged and short with perfectly smooth black hair and a pair of black sunglasses permanently attached to his face, he is always the epitome of pleasantness. He hails from the north, near to Chiquicamata, and for many years worked in the mines. He came to Santiago in search of different work opportunities, and it is here that he met his wife, who is from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).

When I got in the car with him this time, the first thing he says is how exhausted he is.

“I just cannot keep up with how much my family eats. Every time I make money it goes on food and then -” he snaps his fingers, “it is gone! All day every day I am working and all I have to show for it is food that is always disappearing. I love my family but ahhh how I remember the days when I could relax!”

“Don’t you have time to relax now?” I ask him.

“I like a beer but I am a family man. And I work seven days a week, all day every day. But I cannot afford all the things my family needs! My body is so stressed that I cannot sleep. All the time I am twitching – stress controls my life!”

It is easy to sympathize with Manuel. Santiago seems to run off of the hours put in working. While some say Santaguinos do not work very hard (and let’s be honest, have you ever had customer service here?!), many of them seem to have much longer work hours than I am used to in NZ. In service based jobs, the wages are generally very low and Santiago is not a cheap city to live in. Hence why extended family members tend to live together and why teenagers don’t leave home straight away. Before I went to work, we lived solely off of Luis’ wages and we did alright, if that meant that we could afford food. But it was impossible to do anything else, like save, buy things Emilio or the house needed, do something recreational, leave the city or pay off debts. And when our calefon broke, we could not afford to buy a new one (and I was even working then) so we went without hot water for THREE MONTHS!!! Do you know how irritating it is in the cold to boil water for a bath (our kettle broke at the same time!). We took it to be fixed but no-one had any idea what was wrong with it. Luckily, Luis fiddled about with it one day and it magically worked. “The Mysterious Incident of the Calefon” – we never did find out the reason.

So when Manuel told me his difficulties, I got it. Chile is a lot cheaper for food than NZ but the little things add up quickly when you don’t earn much. I like Manuel because he is like a breath of fresh air. His views are honest – sometimes quirky and profound – but always honest. Although I wonder if he includes himself as one of the Chileans to be “wary of.”

“Just trust me Helen.  Things are very different in Chile to Norway.”

“Nueva Zelanda.”

“Yes. Nueva Zelanda. And what is the weather like in Norway?”

* Giggle*  I have given up correcting him. I am just happy that he understands my Spanish and that I (mostly) understand him! Manuel is a lovely, trustworthy man who provided me endless support when Emilio was hospitalized a few months back. The whole street rallied around us then. But that is a story for another day. I shall sign off here and brave the ice berg that is my bathroom before finally hitting the hay. If you encounter a silver car in Recoleta with a happy guy wearing sunglasses you may just be lucky enough to be travelling with Manuel – say hi, listen to his stories and tip him well!

Notes from the Street: Santiago’s Children

For Santiago’s Children

When the smog hangs like a blanket in the sky, it can be hard to remember days of blue. You breathe it in, sucking it deep into your lungs to send it swimming through your veins, day after day, until the moment comes when you cannot remember how fresh air is supposed to be. Instead it just lingers there above you, always reaching you but not always seen, a heavy cloud of grey that taints a place that could almost be perfect.

That is how I see Santiago.   I call this city my home and I don’t want to leave, but it is not always wonderful. I am not burdened by this “grass is always greener on the other side” complex so I almost never compare Chile to my birth country. This does not make me blind to recognizing the issues at hand, however I try to view what happening here in its own context. Chile is not New Zealand. Santiago is not Chile. Santaguino’s are a whole different type of person to those in the far north. Even within Santiago there are multiple levels of experiences occurring. Many expats (and locals) recognize that there is a societal tier structure known as ‘class’ existing here, but it is difficult for them to understand what they have not lived. And vice versa. We all only know what we come to know, after all.

This is not going to be a post on how classism is flourishing in Santiago. I do not want to start a conversation about a topic that can be so very, very polarising. Every time we talk about people in terms of what they have, we create boundaries. Some boundaries are healthy, like when I tell Emilio to stop putting his hand in the toilet. Others become more like barriers, that instead of protecting you, rise up and block out the sun just like Santiago’s dirty smog. But it is the sun that gives us life. So what are we denying ourselves when we allow society to label us and then we turn around and judge others with those labels?

I am a New Zealander. When I lived there, the nation was divided into factions like everywhere else, and we only really came over weepy under the flag when the All Blacks won the rugby. But when we are overseas, we band together as “the kiwis” and wax lyrical about vegemite, walking barefoot (across scorching tarmac) and exaggerate our “she’ll be right” attitude.   It is similar in Santiago. I have noticed a propensity of locals slamming their country but then change their tune the second an extranjero agrees.  My point is is that the idea of ‘nationhood’ and ‘cultural identity’ are myths, hence why there are numerous social science disciplines out there investigating these concepts at this very moment. What is certain? That we are human. That we feel emotion, bleed when we are cut, breathe. Sometimes “we dream the same dream and want the same things” as well. Every time we define ourselves by our colour, our beliefs, our heritage, our jobs, our schools, or our salaries, we are simply placing more and more labels onto our backs to carry. Or maybe they calcify our hearts, so that when we see someone sleeping on the sidewalk or robbing us to pay for their drug addictions, we shrug our shoulders or scream blue murder … neither of which come close to getting to the heart of the problem and solving it.

Many people will read this post and disagree. Some may even insult me. Some may throw around the “left-wing” label like I am the devil incarnate. All of them will miss the point and are likely always going to. This blog is not for them. Instead it is for the people who can still remember the sun when they look up into Santiago’s smoggy sky.

Maria

Maria is eleven. She is slightly chubby with a huge smile and rather wide-set eyes. She has long black hair that is always tied up and she goes to school in Lampa. She lives with twenty extended family members in Recoleta. There are two entrances into where she lives, through the corner shop her uncle runs or via the door opening out into a side street. There are two houses adjacent to one another in front of a concrete yard, and the whole complex has been hurriedly and cheaply built over the years. Sheets have been pulled across the open spaces that peek into the neighbor’s property which also offer protection from the rain. There is the sound of non-stop chatter. Life is shared: doors are always left open, they all contribute to the microcosm of family needs, and every Sunday Maria and her family eat a late lunch outside in the courtyard. The smell of asado, fish or Cazuela drift away into the afternoon wind. Maria cannot read well and she cannot count past twenty with confidence. Before I showed her a picture of a giraffe, she had never heard of one before. She told me that there are two toddlers that live where she does and neither have many toys. They love to draw though, and draw all day long. When Maria came to my house she was amazed at two things: what we had … and what we didn’t have. She’d never seen a tablet before but she couldn’t believe we didn’t watch television. She picked up all of Emilio’s toys in wonder.   Some of his simplest toys she didn’t understand how to use. Everything she touched and marvelled at. But she mostly marvelled at my son. They played very well while I just lingered about. She made him laugh, and he made her laugh. In those moments, it made no difference that neither could speak the same language (Emilio still speaks Baby, after all) nor that their world’s were a little bit different. They were just two children, enjoying a funny moment.

Maria’s auntie deals drugs that is delivered by Colombian’s who race about recklessly on a motorbike. This is not really unusual – the whole street deals drugs. It used to be really bad at one point, so the road became really unsafe. It used to be filled at all hours with slouching figures in baseball caps and ridiculously loud music. Maria’s aunties drove them all away when the new babies were born (the women are strong like that) and now there are only the residents, who are generally pretty quiet (but not always – eek!). Pasta base does rear its ugly head here and you can tell the users because you look into their eyes and see … nothing. Just an empty, empty sea. It breaks my heart.

I like Maria but she is not really my friend. This is not because she is poorer than I am, or because of the dodgy figures in her family. She is not really my friend because she is 11 and I am 28 – almost two decades apart. But I don’t dislike her and I care for her wellbeing as I would anyone else. Same goes for her family, some of whom I am quite friendly with, others whom I do not know. I want for her exactly the same as I want for my son, and that is education. Not because I want him to be able to get a good job one day (a bonus!) but because I want him to learn about the differences in the world and its people. I want him to grow up making mistakes but always being confident in who he is, where he is from and where he is going. Happiness is not something that comes from money but is a decision that you make for yourself. What is the biggest area for concern in Santiago in my opinion, you ask? Education. But education comes from all around us. I am here interacting with people like Maria every day, and every day they are learning about me and my life. Now I want to educate the other people like me, who live in this beautiful city. I want to humanize these people that are on our peripheries and show the world that they are beautiful too. I owe that to her, to my son and to every child in Santiago. I want us to all start clearing away the smog in front of our eyes. Please do it with me.  #queridarecoleta

The Amazing Street Art of Santiago

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Beneath the Mapocho River
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Bellavista. 3rd eye drawings are very popular with artists here.
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Bellavista. This is a tag rather than “art” but I’m including it here because I see it graffittied everywhere
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Bellavista
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Bellavista
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Indigenous art, Recoleta
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All art celebrated here in Patronato, Santiago
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Chicha store, Recoleta
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Corner store, Recoleta
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Down a Recoleta street. Interesting because it advertises the work they do inside … but not so sure if they are affiliated with the Ninja Turtles or not.
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Vitacura Peace Bear Exhibition, Santiago
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Parque Bicentennario, Santiago
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Quinta Normal, Santiago
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Bellas Artes, Santiago
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Barrio Lastarria, Santiago
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Plaza de Armas, Santiago
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Plaza de las Esculturas, Santiago
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Valparaiso
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Valparaiso
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Valparaiso creativity
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Frutillar theatre, Frutillar

Querida Recoleta

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.

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Luis dancing cueca in 2014

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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 …

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Underneath my window

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).

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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.

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Parque de la Infancia

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First worm farm!
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Onazu nightclub, Bellavista

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 Chocolatewhich 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.

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Santa Rosa de Lima, Avenida Recoleta

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

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Feria down Victor Cuccuini
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Lunch in Patronato’s Tirso Molina

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Buying mote con huesillo at the feria
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Victor Cuccuini store
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El Salto

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A Volunteer Initiative

hoda9We are very happy because we have found our first benefactor! Prominent artist Hoda Madi has offered Organizacion Ojos Abiertos 20% from each piece of artwork sold. This is money – like all donations we may receive – that is purely directed towards buying materials or providing the transportation costs of guest speakers at the schools.  Thank you Hoda!

You can buy her artwork here:

http://hodamadi.com/

If you would like to help us with any contributions, please contact me at: hlcordery@gmail.com.  We are in the process of legalizing and then setting up a foundation bank account with Banco Estado. We will provide to all contributors an email showing where the money has gone. We are not motivated by profit and we are all volunteers.

Santiago Top Ten

It’s a miserable day today because it’s dark and cold, and because there still hasn’t been enough rain to clear the air. I want to breathe gosh darnit! Rainy days always make me a little homesick, and I often wonder when (or if ever!) someone from my old life will come visit me here in South America.What would I show them? Where would I take them? So here are my ‘Top Ten Santiago Experiences’ – write them down in your diary Mum!

1) Plaza de Armas

You cannot miss the central square in downtown Santiago. It’s about as exotic as Santiago gets, and on a sunny day it’s pretty fabulous. The street performers, the imposing statues, the grand historic church –  this is SOUTH AMERICA! Even after two years I get a buzz passing through here. A visit must not be without a walk around Santiago’s premier museum, ‘Museo de Arte Pre-Colombino’ which houses an amazing array of artefacts from the many indigenous that have called Chile and South America home over the centuries. If you visit one museum in Santiago, make it this one.

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2) Patronato, Recoleta

A Chilean once warned me never to cross the Mapocho River or else I would most certainly get mugged. Yes this does happen but in fairness, it could also happen anywhere in Santiago or the world, and to avoid Patronato simply because of a “maybe” means missing out on of my favourite places in Chile. Why do I love Patronato? It’s great for shopping, for one. Clothes (particularly if you like ‘street’ style), household goods, Asian ingredients, and the Chile-famous ‘La Vega’ vegetable markets all call Patronato home. It has a lively atmosphere to walk around and get lost in, and there are often street festivals (and delicious street food too). Patronato is also where some of the best exotic eateries can be found, from Korean to Vietnamese, Chinese to Palestinian.  The ‘Tirso Molina’ is my personal favourite place to lunch at, particularly after a strenuous morning buying vegetables and tshirts (!). A walk along the top storey means fighting your way through great offer after great offer, which often includes bread, salad and a drink. Inside you can find traditional Chilean, Colombian, Peruvian and Thai cuisines, as well as juice stalls. Nom! A perfect afternoon to me is walking through Patronato with some (light) bags to Bellavista, where everyone goes to drink, eat and dance, and look at the street art.

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3) Isidora Goyenchea (metro El Golf)

This is a long street of pretty swanky restaurants, and in general it is worth visiting to see just how varied Santiago is. Classism is a a huge issue, and its pretty obvious from a visit to Providencia, Las Condes or further east, that Santiago is undergoing rapid development and commercialization. To be fair, Isidora Goyenchea is just a brilliant place to find a restaurant and eaaaat! One of the consistant favourites is an Italian pizza place called ‘Tiramisu’ and its not too badly priced, around 7,000 pesos for a pizza.

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4) Parque Bicentennario, Vitacura

Why have I chosen to include this park? Because it is well worth the visit. It’s big, it has a water fountain, cafes, birds and fish to feed, playgrounds and beautiful gardens. There’s also the ‘Mestizo’ restaurant, its a bit pricey but it is NOT overrated – its my favourite in Santiago!

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5) Parque de la Infancia, Recoleta

Best park for children you will ever visit. Enough said. Between metro’s Cerro Blanco and Cementerios.

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6) Buin Zoo, Buin

Not strictly in Santiago, but a car ride away, or a train ride if you want to make it extra fun! This is up there with Taronga Zoo in Sydney in my opinion. The animals look happy, have big enclosures, there’s a ‘Dinosaur Park’, lots of restaurants and exhibits –  you can even rent cool karts to push the children around in!

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7) Pomaire

Again, this is actually a day trip from Santiago but it’s worth it. It’s a beautiful drive and at the end of it, a shopping paradise! For clay and household items. It’s not big but there’s plenty to see, buy and eat (tip: cheapest handmade items can be found on the outskirts, away from the centre).

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8) Cerro San Cristobal

To me, a trip on the furnicular to the highest city lookout is the quintessential Santiago experience. Do this on your first day and at the top buy a mote con huesillo to drink. Wintertime has the best views but you can’t beat it on a summer’s day, alongside scores of giggling South American tourists. You can also walk/run/ride up, there are parks to stop at on the way (including the Japanese Gardens) and there are numerous gorgeous swimming pools – Antilen is the best (only open in Summer).

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9) Bellas Artes and Barrio Lastarria

The ‘arty’ corner of Santiago also boasts top cafes (La Manzana in Lastarria is the best!), cheap ethnic eats (visit ‘New Horizon’ for Indian or ‘Thai Express’ for authentic Thai), an art museum and quirky shops to equal an unrivalled atmosphere of cool. Also visit ‘The Clinic’ bar for a slice of history.

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10) Barrio Concha y Toro

It doesn’t get more romantic then these quiet streets tucked away near metro Republica. Come and take a stroll down this historic section that feels more like Malta than Santiago, and take your camera with you as you step back in time. A wonderful place to linger with your loved one and also home to several top restaurants (including the incomparable, Zully!)

Oh go on – one more!

11) Barrio Tour

This isn’t an actual tour that I know of, but it should be. Whenever I travel, I like to get a lay of the land and imagine that I am a local. In Santiago, each suburb has a distinct character and each one has some hidden gems. In Huechuraba you can find great cheap food in La Pincoya or the pretty residential neighborhoods of Pedro Fontova Norte. In Lo Barnechea and La Dehesa, you can transport yourself either to leafy England streets or to the future with some of the space-age house designs. In La Reina you can find a nature reserve and in Nunoa enjoy food from the organic wave slowly entering Chile. Further afield, Maipu is an excellent place to spend a day. The houses have a character all of their own, while there are numerous historical attractions (Maipu played a big role in Santiago’s history). This should definately be a tour – maybe we should create it?

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Of course, this is only a tiny smidgeon of things to do in Santiago. There’s also Quinta Normal, Selva Viva, La Moneda, as well as a wealth of other attractions on Santiago’s outskirts. Santiago has often been describing as a bit lacking when compared to other South American cities. But I love it! It’s my home and it has everything you could ever need. If you visit I hope that you enjoy it as much as I do! Let me know your tips too 🙂

Taxista in Santiago

I knew my life would change with a child, but I didn’t expect it to become so much, well, bigger! It feels as though all my time is taken up with purpose and LIVING that it had been kind of devoid of before. Now, everything I do is for that happy little sausage that I am blessed to called my son.

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So it is July. Next month is my 28th birthday – eek! Ten years ago I was living in England with my grandparent, after failing to save for a high school exchange to Chile. Now look at me – I’ve lived in Chile for more than two years now, I can talk in Spanish (with plenty of mistakes but), I have a Chilean Mr, a half-Chilean toddler and the world is looking more and more like the oyster I always knew it was (it had just been a bit sandy before I think!). I am lucky indeed.

So where am I going with this “oh Helen your life is so fantastic” spiel? To two places: the first is to wax lyrical about my senor and the other is to talk about my new volunteering project coming up, to give back to the place that has accepted and provided for me so nicely.

Obviously I will start with Luis. For the last six years or so, Luis has been working nights in the taxi taking passengers from Santiago’s streets. I love Santiago’s taxis. They get a bad rap for being dodgy, and a few do have some tricks. Think switching notes and saying “oh you’ve only given me a 1000 pesos” instead of bigger, or taking longer routes, or sometimes running a meter that goes up thanks to a little button by the driver. But in my experience (and I have ALOT) taxistas here are courteous, curious, and beyond helpful. I’ve had so many free rides (from Los Dominicos to El Salto was one), heard so many interesting stories, been offered jobs/advice and just met lovely people, mostly. The other day, I took one that was completely covered in tiger print inside. Like, everywhere. I thought it was a joke (and I thought I was going blind too) but the guy was genuine, he just really loved tigers! We had a great convo about our favourite animals. I’m sure, though, that dodgy things happen in that car.

A google search tells me that there are some 30,000 black and yellow taxis in the day here, and this job pays so-so and is a bit cumbersome because of all the tacos.  This number drops by half in the night, because the risk factor increases substantially. Most family men call it quits around 9pm and the majority women drivers (they DO exist!) prefer to work the day shifts. But the night is where the money is at! You can make excellent plata because the traffic has all gone and, especially on a Thursday/Friday/Saturday, there are lots of drunk people to take home. One of the best perks is … strip clubs. You knew that was coming, right? Don’t be shocked – strip clubs are a reality of every city now and Santiago is no different. The top-tier ones pay commission to any taxista that brings passengers (if they go in and claim it). For Latin American tourists there’s a certain price, for other non-Chileans another, but  for ‘gringos’ from countries like New Zealand and United States the commission can be a good 10,000 per head for Luis (which is soooo much money!) There’s no selling involved on Luis’ part, he just claims his dues for taking a passenger already heading that way.

Some of my favourite stories have been Luis’ taxi stories. Before Emilio, I used to wake up when he’d come in to hear what exciting adventures he’d had that day: famous people, foreign people (who are always amazed at Luis’ English), drunk people, people doing cocaine in the backseat, people hooking up, people with prostitutes, the list can go on. One time, Luis took a worker from a Cafe con Piernas and a regular client, that she had been soliciting on the side (note: this is not a requirement of the job). In fact, she was married and her husband was waiting at home for her, with no idea in the world that she was with this guy! She’d been seeing him for a bit and he’d fallen helplessly in love with her. After they’d got out, the guy left a bunch of poems and songs he’d written for her on the back seat (or did she forget them?!) We read them the next day. They weren’t bad. And yes, he had it baaaaad for her!

But, with the good and the interesting, there is also the bad. I remember being pregnant and being so scared that something would happen to Luis before we had a chance to reunite as a new family. One time, he told me that he’d been threatened at gun point. Another time, he’d had his phone and money nicked by two guys with knives. In hindsight, these last were nice thieves because they let him keep his sim card with all his photos and contacts on!

Luis is now changing jobs to work for TranSantiago, as a public bus driver. Jesus H Christ, what a kerfuffle this is turning out to be! So far, he’s had three months of daily training in Maipu, Providencia, Pudahuel and then tests in Lampa. Sometimes he has to go all the way (in rush hour) to Maipu just for an hour. Sometimes he has gone to Pudahuel just to sign a form. These are all places that are ridiculously far away, like a good hour and a half but sometimes even more! Emilio has had to accompany him on a few trips when I’ve been working. He’s also had to go here, there and everywhere signing stuff, buying stuff, swapping stuff etc. That’s where he is right now in fact – its our first free day together in an age and he’s off downtown taking back a jacket with the wrong logo on it (when they KNEW it was a mistake when they gave it to him!)

He’s having to learn mechanics as well as in-depth knowledge of the roadcode and laws, amongst other things, and to be honest I had no idea all this went into driving a bus! I don’t know how I feel about it all. Luis has a degree, he’s travelled, lived overseas, got plenty of business experience and he speaks two languages fluently, and here he is driving a bus! If it were up to me he’d have his own country to run! Since it’s not, I have to be happy with what makes him happy, and when he says he’d rather drive a bus then ok! And its true – he gets life and health insurance for him and Emilio, he gets paid holidays and discounts at places, and he gets to finish work by four every day. In an office job, he’d have to work ridiculous hours and get stressed, and I’d much rather have Luis around then have all the money in the world

Luis is still going to work in the taxi (would you pass up Friday and Saturday strip club visits? For the money haha). It’s going to be lovely having him sleep normal times and having someone to keep the bed warm. And think of all the ACTIVITIES we can do with all this extra time awake (Step Brothers reference – if you haven’t seen it, watch it – now!)

I did say that I would introduce you to my new volunteering project, however I think now I shall save that for the next blog post. Keep you all waiting and all that. To be clear, when I say “you all” I do know its just Mum reading this blog! I will say, though, that there are exciting times for Recoleta and I ahead 🙂

Here are some pics of Emilio in the taxi – he is car OBSESSED!

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