Nation of the Overweight?

It was a bit of a squeeze the other night on the metro – as it is always is on the red line – when a family hopped on. Mama was rotund, Papa was large, oldest daughter was fat (and about 12 and dressed like a stripper), middle daughter was very large and there was a boy of about four who was extremely obese. You could argue that maybe their size was a genetic thing, but when I watched them all sit down and stuff their faces with McDonald’s I think we can safely say that perhaps their diet just isn’t flash hot. The boy than had an extreme tantrum for some lollies, which his mother embarrasingly gave to him. I sympathised with her in this moment – the whole train was watching and the easiest way to make him be quiet was to give in to his demands. I felt very sad because I could see the parents loved their children, with the father guarding them all protectively. They got off when I did to change to the yellow line, and they took the lift instead of the escalator.

I know people eat for different reasons. Nearly all of us have beccome accustomed to feeling too full, and we eat more than we need to – when we don’t need to. Our eating habits have changed so drastically over the last hundred years that its almost unrecognizeable (must read: The Gift of Good Land by Wendell Berry). Chile today is one of the most at-risk countries in Latin America, with the national Ministry of Health stating that 22.4 percent of children overweight and 22 percent of adults obese. Dr. Juan Carlos Prieto, from the Clinical Hospital at University of Chile, blames the ridiculous amount of bread that Chileans have become accustomed to eating – some six to eight servings a day – and one of the highest rates in the world.

Bread certainly is a staple item here. Everyone I know consumes it for both breakfast and dinner, usually with eggs, avocado or tomato. It’s delivered fresh to our local corner stores twice a day and it’s preservative-free so if you don’t eat it when you buy it goes all crusty and stringy.

In my opinion the cause of the dietary shift is the stratopheric rise of the supermarket. I trace the changing diet of Chile here an academic essay for Massey University, in which I detail how these hypermarkets have replaced shopping in local markets, or ferias, for the majority. I can see the appeal of supermarkets – your not forced to cook around seasonal ingredients, you can buy ready-made foods, you can buy cheaper in bulk, you can buy everything you need in one go … When you don’t have much money (or time) the supermarket is an excellent place to stock up on what you need to feel full, especially when buying pasta is sometimes alot cheaper than buying fresh vegetables.  Note: the bread is not preservative free!

I have spent alot of time introducing readers to the people that I know in Recoleta. All of them are overweight. I’ve also talked time and again about the issue of education. The connection is obvious: 35.5% of low-income earners are overweight compared to 18.5% in Chile’s highest income bracket, with obesity twice as high for those with little education (Chile National Population Health Survey 2004).

In 2010, President Sebastián Piñera began a national programme to target the weight epidemic by increasing physical education in schools and a programme to refer obese children to nutritionists. However, given my own experience with a nutritionist in a reputable public hospital here, this is obviously not enough. Education is the root of the issue – people are just not being exposed to new information in the lower-income brackets, and they then do not have the means or tools to implement any changes.

Notes from the Street: A Mothers Wisdom

I always worry how my blogs might be received when I know I’m about to delve into a troublesome topic. I have had to learn it the hard way thanks to A Chorizo Tale, which prompted this blog, and now I’m about to head into murky water once again. Today Luis and I overheard the following heart-to-heart between Luisa and one of her daughers:

Hija there are only two places you must never steal from: the home and from the school. If you steal from someone like from your family will make you a domestico – and this is the worst possible thing you can be. Betraying the trust of those closest to you would put you in the lowest place you can go – a position which even the hampas [delincuent commiting crimes like robberies] look down upon, You can steal from the supermarkets and the stores but not from us or your school so I don’t want to hear from your teacher again!”

Before everyone condemns Luisa for her motherly advice, it might be worth remembering the world that she comes from. The reality is that on the lower wages people struggle. Like everyone, they struggle against the media, the injustice, the system, their partners etc while also struggling against a world that seems to be moving on without them. While people around Santiago are slowly waking up to the fact that diet affects health and wellbeing, people like Luisa have never heard this information and still believe that coke for babies is not only acceptable but perfectly normal (and not so long ago we thought so too – thanks Coke propaganda!).

As I write this, my earlier blog How To Keep Safe in Santiago is under attack because I question the wisdom of fighting while being robbed. In fact, like every other security pamphlet in the world, I advise against it.  There is nothing wrong with running away.. I once saw a man nearly beaten to death by a mob for no apparent reason and the whole situation could have been avoided had he just run away.  There is a difference between blindly fighting for honor, like trying to change the social system through one successful scuffle with a guy wanting your purse. Although you may win, if we advise everyone to fight then alot of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, might lose the battle and become seriously hurt, or worse, die.  And what will change? I get to hold onto my 10,000peso handbag, my BIP card and my lipgloss? My Louis Vuitton I ferociously guard while others struggle to buy gas?  This isn’t to condemn those of you who might own a LV – I’d sure love a wallet! – the point that I’m making is what changes? There is a quote from the book The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls that goes “It gives me strength to have somebody to fight for; I can never fight for myself, but, for others, I can kill” and I agree with this. If someone attacks me, I am forced to realise who I really am. I’m Emilio’s mother, first and foremost, and I am here to protect him. Sometimes the best wisdom is walk away – to know when to really fight. If all of us got together to fight for our children we would be stronger than ever imagined. Would going to the areas where criminals live and imprisoning people, or sectioning ourselves off from them, make a difference in the long run? We would be tearing families apart, children would grow up with revenge on their minds, not knowing anything other than the hateful world around them. The real solution would then be to change their world.

“The only way to break a circle is to change its shape. Teach people that there are different ways to live the life, that you don’t have to repeat what people say or what you see around you. The only way to do something different is is to understand that you can.  So somewhere you have to be given the chance to see that. It’s all about education.” – Luis D.

Honestly, it hurts my soul when people take my blog the wrong way. It hurts because they don’t realise how much I care – how much I passionately care – for this city. For them. I’ve lost readers due to this passion but maybe they don’t see that, like them, I’m wanting a good future for Chile. I have only one motivation and that’s Emilio, but it terrifies me sometimes the world we are leaving for him.  Education is key.

Safety in the Big City

  1. NEVER use your cellphone on the bus
  2. Always be aware of who is behind you during busy times on public transport
  3. When you ascend the bus, try to be the last one so that no-one is behind you. Would-be thieves use this time in the crowd when you are preparing your BIP card to grab and run
  4. In crowded places always keep your bag in front
  5. If you are drunk don’t walk alone
  6. When you use a cash machine (redbanc), check that the keypad and the slot where you insert your card is completely secure. Thieves often place fake numbers and card readers on machine to take your information but these are usually not very secure given that they are placed on in a hurry.
  7. Avoid people seeing your pin
  8. One common ruse is to open the car door on one side at the same time as it is being locked so that someone can go in once you have walked away
  9. If you are walking alone and there is a person that you think has bad intentions coming quickly behind you, change direction to see if they follow. If they do, don’t waste time just run. Scream to get attention from people around you and say “ayuda” or “socorro.”
  10. If you are in a dangerous situation, don’t fight just hand over what they want.
  11. When in the taxi (or when driving) keep the doors locked
  12. If you are concerned about taking a taxi, memorize the plate number before you get in
  13. Before a trip in the taxi, you can estimate times and costs using the app
  14. In the taxi watch out for fake bills and note swaps. State when you pass the money how much you are passing “Here is 10,000 …”.
  15. If you think the taxi meter is rising too quickly, get out. To avoid big problems, pay it and write the plate number down, and then formally report the driver to the Ministerio de Transportes.
  16. If you are in a stalemate situation with the taxi driver, threaten to call the police (or actually call the police)
  17. To avoid a portonazo, some ideas could be to install a GPS in the car, to install an electric gate or to get someone to open the door. If you see someone suspicious around, don’t get out.
  18. Don’t leave things in jacket pockets and tie bags to the table when you eat out
  19. Warning signals: random people by your house, shifty movements from being nervous
  20. During a phone scam, just hang up and do not engage in conversation because they use your words to determine if someone is home, if you have a daughter etc
  21. Start observing your surroundings so that you can come to see what is normal and what is not. Open. your. eyes!

This list was intended for those who are new to city life, or who would like to be extra-cautious in the city. By no means is Santiago more dangerous than anywhere else, and these tips can apply to any city, anywhere.  This post was prompted by recent news events that could have been avoided.  Any tips will be added to the post.

For more information regarding what to look for and tricks of the trade see the following blog posts:

Wheels on the Bus about the city-wide bus service from the drivers perspective

Yo Me Pare el Taxi/    Taxista in SantiagoTales from the taxi

We Are All Chile

Today I asked one of my English students what the biggest issue in Chile today is.

This discussion had started after my mention of the book Viva South America in which journalist Oliver Balch presents an in-depth look at pressing topics from across South America’s countries. We decided on areas for New Zealand (employment), Australia (refugees), Britain (immigration) and the United States (healthcare) but the question was what would take the top spot for Chile? The book chose women’s rights, which I wouldn’t debate given that femicide, spousal abuse and abortion rights are currrent areas of concern.  This is a land where the machista attitude still rules the nest in many homes, particularly in poorer neighborhoods or away from the cities. But to be fair, today’s Santiaguinos appear modern in every sense of the word and I don’t think this is Chile’s most pressing issue. I offered up drugs as a possibility, and we agreed that this certainly seemed to be eating the country from the inside out, influences the crime rate. But my student firmly put forth that everything – from attitudes towards women to drug use – can be attributed in some way to education, and she is right.

What do I see when I look at Chile? I see a nation on the verge of something amazing. But the people are divided. Everywhere else I have been race, caste and color have been the dividing cause between people but never have I been to a place where people are torn apart by class. If you have been reading my blog then you will know I talk about class alot – it was the subject of years of anthropological study based on Santiago and I freely admit that I look at most things from that angle – however few can deny that classism is not a problem in Chile today. How is this linked to education, you ask? It’s linked because the education system in Santiago purports this viscious cycle of discrimination. The state school system is falling apart at the seams, and as mums frequently point out to me, even some of the better private schools here are lacking in facilities and aid for the teachers (some even have 40 children per class too!). The top school – Nido de Aguiles – requires a entrance submission fee of $12000 and monthly extortionist payments to pay for the kind of services that were completely free in New Zealand.  The school day is long from 8am -4pm and teachers walk around in a state of serious stress.  And what are the students learning? Do they learn about the real people around them – perhaps on their lunch break while they play together? Nope because as they grow and leave school they attend a university that is filled with people from similar backgrounds. That is if they make it to university, given that the PSU exams are so ridiculously hard that without a support system around them many teenagers end up giving up, dropping out, failing or never living up to their potential.

Apt painting from La Moneda

I think the biggest mistake is to think that the school system is the only place where learning ocurrs, and that there is only one type of learning. We can learn to memorize historical treatizes from a hundred years ago, poetry from 500 years ago or solve math equations formed with dozens of squiggles, but at the end of the day do these things really matter? If we don’t know our neighbours or live in fear of being robbed by the nana or continue to justify a system where the poorest people live off a few hundred thousand pesos a month and cannot afford basic living conditions, then I can’t say that we are all that intelligent. This isn’t a “Chile bash” by any means – this conversation could be directed towards most countries in the world – but just because here it’s about Chile does not mean it should be shrugged off as the moans of another expat.  I came to Chile because I fell in love with a Chilean. His family is now my family, and his home is now my home. I would do anything to make sure that the people around me are happy and healthy, so when those two basic human requirements are not met because of education system flaws, then I feel the same need to change it. I’ll never be Chilean, I’ll never know the correct moment to use weon but that doesn’t matter. I am human and there are people around me who need help. A woman once told me that reading my blog opened her “eyes to what the real problem is in Santiago, and what everyone really needs to do.” The first is to overhaul the education system so that everyone gets a fair shot and the second is to stop the discrimination. Shakira sings “waka waka … we are all Africa.” Well, we are all Chile. Remove the pretend boundaries.

Reach Out. Barrio Concha y Toro

Angels with Dirty Faces

I read this line in a reading from one of my English classes and I thought how apt it was for my blog. While I have had an overwhelming positive reaction to my posts, I have had a few people who have been negative and have been unable to grasp the point of my words. I have never insinuated that Santiago was perfect, or that all taxistas are honest and all bus drivers unintelligent but I certainly have tried to illuminate the diamonds in the rough and the “angels with dirty faces”.

What can I say? I get as pissed off as everyone else about tiptoeing around bad customer service or dealing with the machista attitude.  I hate that the best cheese goes to Spain and that there’s no real milk readily available (find out why here).  Above all, I hate that I want to support the strikes that occur regularly in Santiago but find that it’s nearly impossible to have any sympathy for them because life becomes utter chaos.

12191704_10153662995005097_1271567381719411643_nBut what else can I say? That in the ugliest of places you can find gems that glitter like diamonds. They may not be but sometimes they are something far better. I see that in the frazzled security guard at the Registro Civil who did his best to help us today. I see that in the young carabinero who moved me to the front of the Cedula queue today when he wasn’t obligated to. I see that in Luis who sometimes drives me nuts for never doing the dishes,  and in Emilio who has developed an affinity for sticking his finger up his nose whenever we have company. I see that in our dog Luna, who once lived on the street and is riddled with cancererous growths but who is sweeter than Babe and Lassie combined. I see that in my suegro who manages to disagree with everything I say but still manages to make Emilio happier than a ray of sunshine. I see it in Jose’s empanadas that are cooked in a dirty oven but taste delicious.

I also find in the most random of places, most evident in the following pictures I never expected to find where I did.  So I guess what I am trying to say is this: if you walk around with your eyes wide shut, you may never see the beauty right in front of your eyes.

Where you can find delicious Arabic food in Patronato
Where you can find wonders in la Vega Chica
Where political statements are made through art
Where you can eat like a king in the market (mote con huesillo anyone?)
Where you can eat cheap, delicious Thai food in Franklin
Where you can encounter festivals in Huechuraba
Where you never know what you might find
Worm farm down a Recoleta street? Tick.
History down town? check
Where you can eat delicious empanadas (thanks Jose!)
Where cementeries are for family fun
Best park in Santiago is in Recoleta!
Where you can enjoy BBQ during the national holiday celebrations
Where anyone can be your friend if you take the time
Where the trees where clothes
Breaking social boundaries and playing in unlikely places
Remembering through graffitti
Where you can find unlikely treasures
Tirso Molina is one of those treasures
And the artists too
Where even the most dangerous of places have spectacular views.

What It´s Like Driving A Santiago Bus

Be honest: have you ever taken a bus and had the subconscious thought that the driver was  not very intelligent? I have.

It pains to me say that, but yes, I have to admit that deep down I was a bit of a bus snob. When i was growing up, we had a lot of nutty school bus drivers, and when I lived in Auckland I seemed to always encounter someone unsavoury on the bus ride to uni (how else to put that?!).

I now realise how wrong I was.

If you have been reading my other blog posts, you may remember that Luis is now working for Santiago’s bus company, TranSantiago. It is made up of lots of local companies, and Luis works for one based in Huechuraba called Al Sacia. It’s not the best – he usually works a lot of hours without a break (even to pee!) – and it took about four months in total for him to secure the job, after months of training and running around. When I say training I mean it – Luis had to intensely learn about his rights, passenger’s rights and how to react to any kind of situation, as well as mechanics.  He tells me:

“What people don’t realise is that the big buses – the micro oruga (caterpillar bus) – are incredibly difficult to drive and the driver can not see anything behind them. There is no visibility so that’s why accidents happen alot. All the buses are state-of-the-art machines – using the top mechanics in the world –  but they are still not as safe as travelling on the metro. It’s incredibly stressful driving the bus without even taking into account the passengers!”

Perhaps this accounts for why today the driver had no idea we were waiting with the pushchair and didn’t open the middle door until we asked. And then maybe why when he trapped a woman’s hand in the door and kept on driving he had no idea. We were up front near the driver and had no clue either until someone walked up and started shouting at the driver. We literally could hear nothing from the back. The woman was actually very hurt and the driver rerouted to the hospital. Luis intervened and explained that the lady should pass on her details and begin the process to get Al Sacia to pay, because very few people are aware that that kind of thing is within their rights.


I’m afraid I have no idea what happened next because we got off and walked home. On the way I quizzed Luis for some tips. Here they are:

How To Keep Safe on the Bus

  1. It’s very easy to take a bus without paying, especially when payment is only (sometimes) enforced during rushhour. For that reason the bus attracts all kinds of characters that you will not find on the metro (because they would have to pay). Like the metro it gets very crowded but people can make a quick getaway so crime is more likely.
  2. Don’t use your phone! Even though all around you people may be using theirs, phones are one of the easiest and most common items to steal (in the taxi too so lock your doors!).  Most vulnerable position? The elevated seats by the window: when the bus stops, people use the tyres to jump up and grab the phone through the window (and this I witnessed last week).
  3. Getting on and off the bus is usually a busy time and often a prime moment for someone to rob you.
  4. Always take care of your belongings and keep them close to you.
  5. Don’t speak English really loudly!!

I’ve learnt lots of other interesting things since Luis began working for TranSantiago. Like the bus driver should never fight with someone outside the bus – if he does it can’t be classed as self-defense. And that there isn’t a brake like on a car, there’s actually a series of breaks that the driver decides to use depending upon how fast he needs to stop. There are also a number of drivers who insist that it is illegal to open the middle door for disabled passengers or for pushchairs – this law has now been changed and you are perfectly within your rights to enter by this door if you meet those requirements. I’ve also learnt that TranSantiago is a private company that the State pays, and they do so thinking that there are buses passing every ten minutes (are there really??). It’s made up of lots of local companies each one without different regulations and perks like breaks.

I actually love taking the bus – its my favorite method of travel here. While I appreciate the fastness of the metro, I find it often very uncomfortable and a nightmare during rush hour (though I will say the service has improved dramatically since 2012). It can be all too easy to blame the driver when something happens for we all love to play the blame game, but its important to remember that the simple truth is that the job is not easy.

“It’s actually really, really difficult – much harder than anything I have done before,” Luis tells me, “bus drivers are incredibly stressed out just driving that f**** machine – you have no idea how hard it is to drive until its you behind the wheel.”

There are plenty of drivers out there who can share their stories of being attacked by bored and irate passengers and in fact the internet is full of them.  There are also many bus drivers who are cantankerous, old men on a power high. But the fact is that none of them are stupid and it was wrong of me in the past to hold such opinions, even if they were deep, deep down inside. You never know – the next time you take a bus you may have Luis transporting you and he has a degree and speaks fluent English!!


A Story of Machismo & Chilean Men

The creative juices haven’t been flowing lately for me.  I actually spent all of last week in bed with a horrific cold that had me shivering and shaking like a praying mantis, which also saw me exclaim that I was dying and that Luis was quite simply the world’s worst boyfriend for expecting me to get up and cook for his family when I was at my worst.


This last, coupled with the fact that Luis went to have some “words” with our neighbour Jose this morning, has got me thinking about what it means to date a Chilean man. On Friday night I babysat until 2am and when I came home found I had misplaced my keys. While waiting for Luis to let me in, Jose appeared in all his drunken glory and slurred his way through the usual greeting spiel that constitutes Chilean small talk. Luis witnessed this and thought Jose had been way too friendly, something which I then made worse by saying “he was so drunk at one point I thought he was going to kiss me!” He didn’t try to and I said this only because he was very touchey and his reactions were slow from being drunk, but Luis took this literally and went to speak with him today. He told me so casually, like he had just gone to buy marrequeta and asked how the weather was.

“So I asked Jose what happened on Friday night,” he began and I felt my insides turn cold.


“I asked him what he was doing on Friday night with you. He didn’t know what to say, just ‘no no no!'”

“Luis what on Earth are you talking about? Nothing happened!”

“Helen you told me he tried to kiss you.”

“No I didn’t I said he was so drunk that he seemed like he was about to!”

“Well I didn’t say anything about that. I just said that I saw him from the window and that he was inappropriate with you.”

Now if you date a Chilean you probably have heard something similar.  There is a chauvenistic thread running through many of the men which sees some labelled as machista. You probably don’t want to say this in response:

“Luis, we are not married and even if we were I am still not your property. I can do whatever I like and if I need your help I will ask for it.  Don’t go causing drama over nothing!”

Luis is actually the least machista man I have met here but jealousy rears its ugly head every now and then. My sister-in-law Berny and I often joke at parties that the only way to get attention from our men is to suddenly begin a conversation with another man, because they will instantly appear. Funnily enough, when we went to Jose’s the other month he offered me a beer. I hate alcohol and drink very rarely, and Luis saved me from social disgrace by saying I wasn’t allowed. Usually I never get offered alcohol at parties but its not considered that polite to decline something when offered (my father-in-law thinks I’m SO odd for always saying no to Chile’s famous wine!).  Jose nearly spat his out when he heard Luis and called him too machista.  However, despite all the advances in the social sphere, Chile still suffers in the field of women’s rights. Femicide is a big issue here and abortion is still illegal, and many girls who have been raped never speak out. This is a nation that, until a few years ago, was a man’s world.  Just take a read of Los Prisoneros “Corazones Rojos” a song so damning against the men that it was years ahead of its time:

Eres ciudadana de segunda clase, sin privilegios y sin honor
Porque yo doy la plata estás forzada
a rendirme honores y seguir mi humor
Búscate un trabajo, estudia algo, la mitad del sueldo y doble labor
Si te quejas allá está la puerta, no estás autorizada para dar opinión”

This song, like all Los Prisoneros songs, is excellent and if you really want to know Chile you should take a listen of their music.

Four years ago, when Luis and I were newly living together, we shared with an acquaintance of Luis’ called Carlos. Carlos was a single man who was stringing along an ex-girlfriend named Viviana. Every time he called she came running, usually to cook him lunch. One time he wasn’t happy with the food that he threw the plate against the wall and it smashed into a thousand pieces. I don’t have any idea what happened with their relationship, but I do know that he owed our neighbours money for drugs and he had to leave so fast from here that he left all his furniture behind.


Emilio has been playing out the front the last few days with the children from next door. One of them, Antony, is a few months younger than him and his mother is the daughter of Luisa, the street’s main matriarch.  She is friendly enough and quite pretty (except for some of her tattoos) but she is the owner of the most awful voice I have ever heard. She is the woman responsible for the awful screeching we’ve heard out front over the last month during the night. They used to live further down the road but were kicked out of their room for causing trouble. Her partner is very flaite and is not that nice – Luis does not like him.  Together that pair cause the majority of the drama where we live and what is unfortunate is that their son Antony is learning from their behaviour all the time. He’s a little peleador and does not play well with other children – as we have been frequently warned – and the other day he took Emilio’s favorite toy he was playing with and then proceeded to hit him over the head with it. The mum did try to get him to share and she did bring Emilio some toys to play with, but while she expressed remorse Jose and his friends laughed and seemed to think that this display of aggression was acceptable. I asked Luis later if Antony’s behaviour would be considered a good characteristic in chorizo culture, and he thought so.  At the other end of the spectrum, Jose’s daughter is the most sweetest, adorable little girl who is as gentle and placid as a fly, so the contrast between the sexes is very pronounced.

I don’t think Luis has caused any lasting damage with Jose – in fact I’m sure that his proactive attitude lends him respect. You have to be assertive here or you won’t last.  Emilio was out the front playing again this afternoon, and what I love is how everyone – even the most unsavoury looking people – will look out for the children and keep them safe. A random guy even stopped to pull out all the stinging nettles around where they were playing!


Church of the Chorizos, La Vega and Patronato

With our pull-along shopping cart laden with berries, nuts and vegetables, I am walking with my family along Avenida Recoleta on a particularly smoggy Saturday. We had just been to La Vega – Santiago’s biggest indoor market – to do a long overdue shop (I DO NOT recommend going there on a Saturday and certainly not with a pushchair). We’d stopped at my favourite eating spot in Chile, the Tirso Molina, which is in front of La Vega Chica, and lunched on an overflowing plate of mixed crumbed seafood called Jalea Mixta. It’s always an enjoyable experience going there and especially for natural juices, but this time our strawberry juice was swimming in so much sugar that we literally had to do away with the straw and eat it.

7000 pesos! Enough for two plus drinks and entrada

You can buy almost anything in La Vega, and what you can’t find there you can usually get somewhere else in Patronato. I found a gorgeous straw hat for only 1500 pesos which would have been four times that at least in New Zealand! It was suffocatingly busy  so, naturally, when we returned to the fresh air we decided to walk home.

Wicker heaven in La Vega Chica

There are three metro stops between Patronato and our home close to Dorsal, and the bus takes a good 20-30 minutes so it’s not a short walk. Around Cerro Blanco in particular there is a lot of character, particularly when you walk towards and around Avenida Peru.

Cerro Blanco

There is an old rather Arabic looking blue church with walls partly falling away from so many years of earthquake damage that is locally called “Church of the Chorizos“.  This church was originally ordered by Ines de Suarez, the lady of Pedro de Valdivia, but over the course of several hundred years (and earthquakes!) it has fallen down and been rebuilt. This is where the patos malos go to pray, and they do so outside in front of a shrine with hundreds of candles. I didn’t really get it but after observing it many times it is true – every single unsavoury-looking person will stop in front of those shimmering lights and pray while everyone else just walks past. Maybe they were praying for a nice rich gringo to walk past – which unfortunately would not be me!!


There’s a huge church that was originally built for the Los Recoletano sect of Christianity, and which Recoleta was named after. This is also the church where Chile’s only winner of Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco, had a showstopper of a wedding in 1990 that saw the Avenida in front closed and was broadcast on television. Luis remembers the chaos of the moment fondly, saying “she was more famous than anyone else in Chile for winning that competition!”  She went on to have a strong television career after that, I suppose because she was blonde (I couldn’t resist sorry!).


Old observatory

12144778_10153619863855097_2069327452649086215_nBefore the Cementeries there is a grey, derelict building that I had always assumed was empty but as we walked past some older women came out and I got to peek through the open door. To my surprise it was like looking at a picture of the Middle East or Spain – there was a big courtyard filled with plants with lots of doors coming off of it. I wish I could have taken a picture because I have not seen anything like it in Chile. Luis laughed when I said that I’d thought first it was the Catholic Cemetery,

“Can’t you see all the balconies and the washing?”

The answer is yes, I can see them now. He also told me that the building is very, very old and is typical of the flats that were originally built to house migrants from the country who wanted to live close together. One day I promise you I shall go inside and take some photos because it really was like a glimpse into another world.

Speaking of the Cemetery, most people don’t realise that directly opposite the General Cemetery is the Cementerio Catolica (opens on the side street). This is just as interesting as the bigger one but maybe more so because many of the rooms are pitch black and underground – it’s like the catacombs of Lima –  and worth a visit if your not scared of spooky places (or stumbling upon a homeless person in the gloom).

We walked down Cuccuini to Luis’ brother’s house where we were going to a party.  It must be the day for seeing into other world’s because FINALLY the famous drug lord of the area had opened his front doors and was even standing outside. This was exciting because he lives in a completely window-less house that is always dark, and is used on the street as something akin to an opium den. I’ve also heard so many stories so it was good to put a face to him. He said hello and to be honest looked so completely ordinary albeit for his clothes. He just looked a bit bored and sad.

And so has passed another day, another adventure in my comuna!

September 11 in Santiago

It’s the 11th of September and I am driving down Avenida Recoleta into La Pincoya.  I pass what looks like a fun event in the local Plaza; there are children playing, kites flying, food on sale. I excitedly ask Luis if we can stop because it looks interesting.

“Every year!” Luis exclaims roughly and drives right on by.

“Luis why can’t we go?!” I ask, annoyed.

“Helen don’t you see what that is? It’s a communist rememberance event. They do it every year – when will they get over it? None of those people were even alive in 1973!”

Quite a strong statement, I know. I am in Huechuraba, one of Santiago’s oldest barrios that has always been home to a strong left-wing movement.  This is a place that turns unrecognizeable at night, when all traffic is blocked on the main throughfare, Av. Recoleta, due to protests.

In 1973 Chile suffered its own September 11 tragedy – a coup d’etat – that saw a violent militarial uprising led by Augosto Pinochet against the socialist president, Salvador Allende. This event killed thousands but scarred millions, and Chileans have never quite been the same since.

What I never realised was that the coup hadn’t come as a surprise.  Derek Paterson is a New Zealand writer who was imprisoned during the coup and wrote about his experience in his new book, Second Time Lucky.  I recommend giving this one a read because he paints a remarkeable picture of Chile during the 70’s.

“It’s a lovely day.” I remark to Luis, “It was probably a lovely day in 1973 too.  I can’t even imagine my normal life being broken in that way – a normal date that is now forever different.”

However, in saying that, Huechuraba seems to be moving as normal. People are laughing in the street, flying kites in the sky, working, commuting, eating lunch … does anything really happen once the sun sets?

Driving around Huechuraba Antigua on Sep.11

This time 2 years ago,  I went to a party in Recoleta and walked home. The streets were looming and black thanks to the power being cut, and the only sound was the whirring of helicopters overhead. There was no-one around and every footstep sounded like thunder amongst the gloom. I remember clutching Luis’ arm with my keys at the ready, shaking even more when he told me what to do if someone should attack us.The Diagonal – a prominent street that slices through residential pockets – was ablaze with mountains of fire that we tiptoed past. A new sound joined our footsteps, this time there was the crunch of glass and in the distance we could hear laughing.

Needless to say, we made it home safely. In 2014 we lit the candles as we waited for the obligatory power cut, and watched movies while listening distant hum outside. Now here we are, in 2015, on our way to Luis’ father’s house in Huechuraba.

I spoke to Ana Fuenzalida and asked her what the date meant for her:

“It means nothing to me really. I was only a baby in the south of Chile when the coup happened.  Today its just a night when the flaites take control and burn tyres and break glass. I won’t be scared; the same happens every year.”

I asked Boris Bastian what exactly would happen:

“The people on Av. Recoleta will prepare their homes against possible attacks. Late at night, around 10pm or later, flaites will begin causing trouble on the road, setting things alight, ripping out plants to burn, throwing things and breaking windows.  The police will come and they will attempt to regain some control but there is not enough police. Sometimes they come straight down the Avenida with tear gas and water cannons, sometimes they try to be clever and come in from the back or side. There will be thousands of people out, some of them with genuine intentions but mostly young people out to do what they can. There are no rules.”

Throughout the day I speak to many people.  Luis points out the marks and holes on the road along Av. Recoleta where previous fires have melted the tarmac. But in general the day seems like any other –  am I missing something?

We return home to Recoleta around 8pm to find our street bursting with party atmosphere. Jose is selling his usual empanadas, there is music playing and everyone seems to be having a good time. Inside I prepare the candles, get Emilio tucked up in bed and wait … but nothing happens. The night passes uneventfully. I hear nothing. The next morning Luis’ father turns up for Emilio.

“It was very strange,” he tells us, “nobody did anything in front of our house like they normally do. Everything was very quiet.”

When I later ask more people from Huechuraba, they tell me that not much happened on Av. Recoleta either.  On Facebook, the expat groups are buzzing with pepole sharing their experiences, with tales of “dogs barking more than usual” and “no-one was people smiling or laughing” during the day.  I am not sure if dogs really were barking more or if maybe they wrote that because they expected it, but in all honesty the day passed as normal here with much less activity during the night than previous years.  How did it go where you are?

* There is an excellent ethnography by the anthropologist Clara Han, who actually attended the chaos in La Pincoya a few years ago. She writes of how one year the police simply did not show up, and how no-one then knew what to do. It’s interesting how Sep. 11 has evolved in Santiago, less as a date of rememberence and memorial or protest, but as a date when all rules in existence are to be broken.  You can download her work here.

Househunting in Batuco

Yesterday we drove around Lampa and Batuco again in search of house options. I should say in search of liveable house options.  We have a very small budget to play around with but we have to use the subsidio or we will lose it,  We have had to come to terms with the fact that we will either get the land but not the house, or we will get a semi-properly constructed house but not the space. Yesterday was pretty dismal. To recap:

House 1 – refused to be viewed. Owner said the only option was to buy it based on how it looked from the road. Then he abruptly disappeared. This attitude has been pretty consistent with our experiences so far, with people barking “just look from the road” down the phone or hanging up because they can’t be bothered going through the effort of showing someone the house. This goes back to customer service in general here, which I have pointed out a few times: it just doesn’t exist.

House 2 – was completely enclosed. The entrance was a wire cage and the sitting area was completely windowless and dark. There was not a spec of light anywhere in the house. The yard was also enclosed and flled with junk all balancing precariously on top of one another. You reached the top floor via a steep staircase that was completely exposed to the elements. I left this one feeling incredibly depressed because I was struggling to find any redeeming qualities, or even common ground with the owner. I just cannot understand who would want to live like that? It couldn’t be for a lack of money as the entire house was outfitted in quality goods and flat screen televisions. I just don’t get it.

House 3 – this mood persisted with the third house, that had a lot of land but a barely-there house. We didn’t enter this one, just looked from the road as the elderly gentleman who lived there never came to the door. This one almost made me cry. Absolutely everywhere I looked was filled with mountains of junk: in front of the house, to the side of the house, in the house … one would barely be able to squeeze through the gate because of all the rusty chair frames, broken toys, tyres, metal sheets etc. This was clearly the home of a hermit who ( I deduced in a moment of Freudian expertise) was burying himself away from the world. Luis agreed that he maybe had some issues, but the unfortunate fact is that EVERYWHERE we looked we witnessed this same thing. People are not throwing broken things away, instead just pile them up in mountains in their gardens to spoil beneath the rain, wind and sun. Beautiful spaces of green are spoilt by paper and plastic rubbish, ruining what would be lovely surroundings. What is going on here??

House 4 – we suddenly left the dusty streets of what I had assumed was all of Batuco and entered a poblacion, a residential area where all the houses looked the same. The roads were narrow and busy, and there was row after row of white, 2-storey houses. House 4 was built relatively well and would only need minor tweaking. The living space was small but the bedrooms and kitchen were large, and there was plenty of space outside to make a patio and tiny garden. The house was behind a fence and the street was gated. We could easily see ourselves living there and it was well within our budget, with room to spare to make the minor adjustments it needed. We looked up and the air was clean and clear. But the area was not so good, we had to admit. Flaites do seem to exist everywhere. We will probably buy this house, but I highly doubt I’ll want to make the commute to Santiago every day. It feels very, very far away.

House 5 – we didn’t enter. It was in Lampa, a small town that I really like. I get good vibes in Lampa. But the house we saw had no outside space, the area was very poor, and we saw people selling pasta base. Nearby was house 6 but we couldn’t go in as it is occupied by renters, who were very rude to us and the owner said were likely to make problems about leaving.

So there you go! We desperately want to get out of the city and into the fresh air. Maybe plant some veges. We are going to look at Melipilla next, which is much further away but a nicer area. It’s a scary thought to think about living somewhere else, especially with a toddler. It makes me realise how much of a home we have made for ourselves in Recoleta, the barrio I hated at first but have now come to love. I’d be very interested in hearing anyone’s stories about their big move, especially if its to someplace away from Santiago. So get commenting!