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Thursday, 14 March 2013

An Adventure in Chile

I just arrived back in Canada from two weeks of travel in Chile. On the numerous flights back from South America I thought that it would be a great idea to blog about my experiences there. I realised that what I needed to say could not really be expressed in one blog; instead, I'd need to cover it in a short series. There were three major threads to my trip, and I'll address each of them in the next week or so in separate blogs. The first will be my impressions about seeing Chile and South America. The second will be about the socio-economic realities of Chile and my insight as a westerner. The final post will talk about privilege and travel.

I hope you'll take the time to read some of my material whether or not you've travelled or know anything about South America. As I mentioned, this post will look at my individual experience with Chile. It'll be the most informal of all the posts as I'll be effectively reflecting on two weeks of soaking in a beautiful and misunderstood country.

I stepped out of the aeroport in Santiago into the warm air. It was sunny, and I was surrounded by green. While flying down, I peered out of the tiny porthole beside me to notice that Santiago was a beautiful island enclosed by towering green and white mountains. The city appeared to perched on a desert, brown and sandy. When I was on the ground it was a grassy paradise. We took a shuttle into downtown, along the way passing shantytowns and parks. Once at the terminal, we shunted ourselves into the Santiago Metro, which is an amazing public transit system. It was clean and busy, at no matter what hour. I noticed that people sat with their smart phones and were listening to English pop music. Once I emerged from the metro station I was standing in a beautiful plaza with statues and trees. Cars navigated the roundabout and I stared up at towering apartments and offices. I felt as though I was in Venice and Vancouver.

I only managed to convince Kelly that we stay in Santiago for one night. I was enamoured and intrigued by the bustling city of nearly six million. It was the first time I was in a place that people might consider non-western or developing, and I wanted to see what the city had to offer. The most vivid memory I have is of standing at the gate to the national stadium. Used by Pinochet in the mid-1970s as a site to torture dissidents, the stadium is unassuming. There is no plaque, no statue. No commemoration and, sadly, no mention of its terrifying past. I stared at the field, locked behind red bars, and I thought about the tens of thousands who disappeared, many of whom had been held here. It was shocking to me to see the degree to which the suffering was erased, disavowed. In the aeroport two weeks later I watched Universidad de Chile play there while the crowds cheered in delight some four decades after the arena was host to crimes against humanity.

The next day we trekked by bus to Valparaìso and Viña del Mar, two beautiful cities along the Pacific coast. They hug the shoreline, bounded to the sea by the sprawling mountains. Valparaìso is an industrial port city, and it has all the grime despite being adorned in the most beautiful reds and oranges and yellows, all set against the green and blue its surroundings. It is a city rich in character and culture - a site for immigration and the entry point to Chile for most of its existence. Only twenty kilometres away is Viña del Mar, which is a flourishing resort community full of flashy cars and European tourists. The feel is completely different than that of its neighbour, though it's something to appreciate for its uniqueness. It's commercial, unlike anything else I saw in Chile, including the capital. Wealth is displayed virtually everywhere, in the architecture, in the public gardens, in the people. It was truly fascinating to see these two cities, stuck side-by-side.

For the rest of the trip Kelly and I were in the southern reaches of Chile, in Patagonia. We visited Punta Arenas before taking the bus north to Puerto Natales. After spending some time in the small community, we headed to Torres del Paine, one of South America's most famous natural wonders. The park is a massive sanctuary, but it's full of hikers from the global north, myself included. I felt a sense of freedom being away from civilisation, though I never escaped thinking about the degree to which tourism was damaging this fragile natural environment. Nevertheless, the trekking and camping was unforgettable. I saw my first iceberg, marvelled at the wildlife, and was surrounded by towering mountains and pristine glacial lakes.

Sadly, visiting those six locales took up my two weeks, and I headed back home to Canada. Chile was a place I'll always remember fondly, and I already look forward to going back there sometime. The flight home was bittersweet as I longed to remain in my new habitat, but I found myself ready to come back to my real life. In the dying hours of my trip, I made a commitment to myself to write a short series of blogs about my experience. I hope you enjoyed this one, and stay tuned my next post which will examine the socio-economic condition of Chile.

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