One Final Week

As I returned to Casa Mosaica all of the final pieces for wrapping this trip up started to fall into place. My Australian work visa was granted and a few days later my flight to Adelaide was booked. While those gears were turning, I occupied myself by checking out more of the sites that Santiago has to offer and by staying up late almost every night on the hostel rooftop patio, sipping brews, hanging out with various people and more often than not, staying up past dawn.

The first place I visited was the zoo on San Cristobal Hill. I took the funicular halfway up the hill then jumped out (I later discovered it’s actually easier to walk three minutes up the hill than standing around for ten minutes waiting for the funicular cars to fill up…)

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The zoo has a mix of South American animals and some exotics. The first cage I stopped at were the Bactrian camels, one of which, upon seeing me, immediately walked over to me and stuck its face towards me. I must resemble one of the staff who feeds it.

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Past that there was a cage containing both rheas and maras. I have to admit that while I’d heard of rheas prior to this trip, I had no idea they lived in South America until first seeing them on postcards and then later roaming the steppe just north of Tierra del Fuego. This was my first chance to see one up close though.

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I’m a little more well-acquainted with the mara, a South American rodent that’s related to the guinea pig and the capybara and lands somewhere in the middle for size. I hadn’t actually seen one alive, but I’d had part of one in my freezer back in Nova Scotia at one point and later had it for dinner. (By the way, if you’re in Scotia and looking for exotic meat like the mara, these guys rock.)

There were a lot of animals that I was just kind of “meh” about and didn’t bother to take photos. Alpacas and llamas, for example. There were some big cats as well but I couldn’t really get any pics and as it was the middle of the day they weren’t doing much anyways. It really struck me how many of these animals I’d seen in the wild – both in South America and elsewhere – as well as how many of them I’d eaten in the past. That made me hungry so I began going through the zoo a little quicker than I otherwise would have.

I can’t remember if these were guanacos or vicunas, but I think they were guanacos, a wild cameloid, distantly related to the camel and closely related to the alpaca and the llama. The guy in the middle had ears but he just kept folding them back when he’d look at me…

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The highlight and spot that I hung around for a bit was in the cage with these guys, apparently donated from a zoo in Japan:

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There are a couple different subgroups of red pandas – distinguishable by facial markings – but these ones are the cutest, for sure. They’re completely ridiculous, like living teddy bears. Two of them were in the cage, the one not pictured was curled up in a tree sticking its face into a nook with its paws over its eyes. The one shown above was slowly waking up, blinking and wiping its eyes while slowly rolling its head to the side. My usual tough-as-nails exterior was completely annihilated and I was like

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My next stop was the Museum of Memory and Human Rights, a fairly new museum dedicated to researching and publicizing the atrocities committed under the Pinochet regime of 1973-1990. If you aren’t familiar with what happened I’ll try to recap it quickly:

  1. Left-wing government of Salvador Allende is legitimately elected in Chile
  2. With CIA backing, the armed forces of Chile (led by Gen. Pinochet of the army) overthrow the government, dropping bombs on government buildings from aircraft
  3. Those with leftist tendencies are sent into exile, are rounded up into prison camps, are tortured, are murdered, and in some cases just simply go missing

Outside the museum was a display of contemporary posters – from abroad, obviously – calling for the return of democracy and the overthrow of the junta. CIA involvement was a fact acknowledged by the US government in the seventies and is key to understanding the presence of US iconography in these posters. Accusations of fascism are thrown around a lot these days but in the case of the Pinochet junta, it’s hard to argue (hence the presence of swastikas). There were probably fifty or sixty of these posters, here’s a sample:

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In the last poster, the top strip refers to Vietnam (THIEU being Nguyen Van Thieu) and the middle to Chile (ITT being the American ITT Corporation, who helped fund the military coup). I’m not quite sure what the bottom refers to – obviously Uncle Sam is NATO (OTAN) but I don’t know what VOB means…

Inside the museum I picked up an English audio guide for about $4. Unfortunately – very unfortunately – photos weren’t allowed past the foyer. Bummer. Around the entrance desk were photos, art and documents about human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, with a particular focus on military regimes that had committed atrocities and what kind of reconciliation was taking place elsewhere.

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Beyond the foyer were two floors that described the coup, the atrocities that occurred, and the return to democracy. It really sucks that photos weren’t allowed, because this is one of the best museums I’ve ever visited – but at the same time I can understand why, because pulling out a camera and playing tourist would have been kind of coarse. Not only because of the subject matter – which was brutal by times – but also because of those around. Several of the older folks I walked past were crying as they walked through. They were likely Chileans who lived through it, but maybe not – Argentina, Paraguay and other Latin American countries had very similar experiences.

A few of the “highlights”, though:

  • A series of televisions playing the final broadcasts of the Allende government as well as the initial broadcasts of the junta. Allende’s final broadcast was via radio, telling the people that while he’d been offered the chance to surrender, he’d rather die than hand over democracy to the junta. As the building he was in was bombed and burning, he shot himself. Pinochet and his buddies from the air force, navy and carabineros later held a TV press conference where they lamented breaking with “democratic tradition” but that what they were doing had to be done for the good of the nation, and that they expected all good Chileans to understand and support them. (Except, as they specifically mentioned, leftists, who were really to blame for this whole thing.)
  • Illustrated books showing torture techniques as well as some of the devices used. In one room was an electrified metal bed frame complete with restraints.
  • Hundreds of childrens’ drawings depicting their family members being beaten and kidnapped in the night.
  • Numerous stories about individual atrocities, like the 13-year old boy that was rounded up by the army for being near a protest and whose whereabouts were only discovered years later at a construction site where his body was exhumed, or the 18-year old girl who the police covered in gasoline and set ablaze.
  • Declassified documents showing some of the techniques used to explain people disappearing. In one “operation”, enemies of the state were abducted and put into secret camps, tortured, killed then cremated. State-run newspapers would first report that they had fled to exile, and that various exiled leftist groups were fighting among themselves abroad. Later, they would claim that those who went missing were killed while in exile by the various “factions” they’d invented.
  • A wall containing the photos of hundreds of those who were killed or went missing.

Like I said, pretty heavy stuff. Santiago also has a museum dedicated to Salvador Allende but it was under renovation so I had to skip it and move onto the Pre-Columbian Art Museum which, for the most part, was fairly underwhelming. It started out cool though, as the first room was down these dimly-lit stairs with metal trim, and the sounds of the cityscape almost immediately disappeared, giving me the feeling like I was walking into some secret James Bond villain’s hideout or something:

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Some neat stuff down there, including this sort of mummified child which looks like something from a Tool video:

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I say “sort of” mummified, because here’s a description of the process that was used:

The fishermen of the Chinchorro culture took elaborate measures to mummify their dead, thereby keeping their memory alive among those left behind. To prepare the body, they removed the muscles and viscera and replaced them with branches, feathers, strips of leather, skeins of yarn and other material. They then covered the body with a layer of mud and adorned the head with a wig of human hair. The practice of mummification began in the Great North around 6000 B.C., almost three centuries before it was employed in Egypt, and ceased around 2000 B.C.

Then there were these fellows, who I wrote down nothing about:

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Returning upstairs, the second floor had displays divided based on geographic region, not only from Chile but for much of Latin America… all the way to what is today Mexico and the Caribbean in fact, but there was a conspicuous absence of anything north of there. They had maps and timelines showing the spatial and temporal extents of different pre-Colombian societies:

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Weird. And speaking of weird:

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From the accompanying description:

Among the clay sculptures […] are the figures of a god and a goddess dressed in the flayed skins of a man and a woman, respectively. The inhabitants of Teotihuacan and Monte Alban worshipped the same god with a flayed skin. This sculpture, bearing a monkey skin, probably belonged to this cult. The two deities mentioned above were ancestors of Xipe Totec (Our Flayed Lord), god of plant fertility, and of a large number of earth mother goddesses (Toci, Our Grandmother and others).

Not sure if “Our Flayed Lord” is already taken, but if not that’s a decent name for a metal band. Most of the exhibit contained pretty mundane ceramics however, I burnt through it pretty quickly, only stopping to really check out a handful of other gems:

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What turned out to be the final stop on my cultural whirlwind was a cultural center attached to La Moneda (the presidential building that Allende was holed up in and was subsequently bombed by the junta). It features rotating exhibits, with a selection of historical Islamic art on loan from a museum in LA being featured when I arrived. Didn’t knock my socks off but it was alright:

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Without question the most interesting part to me were these wall-mounted monitors that walked visitors through the history of Mohammed and the Islamic conquests through cartoons:

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That’s a fucking cartoon of Mohammed right there! There were a series of them too. Apparently the curators of the exhibit don’t watch the news.

I’d planned on visiting a few more places like the National Museum but after talking to folks in the hostel it sounds like I hit the better sights, with the National Museum being described to me as “pretty shit” by a British guy I split a forty of rum with.

Speaking of rum, the vast majority of the rest of the week-plus was spent between the rooftop I mentioned at the start of this now-long-winded post and my bed. Most evenings followed the same pattern – grab a few beers or maybe a bottle of rum in the late afternoon, have a few drinks, grab a bunch more, stay up past sunrise. Crawl into bed, crawl out around 3 p.m., rinse and repeat. It’s all the same, only the names will change, hahaha…

Met some great people for sure, though:

  • A young Brazilian couple, the dude a lawyer and the chick a med student, plus a third Brazilian guy who was traveling alone but was kicking around with them. Really nice folks, not big drinkers but good on the guitar and the girl was a great singer. Always throwing out the offer for me to head out somewhere with them as well, although I didn’t really take them up on it, as I’d beaten them to the things I wanted to see and was often too hungover to want to go out into the heat regardless.
  • A young Argentinian guy who’d been working as a model in Buenos Aires but had come to Santiago to try to replicate his success. Hilarious guy who spoke great English and was handy with the guitar as well. He was a party monster too – he was across the room in my dorm and both of us were consistently passed out until well after lunch.
  • Three British girls who were only around for a couple days. Great sense of humour on all of them though, within minutes of meeting them I was ripping on them and vice versa. Late one night with one of them leaning her head on my shoulder, she mentioned that I smelled good for someone who’d been on the road for so long. I told her I’d been wearing these pants for over a week and they reeked, to which she responded, “I hadn’t planned on smelling your pants”, which set me up for some Grade A smart-assery.
  • A couple of Albertans, a guy and a girl (but not a couple), hilarious with serious hick streaks in both of them. Me and the dude were throwing dirty jokes back and forth and the girl was more than holding her own, too… English speakers within earshot (including the Brits) weren’t terribly impressed by our humour though, hahah…
  • This gorgeous French chick who was possibly the biggest party animal of them all. She was disgusted that the clubs in Santiago closed at 4 – “What kind of bullshit city is this” – so she and I were the “last men standing” a few nights, her sipping my beer and me stealing drags off her smoke. She was kind of quirky, and by that I mean that she kept wanting to listen to Phil Collins and Genesis.

All said it was a great week and when it was time to head to the airport I was kind of bummed that I was leaving but definitely excited to get on the road…

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