When I close my eyes, the sounds of the city awakening are the first memories. I woke up early nearly every morning, listening to the sounds of Santiago coming to life, readying for work, steadying the culture. The cool mist of morning haze swayed around the high-rise apartments across the tiny valley and our own building, teasing us to enjoy the cool sunrise that would soon give way to the heat of late summer.
Walking in Santiago has a soundtrack, a background stream of staccato notes that if I ever heard them again, I would be transported. The road outside the apartment is filled, traveling every which way depending on the time of day, with cars, trucks, and scooters. There are people bustling to the financial center of the city, of the country, near the U.S. Embassy. Well dressed even in the rising heat, they have quiet conversations as they scurry away. It’s not New York or San Francisco loud. It’s a more subdued dialogue inside the city confines.
As we take to the streets for a morning exploration, the sidewalks are filled with bicycles and scooters, zipping around the pedestrians. They are an irritant that could be a dangerous one. The people don’t seem to mind. As we travel through the city, there is no undercurrent of music that you sometimes hear in large cities. There is no undercurrent of public transportation. The sound is weirdly muffled, steamy, and strange to my ears. It is conversation. It is discussion, laughter, and serious direction. The voices of Santiago and clear and lyrical, regardless of the tongue speaking.
My companions are of this city, and have had a long love affair with this town. As with all love affairs, their vision notes the changes over time that irritate as well as inspire. The bicycles make people nervous on sidewalks and the tongues that speak are clearly not native to Chile. The incoming population from other countries is jarring. We travel through my friend’s lifelong journey, as we navigate days and lunches and dinners, parks and walks, ice cream and antiques. I learn more about my friends by listening to them guide us in this life. I learn about the Chilean people and the love they have of culture and the future. It’s more than learning why there is always vinegar and oil on the dining table (rather than salad dressing) or why palmitos are a favorite. It’s the way my friends spoke about everything Chilean, be it family homes or the food people eat.
There is this honest, underlying pride that permeates the culture. It’s at odds with itself right now, fighting to breathe in a culture that is struggling against new and old. We traveled through parts of the city that were devastated by youth and protests; lower walls covered with myriad graffiti and damage. Those not covered with spray paint are covered with steel sheets and wood, saving windows and precious architecture. Armed military stand ready in parks to disperse the crowds and hoodlums. Unemployment is high and immigration is high, causing the standard stresses. Who is stealing jobs? What about the cost of goods? What’s next? Fear flows through all cultures.
But underneath, there is a pride of culture, history, language. Chilean food speaks to the integration of European and Indigenous tastes, priding itself on fresh and pure. There is a crossroads of culture in language. My companion told me that they can tell when someone is not Chilean, by their language accent and words they use. In an antique shop, the owner complimented my friend on her way with language, noting that most people don’t “talk that way, any longer.” Slow, clear, lyrical, the language tells one volumes about a culture. This gave me the distinct impression that Chile is at a cultural precipice. Can they maintain this proud depth of identity?
In the middle of this trip, we spent a few days in Brazil, and there couldn’t be a more different culture than Chile. Chile has a well-spring of Europe under the covers. The memories of Spain, Germany, and parts of Northern Africa all influence Chile’s identity. Brazil has this crazy chaos, in every aspect of life. Maybe it is their leaders, maybe it is the closeness to Europe and Africa, maybe it is a deep tie to nature – I am not sure. There are vast chasms between what they say and do, what is important and what is actionable. There is an underlying tension in speech, driving, goods, living conditions – all of which are in your face when it comes to the canyons between them. The soundtrack of this country is the scooter beep. Incessant and irritating, they are gnats in your ears. Sleep is a relief.
Back in Chile, there was a comfort to me in that underlying European maturity. The days were filled with wine and food, laughter, and exploration. I would love to visit in Spring, when the city is alive with flowers and scents of new life, when the breeze is cooler, the beaches open and laughter walks the roads. I am grateful to see this beautiful country through the eyes of friends and loved ones; it was a rare insight that I am truly thankful to have received.