Chile: Never a Dull Moment

Welcome to my random musings about the world, on a weekly-to-occasional basis.

Our time in Chile is drawing to a close—we’ve only been here two weeks, but it seems like a lot longer. It has been many things, but it was not dull. Here’s a brief recap:

We arrived on Thursday evening, in the middle of a long holiday weekend that we had no idea was happening. But Santiago was quiet, so we sort of assumed that meant the protests were calming down. We settled into our hotel and spent the first few days running errands and stocking up on chocolate (Santiago has great chocolate). We rode the cable car to the top of San Cristobal Hill, where there’s a lovely park, a shrine, and a spectacular view out over the city. Santiago was definitely winning us over.

On Monday, the city seemed to wake up from the holiday with a jolt, as if it had overslept and needed to work extra hard to make up for the downtime. Protests flared up in the city center; Lee watched the livestream on his computer. He gave me the play-by-play as the police began to break up the crowd with tear gas and water cannons. 

Suddenly, our room began to shake—we’d felt earthquakes before, a couple of tiny ones, where you look at each other and say, did you feel that? and you’re not quite certain. But there was no doubt this time. The curtains swayed and everything rattled; I ran around the room, squawking and looking for my flip flops. Lee pointed out that we were on the 16th floor, and you’re probably not supposed to use the elevator in an earthquake. I sat on the end of the bed, and we waited until the curtains finally stopped moving. It turned out to have been a 6.1, about a hundred miles from the city. No one seemed fazed, except maybe me.

Okay, earthquake: I can check that off the life experience list.

On Tuesday, we were again lounging around in our room in the evening (I accept that we are boring old fuddy-duddies, but in our defense, the sunsets from our room were kind of gorgeous) watching the protests online, when I see a huge plume of smoke rising from San Cristobal Hill, which is about half a mile from us. We watch as fire-fighting helicopters get to work, dumping water all over the hill. It took hours to extinguish. While we watched, a massive bicycle protest pedaled by on the street below. I was glued to the window; there was so much going on I had trouble knowing what to watch. We never figured out definitively whether it was a wildfire or protest-related arson, but we were glad we’d already gone up the cable car, because now that was closed like every other tourist attraction in the city.

On Wednesday, the hotel boarded up all the ground floor windows, and everyone went into defensive mode, as the protestors made themselves heard in our neighborhood (which, for the record, was a couple of miles away from the center). It’s a good thing we like hanging out in a hotel room, because that day we were truly stuck inside.

Thursday was quiet-ish. But the respite was short.

Friday, we went for a long afternoon walk, thinking we’d go check out the main square in the center of town before the protests ramped up for the evening. Um, not so much. I can now verify that tear gas smells, tastes, and feels just like the pepper spray I once accidentally sprayed in my face. When our eyes started burning, we beat a hasty retreat to the safety of an Uber.

The temperature had been steadily creeping upward all week, and by Saturday afternoon, I was ready to check out the rooftop pool at the hotel. I dumped my stuff on a lounger, kicked off my flip flops, and walked across the concrete pool deck. By the time I got to the steps, my feet were burning. I was moving quickly, trying to get into the water, and when my foot landed on the top step, it slid out from under me and and I went down hard, hitting my back on the sharp edge of that concrete deck. It was a long evening; a doctor came to our room, but then she sent me for x-rays. My ribs are bruised, but not broken. That doesn’t mean they don’t hurt like hell, though. Also: Chilean ERs are just as crowded on Saturday evening as American ones.

Sunday we flew (bruised ribs and all) to a small town in southern Patagonia. By the time we arrived, I realized I was coming down with a cold. (Pro-tip: don’t get a cold when you have bruised ribs. Trust me on this.) We found an open (albeit boarded-up) pharmacy to fill the prescriptions I’d gotten at the hospital the night before, and I stocked up on tissues while we were there.

There are protests here as well, but they seem to consist primarily of people marching in the early evening, chanting and banging pots, then later a convoy of cars drives a loop around downtown, blowing their horns. For hours.

At least, that’s what Sunday and Monday evenings looked like. Tuesday was altogether different.

We started hearing the chanting and banging and horns in the late afternoon, like usual. I needed “a brisk 3-minute walk” to close the exercise ring on my watch, so because I’m just a wee bit obsessive, I stuffed some tissues in my pocket and went for a quick spin around the block. There were families carrying signs and waving flags. I saw a toddler with a vuvuzuela. Little old ladies strolled along, chatting and banging pots. It was all so civilized and festive.

But around nine, as the sun started to set, I glanced out of our window, only to see another huge plume of smoke. And this time, it was the building next door.

The fire raged, a mass of black smoke and orange flames. We were absolutely stunned, going back and forth from our room, with its view on the back of the building, to the front of the hotel, where we could see the front of the building, as well as the protestors. They had massed on our block, and had smaller bonfires burning up and down the street. The pop of teargas being fired into the crowd was constant. Little groups of hotel guests milled around the lobby, and every now and then someone would open the front door, letting in a draft of cold, smoky, teargassy air that stung my throat and made my eyes water.

When the fire department showed up, they raced through the hotel, banging on doors and yelling at us all to get out of our rooms. Lee and I grabbed a few things and raced outside and across the street. When we stopped to assess, we figured out that we had brought our passports, Lee’s computer, my purse, and our dirty laundry. Don’t ask.

It took us about two minutes to realize that riot police with shields and helmets (and teargas) were running every which way, all around us, so we decided we’d be better off taking our chances with the fire, and we went back into the hotel. Guests had gathered in the lobby—one young couple had pitched a tent on one side of the room—again, don’t ask. It was a crazy evening.

All’s well that ends well, I suppose. For us, at least. We finally got the all clear, and headed back up to our room. Between my ribs, my stuffy nose, the adrenalin, and the sirens, I didn’t get much sleep that night.

The building next door was gutted. We found out the next day that it had been targeted because it was the headquarters of a pension fund administration company.

We’re in a different, smaller town for the weekend, and this time our hotel is a couple of miles out of town, on the edge of a lake. It’s quite lovely, and very, very peaceful. I can’t imagine anyone protesting out here; there’d be no one to protest to, except the seagulls.

I’m now beginning all my texts to our kids with “WE’RE FINE, but . . .”

So yeah, we’re fine. Here’s to peace and quiet. Less coughing would be good, too.

Take care,

Lisa

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