Shattered Glass and Gas Masks

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

We’re in Santiago, Chile, which is a truly beautiful city, nestled into a valley at the edge of the Andes. I’m utterly in love; I can easily imagine settling here, to the extent that we want to settle anywhere (don’t worry; we still don’t).

Ten or twelve days before we were planning to arrive, we started seeing news reports of mass protests happening all over the country, but primarily in the capital: Santiago. We didn’t think much of it, at first.

Then the reports—the photos, the videos—got worse. A state of emergency was declared. A curfew was established. We did a little digging, and concluded it was only mildly concerning, but worth watching.

So we did. Our last few days in Panama were pretty well consumed with should-we-shouldn’t-we conversations. We made various phone calls. We confirmed airport-immigration-transport details far more carefully than we usually do. We dug around for real-time input from other tourists (you’d be amazed what you can find online, if you know where to look; without our smartphones, this life would be So. Much. Harder., but that’s a topic for another day).

People were worried, asking if the city was safe, how they’d get from the airport to their hotels, canceling trips. We tried to synthesize all of this information and panic, and make a decision based on rational data, rather than fear and sensationalism. We decided to change hotels, so we’d be a mile or two away from the center (we were initially booked into one that is literally a block and a half from where most of the action is happening—turns out it’s closed down indefinitely anyway), but we weren’t going to scramble around for a different destination entirely. Santiago is huge; surely the whole city wouldn’t be disrupted.

And it’s not. The neighborhood we’re in is gorgeous. Wide, tree-lined boulevards, tiny jewel-box chocolate shops, well-kept parks and playgrounds. I’m sitting in a pastry shop as I write this, having a pain au chocolate and a pot of Damman Freres tea, which is my second-favorite French tea brand. It’s all quite lovely.

Aside: rereading this, I worry that it’s a bit tone deaf. It wasn’t my intent to come across as some kind of unsympathetic elitist, more concerned about tea and pastries than about the problems of the working class. But I’m here as a tourist—I barely even speak any Spanish. I tried watching the news, but I couldn’t understand it. I can barely even figure out what’s open and what isn’t. All I can do is observe.

The protests have been pretty focused on the city center (that’s where the government buildings are located, I believe). It has been a complete non-issue for us, except that the Beaux Arts Museum is closed. I don’t tourist a lot, but I did want to wander through there. As far as I can tell, most of the things tourists would want to do are closed for the foreseeable future. No worries, though—there’s an awesome mall about three blocks from our hotel, and I wanted to replace a couple of items anyway.

And then.

Yesterday, the protesters gathered at said mall. We were on our way back to the hotel after our late lunch when we found ourselves skirting the edge of the crowd. We kept moving at a pretty good clip, even going so far as (gasp!) ignoring the don’t walk light at the corner. By the time we were a block or so past, we started hearing the pop of tear gas being shot into the mass of people.

But another block or so down the street, things were more or less back to normal. Sidewalk cafes had moved their tables and umbrellas indoors, but people were still eating inside. The coffee shop on our block was still open (we got a frozen coconut mocha that was out of this world). Our hotel had boarded up the ground-floor windows and slipped a note under our door, warning us to stay inside for the evening, but from our perspective on the 16th floor, there was nothing at all scary. We had internet and strawberries and a brownie. That’s pretty much a typical evening for us.

Some protesters (maybe a hundred-ish) marched by our corner, banging pots and pans, blowing whistles, snarling traffic for ten or twelve minutes. We watched as one young woman whipped out a can of spray paint and painted all over the multi-level monument across the street. A couple of young guys went down into the lower level, and later I realized (with the help of binoculars, I admit) that there was shattered glass all over the bottom of the monument.*

But I also watched as a young woman pushing a baby stroller crossed the street at that corner, and the protesters all quickly stepped out of her way, giving her a comfortably safe passage through. I watched as the young men who were blocking traffic stepped out of the way as soon as the last protestor was on the sidewalk. And because our room is on the corner of the building, with windows looking in two directions, I knew that a block away, there were no protestors at all.

And here I am this morning, sipping my tea and looking out at the fresh spring leaves, that bright lime-green shot through with sunlight. A few years ago, Lee was in Bangkok visiting Toby during a round of mass protests. I remember watching the news while he was there, and calling in a bit of a panic, worried that it was dangerous. He laughed. No, he said, everything was fine. The news only shows you the dramatic stuff. You don’t realize that just around the corner, women are pushing baby strollers and people are hanging out laundry and going to the 7-11.

Normal, everyday life doesn’t make good news. But it goes on, all around the little pockets of drama. This city has a population of six million people—as far as I can tell, the vast majority of them are just going about their lives. If that little group of protestors hadn’t marched past our corner, we never would’ve seen any “drama.” And even that wasn’t very dramatic. I watched a small act of vandalism as it happened: it was a woman with a ponytail and a can of spray paint.

It’s easy to watch the news and feel like the world is exploding. It’s easy to absorb that message, all day, every day. I think, though, that the subtext of that message is that we should all be afraid. That people are bad. That the world is scary and dangerous.

Fear is insidious; it gets into our heads and self-perpetuates. We don’t realize how much it colors our days. If I’ve learned anything from four years of travel, it’s that fear does nothing but make my life smaller and emptier and a lot less fulfilling. The people we’ve interacted with here in Santiago have been some of the nicest we’ve encountered anywhere; I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

*The day after we arrived, we walked over to the monument to check it out, and laughed about the glass—there’s a ledge, surrounded by a waist-high glass wall, that we found sort of alarming. It would be all too easy to smash into it, especially in the dark. So when I peered through my binoculars, that carpet of shattered glass was not very surprising.

Take care,


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