Santiago - Valparaiso, Chile
08.11.2011 - 11.12.2011 20 °C
Crashing into Chile across the Andes, three things are clear: customs are shit-hot and they're not looking for bombs but contraband fruit and veg, it takes us four hours to clear the sniffer dogs; Chile is very much in the Consumer Society, you can get what you want to eat and there is 'customer service'; and the navy - The Armada - in a pivotal part of Chilean society.
This is not surprising really as Chile is a long thin country with a coastline that stretches from Peru to the Antarctic, (including the bit they nicked off Bolivia in The Pacific War). Every seaside place I visit has at least one military grey vessel waiting to muster at a moment's notice...There is no love lost lost between Bolivians and Peruvians, for example, fairly regularly I was reminded about how arrogant the 'wealthy' Chileans. And let's not start on the Argentine-Chile relationship.
Santiago has a bohemian quarter and on my first evening I'm at once seduced by the micro brewery and restaurant menus but also sad that the thrill of trying to find cheese for sale in the shops will be a distant memory.
I'm not sure if I find trouble, if trouble finds me or there's just lots of trouble, but on my first morning in Santiago I was loitering in the main square wondering why all the news crews where there when a black sedan pulls up beside me and slick looking man gets out of the opened door. Immediately, every news crew in the square piles into the 4 square metres that the mayor and I are standing in. Squeezed between City Hall and the car I whip out my camera and start to film. But unlike the UK, the reporters ask polite and measured questions, taking their turn while politely jostling for position.
They filed into City Hall following the mayor and I asked the policeman who the man was and why the media was there, "the students are not happy", he replied in the biggest under statement of my trip. Of course, I'd read about the unrest/riots/protests over the last few months and that morning there had been a student protest in the square. All over and done with by 9am: Chilean students must have different sleep patterns to the British.
Valparaiso, a few hours away on the coast, houses the navy headquarters and is an important shipping port. Its sun has set a bit since the Panama canal opened and shipping took the short cut from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but the shipping containers still dominate the sea front.
General Pinochet came to power in a coup d'etat 1973 when his forces overthrew a democratically elected socialist government. One of his reforms was to commission a new congress building in Valparaiso, moving Congress from Santiago. The incredibly expensive building is a massive monolithic square with an empty middle - a perfect example of facistic architecture towering over downtown Valparaiso.
It was a meeting of Congress a couple of days later on November 10th to discuss the funding of higher eduction when I next ran into trouble. There had been leaflets the day before asking people to meet in the main square and that morning I couldn't get to the bus station for tooled up riot police, barracades and alsation dogs. I didn't think too much about it as I wanted to find and experience the beauty of Vaparaiso's UNESCO World Heritage sites. But the town isn't that big and in the early afternoon I saw a cocophony of flags and banners, heard shouting and shots, and saw water cannon. A noxious gas hit the back of my throat, my eyes and nose began to itch and not surprisingly, I turned round and walked the other way.
The local paper reported that it was a peaceful protest until some people tried to get close to the congress building. Check out the photos of the march in the Multimedia section to see how it descended into a running battle. (For background, here is Wikipedia's take on things). Water cannon and rubber bullets sure puts the British Kettling Technique into perspective...