03 December 2012

‘The thin country’


Cool artwork underground
That’s what Chile’s famous Nobel-prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda called his homeland and, though it certainly is geographically thin, its people are definitely not thin on sentiment or courage, nor are they, generally speaking, physically thin, which is understandable when you see some of the things they eat! But, first, some sightseeing ...

Coming from a non-Metro country and having lived in the totally-unsophisticated-when-it-comes-public-transport city of Cusco for 18 months, I admit to feeling just a little trepidacious when Chris suggested I use the local Metro to get to my first tourist destination on my own in Santiago.

But, armed with a magical plastic card that opened the gates to another world, and with Chris’s trusty handwritten instructions and his ‘Tourist Map, Santiago on Bus’ guide to the public transportation systems of Santiago, I set off – not into the wild blue yonder, but rather into the dimly lit depths of the underground.

Miraculously, I managed to navigate two Metro lines and a change of stations, and found my way in almost the blink of an eye to my destination, Cementerio General, Santiago’s main and very large cemetery. A strange destination, you might think, but cemeteries can be fascinating places and offer a real insight into local culture – you can learn a lot about the living from how they treat their dead.




It was Saturday and the cemetery was crowded, not just with the enormous numbers of deceased but also with an abundance of the living, come to pay their respects, to visit family and friends, to tend and tidy the graves of their loved ones, and to attend funerals, as well as with the workers who clean and maintain the graves and grounds.

There were two main types of grave – the frequently large and often opulent tombs, and the small oblong cells, stretched several rows long and high, like mini apartment blocks.




And what did I learn about Chileans from visiting their cemetery? They seem to have a genuine respect for the departed, who remain a part of their lives – I saw entire families gathered around graves, enjoying a little get-together and, no doubt, gossiping about the latest family news, almost as if the deceased was listening. Little ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Merry Christmas’ messages bore witness to visits by family at those special times and, in general, the graves were also very well cared for.

I learned that there is a huge gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, between the grand architecturally designed tombs of the wealthy and the stacked tomb blocks of the less well off.

I soon realised that Chileans love their quirky little gizmos as much as the next culture, with fake butterflies, flowers, teddy bears, buzzy bees and ladybirds, and various kinds of plastic wind-catchers featuring amongst the flowers adorning the graves.




I was reminded that florists do well out of death, in every country – the flower sellers’ stalls outside the cemetery gates were bursting with particularly lush and vibrant blooms.




I learned that the dollar comes first – on many ‘street’ corners within the cemetery, a place I would have thought commerce would be banned or at least considered disrespectful, there were people selling drinks and snacks for the living, as well as grave ornaments for the dead.

I also learned that Chileans, though perhaps less effusive than other Latin Americans, can be incredibly friendly and helpful. Two separate old men, both workers tending the graves, approached me, asking if I needed help, wanting to know where I was from when it was obvious I was a foreigner, and then offering information about the cemetery. Unfortunately, I couldn’t understand a lot of what they said, though one pointed me in the direction of the memorial to those lost during the terrible years of oppression, terror and death under General Pinochet’s regime. He explained that he had been 22 when it first started and had seen much bloodshed – he kept mimicking guns shooting and people dropping to the ground, and several times used the word amigos so I assume his friends were among those lost.




Amidst the thousands of deceased that the Cementerio General must contain, that memorial was the saddest spot for me. The reign of terror here in Chile began on 11 September 1973, when tanks rolled in to the streets of Santiago, marking the beginning of a US-funded and supported military coup to overthrow the left-wing socialist government of Salvador Allende – US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger infamously declared that the US should not stand by ‘and let a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its people’! Within a couple of years, Pinochet rose to head a dictatorship notorious for the torture, murder, persecution and oppression of hundreds of thousands of Chilean people, and this dark period in Chile’s history did not truly end until 10 March 1990, when a democratic government was once again elected to power. It was a sobering experience to sit and contemplate the thousands of names of the dead and missing who had suffered during that horrible time.
Chorrillanas

I needed cheering up and I was hungry – the two frequently go hand in hand for me! - and Chris had mentioned a restaurant immediately opposite the cemetery’s main entrance so I headed across there to check it out. It is called El Quita Penas, which means remove hardships or remove suffering! Apparently, that’s what happens when you drink too much of the local alcohol. It most certainly does not happen when you eat too much of the local food – in fact, the opposite would happen: your suffering (from bloat and/or indigestion) could quickly increase, your cholesterol levels would almost certainly soar to alarming heights and you could quite easily end up in one of the graves across the street. Maybe the restaurant owner has shares in the cemetery!

I ate little, drank nothing but Pepsi, and escaped with my health intact!