Within my first few hours in Santiago I found myself in the middle of cops hurling tear gas bombs at student protesters who were dodging, scattering, and regathering/
I stumbled across a large street fair blasting music and selling cheap goods and designer knock-offs/
I ate traditional sopapillas and drank fresh squeezed pomegranate juice made by beautiful old women with missing teeth, not uncommon among the poor and the old/
I walked by the presidential palace and by universities where the students had punk style with dyed hair, black jeans, and vintage Nike jackets/
and I finally landed in the heart of the city, Plaza de Armas, the center square from which the city was born.
The plaza is a melting pot that brings together Chileans of all walks of life. Men in tailored suits, women in high heels carrying gucci bags, shoeshiners, blind men singing for change, working class families on a break from shopping, comedians putting on shows, pastors preaching to the homeless sleeping on benches, teenagers holding hands, loners staring off into space, the occasional smell of marijuana in the air, a couple of prostitutes in brightly colored skirts, hipsters carrying Neruda and Kerouac in their hands, live bands and traditional Chilean dancers, and a Michael Jackson impersonator doing the moon walk.
A street photographer’s paradise.
As the sun set I drank a few glasses of Chilean wine, very good and very cheap, and watched the giant Andes mountains, covered in snow, glow pink until they faded into the night sky.
I had only planned to be in Santiago for a week. I ended up staying for two months. The generous people full of seductive warmth and joy seemed to not want me to leave. Each day brought a new surprise. I stayed in a neighborhood where beautiful old decaying buildings, once occupied by the city’s wealthy, have now been covered in mystical street art. Each day I’d wander a new direction until something unexpected caught my eye. And it always did.
On one afternoon, a few weeks in, I arrived as I always did to the Plaza de Armas and noticed some lingering tear gas in the air. I walked to the church and saw a beautiful young woman smiling and blowing kisses that were met with indifference by a line of police in riot gear. The police resembled storm troopers with round helmets and shields held up like forcefields to protect themselves from the crowd of laughing, chanting college students. Another young woman stepped up to the line of cops, smiling and tossing her blonde hair. With a tube of lipstick she drew a large red heart on the transparent shield of a young cop as he remained steadfastly unmoved, her gesture a call for unity and peace just weeks after the same police had students running for protection.
The truth is that Santiago is a deeply divided city. But while the country is marked by the lingering policies of its past and its present divides, it is also marked by an incredible resiliency and a determination to overcome and move forward in shared prosperity.