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The International Writers Magazine
: Dermot Sullivan in Chile

Santiago Diary '05

Here I am again in Santiago. The weather is strange here at the moment. The mornings will be overcast but then the sun comes out and beats down in the high thirties Celsius and bounces of the pavement back at you. It’s a direct heat from sunlight, not when we have the muggy heat of the two weeks of what we call summer in England.

It rained the other day and the placed cooled down for a bit. I watched Ireland play France in the rugby on the telly the other day. It was at Lansdowne Road and I really missed the feeling of Spring back in England or Ireland. It may be cold, but the sun is low in the sky and warms your face and you can feel the freshness of it all. Anyhow, that feeling didn’t last too long as France walloped Ireland and I was pissed off.

I have been travelling around since I wrote last. I have been to Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and briefly into Paraguay (but I’m not really counting that as it was just over the border). Sadly now I’m back in Santiago trying to adjust and make money.

I left home on the 12th January and flew to Buenos Aires, stopping off at São Paulo (sadly there was no opportunity to get out and have a look around. We circled around São Paulo a few times and I could see how it was a giant concrete mega-city). I flew to Buenos Aires this time as it was about £300 more to fly directly to Santiago de Chile. If you get the bus to Santiago though it can cost about £40, though it takes a hell of lot longer! It takes two hours to fly, but a day to go by land.

My first introduction to B.A. was five hours or so waiting for my bus. I’d been on the go for over 24 hours and I wasn’t in the mood of sight-seeing. Instead I went shopping! Argentina is unbelievably cheap! I know that people fly to New York for shopping but I think that they would get a better bargain if they went to Buenos Aires. I bought a black pair of trainers and a pair of black leather shoes (leather goods are super cheap in Argentina) and in total for both it was around £25! The only hassle was trying to find my size, which takes a bit of time. The South American man tends to be rather shorter than the European.

Buenos Aires bus station is really dodgy. It’s full of thieves who try to run off with gringos’ bags. There are security guards who patrol with pistols in their holsters but they should really turn their guns on the porters. It is impossible to find a trolley by yourself as the porters control the whole thing like a mini-Mafia. There’s one price for the locals and a ridiculously over-inflated one for gringos like me. When you have three bags to carry then you don’t have too much of a choice but to pay up.

I was unable to get a direct bus to Santiago so had to go via Mendoza. The bus broke down outside Mendoza but we were only delayed by about 90 minutes (which is not so long in the grand scheme of things). I then took what is known as a colectivo which is like a shared taxi and/or minibus. It was driven by a fool, so it took nine hours to get Santiago (instead of the normal five). Anyhow, I had crossed the Andes and was back in Chile. I arrived back in my flat on the night of 14th January.

One thing that I noted about the Argies is that they’re really bloody touchy-feely. I sat next to a young boy on the way down from London and he kept touching me everytime I spoke. When in Mendoza if I spoke to someone for more than five minutes they would start touching me too! It’s something I could do without, to be honest.

True to form as soon as returned to Santiago I fell ill. Not as ill as I was last year (thank God) but certainly not up for travelling. I was also plagued with doubts about what on earth I was doing in Chile for a second year. Then I did probably one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done. Despite my easy-going attitude, I am quite an intolerant person. I’m intolerant of people’s stupidity and things that are totally avoidable (be it people showing down to look at accident on the other side of the road or Third World poverty – for me they’re all avoidable). It hits me especially hard when then I do something stupid … I stuck my passport in the washing machine. It was tucked away safely in a pocket in a shirt. Some may argue my illness as an excuse – but I don’t. I had entered on my Irish passport and the spin-cycle obliterated it. I had to delay my travels (which in all honesty I needed to do) and go to Policia Nacional and have a new entry stamp issued to me … this bureaucratic procedures in Latin American can take forever … it was really dumb of me …

To be honest, I felt very strange travelling on an Irish passport. It’s not something I’ve done since I was under sixteen and travelling with my parents. Since I’ve been in Chile I’ve felt extremely English. It was odd then returning home in December and feeling so out of synch … I felt like even more of a misfit than I would feel normally! It was then very strange ‘to be Irish’ all of a sudden. I never subscribed to that somewhat fascistic belief that blood determines nationality. Being Irish in England is rather odd thing – it’s very private and is kept within the home. It’s not likeYanks who are ‘professionally’ Irish. I would never go around and proclaim my Irishness as I’m so blatantly English, especially when I’m abroad and I seem to conform to so many of Johnny Foreigner’s preconceptions of what an Englishman should be. Presenting an Irish passport at customs felt very odd indeed. What is a nationality though but a label? Who needs them? After all, wasn’t it Kierkegaard who said: ‘You label me, you negate me’? Maybe I am to be reborn as something else. Maybe my washing machine is like a latter-day John The Baptist? Anyhow, enough with my existential observations on life! My travels were only delayed by a few days.

Sunday 23.1.05:
Morning: Telephone my Mother (like a good boy) and instruct her that I may be incommunicado for the duration of my travels (as it turns out later the world is full of internet cafés).
Afternoon: Get the bus to Buenos Aires. I happen to sit next to an Argentinean called Santiago who works in Santiago. This amuses me. The air-conditioning is not working in the bus. This does not amuse me. There are many screaming kids too and old women who talk loudly. One of the small screaming kids vomits on his grandma … twice … this does amuse me. The toilet starts to smell bad. This does not amuse me.
Evening: Cross into Argentina. Have to travel on my British passport again, which somehow seems more natural. The bus pulls over for a bite to eat outside of Mendoza and I get to chat with Santiago. He tells me that when the Argie peso collapsed that they stopped labelling products in supermarkets as nobody knew what anything cost anymore. How scary … I hope nothing like that ever happens in England.
Monday 24.1.05:
Morning: Wake up as we are approaching Gran Buenos Aires. It has to be noted that Chile really does have more attractive countryside. Argentina is just flat and green and nothing more. I haven’t been to Patagonia, but I’ve been told that it’s flat and uninteresting.
I arrive in Buenos Aires’ main bus terminal. There I am greeted by a selection of low-lives trying to offer me accommodation. I beat a hasty retreat and bump into a Canadian fellow who takes me to a place has been staying. It’s a really lovely hostel and it only costs £4 a night!
Afternoon: Wash and have a brief walk around. I don’t get very far but I like what I see. My hostel is down the road from Plaza de Mayo.
Evening: Hook up with some Irish guys, some of whom play hurling for Dublin (they were injured and were making the most of their time off). Go out for a few drinks. Get back late (or early, depending on your point of view). All the nightclubs are shut in Buenos Aires due to the fire that took place just before New Year’s Eve last year. It killed 180 people, most of them teenagers. In true South American style the fire exits had been shut.
Tuesday 25.1.05:
Morning: Wake up late. Discover the hostel has no room from Thursday night onwards as the weekend in will be busy due to a free Fatboy Slim concert. Decide to go over the River Plate to Uruguay.
Afternoon: Buy a ticket to Uruguay. Visit the famous cemetery in Recoleta. It’s like a city of tombs and mausolea which house the great and good of Buenos Aires. If you come from an upper-class family in B.A. then you simply ‘must’ be buried there. The place is huge. Eva Peron is buried there as well.
Evening: Return to the hostel, where I am told that they do have room for me for the weekend after all! Too late as I have the tickets for Montevideo. In the hostel they have tango lessons, but that’s not my cup of tea.
Wednesday 26.1.05:
Morning: Get up early, explore the city. Throughout my time though in B.A. I never leave Buenos Aires proper. Gran (or Greater) Buenos Aires is a massive sprawl that adds another 10 million people to the total population.
Afternoon: I walk out by the river and then down to the Irish embassy to pick up a form to apply for a new passport. I do some more exploring of the Recoleta area, which bizarrely has red telephone boxes and red postboxes in an exact replica of England.
Evening: Eat well, but then I have been doing that everyday. I eat cheaply too. In Buenos Aires you can have a steak meal for about £3! Go to bed early as I have to get up early to go to Montevideo.
Thursday 27.1.05:
Morning: Wake up and yesterday’s pair of underpants are missing. No doubt some thieving Argie is wearing. I never buy underwear abroad though. I mourn as they were a nice pair of Christmas boxer shorts from my mother. Go to the ferry terminal on the river and get the boat to Montevideo. It takes three hours to reach its destination. Meet a Swiss girl on the boat.
Afternoon: Find a hotel with the Swiss girl. Have a brief look around Montevideo. I fear it doesn’t have much to offer and is strangely empty for a capital city. Its buildings are also extremely ugly. They are mostly built in the ghastly 1960s/70s modernistic style in grey concrete.
Evening: Find an excellent restaurant with the Swiss girl. We eat paella and it costs practically nothing. I realise that the Swiss woman is not the world’s best conversationalist. Unfortunate.
Friday 28.1.05:
Morning: Sleep late. Go and have a late lunch with the Swiss girl. Make plans for the next day.
Afternoon: Taxis are practically as cheap in Montevideo as using the bus. However, after being driven at high speed by a maniac I don’t feel to well. Go to the main station and buy a ticket to Punta del Este for the next day and a ticket for Buenos Aires for the day after. Punta del Este is a famed beach resort on the Atlantic coast. After this I head back to the hotel, and after being thrown around in the taxi again, engage in a bout of vigorous projectile vomiting.
Evening: Go and eat a huge steak for not much money … there’s not much else to do in Uruguay!
Saturday: 29.1.05:
Morning: Catch bus to Punta del Este. Manage to somehow lose the Swiss girl at whilst changing buses. We were due to part in Punta del Este anyway but I feel rude for not saying goodbye.
Afternoon: Arrive in Punta del Este. South Americans will tell you that it’s like their equivalent of Ibiza. Rubbish! It’s totally boring! It only comes to life between 2 and 5 in the morning. It’s full of inhabitants from Buenos Aires who are there to pose. It also costs a hell of lot more than the rest of Uruguay. What a waste of time. At least I get to see the South Atlantic.
Evening: Go back to Montevideo. Plan my escape … watch programmes about the 60th Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on the television in my room
Sunday: 30.1.05:
Morning: Pay up at the hotel. Walk around Montevideo. There are seemingly very few people who live in the city, despite a population of 1.3 million. The streets have been practically empty since I arrived. I take photos of the ghost town and its ugly architecture. In fact, many of the buildings are empty and are collapsing. Montevideo certainly has seen better days. I take the long way towards the ferry port and have a look around.
Afternoon: Board the ferry and take the three hour trip towards Buenos Aires. I certainly appreciate the capital of Argentina a lot more now that I’ve seen how dull its neighbour is.
Uruguayans have an extremely good reputation in South America. They are known for being very warm and friendly. They also do fall victim to the various prejudices that other nations suffer. For example, the Peruvians and Bolivians don’t care for the Chileans much, and likewise. Chile and Argentina have a rivalry, as do Brazil and Argentina. If you ask a South American though they’ll generally tell you positive things about Uruguayans.
It’s true: they are very warm and friendly. It’s also a country that really suffered when the Argentine Peso collapsed. I discovered from the Swiss girl I was travelling with that Uruguay has very similar banking laws to Switzerland. The Argies, who are famed for their ‘taxophobia’ like their Italian brethren, used to keep all their dollars secretly stored in Montevideo. When the Argentinean peso collapsed the Argentines simply withdrew all their money from Uruguay. The Uruguayan economy therefore went down the toilet too. Montevideo is falling apart and the country is suffering a huge emigration problem as work is so scarce. I feel very sorry for them.
Argentineans like Uruguay because it is a bit of timewarp. The cars are old, the fashions are ridiculously old. You’ll often find horse and carts selling fruit and vegetables. People from Buenos Aires find their city stressful (it isn’t) and like to chill out in Uruguay.

An aside: the Uruguayans drink mate like the English drink tea! In one hand they carry the mate mug which is three-quarters full of the mate herb. In the other hand they carry a thermos of boiling water.
Evening: Return to the same hostel in Buenos Aries. Eat and sleep.
Well, that’s about it for now. I’ll write again after Easter. I wish you all a happy festive period. I’ll be unwinding with a copy of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion Of The Christ’ or something equally as tasteful on Chilean television. Whatever the hell I watch it’ll be sure to reinforce my atheism.

Next month: Read how Dermot gets on with his egomaniac brethren in Argentina! Read about his adventures with Colombians! Read how he goes north to Brazil! Read his ponderings on life! Read how he is reunited with his underpants! It’s all really interesting, honest!

© Dermot Sullivan March 2005

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