The International Writers Magazine: South American Diary No
Dermot Sullivan on
two taboos - religion and politics
time I wrote about five of the six channels here showing old Hollywood
biblical films on Good Friday. That was nothing to the whole saga
of the Pope dying. There was seventy-two hours of non-stop: 'the
Pope is dying', followed by 'the Pope is even more dying', 'the
Pope is dead - the Pope is dead - the Pope is dead - stop the
world' and then 'we bring you live now to the Vatican where the
Pope is still dead'. My favourite was seeing a split screen of
two live feeds: one being people filing by the pope lying in state,
the other people praying live in the cathedral in Santiago.
El Papa came here
in 1987 and it has been shown again and again on the telly as if it
was the most important thing to happen since God spoke to Moses. Actually,
when he was speaking then some losers stood up and threw rocks at the
stage. The Church (no friend of the Pinochet regime) had cut a deal
that if there was any hassle when he was there they would deal with
it themselves. If it were too much to handle then they would call in
the police. Anyhow, when those people started throwing rocks the police
weighed in immediately with tear gas, truncheons and water cannon, beating
anyone and everyone - including priests. There was chaos for about thirty
minutes as the Pope looked on in despair. At the end he stood up and
shouted: 'El amor es más fuerte' - love is stronger. These are
now the words that replayed again and again on Chilean television. Perhaps
it would have been more appropriate to show the Pope's other message:
'Los pobres no puedan esperar' - the poor can't wait. That though ties
in with the Chilean class system, something I'll mention later.
Being here in South America has really sharpened my atheism. The Catholic
Church has hobbled this country so much. The church here is like the
church back in Ireland in the 1950s but in a bad mood. Chile is easily
the most conservative country in the Western World. Like so much is
Chile though, there is a split. This is probably the most schizophrenic
country on Earth. Many people dont give a damn about the church
and its conventions (more and more people live together before marriage,
for example). As with the rest of the world, society here is increasingly
secularised. On the other extreme Opus Dei, otherwise known as the association
of Catholic right-wing fanatics, is probably the strongest here than
anywhere else in the world. The right-wing candidate in this years
presidential elections is a member. If that guy wins in December then
Chile is quite frankly going to hell!
Despite criticism that I can be pessimistic and cynical, I always try
to put a positive spin on a situation. I have never written a missive
entitled 'The Things I Hate About Chile'. I tend to laugh at most situations,
like the fact that Santiago has no drainage system. This is a First
World city, yet when it rains for five minutes the streets are flooded!
If that sort of stupidity doesn't make you laugh then nothing will.
An old headmaster once read out a story in an assembly. I was about
ten at the time so I can't remember it exactly. I'll have to paraphrase
it: Socrates (for example) was sitting out under tree on the road leading
into Athens. Some traveller walked by, saw him and said 'Hello, I am
from Thessalonica and I'm travelling to your town of Athens. Could you
tell me what it's like, please?'. Socrates, being a wise dude, asked
him: 'Well, what's Thessalonica like?' and the traveller replied 'Mate,
Thessalonica totally rocks! All the people are super-cool and all the
women are really pretty. People sing and dance in the streets'. Socrates
replied that he would find people in Athens exactly the same and so
the traveller went merrily on his way.
Five minutes later some other traveller showed up, interrupting Socrates
from his thinking. This traveller said 'Hello, I am from Thessalonica
and I'm travelling to your town of Athens. Could you tell me what it's
like, please?'. Socrates again asked what the traveller felt Thessalonica
was like, but this traveller said 'I'm sorry I have to tell you that
Thessalonica is ghastly, never will you find such a wretched hive of
scum and villainy, and the people are disgusting'. Socrates said 'I'm
sorry, old chum, but you'll find that Athenians are exactly the same'.
The traveller went sadly on his way.
Now, when I heard this story I didn't really get it. It was only when
I was older that I understood and bored people with its message. I've
tried to bear it in mind when I've had complaints about something. I
try to either shut up or laugh about it (not always successfully), but
recently there have been a spate of things that have really pissed me
off (I realise that nobody wants to read me bitching about this and
that. If you feel that way then skip toward the end of this epic piece
and you can read about me travelling).
There have always been some things that have wound me up: the terrible
pollution, the psychotic bus-drivers, the poverty, the dreadful state
of education, the classism
and anything else that is just unnecessary.
Actually, I never knew what the word 'classism' meant until I came to
Chile. Britain is known for having a class system but it's nothing compared
to how it is in Chile. Think of Britain maybe one hundred years ago
in the past but with lots of class-hate. If you're born poor here then
you're screwed for life and the rich will expect you to be grateful
for it. The ruling-class pay lip-service to paternalism but do very
little and hate to hear anything that would challenge this status quo
(especially from a priest telling them that it would be easier for a
camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven).
Im not at all saying that the poor here are saints. Generally,
the poor here really hate those with money. The middle-class is so small
that it barely merits a mention. The rigidity of the class system is
just very hard for me to take. Chile has the second worst distribution
of wealth in South America (after Brazil).
One of the ways that the division manifests itself is in the language.
Chilean Spanish is radically different to the other Spanishes spoken
around the world. In England, the idea behind rhyming slang hundreds
of years ago was to be able to outwit eavesdroppers and the police.
Well, when many Santiaguinos speak its like rhyming slang spoken
with a closed mouth! They also speak very fast and dont bother
to annunciate anything. A lot of the words have a coded meaning, just
like rhyming slang back home. The words here used to describe someone
from the upper-classes have two or three hidden meanings. I actually
find the language here fascinating though it can be very hard work to
understand people. Speaking to a gringo is a rarity so they have concept
of how to modify their language (like slowing down). Its the very
strange that a city of five million people which is the financial heart
of South America can be the very antithesis of cosmopolitan. Still,
I seem to be able to make myself understood nowadays if not understanding
Many people write to me and they seem to have an impression that I'm
on some tropical beach somewhere. That's pretty far from the truth.
For all of Chile's positives, there are some pretty whopping negatives
as well. Santiago is pretty dull as cities go and it's something like
the third most polluted city on earth. Children have fifty per cent
less lung capacity here than those outside of Santiago. The natural
landscape in Chile is great, but its cities are best avoided. Argentina
is comparison is mostly flat and boring (I haven't been to Patagonia
yet so I can't comment) but its cities are super.
The health system leaves something to be desired. You have to pay for
the ambulance. If you cant afford it then you have to rely on
the one sent by the state which may show up after forty-five minutes,
by which time youd probably dead. One of those psycho bus drivers
ploughed into a street kiosk outside of my flatmates internet
café. Fortunately the kiosk-owner survived but he was left lying
in a pool of his own blood whilst the ambulance took forever to show
up. Its somewhat annoying when five per cent of all the copper
revenue goes directly to the military to buy new weapons every year.
What the hell do they do with the old weapons? Its not as theyve
been to war in decades, unless you count killing thousands of your own
I had some very bad experiences recently with a Chilean school. I originally
came here with an aim to teach children. At every level I have found
obstacles prohibiting me from doing it. The situation is so bad here
that every foreign recruiting agency is thinking of pulling out by the
end of 2005. It's not just incompetence or bureaucracy on the part of
the Chileans, the an element of what can only be called 'cheating' involved
as well. I spoke to a Canadian agency who are one of the primary recruiters
of teachers to send to Chile. Twelve out of the eighteen schools who
they supplied with native English speakers have not paid them their
money. Who wants to do business with someone who doesn't pay their bills?
Chile really wants to set a system here for English that they have in
Japan. The Japanese government has for many years ran a scheme called
JET (Japan English Teachers
to be best of my knowledge). Native
speakers (if they pass the interview), are sent around Japan, paid about
£16,000 and often have subsidised accommodation. In fact, I was
offered a similar job in South Korea just the other day. Chile has promised
to put a native speaker in every Chilean school by 2007. I'll believe
it when I see it. Most English teachers in Chilean schools have little
or no English and the unions arent really keen on their (unskilled)
workers being forced out.
Three friends and I were going to work in Chilean school very recently.
We would be teaching young children. It's something the three of us
really wanted to do. I really like Chilean kids. They tend to have a
lot more spark than their parents do. It fills me with hope for this
country. Anyhow, we were promised a wage of about £400 a week.
It was 44 hours a week, ten thousand pesos an hour. That should work
out at $440,000 a week to any right thinking person. The job would have
been the rare combination of both financially and professionally rewarding.
However, our future employers tried to pull a fast one on us. Luckily
I had neither started working for them nor chucked in my old job, unlike
my chums. We were told that we would only get $440,000 pesos a month
they even had the audacity to say please dont
think that we tricked you
no, I thought, you just lied.
I realise that one cannot label Chileans as cheats or tricksters. In
fact, Chileans in general tend to be as straight as a die: 90% of the
time if something is written on a document then Chileans will adhere
to it down to the letter. They are also one of the most hospitable people
on Earth. The Chileans I am friends with are outstanding people. Yet
in the Chilean culture there exists a bizarre dichotomy where people
will try to rip you off. It always seems the more outrageous as youre
are expecting them to be by the book.
In Chile I will be often asked in the street for money, not just by
the obvious beggars but by people who are dressed up like businessmen
or respectable housewives. They will try to tell me that they left their
bus fare at home or some rubbish (you will often see the same the same
person again and again doing it). They will use a whiny pathetic voice
to do it
Im not sure why, it must make some people feel
guilty and cough up cash. Im sorry to have to say that there is
a culture of trying to trick people in Chile. People will often tell
you anything rather than they admit that they dont know the answer.
The sad thing is that people will just lie to you to get whatever they
want. Im sure that its the same all other the world and
I should point out that its only a minority of people here in
it just seems to be a very large minority.
When we were dealing with that school and telling them that we wanted
the money that was promised they had the audacity to wheel out the head
of the organisation that would pay us. It is a charitable organisation
that seems to pay very large wages to its bosses and nowhere near as
much to its schools. The boss then started using the whiny voice of
the beggar, saying oh, our schools are so poor, we are so poor
blah blah blah and as I looked at this pathetic excuse
of a person I had a moment of clarity. I wondered not only why I was
bothering to talk to this woman, but what on Earth I was doing in Chile.
If it hadnt been for my friends in the room at that moment I would
have stood up and walked up out of the room. If it wasnt for the
fact my parents and my brother are coming in July to visit me I would
have probably been on the first plane out of Santiago and back home.
Im not sure exactly why it bothered me so much and produced such
a violence of emotion in me. It has become to clear to me that many
people in this country really would rather the poor stay uneducated,
even if they only feel this on a subconscious level. The money on offer
became less about a wage and more about respect. Not just respect for
me but respect for the task in hand. The only way that this country
will lift itself up is through education. Chile venerates its Nobel
Prize winning poetess Gabriela Mistral. As well as writing she was an
educationalist. It seems that just as Chileans pay lip-service to the
message of the church here and do nothing about it, the same can be
said for Mistrals ideals. One wonders where all the money from
that charitable organisation is spent. We can only speculate. The people
who run it though seem to live in the very big houses in the wealthy
end of Santiago whilst the school itself doesnt have enough money
for textbooks or the basic essentials.
It would seem that my days in Chile are somewhat numbered. I am back
in my old job (which I fortunately never left). I felt a lot better
about myself once I told that organisation to get lost (though I did
it far too politely). I am open to anything good that shows up over
the next year, be it work at home post-July or something here from July
to December. Next year I plan to go to Japan anyway. I also cut all
my hair off for my interview but it was irritating me long. Now I feel
Im sorry for writing such a depressing piece. In future I will
write only happy things. If you read below you can read about the end
of my travels. They were good times.
Florianopolis - Brazil
Morning: Still travelling. Brazil is so huge a country that it takes
days to cover by land what seems like such a small distance on a map.
Try to make conversation with my fellow passengers in Spanish. I find
it hard to speak Spanish to the Colombian travelling chums as their
English is so good. There is so much I want to express that I dont
have the vocabulary for in Spanish. Its easier to use English
for all. If I know that the person cannot speak English at all then
we all have to make do with my Spanish.
Afternoon: Arrive in Florianópolis. I realise that maybe Brazil
isnt the safest place in the world as there are men with guns
guarding the cash machines in the bus station. Discover that none of
the cash machines accept my card
anywhere in the town. In fact,
most of the town is closed up for the final night of Mardis Gras. Go
to stay in a campsite with the Colombians as it is really cheap. We
dont stay in Florianópolis but in Ilha de Santa Catarina
which is nearby. We are near a big sandy beach.
Evening: Meet a Londoner who gives off the unwholesome air of a pimp.
He is able to converse with the Colombian chap in the local lingo of
Bogotá. It turns out that used to be involved in the drugs trade
and did four years in prison in Cadiz in Spain. Now he lives in some
sort of a ménage á trois with two Brazilian girls and
runs an illegal bar. Despite Brazils reputation for being unsafe
it is interesting that it with an Englishman I feel the most uncomfortable
during my travels. Thankfully, today is the last day before Lent, therefore
its Mardis Gras! Hooooray! We find a float in a local barrio and
follow it down to the beach with all the other Brazilians. Everyone
dances and is happy. Next time Ill have to go to one of the bigger
ones in Rio or Salvador. This is a local one and everyone seems tired
out of a week or dancing.
Morning: Do some shopping for food. Fortunately my credit card works
in shops, otherwise I would have some serious problems.
Afternoon: Go to the beach. Remember that I hate sand. Its just
so wrong! It gets everywhere and sticks to you. Nevertheless I go for
a swim in the Atlantic. I smother myself in sun cream, though I dont
actually realise that its being washed off in the sea. I feel
myself burning and go home, trying to find a cash machine en route that
works (and failing).
Evening: Start to turn red. Have some aftersun applied by Colombian
Professional Dancer. Privately fret that there is nowhere around where
I can take money out. I have big problems if this is the case.
Morning: Wake up and I am even redder. Have aftersun applied by Colombian
Professional Dancer. Get the bus to Florianópolis to find a cash
machine. Finally I find an HSBC bank that accepts my card. Should anyone
go to Brazil this seems to the only bank whose machines take British
credit cards. I feel good again with a wad of cash in my pocket.
Afternoon: E-mail my family to tell them that I havent been murdered
in a favela or been kidnapped by the Colombians. Go and have a meal
to celebrate having money again. Meet a singer from an American band
(which will remain nameless). Musically they are very bland. We have
a very bizarre conversation where she tells me that she finds the White
Cliffs of Dover a very spiritual place and the native
music (of Dover) very powerful. Apparently her band had passed
through Dover when they toured Europe. She also genuinely believed that
the reason children disappeared in Belgium due to UFO abductions. One
can draw ones own conclusions from that. It also raises a smile
when a black American tells you that they are, in fact, Irish.
Evening: It takes me so long to get back to the campsite that my Colombian
travelling companions fear that I have strayed into a favela and have
been murdered. Everyone is the campsite freaks out when they see my
torso I have become even redder! Have aftersun applied by the
Colombian Professional Dancer. Wash my clothes on an old-fashioned scrubbing
board and leave them out on the washing line overnight. Have an uncomfortable
nights sleep due the sunburn.
Morning: Get up and I am still very red. Have aftersun applied by the
Colombian Professional Dancer. Go to the washing line and find that
my clothes stink more than before I washed them
also some gobshite
has stolen two pairs of my socks. They were new for Christmas and comfy
and now some pig has made of with them. I mourn my underwear:
A Haiku To My Stolen Socks by Dermot Sullivan
You may walk in some
Other mans shoes but you will
Never be their socks.
I take small consolation that the socks stink to high heaven, but it
still hurts me so. We all pack up our tents and leave. I have agreed
head home via Uruguay and spend a few days more with my Colombian chums.
My birthday is Sunday and I dont fancy spending it alone on a
bus that probably stinks of piss. We head toward Florianópolis.
Afternoon: My sunburn really hurts when I carry my backpack. I am very
irritable. We get the bus to a place called Chuy which is bestraddles
the border with Brazil. To be honest, I havent a bloody clue where
Im going because Ive let the Colombians make all the decisions.
Evening: Meet two American girls on the bus. Big mistake.
Morning: Arrive in Chuy at five in the morning. Everything is shut and
its freezing. All five of us sleep in area inside a bank where
they keep the cash machines. The amazing thing is that we all sleep
really well! Once the town comes to life we change money and buy tickets
for a really remote place called Punta del Diablo. We then get to know
our new American friends. I make the mistake of thinking
that theyre good company because one of the girls has her birthday
on the same day as me (anyone who is born in February is automatically
cool. Anyone who is born on my birthday is very cool. My
brothers is the 17th February a cool date. If you are born
in between these dates are very cool. If you are born on my sisters
birthday, the 9th January, you are cool. People who are born in January
or March are cool because they really wanted to be born in February,
like me. If you are born in August you are cool because it is exactly
six months between the last February and the next one
just occurred to me that Im in need of psychiatric help). After
our chat I discover the worst toilet in Uruguay. Its some sort
of thing where you have to squat
just wrong! I have a look around
Chuy which is really hardcore gaucho territory. Theyre all out
on their horses and drinking mate. Theyre very friendly and raise
their hats when they pass you. After this we go to Punta del Diablo.
Afternoon: Arrive in Punta del Diablo. Not many people come to this
part of the world, save a few Uruguayan and Argentinean holidaymakers.
Its very isolated. Many people still seem to get around on horseback!
It is on a peninsula and so is surrounded by the Atlantic. Its
also very windy. We find a cabin for $5 each to rent. My body is now
bright pink from the sunburn an improvement from bright red.
The Americans look at me piteously. I am then rubbed down with aftersun
by the Colombian Professional Dancer.
Evening: Go out and find something to eat. It rains heavily. Keep an
eye on my watch for my approaching birthday. Find a hut where some Uruguayan
chap is playing electric guitar. There is a stronger African influence
in Uruguay compared to Argentina. Some Candombé drummers come
in and join him. Candombé is the rhythm played usually by black
people in Uruguay. The Uruguayans go crazy and start dancing. The Colombians
are in their element and put me to shame again. Their dancing ability
is quite intimidating. So it goes: I am twenty-eight
Morning: Get up in a leisurely fashion. It is my birthday after all!
Buy ticket to Montevideo for tomorrow. It only costs me £2 to
cross the country to reach the capital. I need to get back to Santiago
and sort out my work for the year. I shall be sad to leave the Colombians.
Afternoon: Go to the beach. I remain covered up as so not kill myself
with sunburn. Sand gets everywhere. Try to call home and discover the
phones are down throughout the entire region (this includes internet).
I feel terribly cut off. After two weeks or so of travelling with her
brother and me, the Colombian Professional Dancer spends her entire
time talking about female crap with the two Yank birds. The Colombian
brother and I gnash our teeth in despair. Its my birthday and
everybody should talk about what I want to talk about! I also feel bad
about not being able to speak to my family. I console myself by eating
Evening: Still cant call home. I am sad. The Colombians and Yanks
sing happy birthday to me (and the birthday Yank bird) and present me
with some funny presents and an alfajor with a candle in it. This makes
me happier. Go and eat with everyone. I am served bad food
everyone elses is nice so I dont complain. We all go dancing.
The girls disappear to do girly stuff. They will never see my amazing
dance moves. The Colombian brother marvels at my jive-like ability.
After much grooving, we all go to bed. I rely on the Americans and their
alarm clock to wake me up.
Morning: The Yanks alarm doesnt go off in time. I am pulled
out of bed by the Colombian Professional Dancer who wakes up in a panic
and I collapse to the floor. Alcohol and early mornings do not a good
combination make. I have five minutes to pack all my things and get
to the bus station. I simply climb into bed. The Yank Birds bus
leaves later than mine so they of course depart with no hassle. Adios.
Afternoon: After a nice sleep we move to a different cabin, this time
for three people but still only $5 each. I am able to call home so I
speak to my parents. I am happy. I go to the beach with the Colombians
but keep my top on. Buy ticket for Montevideo for tomorrow morning.
Evening: Go out for dinner with the Colombians. It is our last night
together. Go to bed early.
Morning: Wake up early. Take the bus to Montevideo. Bid farewell to
the South Atlantic.
Afternoon: Arrive in Montevideo. Buy ticket for Colonia on the far west
of Uruguay. Buy lunch for the Colombians as a goodbye-present. We part
and I am sad. Take the bus to Colonia.
Evening: Arrive in Colonia. Realise that Ive had enough of Uruguay
and walk to the ferry port. Take boat to Buenos Aires. It should take
only an hour but it takes three. Arrive in Buenos Aires very late. The
ticket offices for the buses are all shut. I will have to wait in the
bus station overnight. I have a stash of dollars hidden on me but no
place will take them. Have to find a cash machine to take out money
Morning: Am awake all night at Buenos Aires main bus station. At about
three in the morning there are some really strange people about. I suppose
thats the same everywhere in the world. I meet a Peruvian girl
and her male travelling companion who is fast asleep. Their money had
been stolen in their hostel and they have to wait for her mother to
wire money. The banks wont open until the morning and they have
no place to go. I buy them sandwiches as they dont even have money
for food. There is no direct bus available to Santiago so I have to
go as far as Mendoza. I leave the fabulous Buenos Aires at about six
in the morning and fall fast asleep in my chair.
Afternoon: Wake up when the bus stops for lunch. Go back to sleep again.
Evening: Arrive in Mendoza just before midnight. Find a bus to Santiago
thats leaving in fifteen minutes. Hooray!
Morning: Sleep only interrupted to pass the border into Chile. Chat
to an Argie fellow theyre great conversationalists and
actually make allowances for the fact that Spanish isnt your first
language. Arrive in at 07:00 hrs and head back to my flat. Call my brother
(he is 21 today). I weigh myself. I am now 80 kilos. I have lost ten
Amazingly I have been able to keep the weight off! Thats it for
now. Ill write happy things soon!
© Dermot Sullivan April 18th 2005
Pollution in Santiago Recorded April 26th 2005
Santiago 7.30 Am
Santiago 10.30 am
Year in Santiago
Dermot Sullivan's Chile Diary
Gringo - Diary Entry 2
From Santiago No 3
Diary No 4
Diary No 5
The Naruda House
Dermot Sullivan No 6
Week in Bolvia:
Dermot Sullivan's Diary No.7
No 8: Mendoza
Diary No 9
North & South
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