Yesterday evening, I snapped on my bright green helmet and took a bike ride that was supposed to be relaxing. As it turned out, it was everything but.
I began to feel disconcerted while riding south along the edge of Club Hípico, Santiago's monumental horse track. Block after block of stables whipped by on my right, their doors bolted shut. On the opposite side of the street, historic homes filed past, many marching back into narrow passageways. It was on this stretch of road that I noticed an elderly woman slowly approaching the bike path. When I passed, she looked at me fixedly and said, "Hola."
I returned her greeting and cycled on. As I sped forward, however, I couldn't help but feel unsettled by the exchange. I wasn't thrown off by being greeted by a stranger, an occurrence which--though not terribly common in Santiago--is not unheard of either. It was not what the woman had said, but how she had said it. No smile, no wave--just the most serious, sinister-sounding "hola" I'd ever heard. She might as well have said, "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here." It was eerie.
Things only got eerier from there. Street dogs--who had previously been nothing but cordial--chased after me, barking viciously. Many of the streets I rode down were virtually empty except for a few solitary people who looked up with penetrating stares. It was like the part in a horror movie in which an unsuspecting stranger arrives in a remote village which, unbeknown to him or her but no secret to the locals who look up with penetrating stares, is actually a terrestrial hell where mutants eat unsuspecting strangers. On one of these virtually abandoned streets, I got creepy looks from a group of men. When I came across them again after taking a spin around the block, one of them moved as if to block my path. Luckily, I was faster atop my two wheels, but not fast enough to escape their (once again) creepy comments.
The most disturbing episode of all occurred as I was pedaling down a relatively major street. As I passed a group of young people on the sidewalk, an argument broke out between them. I didn't pay much attention until I heard angry shouts erupt behind me and noticed that other people on the street were craning their necks to see what was going on. One family had even leaned out their front door to catch a glimpse.
When I gave into my rubber-necking instincts and turned around, I saw a teenage girl sprawled out on the sidewalk with a man kicking her in the head. I'm not kidding. No one else in the group seemed to be doing much to protect her other than shouting obscenities.
I motioned to the family that was watching from their door to call the police. At the same time, I pulled out my cell phone and prepared to dial myself. With my thumb poised over the keys, I looked back and saw that the girl who had been receiving the blows had gotten to her feet and was walking away. The man who had been kicking her was walking in the opposite direction. Shouted insults continued to fly, but apparently, the situation had--somehow--diffused itself.
I was in disbelief. The most disgusting part of all: When I looked back at the family of spectators, they were laughing. Because seeing a man kick a girl repeatedly in the head is wholesome comedy for the entire family.
So far this year, 12 women in Chile have been murdered by their husbands, boyfriends or exes. The most recent case of femicide, as these killings are referred to here, took place over the weekend in a town not far from Canela, were I just spent two weeks volunteering. A man stabbed his live-in girlfriend and their three-year-old daughter to death.
Last year, 62 femicides occurred in Chile. If women continue being murdered at the same rate as they have been so far this year, this number stands to increase in 2008. Based on the family's reaction to the beating I saw on the street, it's not hard to understand why. As long as relationship violence continues being viewed lightly, nothing is going to change.
Of course, violence against women isn't just Chile's problem. News reports in the United States are plastered with photos of women who have fallen victim to current or former partners. I had just never seen this horrifying type of violence up close until now.