Monday, June 16, 2008

Adventure on wheels

I'm rushing to finish up an assignment for my photography class (we're publishing a magazine soon!), so I don't have time to write anything new and original. Here's a feature-like article I wrote for the paper last week, though:


I find myself defending Santiago a lot. Rarely a weekend goes by in which I do not end up arguing with someone—whether a fellow foreigner or a native-born santiaguino—who is convinced that this city qualifies as the tenth circle of Dante’s hell. In the eyes of these individuals, pollution, crowded buses and urban crime are pitchforks jabbing the sides of the six million sinners condemned to this smog-choked cesspool.

Equally pervasive—especially among the foreign set—is a more tempered form of anti-Santiago sentiment. Sure, Santiago has its problems, just like any big city. The real problem with Chile’s capital, however, is that there’s simply not much to do. Santiago is merely a convenient place to recharge one’s batteries before setting off for the real Chile, a place bursting with glaciers, volcanoes and desert geysers.

I understand that city life is not for everyone, especially those who have traveled to these southern latitudes in search of a temporary respite from the stress of the daily grind. Nevertheless, I staunchly believe that Santiago does not deserve nearly the amount of insults hurled its way. On the contrary, I consider this city a fascinating, dynamic place with plenty to offer to those who take the time to look.

A few months back, I set out to prove it. The mission: traverse Santiago from one end to the other in search of adventure. The method: none other than that notorious accordion on wheels, a Transantiago bus. I resolved to travel along a single bus route, getting off to explore at various points along the way.

I spent quite some time poring over my colossal Transantiago map before identifying the perfect candidate: the 407. After setting off from Pudahuel, on the far western edge of the city, this bus makes its way eastward through seven urban boroughs before finally turning around in the shadow of the Andes in Las Condes.

My Chilean friend Leo, scandalized that a gringa would dare to undertake such an odyssey on her own, offered to accompany me. On the Saturday afternoon we’d designated for the expedition, we rendezvoused at the San Pablo Metro station—the western fingertip of Line 1—and continued seaward to the intersection where the 407 sets sail for destinations east.

The appointed spot was a traffic rotunda in the middle of—well, not quite nowhere, but almost. Vacant, desert-like lots baked under the summer sun, periodically traversed by the shadows of planes fleeing the nearby airport.

There were no houses nearby, at least not that we could see. We apparently had arrived at a point of transit, a kind of no-man’s land where travelers fresh off one bus stood and waited for another.

When I pulled out my camera to immortalize this first stop on my journey, a passing teenage girl asked sardonically, “What are you taking pictures of? The scenery?”

When the 407 pulled up, I put my camera away and boarded. The bus driver told us it would be a full four hours before he completed his route and returned to the rotunda to start over again.

Soon afterward, the empty lots outside the bus window had given way to streets lined with apartment blocks and small businesses. Leo and I figured that this was as good a place as any to get off and wander around.

As we ambled past a dusty park in this densely populated sector of Pudahuel, I was reminded of something Leo—who lives in the neighboring borough of Lo Prado—had said earlier: “The thing about these boroughs is that there are very few green spaces.”

In fact, a recent University of Chile study revealed that Pudahuel and other low-income Santiago boroughs are experiencing a kind of urban desertification in which concrete replaces vegetation, driving surface temperatures up.

Braving the afternoon heat were numerous street vendors, some of whom were selling used articles of clothing for as little as CP$100 (US$0.21) apiece. A pair of these vendors pointed us to a nearby open-air food market, where we savored roast chicken and the best fresh fruit juice either of us had ever tasted in Santiago.

Full-stomached—and short Leo, whom I had lost to band practice—I flagged down another 407 and continued my journey. Shortly thereafter, a guitar-toting musician boarded and began crooning a folk song whose lyrics included, “Women don’t love me because my poncho’s ripped. That can be fixed, girls.”

I got off the bus near Parque Quinta Normal, whose paddle boats and rental bicycle carts were in full Saturday swing. Also hopping was the grotto outside the Basílica de Lourdes, a church whose minaret-like belfry towers over the northern edge of the park. Dozens of vendors lined the sidewalk outside the entrance to the sanctuary, offering passersby everything from rosaries to popcorn.

Although the foundation of the current Lourdes basilica was laid in the late 1920s, the sanctuary itself dates from the end of the nineteenth century. The plaques that cover the stone walls are a testament to the shrine’s long history: some of these expressions of thanks to the Virgin Mary were engraved before the First World War.

Steady streams of water course from spouts embedded in the stone. That Saturday afternoon, modern-day pilgrims carried the liquid off in that most ceremonious of vessels, the empty soda bottle.

My next stop was central Santiago’s Paseo Ahumada, where street performers ranging from clowns to child martial artists were entertaining the crowds who had flocked downtown for an afternoon stroll.

Back on the 407 again, I watched the bustling commercial center of Providencia scroll past outside. As the bus continued into Las Condes, it became obvious that we were moving uphill—and up the income scale. The streets I got off to wander were lined not with housing blocks and open-air restaurants but rather with high-fenced homes and storefronts advertizing pilates classes and home-delivery sushi. As I meandered through a verdant park near the Los Domínicos church and artisan fair, I thought back to the parched playground I’d seen in Pudahuel.

I ended my day as exhausted—and as fulfilled—as if I’d spent it trekking through the pristine Chilean wilderness. I had seen varied landscapes, eaten delicious food, gotten a history lesson and enjoyed live entertainment, all without setting foot outside of Santiago—or opening a guidebook.

The next time I hear someone gripe about how boring this city is, I’ll offer to lend him or her my Transantiago map for the weekend.


Maeskizzle said...

Sweet adventure. It's something I wanted to do when I first was here. Since I'm from a small US town I have a fascination with public transport, because I barely used it til I went to college. I still find it pretty magical. I recommend taking the "O" in Valpo, if you haven´t already. I believe you would enjoy it. Since I moved from Valpo to Santiago, the micro has been renamed, but it used to be the "O", not the number but the letter.

Leigh said...

Thanks for the recommendation. The next time I'm in Valpo, which I hope will be soon, I'll ask around an figure out what name the O goes under these days. I remember seeing that bus in Valparaiso a few years ago, thinking it was 0 the number and getting a kick out of it.