Sunday, 12 April 2015
By the time dawn comes we're gliding through the high peaks of the snow capped Andes. It's a breath taking sight as the plane weaves its way towards the great plain of Santiago.
We're all exhausted but filled with anticipation. A forest fire a hundred miles West in Valparaiso makes the air thick, foggy and gives us a slightly unexpected Autumnal welcome but we're quickly through customs and met by our smiling NGO hosts Antonia and Jose, who bustle us into mini buses for the hour drive to our hostel right in the centre of town.
The journey takes us past several shanty towns, lined up alongside the motorway, which provides a vivid juxtaposition with the chic glass facades of the corporate towers as we pull off and come towards the city centre via the wealthy 'San- Hatten' northern suburbs to La Cascona - our home for the next eight days.
The rooms weren't quite ready and so we dump our bags and take our first steps out into our new neighbourhood. Just round the corner is the Cerro Santa Lucia, a little oasis of landscaped garden, built on the pre-colonial village of Huelen. For many this is where Santiago starts. Its conquest by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541 marks the begin of Spanish rule.
Valdivia was - relative to some of his more bloodthirsty compatriots - a fairly gentle conquistador who went out of his way to establish a harmonious relationship with the tribes who lived in the valley, but peace never lasted long and he spent the next twelve years, often supported by his warrior like mistress, the terrifying Ines de Suarez, trying to subdue the indigenous population. He was finally captured at the Battle of Tucapel, south of Santiago and killed in a gruesome way, although the details are disputed by the chroniclers. Some say he was forced to drink molten gold, others that his forearms were cut off, roasted and eaten in front of him, another story tells of his quivering heart being ripped from his breast and handed around for the elders of the Mapuche tribe to suck. We're hoping for a warmer welcome.
It's hard to picture all this amongst the trimmed herbaceous borders and the hissing of late summer lawns on the new hill. We work our way through the gardens to the highest vantage point and look out across the city. Charles Darwin spent a week in newly liberated Santiago in 1834, venturing inland from The Beagle, and enjoyed a daily climb up Santa Lucia to look out over the acacia woods which at that time surrounded the town. Now, with a population pushing eight million, the high rise urban sprawl pushes hard up against the surrounding mountains. The sun is out. The fog has lifted. The weather is beautiful. We're here.
Whilst some return to the hostel to rest, a handful of us carry on our exploration heading down the Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins - or the Alameda if you're pressed for time - towards the Presidential Palace of La Moneda. It's the Santiago Marathon and we inadvertently find ourselves walking parallel to the runners for the final kilometre. Young and old they're without exception impressively fresh despite having slogged their way twenty six miles around the city. Each runner is given a medal and a small punnet of grapes. There are bands, shouts of encouragement and a steady stream of stray dogs, locally known as 'kiltros' who accompany the runners over the final few yards. We decide it's probably time to make our way back to La Cascona for a shower and change of clothes.
At two, with all of us scrubbed up, the minibuses arrive and whisk us off north to Antonia's family home in Los Dominicos, where the most amazing welcome barbecue has been laid on. Tables groan with piquant empanadas, huge steaks that melt in the mouth, tender chicken breasts, smoky chorizos, tomatoes, onions, ripe avocados and salty black olives, all guarded sentinel by bottles of the crispest white and most full bodied red wine imaginable. The hospitality is amazing and nobody is allowed to refuse.
We're introduced to Antonia's family and Carolina, one of three translators, who will accompany us to the Senames. She quickly convenes a Salsa lesson for the students. Living is easy and the smiles are broad. The final remnants of the fourteen hour flight shaken from us.
As the light start to fail, we fall, tired but happy, into the minibuses and head back to La Cascona. Work proper begins in the morning.