The train to Santiago was incredibly uncomfortable. I’d been tight and bought the cheapest ticket, which was for a non-reclining seat. It seemed to be designed so there was no realistic way of lying down or doing anything but sitting bolt upright, so I didn’t manage to get a huge amount of sleep. I quite liked the restaurant car though, where my ongoing efforts to become a vegetarian were again spectacularly thwarted. There was an extensive menu, and I asked for various likely things which proved to be unavailable, before the server said to me “Look, in fact all we have is steak, and you can have a large one or a small one”. Knowing about how South Americans describe steak, I ordered the small one, which when it came was spilling off the sides of the plate. It turned out to be horribly tasty.
Having failed to sleep, I was in a bit of a daze when we arrived at Santiago’s Estacion Central at 7am the next morning. There were not many people in the huge airy station building, and it didn’t feel anything like as dodgy as big city train stations often do. I liked Santiago straight away when I found a cafe on the station serving real, delicious coffee and good cakes as well. Suitably caffeinated I set off to work out the metro system, get into some accommodation and then explore.
After a pleasant afternoon ambling around the pedestrianised streets of central Santiago and sitting under the palm trees in the Plaza de Armas eating ice cream, I walked later on to Cerro San Cristóbal, an Andean foothill rising high over the city to its north. A funicular railway runs to the top and I headed up there, staying to watch the sun set. It was a beautiful warm evening, and I found it difficult to get my northern hemisphere head around the fact that it was early December.
I spent two more days in Santiago, and I didn’t really do very much. The next day was a Sunday, and the centre of town was tranquil and quiet. There was a market along the pedestrianised streets, where I found some english-language paperbacks. I had long since read all the books I’d brought with me at least twice so I was glad to find something new to read, even if the least trashy book I could find was by Michael Crichton. And on the Monday I managed to buy a whole Saturday Guardian, for not so much more than it would have cost in the UK.
While I was in Chile, political activity was intensifying in advance of upcoming presidential elections, and Santiago was humming with demonstrations, leafleting, campaign stands and speeches. Having failed to stand up for the late Salvador Allende against Carlito in Chaitén, I was pleased to find a Communist Party campaign stand doing vibrant business in Santiago. I bought a Communist Party mug, made a small donation, and felt that my conscience had been assuaged slightly. But it took another blow when I got into a lengthy conversation with a dapper old gent in the Plaza de Armas, who was if anything more pro-Pinochet than Carlito had been. “Just another few years of the dictatorship would really have sorted this country out”, he said. His view was that socialism had failed because the people hadn’t really believed in it, and that most people were relieved when the military took over. But he was without any doubt from the wealthy classes, and I wondered if the majority of people really had been relieved when the air force bombed the presidential palace and Allende died in the ruins.