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Culture and country

International | A rope full of knots and kinks

Issue: "A warmer Chile," Nov. 9, 2002

Chile is 2,625 miles long and an average of only 120 miles wide. Travel writer John Gunther described it as "a bell rope full of knots and kinks ... hanging down the west coast of South America." Chile is isolated from the rest of South America by the Andes to the east and the Atacama Desert to the north, which features stretches that have gone without rainfall for four centuries. It is bounded on the west by the Pacific Ocean, so that the closest nation in that direction is New Zealand, over 5,000 miles away. To the south is Antarctica.

Ferdinand Magellan stopped in Chile in 1520 during his attempt to circumnavigate the globe, and Spanish colonization began 20 years later, a spinoff from the conquest of Peru. The founding of Santiago in 1541 began the development of a highly centralized political and economic system, in which the government distributed land to favored individuals, granted monopolies, determined prices, and allocated labor. Chile became part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, even though it was cut off from Lima by desert. That isolation made independence logical, and logic became political reality during the 1810-1818 Wars of Independence.

The Chilean hero of those wars, Bernardo O'Higgins Riquelme (of partly Irish ancestry) was Chile's "supreme director" from 1817 to 1823. He tried to spread ownership of land more broadly and to attract Protestant immigrants and merchants by emphasizing religious tolerance, but ecclesiastical and economic elites forced O'Higgins into exile in 1823. Seven years of political chaos followed, until autocratic agnostic Diego Portales grabbed power in 1830. The Constitution he devised, which concentrated authority in the hands of the president, maintained large estates by requiring primogeniture and establishing Catholicism as the state religion; Portales said he did not believe in God but saw the clergy as instruments of social control.

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Let's start with what is visible at the surface in 2002. Lanes on Chilean highways are suggestions, not commandments. Not only motorcycles but small cars squeeze between the lines. Santiago buses, painted yellow, take no prisoners. More than one car has splotches of yellow paint at the left and right ends of their rear bumpers, a record of rammings. Bus passengers have to step lively getting on and off, because drivers wait for no man. Hearses are often commandeered station wagons with flowers on top, and it's surprising that funerals of motorists and pedestrians are not everyday affairs.

Hawkers hustle sales from motorists stalled at stop lights or in traffic jams. Sellers walk the pavement offering newspapers, Coca-Cola, bottled water, candy, strawberries, bananas, bubble gum, and even mushrooms. The desire to work and earn is obvious. Along the Pan-American Highway south of Santiago roadside stands offer peaches, apricots, avocados, melons, and vegetables. In evening darkness cars going 50 mph stop suddenly for roadside buys, and sellers dart across the roadway.

Santiago is a bustling city of 5 million that does not operate on manana time. McDonalds, Burger King, and KFC offer fast food, and roving sidewalk vendors lay out sheets at street corners with pirated CDs and sometimes computer programs on display; vendors pick up the sheets and move on if carabineros (police) approach with malice in their eyes. Store windows display leftover U.S. products like "Wisconsin 1999 Rose Bowl" sweatshirts. Signs for the Fallabella department store show a blonde wearing a come-hither look and saying, Date un gusto (Give yourself the pleasure). Graffiti scrawls frequently cover walls and some street-corner magazine stands display bare-breasted women. Some park benches on a Sunday afternoon contain young couples necking.

Necking's aftermath over the centuries led to a racial merging of Europeans and natives, with over 90 percent of Chileans having mixed ancestry. Some are more pinkish and others more brownish, and the more European-looking on average have a higher income than those of darker hue, but societal divisions correlate more with class than race. The affluent Las Condes section of Santiago, and the Vina del Mar resort on the coast, have a rich California feel to them; poor stretches of Santiago like Renca seem like Watts, but worse. The carabineros don't allow homeless individuals to hang out around elite hotels, big banks, and fancy restaurants, but Santiago's street people plead as piteously as those in the United States at markets in poorer parts, and sometimes clear 2,000 pesos ($3) for a bottle of Pisco.

Crime-theft rather than bodily injury, for the most part, but one can lead to another-is also a problem. Pedestrians either do not carry wallets or put them in the front pockets of pants or shirts, because some Chileans have gained international fame as petty thieves and pickpockets, who often ply their trade amid Sunday crowds at outdoor concerts. In a tribute to low wages and low tech, gas stations are usually full-service and attendants sometimes serve themselves by starting unobservant motorists not at zero but at the amount paid by the previous driver. Rudy Giuliani rousted the squeegie men from Manhattan but they still hit up motorists in Santiago.

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