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Eight Hours in Santiago

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An article with a little bit of background on Chilean 9-11.

Just eight hours in a country. I know there’s no way that I can do justice to a country in eight hours. I can’t do justice to Santiago or the Jewish population there. I don’t even have time to see anything and there is no guarantee that anyone will show me anything because after all, this is Latin America, land of the closed Jew; where my American Passport and native English and blue eyes and a book full of Jewish photography require a day or two of background checks, reference checks and phone calls. And even though I emailed a couple people, nothing came of it and so not only can I do no justice to this place, but it will cost me $160 just to get out of the Airport for the reciprocity fee because I am American. So I sit at the airport, eating my complimentary lunch and drinking my un-complimentary beer when I think: screw it! Money comes and goes but I’m in Chile and I’m not about to spend eight hours in the airport when I can see Santiago.

Well, I paid the fee and within twenty minutes I was out in the fresh warm air and getting on a bus headed for downtown Santiago. The two dollar bus made it’s way through the industrial valley with snow-capped peaks in every window masked by brown smog of Santiago.

 The bus pulled into downtown within twenty minutes and I began snapping pictures of the colorful people in the streets and the buildings lining them. Even though it was a Wednesday, students in uniforms frolicked while blissful couples lay in the grass in the long park separating of O’Higgins street down the middle, the main street of Santiago. Dilapidated 19th century buildings with street art mingled with new buildings. The tower down the road pointed me toward the Cathedral where the free tour would commence in an hour or two. I wondered down the streets, walking into the YMCA high-rise, looking inside the Russian Crepe restaurant next to a strip-bar called “Tropical Coffee Bar” where mirrored doors would open a crack and black eyes with black eyeliner peered out, attempting to draw me inside. Near the TV tower, hustlers hustled money out of the unlucky and unintelligent by switching the card in clear view with a simple diversion trick.

As I reach the main plaza, a visual and auditory orchestra takes over. Preachers preach with microphones, painters painting, musicians playing, dancers dancing, chess players battling under a gazebo, hundreds of pigeons feeding on the plaza floor and covering the trees like grey leaves in the wind. Dogs and children chasing pigeons in between the napping homeless, while punks and students mix with the tourists and all surrounded by the 18th century palaces and a giant cathedral.
     The Cathedral, like everything else in this city is more Argentina and Uruguay than Sao Paulo. Dark and gothic, long and narrow with large gold arc and a grotto beneath with large beautiful paintings and statues along the sides. Outside is a three man show. They are in their fifties and forties, long hair and ripped clothes but happy and full of humor and surrounded by a crowd of gawkers. Somehow they are suspicious to the Police as they stand at guard watching the commotion just in case a protest erupts.

My guide Gustavo tells me that protests have been more frequent recently as they have been elsewhere in South America. In Santiago they have been focused around the price and accessibility of education. Unlike Argentina, university here is not free and public primary schools like elsewhere are virtually useless. The gap between rich and poor isn’t just wide, it is insurmountable. The guide tells of the poor beginnings of Chile, began by just a few settlers from Lima who had to fight the Mapuche tribe. The few Mapuche that are alive today have become too small to pose a threat, although up in the mountains they still protest over land rights of which they keep being stripped.

Chile had a brief period of democracy under far left leaning President Allende who nationalized industry and because of that, he is believed to have killed himself during a the CIA financed and ameliorated coup by Augusto Pinoche. The months of transportation strikes and cement laced baby milk finally culminated in an armed coup on September 11th of 1973. The Pinoche dictatorship sold the land to the highest bidder and rebuilt the city to be a replica of Buenos Aires,  thousands of dissidents disappeared without trial over the mountains and oceans as the dictators of South America shared their methods of keeping a grip on power and their disregard for human dignity, human voice and human life.

Through it all, Jews weathered the storm ok. Many were dissidents and they disapeared, but those who kept their heads low, or worked in the regime and made money made it through ok. They built synagogues and kept the ties to Israel. However times are unkind to all, and as a huge rush of Palestinian refugees made it to Chile, the once peaceful co-existence ended with the Intifada in Israel. In a way, it is not just Israel’s Jews that face Intifada, it is the Jews of all countries face Intifada. The lack of a resolution with regard to West Bank causes the conflict to come up again and again between the pro Israel Jews and the Anti-Israel citizens in nearly  every country from Norway to Chile, dividing nationals and citizens not just in Israel, but everywhere.

After half an hour on a subway and a thirty minute walk down a street with posh restaurants, car dealerships and snowboard shops I am turned away from the Maccabi Sports Center. I don’t try too hard, I can tell it is pointless to argue with the guard. So I make my way back on the packed rush-hour subway back to center to check out the infamous Coffee With Legs before getting on the bus bound for airport. As I walk up to one of the cafes with girls in short skirts showing toned legs serving coffee in a yellow lit and mirror lined bar, I see a man reading, oblivious of sexy baristas, wearing a long black coat and a black keepa. I walk past him and shoot a “Shalom” and he responds surprised with “Mani Shma?” I say “kol tov” and buy him a coffee served by the girl with the shirt skirt and revealing tank top revealing more than grand canyon. He keeps asking for my name and repeating his. I start to think that something isn’t right with this guy but I stay and we chat about Israel, his plans for Aliya, the Rebbe and life in Santiago.
“This place is full of Jews in the mornings.” he tells me. I imagine the financial power brokers of Santiago after prayers at the schul, coming to this place for a coffee and a look at the legs before work.
“There is a lot of anti-semitism here.” he tells me. And I think to myself of what it must looks like to Chileans to see Jews descend down on these bars that used to ring a bell, close doors and have full on stripper shows inside.
I walk out of the coffee shop letting him tip and realizing that this shady character probably wont. I walk over to a hotdog restaurant, buy  a delicious hotdog and tip a little extra. I have ten minutes and as I race past school kids and professionals getting ready to leave town, I walk through the park in the middle of O’Higgins, where drummers beat the rhythm of the carnival, girls dance and skaters skate and middle-age lovers kiss and bikers bike home and cars light up the street and my bus awaits to take me to the airport where a plane is ready to take me home.

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