Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The difference of 25 years: Backpacking then, presidential palace today

SANTIAGO, Chile – The temperature in early morning was no more than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, as I put on a long-sleeve shirt. It felt like an indulgence after weeks of hot weather in Washington. But it was cold enough that I pulled the sleeves over my hands to keep them warm.

I crossed a highway and a bridge over the Maponcho River, which ran fast and was hemmed in by concrete walls, a protection against flooding. I ran along the left bank, heading in the same direction as the river, toward the city center.

At 6 a.m., it was dark, and I was on guard, for my footing and for people in the shadows. The path was uneven close to the river and I could make out shapes of men along the way. I couldn’t tell what they were doing so I maneuvered to a path to my left, which was close to the road. Near one intersection, three rangy, old German shepherds crawled out of makeshift tents and barked at me. One hobbled after my heels, his barks as menacing as a 90-year-old man, woof woof woof. Still, he made me scoot.

I eventually found a straight path with picturesque little lanterns on poles every 10 yards lighting my way. I could almost imagine myself running in a Parisian park. More than that, though, the light freed me to think about something other than falling or falling in the hands of others.

As my mind wandered, I remembered my first trip to Chile – some 25 years ago with my wife, Laura, on our honeymoon. We backpacked for about six months along the spine of the Andes, starting in Quito, Ecuador, and eventually ending in Torres del Paine in southern Chile.

The two of us stopped in Santiago for a few days, arriving on a long-haul, air-conditioned bus that we boarded near the desert region along the Peru-Chile border. At the border, we were reminded that we were entering the Pinochet dictatorship; the guards pawed through all our belongings, pulling out our books and leafing through them. They took one – Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America. Maybe they thought Brautigan, shown in the cover photo, looked subversive.  
         In Santiago, we checked out a couple of hotels. At the first one, we asked about the rate, and the person behind the counter said: How many hours? I thought I heard him wrong, replying, “Well, 24?” He looked at me oddly. “We rent by the hour,” he said. We looked more closely at our surroundings, at the bustle in the lobby, and burst out laughing. We went looking for a place that rented by the day.

Santiago was gray and dirty then, but it had newsstands that sold some American newspapers, and a colorful movie marquee advertising recent blockbluster action films. We loved the countryside outside of the city, where we had picnics of cheese, fresh bread, and wine in a cardboard box, something we had never seen before. While the city was fast-paced and full of army and suspicion, the countryside was leisurely and lovely.

On my run, I returned to the present moment and replayed arriving in Santiago from Lima the day before. A police escort took us straight to our hotel and then to an official meeting in La Moneda, the presidential palace.
There was a press conference in the palace and later we were guests at a dinner hosted by the finance minister and the captains of industry. (Almost all were men; there were just three women among the group of 75.) In a grand room, with a ceiling 20 foot high and walls painted red and adorned with over-sized life portraits of Chile’s leaders in the 19th century, white-gloved waiters served us fine Pinot Noir wine (in glass bottles).

I thought: boxed wine in the park when we were young, and Pinot Noir in the presidential palace in middle age. I thought again: arriving unawares into a house of ill repute, and being escorted into the house of power. The contrasts made me smile. The experiences were both memorable. As I finished my run, with the first light appearing to the east above the Andes, I thought that I likely will still remember the visit during the days of Pinochet, the visit with the shared wine poured from a cardboard spout, more vividly. That wine, among other things, was a revelation.

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