February 23, 2006 GMT
Santiago Summer

Itīs 8:30 on a Santiago morning and Iīm walking to school. The Chilean sun feels nice on my back. Its cheery yellow light casts long shadows down the sidewalk, showing me the way. Ahead, an old man, wearing rumpled old man clothes, generously waters his part of the sidewalk, and by design or accident Iīm not sure, drowns his flowers, lawn and the trees by the curb. There is no nozzle, the water just pours out and hits the sidewalk in noisy splashes. Daily this ritual of flooding everything occurs and heīs not alone. Many shop owners, security guards and homeowners do the same along my route as I navigate the leafy neighbourhood of Providencia during the 20 minutes to my Spanish escuela. My daily mission, as I walk and study, scribbler in hand, is trying to memorize the 40 words for the two verbs "to be"; the choices depending on gender, tense, plurality, stock market and wind direction. The lawn waterers all are respectful and allow this pale skinned extranjero (foreigner) to pass without getting spashed. Not that water on my bare legs or sandals would ever mind, for even at this time of the morning itīs a pleasant 20 something Celsius.

I share the Santiago sidewalk with a generous smattering of other commuters. Women usually in skirts, men with ties, all dressed smartly. Even when mujeras wear jeans, itīs usually with heels and always looking feminine. Folks are mostly without expression this time of the morning but itīs more like respectful and reserved than unhappy. Even without spontaneous smiles from passerbys, I still feel very safe and welcome. Traffic is busy but not gridlock and the common yellow-over-black taxi is very popular - they must be, for theyīre parked by businesses, residences, parques, at malls, everywhere. I notice Santiaguan cars are mostly Hondas and Toyotas and the rest of the Japanese gang. Europeans (Peugeots, Citroens, BMWīs) come next, the American Big 3 are a distant third.


I like it here. Santiago is a city of 6 million within a Chilean population of around 15 million. This capital city is nestled, it appears to me, within a stoneīs throw of the Andes. The Pacific Ocean is an hour and a half drive to the west. Thirty degrees C in summer with pleasant shirt sleeve evenings; in winter it drops to 15C. Want snow? Then drive to it. It too is only an hour away. How civilized. Is this California?

Although there is a span of economic levels from Hollywood hills estates to the less fortunate slums, there is mostly middle class. Construction is everywhere, surely the sign of a healthy and confident economy. Natural decore of this 505 year old city is healthy and luxurious greenery that thrives like that of Vancouver. Streets are clean (well, more so than Calgary), the metro is eat-off-the-floor clean and efficient, and shoppers are not left wanting. Gas is about $1.20 a litre, a ride on the metro is $0.75, decent wine $ 4.00, a good golf shirt can be had for $8.00. My homestay, with laundry and two meals is $20 a day. Oh, and I am called Moo-ray Cas-tee-yo (castillo is spanish for Castle, and easier for Chileans to say). Fine, I say, just donīt call me tárde for cena (which is at 8 PM).

Speaking of eating, the photo below is the banana split supreme and a reward for two weeks of school. Five of us went after classes for helado (ice cream). With me is Pamela, one of the many fine and talented profesuras in charge of our Spanish fate with their language. Must be 90 litres of helado y fruitas in that bowl and yes, we ate it all. Then we called for a medico and a stomach pump.


The 500 year history comes from the December day in 1541 when Pedro de Valdivia and 150 of his boys clanked into town and gave the locals an ultimatum: either give us your gold and learn Spanish, or die. The indigenous leaders, not that hung up on gold were OK with that part, but when they looked at Peteīs Lonely Planet books (in Spanish) - well, that was the deal breaker. They didnīt even stop to vote. Not that I blame them. Luckily theyīve had lots of time to sort stuff out before I got here and theyīve enjoyed since then, I think, a fairly solid record of democracy over the last 100 plus years. A few bumps OK, but then havenīt we all?

For six weeks, my life is school from 9 to 1. Then homework, daily guided tours of local sites, and in the evening, more homework. So far I have studied 6 million words, know 200, can use 5 in a broken sentence. AND, while I slave away, my trusty companion, Katie M, sails merrily through the Panama Canal with 20 other of her spoked friends. No doubt sipping on drinks-with-umbrellas, all from under the shade of 10 peso Panama hats.

I havenīt been entirely without fun: one day our patriarch (and school owner) Juan took us estudiantes to a cafe con piernas, or īcafe with legsī. Think of Starbucks with employees with "legs up to their necks", as my friend SonGlenn would say. Juan, being a retired police detective... well, it was his business to know these things. Juan also knows where the vineyard tours are, so itīs not all about palaces and buildings more antique than me.

Katie showed a little of her independant side while we were riding in the Arizona desert last month. While Amigobob and I were out on daily rides in the hills east of Phoenix, Katie decided to throw up all over herself. More than once. Both coolant and fuel drooled down the front of her. Was it the hot desert, the steep switchback climbs on dirt mining roads, the bumps, the spectacular vistas, what? Luckily the good folks at the KTM dealerships in Tucson (OK, we went south east over Mt Lemon too) and in Phoenix traced the bad behaviour, we think, to bad fuel tank venting. With the coolant, not all the air was out the system the last time Katie was serviced. Seems you have to stand Katie straight up on her hind legs to get the air out. That gymnastic manuoevre is not in the service manual, I can tell you.

By the 30th of marzo, our bikes should arrive in the port of Valparaiso and Bob flies in from the Great White North. Weīll collect our bikes and start the adventure up the Chilean coast, the northern target being Cuzco, Peru. Thereīll be time for another chapter before we ride off to glory, cheap wine and dazzling the locals with our sparkling spanglish.

In the meantime, I better get back to figuring out do I say "yo soy loco" or it is, "yo estoy loco". Better check the wind direction again.

Posted by Murray Castle at February 23, 2006 06:37 PM GMT

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