Downtown Santiago

When in Santiago, I rarely go downtown, preferring to stay in my leafy neighborhood with vistas of la cordillera around me, but sometimes a trip down into the heart of this ever growing, ever changing city is necessary. The occasion was a visit with our father to his lawyer to leave Christmas greetings and a box of her favorite chocolates.

A new family rule is when going downtown take a radio-taxi or private car. This is for the benefit of our ninety-one year old father who would be quite happy taking public transportation, but for one thing. In late September while taking un colectivo, a sort of hybrid taxi-bus with defined route and space for four to five passengers at a time that one hails in the street, he was injured when the driver ran a red light. A day in the emergency room complete with plastic surgery to his forehead and several weeks of recuperation was the impetus for the rule.  Of course, when we’re not with him, we have no idea how he gets around and we suspect that he still evades the more secure mode of radio-taxi for the hurly-burly of hailing a taxi or colectivo or muscling his way onto one of the always over-crowded buses. When we discover such  antics we feign severe disapproval in his presence but mostly we are happy that he is well and independent at his advanced age.

This time we took a radio-taxi that dropped us off in front of the lawyer’s office. Years ago an office of lawyers was called un bufet de abogados, now it is called un estudio de abogados. Time has a way of changing how we speak and also the cities in which we live. How changed downtown is. Everywhere rising out of the dusty mostly late nineteenth century and early twentieth century buildings are modern columns of cement and steel. But, it’s still dusty.

Built at the bottom of a depression that’s hemmed in on three sides by la cordillera de Los Andes and the coastal mountain range, la cordillera de la costa, the pollution of modern life hangs over downtown. Even with eco buses and strict regulations for other motor vehicles, the smog lies like a veil obscuring the sky above.  But, the streets are teaming with people and activity. Lately, there has been an invasion of sorts into the heart of the city. People from Peru and Brazil have been pouring in mixing up the Chilean streetscape with a variety of new physical appearances and customs.

It’s the people that draw my attention. As we sit down to lunch at a window table in a small restaurant that serves, according to our father, the best gnocchi, I am drawn to the activity of the street vendors before me. There are four of them lined up on the sidewalk, their wares carefully laid out on cloths in front of them. One is selling sun glasses, another small packs of tissues and cigarette lighters, another CDs, and a fourth cocktail rings made from plastic beads. This little community makes small talk, shares cigarettes, and greets family and friends. One woman seems to have a bevy of children who one-by-one suddenly appear to receive a hug from their chain-smoking mother, the vendor of sun glasses, before disappearing again into the crowds. Customers peruse the merchandise. Men chose quickly and are gone. Women take their time trying on various styles and colors. A hand held mirror suddenly appears from behind a tree. The women study themselves and by their facial expressions I know when a sale is forthcoming or not. So do the vendors.

Suddenly, I notice a most curious ripple of chatter and movement. The vendors pick up their ears and look cautiously down the street. Quickly gathering up the corners of the cloths, they  stash their merchandise into bags that appear out of nowhere. The woman selling sunglasses, is fast and sure in her actions. Her merchandise safely in the bag, she tucks it under her arm and strolls casually away. For a moment I can’t see what has set the vendors fleeing but I suspect it’s the police. Sure enough, a minute later two green-uniformed carabineros walking side-by-side pass by. I wonder what would have happened if the vendors hadn’t been fast enough. Handcuffs? A trip to jail? A fine? I think of the woman’s kids. Where are they? And how did the vendors know? They don’t seem to have cell phones but they must have a network of lookouts that pay attention to the movement of the police. I note their organization, efficiency, initiative, and their ability to know who will buy. I see how they take care of one another and their children. They have something to teach us.

All original content copyright 2010 Mary E Slocum



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