At long last, I've returned from Chile. We've officially been back since 11 am Friday, after 12 long hours of worth of airplane rides... so you'll have to excuse the fact that I'm just getting around to writing now. Besides, I get my best writing done when I should be working, anyway.
Actually, that's not entirely true; I've discovered that some pretty nifty writing occurs up in my noggin, while I'm jammed in a steel tube high above the Earth, bumps of turbulence jolting adrenaline-fueled twists of phrase in and out of my brain. Of course, at said times I was without pen and paper, much less a computer terminal to get all my thoughts out onto. But it was really boffo stuff. Seriously. You really should have been there.
In truth, I'm glad I've waited a few days to write anything; given my thoughts some time to brew over the events of the last week or so. The thing is, Santiago is an incredibly difficult city to get your mind around, to square with the impression that one generally has of "South America". Sure, the people are speaking Spanish; cars, the color and contour of jelly beans (and only slightly larger) all have foreign names like "Peugeot" and "Citroen", and stray dogs stroll
amiably enough through the streets in search of food - but otherwise, there's very little to distinguish it from any nameless metropolitan city in North American. There's certainly some authentic, beautiful old architecture in the downtown area. And along the coast, in Vina Del Mar and Valpariso, pastel colored buildings still cling to the hillside along the ocean - but these things stand in obvious defiance against the relentless tide of modernization.
As an amateur student of pop-anthropology, experiencing the world through the memes of novelty infecting culture at large, that normally wouldn't present a problem for me. But see, there's the rub; the indigenous pop culture - the billboards and industrial design - it all seemed to merely mimic what can be found "up north". There was definitely a sense of it being foreign, but nothing about it came across as particularly South American.
There's culture, here, to be sure - in the meals and bottles of wine, in the homes and hearts of the people who are proud to call this place their home. But this is a blog about coffee, after all. And any time I find myself in a new place, the first thing I do is to find that place where locals and tourists go to get caffeinated. In Seattle, it was Bauhaus, in New York, any number of joints in the Village or Chelsea. In Chile, the first time I ventured out on a quest for an authentic cup of liquid, Latin American life-force, a coffee that I would experience and savor in a way that it couldn't be experienced or savored in any other place in the world, this is what I got ...
This conspicuous clone, with it's several convenient locations throughout the city, does a respectable business through the simple strategy of placing ashtrays prominently at each table - unheard of at your neighborhood Starbucks (which has a location just a half block from the home where my 63 year old father-in-law was born and raised). I kept thinking of "2001, A Space Odyssey" - the way the aliens tried to make Dave Bowman comfortable by setting him up in a hotel suite based on television transmissions they received from Earth - but when he tried to pour himself a bowl of cereal, blue nutrient pudding slid out from the box instead. (I'm talking about the novel, of course. No place could be as weird as the end of the Kubrick film. Maybe Tokyo.)
We fared better later in the week, when we got to the real downtown, the old city. There, I finally got my authentic cup, served up by a traveling street vendor pushing a cart which looked suspiciously like a household trash receptacle. Nothing more than a scoop of Nescafe in a styrofoam cup of piping hot water, which was quite possibly teeming with bacterium waiting patiently to mutate into Montezuma's Revenge, - but I didn't care. I was among business men and artists, hipsters and beggars - and yes, more stray dogs (where are you, Bob Barker?) - I was beginning to feel a sense of place.
But I had an ulterior motive for going downtown. In Chile you can count on great wine; you can drink your agua, "con" or "sin" gas, and the Coca Cola, which I can take or leave here in the states, for some reason in S. America is tastier than Scarlett Johansen's bathwater. But, my visit - nay, my life- wouldn't have been complete without a sip of that most unusual Chilean beverage, "Cafe Con Piernes" (coffee with legs).
Here's the story: sometime in the last 30 or so years, attempts were made to introduce Euro-style coffee bars to Chile. The locals, however, were content with their Nescafe. (to this day, in fact, they consume the stuff like it's heroin) The coffee bars bombed, until they added the one thing that sells even better than Nestle products. (Seriously, EVERYTHING in Chile is Nestle, from coffee to yogurt to baby food. Signs for Nestle products outnumber grains of sand on the beach.) Now, espresso bars come with a kick - from the leggy counter girls who do little more than smile and hand you your drink.
These places range in MPAA rating between a soft PG-13 and a hard R, where women in sequined bikinis perform lap dances and presumably pay extra special attention to avoid spills. (Urban legends about X-Rated variations persist, but that sort of paranoid rambling is to be expected in a predominantly Catholic culture) Seeing as I was with my family, and kids 5 and under are a total buzzkill when you're trying to enjoy boobies over a cup of coffee (believe me), we wound up at Cafe Haiti, where the girls all dress like mid 60's era flight attendants. The bean juice was unorthodox (the Mrs. cappuccino was topped with a cloud of whipped cream) but not bad at all.
I don't know if I experienced the "real"Chile. I don't know whether I entirely missed some "point", and am now coming across like one more obnoxious 'Merican tourist. I do know that the next time I'm on a plane for 9 plus hours, I'll be getting off someplace in Europe. And I know I can't complain... I had a pretty good time. Worth the used-up vacation time.
And the view at Cafe Haiti, more kitschy than sexy (a pretty good deal when you think nothing is sexier than kitsch) is definitely worth the 1900 pesos.