Huh, Other People

May 13, 2018 | Blog

As Satre put it, hell is other people. Although he said it in French, which probably made it more profound. As someone who lives in London, I can definitely relate to that sentiment. Waiting to get through the barriers on the tube, navigating around dawdlers on the street when I’m late (as always), or just trying to drown out the chatter of others when I’m trying to listen to a podcast or write. Since having a baby there’s a new annoyance to add to the list – when a bus arrives and there are already two prams on it, meaning I have to stand around for another ten minutes waiting for a bus (to non-Londoners, that’s about 40mins. And I become even more late).

After miles of empty roads on the south island of New Zealand, we arrived in Auckland to find actual traffic. Queues in shops. Cafes cluttered with bodies. It seemed all the more cramped after the amount of wide open space we’d had before. At least there was wi-fi.

The view from our apartment. Pretty, but busy!

Even more of a shock to the system was our arrival in Santiago, Chile. With a population of seven million crammed in so there are 21,925 people per square mile, it felt pretty overwhelming. What’s more, we were staying in an apartment just a couple of streets away from Plaza de Armas, the centre of the city, so it couldn’t have got much more packed.

At night, the shouts and blaring music of the people below us (we were on the 19th floor) reverberated off the walls of the high buildings, each sound echoing and magnified as it reached our jet lagged ears. Our came the ear plugs, not used since the bustle of Tokyo.

It’s not just noise that comes from crowds. They also challenge your sense of safety. We’ve been reminded – by locals, by tourist offices, by tour guides – to keep our valuables hidden and avoid certain areas. Not the most welcoming introduction to a new place.

People everywhere!

So it’s been strange to find that I’ve felt more relaxed when edging around crowds on pavements. I remember being unnerved by the silence in the desert in Jordan. It wasn’t peaceful, it was too quiet. Being among others is familiar, comforting, to see so many faces. Even when the language is once again an obstacle (so sad to discover how little of my Spanish I remember!), the simple proximity to bodies breathing, sneezing, living, it soothes something in me I didn’t know was restless.

Then there has been the unexpected kindness shown to us since we’ve been here. Part of it, I’m sure, is the small traveller we’ve brought with us. Remarks about her ‘ojos’ are even more prevalent, probably because their pale blue colour is all the more rare here.

On the funicular in Santiago

In Santiago, every corner is studded with architectural splendour. Towering columns, soaring arches and impressive carvings look down on you as you walk. More humble treasures can be found at street level. We needed to get to the bus station in order to go to Valparaiso. To get there, we had to get a local bus. Once we’d figured out which one we needed and where to get it from, we dragged our luggage out of the lift and onto the street.

We’ve now got used to being in ‘transit mode,’ but it’s quite a finely tuned setup. We managed to get all of our stuff into four pieces of luggage, but the weight needs distributing between the two of us. Not forgetting, of course, the baby. I wear her in the carrier, along with an extra small rucksack on my back, which has changing essentials for her. I wheel the small black suitcase which has her stuff in it, and perched on top of that is the black carry-on that has our laptops and things for the road. He carries the larger rucksack which has any food and drinks, along with overspill from the suitcases (usually dirty nappies). He pulls the big purple suitcase (thanks, Mum!) which has our stuff in. Needless to say, it’s not something that can be done for too much of a distance, and our back and shoulder muscles must be pretty well developed by now.

The Museo de Bellas Artes

In Valparaiso, they have what might be the oldest trolley bus in the world. In Santiago, I wonder if the same is true of their local bus network. At night, the roaring of their clapped-out engines echoes far up the streets, and is not, as we first thought, heavy lorries thundering along. When they shudder to a stop, not all the doors open. At least, not at first. Some need an encouraging nudge, or a bit of time to catch up with events before they creak reluctantly to one side.

We wrestled all of our stuff onto one of these relics, then asked the driver if it was going to the right place – Universidad de Chile. He nodded enthusiastically. When we asked about paying with cash, as everyone else had a card, he waved us on with a smile. After finding space for all our stuff, we realised it was the University of Santiago that we wanted.

At the stop we’d asked about, he called back to us, making sure we knew where we were. Some explaining and hand gestures later, we rumbled back into traffic.

Shortly after that, a man came over. I tightened my grip on the bag, trying to remember where I’d put my phone. He leaned closer, his breath reaching my face. Then he smiled. Were we going to the bus station? Yes, that was definitely the right stop (clearly the whole bus knew where we were going). He told us about his plans for the day, commented on the weather (I think) and waved cheerily before levering the door open to get off.

A few stops later, a woman came over. The University, yes? That was the next stop. She told us how far she lived from her work, how it was a long journey on the bus every day (I think) before smiling at the baby and allowing us to clamber off before her.

To reach the bus station, we faced another challenge. We had to go down stairs and back up in order to reach the terminal. While our system is well-suited to flat surfaces and ramps, actually picking up the cases is more tricky. I had barely got halfway down the first set of stairs when a young man with earphones in grabbed the case out of my hand. I panicked, maybe he was one of the people we’d been warned about. Everyone knows bus stations are one of the dodgiest areas in any town. At the bottom, he asked where we were going. Walking past the Metro (his destination), he took my case all the way up to the desk, even though there were escalators. He took further time out of his day to make sure there was someone who spoke English to help us with buying our ticket. A potentially stressful journey was made enjoyable from the kindness of strangers.

The vertiginous streets of Valparaiso

Valparaiso is unique. About two hours west of Santiago, it manages to combine a busy port with a city full of charm. While it has its fair share of ugly concrete high rises and tangles of electric wiring, it also has brightly coloured houses scattered over its 45 hills. Up close, it gets even more special. Once you get past the initial flat part of the city and start on the steep slopes, most of the walls are covered in the most beautiful murals. From detailed and realistic portraits of people and animals, to abstract imaginings of the Chilean landscape, to cartoons that represent Chilean idioms, all styles and colours can be found. Even the steps have been given their own artwork.

Stunning street art

Even the stairs get the treatment

Our first stop was in a cafe, waiting until we could check in. Inside, there were grey-haired men sipping coffee and talking quietly. A serious-faced waiter in a crisp white apron walked up to us. In our walking shoes and with a grumbling baby, I did not imagine we’d be welcome. Within minutes, we were given a comfortable corner to sit in and not one face turned my way when I started to breastfeed. Later, one of the serious men brought over an extra biscuit for her. Ok, she’s too young for it, but I was happy to accept (it will make its way to her anyway).

A ‘toad rooster’ is a gossip in Chilean slang

We visited Vina Del Mar, which was a bit of a disappointment. The guide book promised beaches and a ‘garden city,’ but all we found were tall grey buildings and traffic-choked streets. At least the sea lived up to expectations. There were enormous pelicans gliding over the waves, ignorant of the bustling people just a few feet from them. And on the metro on the way there, we were joined by a man who proudly showed of his fifth child and spoke quietly about the others, smiling at our little girl.

If you cut out all the high rises and take a very small view, this is what Vina Del Mar looks like

Our host at the apartment was exceptional. In a combination of French, Spanish and English, she welcomed us personally, giving us huge lists of recommendations of places to go. When we asked for a plug so we could wash the baby, we came home to find a baby bath sat in the kitchen.

A welcome sight among the busy streets

On our last night there, we went to a seafood restaurant overlooking the port. It was fancy, with silver domes over our food when it came out. Yet the starchly-dressed waiter brought out a blanket when the sun started to disappear, and tucked it around the small shoulders of our daughter so she wouldn’t feel the chill from the sea air.

The port at Valparaiso

As the sun sank further, an unexpected treasure from the built-up coast of Vina Del Mar – the high-rise buildings that lined the beach caught the falling sun, glinting its light down into the water.

In the midst of the churning machines unloading crates from an enormous ship, lorries pacing back and forth, tour boats chugging, was a ripple in the water. It was a seal. Insensitive to the bustle around, it dove and swam, its sleek head an anomaly among all the industrialisation.

When something is unexpected, it makes it all the more beautiful. Other people can annoy, frustrate and even injure, but they can also provide the softest of touches.

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