April 16th, 2015


Santiago to Rio

After washing under the large shower head in the bathroom, we packed our small bags and walked along a large busy road towards the central square. Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O'Higgins has five lanes running in each direction through a rather seedy part of the city. Estación Central was not far into our journey. It is the only remaining railway station in the city. Its magnificent late nineteenth century ironwork was designed by Gustave Eiffel less than a decade after his great Parisian tower.

As we walked east, the quality of the neighbourhoods improved and the great road divided with tall trees in a linear park along its median. This was where we now chose to walk. Small groups of young people gathered with banners ready for the student demonstration against corruption in the education system. When the median park narrowed away we turned north past large government buildings, a cultural centre and museums. On the corner of a pedestrianised street we found a branch of Domino's, a local fast food chain. It has tiled walls and a stainless steel counter with a strong 1950s flavour. It was filled with business people grabbing breakfast at the counter or sitting at small tall tables. A helpful waiter in a white hat and apron saw that we were unsure of the protocol, took us to a table, showed W how to clip her bag to a carabinier under the table and guided us through the selection of orange juice, ham and eggs with coffee for me and Coke Zero for W. By now we were used to the accommodating goodwill that people afforded our inept Spanish. To our surprise, the orange juice was over 300 ml of freshly squeezed tastiness. The rich ham was chopped into eggs scrambled in a small double handled steel dish like a shallow balti dish or a tiny rounded paella pan. And there were five unexpected slices of lightly toasted sweet white bread. The only disappointment was the coffee: Nescafe but I bet I could have had a freshly ground brew if I had asked. The whole lot came to less than £8 and we gave our waiter a slightly generous tip before settling the bill with the cashier by the door.

We were very near the Plaza de Armas, which we had been told was the most picturesque of the squares in this vicinity. It was a visual feast with tall coconut palm trees shading many benches and enough people to give it an appealing bustle without crowding. At the western corner stood the Metropolitan Cathedral and the central post office. The cathedral had an anodyne neoclassical exterior with a couple of towers all clad in scaffolding and hoarding at ground level but the inside was a baroque explosion. Along both sides of the nave were several open confessionals in dark wood with the penitent facing their confessor unscreened. A redundant red light above each of the occupied boxes warned others of the need to observe secrecy but I saw no-one cover their ear as is common in some churches.

The post office is very French in appearance with a typical fin-de-siecle facade and a curved grey mansard and cupola above its pilastered front. Next door is another neoclassical building although this has a more Italian style. It was built as a palace but now holds the national museum of history. There is no entry charge and the baggage lockers (that are obligatory because no bags are allowed in the building) are also free to use. As we deposited our bags we spotted Michelle retrieving hers; she spoke positively of the exhibits.

The exhibition galleries were charming nineteenth century colonial rooms with simple clear displays. They ran in chronological sequence from prehistoric settlers to the nineteenth century with a mixture of informative fine art, decorative crafts, and utilitarian artefacts. Alongside the permanent exhibits there was a gallery for temporary exhibitions. This was being used to show the work of a twentieth century Chilean children's illustrator. The pictures were simple, strong, and direct with a gentle sensibility but the most interesting aspect of the show was a wall of etched glass plates that rendered the images into tactile patterns with a key in braille associating each pattern with a colour.

W wanted to see the Red House that stood near the square. This eighteenth century dwelling was the first two-storied house in the city and now houses another museum but it was closed for renovation. This was the last of our predetermined destinations so we began to wander the streets simply browsing as we went. We looked briefly around another church and explored a couple of shopping arcades before deciding that our visit was done. It was a bit earlier than we had planned when we hailed a taxi to the airport but the student demonstration had occasioned road closures that caused huge traffic jams and our driver wound his way through fascinating back streets with much doubling back as we ran up against road blocks. He was entirely good-humoured despite his obvious frustration and although we had used up all our contingency we reached the airport in good time for our flight.

We retrieved our bags from the same man that had taken them from us and presented ourselves at a dedicated premium check-in area that was immediately adjacent to the departure lounge. The lounge was another stylish modern space with well-stocked food stations and high quality drinks but the main floor was a little too open and we preferred the upper floor with its mixture of high-backed seats, a television viewing zone, a sleeping section, and even a spacious entertainment zone equipped with a variety of video game systems. I took the opportunity to taste my first neat pisco. I am not a brandy enthusiast and I did not like this version much.

This was my first flight operated by TAM and I was impressed by most aspects of it although the cabin crew lacked the easy affability that had characterised our other attendants. I particularly liked the beige felt amenity packs tied in stripey cotton ribbons. The flight passed swiftly as I finally got to read Steven Fischer's history of Easter Island that I had now carried almost 15,000 miles.

It was a warm night in Rio de Janeiro as we arrived at Galeão airport. As usual, we were among the first to reach the immigration desks but there was some delay when the shaggy officer discovered that there was no record of W departing Brazil after her last visit. Fortunately, she had been issued a new passport that was filled with travel stamps since then so there was no question about her extended absence from the country in the interim. After some consultation with his colleagues, the genial official returned her documents and waved us in.

The upside of a delay in immigration is that it reduces the wait for baggage and ours were the first bags on the carousel. To reach the baggage carousel we had to pass through the duty-free shop and now we had to push our laden trolley back between the cosmetics, confectionery, and booze. Just before the customs gates stood a woman in civilian dress benignly directing us towards the appropriate lane. When we asked her about currency exchange, she said that she could help and led us to a small bank office just a few steps away. We changed our remaining Uruguayan and Chilean cash only to find that each currency had attracted a surprisingly large transaction fee as well as the poor airport exchange rates that we had anticipated. The deal had, however, given us Brazilian cash before we hit the hurly burly of taxi touts that we expected immediately past customs. This meant that we could push straight through the importuning crowd without pausing to seek currency exchange bureaux.

We had a brief wait before reaching the head of the official taxi queue and our driver seemed confident about the location of our apartment. We did, however, have to remind him to start the meter and soon after that he offered to charge us a fixed price off meter but, since his fixed price of BRL 95 was 20 reais higher than the price that I was expecting, we declined. He then explained that the meter price would be adjusted upwards by an amount indicated on an official conversion chart displayed on the window and that there were additional charges for baggage. We stuck with our decision to accept the metered charge. Maps.Me showed that he was sticking to the most direct route and we were confident that the metered price would be a fair one. And so it proved. The metered rate uplifted according to the poster and augmented by a reasonable baggage charge would have been about BRL 80. There seemed to be no notice of the official baggage charges, however, and the driver insisted that the final sum was coincidentally identical to the BRL 95 that he had quoted. After a brief argument I realised that I was haggling over less than £3.50 and paid him what he asked.

Access to the apartment block was through an alarming metal cage that was opened remotely by the doorman. Next day we would see that such structures were ubiquitous but it seemed like an ominous warning of the prevailing level of crime when we first saw it. The doorman gave W an envelope containing keys and instructions for their use. We took a lift to the twelfth floor and I heaved our unwieldy bags up a flight of steps to the penthouse level. There were two apartment doors on this top corridor; one was unnumbered and the other bore an inappropriate number. W had chosen the unnumbered door and was struggling with the key as I struggled with the bags. By the time that joined her the door was still locked and she was looking flustered. W does not do flustered so I knew that the problem was serious. The instructions stated that the two keys were identical but gave no clue as to which of the three locks on the apartment door was in use. The key, which was cruciform, was to be inserted with the red dot uppermost. W had a key with a small circular protuberance on each side of the flat head. One of these bumps was stained red so she inserted the key with the flat head horizontal and the red dot uppermost. Nothing happened. I tried to turn it with no more success. We speculated that we might have the wrong door and be terrorising innocent inhabitants shortly before midnight but dismissed this as ridiculous. I took the key and inspected it more closely. The bumps were surrounded by a shallow groove and on the unstained side there was a red residue in part of the groove. What if both dots had been red and the colour had worn off one side? We checked the other key and, sure enough, both dots were red. We reinserted the key with the flat head vertical and both red dots uppermost. Finally, we were in!

It was an attractive apartment just like the photographs had led us to expect. We looked around briefly and went out on to the terrace where we could hear the chants of fans watching football on TV in a sports bar nearby. These Latin American chants have a comfortable familiarity because I learned them with the La Barra Brava soccer supporters group in Washington DC. The noise stopped as soon as the football ended and we climbed into the big comfortable bed.