December 2012

The weather is fine when we leave Santiago, but the pilot warns that it is going to be a bumpy ride when we land in Buenos Aires. And it is. But we arrive ahead of schedule; presumably there is some slack in a flight time which can be cashed in when the pilot is heading into bad weather. In the terminal, we are fortunate that most of the arriving passengers are from South American countries and have to queue in the Mercosur line while we join the much shorter queue for locals and others. But customs is slow. Every bag is x-rayed and most are searched. On the customs declaration form you are supposed to detail every item purchased abroad and even specify the make and model of your own personal mobile phone. Presumably all the others you are carrying will be confiscated as contraband. It is apparent that, given Argentina’s economic situation, smuggling from neighbouring countries is common. But nobody is interested in our luggage or our declaration form and there hadn’t been the same procedure when we arrived in Buenos Aires from the Middle East a week earlier.

The taxi whisks us in to town. We are staying at the Lola House Boutique Hotel (*) on Avenida Castro Barros in the barrio of Boedo. It is a rainy night and we are off the tourist grid here. A street walker approaches the car at the lights. At the hotel, the driver waits until we are safely inside. But things quickly pick up. After unpacking, a quick dash across the street to the grocery store opposite secures a bottle of wine and some snacks. The shutters are coming down but Arturo, the hotel’s overnight desk, holas across the road and they wait for me. Arturo supplies the glasses and a corkscrew and we find a channel on the television showing a couple of episodes of a US medical drama. The story is about the aftermath of a plane crash.


The fasten seat belts sign comes on as the plane crosses the Andes, apparently a routine precaution against the turbulence created by air flowing over the high mountains. But we don’t see the summits through the thick layer of cloud until we have banked left and started the descent into Santiago. The airport looks new and immigration is efficient. We have a slight delay while customs inspect a flask in our luggage. The Chileans, protected behind their high walls, are very concerned about importing agricultural pests and diseases.

We are staying in Santiago as house guests with my brother and his family. They live in the suburb of Los Trapenses on the mountain side of Santiago. This is all new development. Building is allowed up to the 1000 metre mark and their place is at around 990 metres. Looking back down the valley, Santiago sprawls into the distance. There is a noticeable layer of pollution in the air. Warm air carrying pollution from traffic and factories gets trapped beneath a layer of cold air creating, particularly in winter, poor air quality. Already in the foothills, from here the heights rise quickly. The highest peak visible from Santiago is El Plomo at 5,434 metres. Now in October, there is still some snow on the summits. Looking towards the peaks from the back garden we can see the condors circling on the air currents, mobbed occasionally by smaller birds, and then, riding a draft, rapidly disappearing into the mountains.