Dancing the Cueca

We stroll to the Centro Gabriela Mistral, GAM for short, for a coffee. We walk around the large art exhibition cum market staged by a group of professionals who are obviously very well organised. By and large the work is graphic and precise, often with a humorous slant. It is all well executed and very well presented. There are a couple of more painterly ones I like but I’m not in the market. Whatever you think, these folk are businesslike. They present themselves like their pictures, stylishly and to my way of thinking a bit preciously but this may be just the envy of one of nature’s scruffs.

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We walk out past the MoD or equivalent. A large, dark coloured and suitably dominant and sinister edifice. Shades of the bad old days. The streets of Lastarria with their elegant buildings are quiet and rather chilly in spite of the bright sunshine. The booksellers just setting up their stalls for another day of peddling culture to the masses. The church of the Vera Cruz looks like it was built out of a child’s wooden building blocks.

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We take the path through the Parque Forestal to Mercado Central. Dogs are being walked here, though not in the outrageous numbers you see in Britain nowadays. It’s the fashion to dress your dog in a smart coat. Correction, one lady does have five dogs all dressed in identical pink coats. I speculate that she may be training them up for the stage after the model of the von Trapps.

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The rather noisy birds flying around we identify as starlings in spite of the absence of stars, These birds are a glossy black but lack the striking light eye colour of their North American cousins. They can be quite melodious. In passing, Alison drops into the Belle Artes museum to see if her lost hat has turned up. No joy.

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Nearing the mercado we pass a heroic war statue executed in bronze with all the usual militaristic palaver. Alison spots the cat sprawled high up on what one would assume was an inaccessible ledge. The sybaritic animal has obviously sussed it as a warm spot, appropriated it as of right and reached it by the invocation of feline magic.

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We notice that the river bridge next to the market is very crowded. We follow out of interest. The crowd is exceedingly dense. The bridge is lined with folk selling bog rolls, sweets, street food, cheapjack jewellery, more bog rolls and one lugubrious pair with two chicken carcasses tied to a shopping trolley frame. There are the obligatory jugo de naranja sellers with their orange crusher and job lot of cheap oranges. This seems to be a rite of passage for any aspiring street merchant in the city.

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We realise this vast crowd is headed for a downmarket twin of the Mercado Central and just across the river from it. It is a huge place with an odd structure of internal roof buttresses which are mainly made of holes. There are a vast range of stalls selling everything colourful. The noise of the crowd and the sellers is deafening.

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We climb to the second floor and see that an event is in progress below us. It turns out to be a large group of people of all ages dancing the traditional cueca Chileno. This is a colourful and lively affair based, so I’m told, on the courtship dance of the cock and hen. Handkerchiefs are wielded seductively to the accompaniment of intricately flirtatious steps. The music is suitably lively and melodic. It is a treat to watch particularly as the dancers are dressed in what I assume is the colourful national costume.

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There is also a Marian shrine set up with two large Chilean flags, lilies and gold and silver tinsel, for what purpose I don’t know, just part of the Latin scene I guess. We run the gauntlet of the seafood cafe proprietors trying to sell us lunch on our way out but we plan to dine in the actual mercado. So it’s back across the river.

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The crowds are just as dense as before, the sellers as numerous. We come to a very busy crossing on the very busy road. Here we encounter the world’s most laid back dog. Ever. In the middle of the maelstrom of feet is one of Santiago’s many street dogs. It is fast asleep on the pavement and completely oblivious to the commotion. As a demonstration of zen detachment this would take a bit of beating.

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The Mercado Central’s big thing is seafood. The inside is stall after stall of the fruits of the sea. All sorts of scaly, finny, spiny and tentacled things have ended up here to appease the Santiagueno hunger. The centre it seems, is one big, open seafood restauraunt of ornate old fashioned aspect complete with liveried waiters. We are accosted by each one in turn who is eager to show us to a table. We do what the crabs on the menus should have done and scuttle sharply off to the side to look at some of the less pretentious eateries on the periphery. A rather pleasant and unpushy lady patiently explains the menu of her restaurant and describes its delights. We succumb to her understated charm and enter. There are many small tables here which makes it seem small and a bit crowded but the atmosphere seems good. We are seated upstairs.

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At this point I decide I need the toilet. We ascertain that the baños are outside and a little way down the corridor. On reaching it I find it costs $300 (i.e. 300 Chilean Pesos) which I don’t have, my money being left with Alison. Back I go and get it. I return to the baños and am admitted through the turnstile. An attendant shows me into a cubicle which is in fact a shower stall. I look outside to query the attendant about what is clearly a misunderstanding. I’m not sure how I intend to do this with my non existent Spanish but this is an academic consideration as the man has disappeared. I enter another cubicle. This is also a shower. Well, when in Rome and all that. I pee down the hole. More or less. I come out. Still no attendant. At least there are washing facilities. I avail myself of these and depart in some haste, convinced I will be pursued by an irate Chilean shouting “Stop that guy! He just peed in our shower!” This doesn’t happen. Now I can testify to the fact that yer average male toilet in Santiago looks pretty much as they do anywhere else in the known world so what exactly was going on here I do not know.

I return to our table. We have lemons and bread. A band consisting of two large men with guitars and a singer somehow squeeze themselves in and serenade the tables. It is quite pleasant.The meal which is actually whatever hake and rice is in Spanish served with garlic butter and washed down with fizzy water is very tasty. It is served by an Aztec boy who moves between the tables nimbly and serves dextrously. He’s been chosen for his size, anyone bigger couldn’t manage in this space.

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We finish our meal and walk to the city’s famed Pre-Columbian museum. It is housed in what was the Palace Real de Aduana, a massive edifice which has its various floors dedicated to different regions of Latin America. You start in the basement, which seems to lie several kilometres below the Earth’s mantle and work your way up. There are huge maps and timelines which only served to emphasise my vast ignorance of the culture of the region.

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I’d heard of the Aztecs, Incas, Olmecs and one or two others. I had the vaguest idea of who they were. But here you have a wonderful collection from a bewildering variety of cultures spanning several millennia. The presentation is excellent, much of the information in both Spanish and English. There are many strange and beautiful things here, most in an extraordinary state of preservation. The problem was that I couldn’t relate them to any of my limited and distinctly Eurocentric knowledge of history. How do these tie in with the Romans? The Normans? The reformation? It can’t be done. Eventually it was too much and I gave up and succumbed to museum fatigue.

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We took another coffee and mused on the dearth of fat people in Santiago. We wandered out and on to the Plaza de Armas, a large square with a couple of imposing buildings and a lot of big palms and other fine plants. There was an awful racket being made by three men dressed in the gaucho style costume. They wore huge drums on their backs which were beaten by means of levers attached to their feet. They also swung sticks backwards with their arms. They were leaping around in such a way as to produce a short but loud rhythmic tattoo. Not my scene, man, but it drew a fair level of applause from the large numbers of people strolling and sitting in the warm late afternoon sunshine shining past the tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral and through the palm fronds.

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Close by, from a marquee stage where a big crowd was gathered, dance music struck up. It was another cueca session. The music was played by a band of accordions and guitars and was great fun. The event was held by the Mesa National de Folklore. The dancing this time involved the general public. Some dressed for the occasion in national gear. Some just in their street clothes. Once again, very pleasingly, all ages joining in together. More seductive and flirtatious handkerchief work by the cocks and hens and a good time was had by all. The atmosphere was lovely. Another laid back dog sprawled sublimely untroubled in the heart of the hubbub.

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There were a large number of men playing chess at tables set out for the purpose in one corner of the square. Spectators seemed to regard the activity as interactive, offering advice and criticism. A couple of ladies at a nearby small stall were selling churros. These are long doughnuts produced in mesmerising spirals by a machine and cut to length with scissors. They are very battery and sugary, healthy eating they ain’t. We purchased six and devoured the lot.

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We strolled back to Huerfanos. It was getting dark. Several small groups of carbineros de Chile were wandering round in evening stroll mode. Their base is close to our apartment. A lot of stalls were still trading in a street market and Alison purchased a hat of pre-Columbian design to replace the one she donated to the Museo de Belle Artes. We dropped Into the supermarket for supplies and then it was home to another simple but effective meal.

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A last look out from our balcony far above the street. The Andes are silhouetted against the late evening sky. Alpha and Beta Centauri are setting to the north east and below them, visible for the first time this trip, the Southern Cross.

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