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In Neruda’s hometown

Santiago is a true reflection of Pablo Neruda’s exuberance and free-spiritedness — flying the flag of Chilean prosperity high

In Neruda’s hometown

As soon as I landed in Chile’s capital Santiago, a local friend who had come to receive me winked at me and said, “Welcome to one of the most infidel cities in Latin America”.

As someone who did not know much about Chile and of course about ‘infidelity’, I was rather shocked. And, believe me, I got plenty of shocks — and after-shocks — during the rest of my one week-long stay in this far-off place, also known as the last country in the world. According to Chile’s earthquake tracker website, the country gets as many as 659 in 365 days, making it one of the world’s most earthquake-prone countries. There can be as many as 44 earthquakes in a month.

This is normal. A journalist friend told me they have a policy not to report an earthquake if it is five or less than five on the Richter Scale. “Anything above it can get some place in our newspaper columns,” he said.

Everything else about that little house is unique and speaks of what Neruda is or what he loved. There is an element of sea in everything in the house, in the paintings, artefacts and trinkets.

Chileans have learnt to live with these jolts. No wonder they seek adventures elsewhere — in infidelity and sexual adventures. After all, you only live once.

In Santiago, apart from paying homage to Salvador Allende, the first Marxist to become president through general elections in any Latin American country, who later committed suicide when the military backed by CIA tried to oust him through a coup, I wished to visit my childhood icon and literary giant Pablo Neruda’s house. So, the very next day we set out to see Neruda’s Santiago house.

He has three houses in Chile — one in Santiago, one in Isla Negra and one in Valparaiso.

His Santiago house is situated in the peaceful neighbourhood of Barrio Bellavista, on the slopes of San Cristobal Hill. It is called La Chascona, literally meaning ‘wild mane of hair’ in Chilean Spanish — and even that very name is a hallmark of Neruda’s ingenuity. It was named after his mistress (see infidelity) Matilde Urrutia, whom he nicknamed Chascona because of her red untamed hair. She lived there alone till 1955, when Neruda separated from his wife and moved in with her.

During the tour of the house, as the audio guide mentioned Neruda’s mistress, my friend looked at me, and said: “Didn’t I tell you about the Chilean infidelity?” I couldn’t suppress my laugh in that beautiful nest of love called La Chascona.

Everything about that little house is unique and speaks of what Neruda is or what he loved. There is an element of sea in everything in the house, in the paintings, artefacts and everything. Other than that one finds paintings by famous artists and original chinaware on the dining table and in cupboards as it was laid in the times of Pablo Neruda. According to the Pablo Neruda Foundation brochure, the original architect wanted the house to face the sun but Neruda wanted the view of the mountains, so he turned the whole plan around. Architect Rodriguez Arias had once confided that the house was more a Neruda creation than his. His house truly reflects his love for the sea.


In one room hangs a painting of two-faced Matilde, one of a singer that people know and the other of Neruda’s lover. And if you see the painting carefully you will find Neruda hidden in her long wild red hair. Neruda’s stamp was everywhere — even in Matilde’s painting.

Chile is a far richer country than most of her neighbours. According to the World Bank, it is one of South America’s most stable and prosperous nations.

Apart from Santiago’s ugly-looking airport, everything in the city speaks of its riches. Wide crisscrossing boulevards, beautifully designed quake-proof tall buildings, richly-ornamented red-bricked bungalows and churches, sprawling lush green parks, boundless cultural and historical heritage, Pablu Neruda, Salvador Allende, and last but not the least its happy, healthy, party-loving citizens. Boys and girls dancing by the roadside or under the roof of one its massive metro stations is a common sight. The beauty of Chilean nation is that even after bearing the tyranny of dictator Pinochet for almost two decades they have not forgotten how to live a life. They know how to chill!

My next stop was Santiago Press Club to pay homage to journalists the Pinochet killed during his reign of tyranny. Circulo De Periodistas or the press club, situated in the centre of the city, close to Palacio La Moneda (Presidential Palace in Spanish) from where Pinochet ousted Salvador Allende and installed himself, is a living memory of those who sacrificed their lives for speaking the truth. A corner of the building is dedicated to those killed. Their pictures with names and introduction hang there.

Santiago has a dedicated museum for those who lost their lives during the Pinochet regime. Unfortunately, it was closed due to some construction work when I went to see it. But the whole of Santiago is a fitting testament to the tyranny of the US-backed dictator. Some of the walls and streets still bear bullets marks and some bungalows and mansions that were set on fire back then have been left in the burnt down state to remind the youth of the country’s past.

Dining room

According to the Chilean government, the number of executions and forced disappearances during the Pinochet regime was around 3,100. Santiago is a living memory of the people’s resurrection.

As Chile is a vibrant economy, it attracts hordes of immigrants from its neighbouring countries. It has a large population of Colombians, sizeable number of Peruvians and economic migrants from Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and even as far as Nicaragua. Like in the Middle East, where people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh go to earn dirhams and riyals, Latin American economic migrants try their luck in Chile, doing odd jobs even at the risk of being exploited.

Chile’s narrow strip of land is connected with all those countries through land route and has a long, more than 6,400km, Pacific coastline.

Interestingly, it is also host to the world’s driest Atacama Desert, a 1,000km long strip of land along the Pacific coastline, west of Andes mountains, where it has its most minerals and mines — and it is that place where you can see the clear bright sky 365 days of every year.

Remember the 33 Chilean miners who got trapped more than 2000 feet underground in Atacama Desert? When one 44 year old miner, Johnny Barrios, came out on the surface after 69 days, there were two women to greet him: one was his wife and the other was his mistress. His mistress stepped forward and hugged him, his wife remained where she stood, then left without saying a word. Infidelity!

I’ve had the best South American food in Peru. It’s called the gastronomy capital of the world. I can write volumes on Peruvian food but will save that for some other time. For now let’s stick to Chilean food. Although it has its mouth-watering culinary specialities, compared to Peru they are bland. Some of their best known dishes are pastel de choclo, a kind of corn casserole stuffed with meat, empanadas (pastry filled with meat, cheese or mussels) and cazuela, which is a beef, chicken, corn, rice and potato stew.

Like Christopher Columbus, I set out on my first South America tour to find my kind of El Dorado but by default, because of my being a true Lahorite, I got stuck with El Picante. Columbus pursued gold, I was happy with the hot spice.

Arif Shamim

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