With mixed feelings I cycle into Santiago. Big cities can be fascinating, but at the same time daunting. The traffic, the air pollution, the noise – after the last few months in the Patagonian wilderness it is a contrast that I have to get used to again. The streets are clogged with cars, the sidewalks full of people. Eight million live in this city and I know two of them.
No time for boredom
My friend Gabriel, who grew up in Santiago but is only here for a visit as well, takes me in warmly and I enjoy a comfortable bed, hot showers and warm meals. In the evenings he takes me to his friends, who are not only super nice, they all speak pretty good English and, to my delight, can easily switch the language in the middle of the conversation. Finally I can take part in a conversation and not only try to understand the Chilean gibberish.
I explore the positive sides of a city, let my new friends show me the sights, recommend museums, savor sushi and pizza and Peruvian food and manage to let go of my aversion to giant cities, at least a little bit. There are unlimited possibilities here, culturally and socially, there is always something going on and so many new people also mean potentially many new friends.
Santiago is a modern city. Skyscrapers point towards the sky while underground a modern metro takes over the transport of thousands of people. Huge shopping malls and shopping streets lure the more wealthy city dwellers out of their modern apartments with special offers and promises of happiness. Countless restaurants, bars and nightclubs don´t let the nights get boring.
One night I find myself in a small underground nightclub. One of these facilities which are not recognizable as such from the outside and whose address you only get on Facebook. No cumbia or latino pop is played here, but good electronic music. The hours pass and my body can´t stay calm, I had actually forgotten how much I like to dance. And also that excessive alcohol consumption causes severe headaches and general hangover.
In Santiago I can also apply my German skills. Anne, whom I also know from Crunchytown, works here in a hostel and one evening I find myself with ten other Germans gathered around a table, chattering loud and cheerful in our mother tongue. These are travelers like me who don´t have a job, don´t worry about money (at least as long as you still have some), who can sleep in every day if they want and who don´t have many obligations.
It´s of course a special status, because most people in Santiago do have a job and do worry about how they can make a living. They have to pay rent, food, bills, pay for children and other costs of life. Their lives are constructed around their jobs and the working days are long. When I take the metro at rush hour in the afternoon and look into the tense and exhausted faces of the people, who push themselves into the crowded trains, I am happy to live differently. Many have headphones in their ears and the eyes are kept towards the small luminous phone display. They are isolating themselves from their surroundings and escaping into the digital parallel world, which pervades the life of an average city dweller more and more. It is rare to hear people having a conversation or to catch a longer look or even a smile.
The vendors who jostle their way through the trains and monotonously proclaim their goods, chocolate bars, chewing gum, pens, empanadas, have a hard time. They are studiously ignored and I wonder how they make enough money to live. I’m always relieved when I leave the metro, but there is traffic jam on the streets as well. Impatient honking is the norm. After a ten hour day people just want to go home, eat, sleep or switch off in front of the TV.
For these people it seems normal to live this way. It seems normal that life revolves around work. To earn money, to pay bills and to buy things. But could it not be differently?
After two weeks in Santiago I have enough of the city. I notice how the stress of others jumps on me. Unconsciously, I adapt to the rush of the others, even start to overtake other people, even though I actually have all the time in the world. I walk through the huge and modern shopping malls, look in the shopping windows, although I actually have everything I need. The fast pace of the city bothers me, the many possibilities and the anonymity among the thousands of faces I look at every day. I also notice the absence of nature, apart from the parks and the view of the high mountains surrounding the city.
Andres, a friend I met at the Rainbow Gathering in Argentina, had offered me to live in his cabin by the sea as he’s traveling. It is just a few hours from Santiago. Not very ambitious to cycle, I take a bus and ask the bus driver to stop at the place described. I jump out of the bus and have a beautiful panorama view. In front of me is a steep, green mountain slope, which merges into rugged cliffs, behind where the endless blue sea extends to the horizon. No sign of human civilization except a narrow trail. It leads me to a small hut hidden under trees. Friends of Andres welcome me and then lead me to his hut, which will be my home in the next few weeks. Out of sight and earshot of the road, a simple wood and clay construction with a corrugated iron roof clings to the mountainside, offering fantastic views of the ocean, which rumbles a few hundred meters below at the cliffs. The hut is equipped with everything necessary: a table, a small gas stove for cooking, a fireplace for the cold nights, a mattress for sleeping.
It is the perfect place for me for this moment. To rest, to reflect, to be alone. To find myself and understand the reasons behind my travel fatigue. To make new plans and think about my priorities in life. Here I have my own space, I can take care of myself, nobody bothers me, no one is watching me. My own little kingdom, which I so often miss when traveling. When I step out of the hut, I hear the sound of the sea and the screaming of seagulls in the wind. I love sitting by the fire in the evening watching the sunset and then watching the stars in the sky. I like to rest and to not to spend every night in a new place.
And when it gets too lonely after a few days, I make friends with my neighbors. There are a few other huts here, all different and individual. They are not perfect, planned constructions, rather pieces of art, sprung out of the imagination and the dreams of creative people, translated step by step into reality and constantly changing.
There is the house of Luciano, which was built almost entirely of recycled materials and in which back wall three living trees are integrated. They grow through the roof and gently rock the hut when the wind is blowing strong. Old car windscreens serve as windows and offer panoramic views of the bay and ocean.
A few hundred meters further on is Hugo’s hut, the newest structure here. He proudly shows me the windows that open and the compost toilet behind the house. No one here has studied architecture or is a carpenter. By helping with other construction projects or simply by trying out the necessary experiences are made. Like the other huts, Hugos is only a part-time dwelling. Everyone has another place to live, with their parents in town or with friends.
The spear diver
Hugo is, as well as Luciano and my friend Andres, a spear diver. That’s his chosen way to earn the money he needs to live. Several times a week he descends the steep descent to the sea, equipped with wet suit, diving fins, lead belts and a harpoon. His dog Gaspar faithfully waits at the rocks, while Hugo turns into a fish and hunts for sea creatures for several hours.
Without any oxygen, he dives down to twenty meters and for several minutes. This way of hunting has been practiced for thousands of years and is increasingly forgotten. No wonder, modern fishing methods are of course much more efficient, but also much more destructive. But a single person with a harpoon can´t kill so many fish or collect so many shells that the equilibrium of the sea is in danger. It is a sustainable and exhausting way to hunt. The catch is sold to a restaurant in the next town, which cares about sustainable and environmentally friendly fishing.
The house builder
Another neighbor is Camilo. He also started to learn the art of spearfishing, but he earns the money he needs for living as a music teacher. Giving a few private lessons a week is enough for his simple lifestyle. So he has enough time for the important things in life. Construct his hut, make music, cook, unfold creative energy, just live.
Camilo started building his hut two years ago. He no longer wanted to live in the city and prefers peace and seclusion in nature. Without much prior knowledge, he started his construction project, the first winter he had to spend in a tent in the semi-finished construction. Meanwhile, his house is mostly waterproof, only after heavy rain the inner walls gets wet. I help Camilo to cover the outer walls with a layer of lime and to extend the roof for a terrace. We work with simple means. Handsaw, hammer and nails are the most important tools. The materials come from the immediate area if possible. Large stones for the foundation, soil is processed to fine sand with a large sieve and kneaded with water to clay. The posts and beams come from a nearby forest, dry grass is used as well as glass bottles and so-called eco bricks. These are plastic bottles filled with plastic waste, which turn waste into a valuable building material. Creativity is more important than planning, trying out is more important than studying.
Not only the construction of Camilo’s hut is simple, also his way of life is. No electricity, no running water, but candlelight and the sea right outside the front door. Once a week he goes to the market in the city to collect vegetables and fruits. Because everything the vendors can´t sell, lands on the ground to be swept up later and to end up as pig feed. Often it is only minor blemishes or bruises that make the food unsaleable but not inedible and quickly a big box of various vegetables and fruits is collected. Nature also provides a lot of things. Fish and shellfish from the sea, as well as cochayuyo, an algae which are a delicious and healthy addition to any dish.
But I’ll let Camilo speak for himself:
I like Camilo’s quiet manner and his way of life. During the time I spend here, we become friends. At some point I will build my own house as well, but where? is the question. For the moment I settle for repairing the hut of my friend Andres. I seal a hole in the wall through which water penetrates in heavy rain, build a rainwater collection system and a bank and improve the path which leads to the hut.
Time flies and I stay four weeks. Then I gathered the necessary strength and it gets too boring and a little too lonely in my hut by the sea. Also the one-hour drive in an often crowded bus to the next city for shopping,starts to annoy me. It is one of those farewells that I don´t find easy but that is part of traveling. Back in Santiago, I spend two more weeks before I continue. Bolivia is going to be the next destination.