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ON THE OTHER HAND – South American sojourn

Peter Laurie

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Why vacation in the southern hemisphere during its winter? Simple. It’s cheaper and less crowded. So wife, son and I visited Chile and Argentina in June. As usual we arranged everything through the Internet: flights, a hotel in Santiago and an apartment in Buenos Aires. Much to the amusement of my family, my pre-planning includes identifying the nearest supermarket, the nearest Catholic church and times of the Mass. I even gave them the name of the officiating priest. We spent four days in Santiago. Disappointing. Clean, well-organised, good transport, but its charms are modestly hidden. Reminds me of the first official Jamaican delegation to visit Ethiopia. They took along a Rasta. After the delegation met with Haile Selassie, the emperor asked to see the Rasta alone. After he came out, the other Jamaicans eagerly enquired whether the emperor had confirmed he was God.
The Rasta shook his head: “ ’Im a very modest God.” Our best experience was having lunch in the enormous central fish market where there are about 20 seafood restaurants (not Oistins-type stalls, but real restaurants) offering everything from conger eel soup to black sea urchins to any kind of fish you could possibly want. Delicious and cheap meal, washed down with a cold Sauvignon Blanc. It’s curious that our last three annual vacations were in places noted for food and wine: San Francisco, Cape Town and Chile/Argentina. I can’t restrain my wife. We took a bus and spent one day in the port city of Valparaiso, a UNESCO site. Quaint, colourful, dirty. Full of character.Another memorable experience was visiting the home of South America’s greatest poet Pablo Neruda, an episode in whose life is memorably captured in the film The Postman. One of the planned highlights of the trip was to have been the six-hour bus journey from Santiago across the Andes to Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina. Apparently the views are spectacular. But it was not to be. The pass through the mountains was closed because of snow. We spent the morning in the packed food court at the bus station watching Chile play Honduras. Infectious camaraderie.We eventually flew into Buenos Aires that night and spent eight days there. Buenos Aires, a city of about 13 million souls, is magnificently beautiful, not undeserving of its reputation as the “Paris of the South”. Our apartment, beautifully furnished with antiques, was in an old bohemian part of the city, full of character and pickpockets, whom we ingeniously avoided by putting our wallets in my wife’s handbag, strung around her neck.Nobody steals from her. Trust me.Next door was a square where every Sunday there is a famous antiques market. Artists also display their paintings and crafts and street musicians and tango dancers perform. Both in Santiago and Buenos Aires food markets and street vending are major attractions.Argentina produces quite a selection of wines, which, although not as popular as those of its neighbour Chile, are fine and cheap.We found our favourite rum shop, a “hole in the wall” where they served beef and sausages from a huge grill. Customers just milled around on the street and washed it down with wine or beer. The bestseller is the choripan, a huge cutter made with grilled chorizo sausage.  On the last day we visited Evita’s tomb in an upscale cemetery where all the coffins are in vaults above the ground.We also went to see the obligatory tango show, which was as authentically Argentinian as a night at the Plantation Theatre is authentically Bajan. Entertaining, nevertheless. The tango has to be the most sensual and erotic dance ever created. Our Kadooment revellers must understand that unimaginatively mimicking copulating dogs is not erotic. It’s just crude.Although it was winter in both countries we enjoyed gloriously sunny and mild weather. For all things wonderful, let us be thankful.• Peter Laurie is a retired diplomat and a commentator on social issues.