The great thing about having a foreigner visit is that it makes you do things you never usually do or else makes you do things that you have wanted to do, but keep putting off. This often happened in South Africa and is now happening here in Santiago too. Stefanie, a friend from the States who I first met in Zimbabwe in November 2009 and who then stayed with me and Jen in South Africa, has been in Santiago for the last week. She has been travelling the world for close on two years and is now on her South American leg of the journey, so it was great to be able to meet up on another continent and swop travel stories. Thanks to her visit I did three things in one weekend that I have wanted to do for months…attend a local football match, go cueca dancing and visit the “Museo de Memoria” which looks at Chiles dark history during the Pinochet dictatorship. It was a jam packed weekend full of sports, culture and history along with good food, conversation (in Spanglish) and company!
First on our itinerary was football. I am still rather sad that I never got to experience the World Cup in South Africa last year, since the atmosphere seemed to be incredible. But experiencing it in football-crazy Chile kind of made up for missing it back home. I really believe that there is nowhere in the world more football crazy than South America – evidence of this is that the 30 minutes or so of sports news every night on TV consists of 29 minutes of football (from every league in South America and Europe it seems) and then occasionally one minute of other sports, but this is usually only when a Chilean sportsperson is involved in that other sport. Life revolves around football for most of the population and the local teams in the Chilean premier league are treated as gods.
So since football is such a huge part of the culture here and I am trying to understand and learn the “Chilean way” as much as possible, my experience would not be complete without a football game “en vivo”. My only problem was finding someone to go with me…whilst many people I know here love football and watch the games on TV and follow their favourite team, very few of them are ever crazy enough to go to the games at the stadiums. Especially if they are Colo Colo fans. This is the most popular and successful team with the most die-hard fans and the crowds often turn crazy after games and wreck the stadium and its surrounds in celebration of victories or anger over losses. Colo Colo is the team of the masses and whilst I hope this doesn´t sound classist or derogatory, I was told that most of the people who go to the matches are referred to as “flaites” – meaning poorly educated, lower class people, the equivalent of which could probably be the football hooligans in the UK. Indications of just how crazy the games can get include: 1) fans getting banned from games against archrival teams, 2) parts of the stadiums having tall fences to protect the players on the field and 3) these same parts of the stadiums having no seats since they have all been ripped up by hardcore supporters.
It was with these thoughts in my mind that Stefanie and I decided to go to a football game, but not just any game… one with Colo Colo at their home stadium in the south of Santiago. In the days before the game I asked lots of people if we were totally mad to do this as two women and two foreign women at that. Whilst I am pretty comfortable with my spanish these days, this does not stretch as far as speaking with and understanding flaites who I think speak a whole different language. The response I got from friends was mixed with some saying “don´t worry, you will be fine, just don´t take any valuables, don´t speak to anyone and leave the game before it finishes to avoid the crowds” and others saying “it is dangerous and they would never go to a Colo Colo game even as Chileans”. Me being me, decided to believe the first response and so we thought, what the hell, let´s just do it. We did follow the advice though and arrived before dark and took a taxi from the Metro to the stadium, which turned out to not be that necessary since the stadium was only two blocks away. But seeing riot police on horseback with even the horses wearing protective shields over their eyes made me realise this was no ordinary sporting event. We had also been told to go to a specific stand in the stadium which was brilliant advice as without this we could have ended up in the real hooligan section without chairs and huge fences – really not the place for two gringas. Instead we were with fairly regular looking people and even lots of families with small children, so I figured we were safe.
I am not a great fan of football and besides world cup events, I never watch games on TV and have never even thought of going to a local game in South Africa, but seeing a game live was really fun and the atmosphere was brilliant. The hardcore Colo Colo fans had a marching band, sang warcries and danced for the entire 90 minutes of the game. No wonder the chairs in that part of the stadium have been removed! On the opposite end of the stadium, also barricaded in was a small contingent of the opposition´s fans. La Serena is a smaller city about 450km north of Santiago and so obviously they didn´t have too many fans at the game. But those that were there gave the Colo Colo fans a run for their money with their own warcries, cheers and banners. This kind of atmosphere can´t be captured on TV and is the main reason I wanted to go to a game in the first place.
The game was fairly exciting with 5 goals being scored. However we missed seeing the first goal (and only one for the visiting team) because at that moment the fans in our stand started clapping and looking to the entrance where a bride and groom were walking in. This is just further proof of the loyalty fans have for their team – visiting a football stadium would not be high on my to-do list on my wedding day. But they were not very good luck for their team as right when they arrived La Serena scored and I only realised this afterwards when I looked at the scoreboard and saw Colo Colo – 0 La Serena – 1. Oops, need to be more observant and keep my eyes on the field. We did see the next four goals that Colo Colo scored! As instructed we left 5 minutes early and caught a taxi right outside the door who took as back to the Metro and we made our way to more familiar neighbourhoods in Santiago, unscathed and safe, but happy that I can now say I have seen a football match in South America…maybe next time I will be brave enough and head to an international game…
From sport to culture – straight from the game we headed out cueca dancing with Rodrigo, Coni and a bunch of other friends. We went to Huasu Enrique´s which is a really traditional restaurant with live cueca music every night and a great atmosphere. Rodrigo had taken me there back in November and I always wanted to return with a bunch of friends, so having Stefanie here provided a great excuse to go again. Back in November when I first tried cueca I decided I was not very good at it and so this time around, my injured knee provided a great excuse to not have to show off my lack of skills to all my friends. Instead Rodrigo showed Stefanie how to dance and she did incredibly well, not only with the moves, but also with the slightly coy/flirty attitude women have when they dance cueca.
In true Chilean style we only got home at 5:30am on Sunday morning and so slept rather late and had breakfast when most normal people would be having lunch. After restoring our energy levels we headed to the Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos (The memory and human rights museum). This is Chile´s version of the Apartheid Museum and tells the story of the 17 years of dictatorship from 11 September 1973 when General Augusto Pinochet and the army stormed the Government Palace in the centre of Santiago and the Communist President at the time (Salvador Allende) was found dead. The museum shows the story of the thousands of communist and socialist people who then disappeared after the coup, many of whom have never been found to this day. Despite all being in spanish, I still found the stories of missing family members, torture and death heartbreaking. But for me, what made the stories, pictures and video clips even more real was walking around the museum with someone who lived through the dictatorship – Rodrigo was very young during the 70´s and so doesn´t remember the coup and first years of dictatorship, but when he was in university in the 80´s he took part in many of the protests and could share with me his own stories. He even knew some of the people who had disappeared of been killed during the protests of the 80´s and recognised some of the people in photos. The dictatorship finally ended in 1990 in a surprisingly non-violent way. I think I am more used to hearing stories of dictators (like in Africa) holding on to power for as long as possible despite protests and international condemnation (no names mentioned…). The arrogance of Pinochet was his downfall as he lost the vote held in 1988 to decide whether to have elections or not. He was so convinced he would win that vote and then when it came to the elections the next year, he was still convinced he would win those. Thankfully he didn´t and he was ousted in 1990. Watching the video of the swearing in of the new president in the same national stadium where 17 years before people like Victor Jara (a famous musician) were tortured and executed, was touching. Parts were sad like where you had a woman dancing cueca alone because her husband had disappeared and also seeing many other people holding up signs with photos of their missing family members. But what struck me most was the speech by the new president where he said something along the lines of “never again will Chile be ruled by a dictator…” and it made me think of Nelson Mandela´s speech in 1994 when he said “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”. And this then got me thinking of the plaques for at least 30 countries around the world in the entrance hall of the museum which highlighted the atrocities by dictators and non-democratic governments and the subsequent truth and reconciliation commissions these countries had to have – it is so sad that so many countries have had to say “never again…” and many more countries are still facing the same shocking human rights abuses.
So between rowdy football fans, handkerchief waving dances and footage of mayhem and chaos from the dictatorship, it was definitely a more Chilean focused weekend then normal. Thanks to Stefanie for being the impetus for me to finally do all these things and good luck to her for the rest of her world journey…
“People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home.” – Dagobert D. Runes