Cueca, asados, chicha, fondas… These are, in fact, words and not simply noises, and sum up ‘la mes de la patria’ – the ‘month of the nation’ that leads up to day Chile celebrates its independence from Spain on September 18th, 1810. Happy 202nd birthday, Chile! You don’t look a day over 201.
So in recognition of this event, multitudes of activities and events are organised nationwide throughout the whole of September, culminating in this little nucleus of ‘main’ holidays towards the middle of the month. Throughout the country, one can visit a ‘fonda’ – a temporary fair of sorts set up in local parks, giving you games, craft stalls, food and drink, presentations and shows. Here, you can learn the Chilean national dance of the ‘cueca‘ and look like a nutter waving your hanky around, drink the traditional ‘chicha‘ and feel a little merry, or attend an ‘asado‘ and stuff your face with tasty barbecued meats. Preferably all three, not necessarily in that order.
This year, the people of Chile essentially got a week-long holiday – the preceding weekend, followed by the official days off for both Independence Day (the aforementioned ‘Dieciocho’, on the Tuesday), and National Armed Forces Day (or ‘Día de las Glorias del Ejército’, on the Wednesday), with the week collectively known as ‘Fiestas Patrias’ (literally ‘patriotic parties’). And knowing that said parties would be in full swing starting on the Friday, and so preempting how many of their employees would be claiming sick leave if they didn’t, many companies gave everyone the day off on Monday, too. Many people take this opportunity to grab the family and leave the smog of the city for the fresh air of… well, anywhere else that isn’t Santiago, really, which meant that everywhere was beautifully quiet during the day (just as it is at the weekend – everyone seems to vanish, and it’s great). Unfortunately for me, this also meant that the vast majority of my ESO-based friends also made the same decision, and either buggered off back to Europe (Dave, Roger and Martha, I’m looking at you!), were on shift at the relevant telescope for the duration (Andrew, dude, you suck) or nipped into the countryside for a few days. But all was not lost, as it turned out!
Day 1: Getting (Irish) jiggy with it!
On the Friday, we kicked off our patriotic side with a trip to… The Irish pub. Well, we were supporting a culture, just the wrong one! The Shamrock is a tiny little place hidden away behind an apartment building in Providencia, but good things come in small packages. Extremely friendly staff and customers, fun events throughout the week, live music at the weekend – a great place to wile away the hours, and one we frequently return to. We hadn’t been on ‘live band Friday’ before, so Roger (pre-UK trip) and I decided to check it out. A little while after we arrived, we happened to bump into two new friends of ours – Pablo and Veronica – who we had met at a previous pub quiz in the same place. So naturally we joined forces to enjoy some good company, drinks and music until about 3am (a great evening, but I always end up wanting to nip into the chippy for some nosh, before the crushing disappointment falls upon me as I remember that my nearest chippy is 8,000 miles away…).
Day 2: Round and round we go…
The next morning, after a wee lie-in, Roger and I decided to try to locate one of the city’s many fondas in the commune of La Reina. It was a beautiful day, and so we decided to walk there. Having used Google Maps to locate it and give us an estimated time of about 30 mins, we set off. After about 20 mins or so, we turn off onto the relevant road. However, there seemed to be no sign of the park at all. There was an extremely high fence that gave us glimpses of grass in the cracks, but it certainly didn’t look either accessible or like it was currently hosting a large, annual event. So we ended up circumnavigating this entire mystery complex, looking like two very bemused and confused creatures, trying and failing to find an entrance. Eventually we seem to end up in a fairly residential area, and make a stop-off at a Starbucks we stumble across to grab some caffeine and ask for directions (again, being so cultural with completely the wrong culture!). So after potentially being pointed in the right direction, we set off again. And no, we don’t find an entrance, and end up back at the same point we first started following this mystery grassy place. By this point, we both think “ah, sod it, try again tomorrow!” and head back in the general direction of my apartment. At least the sun had been shining and we got plenty of fresh air (well, ‘fresh’…) and exercise! Determined to make something of the day, we did the next best thing: nipped into a local supermarket, bought a litre of ice cream, grabbed two spoons from my apartment, and headed to the small park at the bottom of my road for the last couple of hours of sunlight.
And this was pleasant enough in itself – lots of families there with their children and dogs, all playing and running around, and generally giving us something to watch as we shovelled banana and manjar flavoured ice cream into our mouths. Once I got back to my apartment when we had parted company, I got back on Google maps to see where we had gone wrong. It turned out that what we had been trying to break in to was in fact a golf club, and not the park we had wanted at all! The park we had wanted turned out to be a thirty minute walk from there. This made us feel a little better, knowing that we had in fact been nowhere near where we wanted to be, as it would have been far more irritating if we had found out that it was actually behind us all along or something silly like that… Out of curiosity, Roger traced where we had walked that day and discovered that we’d covered a good 10km walking distance that day! Ice cream well deserved, I reckon. Lesson learnt from the day: double check what Google Maps spits out at you before you go careering off. 🙂
Day 3: “Down with that sort of thing!”
So after triple-checking that we knew exactly where we were going this time, Roger and I set off to find this fonda in La Reina again after a cracking Café Melba breakfast (well, we couldn’t put him on a plane back to the UK that night without one!). Although this time we majorly cheated and got a taxi anyway, to minimise human (read: my) error. We got there fairly early, around 12pm, although they had things happening until midnight. So, we paid our entrance fee, were given the most useless map I have ever had in my life (and that includes the one that mysteriously disappeared over breakfast in Pucón), and entered the park to wander around aimlessly for a few hours. When entering the park, we first came across the sort of fairground that they had set up for the kids, including some awesome-looking bouncy castle type things that I would have been on given half a chance, stalls with games like hoop-la (with some distinctly non-kiddy prizes up for grabs, like a bottle of pisco), candy floss, a zip-line, and haggard-looking parents.
Beyond the fairground, an array of temporary asadaos had been set up to form mini outdoor restaurants where you can enjoy plenty of meat and booze. A stage was being set up for live music later on, too.
There were several stalls set up by various groups or companies, I guess explaining what they do alongside making you do something fun (the stall for the water supplier had one of those bull rides, for example… totally relevant). So each of the armed forces had one (of course I liked the air force stall! I love planes!) with mock-ups of tanks, boats, the gear they use, etc. Perhaps one of the more interesting things we spotted was a replica of one of the capsules used to rescue the 30 Chilean miners last year, and you could stand inside it to get a feel for what they had to go through – not sure I could have kept calm in there for the half hour trip or whatever it was, whilst being surrounded by metres of rock that could crush you at a moment’s notice… Impressive feat of engineering, though!
So as well as the “come and look how great we are!” stalls, there were also plenty of them selling art, crafts, clothes, and so much chocolate that I thought I would never leave that place. They also randomly had some farm animals on display, including the world’s cutest baby goat, and the obligatory llama.
There are also some permanent features in this park. One of which is that there are places where you can host your own asadao with your friends and family. You simply pay a small fee to hire one of the BBQ pits, take a pile of food and drink (and in this case, decorate it with as many cheesy Chilean-flag themed things as you can get your hands on), and there you have it. Something I definitely want to do once the weather warms up! There is also a small man-made lake to one end of the park for people to have a play on a peddle-lo for a little bit, and bomb it around and bother the ducks. Delightful.
After a little wander and an empanada or two, we deiced to go and check out what was being advertised as a ‘traditional rodeo’ in one of the main arenas. As we were waiting, a little airshow appeared overhead! Aerobatics, drawing hearts in the sky, that sort of thing. Always incredibly impressive to watch, especially one guy who was flying solo who would fly up almost completely vertical, appear to stall, then free-fall down in a straight line before pulling up and away. More than once we both sat there going “… Is he meant to be doing that?!” Scary stuff! Did I mention I love planes?
Eventually, after standing all the riders came out on parade for the national anthem (of which Roger and I performed a cracking version, singing along the lines of: “Lalalalalaaaa… lalala-dee-daaaa… da-daaaa-doo-doooo…”), the flag was raised and the games began. The general rules are as follows: teams of two riders (the team being known as a “collera”, but the individual riders being known as “huasos”), in fetching matching ponchos in this case, go at time when the cow is released. They then have to pin the cow, with the chests of their specially-trained horses (they have to learn to gallop sideways!), between one of two padded walls set up on the inner ring with the aim of scoring as many points as possible. The points are determined by which part of the cow they pin e.g. 4 points for the back end, 0 points for the head end… Each team gets three attempts (or “atajadas”) before they swap both cow and teams. Roger and I ended up with front-row seats to make sure we could get some pictures of the action.
Although we ended up getting more than we bargained for… As one collera finished up their turn, three people jumped over the side of the ring from the spectator stands and ran into the centre. Initially a little confused as to who they were and why they seemed to want to get trampled, they reached into the jumpers and pulled out banners with “FIN AL RODEO!” (“end the rodeo!”) and “ABOLICIÓN!” (“abolition!”, duh.) in bright blue letters. Animal rights protesters! Cue instant security running in after them and dragging them off, surrounded by the old riders looking grumpy that they were trying to spoil their fun (seriously, none of them looked under the age of about 60!) to cheers from the crowd. People retook their seats, and the rodeo continued….for one more round, before the ring was suddenly inundated with about ten more protesters, waving their banners as the rest of the gang suddenly lept up out of their seats in one side of the spectator stands and started shouting out their chants! So, the few security people (and a couple of volunteers from the crowd) start to man-handle the rowdy bunch out of the ring before they got themselves trampled, but they would not go willingly! They started thrashing about when someone grabbed them, I’m assuming hurling abuse, one guy even tried to kick the camera out of the official photographer’s hand as he captured the action, missing it by an inch. The crowd were starting to shout back, and the announcer on the tannoy was calling for the Carabineros (the sort-of military police of Chile, equivalent to La Guarda Civil in Spain) to come and assist who I think either couldn’t hear or were pretending they couldn’t… So it all got pretty chaotic for quite a while, as the chanting group in the stands started throwing water on members of the crowd who confronted them, there were protesters literally getting rugby tackled to the floor before being dragged out of the arena, security running in and out trying to regain control of the situation and stop other people trying to get involved… Eventually they managed to get the people who had run into the ring out again, and the rodeo continued above the shouts from the very irate protesters in the stands. At this point, Roger and I decided to make a hasty retreat before things kicked off again! I respect that people have their own opinions about such events, but come on – this was a family event, there were elderly couples, children, babies… And they were risking turning it into a massive fight where people could very easily get hurt. It’s a tradition that’s been in the country for hundreds of years, and is still a part of everyday life in cattle-ranching in some parts of the country. One of the first things you learn about the Chilean people is how proud they are of both who they are and what they do. Making a scene during a fiesta is not going to change that…
Day 4: Monday, Monday, so good to me…
Monday day was spent in a lazy fashion, as one would expect from me. That afternoon, I had been invited to what was advertised as a “BBQ and movie” over at Pablo’s place (the same Pablo from the pub on the Friday). So I went over, and they had decided to have the food indoors as the weather was looking a little dodgy. I met a few new faces who were there already when I arrived (including his gorgeous little Westie, Toby, who has a really bizarre obsession with feet…), and we set up the jenga set on the table… Except it then turned into “shot jenga”, where the person to knock it down has to take a shot of something clearly lethal and very alcoholic. As you can imagine, this does not improve one’s dexterity for subsequent games! As the evening progressed, plenty more people came and we ended up having a great house party with plenty of great food, x-box kinnect, music, dancing, flowing wine and pisco, and great new company. Cue stumbling home 12 hours later…
Day 5: Independence day… Chi-Chi-Chi! Le-Le-Le! *cough-sneeze-cough!*
Needless to say, I did not wake up until 1:30pm the next day after the events of the night before! I had arranged to meet the gang again that day at the same park Roger and I went to for the official celebrations. However, I felt so awful and exhausted that I never ended up going 😦 Turns out I had in fact caught a cold (as dictated by the week of snottiness that followed… and I don’t mean I was condescending!). Which was a shame, as I’d been looking forward to it – and they all managed to wangle their way onto the local news covering the event! (see from the start ’til around 1:20). Still, I was there in spirit, and had my Chilean flag in my apartment to show my solidarity. Viva Chile!
The day after, National Armed Forces Day, was obviously also spent in bed – never mind! Thursday, it was back to work. And after the majority of the holiday having been overcast and on the chilly side, naturally this day was beautiful with clear blue skies and the sun beating down. Typical.
I guess this is the only major celebration I’ll witness here, seeing as though I’ll be back in the UK for both Christmas and New Year, so it was a nice little experience despite ending it with some slight sickness! As I mentioned earlier, the Chilean people are a very proud people. Despite a somewhat checkered past with the Pinochet regime, Chile remains a beautiful country with some lovely traditional history to it. It’s a country trying to move on. They deserve to celebrate.
Hasta la proxima,