“Let’s see… how much money do I need today?”
I laughed at my own question. Considering the plans for the afternoon, whatever I have in my wallet never be enough.
Every day, I take a bit of cash with me, usually 20,000—oh, stop wanting to be my friend, these are Chilean pesos, it’s about $40. For “normal Santiago,” it’s plenty, but on Avenida Vitacura, it’s probably nothing.
Santiago is huge. I know the city pretty well from Quinta Normal through Providencia—Barrio Brasil with the Museum of Memory and Human Rights and the colourful murals, the crowded downtown core, La Alameda, Bellavista and Patronato, Santa Lucía and Bellas Artes, etc. but I rarely venture into the many suburbs. I saw them from Cerro San Cristóbal, that’s it.
The other day, when I looked at the contact info for the studio I was renting after coming back from Concepción earlier than planned, I noted the property management office was in Las Condes. One thing led to another and I spent half an hour on Google Maps checking out the neighbourhood and its main avenue, Vitacura, sometimes compared to Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. I decided it was worth a visit.
To meet Santiago’s upper class, you have to walk up the long Avenida Providencia all the way to the end, where Avenida Vitacura starts.
At least, it’s easy to find.
I know Providencia pretty well—it’s a middle-class neighbourhood with plenty of shops and restaurants along the main eponymous avenue with at the end the tall tower of the Costanera Centre, a fancy shopping mall. It’s close enough to the Pedro de Valdivia entrance of the Metropolitan Park, which is how Feng and I “discovered” it a few years ago.
This time, after a quick bathroom break at the mall—free and clean bathrooms, don’t miss the opportunity! —I kept on going straight. I walked by bank headquarters, shiny towers home to big corporations, professionals in office attire on their lunch break, guys in suit and tie speeding past me on their electric scooter and plenty of office workers enjoying a smoke break outside their building or shouting on the phone (and occasionally doing both at the same time).
I was already a world away from the folks selling avocados, bananas, grapes, toilet paper, sweet bread, Venezuelan treats or deep-fried anything from a supermarket cart in my neighbourhood.
Of course, there was a French bakery (and a few French people inside, how did they even know it was here??) selling $3 croissants and pain au chocolat. A block further was a “fake” French bakery, selling treats that looked suspiciously Chilean for the same price.
The benches were empty, no homeless in sight.
There were sprinklers watering patches of the greenest grass you’d see so close to the Andes.
Most stores had French names, some of them actually spelled properly—it probably helped that one of Santiago’s most exclusive French international school, Lycée Antoine-de-Saint-Exupéry de Santiago, is in the neighbourhood. There was a cute art shop (“L’art parisien”) right besides a “gentleman club” (I think it’s called a “strip bar” in my down-to-earth neighbourhood). I wish I could be offended that French culture is always associated to sex, food and art, but I’ve just made dinner, I’m typing this half-naked sitting on the bed (it’s hot, alright?!) and I’m finishing editing pictures, so yeah, maybe there’s some truth to it.
Of course, the side streets were named after French writers or military leaders. Slums rarely have poetic names, except in France where poor suburbs are usually named after the left-wing politicians or artists who tried to change the world and failed.
I had always wondered why there are always so many old American tourists lost in Providencia, looking for either some chain restaurant or the subway station. Got it—there are plenty of posh international hotel chains in Vitacura.
I don’t have a personal vendetta against the middle and upper class. I do have a problem with people living a sheltered life, especially if they are in a position of power. How can you manage a bank if you don’t realize many of your customers are barely getting by? How can you sell products if you don’t know the workers who make them?
And I hate neighbourhoods with security cameras everywhere—“we’re watching you, stranger, we’re also watching the neighbours, the stray dogs and anyone who look like he doesn’t belong to our exclusive club!”
I was getting thirsty and inconveniently, there weren’t dozens of guys standing on the sidewalk with their cooler shouting, “¡a quinientos la agua!”
Time to go back to the real world.