As we walked out of the sunlight and into the Mercado Central of Santiago something went wrong. It wasn’t supposed to.
I had read a lot of good things about the Mercado. Both on my guide book, on many blogs, hell, even Anthony Bourdain came to eat here! My hopes couldn’t have been higher. But by the end I felt like a child being told Santa Claus wasn’t real.
The market was dead, for a start. All the restaurants inside its dark interior were empty, but not short of hosts trying to lure you in. Their advertising methods reminded me of the street hawkers in the Life of Brian. Alms for a leaper, alms for a leaper.
What was more striking about the hosts was their Orwellian uniformity. All of them wore ubiquitous vests, bow ties and black trousers. The only thing more uniform than their clothing were the menus they peddled.
Salmon, hake, conger eel and seafood dominated that desert of cuisine. They were served with chips and eggs, not a hint of salad, and every restaurant twinned the other. Was this why it was empty? There was exciting looking stalls inside the market where you could buy large fish and a healthy assortment of seafood. But all that produce, the fruits of the nearby Pacific, seemed to be ending up in the kitchens of the citizens of Santiago, not its restaurants.
A driver did tell us once that these days the freshest of Chilean produce is exported and to find something truly local you’d have to be in the know. The restaurants inside the Mercado Central, so close to the source, didn’t seem to be in the know.
Disappointed yet still not shorn of hope, we emerged into the clear Santiago sunlight, took a few pictures with a magnificently woolly lama, owned by an indigenous father and son duo, and decided to cross the bridge and walk to the nearby La Vega market.
Little did we know we were actually descending into Santiago’s heart of darkness. I didn’t smell napalm there in that time of the morning – I don’t want to know what I smelt there.
As we crossed the bridge and entered the Recoleta district of Santiago, we saw a gaggle of street sellers lined up outside the La Vega. They sold fried tamales and hot dogs. Others sold – I can hardly remember what they sold, anything under the sun. The market itself looked like a disused stadium.
Inside it was loud, dark and in the centre there was a man saying prayers under an icon of the Virgin. It was an oasis of cleanliness and light in a very dark and forbidding temple. The first floor of what we learned was La Vega Chica, sold nothing but fruit and vegetables. Most of the stalls displayed Venezuelan or Peruvian flags. Upstairs there was a cocktail of dives and clothe stalls.
Finding the ambiance underwhelming, we decided to dive deeper into the heart of darkness by finding La Vega itself. We soon found it. But to get there we had to walk past streets that were in an appalling state of decay. Street vendors mingled with stray dogs, pavements were broken, the roads uneven, undeveloped shops and rundown houses enveloped us.
Then we found La Vega proper. And I admit this was something of a saving grace. The atmosphere was buzzing. The labyrinthine alleyways of the market were full of life. Each section of the market was segregated; meat alley, vegetable alley, chicken alley, fish, etc. There was even one part of it that had a few civilised-looking food stalls.
To try and strip our points of view from the tourist’s mindset we decided to buy some local produce from the market to cook something back at the flat. We bought lettuce, tomatoes, onions, walnuts – desperate as we were for a salad, which was as rare in a Santiago restaurant as non-smoker in France. And it was a gratifying experience. Nothing makes you feel more local than shopping in a city’s market.
But the sensation of belonging would be violently guillotined the moment we stepped outside La Vega. We were looking to head back to the metro, across the bridge, near the Mercado Central, but La Vega disorientated us and we took a wrong turn.
And it was a hellish turn. We emerged on the farther end of the market and we were met with a scene of poverty so rough and brutal that we both felt shocked and uneasy.
Everywhere there were homeless people scavenging the bins of La Vega. A pair of policemen chased some criminal ghosts in the labyrinth at the back of the market. Everyone laughed it off. We didn’t. There were clothes hanging outside houses that looked like they were bombed yesterday. The roads and pavements were laced in rubbish. People all around us threw whatever they had in their hands onto the pavements. To further add to the feeling of a bombing, giant, bomb-sized potholes graced the roads everywhere.
A combination of GPS and on-alarm sense of direction got us out of there as fast as we could. We felt vertiginous there. Dizzy. Unable to make heads or tails of our emotions. We were scared, alarmed, disgusted and disappointed.
We crossed the bridge and found ourselves back in civilisation. We went down into the metro, still paranoid, still seeing ghosts flickering around us, and the way we talked then, we knew something fundamental had changed within us.
I have to confess, I hated the Recoleta, La Vega, and everything to do with it. I never wanted to see that place again. And yet, the people who lived there must hate it more than I do. At least I could leave.
The sights there shook my principles to the core. I always thought myself a cultural socialist. I believed that the best culture, the best food, music and art came out of hard-working, restricted backgrounds. The Beatles were working class, weren’t they? Van Gogh thrived in self-inflicted poverty, no? And poor, shackled housewives often turned out the best broths and meals on the planet, right?
I had always romanticized the idea of the flower blossoming between the cracks, the rainbow glistening after a storm; but here, in La Vega and its savannah, there was nothing glamorous, nothing Romantic. It was just decay and abject poverty. There are no rainbows here.
I often considered myself working-class. And I was always proud of it. Despite never being rich I knew how to enjoy life. But working-class here in Malta is a completely different animal than working-class in Santiago. And probably South America – probably the rest of the world in fact.
I started feeling pride in something I never thought I should be proud of: I am middle-class. I don’t feel comfortable in La Vega. Maybe true working-class heroes and worshippers do. But I just wanted to run away from that hell-hole. I craved, I didn’t think I’d say this, but I craved Valletta. I craved clean roads, safe streets, busy Baroque squares and air-conditioned shops. I missed all those bourgeois comforts.
As we rode on the metro I felt suddenly homesick. I wanted to be back home in the restaurants and squares I felt comfortable in, order a plate of seafood pasta, a cold beer and shout out “to hell with La Vega!”
And that feeling stabbed me with the pinpricks of guilt. Why should I be so lucky whilst there are people, only a few metro rides away, living like animals? Worse than animals, in fact, because the stray dogs in that area looked to be in a better condition than most of its people. And another conscience-pricking detail was ethnicity.
I haven’t mentioned this yet but most of the people that lived and worked in and around La Vega were either black, Venezuelan or Indian. Why does poverty seem to be so obsessed with race and history?
We all know why Venezuelans are here in Chile. We’ve seen the news. We’ve all seen the devastation wrought by a disgusting brand of megalomaniac socialism. And we know why black people are in South America too. They are either the descendants of African slaves dragged screaming and kicking from their homes, or more recent African migrants fleeing modern-day conquistadors in their continent.
But what about the Indians and the mestizos? How long must they suffer? The descendants of proud civilisations, be it the Incas or the Mapuche, they were subjugated, tortured and converted by their Spanish conquerors. They went from being Caesars to the Cesar who works a 12-hour shift for an abominable pay. Even now, after nearly 500 years since the arrival of Pedro de Valdivia in Chile, they haven’t recovered.
History casts a long shadow. So who am I to hate or even fear La Vega and its inhabitants? Next time I am in Valletta enjoying a pasta marinara by the sea under the safe Mediterranean sun, I shouldn’t say “to hell with La Vega”, I should rather say, “what the hell did we do wrong?”
Maybe underneath it all a socialist heart still beats. Perhaps it’s just my appetite that has migrated into the realms of the bourgeois. I know I have a lot of inquisitions to put myself through. But after all, isn’t that why we travel?