Friday, January 28, 2011

Chile: Pablo Neruda and More

AndesAt this week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama acknowledged a Pennsylvania man whose company helped recover 33 trapped Chilean miners last October.  It was a nice story of  American know-how rescuing men who were underground for more than two months.

This entombment and recovery brought renewed international attention to Chile.  But the engaging South American country should be known to us for many other notable reasons, including a rich heritage.

Chile is a 2,700-mile, narrowly-shaped country running down the lower half of South America along the Pacific Ocean.  It has a completely arid desert, great mountains and fjords.  Emphasizing even further diversity, it owns distant Easter Island and also includes what is arguably the world’s southernmost inhabited city.

Flying to Chile from the United States, the most riveting feature of the country emerges when passing over the craggy Andean Mountains.  It literally seems like soaring over a foreboding moonscape.   The starkness of the great peaks contrasts mightily with the eventual destination, the capital at Santiago.

Santiago is a world-class city, one of the most impressive on the continent.  It has the feel of an international hub, where 16 million people live among skyscrapers and are surrounded by mountains, snow-capped in the winter. 

Riding through Santiago it is surprising to see September 11th Avenue, which has nothing to do with the infamous day in U.S. history.  It is, in fact, related to a traumatic day in Chilean history in 1973, when President Salvador Allende was assassinated and the government was seized by General Augusto Pinochet. 

This event and its aftermath still hangs heavily on the Chilean people even though Pinochet left office in 1990.  But they also have much to celebrate, including a robust economy; a thriving wine industry; unequaled copper production; the heritage of their indigenous Mapuche people; and an impressive literary tradition including two Nobel Prize-winning poets.

Gabriela Mistral received the award in 1945 and was followed by her protégé, Pablo Neruda, a quarter-century later.  Neruda was prolific writer of political and contemplative poems.  He also was a communist, diplomat and eccentric.  He died twelve days after his political ally Allende.

Perhaps nothing underscores Neruda’s quirkiness more than his three homes.  I have been to the Santiago residence, which is fascinating, and to the seaside house called Casa de Isla Negra, one of the most unusual homes one might ever see. 

The rambling Casa de Isla Negra is a testament to someone who loved collecting odd things.  It is, in fact, a veritable museum.  In some ways, it resembles a very well-organized antique mall as you move from room to room.

The poet exhibited collections of ship figureheads, ships in bottles and other nautical artifacts.  There is a wall of masks, a seashell collection, ornate bottles and jugs, musical instruments and many other things.  To call the house colorful and eclectic would be an understatement.

Although Neruda might not have been a typical Chilean, he is an example of  a vibrant people.  Chile is a gem in the Southern Hemisphere and while last year’s dramatic recovery of miners was riveting, so is much more in this country.

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