Virgin Climb. What keeps you from running away?

Sunday 6:40 AM Santiago, Chile

I have over slept, but judging by the limited light in the room there’s still time to make it to the summit. Downstairs I shake Juan Pablo awake and he buzzes the door to let me out. The air is cooler than the previous evening, but still warm. I run to beat the sun.

The bumping music and crowds from last night are gone, but I can still hear the rattling of the metro below and the occasional buzz of a car. The stray dogs of all breeds are everywhere. As I count my strides I notice where they have stained the concrete with their urine and reek. One, two, three… chile2011.3 070

The first people of the day are a cohort of street boys loitering along the fence that encloses Cerro Santa Lucia. I perceive no threat, but when they start making kissing noises and leering, I reconsider. Their clothes are not quite clean, their eyes are dark and the way they are hanging on each other alert me. Thirteen of them are strung out on the side walk and they all see my camera. I tighten my grip and focus on the sound of my feet touching the ground. Tah, tah, tah…

We arrived in Santiago yesterday. At first glance it was a city just like any other, but after letting your eyes adjust we could make out the things that indicated we were not in the States. Most of the structures are the color of industry with the exception of the occasional crayon colored dwelling. Modern offices tower over simpler residential structures and then you have the junk that is piled on the banks of the rivers and the roaming dogs.

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Once downtown we visited churches, museums and markets. We walked streets that have been trampled by millions, touched walls that have been greased by thousands and saw people from all over the world. The novelty of a large city and the history on display was entertaining.

Dazed from the bustle we retreated to the roof of our hostel in order to get a grip on the place. Below us the city rolled out with no end. Being able to see a few hills through the buildings I attempted to burn the points of the compass on my brain, but once back at street level it was difficult to retain. To the north we had seen a hill with a white statue on top. The view from there would tell a better story. chile2011.3 091

Too focused on preserving my camera I make a wrong turn. After running half a mile in the wrong direction I am lost (estoy perdido). Across the street is the Universida de Chile. According to the map my current path will lead far from where I intended to go. Retracing steps past a library, hotels and a museum, brings me back to Cerro Santa Lucia. Luckily, the boys are gone. Making the correct turn I take a bridge over the river. Discos and bars are still blaring music, but have no one in them. The smell of dog is now joined by the aroma of stale beer and liquor. I consider turning around, but see the entrance to Cerro San Cristobal, my destination, and continue. Four, five, six…

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Evening in the plaza was different. First, there was a strange dance between a man and woman. Originally I thought it might be a traditional dance of the indigenous Mapuche people, but after watching the way the two interacted with their saucy looks and sultry swagger, I doubted it. Eventually, we were drawn to the largest crowd which had surrounded a clown. He was busy making balloon animals for the children until he saw me and in one moment Jacki and I were both part of his routine.

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Last year we were wed in an intimate ceremony in Salt Lake City, now in front of hundreds of strangers, we were married by a man with a squeaky voice and a painted face in the Plaza de Armas.chile2011.2 048


Running up a nature trail labeled “Subida de Virgen” I find some comfort with the trees, bushes and dirt. About fifty strides up, I hear rustling off the trail. Curious to know what animal would be here, in the middle of the city, I stop and look closer. I see toilet paper first, then soiled clothing and general rubbish which remind me of the boys from earlier. The comfort that I was feeling is gone. I no longer want to know what’s in the bushes. Tah, tah, tah…

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We visited the Catedral de Santiago yesterday. While some gave confession, we took snap shots. As we gawked at the stained glass, people humbled themselves in the pews. Instead of stillness and peace I felt foolish and awkward.

On the summit this morning I stare at the Virgin and attempt to give her love and respect. I bow my head and take a moment to quiet myself. It’s easier to be relaxed here.

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I look out over the greater Santiago area. She is alluring. The city coming out of the shadow of the Andes and I can see her terrain and know why she has grown so large.  She has a few skyscrapers which dot the horizon, but she is mostly low-lying buildings. They spread out north, west and south in a rash of rectangular bumps. Tasting the smog in the air and hearing her rumble awake makes me sad.  It’s too much. I can see similarities to my hometown. Without careful consideration for the future, Salt Lake City, USA will become Santiago de Chile.

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Down the cerro, I leave the trees, bushes and dirt behind. City workers are busy sweeping the streets with palm leaves. There are people walking everywhere and cars, trucks and buses are plentiful and constant. I feel the city breathing and with each inward breath can feel her body press against me. It makes me nervous. She exhales and loneliness sets in. My paranoia has increased.

I want to continue running, only to stop where there is crisp water and clean air, but for one more night I’m trapped with six or seven million people in this over-developed place.

Running across the bridge I remember that I have left Jacki back at the Hostel.  She has no idea where I am.  I lengthen my stride and take comfort knowing that I am not here alone, but at the next intersection I take another wrong turn. Seven, eight, nine…

Copyright 2010-2011 Louis C Arevalo

What makes you want to run away and what keeps you from doing it?