And one I’ll hopefully never live again. It started when we arrived back from a day trip to Valparaíso to find the subway station closed. It was only 6pm. This didn’t seem right so we circled the station twice more only to find every entrance barricaded and definitely no way in. We found a bus operator who could speak some English and he explained the station was closed ‘because of the students’. We put it down to climate change but thought it was a pretty weird move for activists to shut down a public transport system as it’s more likely to be something they’d be promoting.
He gave us very vague directions on how to catch a bus home instead. It steadily filled up and before long the bus was jam packed. Traffic was slow. We had to keep checking our maps because we had no real idea of where the bus was going. Panic levels increased slightly each time we took a turn that seemed to take us further away from home. Tensions peaked when we were side swiped by a fellow bus and lost our mirror, slowing us down further. Anxiety remained a constant as language barriers prevented us from understanding what was going on. Eventually we felt like we were as close as we were going to get so we jumped off the bus and bolted home.
On every street corner between the bus stop and our hostel were groups of people banging on pots and pans. We had to take a wide berth and approach our hostel through a park, making a run for it as we got close. Obviously we weren’t the enemy, but we were terrified that we might get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The night escalated fast. The next 24 hours would be crammed with more action than I cared for. We learnt the protests related to outrage over an increase to the metro fare. But that was inevitably just the trigger. When we woke up Chile was officially in a state of emergency. An electricity company’s headquarters had been steadily burning, several floors high in the sky.
The balcony of our bedroom overlooked a street where protesters were really getting out of hand. Andy turned into a real ‘Instagram story person’ virtually overnight. I was too nervous to take photos. Highlights (?) from our front row seats include:
- seeing protesters throw rocks at police, rip out metal fences and haul up park benches from the ground
- seeing protesters light fires using aforementioned park benches as well as literally anything else they could find
- watch the windows of the Santander bank opposite being slowly smashed in by rocks
- seeing a fire take hold in buildings down the street and then have this overshadowed the following night when the Santander itself caught alight
- watching three fire trucks arrive, unload, set up and eventually extinguish the fire across the road
- watching tear gas canisters be catapulted through the air by the police to the protesters and often back again
- being evacuated to our hostel’s basement when the tear gas worked its way into our bedrooms and nobody could breathe
- seeing police swarm the streets in armoured vehicles and watching the protesters all run for cover before slowly inching back again
- hearing and then seeing someone trying to break into our hostel to encourage us to join the demonstration
Honestly, the list could go on forever. The fascination quickly turned to horror once I’d seen buildings go up in flames and heard about three people who had died as a supermarket burned. It was an anxious time for me and honestly, I couldn’t wait to leave. (At the time of writing this, there have now been fifteen deaths.)
Leaving was starting to sound like it might be difficult though. The metro was closed, apparently buses had stopped running and rumour was that flights were no longer leaving the airport. Our flight was scheduled for 11.30am, we left our hostel at 7am just in case. We felt like we were tiptoeing through a war zone for almost half an hour before a taxi picked us up and dropped us off at the airport.
The airport was more densely concentrated than a music festival. Throw in everyone’s luggage and it was basically impossible to move. The departures board just said “cancelled” next to every flight except for about five – one of which was ours. We didn’t believe we actually might be escaping right up until our plane took off. From the runway we could see trails of smoke rising above the city – looks like the protesters were back for another day.
Goodbye Santiago, and good riddance.
* sorry for the awful photos. At the time it wasn’t a priority for me, so most of them are just screenshots of frames in videos that Andy had taken.