It’s the second day officially. My first call-up. My first overseas adventure. I have befriended a colleague from the United States the night before. He is impressed by my local knowledge and my willingness to learn Spanish. I’ve been doing a lot of reading about Chile, Michelle Bachelet, Salvador Allende, Augusto Pinochet and the 1973 coup. With a small baby at home and a job that eats up to 60-hours per week it’s a struggle but I manage to get the basics before we fly-out from Brisbane. N* is happy for me, she knows I’ve been waiting for a call-up all my life.
As we landed the day before you could feel a mood in Chile. It’s a mixture of excitement and anxiety. Michelle Bachelet flew into the country the day before as well. Our driver excitedly pointed out the reason why he had to move lanes. I see the fast cars first. I’m good at scanning for danger, looking for threats. It sparks a memory. Once upon a time I might have been in those fast cars. Not anymore. It has been nine years since I received my MLD [Mefloquine Loading Dose]. I’m just an observer now. The motorcade screams by. I am witnessing history and I love it.
General Augusto Pinochet is not yet dead. He is just a sick old man who has been under house arrest for some years. He will be dead by years end. My American colleague, C* is explaining it all over a glass of excellent Chilean wine. It’s very late but that’s how the South Americans roll. I’m an owl anyway. We agree to catch up the next day. He wants to take us on a tour but if you go to Santiago you must have lunch at the Mercado Central (the Fish Markets). He will organise a driver to show us around a bit.
I’m very happy that C* is doing the tour on Saturday. He has been in Chile many times before. He first visited Chile in the late 1980s when the General ran things. He remembers seeing the APCs [Armoured Personnel Carriers] lined up each morning ready to go out for the arrests. He remembers when Santiago dripped with fear.
The car comes to pick us up. There are four of us. We drive out of Las Condes toward the old quarter of Santiago. The driver is an old man. He doesn’t speak English but C* has excellent Spanish. Our driver is very happy today. In a few hours Michelle Bachelet will be sworn in as President. He is a big fan.
Though he is happy you can tell by the shape of his shoulders that he has been bent by the weight of the things he has done and seen. On his rear view mirror hangs a necklace with a small grain of rice in it. On that grain of rice is the face of Salvador Allende.
C* is translating. The driver is telling us his story as we pass the Estadio Nacional Julio Martínez Prádanos. A part of the stadium is still smoking. Someone tried to burn it down in the last couple of days. It is a football stadium. For nine months it was a concentration camp. The driver and his wife were picked up by the military in 1973 and were held in the bowels of the football stadium/concentration camp. They were picked up because they actively supported Allende at university. Thousands of people were held in that stadium. The driver’s wife was picked out one morning and executed in front everyone in the middle of the football pitch. It was done professionally. One bullet to the back of the neck. Quick. Our driver was tortured there, then moved along. He was one of the lucky ones. He has lived with fear all his life but he now has hope.
The two girls who are travelling with us are horrified by this small piece of history. The driver looks in his rear view mirror directly at me. A tear of sorrow has spilled down his cheek. We share a moment. This is his story and I heard it with the reverence it deserved. I feel his sadness today as I remember it.
The moment passes. We drive off to the Mercado Central for lunch.
I am so very grateful that I was born in a country like Australia. A country that accepted Michelle Bachelet on her way to East Germany and exile. A country where old Generals just sign legislation. They do not re-task football stadiums and turn them into concentration camps. Nor do they delegate death warrants to the Colonels.
I live in a country without summary executions, military death squads or concentration camps. For that I am very grateful.