“Do you want to come on an anti-nuclear protest march?” Leo asked one morning over breakfast.

The first thing that came to my head was the warning I had read on the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website. In typical bureaucratic language, the notice advised that it was best to avoid large demonstrations and gatherings in Chile as they have a tendency to become “unstable”. Or something to that effect anyway.

But it was a long time since I had been in anything that even resembled a protest march and I was keen to give it a go. When you find yourself in an unfamiliar environment on the other side of the globe, you almost feel compelled to try different things. Besides, I’ve always cared about the environment.

“It’s being organised by Greenpeace,” Leo explained. “They want to promote green energy and prevent Chile from adopting nuclear energy. It’s going to be a peaceful demonstration,” he added in a reassuring tone. I was sold.

The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. The march had been arranged for the day before Barack Obama’s first official visit to Chile when he was going to continue discussions with President Sebastian Pinera about a nuclear agreement with the US. Their timing couldn’t have been worse. Just a few weeks earlier the massive Japanese earthquake had destroyed the cooling system at the Fukushima power plant, triggering the world’s biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. All around the world, nuclear technology was copping flak. The fact that Chile is one of the most quake-prone countries in the world made this particular meeting seem even crazier.

And Chile is the kind of country that really could do with a bit more clean energy. Situated at the foot of the Andes, its capital city Santiago boasts some amazing views but on most days the rugged peaks are obscured by smog. Even on a ‘good’ day, air quality is pretty patchy.

So on a sunny but slightly smoggy Sunday afternoon, Leo, Yennifer and I hopped into the shopping trolley car (its engine’s so small that the emissions must be negligible and it’s painted green) and headed into town. In a bid to reduce our emissions even further and to avoid paying for a spot, we parked two blocks away and walked to the gathering point on Alameda Ave.

Everything seemed fine until Leonel grabbed his wallet out of his trouser pocket and carefully placed it in the bumbag hanging around his neck.

“I thought, you said this was a peaceful protest,” I said with a hint of hesitation.

“It is,” Leo laughed. “I’m just doing this because its more comfortable. Don’t worry. It’s going to be fun,” he said before laughing again.

I tried to believe him but it was hard not to think about the Smart Traveller warning. Then things got worse. At the next corner we saw some students carrying a large sign with the words: “Go home gringo!” It didn’t feel very welcoming.

But as it turned out, the sign was targeted at Barack Obama and I had no reason to worry. Obama and Pinera on the other hand, were quite unpopular. At the mustering point, a significant crowd had gathered and held above their heads was a large banner that depicted Obama, wearing an Uncle Sam hat, and Pinera, whose beaming face was attached to a small dog’s body. Another banner had a picture of Pinera wearing thick black sunglasses and a cheesy grin, giving the thumbs up. Below it was written: “Don’t blame me, I didn’t vote for Pinera”. Not far away, a young boy, about three-years-old, was sitting on his father’s shoulders holding an A4 piece of paper with the words: “I have a right to clean air”.

The group that had gathered looked like typical protestors. Tye dye t-shirts, ripped jeans and flannelette shirts mixed comfortably with skull masks, dreadlocks and Bob Marley-inspired tea cosie beanies. There were some familiar smells as well; judging by the scent that filled the air, marijuana was not on the list of offensive emissions.

But there was also something very different about this crowd. Like everything in South America, protest marches seem to have more rhythm than in other parts of the world. Along with the obligatory drums, was a full brass band and a troupe of frenetic dancers, dressed in garish fluoro costumes. They looked like a theatre group depicting a bunch of sky high council workers. They danced with passion and the grins on their faces were infectious. The whole demonstration had such a carnival feel that at times, it was hard to believe there was anything worth worrying about.

Together, the dancers and the band led the march as it snaked its way through the old streets of central Santiago. The music buoyed the marchers and almost spontaneously, a chant rose up: “Obama, Pinera, la misma billetera!” (“Obama, Pinera, the same wallet!”) Drawn out of their homes by the noise, local residents looked on from the front porches and balconies of the crumbling buildings that lined the streets. Some smiled and gave nods of encouragement but most just stared blankly at the procession passing before them.

At the shady Plaza de Brasil, the march ended and the crowd gathered in front of a stage erected specially for the occasion. The first person to address the crowd was a well known Chilean folk/pop singer with a soft face framed by scruffy hair. Her singing sounded like Missy Higgins giving birth but the crowd couldn’t get enough of it. At the end of her five-song set, she reached a new level of popularity as she led the crowd in yet another chant: “We are Latin Americans. We don’t want to be a North American colony!” No-one seemed to care that this issue was nowhere to be found on Obama’s agenda.

The singer who sounded like Missy Higgins in labour was followed in quick succession by the national director of Greenpeace (or “green-piss” as the Chileans say it), about half a dozen concerned soap stars and three old hippies who played traditional resistance songs from the time of Pinochet’s dictatorship. To finish off the event, a popular cumbia band came up on stage and after denouncing Pinera, began playing some funky bailable (or danceable) music. The crowd rocked, jumped and bopped along. For a free concert, it wasn’t bad.

When the music was over, we formed a giant peace symbol before making our separate ways home, in peace and harmony of course.

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