Santiago by night.

On Friday night I received a text message: “The council’s put on a Christmas party down near the rodeo ring. Come on down”. Within 10 minutes, I was powering through the streets of Quilicura, my feet clip-clopping in time like a well drilled percussion band. I turned onto Rigoberto Jara Avenue and hurried past Egypt Lane, Tanzania Lane and Ethiopia Lane before pausing briefly outside Australian College. After rounding the last corner, I entered the noisy showground. There were carnival rides, food stands and row upon row of people selling all sorts of cheap, cheerful but entirely useless gifts. There was also a nativity scene with shepherds, wise men and sheep bowing down to worship an empty space where baby Jesus should have been. I soon found my friends – or they spotted my tall gringo frame poking out above the rest of the crowd – and we stood, waiting restlessly, in front of the stage and the giant hristmas tree. Five minutes later, the 15-piece cumbia band stepped into the spotlight. Dressed in hot pink tuxedos with matching bow ties, they were accompanied by three enthusiastic dancing girls in equally bright costumes. Fortunately, they turned out to be much better at playing music than they were at choosing outfits. It was lively. And fun. The band played until the wee hours while the rest of the crowd danced and I twisted awkwardly to the music. We all smiled. It was almost Christmas after all.

On Monday morning I wrote an article about an exhibition of Andy Warhol prints and paintings on display at Santiago’s Catholic University. Finishing early, I thought it would be a good idea to go and check out the show for myself so I headed out of the office and into the warm air, thick with heat and smog. But that was going to stop me. I was determined. Five city blocks and a fair bit of sweat later, I entered the university’s imposing main entranceway and was hit by a flood of memories from my own student days. There was the smell of dusty books and libraries, a whiff of cigarettes and the heavy scent of expectation. The corridor outside the exhibition room had been converted into a timeline of Warhol’s life, with teaser pictures of his more famous works like the tins of Campbells Soup and the portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Inside there were paintings of the artist’s childhood heroes: Superman, the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz and Santa Claus. An interesting mix. On the far wall there were a series of prints inspired by Warhol’s childhood toys: an aeroplane, a wind-up drumming panda and a police car. Painted across the white walls in typical art gallery style, were a string of quotes in a large, cursive font. One stood out more than the others: “En el futuro, todos tendrán 15 minutos de fama…” (“In the future, everyone will have 15 minutes of fame.”) For no reason in particular, I nodded as I read it. Back outside, I strolled along the Alameda, past the impressive presidential palace and the park where I had had the unfortunate encounter with a gypsy fortune teller, before descending into the bowels of the Metro system.

On Thursday, still feeling inspired by my recent venture into the world of art, I planned to go and visit the Picasso Exhibition that’s in town until April. A collection of 70-odd prints and lithographs spanning five decades, the exhibition was sponsored by Telefonica and was being held in a cavernous, space at the base of the company’s mobile phone-shaped tower just off Plaza Italia. Just like the previous Monday, it was a hot day but at least the smog had cleared. Somewhat. Once again, I found myself winding my way through the streets of downtown Santiago and this time my journey took me past the intersection where I once waited all night for a bus that wasn’t coming. Inside the mobile phone tower, I went up to an official looking, hole-in-the-wall information desk and asked if there was a place where I could leave my backpack. There wasn’t so I picked up a free guide book and walked inside the exhibition space with the bag still on my back. Spread around the room were five clusters of simple looking black and white drawings, split into different themes and periods. There were pictures of people having baths, pairs of naked ladies, clowns and bulls, all in varying levels of abstraction. I stared intently at the prints and read the explanations in the guide book carefully. It was all very impressive but qfter 15 minutes, I was all cultured out. I stepped back outside. The sun was shining and a street dog was sprawled out, snoozing, in the shade.

On Saturday night I went to visit a family from church. It was Christmas Eve and they had invited me over to share in their authentic Chilean Christmas celebration. My instructions were clear: “Get on the 117 bus at the Vespucio Norte terminal and I will wait for you at the bus stop. When you see me, get off.” Craning my neck, I scanned for Polo at every bus stop and eventually, I saw him, wearing a bright purple T-shirt and a huge grin. In the front yard we played about a dozen games of ping pong and I lost all but the last, which I suspect Polo let me win out of sympathy. Several times I shouted “C’mon” to myself like Lleyton Hewitt but it did as much good for me as it has done for him lately. Inside we drank monkey’s tails, a traditional Chilean Christmas drink made up of milk, cinnamon, coffee and a local type of liquor, and got ready for dinner. Gabriela, Polo’s wife put on a CD and we started eating the feast that had been laid before us. The singer was Angel Parra, a folk musician from one of Chile’s most prominent artistic families, and he sang about themes like democracy and justice. “There was a time when listening to this music could get you arrested,” Polo commented, as he scooped another forkful of mushrooms up from his plate. “What?” I asked, taken aback. Polo repeated what he had said and I didn’t know what to say. He kept speaking, talking about how he had regularly seen bodies floating in the Mapocho River during the Pinochet era. The topic of the conversation soon changed but I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had just heard. Throughout the night, more family members came and there was the customary exchange of presents accompanied by more music and then some dancing. It was fun and festive but I kept returning to those corpses in the Mapocho.

On Friday night I was back in downtown Santiago for a farewell party. The day before I had taught my last English class and a small group of colleagues had organised a send off. Sitting on the terrace atop the 21 storey apartment block, we drank beer and chatted, ate ‘Aussie’ hamburgers with the lot and took in the view. As the night progressed, the sky grew dark and the city began to light up. First came the street lights, quickly followed by the windows in the office blocks and then the lamps lighting up the huge Virgin statue that stands proudly on top of the San Cristobal Hill. In the distance, the large, white cross on Renca Hill also glowed in its own torchlight. It was beautiful. Like all teachers everywhere, we ended up talking about our profession: the best students, the worst students, the most embarrassing moments. We laughed and chatted some more and then, abruptly, the party ended. I said my goodbyes and walked out of that chapter of my life, into the dark Santiago streets.

On Saturday I woke up late, thinking about how much I was going to miss Santiago.