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Santiago Sidelines: 80-hours Post-Quake

Read correspondent Connie McCabe's first Chile dispatch here.

Monster earthquake notwithstanding, this is a big year for Chile, nothing less than her 200th birthday. But no one is talking much about that anymore.

Michele Bachelet’s Bicentennial Advisory Committee had been mapping out a host of celebrations, initiatives and projects to benchmark the big year. New cultural centers were rising up. A satellite was to be ejected into space. Plazas were to be renovated; parks improved; poetry contests held.

Yesterday, thanks to catastrophe-hungry media, the only things the world saw being held were rifles and iron bars as angry Chileans cleaned out a mini-market just outside Santiago. And the world saw this again and again. That and images of tanks rumbling through debris-strewn streets of Concepcion and smoke billowing ominously out of supermarkets. There’s also the scene of the weary fishermen and their families—what is left of them—combing through the shattered remains of what was, just days before, a coastline of idyllic beach destinations. And people fighting tear gas and each other for a few canisters of powdered milk and scooping up water from blown-up baby swimming pools.

Clearly Chile has an image issue, but, honestly, this isn’t exactly new. Unlike its neighbors, this country has long grappled with how it is understood on the outside. Years ago, winemaker Aurelio Montes asked me what people in the U.S. think of Chile. Wine? Certainly not premium wine (although that has slowly and rightly been changing). Pinochet? Not exactly a marketing strategy. Patagonia? Argentina has that too. Easter Island? Seems its own thing. Mapuches? Incas are cooler. Aymaras? What?

I couldn’t really answer him back then. But like it or not, the outside world now some strong ideas about Chile: site of earthquakes powerful enough to shift the earth’s axis and tsunamis that still, even though we know they are coming, seem to sneak up on us and drag whole villages into the ocean leaving little more than a shore littered with splintered planks.

But let it be known from someone who has made Chile her home for more than 10 years, that there is much more than that.

This is a long (2,800 miles), strong country. Here in Santiago, a city of more than 6 million people, the biggest post-quake inconveniences are a run on Home Center, a dearth of functioning bank machines, and an overabundance of bored school-age kids enduring—since the opening of schools has been postponed—an extended summer. The airport is now fully functioning and hotels are open and running. The 2010 wine harvest is underway, even in rattled valleys of Maule and Biobio. Yes, many people have died, many more still missing, and many areas have been devastated, millions of people, Chileans and foreigners alike are coming together to help, shoveling out sidewalks, patching up buildings, driving supplies down south, donating blood, giving what they can.

Still, yesterday the State Department sent out a notice urging U.S. Citizens “to avoid tourism and non-essential travel to Chile.” Five percent of the country’s economy comes from tourism and the country’s headlining attractions—Torres del Paine, San Pedro, Easter Island—survived the quake virtually unscathed.

We are still being rattled by aftershocks and my heart seems to break through my ribcage with each one. But, really, the most startling aftershock for me is how this country is being misrepresented.

Happy Birthday, Chile!
Fuerza!

Connie McCabe is Travel + Leisure's Latin America correspondent.

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