“She looks quite good from a distance,” says Victor, speaking in English and not the least bit concerned that other people in the hall might understand, “but when he gets closer, and you can see the beard stubble under the make-up, you realize that she is actually a he.”
Victor looks puzzled and shakes his head. “I just don’t understand,” he sighs as the trannie swishes by and unlocks the apartment door across the hall.
Having lived in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the world of transsexuals and sex workers, it is familiar territory for me. But Chile has yet to develop the blasé attitude towards people who are different. And if you are a transgender in Santiago, chances are you live at Portal Fernandez Concha.
This historic building is home to an eclectic mix of alternative types: transgenders, retired people, sex workers, economic refugees from Peru, artists and business people. There is a hostel on the sixth floor and a brothel on the second. At any one time, the contrast in people waiting for the ancient elevator, complete with sliding brass doors and an operator, can be overwhelming.
Portal Fernandez Concha, on the south side of Plaza de Armas — the historical and cultural heart of Santiago – has reinvented itself a number of times. It started out as officer’s quarters, was transformed into a hotel in the 1920s and, most recently, partitioned into apartments and offices. The black and white tile hallways in the seven-story building are so wide you could drive a semi-truck down them. And they are so elegant, with the brass railings, that you can imagine Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing down them.
The 342 apartments in the building are similar in size – think large hotel suite of the 1920s, with a kitchen and bathroom. The heavy wooden bathroom doors are so wide they are wheelchair accessible.
Inside, however, the apartments vary from slum housing shared by ten people crammed into a small space, through to luxury accommodation, like my apartment on the fourth floor. Designed by the architect who owns it, the space with 12-foot high ceilings, white walls and a sleeping loft with red banisters is the funkiest place I’ve ever lived.
The apartment window, looks down on Plaza de Armas, and oversees the constant three-ring circus that is playing out before my very eyes. It offers an ideal voyeur vantage position. In this cobblestone-covered plaza, tourists mix with locals, artists, buskers, beggars, musicians, evangelicals, cops and petty thieves. The constant street and people noise isn’t a problem. And, hey, the occasional rock concert, political demonstration (complete with horns and hooters) or drunken brawl comes with the turf.
It is the screaming evangelical preachers, however, who drive me to distraction. This denomination believes that you have to scream at God to get her attention. There is a preacher who starts shrieking at 10 o’clock in the morning and doesn’t quit bellowing until 8 in the evening. And when he gets a microphone, the yowling reaches decibels that aren’t allowed by law.
Cathy, an English-speaking woman from Venezuela, and her Chilean partner bought an apartment in the Portal Fernandez Concha 17 years ago. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things that have gone on in this building! There have been murders and suicides and police raids. There are so many ghosts here.”
Mauricio, at the front desk confirms Cathy’s comments, “Yes, there was a guy on the seventh floor who climbed over the rail and was hanging on the banister. Juan tried to save him, but he couldn’t pull him up and he dropped onto the marble floor just over there.”
But the building has also seen its share of births and parties. Like the Christmas gathering where we all convened in the party room in the basement. In this rather old and tired space, we ate empanadas, peanuts and boiled eggs. Chicha, a type of homebrew that comes out on festive occasions, made an appearance and we swigged on the bottle deposited on our table. On the dance floor people did the quaka, the national dance of Chile that requires dancers to wave a white bandana in the air and do steps that rather resemble those of an old-time square dance.
Down the winding staircase to the ground floor, the lobby is surprisingly small for the size of the building. As soon as you go through the massive double door, the stench of grease hits you like a slap in the face.
The entire front of the building is wall-to-wall restaurants. The fast-food eateries lining the inside of the building display the dishes they offer in the windows of their establishments. The plates of withered food have been shellacked with a price tag propped up on the back corner of the white plates, to alert customers to what they can expect to eat and what they will pay for the non-appetizing privilege.
Parallel with the eateries – and ten feet from the building – are side-by-side hotdog stands with a couple of narrow entrances for pedestrian traffic flow. The establishments near the street offer hotdogs loaded with ketchup, mustard, guacamole and the ubiquitous mayonnaise piled on so thick that when people try to bite into the completo, as it is known, the sauces inevitably run down their chins. Each stall has glasses of small paper napkins for the bite-wipe-bite ritual
The crowded space between the hotdog stands and the building reeks with humanity: food, bodies packed closely together, a faint whiff of vomit from one of the derelicts, now passed out on the sidewalk and propped up against the wall of the building.
Behind the wall of people, on the ground floor of Portal Fernandez Concha, lies an immense labyrinth of shops – jewellery, stationery, watches – that stretches for a block. Very few tourists ever find their way into the gallery, however, as the hotdog crowd are too formidable a barrier for most to circumvent. So unless they happen across one of the side entrances, they miss some good shopping.
As I walk into the plaza I glance back at Portal Fernandez Concha and smile. It is solid and if Chile is going to have another earthquake, it is the place to be. And, it is my home.
Jody Hanson, a Canadian-born freelance writer lived in Santiago for 18 months. She highly recommends the city, particularly for those who are looking for South America lite. Read more from Jody at her website.
Photo credits: Carlos yo, , the other picture belongs to the author and may not be used without permission.