Reflections on the road south


By Pablo Huneeus

[Ed. note: In the summer months of January and February, many Chileans travel to the lake region, hundreds of miles south of Santiago. In this essay below, writer Pablo Huneeus reflects on the changing landscape he sees en route, and wonders what it means for Chile’s national psyche].

We’re off in the car at 4:20 a.m., leaving Santiago on a Monday morning, heading due south. With the sun just coming up, making a silhouette of the mountains, the highway is already dense with cars and trucks.

The traffic is fast, at an hour when Chileans used to be mostly sleeping. Whatever happened to Saint Monday, that slow, lazy pace with which we Chileans have traditionally begun our week? It’s another country now. When the sun is finally up, the Central Valley is shown to be a huge commercial center: immense billboards, in a never ending procession, feature 123 Entel, New Holland Tractors, San Pedro wines, and more sanitary napkins and banks than you knew ever existed.

In the 13 months that have gone by since I last made this trip by land, the billboards have grown faster than the walnut trees.

There are increased numbers of iron mountains 12 meters tall, like Lavin’s at Plaza Italia. Some of the billboards even move in their attempt to attract your attention, going so far as to wink at you. It gives the diminutive citizen the sense that he is being watched.

Maybe speed control radars are hidden in those huge billboards.

Speed limit signs are all but obliterated in the unending wave of publicity.

But the biggest change, the biggest of them all, is visible once you get beyond Chillan, when the four-lane highway ends and becomes two lanes, which must be shared with earth-moving beasts on all sides… There’s such a tumult of trucks that it’s impossible to pass any of them, lined up like a mule train, each successive truck glued to the next.

The consolation prize is to see the construction in progress of the four lane highway, which is to come. They say it will extend all the way to Puerto Montt.

But what’s going on? A complete hillside has been wiped out here, another one taken out there. A ravine has been completely filled in. One, two, three new bridges have grown up as if overnight…

We pass the waterfall at Laja, on the frontier of the Bio Bio region, but the fight continues. Before, the signs announced road work between kilometers 523 and 525. But what we have now is unending roadwork, spectacular, going on and on, hour after hour as far as the eye can see. Working like ants, huge backhoes, dump trucks one would expect to see at Chuquicamata [open pit copper mine], never before seen in this part of the country…

What is more, instead of the sight we used to see so often before – where one guy would be working while four or five of his compatriots would be standing around with their hands in their pockets – things are radically different. Everyone is working, rapidly, and it’s Monday! Much further south, at Osorno, the four lanes are completed, although we still can’t drive on the two new ones… And as if this urge to build new roads weren’t enough, it appears to have produced as by-products a whole new slew of fruit packing houses, breweries and factories. All very modern. And very horrible.

This modernity is frightful. It’s as if the country has been occupied by an invading army of Komahatsu bulldozers, which are easily digging up this native ground where we were born. Not mountains, not forests, nothing can hold back these machines. The progress is fantastic, but something is being lost. Natural beauty, or perhaps a sense of ourselves. Or is it that we are no longer ourselves? It is late in the day now and we’ve arrived at the entrance to Puerto Montt, where there’s a steep incline down to the glorious beauty of Reloncavi Bay. But what’s there now, like the conqueror’s flag, but the double arch of a hamburger chain, which proclaims all that needs to be said: McDonalds, Now In Puerto Montt.