Part Three:
What were we talking about again?

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[Ed’s note: Marc Herman covered the 1996 presidential campaign, with uncommon insight and grace, for a number of periodicals, including Might, which folded soon after. We asked Mr. Herman to offer timely remarks about this year’s contest, and he agreed — as long as he could do so from his new home, in Chile. This is the third in a series of dispatches. These are very real.]

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Reddiaz, from New York, perhaps a graduate student, asked by email the other week whether the fact that there is a different version of CNN for different parts of the globe, reporting different worlds to different markets, was evidence of the end of the American century.

Of course, as a campaign reporter, I have no idea, only anecdotes from carefully-managed events I am not attending to draw upon; also, my uncle the sociologist points out that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” so even if I were attending the events, and not 6000 miles away, what I saw would matter only very slightly.

Still: Spanish CNN has recently been talking about the Pope, soccer, the war in Columbia, and a fashion show in London. The election in the states is gone for the moment. My sense is it will be back. This would be easier to confirm in Asia, where Asian CNN offers a special half-hour of American news, recently sponsored by American Airlines, introduced with an American flag and swelling music that sounds vaguely like the advertising of Archer Daniels Midland. The CNN show doesn’t tell you much about what is happening in the U.S., but does offer a sense of broad themes, always welcome.

No such program exists in Santiago, and the Chilean press writes mostly about Chile, or about continents other than North America, though also the Oscars. Some sample headlines from Chile:

Alarming increase in elevator accidents.
35,000 stray dogs condemned to death.
Termites invade city.
Soccer players get on plane.

Nor does the internet help. As you are no doubt already aware, Reddiaz, technologists’ claims of a seamless, shrinking world prove somewhat exaggerated in practice. It is still the case that when you leave a place, you are no longer there, and can’t easily access that place’s resources, even with a laptop. For example, you can read about how Gore appears to be defending his campaign manager, who was already run out of Congress on a rail, and now seems to have borrowed three hundred thousand dollars illegally in Portugal. But this is difficult to sense as relevant in Chile. It is bigger news here that Helmut Kohl was laundering campaign money in Paraguay, and at that, perhaps only because it proved that someone has money in a Paraguayan bank.

There was also briefly something about President Clinton, grinning like an Ozark drunk, standing in a village south of Dhaka, encircled by a dozen Bangladeshi women in colorful dresses, who violently pelted him with clumps of white flowers.

Indeed, if this was not carried by American CNN, it suggests the end of the American century. However, if it did air in the United States, or Gore commented on it with any sort of sense of humor, then we are probably solid unless China calls our bluff and attacks Taiwan.

Reddiaz, who is clearly better informed than most people, and whose wife, seriously, offered to bake and ship brownies to me in Chile because there aren’t any here, also asks whether I will be writing about the former president of the Esprit clothing company, Doug Tompkins, who cashed out of that San Francisco business a few years ago. He is now using the money to buy up large swaths of Chilean Patagonia, to establish private nature preserves. The issue at hand is whether conservation is its own justification, or whether Chile, geographically about as thin as a deer’s ankle, should not allow foreigners to own land stretching from the Argentine border to the sea, effectively cutting the nation in half.

In a word, no, I will not be writing about this, because it does not fit under my current assignment here, and other the magazines that might conceivably run this sort of story are sometimes reluctant to return phone calls. That’s not to say it is a bad story. It is a great story, a fine irony: Tompkins, a guy who made his money selling headbands in shopping malls, in sprawling suburbs, so teenage girls with entitlement complexes could brutalize each other with brand envy, has now devoted his life to saving penguin habitat from rapacious Chileans. A matter of sovereignty and relativism if ever there was one. Where did you read about this?

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Evan, of Massachussets, writes:

“I wish I had a more exciting problem, or something that had to do with you, but it’s just that I keep trying to contact the people at McSweeney’s to no avail. I ordered two lifetime subscriptions around Christmas and have heard nothing. I emailed the magazine twice, but they never responded. I don’t know whether they ever got my check. I was wondering if you could contact them on my behalf and ask them to contact me.”

The thing is, Evan, magazines often erect enormously creative obstacles barring access to their institutions, to keep people from bothering the editors, who generally do not like the public. It is sort of an industry joke. Occasionally checks get lost in the mail this way, however, among the actual writing. Perhaps this is what happened to you, though in the case of a magazine so small as this one, and in my experience, staffed by genuinely likable people, it is more likely just a matter of no one getting around to it yet. Don’t take it personally. Magazines are notoriously unprofessional places, where people work late, get paid badly, then leave the industry like rats off a ship or whipped dogs. In my experience, you will feel better about the lack of response if you lower your expectations.

“I hope this doesn’t annoy you and apologise for using this email contact to try and further my own agenda,”

This is the best possible use of email, Evan. No apologies please.

“but I thought a more personal appeal might get me somewhere, and my goal is a humble one: To make ensure I eventually start getting issues of the magazine you write for. I would appreciate any effort you may find time to make, and hope things are well in Chile.”

Okay. If this does not work, give up.

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Maggie, who has been to Pakistan, points out that the Ganges river does not pass by Lahore, so a Cambodian woman walking in despair from the Mekong to the Ganges would not be likely to encounter that city’s Vice-Consul. She would also like to know, as have several readers, whether Santiago is worth visiting.

Maggie is absolutely right about Lahore. Missing from the retelling of the story, presented previously in this space, was the fact that the Vice Consul, upon going insane, left Lahore for a town nearer the Ganges, where the rest of the novel occurred. So the Vice Consul of Lahore was no longer residing in Lahore when he saw the Cambodian woman bathing in the Ganges.

As for the second question, about visiting:

There are buildings in Santiago so ugly only German architects could have devised them — which they did. They have no beginning, middle or end. Flipped upside down and reinstalled with the top at the bottom, nothing would seem changed. They are badly constructed; the concrete is sandy. Enormous, ragged water stains, appearing from a distance as municipal liverspots, lie unsuccessfully masked under badly-set tile. The buildings date, like downtown Manhattan and most of Houston, to periods of great arrogance and public debt.

Visitors to the capitol do not see them at first. There are too many faded palaces to look at instead, with wrought iron railings and leaded glass windows, closer to the ground. These are beautiful, and it takes at least a few months in Santiago to realize their shortcomings, that they are awful places to live or work, cold in the winter and musty. Once that happens, of course, the bloom is off the rose. The gold doors fifteen feet tall, and the gargoyles of smirking saints over the entryways, seem like pleasant accidents but beside the point.

As for activities, prospective visitors should know that there was once a curfew in Santiago, during the military government, and that the nightlife has never really recovered. The subway stops running at 10:30, even earlier than it does in San Francisco. As a result, evening activities tend toward the dull. Downtown, visitors and locals alike spend their time eating ice cream, watching the inexplicably large number of mimes on the paseo, and arguing theology. There are discos a few miles away, one with a riverboat paddlewheel grafted crudely to the front wall, but they are only interesting if you are in some manner mocking yourself and your surroundings, which is good for a weekend visit but grows mean-spirited after long stretches.

Younger people dream up creative things to do, but none ever lasts long and it is difficult, given the traditional Chilean sense of reserve, to find out about them in advance. Recently, for example, students staged a party on a bridge across the pallid, sad Mapocho river, itself worth seeing. It bisects the city. Conquistadors spent months figuring out how to reliably cross it. It looks like a flood control project and is full of stray dogs. To seize the bridge across the Mapocho, the students constructed medieval shields from cardboard and armed themselves with sticks and tomatoes. Then all the apprentice engineers from the technical college, massed on one end of the bridge, ran at the law students, defending the other. Eighteen people suffered injuries. The rest of the students hurled their tomatoes at the windows in the nearby law school and busted enough to make it a night. This is typical of the lengths people must go to enjoy themselves in Santiago.

As for special events, the Chileans inaugurated a new president just this month, and the half of the country that voted for him — voting is mandatory, and there was a 98 percent turnout — celebrated with a party in the local park. It was a success by Chilean standards, meaning people smiled occasionally, and enough attended to give the feeling of a small county fair.

Chile is probably good for a visit if you like the mountains, but Santiago is better if you have a specific task to do here, or specific goal.

The ice cream is sublime.