We’re eating at a restaurant in the ‘burbs to the east of Santiago, which has been recommended to us as distinctively Chilean. We were driven out here by one of the plush hotel cars, and swishing over overpasses, and swooping through underpasses, we might have been anywhere in the developed world. Still, I’ve read my stats — I know that while the average income here is around $12,000 per annum, perhaps 40 per cent of the population remain below the United Nations poverty line. Even so, if Chile is the England of South America, Santiago is doing a remarkably good job of looking like its Basingstoke.
And if Santiago is Basingstoke, then this restaurant is its Angus Steakhouse. Perhaps this is a distinctively Chilean eating experience, these acres of empty, red-and-white check, plastic tablecloths, the warm breeze soughing in the rustic, thatched trellises that overarch them. I try to tell myself this, as a bullish waiter comes, erratically charging out from the faux-Bavarian-bodega of the restaurant’s interior, but I’m not convinced: it’s Saturday night, and we’re the only customers.
It gets more Basingstoke by the second, because the menu has photographs of the available dishes. Despite this, we still manage to balls-up the ordering — or possibly not. We get a pig product platter to start: slices of thick, fatty ham, smoked ham, chunks of pork pate, circlets of compressed pig’s head — with sections of brain and skull.
Next up is an enormous fist of a fillet steak, with two orangey knuckles of fried egg. It’s garnished with a Jenga tower of chips, and comes with a dish of pulped corn wrapped in a cornhusk. This food isn’t heavy — it’s ballast. This is food to take on board before you cast off from Chile’s elongated coastline and head out into the turbid swell of the Pacific.
An hour later, the driver picks us spheroids up and rolls us back into town. Swishing along the Basingstoke bypass he brakes by the entrance to a dubious establishment with two flaming torches by its entrance.
“You gentlemen want to go to the nightclub?” He calls over his shoulder. I can see two burly bouncers, and the name of the club in neon letters: “WOMN”. The absence of the crucial vowel suggests an ambience beyond the sordid. I picture leering satyrs, with botched chimeras from the island of Dr Moreau gyrating inches above their big top laps.
“Er, no,” my companion, Marc, says. “I think we’ll pass on that one.” Indeed, even if our porky flesh were remotely willing, it’s difficult to imagine me cutting it in Chilean clubland, what with my cagoule, jeans and walking boots. I’m well aware that the men who frequent these establishments fantasise about walking all over the womn who work in them; still, I doubt they go quite so obviously attired for it.
The next day the home-from-home vibe persists: a dream of England strained through the grey mist that’s blown down from the Andes. Marc and I never have any truck with guides when we’re abroad, oh no. We’re cool traveller types, not snap-happy tourist ignoramuses. However, we were offered a guide and we’ve only half a day to cover a lot of ground, so we accepted him.
I’m glad. Ivan Bustamante turns out to be urbane and almost preternaturally wised-up. Besides having the same first name as my second son, he also spent his formative years in Clapham, south London. I kid you not. The Bustamante parents were refugees from Pinochet’s regime who ended up living a mile away from my London home. Between 1981 and 1986, Ivan attended Lilian Baylis, one of the local schools that the Conservative MP, Oliver Letwin, said he’d rather beg than send his child to.
Clearly, Chilean exiles are made of sterner stuff than Tory politicos, because Ivan has turned out very well indeed, leaving school to study music at Croydon College, before returning to Santiago in the late 1990s. He tells us he took the job as a city guide so that he could continue with his studies in classical guitar, which isn’t any more of an earner in South America than it is in south London.
So, it’s off to town, with Ivan discoursing on everything from constitutional reform to 19th-century urban planning, via detailed statistics of Chilean copper and nitrate production. Squint a little, put my fingers half in my ears, and I could be sitting in an Angus Steakhouse, listening to the Member for Basingstoke. Could’ve been, except for one thing: on returning to England, I checked up on Mrs Maria Miller. Judging from her Hansard entries, she’s a perfectly conscientious Conservative MP, but doesn’t to my ear display half the eloquence of my new-found Chilean friend. Vote Bustamante! I say.