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Short Fuse

Dispatch from Santiago de Chile | Published : 03/Mar/2013 20:00

I was walking down the Avenida Libertador O’Higgins today, reflecting on the differences in safety perceptions in various cities. It was late in the afternoon, today is Sunday and Downtown was hot (+31C) and sleepy. And kind of… sketchy.

Santiago is not considered to be an overly dangerous city (in fact, in Latin America, it’s probably one of the safest ones), yet there is a certain grittiness here and people tend to look down a lot, which tells me the street is not typically the place where they go to relax, walk off their meal and take in some air. At least, not in the downtown area…

Anyway, as I am walking and reflecting thus, I see the following scene: first, in fact, I notice not a scene but an opening straight ahead — it’s as if some centrifugal force suddenly started pushing folks away from a bus stop. I then notice the second detail: there are two buses, the second one parked askew, forming an angle and blocking the first. Their doors are open. The bubble of nothing around the area is growing (in the sense that the empty center is getting bigger). Two more steps and I actually see what is probably the final stages of a conflict: a young chico, may be 20 or so, slowly picks up a decent-size rock/stone-type thing (a piece of concrete?) and proceeds to lob it at a man in a white shirt, who, I am assuming, is the bus driver from the second bus. Or perhaps he was aiming for the bus and not the driver, I am not sure. The stone is heavy, the malandro misses, and the rock flies past the driver, who, I now realize, is wielding some sort of an improvised weapon — seemingly, a bicycle chain with something heavy (a metal padlock, perhaps?) attached to it. The driver then switches from defense to offense and moves in on the hapless hooligan, swinging the chain in the air.

The dude is thus forced to retreat to a side street to keep out of the driver’s weapon’s reach. Maybe he is looking for the next object to throw at the man. The whole thing seems kind of forced and slow-mo, as if they both feel the obligation to act like they were going to kill each other, but really, they wouldn’t mind calling the fight off and maybe even going for a drink. The impression is reinforced by the complete silence on the part of both of the participants. Could it be an avant-guard performance? The public is doing nothing, apart from keeping away from both of them and forming an ever-growing bubble zone.

I wanted to get some feedback from fellow pedestrians, find out what the deal was, or at least confirm that they too thought this was nuts, but everyone was keeping to themselves while basically looking at their shoes. Less than talkative. How strange! In the meantime, the fight itself was migrating deeper into the side street.

So I did nothing. And walked past. And kept reflecting on.. what was it again? Oh, yes — the Chileans’ perception of safety. Like I said. It’s safe.