“The witching hour, someone had once whispered to her, was a special moment in the middle of the night when every child and every grown-up was in a deep deep sleep, and all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world all to themselves.” Roald Dahl, “The BFG,” about five minutes before the protagonist is kidnapped by a giant.
As a kid I was obsessed with this idea of a witching hour, a time when, I imagined, every person living in my town, everyone I’d ever met and everyone they’d ever met, would be simultaneously asleep. I drove myself into paroxysms of insomnia trying to make it to that magic moment when I would be the only one awake in the whole wide world, except of course the dark and fantastical creatures I was dying to meet.
Living on Mars time has given me ample opportunity to meet the dark and fantastical creatures that come out during Santiago’s witching hour. In recent weeks, I’ve spent considerable time wandering through the city’s lamp-lit streets, encountering people who are also trying to stay awake.
The doorman in my apartment building was the first local I turned to when my Mars time experiment kept me up later than my eyelids cared for. “How do you do this every night?” I asked the friendly, prematurely balding man a couple weeks ago. In answer, he reached behind his desk and pulled out a can of Nescafe. “That’s all there is to it,” he said.
Another time, I approached a lady in a nearby plaza. She was a stout, robust woman in her 40s. Her black hair was pulled into a ponytail that swung like a pendulum across the back of her uniform as she swept trash. She was notable for being the only other awake person within several blocks who was also sober. She didn’t seem remotely surprised when I started chatting with her, as though gringas strike up conversation with her at 4 A.M. Sunday morning on a regular basis.
“This is my day off,” she said to me. “But you’re working!” I said, confused. “Yes, but today I only work 4 hours, instead of 15,” she said. She told me she’s from a village in the south of Chile, one of several children raised by a single father who didn’t see the value in formal education. He only enrolled her through 4th grade and then she started working in agriculture with him. When she moved to Santiago as a teenager, maintenance work was the only career she found she was qualified for. For 20 years, she’s awoken at 3 A.M., gone to her first job until midday, lunched, and then set off for her second job. She goes to sleep after 10 P.M. and falls quickly into four or five hours of hard-earned sleep. I asked her if that was enough. Usually, she said. On her days off, though, she goes home and takes a luxurious siesta. That was her advice to me: “Make sure you catch up on sleep at least once a week.”
Most of the folks I’ve come into contact with during my witching hour wanderings have not been as mentally acute and thoughtful as the lady in the plaza, particularly since most of them have been drunk. That’s in part because it’s pretty hard to find anything to do in the middle of the night in Santiago other than to drink.
When I moved to Chile about a year and a half ago, I was delighted to find that, like most of its Latin American brethren, it’s a night-oriented nation. Lunch happens mid-afternoon. In fact, afternoon doesn’t happen until late afternoon, and lasts until well after dark. Nobody bothers with dinner until after 9 P.M. Woe is the lonely soul who gets to the club before midnight, because she has only her cocktail to dance with. Bars officially close at 5 A.M., but many simply pull down their shutters and keep the paying customers happy until well after the sun crests the Andes. After-hours parties abound.
But this city of nearly 7 million people can be a lonesome place in the witching hour, if you’re not keeping company with the hordes stumbling home from a binge-drinking episode. Take away the bars and the clubs, and Santiago is nearly as desolate as the planet whose schedule I’ve temporarily adopted. The only 24-hour business in my neighborhood is a pharmacy, but after a certain hour you can no longer mosey the aisles pondering the virtues of various toiletries. Instead, you must ask for precisely what you need through a hole in an intimidating iron fence, like Fezzik and Inigo Montoya pleading through a door for a miracle from a cranky Billy Crystal.
And there’s nowhere to sit down for a meal either. Extensive inquiries have yet to locate a single all-night diner in this mammoth city. Nary a 24-hour grocery store exists here, unless you count the handful of gas station minimarts that will sell you Red Bull and gum all night. Fortunately for the hungry, what Santiago’s shopkeepers withhold, its street vendors gladly provide. A veritable garden of greasy street food can be found in the city’s most blootered barrios.
On a recent witching-hour quest for food, I walked toward Santiago’s clubbiest neighborhood, Bellavista, just as the bars officially closed. An assemblage of emo-kids sat on a stoop outside a closed Metro station, many drunkenly making out with each other. A bongo drummer and a guitarist had taken up residence on a nearby bridge, inspiring a sloshed girl in platform heels to spin in a wobbly orbit with a mohawked guy. A seemingly fascinated street dog circled around them like a moon.
In the immediate vicinity there were at least a dozen street food vendors. For 100 pesos—about a quarter—you can buy a deep-fried sopaipilla, a round quickbread that is Chile’s favorite rainy-day comfort food. Heap on salsas of various heats and then try to eat the thing without dripping it down your shirt (a feat I have yet to accomplish.) Empanadas filled with various delights are abundant. Premade sandwiches are sold off of cloths spread out on the sidewalks. The scent of barbequed skewered meat floats across the brown Mapocho River and grabs you by your nose hairs; for a couple hundred pesos, the skewers will also grab you by the taste buds.
But Chile’s true street food standard is the completo, or hotdog. If you’re an Anthony Bordain fan, you may have seen his “No Reservations” episode for Chile, in which he attempts to eat one of these Chilean classics: A 12-inch hotdog heaped with sauerkraut, a half a pound of guacamole, and what he diplomatically describes as “a copious—some might say excessive—slathering of mayonnaise.”
I personally prefer the completo’s cousin, the choripan—a short, thick chorizo tucked into a fresh bread roll. In that recent mission to satiate my hunger at 5 A.M., I stopped at a street vendor who was just shutting down his grill for the night, but he paused to make me one last choripan. He seemed delighted to talk to someone who wasn’t in danger of passing out on his barbeque. He only works his grill a few nights a week, and then goes home at dawn and sleeps till noon. But, the cheerful man says, he makes up for it by sleeping up to 12 hours the other days of the week. “I need a lot of rest,” he said, pointing downward, “because I only have one leg.” As he handed me the choripan, the one-legged man introduced himself as Pato, and gave me one last piece of advice. “Staying up all night is really a way of life,” he said, waxing philosophic. “You can resist it or you can accept it, it’s your choice,”
Walking away into Santiago’s witching hour, choripan in hand, I was happy to accept.
Previously in this series: