On Being Afraid

Having long accepted the sad, boring truth that most Asians are not expert in any marital arts, I was never afraid of anything going wrong on the first leg of our trip. Not even hearing a former colleague's tale of being stabbed in the chest while in Malaysia (nor his near-fatal tussle with an orang-utan – seriously, he fought that bastard for ages) frightened me. Put simply, that's because if it came down to it, I would fancy my chances against someone shorter, lighter and eminently headbuttable.
Not so in South America. Firstly, most people are my size or bigger. Secondly, they're far more likely to carry a knife or gun, both of which trump a headbutt, even with a cranium as weighty as mine.
But having spent a month in the rural south of Chile and Argentina, we've not had much occasion to feel afraid. All over the world country folk are largely affable types, and surrounded by such gorgeous scenery, these particular bumpkins don't have much to be angry about.
In tourist towns like Pucon, they're comparatively rich too, so even when following folk up a smoking volcano, for example, we felt far from danger.
But our road from now until August stretches ever north, inexorably through some of the continent's most notorious cities and alongside an unquantifiable number of bandits.
Ahead of arriving in Santiago, we looked to the reliably bland Lonely Planet for advice. As usual, their ladie-da attitude wasn't much help. I wonder if they give out anti-depressants at the Lonely Planet HQ? Things are never that good, nor that bad. It reminds me of Stephen Fry's excellent, uncomfortable documentary about manic depressives. It featured famous faces – and more memorably some deeply disturbed plebs – who, having had their peaks and troughs levelled out by a narcotic saw, described looking at life through a letterbox. Thus the Lonely Planet – afraid to criticise or eulogise, content with the mealy-mouthed middle ground.
They describe Santiago as “generally safe” and flag up one or two areas in which to be more cautious. In reality, most hostels are full with horror stories about life on the mean streets. One guy was victim of misdirection and lost his day-bag containing his passport and camera; a girl was extorted by a cab driver; the squares are full of marauding Peruvians... And so on.
Photo: Wee Mo
People prattle on about it so much that by the time we leave the hostel for an extensive photography day, we're both a little unnerved. And I hate myself for being like that because of course nothing happened. Yes people stared at our cameras, but then I would have done the same in Glasgow – it's unusual to see a big SLR camera and lens, let alone two of them.
Speaking of the Dear Green Place, many people we meet seem to be a little wary of it, afraid that violence and skulduggery could pop up at a moment's notice. For the most part it's just lazy English types bleating out-dated stereotypes in lieu of having anything interesting to say; other times it's foreigners who believe Braveheart is the greatest documentary ever made.
Photo: Wee Mo
But in all cases, it seems ridiculous to me – I know Glasgow, I love it, and it never frightens me. Yes I may once have had a half-brick bounced off my shoulder by a scallywag. And OK, so maybe I did once bite someone in the head. And yes, I did see a woman get booted square in the fud on Sauchiehall Street that time. And so what if my cruciate ligament was ripped asunder, and a visiting friend's nose unceremoniously relocated to his cheek during a street fight with strangers?
Glasgow is safe, it really is no mean city. Most likely, most Santiagoans feel the same about their city too and, by the time we left, we did too. Kind of.
However, on moving out to Valparaiso on the coast, the threat level rose considerably. Home to the country's highest level of unemployment, and a quite staggering number of subsequent jakies, Valpo is dirty, dangerous and – inexplicably – reeks of piss.
Incongruously, it is also home to a sprawling UNESCO World Heritage site and the most jaw-dropping graffiti we have ever seen. I've been places where the street art is lauded before, but nothing compares to Chile. The work is detailed, vibrant and unquestionably bonefide art and – scary or not – makes travelling to Valparaiso worthwhile.
Photo: Wee Mo

Unfortunately, it was quite hard to enjoy all that because within 10 minutes of stepping off the bus downtown, alarm bells were ringing. Cameras out, we had just started to take pictures when a man made a grab for mine. Turns out he was just trying to warn me – beware in case people try to swipe that. Reassuring, it was not.
Next, having seen a couple of shady figures doing something up an alleyway, elaborately disguised as bin men, tinkering with an actual bin, we decided to head up into the lauded UNESCO are of the town. A few steps uphill and another man approached me, waving a badge and proclaiming to be a policeman.
“HA!” Thought I, “I can see your game.”
“Please,” said the man, “I am an undercover policeman.”
“Pfft!” Thought I, while wittering something about not being interested and trying to walk away.
“That is my partner,” he replied, pointing at a policeman on a bike.
“Um...” Thought I, realising that perhaps I was in the process of being rescued from mortal danger.
“I am a good man, but it is not safe for you to go up there. Please, your cameras are very expensive and it will not be safe.”
“Oh.” I said. And we walked back down.
That, as you might imagine, royally fucked our day. In fact, it ruined the rest of our time in Valparaiso. We still took pictures – hundreds of them – but everything, every moment, was tainted by fear. Simple things started to carry menace and we became endlessly burdened with foreboding.
A teenager whistling up a hill to his friends suddenly became a secret signal for them to attack.
They didn't.
A businessman asking for the time was a ruse to separate us from our wallets.
It wasn't.
A tramp asking for change would lash out with a dirty needle if we said no.
We did; he didn't.
Photo: Wee Mo
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Fuck up, Franklin, you don't know what you're on about.