Chile has the nastiest, meanest looking riot cop vans I’ve seen anywhere in the world. Big hulking blocks of dark green metal with barred up blacked out windows, always lurking round the most innocent looking street corners on sunny afternoons.

I’m doing fieldwork on a university campus at the moment, a twenty minute bus ride from my apartment. Jumping off at the stop a short block away from the university this morning, I noticed again that there were two large riot vans parked in the drive through McDonalds nearby. I have been trying to work out what this signifies. Do the Santiago police really like Big Macs? Is there not enough parking space at the cop shop? Is McDonalds perceived to be in need of two van loads of riot cops to protect it? Or maybe its McDs itself that’s considered subversive, and we the public are being protected from its revolting pseudo food by the boys in riot gear? One of my many daily mysteries.

Sometime this afternoon, during a rather boring class I was observing, we were disturbed by the sound of crowds of voices and loud sharp cracks outside the window. The guys sulking at the back of the class jumped up to peer out the window – but the window was closed and we went back to work. Let out half an hour later, I followed the shouting and smell of burning to the other side of campus – where one of those huge hulking riot vans was squatting in the street close up to the spiky iron perimeter railings of the campus. The water cannon was aimed at a crowd of protesting students and onlookers (but not at the burning trash cans, sadly, which would perhaps have been more useful).

Things progressed, and eventually the armoured-up cops marched back to their riot vans, while the cat calls and wolf whistles of the crowd rained down on them: punctuated with a few farewell rocks and bottles.

A classic moment – the black clad figure, face masked by a red and black scarf, runs forward with arm pulled back to sling his rock at the retreating cops. The Bansky pose, if you will, iconic whether he holds a rock or a flaming bottle or a bunch of flowers.

Except in mid hurl he slipped on the wet pavement and landed on his arse, and the entire crowd of protesters and onlookers burst into giggles.

Poor guy. He did manage to jump up again and land a good thonk with his rock afterwards, bless him. I guess his pride took a bit of a battering too. But he has given me something to remember and laugh about whenever I come across those scary scary machines in the future.

Tuesday, midday. My usual method of navigation – turn up vaguely in the area of town I think I remember the Natural History Museum is in, and walk around until I find it – is not working. I know its somewhere near the Plaza de Armas. Having got off at the wrong metro stop, walked for ten minutes in the opposite direction, searched every street on, off and parallel to the Plaza and still not found it, I’m hot, bothered and hungry. Time to take a moment out for lunch.

Of course this becomes a whole new realm of annoyance, as I’m now in a pissy mood and can’t decide on anything. Dithering in front of a fried pollo place, pacing past several spots that seem ‘too touristy’, unable to make up my mind if I should just buy an empenada and eat it on a bench. Hunger makes me stupid, hence me wanting to make what ought to be a refueling situation into a comfort situation – I just wanna sit down somewhere that’s not gonna present a whole language/culture problem for half an hour, to drink a coffee and get my equilibrium back.

After another ten minutes walking in circles I notice what looks like a chain patisserie off one of the side streets of the plaza. The patisserie faces onto the street, selling pastries and bread over a counter, while the building behind appears to be a separate cafe area, a little tucked back from the street but still with a glass front facing a small patio area. There’s a big reassuring photo of a giant croissant on the glass windows, and various signs advertising the usual Santiago-style croissant and coffee deals. My feet hurt, I need coffee, it looks reasonable – I head inside.

And… I stop. I walk in the door, and stop up short, though I’m not exactly sure yet why. There’s… something. Something about the place I’m not sure about… A waitress on the other side of the room looks up, and makes a gesture for me to come in. I hesitate, still not sure. But I’m hungry. And damn it, I’m annoyed at myself for faffing so long already. I sit down at the nearest table.

A few days later, I finally worked out that I had just made a rather embarrassing mistake that, if I admitted it to any Santiagoen, would be considered hilarious. But I didn’t realise that at the time. Only… suspected. In a flustered kind of way.

The place looked like any other cafe. Tiled floor, small round tables with easy to wipe surfaces, bright florescent lighting, aforementioned giant croissant pictures on the wall. But it also looked a little odd. There were only two other customers, even though it was the peak of lunch time – the main meal of the day. Two young guys in black faux-leather jackets and short spiky hair, hunched over coffees, making occasional conversation with long pauses while they stared at the large plasma tv. A bored cashier seated on a tall stool in front of her till: middle-aged, a little plump, but neat enough with her carefully set hair, brown trousers and beige cardigan. The tv itself, blasting out what seemed like an MTV medley – all the hits of the last ten years rattling past in an endless mix that only stopped to give you a verse and chorus of each club anthem before lurching on to the next video. Slightly nauseating after a while, especially as the nearest table when I sat down was the one right underneath it.

But most of all, the waitresses. Two stick thin, very young women in entirely matching outfits and make up. A uniform no doubt. But a uniform of skin tight purple lycra mini-dresses, with spindly black high heels, black patterned tights, long pink nails and electric blue eye shadow. As I sat down a little uncertainly, one of them came over, sweeping long black hair over her shoulder as she handed me a short menu.

She acted exactly like any other waitress would. Which just made me more confused about the frankly weird outfit. I asked for a coffee and sandwich. She told me they only had one sandwich left.

Only one? But – but – what about the giant croissant on the door? Sorry, she says. Only one. But she could have it heated up for me.

I order the one sandwich this cafe has at lunch time, and sit sipping my coffee, trying to work out what is going on. I seem to be the only person here confused. The cashier and the waitresses act like there is nothing at all strange about either their attire, or me being here looking at them in their attire – even though this is a cafe with no food. I start to get paranoid about whether the two guys are really looking at Britney Spears above my head, or at me. Are they laughing at me for being somewhere I shouldn’t be? Because by the time I see a guy walk in off the street and deliver a shopping bag full of sandwiches to the waitress, that he’s obviously just brought from the supermarket over the road, I’m convinced that this must all be a front for something.

The waitress comes back and tells me politely that they now have more sandwiches. Perhaps I’d like to chose a different flavour? She lists the new ones just delivered – tripping back to the tiny little preparation counter on her ridiculously high heels when she forgets one. What she’s saying and how she says it is are utterly ordinary for a waitress. But she does have a tendency to lean in so close towards me that I find myself backing away from her in my chair. Towering above me in her heels with that long black hair about to fall on me as she politely asks if I’d like my chicken and avocado sandwich toasted… I’m grinning like a maniac so she won’t notice that I’m risking a broken neck trying to put another few centimetres between us.

While the sandwich is being taken out of its wrapper and put on a plate, I hunker down over my coffee and notebook, trying to look like I’m really busy and not at all confused. My waitress goes to stand by the cashier, leaning sideways against the counter with her arms over her skinny chest, gazing up at the tv. An air of controlled boredom hovers over them both.

Meanwhile, her matching colleague comes out from the back with a mop and a bottle of pungent bleach cleaner. Still mini-dress clad and stiletto heel shod, she gets down to mopping the floor. The whole floor. Working her way thoroughly round all those empty tables, she pushed on to clean under the table of the two guys who both ignore her as much as she ignores them. The bleach smell is putting me off my cheap white bread and mushy avocado sandwich, which I’m gulping down with as much speed as I can politely muster given that its pretty revolting to start with. She eventually makes her way over to me and, following the lead of the guys, I try to ignore the fact that she’s mopping up under my table while I’m still sitting here. And of course the fact that she’s doing so in what looks like more appropriate clothing for a cheap nightclub than the afternoon shift in a centre of town coffee shop.

I can admire a girl for being able to wash a floor that thoroughly. I can admire her for being able to walk in three inch heels. I can’t help but stare like an idiot at someone who is able to do both at once.

Eventually I have swallowed the last mouthful of my lunch, and the nice purple micro-skirt wearing waitress comes over with my bill. I leave a tip, she wishes me a nice day. As I hurry out, I notice that no one is noticing me, only watching me leave with the bored expressions of employees with no customers and hours to go till they can get out of their uniform and go home. The most confusing part of the whole experience is that I’m the only one who seems to think its really bizarre. Either I just walked into a strip joint posing as a coffee shop (in which case wouldn’t my obvious confusion have at least raised the slightest hint of a condescending eyebrow?), or there’s a really odd fancy dress theme going on today that the staff are totally unfazed by.

Half an hour later, when I finally stopped at an internet place to check, I worked out the Natural History Museum is on the other side of town to the Plaza de Armas. An hour later, when I got there and read the hand painted banner on the door, I found out the museum was closed because the staff were all on strike. Three days later, while looking through my guide book, I came across the following that explained the cafe.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

It makes them sound so easy to spot.

The most annoying day I’ve had so far in Santiago? Quite possibly.

Sunday. 2pm. Sitting in the multiplex cinema waiting for Emma. On the weekends the whole city closes down apart from a few sparse cafes and the larger shopping malls. Even those are practically deserted. Planning ahead, we arrange to spend Sunday afternoon sitting in the dark somewhere warm, eating popcorn and watching Harry Potter.

Hence here I am, in the big, bright, multicoloured and sticky foyer of the multiplex. Its the school vacation, so there are hoards of kids everywhere. And since the Harry Potter movie only just came out, there’s a small band of moody looking teenage goths in black plastic capes and pointy hats hovering together in a corner.

Bright lights. Sticky yellow and red colours. Bursts of popping, whizzing machine noise. The smell of pop corn, disinfectant, and hot dogs. Plump, bored employees in matching t-shirts and baseball hats. I’m early by ten mins, so find a safe haven on a bench festooned with M+M characters, half hidden behind one of those machines that gives you plastic tat in small round eggs. Next to me on a bench sits a middle aged guy, staring vaguely into the distance with the blank expression of a boyfriend deposited there by his girlfriend while she goes to get the tickets. We sit on opposite ends of the M+Ms bench, a little island of silence.

After a while two young female employees come over with a mop, half a cardboard box folded up, and expressions of resignation. They set themselves up a few meters in front of us, over a tiny splash of something on the floor that that looks sticky. Trying to ignore the kids that rush around them, one mops the floor while the other starts to fan the slops of water with the piece of cardboard. Mop. Fan Fan. Mop. Fan Fan. Both work in a slow, lackluster manner, but while the mopper keeps her head down, the woman with the “fan” stops every few seconds to shift her weight to the other foot, stick her hand on her hip, and cast glances around her. All the while keeping up a desultory stream of chit chat with her colleague, desperate not to draw attention to herself, desperate to make some small act of separation between herself and the utter ridiculousness of what she’s doing. But its hard to look ironic when you’re wearing a bright yellow t-shirt and baseball cap and flapping a piece of cardboard over a puddle.

The guy on the bench and I both stare at them. The moment passes. The kids carry on screaming and running around in a grease and sugar induced frenzy.