Pros and Concierges

Within the apartment buildings of central Santiago there exists an uneasy truce between tenants and concierges. These gatekeepers are the guardians of our safety, the custodians of calm, the keepers of the peace. No visitor, postal service worker, or pizza delivery person can even get close to you until they have gone through the fellow at the front desk. They are the mediators between you and the chaos outside. They mark your comings and goings, take note of who your friends are, and stoically witness you stumbling in at four in the morning. They say little, but they see all.
I have encountered, and defeated, many concierges in my time here, but there have been none who have filled me with quite a sense of foreboding as the one who guards the narrow lobby of my current building.

Bruce Campbell
At one point, a concierge was Spiderman’s worst adversary

When I first met my concierge, I concluded that he was not long for this world. His sickly pallor and straggly hair gave the impression that he was a man slowly letting go of his earthly body. His hair hungered for a brush. His clothes longed for the laundry. The first time I laid eyes on him he struck me as a filthy man, and beyond that I gave him no thought at all. I simply made myself at home, and waited for him to die.

But he did not die. A few weeks after I moved in, I came home one day and discovered that my concierge had obtained a haircut. The change in his appearance was so drastic that I slowed my pace to get a better view. For the first time I could see his face clearly. The neatened hairstyle, trimmed to a grey bristle along the back and sides, threw his countenance into sharp relief. While aged and lined, his face didn’t look half bad. The thin silver glasses that enlarged his eyes to a ludicrous degree now made him seem academic, intelligent.
A few days after that, I noticed that he had found himself a leather jacket. I would have thought it incomprehensible that a fifty-something man living a sedentary life would be able to make a leather jacket look good, but somehow my concierge was able to pull it off. In open defiance of all the odds, my concierge was starting to look healthier.

Pictured: My concierge after getting a leather jacket

I soon learned that my concierge was a man of noise. I would enter the building at odd moments and catch him humming tunes that, I surmised, he was composing on the spot. At times he would sing unintelligible songs at a volume far too loud for the small lobby in which he was encamped, his gruff voice sounding like a car pulling into a gravel driveway.
Probably the most distressing aspect of his nature was the cacophony produced by the unnatural machinations of his being. Often as I crossed the lobby from the elevators to the front door, I would hear him heave an exhausted breath from his lungs, stale air scraping phlegm up from a gnarled throat. Sometimes I would hear him clearing his throat for such long intervals that I believed he was timing it to the tune of the Imperial March. Once, as I stood on my balcony on the tenth floor of the building, I heard him sneeze. It was a sneeze to end worlds. It was less an expulsion of air than it was an open-mouthed howl. Moments after he had wailed out that ungodly sound I felt the concussion that followed the blast rattle up the elevator shaft and tremble the ground on which I stood.

Glass Case of Emotion
Pictured: My concierge sneezing

It is my habit to avoid conversing with my concierges. I came into this country not knowing how to speak Spanish, and at that time I fell into the habit of keeping relations with concierges as non-communicative as possible. Even as my Spanish skills have progressed, I cannot shake the quirk of being unable to speak to the man behind the desk. Every time I enter or leave a building, the best I can muster is a feeble “Hola” or “Hasta luego.” But in an attempt to broaden my range I have also taken to echoing the words that concierges say to me. If they say “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes” then I will repeat that phrase back to them. My current concierge has noted this and, although I cannot prove it, I suspect that he has turned it into a game. He rarely acknowledges me, and when he does he chooses his moments ever so carefully. Some might say that he is simply slow to react, but I am convinced that his comments are timed to fluster me and break my stride.
Sometimes I will be on my way out of the building, and as I pass by the front desk I will tip my head and say, “Hasta luego” without adjusting my speed. I receive only silence from him in return. I reach the front door, twist the handle, and push the door outwards. As I plant one foot outside he calls “Buenos días” to me in a loud, breathy sigh.
In that moment, I am caught off guard. Suddenly I feel as if my “Hasta luego” was rude. It’s like saying “See ya later” when I should have said “Good morning.” So to make amends I turn my body, which is already outside the building, and weakly croak “Buenos días,” but before I can finish saying “días” the door has already swung closed, and my words are nothing but fog against glass. Through the door I see my concierge. He hasn’t even looked up from sorting the mail.

Me and my concierge
Pictured: My concierge and me


“How many people have you met?” I ask, vaguely.
Since acquiring Facebook, I have collected approximately 800 friends. Probably at least 150 of those are fake accounts, enterprises, duplicates, or strangers who have added me. But if I lean back on my faux leather couch, chin tilted to the ceiling, and really think about it, I’d have to say I’ve met perhaps… eight people. Eight people in total, give or take one or two. Hundreds of different human beings, to be sure, but probably only about eight archetypes that continuously circle in and out of my life, like Halley’s Comet. Maybe it’s different for you, Dear Reader, but at any given moment in my life, I find I am always surrounded by these eight people:

1.) The Health Guru
This is the person who is always knowledgeable about diet and exercise. They are the person I instinctively turn to when I want to find out how to stop feeling sluggish, or the fastest natural way to cure a cold, or the best way to increase the strength in my knees. These are the people who invite me to do outdoor activities, and who inspire me to take good care of myself.

Health Guru
Coach always took good health to an extreme in “New Girl”


2.) The Spiritual Guide
I don’t always know in which direction my life should be heading, but the spiritual guide is the person who will always listen to my concerns, offer me advice, and help me find the path that I was unable to find on my own. I would say that the Spiritual Guide is also the person who pushes me to be better, and to challenge myself. They are the ones who bring me out of the house and invite me to cultural events.

Spiritual Guid
Wilson was always Tim’s go-to advice man in “Home Improvement”


3.) The Moral Compass
Being an adult means sometimes not knowing the right thing to do. Luckily, when I find myself in such a quandary, I have a Moral Compass who will take me aside, and kindly explain to me the correct way to treat other human beings. When the paths of virtue and sin become convoluted, I can rely on my Moral Compass to set me on the right course.

Moral Compass
No matter the odds, Eddard Stark always tried to do the right thing in “Game of Thrones”


4.) The Drinking Companion
Alcohol need not be involved, but we all need that friend with whom we can just shoot the breeze. This is the easy friend; the one without pretense. My Drinking Companion is the person who allows me to step outside of the cyclone of my existence and observe the events of my life from a relaxed distance. Conversation is broad as opposed to deep, but sometimes those light conversations are exactly what I need.

American Maid
I always liked how American Maid would keep Arthur grounded in “The Tick”


5.) The Nuisance
When examining the archetypes in my life I cannot help but notice that there is almost always someone in it that has a tendency to get on my nerves. They’re not bad people, but they do have a tendency to try my patience a great deal more than the rest of my friends. It’s terrible to speak negatively of people, but at least acknowledging the nuisance in my life gives me the patience to enjoy their company.

Kramer is kind of annoying, but you can’t help but like him in “Seinfeld”


6.) The Love Interest
I am always in love. Or, at least, I always have a crush on someone. Often, nothing comes from this, and when the person I love passes out of my life, a new love interest will inevitably rear their gorgeous head and turn my world upside down.

Love Interest
The Waitress is the quintessential Love Interest in “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”


7.) The Bad Influence
A lot of people do drugs, I’ve realised. A lot of people drink a lot too. Most people have their vices, and sadly some people allow their vices to overcome them. I feel like I’ve done a good job so far of avoiding too many bad influences in my life, but I think it’s always good to have the Bad Influence around to draw you out of your shell and make you go a bit crazy once in a while.

Bad Influence
Your parents might not like him, but Barney from “How I Met Your Mother” definitely knows how to keep life interesting


8.) The Neophyte
Look around and you will always find someone who is slightly less experienced that you. Someone who is new on the job, or new in town. They won’t always ask for help, but you’ll sense that they need it. Getting your life on an even keel doesn’t count for much if you can’t pull others on board with you.

There’s a lot that Todd doesn’t understand about Hollywood, which is why he needs someone to guide him in “Bojack Horseman”


Now, it’s important to remember that people shouldn’t be put into boxes. Just because someone is an archetype to you doesn’t mean that they aren’t so much more as well. But it’s in our nature to find patterns, and this is just another pattern that I’ve observed.
I am also almost certain that there are many more archetypes than the ones I have listed here, but this is the general idea. Sometimes each archetype exists within a different human being. Sometimes several archetypes can be encompassed by one person. Sometimes, a person that you know might change from one archetype to another during the time that you know them. But it seems to me that, without fail, I always have these eight influences in my life.
I cannot overstate the value that many people have brought into my life. I have been blessed with the honour of crossing paths with some of the finest souls on the planet. But my lifestyle means that my social circle tends to renew itself every six months or so, with old friends leaving and new friends stepping into my world. In all of those cycles I have always observed the same recurring archetypes.

I am just about certain that this idea of the archetypes in our lives is not an original one. I’m sure you’ve noticed these pattern in your life too, Dear Reader. But in recent weeks I’ve been turning this idea over in my mind, and I began to look inward and ask myself which archetype I am. When I asked myself the question, the answer was immediately evident: I am the Main Character, of course!
But sadly I am the main character only in my universe. For everyone else, I am just a passing influence. The truth is, I don’t know what kind of archetype I am, but I think it is profoundly important to acknowledge that most people will see me as one thing or another. I would bet that I am a different archetype to different people. Perhaps some people see me as the Health Guru, or the Drinking Buddy. I’d hate to be someone’s Nuisance, but it’s possible. I’m fairly certain that I’m no one’s Bad Influence, but it would be nice to think that I am someone’s Love Interest.

The point is, when engaging with a friend, it might help to consider who that friend thinks they’re talking to. Do they want you to be their Spiritual Guide, or your Drinking Companion. Are they looking for health advice or moral guidance? Hopefully, once you figure out who you are to different people, then you would start to become a better human being. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want to be?

Perusing for a Bruising

About this time last year, while sitting in a pub that prized itself on being the highest Irish-owned pub in the world, I was contemplating how best to steal a beer mug. The crime itself was something I’d been planning ever since I’d arrived in Peru with my small band of friends, but now that the moment had come, a deep sense of paranoia had gripped me. The space we were in was small and cosy. The furnishings were all wooden, and the tiny windows provided a limited view of the cobbled plaza outside. Although the pub was crowded, I was always within the eye line of any waiter or waitress who might glance in my direction.
The reason that I’d decided to steal a beer mug in the first place was because, while I was in Peru, I was missing out on a friend’s birthday in Santiago. A few months previously, as a housewarming gift, Fran had given me a beer mug that she herself had stolen, and now I wanted to return the favour.

The pub in which I found myself was called Paddy’s, and it was located in the Peruvian town of Cuzco, which seemed to have more tourists than locals. The predominant language being spoken about the place was English, but in a variety of accents. I was seated in the corner, a choice I’d made even before entering the establishment. I wanted to limit the angles by which I could be seen. My best bet, I figured, was to steal the mug off of someone else’s table. That way, if the mug’s absence was noticed while I was still there, the blame would be placed on other patrons. I was not only planning to steal, but to frame innocent people as well.

Scene of the Crime
The scene of the crime


After scanning the room for some time I finally had my mark. There was a group of about half a dozen folks from the United States sitting next to us. They had pushed two tables together to accommodate all of them, and their space was littered with empty beer mugs. One missing glass wouldn’t be noticed right away.
Eventually they gathered their things and left, and in the wake of their departure I leaned over, snatched up a mug, and buried it deep in my friend’s handbag. From that moment I felt a powerful desire to get as far away from Paddy’s as possible, but I had to play it cool.

Moments later, a waitress came over. “Every thing alright over here?” she said.
“WHY?!” I said, calmly.
The waitress hesitated and then said, “I mean, can I get you guys anything else to drink?”
“NO!” I replied, wiping sweat from my brow. “WE JUST WANT TO PAY NOW!” The temperature in the room had risen to Sahara-like levels.
The waitress regarded me for an extended time. I didn’t want to look guilty so I forced myself to meet her gaze, blinking one eye at a time so that I wouldn’t break eye contact.
“Sure,” she said after a moment. “I’ll be right back.”
The bill was delivered swiftly and without comment, and before I knew it I was out in the sunlight with my gang of accomplices.
The only hurdle left, at that point, was that I still had about three weeks of travelling before I would be back in Santiago.

If Batman watched over Cuzco, this is what he’d see.

Travelling with a beer mug in your backpack can be frustrating. You must always remember to but your bag down carefully, and to take care not to shove things haphazardly into it lest something heavy crushes the glass. But overall, travelling around South America with it didn’t cause me any problems at all. I took it with me around Cuzco, and later to Machu Picchu. After that, I brought the mug across the border into Bolivia. The mug was with me when I cycled down the Death Road in La Paz. I had it with me on the overnight bus ride to Cochabamba, and then onward to Santa Cruz. I brought it with me on an endless bus ride to a rural town called Pasorapa, and then back again – 12 hours each way. Then I loaded the glass in question onto an airplane, and flew it to Santiago, where I was finally able to bring it safely to my apartment.

Macchu Pichu
If you look carefully, you can just make out the ruins of Machu Picchu hidden behind me.

The worst was over. All that remained to me was to deliver it into the hands of my friend Fran, and that wouldn’t happen for another week or two because her weekends were often full.
Eventually, a convenient day arrived when a group of us agreed to meet at one of Santiago’s oldest and most famous watering holes – La Piojera. This rustic and rowdy bar near the center of the city was famous for the terremotos that it served. Now, if you don’t know, a terremoto (which means earthquake), is a potent alcoholic drink made from snake venom, nail polish remover, and ice cream*. One glass of the stuff goes down easily and deliciously, and when you stand up afterwards you find that the ground is moving violently beneath you – hence the name. La Piojera sells terremotos at such a furious rate that at any given time there are always at least six plastic cups on the bar being filled up with the exotic substance.
Some friends and I got there early in the day, before the place had filled up completely. This meant that we were able to secure a rather large table for ourselves in one corner of the room. Puddles of terremoto and empty plastic cups littered the floor, even at this early hour, so I had to keep my satchel on my lap. My satchel contained a bottle of water, a sweater for later, and Fran’s stolen beer mug.

Fran was running late, and while the rest of us waited for her we decided to order some finger food. I scraped my chair forward to better hear my friends over the din. The satchel shifted in my lap, and the stolen glass rolled out and exploded with an almighty pop all over the alcohol-soaked floor of La Piojera.
In the universal language of bar-related mishaps, every single individual in the bar, about 50 people to a man, exclaimed in unison:


It was interesting for me to take note that not a single patron questioned the existence of a glass container in place that used exclusively plastic cups.
The second point that amused me was that, at some point in the evening, a member of the staff was going to have to clean up the mess, and I could only imagine their bewilderment at having to clean up glass. Who brings their own mug to a bar?, they might inquire.
The third and most pressing point that crossed my mind was the terrible loss I had just suffered. My travelling companion was gone, relegated to the trash in a place so far from its origin and so much closer to sea level.
While I processed everything that had just happened, a flash of movement caught my eye and I looked up from the mess on the floor.
“Oh, hi Fran,” I said glumly.

These are terremotos, and they will rock your world.

*At least, that’s what it tastes like.

Fate Like Potatoes

Give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time, and it will eventually write the words of Shakespeare. Or, so it is said. On the other hand, give one bachelor his own apartment and a handful of months, and he will inevitably blow something up.
Of course, like any responsibility-denying adult, I cannot take full credit for what happened. I am simple one cog in a vastly complex machine, and it is impossible to know what the other cogs are doing until everything lines up in a way that blindsides your life and sets it off on a bit of a speed wobble.

Monkey Typewriter
Technology has come a long way. Who uses wooden chairs anymore?

When my kettle blew up, my first instinct was to blame the potato, but I believe the chain of causation goes back further than that. I could point my finger at my friend, who was going out of town for a month and had to give away her potatoes so that they wouldn’t be wasted in her absence. Or I could blame my stubborn pan which had become difficult to clean. But if I really give it some thought, I believe the chain of events truly got started when the light bulb in my kitchen burned out.

Light Bulb
I have since replaced the light bulb. There it shines, an angelic halo.

My kitchen is situated in a tiny nook that receives almost no ambient light, so when the bulb blew it was quite a task to get anything done in there. My immediate, lazy solution was to use my space heater as a substitute. The heater has three bars that cast a bright orange light when it is turned on, which was perfect for my temporary needs. The best place for it was on the tiny piece of kitchen counter next to the fridge, where my kettle usually sits. In order to free up an outlet so that I could plug the heater in, I unplugged the kettle and moved it next to the kitchen sink. And that’s where the kettle stayed.

Dark Kitchen
See? Tiny, dark kitchen nook

A few nights ago, I decided to roast a potato for dinner, having developed an affinity for them after my friend had given me some a few weeks previously. The only problem was that the pan I used to roast them had lost its non-stick properties a long time ago, and therefore required quite a scrub to get it clean. For this purpose, I had purchased some steel wool, and after scrubbing the pan clean I left the ball of wool by the sink, next to the kettle.

The next day I arose groggily and put the kettle on for coffee. Once the water had boiled, I lifted the kettle from its stand, poured water into a mug, and moved to replaced the kettle on its stand. As I completed this maneuver I noticed how an errant strand of wool had uncoiled itself until the tiny end of it was resting right on top of the connector that supplies electricity to the kettle. My reflexes were slow, but even as I put the kettle down I thought to myself, “That piece of steel there is probably not safe,” and then my apartment exploded.

This is partly your fault, Potato!

There was a loud popping noise followed by silence. My fridge had stopped humming. The annoyingly loud extractor fan in my bathroom had stopped buzzing. Even the recently-replaced kitchen light bulb had gone dark, and I smelled fire. I lifted the kettle back up and saw that the tip of the steel wool had caught fire like an environmentally unfriendly stick of incense. I stared at the flame quizzically until it died on its own, and then I careful set the kettle back down on the counter, far from the smoking steel wool, and went to check my fuse box. A few switches had tripped, so I flipped them back up. My apartment remained dark and silent. I felt like Bilbo in Gollum’s cave. In the distance, I could hear my neighbour’s music. Evidently they still had power.
By that point, the sun had come up sufficiently for me not to need light in the living room. Plus I already had my coffee, so for the time being I did not need electricity. I sat on my couch and stared at my laptop which was now no longer connected to the internet because the modem had no power. I ate my cereal, drank my coffee, brushed my teeth, and left for work.

As I went about my day, I considered my options:
1.) I could ignore the problem and live out the rest of my days here without electricity.
2.) I could blow my neighbour’s fusebox so that they would be forced to take the initiative to sort things out.
3.) I could ask my concierge to turn the power back on at the main switch.

Obviously, Option 3 was out of the question. I didn’t know the Spanish words for “switch” or “main switch” or “to switch something on.” It was an insurmountable obstacle.

I was sorely tempted to try Option 2. It had a Tom Sawyer-esque cleverness to it, but I didn’t really know how I would go about sabotaging my neighbour’s electricity. Perhaps I could try disrupting the whole building? But that might cause me to fatally damage myself, or even get into trouble with the police.

Option 1 seemed possible. My oven is gas powered, so I could still cook food. I could turn my phone into a WiFi hot spot so that I could use the internet on my laptop. That’s all I really needed. It would cost a fortune in data, though.

As my day progressed, the options circled around in my head, and I slowly came to the realization that I would have to eventually seek help from the concierge. So when I returned to my building, I greeted the concierge, went upstairs to my apartment, and waited the appropriate amount of time it would have taken for me to put my things down, get changed out of my work clothes, make a cup of tea, and then accidentally blow myself up. I put it at fourteen minutes, which is also about how long it took me to look up and memorise the Spanish words for “switch,” “main switch,” and “to switch something on.” Then I went back downstairs and threw myself dramatically onto the concierge’s desk.

“You would not believe the disaster that has just this very moment befallen me!” I wailed. “Not fourteen minutes ago, while attempting to make myself a cup of tea, a short circuit occurred and knocked out the power to my apartment! I tried switching the power back on but nothing happened. Would you please be so kind as to switch on the main switch?”

Accurate re-enactment of me talking to the concierge.

Actually, what I said was more like, “No electricity. Accident. Switch main switch to switch something on please?” Thankfully, the plucky concierge was able to find meaning from context. He produced some keys marked “Luz” and bade me follow him back up to my floor and towards the electricity cupboard there. It was an awkward elevator ride. To break the silence I rolled my eyes and chummily said, “Main switch, eh?” The plucky concierge remained passive.

After that, my life improved swiftly and dramatically. The concierge found the electricity closet, flicked a few switches, went downstairs again, flicked some switches there, then returned and flicked one final switch which lit up my apartment once again. A problem that had stretched out for five hours had been solved in ten minutes.

I learned two things that day: The first thing is that you don’t need to be fluent in a language to be understood. Most people just need a few key words and a context.
The second thing I learned is that all the micro-actions in our lives are like pieces on an infinite chess board, or the keys of a typewriter being struck by an infinite monkey. Eventually the chaos will lead to macro-actions that will blow your mind.

New Kettle
I also learned how much a new kettle costs.


Just Looking

I spend a decent amount of time walking around the city, and at times I feel that I have laid eyes on perhaps every one of the city’s five million inhabitants. For the most part, the figures tend to merge into a white noise of stout shapes ambling along at speeds invariably slower than my own, and generally I pay them no mind. However, every once in a while, someone will step out of the background and engage my attention for a moment or two, and the moment will stay for me for a long time afterwards. This happened a few weeks ago while I was en route to the grocery story. It was in the latter part of the day, when the sun had just about gone down but the cold hadn’t quite sunk its teeth in yet. On one grassy corner, underneath several trees rendered naked and brittle by the season, I spied a young woman walking her dog.

It was the dog that caught my attention first. It was a medium sized golden retriever who had happened upon a large grey branch and had proudly claimed it as his own. The branch was as thick as a man’s wrist, roughly twice the length of the dog itself, and spiked with many smaller sticks and twigs that were growing out of it. This rendered the branch as a whole unruly and difficult for the dog to carry. With every few steps, an offshoot would strike the ground and send the retrieved off kilter. Nevertheless, he refused to let it go.

Re-enactment with a different dog

Any dog owner will be familiar with the tenacity that a dog can show when it finds an object that it wants to take home, and anyone who has loved another creature dearly will know exactly the look that this dog’s owner gave me when her eyes locked with mine. There was the apologetic smile, the slight shake of the head, and the rolling of the eyes. The message of that look, framed within the small window of a face that was outlined by a scarf and a beanie, was a complex one. She was not apologising for her dog’s behaviour. Instead, she was sharing a joke with me. She was tacitly including me in her conspiracy to treat her dog’s discovery with exactly the same gravitas as the dog was treating it. I loved that look.

I like to watch the way people watch other people, or the way people watch their animals. Especially when there’s love involved. By far my favourite moment in recent memory happened when I went on a hike into the heart of one of Santiago’s national parks.

When I think of that hike I do not think of the cold that has terrorised me throughout this winter, or how my breath was turned visible by the crisp air. Instead I think of how I stripped off my jacket in a warm glade near the summit of a low hill. I think about ducking under thorny branches, and the low chatter of my companions and my measured breathing as I solidly placed one foot in front of the other along the mulchy path of the dead countryside. I think about occasionally stepping aside to be passed by runners and other hikers with their jackets tied snugly around their waists.

Santiago Smog
In the distance: the brown fog of Santiago’s pollution

About an hour into the hike we reached a waterfall, and beyond that, a river. By that river we shed our packs and took lunch. I had not brought much, and as I did not know any of the other people very well I pulled myself up onto a high ledge that towered over the others, and simply watched.

A few meters further down the river, three figures had made their picnic atop a large boulder that squeezed the flow of the stream into a furious hourglass. I recognised in an instant that they were related; they all had the same blond hair, narrow frame, and their noses and cheeks were all relatively identical. It was a mother, perched awkwardly at the very apex of the rock, with a backpack gingerly placed between her feet, and all the ingredients of a sandwich precariously balanced on her knees and in her lap. On either side of her was a teenage son, perhaps a year or two apart in age, but each equally thin and lankly. Their grasshopper-like legs were bent at the knees, pulling their jeans, already too short, up at the ankle revealing both the colour of their socks as well as the speed of their growth.

Family 1
The family on the rock

While the teens regarded nature in silence, their awkward limbs trying to bend themselves into a comfortable position, the mother was engaged in an intricate ballet of sandwich construction. There were many complexities involved in this. Using a pocket knife she had to slice the bread, cut up the cheese and salami, and fold it all into a sandwich while ensuring that nothing tumbled off her lap and into the river. It was a master balancing act, and she carried it out with patience and aplomb.
She passed the first sandwich off to her youngest. Their movements were slow and precise because any reckless gesture would cause something to fall into the river. The mother carefully constructed a second sandwich while the oldest son gazed off into the middle distance, and as she held it out to him he said something to her, and began unzipping his fleece jacket.
Evidently he wanted to remove a layer before eating, so the mother held onto the sandwich while the son carefully pulled himself out of the fleece, his flailing arms making him look like an anemone in a strong current. While he did this, his mother simply watched him, and the look on her face was one of my favourite things that I saw that day. It was love layered on wonder layered on amusement. She was marveling at the fact that she had produced a fully formed human who could carry out the complicated task of jacket removal. It was amusement the the person she had created could act with absolute seriousness without full knowledge of how serious life could be. And on top of that was a deep, unfathomable love. Even if the jacket removal had taken the son hours, the mother would have patiently waited, sandwich in one hand, pocket knife in the other, awkwardly trying to keep her balance. She could have waited like that forever because her son’s comfort was far more important to her than her own.
Nothing quite beats the way a mother looks at her child. Sometimes mothers are tired, or they shout, or they’re focusing on other things. But during those precious moments when a child is just existing, and the mother is just watching… Those are the moments I’d gladly hike into the wilderness to see.

Hiking Group

The Old Man and the Snow

When the winter came to Santiago I knew I hated it. The cold is merciless and it creeps in through the poorly insulated windows of my apartment and weaves through my flimsy clothing and bites into my flesh deeply. The plants on my balcony wilt and die for lack of sunlight, and in the streets the denizens of Santiago pull their jackets tight over their hearts and bend their scarfed heads into the wind. The street dogs have mysteriously acquired little woolen coats but still they lie curled in corners dreaming of warmer days or death.

I first became aware of my contempt for cold weather when I returned to South Africa from Thailand. The thrilling shift from tropical humidity to the piercing midwinter chill caught me off guard and kicked the life out of me like a nighttime assailant. That was when my animosity towards bleak weather was first seeded profoundly within me, but it had lain relatively dormant until some weeks ago when I had gone out for the night with friends and found myself at a table outside in the dark, sharing revelry and ignoring the icy grip of my monstrous foe. By the time I returned to my drafty apartment the monster had sunk its claws deep into me and pressed my core temperature far below a healthy level. The next day I woke with ‘flu.

Despite my animosity and fear of ice I still listened when the old man Carlos spoke to me about snowboarding. He made a habit of going out of the city on weekends for hiking or camping or skiing so when he first broached the idea with me I did not flee nor change the subject. Carlos is short and broad and rounded at the shoulders like a scarab, and I had been into the wilderness with him before and I trusted that I would be well-led by him. He had many acquaintances in the field of winter sports and was able to negotiate a remarkably cheap deal. That is how I came to find myself swaddled in borrowed snow gear somewhere outside of Santiago in the lee of the Andes mountains. We had been fortunate with the weather and the sky was clear that day. There were about ten of us in total and while most of us could speak English the majority of the people were primarily Spanish speakers. As such hardly any English was spoken at all. I mostly just listened.

Our modest group had convened outside a wooden bungalow that gave way to a frosty courtyard. A narrow porch ran around the property and at intervals there were rooms filled with snow boots and snowboards. It was early still, and only one other couple sat on a wooden bench in the courtyard speaking in the stilled tones demanded by peaceful winter mornings. Puddles which had iced over in the night lay as yet uncracked by industrious footfalls and the exposed earth was sodden and scattered with damp leaves like autumnal sprinkles on an earthen cake.
We were designated our boots and the snowboards were loaded on to the top of a van and then our group clambered into the van. Our driver ignited the engine and put Guns N’ Roses on the radio at a high volume. It was a fine move and probably one he did on every tour. It excited the spirits of my companions and they began conversing in a restless way that was occasionally broken by nervous laughter.
We were driving into a place called San Jose de Maipo where the sky was as blue and as clear as a newborn’s eyes, and the mountainsides were thickly layered with snow like shaving cream on a pie destined for a clown’s painted face.
I am not accustomed to such copious amounts of snow and I found myself transfixed by it. The driver’s selection of popular music loosened my mind and put me in a meditative state.

The drive was pleasant and warm and lulling, and in truth I did not want it to end.
We arrived at an area where other vehicles had turned the ground into muddy slush. People milled around in puffy winter clothing, smoking cigarettes and selling snow gear from crude tables set up under small gazebos. I found a dry piece of exposed rock where I knelt down to remove my hiking boots and push my feet deep into the comfortable tightness of the snow shoes I had been given. An instructor helped me to negotiate the complex drawstrings that pulled the inner and outer layers of the boots snugly around my ankles. That done, I was given a hefty snowboard and fell in line as our party began trudging farther into the hills.

At times the path was flat and at other times the path was steeped in snow.

I gauged the hike to be about one kilometer, but I had to carry a heavy snowboard and with each step I had to pull my cumbersome snow boots out of a clinging pocket of snow.
At length we drew up to a soft slope that ended in a flat expanse that had roughly the dimensions of a football field. The shadow cast by the surrounding peaks was slowly pulling away from the white terrain, reflecting sunlight off of millions of ice crystals and pitching it directly into my unshielded eyes. An instructor asked me if I had any sunglasses and when I answered in the negative he deftly plucked the sunglasses from his own face and placed them firmly into my palm. He had brought snow goggles with him and had no need for glasses.

We gathered in a loose semi circle around the lead instructor. He was a genial man who exuded the mighty confidence of one accustomed to life in the snow. In Spanish he explained many things about the art and science of snowboarding. He showed us the honed edges of the board which feigned sharpness like the base of an ice skate. The keen edge could be used to hack into the snow to give us stability and prevent the board from slipping away or to prevent ourselves from being carried down the mountain by the presence of gravity and the absence of friction. The instructor likewise demonstrated the way in which we were to strap ourselves into the snowboard using the corrugated straps that were attached to the board. This was a process that was easy enough in principle yet the effort of bending forward over copious layers of clothing to wrestle the strap into the catch required a startling amount of dexterity and energy.

The straps of the snowboard were simultaneously my prison and my freedom.

The tutorial was swift and uncomplicated, and then the instructor left us alone to take on the slope at our own pace. After minutes of struggling to attach myself to my board I arose and positioned myself so that I was facing the soft decline. Following the guidance of the instructor I bent my legs slightly at the knees and placed my weight onto my foremost leg and allowed gravity to take over. I was unafraid of falling because I knew that the snow was soft and would yield under my weight and that I would be unharmed in a fall. I had momentum for the briefest of moments before I came unbalanced and pitched forward violently with my board cresting over my body and raining fresh ice all over me. I emerged unharmed save for a sharp sting in my hands which I had flung out before me to cushion my fall. I fished my gloves from my pockets and pulled them onto my hands as a form of protection rather than a shield against the cold. In order to bring myself once again to the top of the rise I had to unfasten myself from the snowboard with a simple flick of the straps. It was an elementary act but one that preceded the more laborious tasks of hiking back to the top of the rise with snowboard in hand and then reattaching myself to the board. For every ten minutes that was spent walking and fiddling with straps I was able to achieve perhaps ten seconds of actual snowboarding. I do not count this as a tragedy since the sensation of gliding down the hill was highly exciting and we had been given all day to play on the snow.

A man must embrace adversity head-on when it arises, even when that adversity is a wall of ice rising to strike you squarely in the face.

With each new foray down the slope I was able to stay on the board for longer moments, and at times I was even able to reach level ground without tumbling over myself. I was also becoming more adept at fastening my boots onto the board. Yet after several attempts I began to tire and overheat, and I sought respite on the sidelines with some of my cohorts. One of them hailed from the United States, and their talk fluctuated between English and Spanish. I joined in with them at times, but mostly my attention was captured by the old man Carlos, who had proven to be more resilient than most of us. His squat figure was adorned in a thick orange snow jacket that made him easy to pick out among the rabble of beginners who were falling over themselves and kicking up ice across the frozen expanse on which we found ourselves. A week before, he had confided to me that he had damaged his knee on a hike, but he showed no sign of discomfort or energy loss as he tackled the slope time and again. What I observed was a man who was brave and true and who did not falter when the time came for him to test himself. I, on the other hand, favoured the tea and sandwich that the instructors had begun handing out. The sandwich was wrapped in foil and the bread was tough and hurt the inside of my mouth when I bit into it, but the salami and lettuce provided sustenance and the end result was that the sandwich was one of the best I’d ever had.

After that simple lunch I took to the slope a few more times until fatigue outdistance my desire for excitement. I was neither the best nor the worst snowboarder on the slope, and as I unbuckled my boots for the last time I was aware that others had done the same thing. We were surrounded by snow on all sides and yet the sun was shining brightly and I had become uncomfortably warm, to the point where I had to remove the sweater I had on underneath my snow jacket. I realised, too, that I had not applied sunscreen to my exposed skin and I could already feel my face becoming sensitive to the touch. Not too long after that most of the group stopped snowboarding altogether and the instructors suggested we head back before it got dark. The journey on foot back to the van was even more difficult upon the return because now we lacked the energy. We walked slowly, and up ahead I saw the old man Carlos soldiering on, leading the group with one end of his snowboard dragging in the snow.



Sleep Tax

I know I might sound like a super villain, but the human race is rather a nuisance. I mean, we’re marvelous, but we’re pretty high maintenance. Bring us up too high and we pop. Pull us too low and we crumple like a tin of Red Bull in Batman’s angry fist. Bump the thermostat a tad too far in either direction and we burn or freeze. Either way, we hate extremes. And once we’ve found a comfortable piece of earth that won’t render us immediately dead, we still have a long list of demands. We need nourishment regularly, and our digestive systems are so feeble that if we eat the wrong thing we get sick, or die, or get sick and then die. We require constant hydration too, and if our liquids aren’t made up of the correct distribution of hydrogen and oxygen atoms, then we go ballistic.

LEGO Batman
I like to imagine Batman as being always angry and always drinking Red Bull.

From a scientific point of view, I understand why we are so picky about where we choose to manifest life. Like the world’s most annoying step-father, we’re difficult to get along with, but we’re not that bad once you get to know us. That said, there is one aspect of the human race which I find myself completely unable to come to terms with: Our constant need for sleep. What ridiculously stupid genetic mechanism decided that we need to spend approximately one third of our lives being dormant? Aren’t hydration and nourishment enough? Why do we need to switch off at regular intervals as well? I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation behind it, but I have another theory:

Imagine a well-run first-world country, like Finland.* In Finland, you get free health care, excellent schools, flawless public transportation. The streets are well-lit, the law enforcement is ever-vigilant, and criminals are cryogenically frozen. Each citizen has his or her own personal robot butler, and the wifi is free and faster than anywhere else on the planet. It’s a veritable utopia, and the reason for this wonderful lifestyle is that the Finnish government takes 70% off of everyone’s salary in tax.** It’s a hefty tax, but the results are arguably worth it. The Finnish might sacrifice their income, but in return they get unmatched quality of life.

Now imagine a country where my quality of life was directly dependent on the amount of taxes I decided to pay. If I kept all of my money to myself, then I would receive no free healthcare, no free education, shoddy infrastructure, and unfrozen criminals. If I paid 10% of my money in tax, then I would receive 10% off healthcare, 10% off education, and so forth. It’s perhaps not a plausible form of government, but I believe that sleep works that way.

Demolitian Man
To be honest, I often get confused between Finland and Demolition Man (1993)

The way I see it, sleep is the tax that Life takes from us in order for us to experience a fully engaged lucid state. For every 24 hours that we are paid, Life takes approximately eight of those hours as tax, and spends it on the infrastructure that makes for a fully functioning existence. When I pay my eight hours of sleep tax, it means that my senses function at their optimum level, it means I get high levels of energy, and it means that I am adept at learning new things and memorising new information. It enhances my enjoyment of food and music, and my sleep tax goes towards making me more quick-witted. It encourages my hair and nails to grow healthier, it encourages wounds to heal, and it helps my body fight illness. So all in all, the sleep tax I pay has noble ends. But sometimes I don’t want to pay my taxes. Sure, being able to remember things is cool, but I also want to see how many episodes of Game of Thrones I can watch in a day, or spend more time talking to my friends back home. It frustrates me that the sleep tax puts such a limit on my life. It’s like having free health care, but knowing I’ll never be able to afford a holiday to Europe. Sure, that seems greedy, but I can’t bare being restricted. That’s why I’m engaging in a protest against sleep tax. I’m pushing the boundaries of fatigue so that I can enjoy life on my own terms. Understandably, my memory might get shot to heck, and I might start appearing slow-witted to my peers, but there’s so much more I want to do with my time. I’m so behind on the books I want to read. I would also like to do more exercise, and socialise more. Sixteen hours of wakefulness per day isn’t enough time to do all the things that I want to do, so I’m going to embezzle sleep for a while, and see where that gets me.

I don’t imagine it’ll last long. The overall benefits of paying my sleep tax far outweigh the costs. Besides, the human race is far too needy and high maintenance to get by without the comfort of sleep.

Sleeping Dog
On the other hand, some people make sleep look so good.

*I know nothing about Finland.

**I’ve literally just made that up.