Agenda Reveal

Fifty-two weeks, fifty-two blog posts, and more than 52 000 words – enough to fill all the pages of a young adult novel. Not a particularly coherent young adult novel, to be sure, but a substantial body of work nonetheless.

TFiOS
I could write a book like this, but about the Chilean transport system and thoughts on why sneezing is awful.

Now, as I see the year coming to an end, and with the shore of 2018 looming on the horizon, I don’t expect to give up writing blogs permanently, but I do want to at least take a brief respite from it. Be that as it may, I can’t properly put down my pen just yet. Mostly because I don’t use a pen to write. I write on my laptop. It’s all just ones and zeros, really. But  before I stop typing, I first want to take a look back at the year that was, and also offer a brief glimpse of the future.
I began this year by setting out a list of resolutions, expectations, and predictions I had for 2017, and all in all I think the year turned out pretty well. I wasn’t as naked as much as I’d hoped to be, but I did continue with improv and I attained and surpassed my goal of running a marathon. I joined a book club, albeit briefly, and I wrote.

I wrote a blog a week, as intended. But I did not develop a fluency in writing as expected. Most weeks, I would find myself sitting in front of my computer screen for hours on end with nothing to show for it. There were times of frustration, and on multiple occasions I thought to myself, “This is it, isn’t it? This is the week when I fail to publish.”
What I did learn was the importance of having the space and time to write. I still have no desk in my apartment, and almost all of my blogs have been written with my laptop perched on my lap or in noisy coffee shops. At times, I’ve even had to write using only my phone. In those situations, inspiration does not come easily or quickly. Writing fiction this year has been all but out of the question. So I didn’t learn much in the way of how to write, but I did learn how not to write, and my life is one that is not conducive to writing.

With that in mind, and now that the obligation of writing a weekly blog post has passed, it is time to look towards the future. Three years in Chile has, I believe, been quite sufficient, and now it’s time for me to move on and to expand my horizons. So in February I will be leaving Chile for good and moving to South Korea, where I will continue working as an English teacher.

Pink and Blue
It’s a…
Pop with Flag
…sovereign East Asian state!

It was a decision which took the greater part of the year to come to, and I am certain that it is the right one. I won’t go into the terribly involved and convoluted thought process which brought me to this conclusion, but in short, Korea will provide me with a decent salary, stable work hours, and enough free time to pursue my own passions. It is a step towards better things for me, but in order to get there I first need to pass through that agonizing ordeal of saying Goodbye to those I so love. I will miss Chile greatly, and the people I have met here will remain in my heart forever.
The goodbyes have already begun, and here I begin another: Goodbye, Dear Reader.
Thank you to those who have kept up with my writing throughout the year. Thank you to everyone who has ever spoken to me about the things that I’ve written. Thank you to everyone who has said to me, “I read your blog.” Time is precious, and I’m grateful to everyone who has expended some of their valuable time reading my work.
So many stories remain untold, and many exhilarating memories will fade into undocumented oblivion. But I won’t be gone forever. I’ll pick up the writing again soon enough. The next two months are certainly going to be eventful, and will warrant their own blog posts. I also intend to begin a new blog about my experiences in South Korea. I’d be a fool not to document those. And who knows? Maybe, if I’m lucky, when I get there I’ll have my very own writing desk.

Thanksgiving
The people in Chile are good people
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Wanna Bet?

I am not what you’d call a gambling man, but when I first laid eyes on that huckster in downtown Santiago, I couldn’t help but stay awhile and regard the scene. He’d set himself up in the shade of a side street that was just busy enough to attract a crowd. His table was an upturned cardboard box on which he was demonstrating his game. He had three solid disks – very much like coasters – and stuck underneath one of them was a sticker depicting flowers. That’s the sticker that the suckers had to find.

The game was Three Card Monte, and I’d heard enough about it to know it was a swindle, yet still I couldn’t pull my eyes away from this man in his fifties with his newsboy cap and his sagging jeans with yawning pockets.
His hands were constantly at work, flipping and manipulating the three silver disks in front of him. It seemed to require a lot of focus and thought, yet the man manipulated those coasters as if he was knitting while watching a movie. He’d juggle them around a bit and then lay all three face down, and the bystanders would toss crumpled notes onto whichever disk they believed held the sticker. Not just any notes either. These were 10- and 20- Luka bills, which was about five hundred rand a pop.
Without breaking stride, the huckster would reveal the disk holding the flowers, and collect up the money that was wrongly bet. There were often winners too, and the huckster would dispense the winnings without discussion.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrel
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of me approaching the honest gamblers.

The performance passed without drama. People won and lost without protest. Each time the disks settled it was like watching carved wooden figures in an elaborate German cuckoo clock striking the hour. People stepped forward and threw down their money. The huckster would redistribute funds as appropriate, and then they would step back to await the next round.

It was a funny thing, watching all this going on. You see, Dear Reader, I knew this was a con, and I tried to find the trick. Solid disks would be more difficult to maneuver and palm than playing cards, so I didn’t see how the huckster could be using slight of hand.
From the sidelines I was able to pick out the disk with the flowers every single time. I saw other folks throw money down on disks that were clearly blank, which was a result of their own poor eyesight, I presumed. Never once did I follow the flowers and get proved wrong. If that had been the case I would have turned around right then and walked away. Instead, I stood transfixed, playing the game by sight alone, without wagering a dime. It was a dangerous voice that crept into my mind and whispered I can win this, and it wouldn’t go away.
I supposed that it wasn’t a con. Perhaps it was just a skilled man with nimble fingers and hands fast enough to deceive most eyes. But not mine.
It occurred to me that watching without wagering was a lot easier than guessing while gambling. I thought that if I actually pulled out some money with the prospect of losing it, my adrenaline would surge and my focus would falter, so I held back. I became rational, and I began to walk on by, and as I did so I felt ethereal tendrils pulling me back, compelling me to try my luck.

I turned back to the action, and I saw a tall black fellow looming over the other spectators. He had been standing there a while, but now I noticed him for the first time. The disks settled, and with barely bridled confidence the black fellow leaned past an older lady and placed his well-worn smartphone onto the disk closest to where I was standing.
No, you fool! That’s the wrong disk! I thought.
Without breaking stride, the huckster revealed that disk to be blank, snatched up the smartphone and dropped it into his yawning back pocket before distributing money back to those who had won.

There was a collective expulsion of breath from the spectators, all of them sympathetic to the blow that the black fellow had suffered. I mention the colour of his skin only because it indicated that he was an immigrant, and being a stranger in a strange land is terrifying and isolating enough. But to lose your phone on top of that suddenly cuts you off from the loved ones you’ve left behind. I felt that this poor black fellow hadn’t just lost his phone, he’d also lost access to his community. Judging by the quality of his clothing I surmised that losing a smartphone was no minor nuisance. Losing something like that was surely a blow to him, and although the others were audibly sympathetic to his loss, they knew that the rules of the Chilean streets took precedence over the comfort of a foreigner.
The fellow was clearly embarrassed and devastated, and with a good-natured smile he beseeched the huckster to return his phone. He had to be good-natured, I suppose. Any sign of violence and the crowd would surely move to defend their compatriot over a foreigner. I was too far away to discern all that was said, but I did make out the phrase “This is how it works in Chile.”
No one was angry, they were just apologetically explaining to the fellow that rules is rules.

Forget it
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chile.”

Even before the fellow had placed his phone down I had seen that he was wrong. So as I began walking to my next class I carried with me the confidence that my eyes were sharp, and the conviction that if I had played, I would have won. The ethereal tendrils began pulling at me again, urging me to turn back and bet. Trying to shake that urge was like trying to walk out of a nylon stocking – the further I walked, the stronger it pulled back at me. I won out in the end. I got out of there without losing a cent, but before I walked away completely I took one last look at the huckster and his game.
My final glimpse was of the huckster placing the smartphone back into the hands of the foreigner, and the black fellow leaning down to give him a hug as the bystanders applauded.

Job Interview

In February of 2015 I stumbled blindly into Chile with no job, no money, and a complete inability to speak the local language. Now, nearly three years later, I at least have a job.
I have learned a lot in my time here, but I think I learned the most about teaching English in Chile during my first job interview, a few days after arriving in South America.

 

As I shook Garcia’s hand I concluded that he was Chilean. It wasn’t so much his dark skin and stout stature. Rather, I surmised as much because his name was hispanic and his institute was located roughly in the center of Chile’s capital. It was also something about the way that he said “Welcome to Chile. My name is Garcia. I’m Chilean. I’m a Chilean person” that revealed something of his background.
I was meeting with him because I needed a job, and Garcia had an opening for a teacher in his institute. I wanted to nail this interview, because if he didn’t hire me I’d be out of luck. It was February, a time when the entire country shuts down for a summer vacation, and Garcia’s institute was the only place hiring. I projected confidence. I didn’t want to let on how little I knew about Chile. I flashed Garcia a winning smile and, leaning forward, said to him, “You’re a what person?”

Between Two Ferns
It was awkward from the start.

One of the first questions that Garcia asked me in that interview was, “How’s your Spanish?”
I shrugged and told him that it was alright, and then he asked me to count to ten. “Un, dos, tres, catorce, and so one,” I said, vaguely. It was not a great start. I was fresh off the plane and didn’t quite know what I was doing. I knew that I wanted to teach English, but beyond that I had no idea how the system worked.
“This is how the system works,” Garica explained. “Our clients are all adults. While sometimes you might have small group classes, you’ll mostly be teaching one adult at a time.”
I nodded sagely. “I’ll be teaching them here, yes?” I queried, nodding towards Garcia’s office, the reception nook, the broom closet, and the toilet that comprised the entirety of his institute.
Garcia paused before answering. “That’s not exactly how we do things around here,” he said. “No, you’ll be travelling to their offices, which are scattered throughout the city. But don’t worry, our students are mostly all close to the metro lines. Mostly.”
“Ah.” I said, having only just learned to negotiate the underground. “Well that’s alright, then-”
“At other times,” Garcia continued, “you will probably have to travel by metro, and then by bus, and then do a substantial amount of walking. Mostly.”
“Okay. And does the institute reimburse-?”
“No that’s your own dime,” said he.

I was starting to get the idea. “Well that’s not so bad,” I said, grasping for silver linings. “I travel to one corner of the city, teach a few classes, and then I’m done for the day. I could get used to tha-”
“No that will be just one class,” said Garcia. “For each class you’ll need to travel a while. It’s a lot of travelling. Like, at least half an hour each way. I hope you have a lot of books to read.”
“Right,” I said, trying to keep up. “So I travel, teach, travel, teach. That’s fine-”
“Well it’s more like ‘travel, teach, travel, wait around for two hours, teach. What you do between classes is your business, but you won’t have time to go home. Mostly.”
“Well that does sound quite time consuming, but I’m sure I’ll get used to the routine-”
“No, you won’t,” said Garcia. “There will be a lot of cancellations and postponements. On an almost daily basis the students will want to adjust the times of their classes. Each week is different. Your schedule can even change as the day progresses. I advise you not to plan ahead. You’ll always be disappointed.”

I tried steering the interview around to salary.
“So what’s my salary?” I probed. “Like, what do I get paid every month?”
“Oh it’s not like that,” said Garcia. “You get paid for what you teach. So if your students cancel, you get nothing.”
“Nothing?”
“Nothing.”
I considered this. “Well surely not nothing?” I posited.
“Well, no, not nothing,” agreed Garcia. “If the student cancels within 24 hours of the class then you’ll still get paid for that class.”
“Well that’s alright then,” I said. “Free money!”
“That’s right!” Said Garcia. “They mostly cancel at the last minute. Mostly.”
“Really?”
“No.”

After that, the interview became more general. “Have you made any friends here yet?” Garcia asked, kindly.
“Well not yet. But I’ve noticed that there are a few language exchanges here during the week, where I guess I could meet-”
“No, that probably won’t happen,” said my future boss.
“Come again?” said I.
“Well your classes will mostly be in the evenings, won’t they? You shouldn’t expect to get finished before 20.30 during the week.”
“Ah,” I offered. “Well I could go out after that, I suppose-”
“Well I don’t advise you stay out too late. After all, most of your classes will be early in the morning. Mostly.”
I considered this. “Well I guess that leaves my afternoons free to do my own thing.”
“Ah but don’t forget you’ll have lunchtime classes. So not a lot of wiggle room there, I’m afraid.”
I did some quick computation in my head. “Well there’s always weekends!” I said, brightly. “I could travel around on weekends. See the sights-”
“I suppose you could,” said Garcia, nodding a little too enthusiastically for my liking. “It’s just that-”
“I’m going to be too exhausted on weekends to do anything, aren’t I?”
Garcia nodded at me in a way that was not unkind. “Mostly,” he said.

Jim
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of my first job interview.

Pi

Snapshots

Stephen King’s book The Green Mile is told through the eyes of retired prison warden Paul Edgecombe. There is a point in the novel where he compares the writing of his memoir to a very old wind up car he used to own. On some mornings, he says, the car would have trouble starting, and he’d have to crank it again and again until the engine would finally ignite. On some particularly cold mornings it would feel as if the car was not going to start at all, no matter how many times Paul Edgecombe would crank it. In the end, however, the car would always start. In the same way, Paul Edgecombe would sit at his desk every day and begin writing, and the writing would always transport him back to his time at Cold Mountain Penitentiary. Some days it would take him longer to fall through that hole in the page than others, but he could always trust that he would fall through that hole eventually.
I totally understand Paul Edgecombe’s perspective. Writing is a very meditational exercise. Once I fall into that productive groove it feels as if my mind has shifted planes, but on some days it’s harder to find that groove than others. Some days I will sit at my laptop writing and deleting paragraph after paragraph for ages until I fall through the hole in the screen and start living my writing experience. It’s a process that can’t be rushed, but today I have set myself the challenge of writing a blog in one hour or less*.

You see, Dear Reader, my schedule has become dangerously full, to the point where I have no time in the week to do anything other than teach. I’ve not slept very much this week. My diet has gone out the window and I haven’t exercised at all. My mind is filled with lesson plans and and timetables and optimal bus routes. At the time of writing, I have 15 students that I see multiple times per week, and I suspect that in the time that I’ve been living in Chile, I have easily had over one hundred students. That’s a lot of people to get to know. I’ve forgotten most of their names and quite a number of their faces. Some linger in my memory more than most, for better or for worse. With some students, I remember moments rather than the people. There was the fellow who said “signify?” eight times in a row, straight-faced, because his pronunciation was off and he was trying to say it in such a way that I would understand him. There was the awkward moment when a rather fluent student said “hand job,” and I had to keep my composure while I told him the phrase he was looking for was “manual labour.” On more than one occasion, I have had students say the N-word in class because they did not understand its power.
So with all that in mind, I figured I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge some of the students** who have had a lasting effect on me.

I’ll never forget my first student. He was a squat man with square features who worked at a shampoo factory all the way out at the periphery of the city. I always thought that he looked like an Hispanic Joe Pesci. Joe’s enthusiasm for English was a few steps ahead of his ability, but he’d stumble ahead anyway in order to eagerly get his message across. From his office I could see the factory floor, with long conveyor belts, dormant for the day, where thousands of bottles of soap and shampoo would be bottled and packaged and sent off to suppliers all around the country. Joe seemed like a rough-and-tumble bloke. The type who might have had experience working on a factory floor, but he could expound on the science of soap for hours on end.

Shampoo
Short, angular, with “men” written all over it. That’s Joe to a T.

Montague’s company payed for his English classes on the condition that he follow a specific curriculum. This was a tragedy, because Montague and I connected instantly over movies and superheroes. I was happy to spend 90 minutes arguing over the virtues of Marvel Comics as opposed to DC, but company pressure meant that we had to curb our playful banter. I believe that in another life he and I could have been really good friends.

Rhododendron and Sylvére were a Spanish couple who were working towards doing their IELTS. It was the first time I had taught that course, and it was also my first class so late at night. What I remember most about teaching that couple is not only how cold I always felt while walking to their apartment in the dark, but also how they complemented each other perfectly. Sylvére was a strong and confident speaker, but he could never get his grammar quite right. Rhododendron, on the other hand, had the grammar down pat, but absolutely struggled to express herself. What haunts me about that class is Sylvére’s ringtone. It is a fairly common ringtone here, and I find it quite pleasant to listen to. But the first time I heard it was on those nights in their apartment, and I know that years from now the sound of that ringtone will transport me back there.

I have liked every student I’ve ever had, but part of me strongly suspects that Nathaniel was the bad guy. He was a stickler for procedure, and he’d often complain about the way his coworkers were far too relaxed about the rules and regulations of his company. He seemed to make enemies easily, and while I did my best to show sympathy, I couldn’t help but suspect that perhaps he was the one who might have been rubbing people the wrong way in the first place.

Groo
Don’t get me wrong: I really liked the guy.

Clarinet is the first student I had who started with no English whatsoever. Over time she has developed to the point of being conversational, and I am starting to think that if she and I could have a fluent conversation, I would laugh my head off. Her razor sharp wit is starting to come through in her English, and I wonder if she knows how funny she is. A few weeks ago, I told her that I had recently run a race and I had done quite well. She asked me what position I’d come, and I told her 9th. Her next question to me was, “And how many people ran in the race? Nine?”
Later on we were talking about superstition, and whether it was possible to predict the future. She said that she didn’t believe in such things, but that she did once go and consult a psychic. The word she used for psychic was “bruja,” which means witch, but I understood what she meant. She told me all the things her “witch” had told her, and then she looked off wistfully to the side and said in complete earnest, “But she’s dead now.”
Thinking I had misunderstood, I asked her to clarify. She said that she had tried to text the “witch” some time after their meeting, and the son texted back explaining that she had passed away.
“So now I don’t have a witch,” she said sadly.

However, I think the oddest student I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching was a middle aged lawyer who worked for a prominent bank in Chile. This was a man who could not focus on anything for more than a few moments at a time. He was also a man with far more work piled onto him than was really fair. I would often sit in his office in silence while he worked on something else, textbook on my lap because his desk was overrun with piles upon piles of paperwork. He would sometimes be explaining something to me and then would stop mid-sentence to send an email. His phone would ring at least once per class, and those conversations would last for five minutes or more. He had a brusque manner, but I think he meant well. He would sometimes interrupt me and ask if I wanted a coffee, or at the end of a class we would fish an alfajor from his desk and say “You must eat this because my daughter brought it back from Argentina.”
On one particular day, during a class about illness and disease, he was busy speaking when suddenly he stood up. still talking, he walked to the back of his cluttered office and opened a filing cabinet, from which he extracted a small toiletry bag.
“I did a first aid course many years ago,” he was saying, “but I think I have forgotten everything from that course. My wife, on the other hand, is a nurse so if anything happens in the house I am going to brush my teeth.”
And then he left the office.

Toothbrush
To be fair, oral hygiene is extremely important.

*Okay, that first draft took like 80 minutes.
**have of course changed their names… Or have I? Chun chun chun!

Cállate!

I’m not sure if I believe in magic, but after being shouted at by a homeless lady I came away believing in curses. I don’t completely understand what happened, but what I do know is that in the week that followed, nothing went right. I was constantly late for classes, I got on buses going the wrong way, and my perception of time became notably warped. I’d waste whole days with nothing to show for it. On other occasions, I’d sit in a class and be convinced that an hour had passed, only to find that I’d been there for ten minutes.
I don’t believe I had done anything to warrant the sudden and dramatic shift in my fortune. I hadn’t even wanted to be in the cafe in the first place, but when student protests caused a local university to shut down, my student, a lecturer, suggested that we have our class at the Starbucks across the road. The mornings were still cold, and we took a table close to the window in the hope that some early morning sunlight would grace us with its warmth.
I find this particular student quite interesting. He is young, athletic, and intelligent. He lectures philosophy in the Law Department, and he is deeply interested in social issues. He is vastly knowledgeable about the plight of the poor in Chile, and has written theses on causes and results of this condition. He is an advocate for positive change; he aims to uplift and improve the quality of life for all.

As it so happened, we were discussing the very subject of poverty when an example of the issue slouched in through the glass doors. I knew this woman. She was homeless and filthy, and an infamous feature of Santiago’s inner city. Her stench preceded her wherever she went, and persisted long after she was gone. There was an obnoxious arrogance to her pitiful state, as if her life were a savage protest against the world that had brought her this low. She knew full well of the discomfort she brought upon bystanders, and she reveled in it. She would stand close to people, and linger, a smug grin on her dark brown face. I’d seen her being chased out of posh restaurants, undress in public, and snatch cups of beer off outdoor pub tables, cackling as she did so.

When she walked into the Starbucks that morning, I did all I could to make myself as invisible as possible. This was difficult, as I was conducting an English class, and the sound of English in Chile tends to stand out like a ringing cellphone at a ballet performance.
I don’t presume to know what the woman’s vices are, but I do know that her mind has been pummeled until has become completely un-tethered from reality. This makes her entirely unpredictable and terrifying. She scurried past my student and me, and went straight to the back of the coffee shop, asking for money at the various tables in a pattern that made no sense at all. At one point she went and sat down in a booth directly next to another customer and completely ignored him. She was obviously playing a joke on him, using her repulsive presence to unsettle the man. Moments later, he and his date got up and left. This behaviour went on for a while longer, the hag hassling people who wanted nothing to do with her. I suspect she was doing it more for sport than for money.
Eventually a barista appeared – the unlucky candidate selected to deal with the nuisance- and held the door open and demanded that the homeless woman leave. She left when told, but she traipsed out of the door at an unhurried pace.

Ghostbusters
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of the homeless woman being sent out of Starbucks.

Whenever I try to recall the type of clothing that the homeless woman wears, I can only conjure up images of brown rags hanging off of a hunched and rounded frame. But I have noted that on the occasions when I’ve seen her, she has always been wearing a different shirt. So somewhere she has a wardrobe of sorts, and she must have the presence of mind to change clothes once in a while. I suppose that when I see her I don’t see a person. I see terror and trouble and an aspect of humanity that I don’t want to believe could exist.

Pigeon Lady Home Alone
Or maybe I’m thinking of the Pigeon Lady from Home Alone.

When she left the Starbucks I tried to relax, but I was still a little bit wound up. My student and I passed a few good-natured comments about the unfortunate state of homeless people in Santiago, and then got back to the lesson. I couldn’t really focus, though, because I was haunted by the thought that the homeless woman was still in the area, and my chest tightened when I noticed her stumbling back into the coffee shop a few minutes later. This time, she was doing the rounds closer to our table, and inevitably she stopped beside us with her hand held out, cupped and waiting. My student politely told her that we didn’t have money for her, and we tried to go on with our discussion. The homeless woman remained immobile.
It is something I appreciate about beggars in Santiago – that they don’t pester. Once you say no, they wish you a good day and move on. In fact, the homeless lady had been doing that with the other patrons, but this time she would not move away. I suspect she was mesmerized by the sound of a foreign language being spoken, so after a few awkward sentences I turned back to her and said, peacefully, “No tenemos dinero.”
For someone as undernourished and addled as she was, she moved with lightning speed. She shot her face closer to mine, her bottom lip pulled back in such a snarl that I could see the tobacco-black bottom row of her teeth, and without even hauling breath she screamed long and loud into my face:

CÁLLATE!”

I was stunned. Without truly hearing what she had said, I had done exactly as she’d asked. I had shut up, as had everyone else in the cafe who had instantly turned to see the spectacle. The homeless woman straightened up and turned away, her frazzled hair looking like a slow motion fireworks display. She sauntered down along the tables and screamed again.

CÁLLATE!”

And then she took a swing. With all her might, her right palm arced upwards and collided with her face at full force. It wasn’t us who had to shut up, it was the voices in her own head. The woman continued to stomp past the tables, repeating the command like some sort of chant: “Cállate! Cállate! Cállate!” Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
And with each outburst she would smack herself in the face as hard as she could. The ritual continued until she had made her way towards the door, but she only left when the barista reappeared and ushered her out. I watched her stalk off, continuing the ritual of berating and slugging herself. The glass walls weren’t fully soundproof, and the sound of her cries continued even after she had left my line of sight.

Black Pearl
From that moment, I was as cursed as the Black Pearl.

I reached for my coffee, and had to use both hands to steady the cup. “Are you okay?” I asked my student. He didn’t answer me right away. Instead he tilted his head down and to the side, the perfectly round lenses of his glasses catching a ray of mid-morning sun, turning his eyes into a pair of white discs.
“You know,” he said presently, “in a way, she is our fault. She is the product of a society that couldn’t help her.”
I tried to commiserate, but my head was still buzzing from the assault. I felt violated and humiliated, and I didn’t know how to get things back on track. Fortunately, after five minutes of staggered discussion, my student mumbled that he actually had to leave the class early in order to show his solidarity in the protests that were happening nearby.

It was no doubt an awful start to a bad week. As things continued to go wrong, I couldn’t help but to attribute all the unfortunate events to the woman who had shouted at me. Surely she had cursed me. Everything I believed about good luck and bad luck had become inverted, and I couldn’t turn things around. I felt as if her scent had gotten onto me and wouldn’t wash off. It was in my clothes and hair and skin. In a final act of defiance, I told myself that at least the whole thing had given me grounds for a good blog post. But she hadn’t given me that either. There was no narrative arc. There was no resolution to the curse. Things started going badly, and then they slowly stopped going badly, but without any perceivable switch. Nothing concrete had broken the spell, it just dissipated. However, I will say this: If anything, writing this article has given me some catharsis. So there’s that.

Buses and Abuses

Earlier this week, the cold resurfaced in one final last-ditch effort to make my life a misery, like a horror movie serial killer hamming up the final jump scare. This makes waiting for a bus decidedly distasteful, and if you know anything about me, you’ll know that waiting for buses is just about all I do. It was particularly unpleasant last Monday, when the city had virtually shut down over the threat of potential political protests. This meant that regular rides were few and far between, and I had to wait much longer than usual for my lift home.

By the time a bus eventually pulled up, huffing and scrapping like a colossal dying nematode, I was already in a bad mood. It was late at night, and I was cold. I also needed to go to the bathroom, but that was always a given. The cold weather has a way of making my bladder contract whenever I step outside.
The bus arrived in the usual fashion: break pads wailing, hydraulics wheezing, and the sound of something metal dragging along underneath. A lot of the buses in the city are the accordion type, with a spongy middle section that allows the twenty-meter-long behemoth to negotiate corners. Upon hearing its arrival, one always expects that it is on the verge of snapping in half, or breaking down entirely.

Bus
This is the typical Santiago bus, looking just like one of those sandworms from Dune.

After an extended chorus of hissing and screeching, the saloon-like doors jerked open, and I stepped off a deserted street that should have been humming with traffic,and into the madhouse that was a TranSantiago bus. I swiped my Bip! card over the scanner and mumbled a cursory “Hola” to the driver. He was middle-aged and male, with a large paunch and a clean-shaven face, passive and bespectacled, with deep-set wrinkles.
At least, I believe that’s what he looked like. In truth I hardly give a second glance to the person sitting in the glass booth, and this time was no different. His puffy black coat only served to make him fade further into the background. I was already annoyed that I’d had to wait so long, and I was transferring my frustration onto the fellow who was just doing his job.
Being on the bus didn’t do much to improve my mood. It was fractionally warmer, but a window was open somewhere, and no one moved to close it. People sat in silence, staring into their phones or huddling together for warmth. Everyone was dressed in black. Black jackets, black coats, black scarves, black beanies. Black mood. Sometimes people on the night bus are rowdy, or drunk. But mostly they just sit or stand, and hush and huddle.

By and large, the bus is never a pleasant place. It’s breezy when the weather’s cold, and sweltering when the weather’s warm. It’s loud in all the worst ways: things scrape and squeak, babies scream, teenagers cajole, lovers quarrel, people blast music. There’s graffiti everywhere. It’s dirty and often more crowded than you could ever think possible. Young people stomp onto the bus without paying, and the driver takes no action. The vehicle itself lurches along violently and unpredictably, leaving you in a constant state of imbalance. At times the bell doesn’t work, or the driver doesn’t hear it, and he’ll sail right past your intended stop, forcing you to walk a few extra blocks.

Get off my train
This guy told me to get off his train, even though it was a bus.

On this particular night, the bus stopped at the place I intended to get off, but before I could reach the exit, squeezing myself through the throng of somber ghosts, the driver had pulled the doors closed again with all the clanking and hissing he could muster, and so over the din I called “Señor! La puerta, por favor!”
I was certain that he must have heard me, and there were a few seconds of silence as everyone on board waited for the doors to reopen.
It’s embarrassing enough to have to start shouting in such a public place, and that embarrassment was compounded when the driver, ignoring my call, began to accelerate.
Now everyone on the bus knew that I had missed my stop. I felt like a fool, and there was nothing for it but to simply wait until the bus stopped again. The driver certainly didn’t care, and by now he had become my number one enemy.
A minute later, I got off the bus several blocks away from my stop, and I was in a fine fury. On top of being cold and requiring a bathroom, I had also been humiliated on the bus and had been taken far out of my way. I was angry at the driver for all of that. I wanted to demonstrate my displeasure at him, but kicking the back of a departing bus doesn’t help. All I could do was pull my jacket tighter around me, and stomp off home, cursing the man who had put me in this position. As I pounded the pavement I pondered the driver who was at that moment hurtling into the night, with many more miles to go. He was still stuck on that cold, clamorous hunk of metal, and would be until his shift ended, possibly hours from now. That thought gave me some satisfaction. I thought about how I would be able to relieve myself in only a few more minutes, while the driver didn’t have such liberty. I thought about how embarrassed I’d been to call to the bus driver, and I wondered how many people shouted at him on a daily basis. I imagined that some of the people who shouted at him probably didn’t use the word “Señor.”
I thought about his work environment. I had been on that bus for about fifteen minutes, and that was enough to lower my mood. Having to spend hours in that atmosphere must be awful. In my job, I talk to friendly people in calm, comfortable surroundings. Everyone the bus driver serves either treats him with aggression or doesn’t see him at all, just like I had. Most buses are riddled with vandalism. I could imagine that a driver wouldn’t dare take the risk of admonishing anyone who caused trouble. To do so would be to invite the threat of harm. Out of a sense of safety, bus drivers have no choice but to allow people to invade the bus without paying, and remain silent when they begin to tear it apart from the inside. Being a bus driver must be lonely, terrifying, and miserable.

By the time I reached my apartment, my anger had turned to sympathy and sadness. I suppose we all get mad at public transport from time to time. And maybe some bus drivers do revel in being unpleasant. But for the most part I cannot stay mad at them. It’s an awful job, and if anything I am grateful to them for doing it at all.

Bip! Card
This is a Bip! card, but that is not my hand.

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.

Potato
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?”

Dramatic
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.