Culture Between Culture

“What is South Africa like?”

This is a question I get asked often. The most recent occurrence was when I made the acquaintance of an economist from Spain a few weeks ago. He had recently become my student, and he was interested to know more about me and my origins.

Upon hearing the question I leaned back in my chair and looked wistfully at the wall, which was sadly lacking a window, and pretended to conjure up happy childhood memories. Ideally I would have lit up a cigarette just then, but I don’t smoke and we were in a sealed, windowless room. After a pause I took a breath in preparation for the speech I always give on such occasions.

Smoking
South Africa? Yeah, I could tell you stories about South Africa.

“South Africa is beautiful,” I said, oozing smugness. “If you get the opportunity you should absolutely go there.” For lack of a cigarette I tented my fingertips in front of my lips and continued. “South Africa has everything. Everything. My home country has some of the best beaches in the world. We have deserts, and forests, and farmland, and some mountains. We have cage diving, and horse racing, and safaris. We’ve got trekking, and cycling, and one of the biggest running cultures on earth.”

I paused, as scripted, and turned to lock eyes with my student. “Does it rain, in Spain?” I asked, pointing an accusing finger.

“Yes,” said he, almost cowering, “but mainly on the-”

“I’d wager you’ve never felt anything like a Highveld storm,” I interjected. “Those summer torments will roll through your core. The thunder cracks will shake you to your very bones!” If I had a mustache I would have twirled it.

“And what is the capital of South Africa?” asked my eager student.

“A fine question,” I replied, going off script. “See, unlike your country, South Africa has, in fact, three capitals.”

My student leaned forward, intrigued. “Three capitals…” he whispered.

“Yes. Pretoria, Cape Town, and… and a third one!”

“But why would a country need three? What is the purpose?”

I shook my head in mock pity, but it was mostly to buy time to think. “My dear fellow, each capital serves a very special purpose. You see you have Pretoria, which is the capital of… law, and then you have Cape Town, which is the… the political capital. And then you have the third one, which is the capital of… diamonds! We have diamonds, you know.”

I had hoped that the mention of diamonds would continue to mesmerize, but I suspected the spell was breaking.

“What is the population of South Africa?” queried the man.

“Millions,” I said. “Absolutely millions. Did you hear what I said about the storms, though?”

“And the GDP. What is the GDP of your country?”

“Oh, you know, the… usual.” I was losing ground fast. “But perhaps we could talk about South Africa another day. Right now I want to talk about gerunds and-”

“Sorry, one last question-”

“Darn!”

“-but what percentage of the country is made up of white South Africans?”

“Yes I’d love to answer but I think we’re out of time. The first class is only eight minutes, after all…”

Leo Angry
What’s with all the questions anyway?!

The truth is, Dear Reader, that there’s an awful lot I don’t know about my own country. I haven’t properly lived there for some time, and now it feels as if South Africa is in red shift, moving further and further away from me into the void of memory. I am more in touch with the news in Chile and the United States than I am with what’s going on in South Africa, and when it comes to geography, you can just forget about it. At times, I will meet another South African, and inevitably I will ask them where they’re from. If they say something like Ellisras I will draw an immediate blank and change the subject. I know nothing about South African geography.

On the other hand, if I meet someone from the United States I will inevitably ask them where they’re from and if they say something like Missouri I will say “Oh that’s the ‘Show me’ state, right?” I know more about North America than I do my own country.

General knowledge aside, there’s also my general outward behaviour. More recently I have noticed a certain inter-nationality in my personality. My accent has certainly changed. I say “Yeah” a lot, and I notice that I say words like “job” and “hot dog” with an American accent. I forget how South Africans spell things like tyre, cosy, and specialise (although as I write this, these words are underlined in red, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track). These days, when I say “braai” I am conscious that it is an affectation, because my first impulse is to say “barbecue” or “asado.” When I accidentally bump into someone, my first reflex is to say “Ay perdón!” I’m trying to hold onto “Shame,” though, mostly because no other word quite fills that gap. But I am aware of when I do say it, because non-native English speakers might become self-conscious if they think I’m literally shaming them.

So I fear that I may be slowly oozing out of the mould of a South African, and I might not be able to slot right back into place when I return. But if I’m changing away from South African, then what am I becoming?

Snow
Here’s me in snow. That’s not very South African at all.

I’m certainly not Chilean. Gosh no. I battle enough with just the language, let alone the popular culture and the politics. I am friends with expats who have lived here for years, and they still haven’t been able to craft a comfortable expat-shaped hole for themselves. Sure, they’ve got comfortable lives, but some of these friends have told me that they don’t quite feel as if they have been accepted by the culture. I have many friends from the United States, but I don’t believe the US is a place that I could call home. For one thing, my accent sticks out. They all think I’m British.

So I’m starting to think that I don’t fit in anywhere, and funnily enough, many of my friends feel the same way. Those of us who have chosen to live outside of their home countries tend to agree that going back home is not easy, and neither is forging a new life in their new environment. But where we do fit in perfectly is among each other. I tend to get along well with other expats. The jokes are similar, as are our perspectives. I also have a pretty good idea of our collective population and per capita income.

Culture can be a difficult thing to pin down. Not everyone can be classified according to their country of origin. Look closely at any society and you will find running through it a shadow culture. A culture that flows between the rocks of nationality and race. A group of people who find familiarity within each other, but who have trouble defining who they are. I don’t have a name for it, but I guess this is the group that I’m a part of. So I’ll never stop telling people that I’m a South African, but at least for the time being I’m happy being a part of the culture between cultures.

Corner Shop
Life in another language.

 

The Bridge Builder – A Bureaucratic Fable

A man stepped out into the wild and surveyed the world at large

He knew what needed to be done, because he was the Man in Charge.

His shoes were polished perfectly, and his hair was cut pristine,

His tie was neatly in its place, and his jaw was shaven clean.

His shirt was tailored to his build, his suit was grey and bland,

And he wore expensive sunglasses as he gazed across the land.

He saw a separation, that couldn’t be denied,

Two towns were being kept apart due to a great divide.

The Man in Charge knew what to do, and he began to sing,

If we put a bridge right here, then that’ll be just the thing.”

Volunteers came from far and wide, but no one had the stuff.

They said that they could build a bridge, but they just weren’t good enough.

Then out the shadows stepped a man who had been standing by,

I know what you want,” he said, “and let me tell you I’m your guy.”

The man was strong and able, and his hands were rough and worn.

He’d been building bridges ’round the world since before you or I were born.

The Bridge Builder demanded that the bridge be strong and thick

He wanted reinforcement in every pillar, and quality in every brick.

Money was no object, only the very best would do,

He demanded the plans be double checked, and he interviewed the crew.

The Man in Charge, meanwhile, didn’t want a single penny gone astray

So he employed an Overseer to keep embezzlement at bay.

The Bridge Builder set to work, in the best way that he could.

He cleared the land and dug some holes, and planted stone and wood.

He’d done this a hundred times before, he was a master of his craft

He had intimate knowledge of every screw, and bolt, and shaft.

He was careful with his calculus, he measured every foot,

And at the end of every day he was satisfied with his output.

As time went by The Overseer began to be afraid,

He wasn’t doing the very thing for which he was being paid.

There was no corruption that he could see, which made him kind of nervous,

The Man in Charge had put him there to perform a special service.

So as time went by the pressure rose, and the Overseer had to act

He found a problem that wasn’t there, and with it he attacked.

One day he found the Bridge Builder, and whispered in his ear

The blueprints call for three supports, but look what we have here,

If my eyes are to be trusted, you’ve planted only two.

That goes against the plans, my friend, and I’m afraid that just won’t do.”

The Bridge Builder nodded once, but he was entirely unfazed,

Your eyes do not deceive you,” he said, “your observation should be praised.

For according to my calculations, three pillars would be excessive

I’ve reduced the cost by vast amounts, which I think is quite impressive.”

The Overseer saw his chance, and he pounced with all his might,

But you haven’t followed the rules we set, and I don’t think that is right.

You’ve deviated from the plan, so I’m giving you a fine,

You’d better sort this out right now, else I’ll continue to malign.

So the project came to a halt, as the Bridge Builder went to court.

The delay was quite expensive, and his budget came up short.

It was a convoluted process which the Bridge Builder couldn’t comprehend

But he filed all the paperwork and saw it to the legal end.

No corruption was discovered, and no fine was to be paid

But by then the bridge in question was hopelessly delayed.

The due date was approaching fast, and he took all the help that he could find

The Bridge Builder pulled out all the stops, but still he fell behind.

And when the deadline came and went, the bridge was not completed.

The Overseer pounced again, saying, “Our agreement is deleted.

You failed to keep your word, so we shan’t pay you a cent,

All I can do is reimburse you for the money already spent.

The Bridge Builder shook his head, for there was nothing to be done,

The time wasted was priceless, the money gained was none.

So with heavy heart he packed his things, and went back to whence he came

His pride had been quite tarnished, he’d lost most of his fame.

 

The Man in Charge stepped into the wild to survey what had been done,

An incomplete bridge lay decaying in the sun.

His money had been wasted, but what was he to do?

The only logical solution, was to start the bridge anew.

He put the call out once again to find a builder with some skill

A new contract would be drawn up, the townsfolk would foot the bill.

And as builders from far and wide were vying for a place

The Man in Charge was satisfied, he had a smile upon his face.

For although some time had been lost, and some money had been spent,

Everything was in its place, he’d kept track of every cent.

The people in the towns could sleep peacefully tonight

Knowing that the Man in Charge had done exactly what was right.

Everyone had done their jobs, and honesty was key

Business was conducted openly for everyone to see.

In the end, the two towns remained distinctly quite divided

But the Man in Charge was confident that his decisions hadn’t been misguided.

Bridge

 

 

 

 

Lost in Traducción

I was uncool today.

You see, in protest against the cold I’d bought myself a hot water bottle, and in celebration I texted my friend to tell her about it. I was caught up in the moment and decided to use the Spanish word guaton instead of “water bottle.” My friend was quick to point out that guaton means “fat person.” The word I was looking for was guatero.

Guatero
This is a guatero
Guaton
This is a guaton

As most of my readers will know, I am quite a cool guy. Too often, my friends will approach me in the street and say, “Hey Michael, you’re quite a cool guy.”

It happens everywhere: When I’m at parties, when I’m on my way to work, when I’m leaning against other people’s parked motorbikes. However, there is a specific time when I’m decidedly uncool, and that’s when I try speaking Spanish. As a grownup, I realise that the most important detail to keep in mind when learning a new language is to make sure you don’t look silly when practicing the target language. Children have yet to learn this.

But I think the uncoolest thing I’ve ever done in Spanish was when I unfairly accused a Chilean man of something terribly unjust and un-called for. It was such a far-out bit of miscommunication that to this day I haven’t been able to bring myself to make reparations.

First of all, let me explain the situation (somewhat simplified for the sake of brevity): Earlier this year, I discovered a single bedroom apartment that was available for rent, and at a stunningly low price too. Until then, I’d always lived with a roommate, and I wanted my own place desperately. So I staked my claim and won the keys to the apartment. Problem was, I couldn’t move in on the first day of the month, and I had to move out of my other place at the end of the previous month. That meant that there were going to be a few days when I’d be in limbo.

A very good friend of mine offered me the use of his single-bedroom apartment while I waited for my new place to become available, and I accepted his offer graciously. It was going to be cramped, but it was only for a few days.

After some searching, I found the details of a flete, which is what Chileans call movers. I have just this moment learned that flete is Spanish for “freight.” The mover in question was named Pedro. He was friendly and he spoke some English. He also really seemed to know what he was doing. He helped me to load my cumbersome possessions onto the back of his flatbed truck and take them over to my friend’s apartment. It was a swift procedure, and Pedro and I parted as friends, with the agreement that he would return in a few days to help me transport my things to my new apartment.

Pablo
This is Pedro, shrouded in darkness. Much like our friendship.

A day or two later, I received a message from Pedro. He’d strained his back while moving someone’s furniture and he wouldn’t be able to help me on the agreed-upon date. Was I willing to wait a few more days for him to recover?

I liked Pedro, and I did want to use his services. At the same time, however, I was sleeping on a couch and was totally invading my friend’s space. I didn’t want to wait for Pedro to recover, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings either. I explained to him, using a messy kind of Spanglish, that expediency was of the utmost importance. I told him that I would search for a more timeous mover, and in the event that I couldn’t find one, I would wait for Pedro to get back on his feet.

Possessions
When John Lennon said, “Imagine all possessions,” I actually could.

Well, that very day I found my man. I don’t remember his name, but he was slightly more expensive than Pedro. Still, I was impatient, so I hired him. In a way, I was kind of glad that he was more expensive. I could use that as a way to smooth things over with Pedro. I intended to explain to him that the guy I found wasn’t nearly as good as he was. And, what’s more, this other guy was more expensive! So of course I would procure Pedro’s services again in the future, and even recommend him to my friends. I wrote all this out to Pedro in a Facebook message, and it was mostly in Spanish. Pedro accepted my explanation in a way that seemed cold to me. He wasn’t as chummy as he had been before, but I couldn’t blame him – he was losing a client, after all.

Aside Number 1: When learning a new language, it’s often helpful to learn new words along with their opposites. When I learned the Spanish word for boy (niño) I also learned the word for girl (niña). I also learned “long” and “short” together (largo y corto), as well as “expensive” and “cheap” (caro y barrato). This last one is important, because not only were these words that I was using with Pedro, but caro and barrato are also words that I sometimes get mixed up.

Perhaps you can see where this is going, but I assure you, you don’t.

Within my message to Pedro, I started writing “I have found someone who is more expensive than you are…”

In Spanish, it goes like this: “He encuento algien quien esta mas caro que tu…”

Aside Number 2: When learning a new language, it’s not uncommon to confuse words that tend to sound the same. For example, when I started learning Spanish, I would get confused between the word for “sixty” (seisenta) and “seventy” (setenta). I would often (and I still do) mix up “fifty” (cincuenta) and “five hundred” (quinientos). But my downfall with Pedro came about because, to me, the word for “cheap” (barrato) sounds very much like the word baracho, which is the Spanish word meaning “drunk.”

So my final message to Pedro wound up saying, “He encuentro algien quien esta mas baracho que tu…,” which of course means, “I have found someone who is more drunk than you are.”

I sent off that message without batting an eyelid, and slept soundly that night secure in the belief that Pedro and I were still on good terms. It was only about a week later, when I overheard someone say the word barrato in conversation, that thought back to that message to Pedro. I knew with certainty that I’d gotten “cheap” and “expensive” mixed up and resolved to rectify my error. I didn’t want Pedro to think I’d found someone better. I fully intended to go back and explain what had happened. It was a temporary lapse. My Spanish wasn’t so good, after all. But when I reopened the Facebook message and spied the word boracho instead of barrato, I knew that I was beyond redemption. My two-fold mistake was far to complicated and uncool to explain. I don’t think I even had the Spanish vocabulary to explain what had happened.

So I dropped the matter. I suppose it doesn’t matter really. I’m cosy in my own apartment, with my fat man keeping my tummy warm, and somewhere out there a really decent Chilean man thinks that a foreigner once accused him of being an alcoholic.

Fat man
I might have lost Pedro as a friend, but at least I’ve got my fat man.

 

Are you under duress?

A few weeks ago, when the weather was still warm, I happened to walk past two young lovers who were deep in an intimate conversation. The boy was wearing a baggy, sleeveless shirt which hung carelessly off of his gangly frame, exposing more of his flesh than I needed to see. At the farthest end of one skinny arm, between two tweezer-like fingers, he held a cigarette. He was using his other arm to keep his girlfriend in a solid headlock.

The boy’s lankiness gave length to his arm, which was wrapped completely around the girl’s entire neck. He had used what scant strength he had in order to bring her ear closer to his nicotine stained lips, which were enthusiastically forming words of, I’m almost certain, indescribable banality.

The girl, for her part, did not seem to be putting up any protest. Her delicate hands were rested on top of the boy’s forearm, presumably to moderate the pressure that was being applied to her trachea. She had a serene smile upon her face, which I judged as being a result of the words she was hearing, and not due to imminent death through asphyxiation.

At that moment, a familiar sentence popped into my head:

“Do you think she’s under duress?”

The girl was not, in fact, under duress. Despite the aggressive body language, I had come to learn that physical interaction in Chile is on a level I had never seen before. The phrase, “Do you think she’s under duress?” was a throwback to a game I used to play with a friend of mine when I first moved to Chile. It was our way of coming to terms with the terribly distracting body language of lovers in this country; of pointing out a pattern that, to us, seemed so absurd yet so commonplace.

Now, there is not enough blog space in the world to address the complex and politically fraught dynamic between men and women in Chile, and I am not nearly involved enough in the culture to be able to understand this kind of behaviour, so it’s not my place to condemn it. It seems to be the norm, with women being just as comfortable with being physically subdued as the men are with being physically overbearing. All I can do is witness it with bewilderment.

Somehow, the young woman interpreted the man’s stranglehold as a show of affection. She was unfazed by the claustrophobia and the restriction in her movement. She found no offense in being breathed upon, at point-blank range, by a mouth that had just taken a youthfully arrogant drag on a cheap cigarette. I can only assume that, to her, this was an intimate expression of true love.

Admittedly, that was one of the more extreme examples I have seen while I’ve been living here. The more common practice is the clamping of the neck from behind, like a bank robber leading the bank manager towards the vault. The stance is one gun shy of a hostage situation. And it’s not only teenagers who act this way. I’ve seen the same conduct adopted by people all along the age spectrum, but all with similar levels of tenderness.

Under Duress
In a way, it is quite sweet. But there’s still that voice at the back of my head asking, “Do you think she’s under duress?”

 

To be fair, it’s not only Chileans whom I’ve seen acting in this way. I’ve spotted this maneuver in other countries as well, and among different cultures. I think perhaps I’m just more aware of it in Chile because of how awkwardly intimate the public displays of affection are here.

Ellie Goulding
In the music video for “I Need Your Love,” Calvin Harris shows Elli Goulding that he loves her (and also that he owns her).

Love is good, and I’m happy to see it celebrated. However, I like to see love celebrated happily and freely, and not in a serious, us-against-the-world kind of way.

Edward and Bella
Remember that scene in “Twilight” when Edward and Bella just laughed and laughed and laughed? Me neither.

But I must stress that this is all just personal opinion. The touch of a loved one can lift the spirit. A hand at the back of the neck can be pleasurable. Sometimes the best moments of loving someone are just in reminding them that you’re there. It’s a way of communicating affection, and I think that’s very important. But still, I’d prefer not to use my partner as a leaning post.

Holding Hand
I’m all for holding hands, though.

Dog Daze

I used to talk to dogs in the street all the time, but lately I’ve been feeling increasingly more guilty about it, and here’s why:

A dog will do everything in its power to please a human, and this means being able to listen to a human’s worries with a sympathetic ear. The problem is, I don’t know how much English the dogs in Chile understand. This became evident to me the other day while I was telling a street dog about the mystery novel I’m writing. He’d followed me for a couple of blocks, and I’d really gotten into my story. In fact, I was hardly aware that he was there at all, but I was grateful to have someone listening. I’d come to a halt, and he sat obediently at my feet, fully attentive to my words. After about five minutes, I noticed a look of concern pass quickly over my companion’s face. It was ever so brief, a mere moment of distraction, a twitch of the eyes. The more I spoke, the more distracted the fellow became.

“But what the detective doesn’t know, see, is that the old man is really a robot who faked his own death…” I was saying. I was really getting into the swing of my tale, but it was at that moment that a nearby pigeon took flight. My companion glanced at the flutter, and then back at me. There was guilt on his face. “I’m sorry,” he seemed to say. “Please continue.”

I was unperturbed. “But, then,” I continued, “the old man’s ship crash lands on another planet, and he’s got to disguise himself because he’s famous, right? And he’s supposed to be dead!”

I waited for my companion to marvel at this plot twist. Instead, he just shifted his weight. He didn’t want to be there. He was clearly the wrong dog for the job. He really wanted to be able to share in the conversation, but he didn’t know what “planet” meant. Or “robot” or “crash land.” Besides, I was talking quickly and I think most of it was going over his furry head.

Dog
This guy made sure I crossed the street safely.

 

My friend must have felt miserable. He was failing to understand me, and as a result he was letting me down. It wasn’t his fault, but of course he wouldn’t understand that. Any dog that cannot make a human happy counts itself as a failure. Poor guy. I hadn’t thought about that. Instead, I was thinking about how I was going to get the detective to discover that the old man was really the victim of a bigger plot. It was a twist I’d been stuck on for some time, but talking to my companion was helping me to process my thoughts. I felt like I was close to a breakthrough, but then I noticed that my buddy was looking forlornly at the ground, his floppy ears almost covering his eyes. He’d admitted defeat and he was ashamed. Little did he know that just by being there he was helping me a great deal, but I felt bad for the guy. How could I make him understand that it was okay to not understand? In deference to the dog, I changed the subject, and spent a few minutes telling him how handsome he was. This much I’m sure he understood, and when we eventually parted ways I believe he was happy.

Running Dog
A dog will be your strongest supporter, even if it means running for miles.

Still, though, I lie awake sometimes and think about how uncomfortable I’d made the poor fellow. Few things make me sadder than the confusion a dog feels when it just doesn’t understand.

“Why are you leaving the house without me? I don’t understand.”

“Why is this person putting a needle in me? I don’t understand.”

“Why are there explosions in the sky? I don’t understand.”

As much as dogs want to please humans, I feel that humans should work just as hard not to take advantage of their inherent kindness. It’s cruel to abuse their genetic coding.

Dog 2
This is my favourite dog in the whole city. He was hit by a car a few years ago and now he is blind. He spends his days sitting on this street corner, trying to understand the noises.

 

The second reason I feel guilty about talking to dogs in the street is because I feel like it’s tantamount to cat-calling. And while cat-calling is always awful, in some ways it’s worse to cat-call a dog, because a dog is a dog, not a cat.

Dogs 3
These guys live a few blocks from me. They’re waiting for their human to buy snacks.

Fortunately, I’ve found an outlet. A few weeks ago I was given a chili plant, and now I can talk to that. Plants, I believe, don’t feel the need to understand what you’re saying, they’re just happy to be talked at. My chili plant serves a duel purpose now: It gives me an outlet, thereby saving street dogs everywhere from the anxiety of listening to me, and it probably puts my neighbours at ease knowing that I’m not talking to myself. You’re not crazy if you talk to someone, even if that someone is a plant.

Chili Plant
I hope my plant doesn’t find me boring.

Mind: The Gap (Part 2 – Seeing Angels)

If the city were an animal, then Downtown Santiago would certainly be the meatiest part – the buttocks, perhaps. This is the part of the city where the interesting people are, where protests take place, where change begins. It’s the place where the different strata of society pulse together in a steady rhythm, like a heart.

So, to reiterate, if the city were an animal, then Downtown Santiago would be the heart-buttocks part of the animal. I’m not sure which animal (I’m not a farmer), but it’s certainly a noisy one.

For example, let’s go to the intersection of two streets – Huerfanos and Ahumada. Here are some of the noises you’ll find:

The cacophony of shoes on pavement: “…Clopclopclopclopclopclop…!”

The melodies of street musicians: “…WORDS OF THE PROPHETS ARE WRI-…!”

The street vendors selling chocolate bars: “TRE’ POR LUKA! TRE’ POR LUKA!”

The repetitive call of the man selling copies of a newspaper called El Segunda: “Ssssssssss’gndahhh!… Ssssssssss’gndahhh!”

Segunda
A lot of sound comes out of that tiny man.

Sometimes, on very special days, there is another sound bursting above the general rabble. Near the corner of Huerfanos and Ahumada there occasionally stands a man with a Bible open across the palm of one frail hand. He uses his free hand to gesture to the passing public, or up towards Heaven. And he preaches.

He is a broomstick with flesh wrapped around it, adorned with a really old suit. He grooms himself as well as he can, but his outfit shows signs of wear. His cuffs are frayed, his shoes are tarnished, and his jacket is sullied. Despite these signs of attrition, he is a proud man on a mission – to deliver the word of God to the people, angrily.

Dancers
In the pursuit of happiness, some people dance

 

The Preacher has the ability to elevate his voice above the rabble, and to sustain that volume for what I’m sure must be hours every day. There’s a kind of vehemence in his voice, an outrage that the world is in the state that it’s in. He slaps his palm onto the open face of the Bible occasionally before reading a passage or two and then interpreting it for the hundreds of people who aren’t listening. Now, to be fair, I’ve only ever watched him for a few minutes at a time, but I’ve never seen anyone stop and pay him any serious attention. This makes me wonder just how much satisfaction he gets from his task.

Musician
Some people challenge puppets to musical competitions…
Puppet
…and lose.

I picture the Preacher waking up in the mornings. This man in his fifties or sixties, pulling on his worn-out trousers, buttoning his shirt up to the collar, pushing his slender arms into the sleeves of his worn out jacket. What does he think about, as he stares into his reflection while brushing his teeth? Does he think, “Today, I am going to make a difference”?

Does he have a wife who kisses him on the cheek as she hands him his Bible, proud of her man going to do God’s work? Or perhaps he lives with a sibling, and the sibling’s family. Does he have nieces and nephews who talk about their “odd uncle” who goes and shouts in the middle of Downtown Santiago for a few hours every day?

Maybe he lives alone. I can picture a man, stripped down to vest and boxers, spending part of his nights sitting on the edge of an ancient single bed, stooped, head bent, hands dangling between his knees, considering whether he had done enough today. Or perhaps he lies down on those old, squealing springs, tucks his hands behind his head, and smiles because he is satisfied that he has pushed more of God’s goodness into the world.

Here is a man who sees a world in peril and in his desperation to save it he spends his time shouting into the void. Here is a man with a contract with God and no one else. A man who sees demons everywhere, and who is trying to let the angels in. At the heart of it, I wonder this: In the pursuit of happiness, an elderly man foregoes a job to go out and get angry. So where does he gain his happiness from? Is it from the knowledge that he is being a good man even though no one else is? Or is it from the thought that maybe his words will fall on at least one set of open ears, and that maybe he has actually set the course of the world on a infinitesimally better tack? I truly hope that this is the case. I hope so from the bottom of my heart (my heart-buttocks). And if that is the thought that gives his mind happiness, then who am I to object?

Protester
For others, happiness is speaking up against injustice.

 

Mind: The Gap (Part 1 – Seeing Demons)

It is cold now, and I have become a beast. Damp towels remain damp, and my bathroom mirror takes an age to defog after a hot shower. As a result, I cannot check my appearance before leaving the apartment. I suppose I could use the flat side of my wrist to wipe away a clear space on the mirror to better see my appearance, but that would leave streaks. Instead, I leave the mirror untouched and choose to simply guess that the set of my hair is acceptable, and that I have left no smudges of cream on my face. What’s more, in the pursuit of insulation against the cold, fashion is sacrificed. I pile on layers without regard to public perception. My internal comfort is all that matters.

The first real look I get of myself in the mornings is when I step into the elevator of my building. I encounter my reflection and I am often not pleased with what I see: Hair that has neither a side path nor a middle path, but something in between. Shaving cream adorns one ear while face cream outlines my nostrils. The cream can be wiped away, but the outfit cannot be saved. Clashing colours and unseemly sweaters are my cross to bear. I am no one’s dream date. All this to save my mirror from smudging.

Winter
Sure, it’s nice on the eyes, but rough on any exposed skin.

It is in this fog of misery that I think of the summer, and in my mind’s eye everything is wonderful. I remember that the sky is blue. Actually blue. Memory reminds me, quite wrongly, that the weather was always fine. The walks about town were always refreshing. The people were beautiful. I always knew the right way to comb my hair and I knew exactly what to wear. It’s a thin, false veil cast over a sometimes ugly reality. Things aren’t always idyllic, and in an attempt to rend the veil I caste my mind back to the moment when a perfect summer’s day was broken into shards by an act of sudden violence.

I was uptown, in a better part of the city, putting miles under my shoes and setting my mind adrift. My central focus was on keeping to the shade, and when I heard the first scream it took me a moment to descend back to earth. Up ahead, about a block away, I spied what I at first thought was some sort of scuffle.

She was stout, swaddled in a grubby corduroy jacket over a floral dress that hung down to her knees. She had on long woolen socks that were far too warm for the weather. Distance and weather-worn skin rendered her age too difficult to gauge, but I could at least surmise that she was someplace north of middle age. She was a woman who was out of place. The clothes, I’m sure, where inherited or found. She lashed out with the vigour of a champion boxer, swinging a bulging blue plastic bag with full force. The bag whipped through empty space, a ballistically unsound move which nearly pulled her off her feet. Her attacker did not exist. She was swinging at ghosts.

Her fury brought me to a halt. I dared not intercept her space. Important-looking people were taking sidelong glances at her and crossing the street. I watched her for a few minutes more. She’d amble along for a several meters, a big bulging plastic bag hanging from each tightened fist, making her look like a tormented set of scales. Then she’d look at the empty space next to her and bellow at it with unbridled rage. Her anger was far bigger than she could contain, a strangled garble of unintelligible Spanish scrapping up through her vocal chords and flung viciously at nothing. Then she swung again, hefting a bag that contained approximately half of her worldly possessions, and brought it round with heart-stopping force at whatever monster seemed to be plaguing her. This was no pantomime. She wanted to do damage. She wanted to slay the demon.

I always used to think the incoherent ramblings of homeless people in movies was just a conceit used to evoke the dark, morally bereft dystopia that is often associated with cities. Santiago is the first city I’ve lived in that has made the stereotype manifest. I used to think that the crazy cat lady was merely a clown for us to laugh at. The old man in deep conversation with himself was simply a dramatic device. Growing up, I felt that it was okay to be entertained by these people capering about on the television screen, and even to laugh at them.

Cat Lady
Although she’s known as the Crazy Cat Lady, this woman is Dr. Eleanor Abernathy. She has doctorates from Harvard and Yale.

So it came as a sobering surprise to realise that coming unhinged is a real, visible affliction. These downtrodden souls whose own minds have turned against them are haunted by ghosts that are very real to them. They live in anguish. The terror in their screams is not theatrics. I’ve seen a man rage in the middle of a deserted plaza, and for a brief moment I thought I was the one confused; perhaps the monsters are real and I am blind. Without any evidence to back this up, my suspicion is that this untethering of the mind might be assisted in no small way by the introduction of foreign substances. It makes sense to me that drug abuse will cleave away at the architecture that supports an already fragile mind. But whatever the cause, the people still suffer.

There’s no conclusion here, really, merely an observation. For some people, reality is always foggy. For me, that only happens in the winter, and at least I get a shower out of it. In a world plagued by nightmare visions, I’m quite blessed to only suffer from bad hair days.