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!

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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.

 

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
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A Man’s Place

 

Beneath the city of Santiago there runs a network of tunnels. It’s not particularly vast or complicated, and it would be extraordinarily difficult to get lost in them. The subway system, known locally as the metro, has five individual lines, and they are labelled Line 1, Line 2, Line 4, Line 4A, and Line 5. I suspect that the person who named the different lines might also be the same person who labelled vitamins.

Vitamin Clock
Nutritionists know there are more than eight letters in the alphabet, right?

By global standards, the Santiago metro is still quite young and simple. There are no abandoned tunnels or hidden treasure. There is no space for smugglers to build secret hideouts or for children to go off on adventures. As far as I know there are no ghost stories attached to the metro, and the place has absolutely no air of mystery at all.

Almost.

The one oddity that the metro possesses is that when I am inside it, the social strata to which I am quite accustomed becomes inverted. I am young, I am healthy, and I am male. This usually affords me so many benefits in the world of sunlight. These qualifications get me to the front of lines, allow me first choices when shopping, lend more weight to my opinions, make me a priority guest in restaurants. Yet on the metro I am pushed to the back of the line. I am a third-class citizen. Even if I am collapsing from exhaustion I know I will not be allowed to sit down unless all the women, the mothers with their children, the infirm, and the elderly have all been seated first. Even if I’m lucky enough to find an open seat, I can never fully relax because at every stop there is the chance the someone who is not young, not healthy, or not male might get on. Put simply, the metro is a place where I have no control at all.

But all these social obstacles aside, I have never felt more out of my depth than I did a few days ago, when I found myself on a metro car next to a young lady who was trying very hard not to cry. I first noticed her look of distress when I stepped onto the train and rotated 180 degrees to face the door. The muscles in her face were struggling, and failing, to keep her features in order. Deep lines were forming around her mouth and eyes, painting years of heartache over a countenance that should have been no older than I was. She was clasping a bulky jacket tight to her chest, as if it were a security blanket, and in her hand she held her cellphone. She kept her other hand pressed over her mouth to prevent herself from sobbing in such a public place, and at regular intervals she would remove the hand from her mouth and type vigorously on her phone. I hoped that she was in an argument with someone, because arguments can get resolved. If she was hearing bad news, well, then that’s far less easy to deal with in a public space.

The lady made almost no sound, save for the occasional sniffing noise. At times she would bury her face into her jacket or rub her tiny fist under her nose, sniffing all the while. I gleaned all of this through my peripheral vision and by noticing her reflection in the door to the metro. I dared not look at her directly, because if there was any acknowledgement of her distress then perhaps there might be pressure on me to comfort her. I couldn’t run away either. While there weren’t too many people on this particular subway car, there were still too many to allow me to move more that two feet away from her. The longer I ignored her, the longer I could claim ignorance, and let her grieve in peace.

Dwight and Pam
I am about as good at comforting strangers as Dwight Schrute is.

But I couldn’t ignore her, and the demonic face of Santiago’s twisted underground culture began looming up at me. If I was above ground, I wouldn’t have to deal with this problem. Above ground, the young lady could have easily moved to a private place. Or I would have had space to run away. But now I was stuck in a tiny metal box next to an emotional woman who wasn’t going away. I also knew for a fact that I had an entire pack of tissues hidden inside the backpack that I was currently holding in my hands. I had materials that could help, and I started feeling that I would regret not doing something. So, with measured nonchalance, I brought my backpack up and casually unzipped the outer pocket. I could still abandon the plan if I wanted to. I could easily pretend that I was simply checking that everything was in order, zip up my bag again, and pretend that nothing had happened. But by the time my hand reached inside the pocket and closed around the pack of tissues, I knew there was no going back.

“Quieres?” I said awkwardly, using the pack of tissues to touch her lightly on the shoulder.

She looked at me and then at the tissues, and while keeping her eyes downcast she smiled and nodded in a way that seemed to say, Okay, you’ve caught me crying. But don’t worry, it’s nothing serious.

She took the pack of tissues, removed one, and passed the rest back to me. I wanted her to keep them all, but my Spanish escaped me at that point and I didn’t want to hassle her about it. So after a second of protest I took the tissues back from her and tucked them away in my bag again. I thought the worst was over, but it had only just begun, because what I had forgotten during that whole process was that I was still trapped inside a tiny metal box with the poor lady. I’d caught her out, exposed her vulnerability, and there was no place either of us could run to. I considered getting out at the next stop and jumping into the adjacent car. But what if we were both destined for the same stop anyway? It would be quite awkward to run into her many minutes after I had supposedly left.

I also felt bad because I had totally derailed her sadness. Now she had stopped crying, and was instead dealing with this entirely awkward situation which I’d thrust upon her. I’d stoppered the grief that needed grieving. I’d plugged up her outpouring. I’d left her emotionally constipated. The whole thing was a mess really, and I felt bad for interfering in her life. And worst of all was that deep down I was afraid that she was afraid that I was going to hit on her. It was my own skepticism about male culture that planted this idea in my head. I could quite easily imagine a scenario where the charming stranger on the metro, having just offered the damsel in distress a tissue, uses the moment as a conversation starter: Someone break your heart, little lady?

I didn’t want to be that guy, but there was no way that I could let her know that I wasn’t that guy. Even if I leaned over and said, “Don’t worry, I won’t hit on you,” then that would already be crossing the line. So while things were pretty awkward as is, I could also feel a mounting tension as the woman waited for my next move. We’d had a connection and now each second that passed would wind that connection another notch tighter. It was unbearable, so I did what any 21st century person does to escape – I fished my phone out of my pocket and began staring intently at it. I wanted to hide away, make myself disappear. I wanted to communicate the idea that I am done with you. We won’t interact anymore, but without saying any words. But the more I tried to ignore the woman, the more aware I was of how hard I was trying to ignore her. Perhaps she thought that I was gathering the guts to say something to her.

Someone break your heart, little lady?

Finally, after eons of awkwardness, enough people got off the metro to allow me to shuffle away to the back of the car. I felt that by that point it was clear that I was no longer going to interact with the woman. I still wasn’t entirely at peace, but I was far enough away from her to continue to my destination without worrying her.

It was an entirely new experience for me. Normally, I am fairly adept at negotiating social situations, but the Santiago metro is a whole other world. I’m still figuring out the rules, but one thing that seems to be a constant truth is this: If you’re young, healthy, and male, stay out of the way, leave people alone, and don’t sit down. Otherwise, you’ll just make people uncomfortable.

Subway Tunnel
A straight shot into unknown places