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!”
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.
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.
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?
I very recently acquired a new laptop. Now I am only three objects away from attaining true happiness:
A doormat, so I won’t have to keep sweeping my living room floor.
A mirror, so that I can watch television while I am in the kitchen.
A table, so that I’ll have a comfortable place to write.
Once I get those things I will be truly happy.
Now, I know that possessions do not bring happiness. Believe me, I know. I’ve moved enough times over the past six months to learn to despise possessions. Every time I’ve had to recklessly shove teacups into a duffel bag, I’ve thought to myself, “Why do I own so much? I don’t need these things in my life.” If anything, possessions seem, at times, to be a source of woe. Especially when you need to cart them from one part of town to another. Take, for example, my backpack. It is something I need for work, and so during the week I find myself hustling all over town with my possessions on my back, like a well-dressed tortoise. I don’t have a bicycle, so I only use public transport or travel around on foot. And doing all this with a bag on my back really slows me down. When I need to run, screaming, across the road before the light changes, it takes so much more effort and makes me feel far from graceful. However, when the weekend descends I get to leave my apartment with nothing but the clothes I’m wearing and as many toys as I can shove into my pockets. I feel totally free. I feel light and liberated, like a naked tortoise. Then when I run, screaming, across the road before the light changes, I do so feeling like a champion ballet dancer, fully in control of my body.
It’s happiness that we all want, and I think that if you’re searching for it by accumulating things, then you’re probably looking in the wrong place. This is something that I have become acutely aware of over the past few years. I have had the unbelievable privilege of being able to travel to various parts of the world, meet the most curious people, see unique wonders, and taste exotic foods. I have developed an appreciation for life that I try very hard not to take for granted. I have discovered what true happiness is, and now I am certain that I am just a doormat, a mirror, and a table away from achieving it. And a bicycle, I suppose, since that would eliminate the hassle of walking.
The reason I’d like a doormat, as I have mentioned, is because I have to regularly sweep the dust out of my apartment. Or, rather, I tend to sweep it into a corner because I don’t have a dustpan so I just have to vacuum it up once a week. Without a doormat, the dust gathers so quickly that it is often uncomfortable to walk around in my living room. My feet get dirty after crossing the room just once. It makes me think that I should get a carpet to put across the floor to make it more pleasant to walk on.
The mirror, as I have mentioned, would be put to practical use: I would hang it on the wall so that when I am in the kitchen I can still watched the TV. I have the perfect place to put the mirror – there are still several nails jutting out from the walls from where the previous tenant had hung pictures. I’m really glad that those nails are there, because not only does it give me a perfect place to hang my mirror, but if I decide to hang pictures up I’ve already got the perfect places to put them.
Apart from the doormat, the mirror, the bicycle, the carpet, and the picture frames, I also just need a table to render my happiness complete. You see, all I really want is a comfortable place to be alone and to write. I have a laptop now, so I don’t need to be producing blogs from my phone anymore. It’s a wonderful piece of machinery, with a wide screen and a comprehensive keyboard. The speakers are a bit quiet, but I can always buy external speakers. I really just need a place to put my equipment because right now I’m literally using my lap top for my laptop.
But once I get my table, mirror, door mat, bicycle, carpet, picture frames, external speakers, and table, I’ll be content. I’ll also add dustpan to that list, because I like to keep things tidy. But once I have those things, then I am certain that I will have attained true happiness.
If you play close attention to this blog post, you might notice that it is slightly different from the posts that came before it. The reason for that is because this post is being written almost exclusively with my thumb.
Before I continue, let us just savour the image of me slowly typing at a keyboard with one hand, elbow raised to the sky and thumb jabbing downward like Caesar condemning scores of gladiators to their deaths.
But the truth, Dear Reader, is that I’m writing this blog on my phone, and since I’m accustomed to using the swipe function while typing, my thumb is doing most of the work. The down side to this is that my phone will occasionally make corrections to my spelling without telling me first, so it’s quite likely that you’ll find more typos here than usual. For instance, my phone is of the belief that “alloy” is usually preferable to “about,” or that when I write “in” I really mean to write “I’m.” It’s a cold war between my phone and me, and neither of us wants to back down.
But I digress. The reason that I’m using my phone in the first place is the result of a series of actions resulting in the loss of my laptop. Now, like a Bond villain watching his secret base implode while 007 parasails to safety, I can’t help but wonder where it all went wrong.
It all started, I believe, when I found myself a new apartment. It’s a single bedroom apartment located two blocks from the subway, five blocks from a shopping centre, three blocks from a gym, and one block from a pizza place. The rent is low, but the place is spacious. Although it faces east, the building provides cover which keeps the apartment cool in the afternoons. I couldn’t have asked for a better place, and the reason I’m trying so hard to impress you is because I want you to think highly of me before you read about what happened next.
I own a lot of things – a bed, a fridge, a sofa. Three things, you might say. Being the intelligent, independent guy that I am, I knew I’d need professional assistance to get these three things to my new apartment. So I got the information for a Professional Truck Man, snatched up my phone, dialed the number, and turned on the charm.
Me: Quiero truck! Tengo tres cosas! [I would like a truck. I have many possessions]
Professional Truck Man: Por supuesto. Seré 40 000 pesos. [Of course. It will be 40 000 pesos]
Me: Puede ser 30 000? [Make it 30 000 my good man and you’ve got yourself a deal]
PTM: No. [You sound intelligent and independent on the phone]
A day later the Professional Truck Man arrived, and I began loading my things.
(A good thing to remember when transporting a fridge is that it should always remain upright. In order to ensure that the fridge is always vertical, place half a carton of milk inside it. That way, if you tilt the fridge slightly, milk will spill out onto everything you love.)
Once I’d loaded my three possessions, I had a few other things lying around that I needed to take with me. I packed clothes into some black bags, put important documents into a satchel, and slid my laptop and my kettle into my backpack. I hoisted the backpack onto my shoulders, bent down to retrieve the bags of clothing, and suddenly noticed great volumes of water gushing onto the floor from my backpack. I instantly sprang into action.
“Save the kettle!” I yelled as I tore open the flaps of my backpack. I removed the kettle and poured the water that remained down the kitchen sink. Crisis averted. But to be extra safe I placed the kettle in with my clothes. Probably best not to let it get to close to the laptop again.
I loaded the rest of my things into the truck and got in next to the Professional Truck Man, who kindly offered me a swing of milk from a carton he’d found.
Half an hour later, we arrived at my new apartment. We unloaded my things into the centre of the living room, and I took a moment to catch my breath. I noticed that my backpack was still quite damp, and like a child learning that the square peg doesn’t exactly fit into the round hole, I slowly removed my soaking laptop from it’s watery grave.
I used my intelligence and independence to remind myself not to turn it on immediately. Instead, I opened the laptop and set it out on the balcony so that it could dry in the sun.
A day later, I put it in rice.
A day after that, I tried turning it on. Nothing happened. Not so much as a whir from the fan.
I knew then that it was time to call on my intelligence and independence again. I got the information for a Professional Computer Man, snatched up my phone, dialed the number, and turned on the charm.
Me: Laptop no funciona! [I need assistance with my laptop]
Professional Computer Man: Que paso? [What happened?]
Me: Agua! Mucho, mucho agua! [My laptop has some water damage]
PCM: Claro. Veré lo que puedo hacer. [You sound intelligent and independent on the phone]
About a week later, the Professional Computer Man returned my laptop to me, in pieces. He told me that the mother board was damaged beyond repair.
“Eres un idiota,” he said, which means, “Irrecoverable” in Spanish.
So I am currently technologically stunted, but, like a brilliant yet misunderstood genius who has clumsily slipped into a vat of radio active waste, I have emerged more intelligent and independent than ever before. I’m also noticeably more isolated from society, just like those super villains you’re always hearing alloy.
I’d like to get real for just a second. I want to turn my metaphorical cap backwards, swivel a metaphorical chair around, and sit down on it, facing you, with my metaphorical arms crossed over the metaphorical back of the aforementioned metaphorical chair.
Now I have your attention. But don’t be afraid. My confident and hip attitude shouldn’t intimidate you. What should intimidate you are the following four words:
Santiago. Has. A smog. Problem.
Four. Not sure “A” qualifies.
But the point is that Santiago’s smog levels are alarmingly high. According to my research, based off of a post I saw on Facebook and something a guy I was standing close to said, the city has declared a “state of emergency” as a result of its “high levels of smog” (Facebook, 2015).
As a result, traffic has been restricted, and motorists are prohibited from driving their cars one day per week (Proximate bystander, 2015).
The government has allocated certain days when people whose car license numbers end in a certain digit aren’t allowed to drive (ibid).
To be honest, I haven’t personally suffered from the smog very much. At least, not that I know of. Maybe I’m addicted to cigarettes now, and that constant hunger I’ve been experiencing is just my body craving a smoke. But otherwise, life goes on as normal, despite the fact that I can’t see the mountains from my balcony anymore, and wiping a white tissue over any surface will cause it to turn black. It’s made me aware of all the things I put into my mouth on a daily basis that are probably covered in a microscopic layer of soot: my toothbrush, cutlery from the drying rack, toy cars, fruit from the fruit basket. It’s pretty gross to think about.
What we really need is a good bout of rain to just cleanse the city a little bit. I’ve been told that usually at this time of year Santiago experiences a lot of rain. But so far we’ve had nada. I often stand on my balcony, hands on my hips, a motherly smile on my face, as I shake my head and say, “I’m looking at you, Global Warming.” Then I chuckle to myself and mumble “We’re all going to die.”
In addition to the pollution problem, Santiago has all the mod cons of a bustling city. Picture the scene, accompanied by a cacophony of frenetic free-style brassy jazz (or, alternatively, You’re the Voice by Dennis East):
Motorists at traffic lights leaning on their horns, heads sticking out their car windows, hurling abuse. Construction workers in yellow hats and reflective jackets working around steaming manhole covers. A man catching his foot on a piece of broken pavement; he stumbles a few meters and then goes down, pulling another pedestrian with him. People in suits crossing busy intersections as they talk on their cellular telephones. A man running to a meeting, stumbling, falling, his face grimacing in pain. Has be broken his clavicle? Homeless people pulling their filthy blankets closer around themselves at they struggle to find sleep on their rotting mattresses. An older woman in high heels, mis-stepping, pummeling headfirst into a parked car. People pushing to get onto crowded subway trains, personal space a distant memory.
People keep falling over in Santiago. I’ve witnessed it twice, and I’ve heard several eyewitness accounts of other, literal, faux pas. For some reason, the people of Santiago are always in a hurry, and as a consequence they are often rushed off their feet. It’s an indication of the power of this city: that it forces people to move faster than their feet can carry them. Santiago is a beast, and you need to keep moving to avoid getting eaten by it.
It’s quite normal for people to work long days. Days beginning at 08.00 and ending at 19.00. As for me, I’m working harder than ever to avoid getting eaten by the beast. We’re in the middle of the year now, and people are determined to learn English. Finishing late has become the norm. Three days of the week I finish at 21.30. On Tuesdays I end at 20.00, and on Fridays, thankfully, I finish at 15.00. I work throughout the day, grabbing food between classes. The benefit of this is that I can eat unhealthily and just blame it on a busy work schedule.
“Well, I don’t have time for a sit-down meal. Guess I’ll just eat four or five Snickers Bars from this street vendor here.”
The truth is that right now I am busier than I have ever been, and I’m working harder than I ever have before. But I like the challenge. I like the idea that one day I’ll look back incredulously and say “Did I really have to do nine hours of teaching in one day?”
Plus, I’m making money. For the first time since I’ve been here, I’m earning enough money to splash out a little bit. I can go to a restaurant without batting an eyelid. I can go out to the movies without having to check my funds first. I can break my roommate’s nice things with reckless abandon. “Don’t worry,” I say as I hurl his glass vase across the room, smashing it into powder, “I’ll just replace it!”
The downside, though, is that since all my time is being given over to work, I have little time for much else. I don’t exercise as much as I used to, and I try to fit in a Spanish class when I can. On weekends I like to do as little as possible in order to recover from the busy week.
But, as I understand it, this busy season won’t last. I’ll stick it out for a few months, and once the work dies down a little bit I’ll have the money to make the most of my freedom. Until then, I’m going to keep my head down and keep working. I just hope the world doesn’t end before I’ve had my fun.
In my previous post, I spoke about how I was semi-homeless and apartment-hunting. Well, I have since found a place to stay and have settled in nicely. More or less. Through trial (so much trial) and error (good lord, the error), I have worked out the subtle details of living in my building. I suppose I could have asked my roommate how to handle the obstacles that I have faced over the past two weeks, but a.) he is a Chilean who doesn’t speak English, and b.) he left town the day I moved in, and is still not back.
My roommate’s name is Nathan, and he seems like a good guy. He’s friendly, accommodating, and soft spoken. He’s 32, and studying photography in Santiago. As I mentioned earlier, he’s been away pretty much since I moved in, so I haven’t spoken to him very much. I’m glad that I’ll be living with a Chilean, because he’ll help me to improve my Spanish. He already seems to think that I understand far more of the language than I really do (Or did, because I’m learning). When he first showed me around the building he explained a lot of things to me which I still don’t understand. I’d often ask him to repeat himself, but slowly, so that I could work out what he was saying. Or, if it seemed important, I’d whip out the translator on my phone to get clarity. He showed me the things for cleaning the floors (there are different types of cleaners for the different types of surfaces). He showed me the cutlery and crockery (I was welcome to make use of it all). He showed me the dish washing liquid (not sure if I’m allowed to use his, or if I should get my own. I’ve been using his anyway). He showed me the laundry room (something about a key. Not sure. I just nodded my head). He told me that he was going to visit his family up north for a few days (when is he leaving? How long will he be away?). He showed me his potatoes (I’m allowed to eat those, since he was going to be away for a few days. I think). He showed me where I can keep my groceries, and where he keeps his (I think he said I could eat some of his snacks if I wanted, but I won’t take that risk). There were quite a few things I didn’t understand, but I reckoned I’d figure it all out as I went along.
The apartment itself is beautiful. It’s relatively small, but it’s open and airy and it faces north to let in just the right amount of sunlight. I live on the 14th floor, and from the lounge I get to watch the sun rise and set, and if I lean out over the balcony I get an exquisite view of the Andes. In the distance I can see the statue of the Virgin Mary at the top of San Cristobal Hill. And further to the right I can see the Great Santiago Tower, which is the tallest building in Latin America, apparently.
The apartment has a charming living space, with a glass dining room table and a sofa that folds out into a bed. There’s a kitchen with all the pots, pans, and appliances that I need, and I also get my very own bathroom. The building has a small gym, and a garden area complete with swimming pool, jungle gym, and barbecue areas. The property is only a few meters away from a subway station, so getting around is a breeze.
All in all, I’m happy with the place. Of course, there was still a lot to learn once I’d moved in. The biggest test of my survival skills came when I had to do my laundry for the first time. I remembered when Nathan had shown me the laundry room. He’d walked me to the door marked “Lavenderia” on the ground floor, said something about money, and something about keys. I thought he’d said that the keys to the laundry room were back in the apartment, and did I want to go back and get them so that I could see the washing machines? I indicated that it wasn’t necessary, since we were on our way out anyway, and I didn’t want to go all the way back up 14 floors.
Cut to: last Tuesday. My roommate has been gone a while, and I’m on my second-to-last pair of clean socks. It’s starting to become critical that I clean my clothes. I had hoped that Nathan would have been back by now to explain the whole thing to me, but I could wait no longer.
Here’s the thing. Inside the bathroom that I have to myself, there is a washing machine. Nathan had never mentioned it, and when I’d asked about laundry, he’d taken me to the laundry room on the ground floor. I was almost certain that the machine in the bathroom was broken. It wasn’t even plugged in. But the more desperate I became to clean my clothes, and the more I stared at this dormant machine every time I went to the bathroom, the more convinced I became that it would work. Surely Nathan was showing me that the laundry room downstairs was an alternative, should I need it. Maybe the machines in the laundry room were better than his own. Maybe they came with dryers. In addition, out on the balcony of our apartment there is one of those wiry clothes horses used for hanging clothes on to dry. Surely the washing machine in the bathroom worked. I resolved to use it. I had just about run out of common sense at this point, but I had just enough left to remember to buy washing powder and to send Nathan a message asking him if I could use the machine. Message sent, I took a walk across the road to fairly large convenience store to buy the washing powder. By the time I’d purchased it and gotten back to the apartment, Nathan still hadn’t replied. In my mind I already knew what his answer would be, so I set about putting my clothes into the machine, plugging it back in, and applying my newly-purchased washing powder to the process. I pushed the buttons that seemed appropriate. Lights flashed on, and water began rushing into the big metal drum.
Great. Mission accomplished. Clean clothes en route.
Moments later, I heard my phone chime. Nathan had replied. I calmly read his message.
“No. It’s bad. You have to use the laundry room. Ask the concierge for the keys.”
I calmly put the phone down and went back into the bathroom. Apart from making a small humming noise, the machine had stopped doing things. I lifted the lid and looked at my clothes. They were now immersed in about 100 litres of soapy water. It was a sad sight; like looking at a corpse in a lake. A small puddle of water had formed on the floor.
“Maybe it’s between cycles.” I said to myself. “Perhaps if I leave it for a while, it will get going again.”
I made myself tea. Drank it. Ignored the ominous hum from the washing machine.
Tea finished, I went back to check progress. The puddle had become a pool. I retrieved the mop from the balcony, and cleared a passage to the machine. Things continued to not happen. Still the machine hummed its menace.
I was running out of time. I had to take action. I began to remove my sopping clothes from the machine and toss them splatteringly into the bathtub. I saw this as progress, but I still had a drum full of water that I had to deal with. Maybe I could just let it leak out over the floor? Let gravity do the work? Then I could just mop it all up?
Well, no. That was a silly idea. I didn’t want to stay up all night watching a floor un-dry. I had to face facts: I was going to have to scoop the water out myself. I wasn’t opposed to the labour, but I rebelled against the indignity of it. It would mean admitting defeat against a dumb broken machine. How humiliating, to have to bow to my metallic tormentor. I pulled the plug to stop its laughter. A small victory.
I used the small plastic bin next to the toilet to bail out most of the water, and then I used a polystyrene cup to scoop out the rest when the water level got low enough. I poured it out into the bath, next to my sad, sad pile of clothes.
Once I’d hung my partially-cleaned clothes on the laundry horse, I decided to call it a night. I still had clean clothes for the following day, and time in the morning to do things properly.
In contrast to the nightmare of the previous evening, doing my laundry the next morning was a breeze. I rehearsed my line to the concierge, (“Quiero los llaves para la sala de lavanderia, por favor”), gathered my still-damp clothes and washing powder, and headed downstairs. As I stepped out of the elevator, a janitor spotted my bag and washing powder, and asked if I wanted to use the laundry. He then pulled out some keys, and I followed him to the laundry room.
“Quiero los llaves para la sala de lavanderia, por favor,” I whispered as he lead the way.
As he rounded the corner he stopped, mumbled something, and then shrugged his shoulders. I got there and discovered that the laundry room was already open.
The laundry room itself was like a sterile laboratory. The coin-operated machines were neatly ordered, and there were tumble dryers in the back. After the mess I’d gone through the night before, this place looked like a five star hotel. I put my clothes in to be washed, and listened to what a working tumble dryer was supposed to sound like. What a pleasant sound. I returned after half an hour and moved my clothes to the dryer. An hour later and they were done. I tried not to think about all the time I’d wasted the previous night. All I’d learn was that the washing machine in the bathroom definitely didn’t work.
So, dear reader, I’m learning. Sometimes I’ve had to learn the hard way. Other times, I just make life unnecessarily harder for myself by not speaking to my roommate first. But I’ll get there. By gum, I’ll get there.