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.

Family 1
The family on the rock

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

Hiking Group

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.

Running my Mouth

The hardest part of training for a marathon is, by far, trying not to tell people that you’re training for a marathon. At the beginning, I failed at this daily. It would be the first word upon my lips when I awoke in the mornings. When meeting new people I’d introduce myself as, “Yes, a marathon… Oh sorry, I thought you asked me what I’m training for.” I began designing English lessons around the topic of marathons – “I’m training for a marathon. Discuss.”

Phone calls with friends started to become awkward.

Me: Hello? Yes?

Friend: Yeah hi…

[PAUSE]

Me: Yeah, what’s up? Can’t really talk. I was just about to go train… for the marathon…? which I’m running…?

Friend: Michael, you called me!

Taken
I’d spend whole afternoons just calling people up.

But let me speak in my defense. “For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks,” as they say. And let me tell you, Dear Reader, that during those months leading up to the marathon both my heart and my mind were full of nothing but thoughts of running (as well as the cholesterol from the perverse amounts of carbohydrates I had been putting into my body). When my friends discussed what we should do on a weekend, I had no input because all I knew was that I had to make sure that part of that weekend was spent running. It was difficult to focus during classes because I was too busy worrying about whether I’d run enough kilometers that week. It was nigh-on impossible to entertain discussions of topical events when all I could think about were how badly the arches of my feet were paining me. So it’s really no surprise that running was all I talked about.

However, when my own arrogance became overwhelming I knew it was time to learn to keep my mouth shut, and so I resolved to stop talking about the marathon at all costs. But alas, the universe was against me.

A few weeks before running my first marathon, I attended an annual South African community braai, which was hosted by the Embassy of South Africa in Santiago. It’s a lovely event where many South Africans from in and around Santiago gather to meet, catch up, and share in much-missed South African food. I’d been to the one the year before, and so when I arrived at the braai I quickly spotted some familiar faces. I went over and greeted a couple that I’d sat next to the at the previous year’s function. I could recall almost nothing about them, except that she was a photographer and he liked to surf. I suppose they remembered a little bit more about me, because the very first thing they asked me was, “So how’s the running going?”

It’s difficult to recall conversations from a year ago, but clearly this was a detail about me that they had remembered – that I was a bit of a runner. I thought of my resolution to avoid talk of marathons, and I tried to stay strong.

“It’s going well… Really well…”

Actually, it wasn’t going well at all. I’d hardly done any research about how to train, and at that point I was only running about 4km per day. I was not exposing my body to long distances like I should have been. I didn’t even have the right shoes and that was a constant, nagging concern.

We drifted into silence. They nodded appreciably, and then waited for me to ask about her photography, or his surfing. Instead, what I said was, “I’m actually training for the Santiago marathon in a couple of weeks.”

I mean, c’mon! They’d asked me directly.

New Shoes
One of the new shoes I acquired shortly before the race. This photo is not to scale because in reality there were twice as many shoes as pictured here.

 

As my training continued, my resolve became stronger. Quite soon, I could endure whole conversations without bringing it up once. The marathon was becoming mine. I didn’t need to share it with anyone else. My body may not have been up to scratch, but I took a couple of semi-long runs, and during that process I taught myself to visualize the entire course. I studied the map. I tried to think about what running a full 42 kilometers would feel like. I even managed to acquire a new pair of excellent running shoes, which provided much mental reinforcement. Even if my body failed, I knew my mind was capable, and to me that was an important milestone. As the day approached, the reality of the race grew in my mind. Part of me started to realise that deciding to do a marathon is not the same as completing one. Perhaps I should wait until the run was over before talking about it.

About a week before the run, the marathon had made its way into my dreams. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking that I’d overslept and the race had started already. I started fearing that I hadn’t trained enough. I’d begun loading up on carbohydrates and started worrying that I was putting on weight that would slow me down. In the final week I put myself through a process called “Tapering.” This basically meant that I stopped running in order to let my body rest in preparation for the big day. That final week almost drove me over the edge. Remaining inactive was agony. I felt like I was sabotaging myself. Had I trained enough? Maybe I’d started tapering too early, or too late. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. And eating pasta three meals a day also felt somehow wrong. I felt like I was teaching my body to be lazy when what I really needed was to be fitter than I’d ever been in my entire life. Fortunately, I had some friends who were invested in my run, and I could talk to them about it. It helped me stick to my resolution of not telling people that I was running a marathon. But temptation soon struck again.

Shortly before the race, I had a class with a student of mine who happens to live quite close to me. She was late, and we met in the lobby of her building. As we stepped into the elevator, she said to me, “I saw you the other day.”

“Oh?” It was always awkward being spotted outside of work hours. Who knows what she’d seen me doing.

“You were running,” she said. Despite my mind’s constant dwelling on the marathon, I was momentarily caught off guard. A student talking about seeing you outside of normal class hours always makes you reassess your recent actions. Where had she seen me running? Was I chasing down an ice cream truck? Was I exiting a bank at haste with police in pursuit?

“It was late,” she continued. “Like ten o’ clock at night.”

Things fell into place, and I recalled that I’d been out for a long run a few nights previously. It was my last real run before I’d started tapering. But I would not speak of the marathon. “Ah,” I said. “Yes. I was just… out for a run.”

The elevator doors closed. Then reopened. Some more people got on, and it ascended glacially.

“I can’t believe you were running so late at night. I don’t know where you get the energy.”

I shrugged as we stepped onto her floor. “Ah well… you know…,” said I, with much eloquence.

There was so much I wanted to say. I was thinking about the way my knees had hurt after that run, and how the fear of that pain returning during the marathon had almost driven me to tears. I was so focused on not talking about the marathon that my brain could find no other words to say. I was just waiting for her to drop the subject.

“I mean,” she continued when we’d reached her floor, “when I get home I’m exhausted. I’d never be able to go running so late at night.”

She was fumbling for her keys and it was taking an eternity.

I was thinking about how difficult it had been to pull on my running shoes that evening. I thought about how tired I was from work, and from almost daily runs. I was thinking that lifting myself off the couch had been a task bordering on the Herculean.

“Oh well, yeah… I like it…,” said I, an English teacher.

The fact of the matter was that I didn’t like it. Not one bit. I’d thrown myself into a machine and now I couldn’t stop it until it spat me out on the other side. I’d run my mouth too much, and now people were looking to see how I’d fare. I felt mentally ready, but the run itself was in a dark, unfathomable future. There was so much I was desperate to know. Would I finish? Would I drop out? Would I cause myself permanent damage? How long would I need to recover?

As I walked with my student along the corridor to her apartment, I thought about what the future had in store for me. I didn’t know, then, about the street dogs that would keep pace with the runners for kilometers at a time. Or about the hydro stations chanting “Agua! Gatorade!” in a beautiful rhythmic chorus. I couldn’t have known, then, just how insufficient my training had been. I didn’t foresee how I’d hit the midway mark and suddenly become unsure about whether I could face the rest. I hadn’t known how unprepared I would be for the way my body wanted to give out once I’d hit the 35km mark, with my knees begging for mercy. It was only during the race that I would see another runner physically punching his legs to keep them alive, and understand exactly why he was doing that. I hadn’t known about the worrying streak of pain that would shoot up my right leg at kilometer 37, with every neuron in my body crying for me to stop. I couldn’t have known about the will which would push me to continue, because if I had stopped, or slowed to a walk, I would have counted the marathon as a failure. And more than anything, what I couldn’t have known then, was the sudden onrush of emotion that overpowered me at the finish line, causing my face to crumple and my eyes to run over with tears. Days after having that class with my student, exhaustion would drive my emotions haywire and cause me to fight to control my crying. And even once I’d gotten myself under control, I would be handed a medal from a little boy with Down Syndrome, and I would start crying all over again.

All of that lay in my future, unknown, as my student finally slotted her key into her apartment door.

“I mean,” she was saying, “when I get home from work all I want to do is relax. I could never go out for a run…”

I’m afraid I broke just then, Dear Reader. I could hold back the dam no longer. The training had been hard and insufficient. I was slowly losing my mind and in that moment I needed her to know that the running she had seen me doing was a symptom of a punishing project I had taken upon myself, one which was pushing me to insanity.

“Thing is,” I said, “I’m planning on running the Santiago marathon next week. So I was just training for that. Otherwise I’d never normally be out running so late.” The door to her apartment was finally open, and the class could begin. But it was too late. The damage was done.

So, I had failed the challenge I had set myself of not talking about the marathon. But the marathon itself had been a success. I didn’t have what it takes to remain silent about training for a marathon, but at least I was able to complete the slightly more manageable task of actually completing one.

916bd42060294e1d539de195d97606df

 

Jorge of the Concrete Jungle

There is an oft-quote Chilean saying which I’ve just this instant made up, and it goes like this:

“Ask not, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ but rather, ‘How did the chicken cross the road?'”

Crossing the road in Santiago is a chore. One must admire the audacious town planner who, with a straight face, presented his designs for Santiago to a committee who subsequently approved and funded them. I imagine that this town planner must have hated pedestrians, because he certainly hasn’t made things easier on us.

I say “he” because after years of walking around this city, the person who designed its layout has become very real in my mind. I have dreamed up a fictional figure towards whom I can channel all my rage every time I have to leap a barrier, or wait at three separate sets of traffic lights simply to cross a road.

I call him Jorge. Not only because Jorge is a common name in Chile, but also because it is a name that can be said with menace – Two syllables, each beginning with an aggressive rumble in the back of the throat, like the way a sleeping dog might growl while you attempt to tie a bandana onto its head. I hate Jorge almost as much as I’m sure he hates me. Take for example, my local super market.

My local super market is exceptionally close, perhaps two blocks away as the crow flies. If I stand on my balcony and look straight ahead, I would be able to see it if there wasn’t a building in the way.

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I like to survey the city from my balcony while I angrily mutter “Jorge” under my breath.

In order to reach this super market, I need to cross two busy streets which are separated by a wide concrete island. One street takes traffic north, the other takes traffic south. So picture the scene: I leave my building and walk in more or less a straight line until I encounter the first busy road which carries traffic north. I cross easily at a zebra crossing and reach the middle island. I walk across the island towards the street that carries traffic south, but before I can set foot on the tarmac I encounter a fence which forces me to walk about two blocks up in order to get around it, thereby doubling the distance I have to travel.

Now, I don’t drive, so I don’t know what things are like from a driver’s perspective, but I am convinced that the discomfort brought to every Santiago pedestrian is not a result of careless planning. No, Dear Reader, when Jorge sat down to trace out his initial blueprints for this city it was with malicious intent.

The average intersection, for example, offers only two or three demarcated crossings. Usually, the less-busy street can only be crossed from one corner. This means that, if you want to cross a street while obeying the rules, you often have to cross a road three times. If you have trouble visualising that, let me explain:

Let’s say you’re walking north, and you’re on the west side of the street, okay? Now you come to an intersection. But your crossing is on the east side of the street. So you cross the street, going from the west side to the east side. That’s Crossing Number One.

Then you cross legally, going north. That’s Crossing Number Two.

But, although you’re heading in the right direction, you’re still on the east side of the street. Should you want to get back on the west side (to get out of the sun, say), you’ll need to cross again. That’s Crossing Number Three.

Three crossings just to get to the other side.

But suppose you’re willing to play slightly fast and loose with the rules. Suppose that a little jaywalking doesn’t phase you. Well, you may be thwarted yet. If you cross at an un-designated crossing spot you might find yourself confronted with a metal railing on the opposite side, which you need to either leap over or walk entirely around. It’s a hassle.

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To the left of this photo you can see Jorge’s freedom-inhibiting fence.

 

And it’s not just the crossings that vex me so. Trees and benches are scattered around the city with with no obvious harmony. For example, there is a street in the eastern part of the city which I often make use of. It runs west to east and therefore gets blasted by the sun in the middle of the day. Fortunately, this avenue is lined with benches and trees, yet these objects are nowhere near each other. So should you find yourself requiring a rest here, you can either sit in the sun or stand in the shade, but you can’t do both. Well, you could stand in the sun if you wanted to, but that would be madness.

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Note the benches. Now note their distance from the trees. I call that distance “Jorge’s Constant.”

 

I hope, Dear Reader, that you can understand some of my ire. Jorge is like a child colouring in a picture of a kangaroo – it’s all over the place and the colours are all wrong – except this mess isn’t through incompetence, it is through malice. I know this because I invented Jorge. I’m sure, if the budget allowed it, he’d make you duel a wizard on each corner too.

So, the next time you find yourself in Santiago and you need to get to the other side of a street, simply cross the first lane, go several blocks up, cross the second lane three times, leap the fence, and be thankful you don’t have to fight a wizard.

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I tried to take an aerial photo of the city, but I couldn’t throw my phone that high.

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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.

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He was handcuffed to a chair just a moment ago.

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.

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According to WebMD, my computer has a slipped disk.

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.