Culture Between Culture

“What is South Africa like?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry, one last question-”

“Darn!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corner Shop
Life in another language.

 

The Bridge Builder – A Bureaucratic Fable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bridge Builder demanded that the bridge be strong and thick

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

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

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

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

So he employed an Overseer to keep embezzlement at bay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

As time went by The Overseer began to be afraid,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For according to my calculations, three pillars would be excessive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But by then the bridge in question was hopelessly delayed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

An incomplete bridge lay decaying in the sun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The people in the towns could sleep peacefully tonight

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

Everyone had done their jobs, and honesty was key

Business was conducted openly for everyone to see.

In the end, the two towns remained distinctly quite divided

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

Bridge

 

 

 

 

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.

IMG_20170317_154258705
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.

IMG_20170317_104403770
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.

IMG_20170103_165308289
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.

IMG_20170317_125247759
I tried to take an aerial photo of the city, but I couldn’t throw my phone that high.

My Ad-Vice

About two years ago I found myself in the company of a breathtakingly beautiful lady named Kylie. She was petite. Her frame was slight; her skin, porcelain. Her features were dainty and her hair was spiderweb-white. She was a fairy incarnate. Not surprisingly, she attracted the eye wherever she went, yet she was kind to everyone. When asked where she came from she would patiently tell them that she was from Austrailia, and that she was only in town for a few days. She was travelling around South America, you see.

She always smiled. She was patient with the slurring, uncoordinated men who were so obviously fawning over her. When asked if she was travelling alone, she’d airily tell you that she was travelling with her boyfriend, and then glance around to indicate that he was somewhere in the vicinity. It wasn’t a lie, or a defence. Kylie was not the type to mislead or to manipulate. She was simply stating a fact. When it came to Kylie, there were never any ill intentions.

As ethereal as Kylie was, her boyfriend was the opposite. Brian was a man carved directly from the living rock of reality. He was so very much present. He was broad-shouldered, bearded, and solid. He moved with well-coordinated strength, yet he did not intimidate. He was the type of man you’d feel compelled to ask to help you set up your camping tent. Not because you needed the help, but because there was an attractive energy about the man and because he looked like the type of person who would be able to do it in a trice. Brian oozed competence, and he was a fine match for Kylie. There was opposition in their physicality, but in their conduct they were twinned. He was a happy conversationalist. He moved among the crowd like a Superbowl-winning footballer meeting the press. When asked where his girlfriend was he’d glance around and say “Oh she’s somewhere about,” not because he didn’t care, but because he knew she could look after herself. It was clear that he loved her. When they were together he would lightly touch her – on the shoulder, on the back – not to say “You are mine,” but to say “I am here.”

I liked this couple very much, and by the grace of good fortune they seemed to like me too. But then again, they seemed to like everyone. They were like a good-natured celebrity couple. I could see myself getting to know the two quite well in the short time that they were in town. I felt that a strong bond was on the verge of being forged. I imagined us developing our own very special inside jokes. Although geography would separate us, I could see a future where we’d write to each other often. I’d be the first to know about proposals and pregnancies before the rest of the world did. It would be a special circle consisting of only us three.

It was a happy night, and I remember clearly the way Kylie extended her hand and put it on my arm. It was an offer of allegiance. A gesture crossing continents to bring us together. By touching my arm she was inviting me into the most intimate circle of her friendship. It was a symbol of welcome, a message that said, “You don’t have to be alone.”

She spoke just then, her voice the texture of candyfloss. A silken whisper that somehow carried over the hubbub around us, as if she was very carefully placing her words directly into my ear.

“Do you like cocaine?” she said.

In the second or two it took me to reply, many things happened. Billions of synapses burst through my body like light-speed Paul Reveres, galloping along my nervous system and crying, “Keep your cool! Keep your cool!”

The mist that had been clouding my skull vanished in an instant, and I became aware that I was in a rowdy bar at 02.00 in the morning, waiting in a line that wasn’t moving in order to buy an overpriced beer that I didn’t want. The music was awful too.

At the same time, I thought about my philosophy of saying “Yes” to everything, and in those immeasurably brief yoctoseconds before the mist cleared entirely, I had one last rather lucid thought:

This is it, isn’t it? This is the night I do cocaine.

An answer was expected, but I didn’t know what to do. It was as if my brain had accidentally clicked “Print All” and had, in a panic, decided to yank the computer out from the wall. To buy more time while things rebooted, I said, “Well, you know, I’ve never really tried it, to be honest.”

“Oh, you’ll love it,” said Kylie. Her hand had not left its perch on my bicep. Beside her, Brian smiled his encouragement. There was no need for him to speak. It was clear that Kylie was voicing the words that he himself was eager to say.

My brain, meanwhile, overwhelmed by the colossally dramatic shift in direction that this night had taken, had decided to step out for a cigarette.

“Ah…” I offered.

And then I turned and walked away, and I never saw that lovely couple again.

Ministry of Silly Walks
Accurate re-enactment of me keeping my cool and walking away.

That was my first passing encounter with cocaine. Up until that point, I’d only ever seen it in movies or heard it spoken about, but I’d never had it enter my personal space. So I suppose it was the thought of the thing, rather than the thing itself, that surprised me, and that’s not a bad thing. Things that challenge your perception have a tendency to shock. I had always thought that cocaine was something that other people did. I had been raised to fear it. Educational media told me that it would ruin my life. Getting too close to that white powder would put me in jail. Touching it would get me killed.

Since that night in the bar I’ve seen the stuff several more times over the years. For me, it’s definitely more prevalent here that it was in South Africa. Like someone who grew up fearing spiders, and who later learns that they are mostly harmless, I still have an aversion to cocaine, but I tolerate its existence.

Now, I realise that I’m in dangerous territory. I don’t mean to condone the use of cocaine. I don’t. I’ve never touched the stuff, and I don’t think I ever will. But you know what? Sometimes people take cocaine and it doesn’t hurt anyone. If the most beautiful couple in the world think it’s okay, then I’m okay with that.

baking-powder
A real photograph of the drug known as cocaine.

 

Sanspreading

Come with me on a word adventure.

It starts with the word “portmanteau.” It’s a real word that no one alive today knows how to pronounce. No one.

But our lexicon is filled with examples of them. Brexit is a portmanteau. So is Spanglish. And bootylicious. And Jerseylicious. And Fergalicious. And malware, which is software that is malicious.

New portmanteaux are entering the English language all the time. You’ve probably heard the word “mansplain” being bandied about fairly regularly these days, and if you don’t know what mansplaining is, then don’t you worry your pretty little head about it*.

After a while, the portmanteau “mansplain” gave rise to the invention of the word “manspread,” which relates to the habit men have of spreading out on public transportation and taking up an uncomfortable amount of space.

Now, before this devolves into an argument about how genders see each other, I want to shift my gaze back to Santiago.

See the shining city of Santiago. See it. Look right at it. See this area of the city somewhat to the right of the center. This is the banking district. The Wall Street of Santiago. Shimmering glass buildings climb into the smog, flashing blinding sunlight down into the eyes of pedestrians and motorists alike. The people here wear suits and ties. Their hair is neat. No tattoos are visible. This area carries the nickname “Sanhattan.” That’s another portmanteau. A blend of Santiago and Manhattan. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

Sanhattan
According to a passing local, this building is called, “Ahhh mis ojos!”

 

So far so good. There’s a lot of new content in our lexicon. Lexicontent, if you will. Now I’d like to propose a new addition to our word list – our wist – and that word is: Sanspreading.

 

Sanspreading /ˈsansprɛdɪŋ/ n. The phenomenon whereby people living in Santiago spread out to fill the largest amount of space possible: Get a load of that guy Sanspreading right now.

 

Picture the scene: I slam off my alarm clock moments before it starts beeping. I’m that good. I air-punch my way out of bed and into the shower. Nothing stands in my way. Being the go-getter that I am, I pound down a protein shake for breakfast and I’m out the door. So much energy. I arrive at some fancy building in central Sanhattan. Wait for the elevator? No thanks! I take the stairs. I bound up one and then stop dead because there are two people in front of me who have unconsciously positioned themselves in such a way that bypassing them is impossible unless I announce my presence and ask them to step aside, but who wants to do that because it’s early morning and I don’t want to talk to people.

Escalator
I don’t mind scooching around one person, but I draw the line at slaloming.
The people of Santiago have developed the remarkable ability to block even the widest of walkways. If a sidewalk allows two people to walk side by side, then you’ll find one individual walking dead center. If the space allows for three people, then you’ll find a couple holding hands while strolling along at opposite sides, preventing third party passage. If you try to make your way up a broad set of stairs, you’ll likely be blocked by a foreigner who won’t ask the people in front of him to get out of the way.
Metro entrance
“The best place to have a conversation is at the entrance to the subway,” I mutter to myself as I passive-aggressively take this photo.

This happens in shops, too. Aisles will be blocked by trolleys left by shoppers who are oblivious to other shoppers. The city is plagued by an epidemic of lack-of-social-awareness. The whole idea of “Keep right, pass left” goes almost totally unheeded. And make no mistake, this is not necessarily a Chilean trait. This is a trait of the city, and by far the worst offender is me.

I am always in the way. And this is why: People in Chile drive on the right. Statistically speaking, I am probably one of the only people in the city who grew up learning to always walk on the left hand side of a path, and that habit has not left me. Whenever I encounter people coming toward me while I’m out walking, I automatically veer to my left (the stranger’s right), and the stranger will veer to his or her right (my left). Then we dance about a bit, the stranger mutters “Get a load of that guy Sanspreading right now,” and I climb around the person with much bodily contact and exclamations of “disculpe!”

When I try to quickly and illegally cross a street, I often look the wrong way. Hooting and and tire screeching are all-too-familiar sounds to me, which is why I’ve taken to flailing my arms and screaming as I run across the asphalt.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Accurate re-enactment of me crossing the street in Chile.

In short, Santiago is a place that distorts all sense of space and direction. We are like particles in an endless dance of Brownian movement, constantly climbing over and bumping into each other like bees in a hive, without regard for facilitation, efficiency, or metaphorical consistency. But the real message I want you to take away from this, Dear Reader, is that Sanspreading is a cool new portmanteau that I made up and that I want to popularize.

_________________________________________________________________

*Did I do that right?

 

A Flare for the Dramatic

I own about four t-shirts, but this didn’t always use to be the case. There was a time when I had enough t-shirts to wear a different one every day for two weeks. So that´s fourteen t-shirts and I don’t know why I had to beat around the bush like that.

Here’s what happened: At the end of 2015 I took a trip back to South Africa for Christmas and New Year, and my return trip to Chile involved two layovers and a missed flight. I had to travel north from South Africa to Ethiopia, then south and west to Brazil, and from there to Chile. It was over 24 hours of travelling, and by the time I reached my destination I was too tired to care that my lucky violet suitcase hadn’t popped out onto the conveyor belt at Santiago´s international airport. My efforts were instead spent on me trying to remain upright. I can’t remember how long I stood there, just watching the plastic matting of the conveyor snake it’s way around the concourse, becoming progressively devoid of any bag, pram, or surfboard. But eventually I was able to process the fact that no further luggage was forthcoming. It must have been early morning by that time, but I remember that it was at that special moment when everything is dark and no one is about – the perfect conditions to remind you that you are alone in the world and miserable.

Feeling as if I was watching the world through someone else’s eyes, I shuffled over to a help desk, filled out a claim form, and then caught a taxi back to my apartment.

At least I've still got this t-shirt
When you find yourself surrounded by the staggering grandeur of nature, you sometimes can’t help but think, “Well, at least I’ve still got this t-shirt.”

Now, the t-shirts weren’t the only things that were lost along with my luggage. There was underwear, socks, toiletries, a few souvenirs, a pair of sneakers, a backpack, a tent, and jeans.

Those jeans. How I loved those jeans.

I don´t buy clothes often, and I buy jeans even less so, but a few months before my trip to South Africa I had found the ideal pair. I’d found them in a thrift store, among a jungle of other denim products. It was a glorious find. The brand was Levi, and they were the most comfortable things I´d ever pulled across my thighs. The material possessed an elasticity I’d never felt before. It’s shape conformed to my body well, highlighting all the best bits, except for at the ankle, where the magical material flared out ever so slightly in what I considered to be the most fashionable thing a man could ever wear.

I was definitely in love. And, like all perfect love stories, this one was fraught with conflict.

“Michael” said a friend to me the first time I wore my jeans out, “why are you wearing women’s jeans?” I’d agreed to meet my friend at a nearby Korean restaurant that we were both keen to try. I wanted to surprise her with my new purchase.

I did a few more leg lunges before replying. “They’re not women’s jeans. I got them in the men’s section.” There was no ambient music in the restaurant. I knew my words would carry to the waitering staff.

“No, those are women’s jeans,” said my friend, calmly and dexterously snatching up some squid with her chopsticks. “See how there’s more room around the hips?”

I hesitated for the briefest moment before replying, “I found them near other men’s jeans.” A waiter stepped around me as I lunged again. I knew I looked fantastic.

“But Michael,” said my friend, “see how shallow the pockets are. Your phone´s about to fall out.”

I was having none of it. I strode up to our table and placed one foot onto the chair opposite her. “How can you say that? Why would I buy women’s jeans?” I leaned on the elevated leg to get the most out of the stretch. My phone popped out of my pocket and clattered to the floor.

“No, those are clearly women’s jeans. Looked at the sparkly stitching and-” my friend leaned closer, “Oh my God, Michael, are those flares?

“Flares are in fashion” I said, casting an eye to the waitering staff. I caught whispers of “…obviamente para mujeres….”

My friend put down her chopsticks, looked me in the eyes, and said to me, “Michael, I don’t care what you wear. You’re free to express yourself. But I’m telling you that you’re wearing women’s jeans.”

I´d had enough. I retrieved my phone, payed my portion of the bill, and ran from the restaurant. The running wasn’t necessary, but the elasticity in the material made my legs feel remarkably free.

Belgian actor Jean-Claude Van Damme pose
An accurate re-enactment of me in the restaurant.

I refused to believe what my friend had told me. Despite the evidence, I chose to continue wearing my jeans. They were comfortable, and freeing, and I loved them. My opinion would not be swayed.

But sadly, like all of the greatest love stories, this one came to an end. I’d left my beloved jeans in my lucky violet suitcase when I made my trip back to Chile from South Africa. It was my jeans that I was thinking about when my taxi dropped me off in front of my apartment just as the sun was starting to come up.

gotta-stay-hydrated-2
It’s tough to practice yoga when your jeans don’t give you the freedom of movement that you so desperately crave.

Over the next few weeks I had to fill out a lot of paperwork in order to claim some kind of compensation for my luggage. Of course, nothing would be paid out until a proper search for my things had been conducted. In order to aid this process, I had to fill out a tedious form detailing every item that had been in my lucky violet suitcase. This was a difficult task. Who remembers everything they pack when travelling? But I did the best I could. I remembered the important things. My t-shirt collection, the backpack, the tent, my beloved jeans. I began to fill out that information when I was stopped short by the requirements.

The form I was filling in required that I write down the item, colour, estimated value, purchase date, and, in the case of clothing, gender.

It had come down to this. For months I´d been able to lie to my friends and family, and even to myself. But when the fate of all of my worldly possession was at stake, could I lie to the international airline service?

I was in a corner. Stand by my convictions and risk losing everything? Or tell the truth and possibly lose everything anyway? I sat for a long time in front of my computer screen before I admitted to myself that every man has his price. The price of my dignity, I reflected as I began typing “fe-” into the appropriate field, was the cost of about ten t-shirts.

The Desolation of Smog.

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.

Good.

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.

Five words.

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).

The mountains from my balcony. Not pictured: The mountains from my balcony.
The mountains from my balcony. Not pictured: The mountains from my balcony.

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.”

Where have the children gone? They are indoors, because the outside world have become toxic and deadly, and also
Where have the children gone? They are indoors, because the outside world has become toxic and deadly, and also “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” is on TV.

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.

Street toughs sullying the neighbourhood with their beautiful artwork.
Street toughs sullying the neighbourhood with their beautiful artwork.
Some of Santiago's homeless, with their people.
Some of Santiago’s homeless, with their people.
A mob gathers and threatens to become rather annoyed at the news that the metro has suddenly stopped running.
A mob gathers and threatens to become rather annoyed at the news that the metro has suddenly stopped running.

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.”

A golden Buddha sits in the middle of the bustling city. He is serene, but his rent is due and his landlord's on his case.
A golden Buddha sits in the middle of the bustling city. He is serene, but his rent is due and his landlord’s on his case.

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!”

In a sports bar watching Chile play against Bolivia.
In a sports bar watching Chile play against Bolivia.

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.