Wanna Bet?

I am not what you’d call a gambling man, but when I first laid eyes on that huckster in downtown Santiago, I couldn’t help but stay awhile and regard the scene. He’d set himself up in the shade of a side street that was just busy enough to attract a crowd. His table was an upturned cardboard box on which he was demonstrating his game. He had three solid disks – very much like coasters – and stuck underneath one of them was a sticker depicting flowers. That’s the sticker that the suckers had to find.

The game was Three Card Monte, and I’d heard enough about it to know it was a swindle, yet still I couldn’t pull my eyes away from this man in his fifties with his newsboy cap and his sagging jeans with yawning pockets.
His hands were constantly at work, flipping and manipulating the three silver disks in front of him. It seemed to require a lot of focus and thought, yet the man manipulated those coasters as if he was knitting while watching a movie. He’d juggle them around a bit and then lay all three face down, and the bystanders would toss crumpled notes onto whichever disk they believed held the sticker. Not just any notes either. These were 10- and 20- Luka bills, which was about five hundred rand a pop.
Without breaking stride, the huckster would reveal the disk holding the flowers, and collect up the money that was wrongly bet. There were often winners too, and the huckster would dispense the winnings without discussion.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrel
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of me approaching the honest gamblers.

The performance passed without drama. People won and lost without protest. Each time the disks settled it was like watching carved wooden figures in an elaborate German cuckoo clock striking the hour. People stepped forward and threw down their money. The huckster would redistribute funds as appropriate, and then they would step back to await the next round.

It was a funny thing, watching all this going on. You see, Dear Reader, I knew this was a con, and I tried to find the trick. Solid disks would be more difficult to maneuver and palm than playing cards, so I didn’t see how the huckster could be using slight of hand.
From the sidelines I was able to pick out the disk with the flowers every single time. I saw other folks throw money down on disks that were clearly blank, which was a result of their own poor eyesight, I presumed. Never once did I follow the flowers and get proved wrong. If that had been the case I would have turned around right then and walked away. Instead, I stood transfixed, playing the game by sight alone, without wagering a dime. It was a dangerous voice that crept into my mind and whispered I can win this, and it wouldn’t go away.
I supposed that it wasn’t a con. Perhaps it was just a skilled man with nimble fingers and hands fast enough to deceive most eyes. But not mine.
It occurred to me that watching without wagering was a lot easier than guessing while gambling. I thought that if I actually pulled out some money with the prospect of losing it, my adrenaline would surge and my focus would falter, so I held back. I became rational, and I began to walk on by, and as I did so I felt ethereal tendrils pulling me back, compelling me to try my luck.

I turned back to the action, and I saw a tall black fellow looming over the other spectators. He had been standing there a while, but now I noticed him for the first time. The disks settled, and with barely bridled confidence the black fellow leaned past an older lady and placed his well-worn smartphone onto the disk closest to where I was standing.
No, you fool! That’s the wrong disk! I thought.
Without breaking stride, the huckster revealed that disk to be blank, snatched up the smartphone and dropped it into his yawning back pocket before distributing money back to those who had won.

There was a collective expulsion of breath from the spectators, all of them sympathetic to the blow that the black fellow had suffered. I mention the colour of his skin only because it indicated that he was an immigrant, and being a stranger in a strange land is terrifying and isolating enough. But to lose your phone on top of that suddenly cuts you off from the loved ones you’ve left behind. I felt that this poor black fellow hadn’t just lost his phone, he’d also lost access to his community. Judging by the quality of his clothing I surmised that losing a smartphone was no minor nuisance. Losing something like that was surely a blow to him, and although the others were audibly sympathetic to his loss, they knew that the rules of the Chilean streets took precedence over the comfort of a foreigner.
The fellow was clearly embarrassed and devastated, and with a good-natured smile he beseeched the huckster to return his phone. He had to be good-natured, I suppose. Any sign of violence and the crowd would surely move to defend their compatriot over a foreigner. I was too far away to discern all that was said, but I did make out the phrase “This is how it works in Chile.”
No one was angry, they were just apologetically explaining to the fellow that rules is rules.

Forget it
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chile.”

Even before the fellow had placed his phone down I had seen that he was wrong. So as I began walking to my next class I carried with me the confidence that my eyes were sharp, and the conviction that if I had played, I would have won. The ethereal tendrils began pulling at me again, urging me to turn back and bet. Trying to shake that urge was like trying to walk out of a nylon stocking – the further I walked, the stronger it pulled back at me. I won out in the end. I got out of there without losing a cent, but before I walked away completely I took one last look at the huckster and his game.
My final glimpse was of the huckster placing the smartphone back into the hands of the foreigner, and the black fellow leaning down to give him a hug as the bystanders applauded.

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Job Interview

In February of 2015 I stumbled blindly into Chile with no job, no money, and a complete inability to speak the local language. Now, nearly three years later, I at least have a job.
I have learned a lot in my time here, but I think I learned the most about teaching English in Chile during my first job interview, a few days after arriving in South America.

 

As I shook Garcia’s hand I concluded that he was Chilean. It wasn’t so much his dark skin and stout stature. Rather, I surmised as much because his name was hispanic and his institute was located roughly in the center of Chile’s capital. It was also something about the way that he said “Welcome to Chile. My name is Garcia. I’m Chilean. I’m a Chilean person” that revealed something of his background.
I was meeting with him because I needed a job, and Garcia had an opening for a teacher in his institute. I wanted to nail this interview, because if he didn’t hire me I’d be out of luck. It was February, a time when the entire country shuts down for a summer vacation, and Garcia’s institute was the only place hiring. I projected confidence. I didn’t want to let on how little I knew about Chile. I flashed Garcia a winning smile and, leaning forward, said to him, “You’re a what person?”

Between Two Ferns
It was awkward from the start.

One of the first questions that Garcia asked me in that interview was, “How’s your Spanish?”
I shrugged and told him that it was alright, and then he asked me to count to ten. “Un, dos, tres, catorce, and so one,” I said, vaguely. It was not a great start. I was fresh off the plane and didn’t quite know what I was doing. I knew that I wanted to teach English, but beyond that I had no idea how the system worked.
“This is how the system works,” Garica explained. “Our clients are all adults. While sometimes you might have small group classes, you’ll mostly be teaching one adult at a time.”
I nodded sagely. “I’ll be teaching them here, yes?” I queried, nodding towards Garcia’s office, the reception nook, the broom closet, and the toilet that comprised the entirety of his institute.
Garcia paused before answering. “That’s not exactly how we do things around here,” he said. “No, you’ll be travelling to their offices, which are scattered throughout the city. But don’t worry, our students are mostly all close to the metro lines. Mostly.”
“Ah.” I said, having only just learned to negotiate the underground. “Well that’s alright, then-”
“At other times,” Garcia continued, “you will probably have to travel by metro, and then by bus, and then do a substantial amount of walking. Mostly.”
“Okay. And does the institute reimburse-?”
“No that’s your own dime,” said he.

I was starting to get the idea. “Well that’s not so bad,” I said, grasping for silver linings. “I travel to one corner of the city, teach a few classes, and then I’m done for the day. I could get used to tha-”
“No that will be just one class,” said Garcia. “For each class you’ll need to travel a while. It’s a lot of travelling. Like, at least half an hour each way. I hope you have a lot of books to read.”
“Right,” I said, trying to keep up. “So I travel, teach, travel, teach. That’s fine-”
“Well it’s more like ‘travel, teach, travel, wait around for two hours, teach. What you do between classes is your business, but you won’t have time to go home. Mostly.”
“Well that does sound quite time consuming, but I’m sure I’ll get used to the routine-”
“No, you won’t,” said Garcia. “There will be a lot of cancellations and postponements. On an almost daily basis the students will want to adjust the times of their classes. Each week is different. Your schedule can even change as the day progresses. I advise you not to plan ahead. You’ll always be disappointed.”

I tried steering the interview around to salary.
“So what’s my salary?” I probed. “Like, what do I get paid every month?”
“Oh it’s not like that,” said Garcia. “You get paid for what you teach. So if your students cancel, you get nothing.”
“Nothing?”
“Nothing.”
I considered this. “Well surely not nothing?” I posited.
“Well, no, not nothing,” agreed Garcia. “If the student cancels within 24 hours of the class then you’ll still get paid for that class.”
“Well that’s alright then,” I said. “Free money!”
“That’s right!” Said Garcia. “They mostly cancel at the last minute. Mostly.”
“Really?”
“No.”

After that, the interview became more general. “Have you made any friends here yet?” Garcia asked, kindly.
“Well not yet. But I’ve noticed that there are a few language exchanges here during the week, where I guess I could meet-”
“No, that probably won’t happen,” said my future boss.
“Come again?” said I.
“Well your classes will mostly be in the evenings, won’t they? You shouldn’t expect to get finished before 20.30 during the week.”
“Ah,” I offered. “Well I could go out after that, I suppose-”
“Well I don’t advise you stay out too late. After all, most of your classes will be early in the morning. Mostly.”
I considered this. “Well I guess that leaves my afternoons free to do my own thing.”
“Ah but don’t forget you’ll have lunchtime classes. So not a lot of wiggle room there, I’m afraid.”
I did some quick computation in my head. “Well there’s always weekends!” I said, brightly. “I could travel around on weekends. See the sights-”
“I suppose you could,” said Garcia, nodding a little too enthusiastically for my liking. “It’s just that-”
“I’m going to be too exhausted on weekends to do anything, aren’t I?”
Garcia nodded at me in a way that was not unkind. “Mostly,” he said.

Jim
Pictured: Accurate re-enactment of my first job interview.

Pi

Food Poise

Dear Street Vendor

I am not one to overindulge in deep-fried foods, but I found your unique brand of Colombian empanadas difficult to resist. I have no doubt that the placement of your empanada cart was strategic: A shady spot outside a popular grocery store, tempting shoppers on their way home to prepare a lunch from ingredients recently purchased. Who can resist the smell of dough cooking in oil? A curious human instinct, perhaps. A throwback to a time when oil and fat, while being dangerously scarce, were essential for human survival.
Your pastry, striking exactly the right balance between soft and crispy, envelopes a generous quantity of perfectly seasoned meat. What’s more, the little golden pocket, at the very reasonable price of one luka, makes for a perfect snack on a long walk home.
You clearly are a master of your craft: Oil boiling in the wok, empanadas cooling on the rack, aged hands nimbly rolling an empanada into wax paper, a square of paper towel snatched up and offered as a napkin. With a motherly “Gracias, cariño,” my 1000-peso bill is somehow switched with the empanada without a break in movement.

I suspect you won’t remember me. You have no reason to. I grant that mine is not the most memorable of faces, and when our paths crossed my clothes were drab and un-noteworthy: Plain shirt, black pants, an extended hand, unremarkable save for the single monetary bill within its clutch. I was just one extra soul in a long line of eager customers, all salivating and ready to order (a promising sign of a worthwhile purchase). For my part, I only thought of you again many hours later, with my knees on the floor of my bathroom and my stomach squeezed into an excruciating spasm, as if struck dead-on with an electrified cattle prod.
Certainly, there is no nobility in bowing to a porcelain throne. It was an inconvenient place in which I found myself after sampling your winsome wares. The embarrassment was exacerbated all the more by the party that my roommate was throwing just outside the door.
“I can cancel, if you need to rest?” she had said before the guests arrived.
“No, no,” I pressed, between intestinal paroxysms. “Don’t let me interrupt your night.”
I really didn’t want to spoil her evening, but certain interruptions could not be avoided: The guttural gurgling coming from the bathroom, my gaunt, pathetic figure slouching across the hallway in full site of the guests, my skin slick with perspiration. It progressed this way all night – back and forth between bathroom and bedroom. There was always a brief lull in conversation as party-goers paused to watch the spectacle, and always an abashed nod from me, as if to say Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.

At intervals that night, your empanada flashed across my vision. It had been a pleasure to eat. But as I lay on my bed, believing myself to be barely moments away from death, trying to trick myself into sleeping away the delirious torment, I wanted nothing to do with that repulsive morsel. I tried to cast it from my mind, but it clung to my awareness. The sight, the taste, the sensation in my mouth – these things would not leave me. From the living room, sounds of Spanish music and rowdy conversation dragged me from slumber and pushed me to the edge of madness.
I lost count of the times I roused that night. It was always the same process: Slamming awake, pulling myself to my door, stomach squeezing, crossing the hallway, the sudden hush and then upswing of noise as party-goers witnessed my shame, the kneeling down, the lurch of the stomach, and then agony.
Even in my more lucid hours I did not think ill of you. Despite the exhaustion in my empty gut and the intense pain in my knees from spending long minutes kneeling on my bathroom tiles, I rationalised that you had simply made one bad batch. It was not your fault. The popularity of your cart suggested that complete gastrointestinal shutdown was not a common side effect of your business. So please do not take offense at this letter. I merely want you to understand my position. You see, Dear Vendor, the smell of oil still beckons, and the thought of your deep-fried delicacy still causes me to salivate. Since that terrible night I have walked past your cart many times, but I have been unable to bring myself to purchase another one of your deeply memorable Colombian empanadas. Unfortunately, although the nightmare is long over, the fear of death remains.

Sincerely,

Empa Nada Mas

Colombian Empanada

Pros and Concierges

Within the apartment buildings of central Santiago there exists an uneasy truce between tenants and concierges. These gatekeepers are the guardians of our safety, the custodians of calm, the keepers of the peace. No visitor, postal service worker, or pizza delivery person can even get close to you until they have gone through the fellow at the front desk. They are the mediators between you and the chaos outside. They mark your comings and goings, take note of who your friends are, and stoically witness you stumbling in at four in the morning. They say little, but they see all.
I have encountered, and defeated, many concierges in my time here, but there have been none who have filled me with quite a sense of foreboding as the one who guards the narrow lobby of my current building.

Bruce Campbell
At one point, a concierge was Spiderman’s worst adversary

When I first met my concierge, I concluded that he was not long for this world. His sickly pallor and straggly hair gave the impression that he was a man slowly letting go of his earthly body. His hair hungered for a brush. His clothes longed for the laundry. The first time I laid eyes on him he struck me as a filthy man, and beyond that I gave him no thought at all. I simply made myself at home, and waited for him to die.

But he did not die. A few weeks after I moved in, I came home one day and discovered that my concierge had obtained a haircut. The change in his appearance was so drastic that I slowed my pace to get a better view. For the first time I could see his face clearly. The neatened hairstyle, trimmed to a grey bristle along the back and sides, threw his countenance into sharp relief. While aged and lined, his face didn’t look half bad. The thin silver glasses that enlarged his eyes to a ludicrous degree now made him seem academic, intelligent.
A few days after that, I noticed that he had found himself a leather jacket. I would have thought it incomprehensible that a fifty-something man living a sedentary life would be able to make a leather jacket look good, but somehow my concierge was able to pull it off. In open defiance of all the odds, my concierge was starting to look healthier.

Brando
Pictured: My concierge after getting a leather jacket

I soon learned that my concierge was a man of noise. I would enter the building at odd moments and catch him humming tunes that, I surmised, he was composing on the spot. At times he would sing unintelligible songs at a volume far too loud for the small lobby in which he was encamped, his gruff voice sounding like a car pulling into a gravel driveway.
Probably the most distressing aspect of his nature was the cacophony produced by the unnatural machinations of his being. Often as I crossed the lobby from the elevators to the front door, I would hear him heave an exhausted breath from his lungs, stale air scraping phlegm up from a gnarled throat. Sometimes I would hear him clearing his throat for such long intervals that I believed he was timing it to the tune of the Imperial March. Once, as I stood on my balcony on the tenth floor of the building, I heard him sneeze. It was a sneeze to end worlds. It was less an expulsion of air than it was an open-mouthed howl. Moments after he had wailed out that ungodly sound I felt the concussion that followed the blast rattle up the elevator shaft and tremble the ground on which I stood.

Glass Case of Emotion
Pictured: My concierge sneezing

It is my habit to avoid conversing with my concierges. I came into this country not knowing how to speak Spanish, and at that time I fell into the habit of keeping relations with concierges as non-communicative as possible. Even as my Spanish skills have progressed, I cannot shake the quirk of being unable to speak to the man behind the desk. Every time I enter or leave a building, the best I can muster is a feeble “Hola” or “Hasta luego.” But in an attempt to broaden my range I have also taken to echoing the words that concierges say to me. If they say “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes” then I will repeat that phrase back to them. My current concierge has noted this and, although I cannot prove it, I suspect that he has turned it into a game. He rarely acknowledges me, and when he does he chooses his moments ever so carefully. Some might say that he is simply slow to react, but I am convinced that his comments are timed to fluster me and break my stride.
Sometimes I will be on my way out of the building, and as I pass by the front desk I will tip my head and say, “Hasta luego” without adjusting my speed. I receive only silence from him in return. I reach the front door, twist the handle, and push the door outwards. As I plant one foot outside he calls “Buenos días” to me in a loud, breathy sigh.
In that moment, I am caught off guard. Suddenly I feel as if my “Hasta luego” was rude. It’s like saying “See ya later” when I should have said “Good morning.” So to make amends I turn my body, which is already outside the building, and weakly croak “Buenos días,” but before I can finish saying “días” the door has already swung closed, and my words are nothing but fog against glass. Through the door I see my concierge. He hasn’t even looked up from sorting the mail.

Me and my concierge
Pictured: My concierge and me

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.

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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.