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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’d like to get real for just a second. I want to turn my metaphorical cap backwards, swivel a metaphorical chair around, and sit down on it, facing you, with my metaphorical arms crossed over the metaphorical back of the aforementioned metaphorical chair.
Now I have your attention. But don’t be afraid. My confident and hip attitude shouldn’t intimidate you. What should intimidate you are the following four words:
Santiago. Has. A smog. Problem.
Four. Not sure “A” qualifies.
But the point is that Santiago’s smog levels are alarmingly high. According to my research, based off of a post I saw on Facebook and something a guy I was standing close to said, the city has declared a “state of emergency” as a result of its “high levels of smog” (Facebook, 2015).
As a result, traffic has been restricted, and motorists are prohibited from driving their cars one day per week (Proximate bystander, 2015).
The government has allocated certain days when people whose car license numbers end in a certain digit aren’t allowed to drive (ibid).
To be honest, I haven’t personally suffered from the smog very much. At least, not that I know of. Maybe I’m addicted to cigarettes now, and that constant hunger I’ve been experiencing is just my body craving a smoke. But otherwise, life goes on as normal, despite the fact that I can’t see the mountains from my balcony anymore, and wiping a white tissue over any surface will cause it to turn black. It’s made me aware of all the things I put into my mouth on a daily basis that are probably covered in a microscopic layer of soot: my toothbrush, cutlery from the drying rack, toy cars, fruit from the fruit basket. It’s pretty gross to think about.
What we really need is a good bout of rain to just cleanse the city a little bit. I’ve been told that usually at this time of year Santiago experiences a lot of rain. But so far we’ve had nada. I often stand on my balcony, hands on my hips, a motherly smile on my face, as I shake my head and say, “I’m looking at you, Global Warming.” Then I chuckle to myself and mumble “We’re all going to die.”
In addition to the pollution problem, Santiago has all the mod cons of a bustling city. Picture the scene, accompanied by a cacophony of frenetic free-style brassy jazz (or, alternatively, You’re the Voice by Dennis East):
Motorists at traffic lights leaning on their horns, heads sticking out their car windows, hurling abuse. Construction workers in yellow hats and reflective jackets working around steaming manhole covers. A man catching his foot on a piece of broken pavement; he stumbles a few meters and then goes down, pulling another pedestrian with him. People in suits crossing busy intersections as they talk on their cellular telephones. A man running to a meeting, stumbling, falling, his face grimacing in pain. Has be broken his clavicle? Homeless people pulling their filthy blankets closer around themselves at they struggle to find sleep on their rotting mattresses. An older woman in high heels, mis-stepping, pummeling headfirst into a parked car. People pushing to get onto crowded subway trains, personal space a distant memory.
People keep falling over in Santiago. I’ve witnessed it twice, and I’ve heard several eyewitness accounts of other, literal, faux pas. For some reason, the people of Santiago are always in a hurry, and as a consequence they are often rushed off their feet. It’s an indication of the power of this city: that it forces people to move faster than their feet can carry them. Santiago is a beast, and you need to keep moving to avoid getting eaten by it.
It’s quite normal for people to work long days. Days beginning at 08.00 and ending at 19.00. As for me, I’m working harder than ever to avoid getting eaten by the beast. We’re in the middle of the year now, and people are determined to learn English. Finishing late has become the norm. Three days of the week I finish at 21.30. On Tuesdays I end at 20.00, and on Fridays, thankfully, I finish at 15.00. I work throughout the day, grabbing food between classes. The benefit of this is that I can eat unhealthily and just blame it on a busy work schedule.
“Well, I don’t have time for a sit-down meal. Guess I’ll just eat four or five Snickers Bars from this street vendor here.”
The truth is that right now I am busier than I have ever been, and I’m working harder than I ever have before. But I like the challenge. I like the idea that one day I’ll look back incredulously and say “Did I really have to do nine hours of teaching in one day?”
Plus, I’m making money. For the first time since I’ve been here, I’m earning enough money to splash out a little bit. I can go to a restaurant without batting an eyelid. I can go out to the movies without having to check my funds first. I can break my roommate’s nice things with reckless abandon. “Don’t worry,” I say as I hurl his glass vase across the room, smashing it into powder, “I’ll just replace it!”
The downside, though, is that since all my time is being given over to work, I have little time for much else. I don’t exercise as much as I used to, and I try to fit in a Spanish class when I can. On weekends I like to do as little as possible in order to recover from the busy week.
But, as I understand it, this busy season won’t last. I’ll stick it out for a few months, and once the work dies down a little bit I’ll have the money to make the most of my freedom. Until then, I’m going to keep my head down and keep working. I just hope the world doesn’t end before I’ve had my fun.
I’ve been in Chile for over two weeks now, and I think it’s time to take stock of how things are going:
I’m still alive.
I’ve started teaching.
I’ve begun taking Spanish lessons.
I’ve walked around the city a lot, and have even taken two walking tours.
I’ve made some friends.
I’ve gotten the hang of public transport.
I’m still homeless.
Overall, things are going splendidly. Except for the homelessness thing. But that should be resolved in the next couple of days. I’ve already checked out a few apartments, and I think I’ve found one that I’m willing to commit to. The only other occupant is a Chilean photographer named Nathan. He doesn’t speak any English, but I find him to be friendly and easy going. And I like the idea of living with a Chilean – it’ll help me develop my Spanish. So we’ll see.
And I’m not entirely homeless, either. I’m still staying at the same hostel I moved into when I got here. I’ve begun to bond with a few of the other “lifers” who have been staying here for a long time. There’s Elliott, an Australian fellow who intends to ride his bicycle around South America. He ordered a trailer from Poland, which he can attach to his bike to transport his luggage. Unfortunately, the trailer got stuck at customs in Chile, and Elliott has been stuck here for days upon days, waiting for his trailer to be release so he can continue on with his adventure.
Then there’s Angela, who is from the Italian part of Switzerland, and who has been living in South America for so long that she now speaks Spanish fluently. She used to work at the hostel where we’re staying, but she resigned with the intention of finding work as a masseuse in another part of Chile. Hers is a bit of a long story, but after a bit of a runaround she has come back to stay at Ecohostel while she continues to look for work. So on most days I find myself sitting in the courtyard with Elliott and Angela, talking about nonsense or really deep issues. I guess we’ve developed one of those casual, accidental friendships that creeps up on you and takes you by surprise. A few days ago Elliott suggested we pool our resources and make a group meal. So we bought a few more ingredients, and then took the kitchen by storm. Elliott did most of the cooking, while Angela chopped vegetables with almost psychotic zeal. There wasn’t much for me to do, so I offered to wash the dishes afterwards. It was a good teambuilding moment, and after that we’ve sought out each other’s company when we’re at the hostel with nothing to do.
Things are going well outside of my place of temporary residence, too. Let me tell you about Santiago:
It’s beautiful, humming, charming city. Of course, it’s February, the month where everyone leaves the city and heads to the coast. I’ve been told that from the start of March, the population of this city is going to double. That means that the streets will be crazy-crowded. I’m bracing for the worst.
In the meantime, I can’t get over how much I love this place. It’s a city of pedestrians. People walk everywhere. There are parks all over the city where dogs are welcome to frolic.
Gravel paths have been created in every park to assist the copious amounts of runners and cyclists in getting their daily exercise. They drive on the right side of the road here, so I have a tendency to walk into people a lot.
Everyone here is an artist. Most locals are extravagantly painted in bright, creative tattoos. Their hair is wild and styled and shaved off in places. They dress up so colourfully, and expressively, and always impressively. And before I go off on some poetical tangent, let me say that there are musicians everywhere. I’ve walked around this city a great deal. Most places I go to, especially in the evenings, there are people playing various instruments: guitars, violins, accordions, even drums that are mounted on their backs. Sometimes there are bands of people. Sometimes there are singers. The other day I got onto a bus with two men who were rapping in Spanish with the aid of a portable microphone and speaker.
The streets are painted in all sorts of marvelous graffiti, some of which was commissioned by the government. During a walking tour, I was shown some impressive murals that were painted by a prominent Chilean artist who now lives in Europe. I forget his name.
In the evenings, performers take to the streets, and display their craft for the motorists stopped at traffic lights. I’ve seen skills on the streets of Santiago that would look right at home inside a professional theatre. At one intersection I stopped to watch one woman who would balance on a unicycle while simultaneously juggling and balancing a football on her foot. My favourite thing about her was the way she’d bow her head and warmly smile at any motorist who gave her money. She seemed like she was genuinely having fun.
On other occasions I saw a couple perform some impressive gymnastics, and a gentleman on stilts juggling flaming batons.
Santiago is a city of creativity, and I feel as if I’ll never get bored here. There is a theatre on just about every street. There are markets everywhere. Things that are alternative are welcomed here. Creativity is celebrated.
When I first arrived in Santiago, I caught wind of a pub crawl that was happening the following Saturday. The event was advertised in English, so I went there hoping to meet some English-speaking friends.
It was due to start at 22.00, and I arrived there right on time. This of course meant that I was the first one there. I paid an entrance fee at the door, was given a wristband, and was ushered into the back of the bar. There, I discovered a small courtyard, at the back of which was a table laid out with plastic cups. Behind the table were two Chilean women, each holding a large bottle of beer. They greeted me in English and filled a cup for me. I went and stood off to one side, and a few moments later a group of four people walked in, and as they walked past me to get to the table I heard that they were speaking English. Once they had collected their free beer, I approached and introduced myself. The group was from the United States. Their names were Ariana (Ari), Holly, Faye, and Eric. They were friendly, and I enjoyed talking to them. My enjoyment increased when they told me that they were doing a teaching course in Santiago, after which they planned to stay and find work as English teachers. This was good. It meant a possible connection to a social network.
More people began arriving, and everyone was happy to mingle and strike up conversations with strangers. I met Aliya, a lovely French girl who had come to Santiago to study. I met Joel, who was a bushy-haired Australian who had stepped off the plane a few hours before, and was travelling around South America. I also spoke to a Kiwi woman named Dotre (pronounced “daughter”), and a couple from Sweden, whose names I have since forgotten.
It was a wonderful night, and I met some lovely people, but by the end of it I’d only gotten the contact information of Ari. I didn’t mind about this in the least. I enjoyed talking to Ari, and I knew that through her I’d probably get to see the other North Americans again (I gather that, in Chile, it’s important to not refer to people from the United States as “Americans.” Understandably so, since Chileans are Americans too). I was excited at the prospect of having a group of friends from the United States.
I saw Ari a few more times over the next few days, and our friendship has grown into something pretty solid. In this beautiful, humming, charming city, Ari is a good, reliable presence, and that’s reassuring.
I also have a job now. I’m teaching English as I had intended, and I have a total of one student. His name is Rolando, and he runs a soap and shampoo factory way out in the western part of the city. To get there, I have to take a subway (a metro) across about twelve stops, ride a bus for about eight minutes, and then walk two blocks in order to get to his factory where the classes take place. On my first day teaching him, as I rode the metro with Robert (who is one of my bosses and the coordinator of my classes with Rolando), he explained to me that Rolando was a businessman who likes routine and structure. There was talk about the possibility that, if he liked my teaching, then he’d sign up some of his employees to also take English lessons with the company I work for. I felt like this put pressure on me to create a good impression – a daunting task when I considered that Rolando was probably going to be a surly, difficult student.
But I was put at ease within moments of meeting him. He greeted us warmly and was quick to make jokes. After Robert took his leave (he had come with me on the first day to make sure I found the place alright), I found that Rolando was a keen student. He focused hard on what I was saying, and made an effort to get everything right. He really does have an ordered mind. He has a way of explaining himself clearly and concisely. So, despite the travelling, I quite enjoy teaching Rolando.
Meanwhile, back at the company I work for, I have started taking Spanish lessons. When I went for my job interview, I asked if Spanish lessons were available, and Daniel (my main boss) told me that the company didn’t offer any. But when I went back again a few days later to sit in on a grammar class, Daniel called me into his office and told me that he’d arranged for another one of the teachers to teach me Spanish. The teacher in question, a woman named Harper, is from the United States. Daniel assured me that her Spanish is impeccable, and that she’d be a perfect candidate to teach me the language because she’d be able to teach me from the perspective of an English speaker. Harper is great. She’s easy to talk to, and she has an impressive grasp of English and Spanish grammar. Hopefully, with her help, I’ll be having conversations in Spanish before long.
I also met some other teachers who have just started teaching at the company. Their names are Kristen, Jordan, John, and Dorian. They were all very friendly to me, and they seemed keen to be friends instead of just work colleagues. I’m sure I’ll be socializing with them a lot more in the future.
So, dear reader, I’m getting there. I’ve almost gotten my claws into this beautiful, humming, charming city. I just need to find a place to live, and then I’ll be set. If all goes well, that last part will be settled by the time I write again.
Watch this space.
You can read my other blog about Chile in Fishbowl Magazine: http://fishbowl.za.com/chileans-warm-or-chilly/