The Old Man and the Snow

When the winter came to Santiago I knew I hated it. The cold is merciless and it creeps in through the poorly insulated windows of my apartment and weaves through my flimsy clothing and bites into my flesh deeply. The plants on my balcony wilt and die for lack of sunlight, and in the streets the denizens of Santiago pull their jackets tight over their hearts and bend their scarfed heads into the wind. The street dogs have mysteriously acquired little woolen coats but still they lie curled in corners dreaming of warmer days or death.

I first became aware of my contempt for cold weather when I returned to South Africa from Thailand. The thrilling shift from tropical humidity to the piercing midwinter chill caught me off guard and kicked the life out of me like a nighttime assailant. That was when my animosity towards bleak weather was first seeded profoundly within me, but it had lain relatively dormant until some weeks ago when I had gone out for the night with friends and found myself at a table outside in the dark, sharing revelry and ignoring the icy grip of my monstrous foe. By the time I returned to my drafty apartment the monster had sunk its claws deep into me and pressed my core temperature far below a healthy level. The next day I woke with ‘flu.

Despite my animosity and fear of ice I still listened when the old man Carlos spoke to me about snowboarding. He made a habit of going out of the city on weekends for hiking or camping or skiing so when he first broached the idea with me I did not flee nor change the subject. Carlos is short and broad and rounded at the shoulders like a scarab, and I had been into the wilderness with him before and I trusted that I would be well-led by him. He had many acquaintances in the field of winter sports and was able to negotiate a remarkably cheap deal. That is how I came to find myself swaddled in borrowed snow gear somewhere outside of Santiago in the lee of the Andes mountains. We had been fortunate with the weather and the sky was clear that day. There were about ten of us in total and while most of us could speak English the majority of the people were primarily Spanish speakers. As such hardly any English was spoken at all. I mostly just listened.

Our modest group had convened outside a wooden bungalow that gave way to a frosty courtyard. A narrow porch ran around the property and at intervals there were rooms filled with snow boots and snowboards. It was early still, and only one other couple sat on a wooden bench in the courtyard speaking in the stilled tones demanded by peaceful winter mornings. Puddles which had iced over in the night lay as yet uncracked by industrious footfalls and the exposed earth was sodden and scattered with damp leaves like autumnal sprinkles on an earthen cake.
We were designated our boots and the snowboards were loaded on to the top of a van and then our group clambered into the van. Our driver ignited the engine and put Guns N’ Roses on the radio at a high volume. It was a fine move and probably one he did on every tour. It excited the spirits of my companions and they began conversing in a restless way that was occasionally broken by nervous laughter.
We were driving into a place called San Jose de Maipo where the sky was as blue and as clear as a newborn’s eyes, and the mountainsides were thickly layered with snow like shaving cream on a pie destined for a clown’s painted face.
I am not accustomed to such copious amounts of snow and I found myself transfixed by it. The driver’s selection of popular music loosened my mind and put me in a meditative state.

The drive was pleasant and warm and lulling, and in truth I did not want it to end.
We arrived at an area where other vehicles had turned the ground into muddy slush. People milled around in puffy winter clothing, smoking cigarettes and selling snow gear from crude tables set up under small gazebos. I found a dry piece of exposed rock where I knelt down to remove my hiking boots and push my feet deep into the comfortable tightness of the snow shoes I had been given. An instructor helped me to negotiate the complex drawstrings that pulled the inner and outer layers of the boots snugly around my ankles. That done, I was given a hefty snowboard and fell in line as our party began trudging farther into the hills.

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At times the path was flat and at other times the path was steeped in snow.

I gauged the hike to be about one kilometer, but I had to carry a heavy snowboard and with each step I had to pull my cumbersome snow boots out of a clinging pocket of snow.
At length we drew up to a soft slope that ended in a flat expanse that had roughly the dimensions of a football field. The shadow cast by the surrounding peaks was slowly pulling away from the white terrain, reflecting sunlight off of millions of ice crystals and pitching it directly into my unshielded eyes. An instructor asked me if I had any sunglasses and when I answered in the negative he deftly plucked the sunglasses from his own face and placed them firmly into my palm. He had brought snow goggles with him and had no need for glasses.

We gathered in a loose semi circle around the lead instructor. He was a genial man who exuded the mighty confidence of one accustomed to life in the snow. In Spanish he explained many things about the art and science of snowboarding. He showed us the honed edges of the board which feigned sharpness like the base of an ice skate. The keen edge could be used to hack into the snow to give us stability and prevent the board from slipping away or to prevent ourselves from being carried down the mountain by the presence of gravity and the absence of friction. The instructor likewise demonstrated the way in which we were to strap ourselves into the snowboard using the corrugated straps that were attached to the board. This was a process that was easy enough in principle yet the effort of bending forward over copious layers of clothing to wrestle the strap into the catch required a startling amount of dexterity and energy.

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The straps of the snowboard were simultaneously my prison and my freedom.

The tutorial was swift and uncomplicated, and then the instructor left us alone to take on the slope at our own pace. After minutes of struggling to attach myself to my board I arose and positioned myself so that I was facing the soft decline. Following the guidance of the instructor I bent my legs slightly at the knees and placed my weight onto my foremost leg and allowed gravity to take over. I was unafraid of falling because I knew that the snow was soft and would yield under my weight and that I would be unharmed in a fall. I had momentum for the briefest of moments before I came unbalanced and pitched forward violently with my board cresting over my body and raining fresh ice all over me. I emerged unharmed save for a sharp sting in my hands which I had flung out before me to cushion my fall. I fished my gloves from my pockets and pulled them onto my hands as a form of protection rather than a shield against the cold. In order to bring myself once again to the top of the rise I had to unfasten myself from the snowboard with a simple flick of the straps. It was an elementary act but one that preceded the more laborious tasks of hiking back to the top of the rise with snowboard in hand and then reattaching myself to the board. For every ten minutes that was spent walking and fiddling with straps I was able to achieve perhaps ten seconds of actual snowboarding. I do not count this as a tragedy since the sensation of gliding down the hill was highly exciting and we had been given all day to play on the snow.

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A man must embrace adversity head-on when it arises, even when that adversity is a wall of ice rising to strike you squarely in the face.

With each new foray down the slope I was able to stay on the board for longer moments, and at times I was even able to reach level ground without tumbling over myself. I was also becoming more adept at fastening my boots onto the board. Yet after several attempts I began to tire and overheat, and I sought respite on the sidelines with some of my cohorts. One of them hailed from the United States, and their talk fluctuated between English and Spanish. I joined in with them at times, but mostly my attention was captured by the old man Carlos, who had proven to be more resilient than most of us. His squat figure was adorned in a thick orange snow jacket that made him easy to pick out among the rabble of beginners who were falling over themselves and kicking up ice across the frozen expanse on which we found ourselves. A week before, he had confided to me that he had damaged his knee on a hike, but he showed no sign of discomfort or energy loss as he tackled the slope time and again. What I observed was a man who was brave and true and who did not falter when the time came for him to test himself. I, on the other hand, favoured the tea and sandwich that the instructors had begun handing out. The sandwich was wrapped in foil and the bread was tough and hurt the inside of my mouth when I bit into it, but the salami and lettuce provided sustenance and the end result was that the sandwich was one of the best I’d ever had.

After that simple lunch I took to the slope a few more times until fatigue outdistance my desire for excitement. I was neither the best nor the worst snowboarder on the slope, and as I unbuckled my boots for the last time I was aware that others had done the same thing. We were surrounded by snow on all sides and yet the sun was shining brightly and I had become uncomfortably warm, to the point where I had to remove the sweater I had on underneath my snow jacket. I realised, too, that I had not applied sunscreen to my exposed skin and I could already feel my face becoming sensitive to the touch. Not too long after that most of the group stopped snowboarding altogether and the instructors suggested we head back before it got dark. The journey on foot back to the van was even more difficult upon the return because now we lacked the energy. We walked slowly, and up ahead I saw the old man Carlos soldiering on, leading the group with one end of his snowboard dragging in the snow.

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Mind: The Gap (Part 1 – Seeing Demons)

It is cold now, and I have become a beast. Damp towels remain damp, and my bathroom mirror takes an age to defog after a hot shower. As a result, I cannot check my appearance before leaving the apartment. I suppose I could use the flat side of my wrist to wipe away a clear space on the mirror to better see my appearance, but that would leave streaks. Instead, I leave the mirror untouched and choose to simply guess that the set of my hair is acceptable, and that I have left no smudges of cream on my face. What’s more, in the pursuit of insulation against the cold, fashion is sacrificed. I pile on layers without regard to public perception. My internal comfort is all that matters.

The first real look I get of myself in the mornings is when I step into the elevator of my building. I encounter my reflection and I am often not pleased with what I see: Hair that has neither a side path nor a middle path, but something in between. Shaving cream adorns one ear while face cream outlines my nostrils. The cream can be wiped away, but the outfit cannot be saved. Clashing colours and unseemly sweaters are my cross to bear. I am no one’s dream date. All this to save my mirror from smudging.

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Sure, it’s nice on the eyes, but rough on any exposed skin.

It is in this fog of misery that I think of the summer, and in my mind’s eye everything is wonderful. I remember that the sky is blue. Actually blue. Memory reminds me, quite wrongly, that the weather was always fine. The walks about town were always refreshing. The people were beautiful. I always knew the right way to comb my hair and I knew exactly what to wear. It’s a thin, false veil cast over a sometimes ugly reality. Things aren’t always idyllic, and in an attempt to rend the veil I caste my mind back to the moment when a perfect summer’s day was broken into shards by an act of sudden violence.

I was uptown, in a better part of the city, putting miles under my shoes and setting my mind adrift. My central focus was on keeping to the shade, and when I heard the first scream it took me a moment to descend back to earth. Up ahead, about a block away, I spied what I at first thought was some sort of scuffle.

She was stout, swaddled in a grubby corduroy jacket over a floral dress that hung down to her knees. She had on long woolen socks that were far too warm for the weather. Distance and weather-worn skin rendered her age too difficult to gauge, but I could at least surmise that she was someplace north of middle age. She was a woman who was out of place. The clothes, I’m sure, where inherited or found. She lashed out with the vigour of a champion boxer, swinging a bulging blue plastic bag with full force. The bag whipped through empty space, a ballistically unsound move which nearly pulled her off her feet. Her attacker did not exist. She was swinging at ghosts.

Her fury brought me to a halt. I dared not intercept her space. Important-looking people were taking sidelong glances at her and crossing the street. I watched her for a few minutes more. She’d amble along for a several meters, a big bulging plastic bag hanging from each tightened fist, making her look like a tormented set of scales. Then she’d look at the empty space next to her and bellow at it with unbridled rage. Her anger was far bigger than she could contain, a strangled garble of unintelligible Spanish scrapping up through her vocal chords and flung viciously at nothing. Then she swung again, hefting a bag that contained approximately half of her worldly possessions, and brought it round with heart-stopping force at whatever monster seemed to be plaguing her. This was no pantomime. She wanted to do damage. She wanted to slay the demon.

I always used to think the incoherent ramblings of homeless people in movies was just a conceit used to evoke the dark, morally bereft dystopia that is often associated with cities. Santiago is the first city I’ve lived in that has made the stereotype manifest. I used to think that the crazy cat lady was merely a clown for us to laugh at. The old man in deep conversation with himself was simply a dramatic device. Growing up, I felt that it was okay to be entertained by these people capering about on the television screen, and even to laugh at them.

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Although she’s known as the Crazy Cat Lady, this woman is Dr. Eleanor Abernathy. She has doctorates from Harvard and Yale.

So it came as a sobering surprise to realise that coming unhinged is a real, visible affliction. These downtrodden souls whose own minds have turned against them are haunted by ghosts that are very real to them. They live in anguish. The terror in their screams is not theatrics. I’ve seen a man rage in the middle of a deserted plaza, and for a brief moment I thought I was the one confused; perhaps the monsters are real and I am blind. Without any evidence to back this up, my suspicion is that this untethering of the mind might be assisted in no small way by the introduction of foreign substances. It makes sense to me that drug abuse will cleave away at the architecture that supports an already fragile mind. But whatever the cause, the people still suffer.

There’s no conclusion here, really, merely an observation. For some people, reality is always foggy. For me, that only happens in the winter, and at least I get a shower out of it. In a world plagued by nightmare visions, I’m quite blessed to only suffer from bad hair days.