BY NIGHTS IN CHILE
On The Way
I AM STANDING on the curb of my friend Tim’s apartment in Atwater Village in Los Angeles at 8:00 PM on Sunday, August 9th, 2015. Considering the time of year, it’s a bit cool out, and I’ve just put in a request for a Lyft when I notice that I’ve accidentally stacked my bags and placed my Brooklyn Dodgers cap on top in such a way that it almost seems as if my luggage is a person rooting for the boys in blue. My phone buzzes with e-mails from an old friend that I’ve recently harmed and it keeps doing that as I get into my car with my driver, Tchongthai, who is in fact Thai (a bit on the nose). As we drive to LAX, my phone keeps buzzing as I e-mail back in forth with my friend, or the person I’m trying to keep as my friend, as this sort of ever constant reminder of things I’m trying to work on and fix in my life, almost like my phone itself is trying to tell me, “just so you know, you’re not getting away from your problems. Don’t work like that.”
Tchongthai and I make pretty decent conversation – I’m a driver myself, and I always feel somehow like I belong to a secret club when I get in the car as a passenger. I feel excited to tell them about my job and share war stories, like we share the same fan hood for a soccer club or the same affinity for orange juice with extra pulp.
When I tell him that I’m an actor, he starts asking me about what kind of money an extra brings in and I tell him that I wouldn’t know but I think pretty well. He asks why I haven’t done it before and I lie to him by claiming I have dignity. Tchongthai has a fairly thick accent and his English is solid but not perfect, so I’m curious to know when he came to Los Angeles. After a lengthy conversation about Thailand, I just ask him if he’s enjoyed the States so far.
He smiles and says he moved in 1991, and, as though he can see right through my question explains that his accent is so thick because he “spends too much time with the Thai community.”
THE FLIGHT to Chile has two legs: seven hours to Panama City and another six to Santiago. The airline has a considerably impressive selection of films to choose from but I opt for a soccer film called “Goal! The Dream Begins.” I don’t recognize any actor in this hilariously wretched film that depicts the path to glory in the English Premier League (the most competitive soccer league in the world) as easy as scoring in NFL Blitz 2002 for Nintendo 64 (Hint: Very easy).
On the second part of my journey I read the entirety of the latest issue of The New Yorker because a very major part of me will always wish I was still in that wretched city I love so much, and then I ditch in the seatback pocket in front of me before I disembark and head into Santiago.
THE VERY NEXT DAY I am already back at the airport to fly to Arica, Chile, the northernmost city of the country known for its huge waves which attract surfers the world-round and as an easy jumping off point to Bolivia to the north and Peru to the east, especially for the many backpackers who are intent on seeing Machu Picchu and camping out in nearby Lauca National Park and the several other reserves that dot the eastern border of the country like a constellation.
My plan, initially, was to rent a car and make a circuitous route around Norte Grande, this strangely diverse region of the country, and wind up back where I started before flying south to Santiago and exploring the cities. But that is quickly derailed when the rental car company has only stick shift cars to offer me, which I, as a poor American cannot drive. In fact, automatic cars are as common as English speakers, which is to say they are practically non-existent, which is not something to be scoffed at or even questioned except from the point of view of an American who only speaks his country’s native tongue and some useless French.
This lack of a car literally destroys the plan for half of my trip, which as I will later discover is a blessing in disguise, but for the moment I am gutted. For weeks leading up to my trip to Chile I knew I should have been planning, but every time I opened up the Lonely Planet guide book I would get overwhelmed with the mass amount of options and the realization (post-ticket purchase) that Chile is, in fact, gigantic. The country itself is incredibly narrow, but has the length of the western United States plus about half of Canada.
The Hertz guy is kind enough to personally drive me to my Airbnb in Arica, a gesture I find no less than astounding. He doesn’t even allow me to tip him any pesos when we arrive at my host’s house.
My host, Franklin, who greets me at the door in blackout sunglasses and a hand-towel mysteriously wrapped around his neck like a circle scarf, instantly becomes of the more interesting people I’ve ever come across. He is simultaneously eternally optimistic (signing off his emails to me before I arrive with “Wow! Life is good”) and cynical “this world is turning into a bloodless carcass.” He’s a self-proclaimed cowboy-hillbilly combo who chain-smokes hand-rolled cigarettes as a life support and has the Spanish speaking level of a beginner despite seven plus years as a Chilean and being born to Mexican parents in Long Beach, California. During my conversations with him he claimed to personally know Stein Eriksson, Robert de Niro and Ronald Reagan. He told me stories about holding jobs in Utah, Louisiana, Alabama, California and even England with work as varied as being a logger, stage carpenter and (what this is I don’t even know) avalanche guard. His manner of speaking had the same tone as John Wayne but he rambled so much I’d lose track of his train of thought only two minutes into a conversation because he’d hear himself say one word that would then lead him onto another story, which he always began with “Boy, I tell you something…” And he would often continue speaking even after I had left the room.
Franklin had clearly had a grocery list of injuries, including a ruptured hamstring on his right leg, which made him gallop as if that side of his body was a horse. He had pulled a muscle in his neck, which meant that to turn to see something to the side he had to literally turn half of his body, but the man still gets around town primarily via a bicycle with a tennis ball on each handle like a walker for a geriatric.
But for all of his eccentricities, Franklin was a remarkably sweet man with a complex philosophy largely influenced by his time as a soldier in Vietnam. About which he said:
“My friends laughed at me. South America. Are you crazy? You have a good job, make good money. But… they say, ‘love it or leave it.’ I didn’t love the States no more. Not after Vietnam. Not after… I mean I’m a redneck. A cowboy redneck. But I tell you what. I was eighteen years old. You don’t even know how to fuck at eighteen. Maybe you got laid every so often, probably thought you were in love once or twice. But you don’t know shit about picking up a weapon and killing somebody. That’s not something you learn… seeing friends blown up in pieces around you and blood being splashed on your face… puts a… puts a new connotation on what ‘life’ means.”
Franklin consistently spoke of his non-belief in coincidence, which he attributed to his “acceptance of Jesus” into his heart when he got sober twenty-four years ago after a lifetime of partying. His longtime and live-in girlfriend and him met out of the blue when he moved to this tiny village in Arica, and he said, presumably to see my amazement, which frankly never came, that his birthday numbers mirror her social security numbers. “Coincidence? No. I say, ‘thank you’.” And then he pointed to the sky in gratitude.
THAT NIGHT I cry quite a bit. I beat myself up both for not planning and for planning at all, and asking myself why I would travel alone. What sort of masochist chooses to travel to a country where he doesn’t speak the language and doesn’t take the time set a proper course? Suddenly all my decisions in life seem ill advised. The lack of knowledge of what it is that I am doing in this foreign land start to mix with the same lack of knowledge about my career as an artist back home, and my disposition as an over-analyzer rages forth with such tenacity that my pain seems unending. I even consider how much it would cost to fly home early. And frankly the only thing that makes me choose against that is the type of story I’d have to tell to everyone back home.
In the morning, after Franklin sets forth a simple breakfast of bread (Chileans love their bread products), cheese, jam, yogurt and fruit, a couple young people around my age stop by to say hi to Franklin. He’s asked them over to help him shop for a smart phone. Andrés, the more English-proficient of the two, takes out some weed, so the four of us pass it around while talking about different cities in America. He proudly proclaims that he was once an exchange student in Minneapolis and that his favorite American city is Jacksonville, Florida. I can’t help but laugh in his face and then feel awkward so I abruptly get up and start to explore the town.
Arica is remarkably easy to explore by foot, so I set out with a couple stops in mind. One of the first things I notice in this strange beach town is an actually functioning Blockbuster, which puts my count of these unicorns at two, the other in the even smaller town of Spoleto, Italy.
At the edge of the town, overlooking the city and the Pacific Ocean, there stands a gigantic rock, called El Morro, which stands as one of the remnants of the War of the Pacific which gave most of the region to Chile from a combination of Bolivia and Peru. It looks like a ski mountain that has been stripped of its snow by a desert storm, or if a husky’s fur was shaved from its body leaving only its brown and pink skin. The several telephone poles that line the backside of the small mountain don’t look all that different than a lift’s sequential supports. All that seems to be missing are the skiers wondering what has happened to their beloved resort of yesteryear. In fact, the whole city has the feeling of an apocalyptic state, like you’ve suddenly stepped into the future and the desolate and graffiti covered streets are simply the norm.
Arica’s version of the perpetual homeless person is a stray dog or cat, of which there seem to be two for every human and are more emotionally draining on a passer-by than a Sarah McLachlan scored public service announcement. One such dog followed me for the better part of an hour, believing somehow that I could provide it with food or shelter. I gave her neither, but did pet her for a while and allowed her to nuzzle against me until it found a large broken shell she was happy to chew on and a shrub in a partition on the highway in which she decided to sleep. As I looked back at her, she resembled a soldier in deep surveillance.
A power plant at the top of the hill behind Arica’s somewhat affluent neighborhood has a huge piece of typeface simply declaring, “El agua es vida.” The railing on the side of the road proffers the opinions that “nuestro character es el resultado de nuestra condocta” and “La mayor virtud no compensa el defecto del talento.” I spot an interesting array of rocks overlooking the ocean and I try several attempts at a timer cam photo of myself and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most interesting result was the one that went off before I was set in place.
But despite the drabness and endless trash, Arica is somehow tantalizing. The entire city operates with an effervescence I can only attribute to a lack of care (or knowledge) of how the other half lives. There are plenty of cafes and outdoor bars that line the city’s streets and, like a miniature Los Angeles, its residents can’t find the point in complaining when the average temperature is around 75 degrees in winter time and their neighbors both to the north and south are freezing.
WITHOUT MY CAR, I shuffle to make a last minute reservation for a tour of the nearby national park and their famed lake, which sits around the dormant and snow-capped Parinacota volcano. I’m lucky enough to find one with a Spanish-speaking tour that becomes my first introduction to “Chilean Time”, a concept that essentially means not showing up at the appointed and agreed-upon time but rather an hour late.
The tour picks me up in a small van seating only fourteen passengers. My lack of workable Spanish is somewhat of a problem on this tour, but I figure I can just look out the window as he explains what we’re seeing and put the pieces together. I’m also lucky enough to have a Quebecoise couple sitting next to me whose Spanish is great and English even better. I speak to them in French to prove I’m a confidante and then make them translate nearly everything the tour guide spouts out.
My new friends, Phillippe and Alexandra, are only twenty years old and have been traveling around South America for the better part of two and half months with another half to go. They are rising freshmen in college at McGill University in math and literature, respectively, and only started dating a few months before they spontaneously decided to backpack around the country. They’re tri-lingual, can both play instruments on a level that would allow them to study at a conservatory if they were so inclined and have discovered true love before the United States’ legal drinking age. I hate them and hate myself.
Well I actually love them, and even though I’m only a few days into my trip I am already missing human interaction beyond my host, Franklin, so I hang around them at every stop on this trip as if I am the dog that was following me around in Arica.
Lauca and Lago Chingura sit at the highest altitude in the country atop many, many mountains. But it’s a desert, and there are rocks everywhere on the streets, so city workers are constantly taking the boulders and piling them up, neatly, on the side of the road, like little loaves of bread which are then caged with thin wiring to prevent them from spilling back onto the steep incline of a highway.
It’s a long drive, and as we pass the sand mountains that are layered with pinks and purples of striations of rock layers and the temperature drops and drops, my mind drifts to the inordinately high level of relationships I’ve gone through over the years. And, as I’ve struggled before in the past to stop the brain from bleeding, I once again return to the same questions. Were they my fault? Why do they fail? Predictably I am back at the same place, nowhere. Of course this language for myself is only harmful and stupid, but when you’re alone in a country not your own and you’re already predisposed to self-analysis to the point of paralysis, things take on a predictable course.
When the snow starts to appear in the distance, and little lakes spring up seemingly out of nowhere, it feels as though I’ve been transported to another planet. At Lago Chingura, the Parinacota volcano stares you right in the face, but its immensity is offset by a tranquil lake that stretches for miles and is populated by flamingoes and ten or so varieties of birds. The sight is heart stopping, a feeling only compounded by the intense air pressure of the altitude, and I am glad for the momentary quieting of my brain.
On the way back, we stop for an early dinner at a restaurant in Putre, a tiny village in the Altiplano of Chile that pretty much only exists these days as a resting stop for those traveling and camping up north. The meal is not great – I’ve heard Chile described as the England of South America for its culinary blandness – but there’s plenty of meat and rice and a strange dish that looks like lasagna if you substituted the pasta for mashed potato and the meat and cheese for tuna and eggs. It’s bonkers. But there’s a pisco sour to boot, which is sort of like the Chilean version of a margarita, and I’m just happy to eat.
The drive back down to Arica is a solemn journey as most people sleep and the driver has stopped commenting on our surroundings in the speedy dialect of Spanish for which Chileans are known. I spend much of the journey, staring out into the endless valleys which resemble several Grand Canyons stacked next to each other, thinking about my career as an actor and writer, and wondering what kind of artist I should be, or even want to be. Later, after emailing my friend Tim, I am advised to switch the question around to, “What kind of person do I want to be.” And the question haunts me, much like the subtly unnerving stories of Chile’s own Roberto Bolaño, whose work became the impetus of my choosing this country in the first place.
San Pedro de Atacama
WHEN I GET OFF THE BUS, after an overnight ride to the Atacama Desert, which has taken ten hours in this ever expanding country and which included two border control stops wherein we all had to exit the bus and go through security despite the fact that we crossed no borders, I am exhausted. It is midday and my first impressions of this place – described on multiple occasions to me as an “oasis” in the middle of the driest desert in the world – are not flattering. The streets are so caked in dust that it seems as if a great sand storm has just swept through the streets of this tiny village and left little in its wake.
After a considerable amount of confusion trying to find my hostel, I eventually stumble across it, drop off my bags, and begin exploring.
San Pedro is like a geological Disneyland. It is surrounded by a slew of activities and natural wonders: a desert with magnificent mountains and canyons, the highest geyser field in the world (and the third largest behind Yellowstone and the Valley of Geysers in Russia), night skies with the highest visibility of the solar system and salt flats and hot springs not unlike the Dead Sea.
My first such trip is to the aforementioned geyser field, El Tatio. I am told that a van will pick me up at the forbidden hour of five in the morning, which, in Chilean terms, means five thirty.
Unbeknownst to me at the time of my reservation, I am the only English-speaking participant on the journey, and so my tour guide, Ernesto, has to translate everything for just me. It’s an incredibly kind gesture, especially after I tell him he doesn’t have to, but I can’t help and laugh inside with his clunky English. He starts nearly every sentence with, “Well, as I told you…” as if he is slightly admonishing me for not listening when he explained it all in Spanish.
As we walk through an enormous field of geysers in a temperature that is casually dipping below zero, Ernesto quite flippantly explains to me that, “Well, as I told you, it is necessary to take caution around the geysers. Someone last week, he fell in and all the skin go away from his legs. Anyway…”
And like that he is on to the next thing.
The geysers shoot up water when the volcanic underground magma smashes into the freezing earth, and the resulting explosion is magnificent and happens, like clockwork, for times that do not vary. I take (too many) photos, but as I soon realize throughout this region, the sites are too encompassing to capture, and I give up – or I should say I am forced to realize that this all better taken in at the moment it occurs, that I should embrace its inherent ephemerality and impermanence.
At lunch, with the tour, a Chilean man and his family try to strike up a conversation with me. Their English is somehow even worse than my Spanish so I applaud their vigor but the most we can say to each other is simple and almost tedious.
“You… are cold?”
“Sí…” I say. “Muy frio.”
“Oh… um… Estados Unidos… California.”
“Ah… not cold!”
“No, no… caliente.” Polite laughs all around.
On the bus ride back, I read a short novella, Youth by David Szalay, in the season’s issue of “The Paris Review”, a story of a young man traveling alone in Greece where he finds his sexual appetite fulfilled in unexpected places.
At night, in my hostel room with five other boarders, I get very little sleep, a situation almost entirely attributable to cacophony of snores mercilessly happening around me. One person’s snore sounded unmistakably like wet diarrhea and another’s as if he was continuously smoking out of a huge bong.
It’s not until 3:00 AM that I finally get some sleep.
THE ATACAMA DESERT’S many surrounding features are so aptly named that you might find yourself rolling your eyes at its almost unimaginative sincerity. Valle de la Luna, my next stop, is so named the Valley of the Moon because its valley is shaped like… you guessed it, a moon.
On the tour, I am again being translated to directly by the guide, except I have an English buddy, from London, who gets to share in the embarrassment with me. Michael is a math teacher who currently lives in Kent, and we immediately share a bond over our lack of bilingualism. When I tell him I’m a massive Liverpool fan, he tells me he’s a massive Everton fan, and despite our team’s sworn hatred for each other, we are just happy to have someone to talk openly about soccer with in our own language.
As we walk through the enormous salt flats where the ground is a brilliant white and the tops are an adobe brown, like a reverse Parinacota, Mike and I quickly fall into a discussion about travel, childhood ambitions and relationships turned sour.
“Have you been to Venezuela?” I ask him, since my trip has been confined to Chile alone.
“No, but I’d quite like to go. I used to go with a girl in London – she was half Venezuelan, easily the most beautiful woman I’ve ever been with. Don’t quite know how she went for this.”
He gestures to his face, laughs ironically, and then gets suddenly somber.
“I fucked that one up.”
“I don’t rightly know, but I was young and I ignored her. She was… you know, she was just like… impossibly sweet. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
He pauses for a moment and considers.
“I don’t like to talk about it, really.”
I nod and we continue up to the top of the valley.
When we get there, the view is immediately so overwhelming and awesome that all thought seems to hang, momentarily, like icicles suspended in time.
In startling 360-degree views, mountains, valleys and salt flats collide and expand and warp together to create a landscape so absurd and incomprehensible in its magnitude that it seems fake; The attributes of this massive valley are extraordinarily close but far enough that they all hang in the balance and seem almost too picturesque, like a Hollywood backdrop – a trick of the eye that occurs at nearly every moment for my four speedily passed days here.
When we get back to San Pedro, Mike and I stop for a late dinner and too much wine for such a dry area. We talk about soccer, art and my one-time predilection for writing poetry in the back of my physics classes in high school when I got confused.
Mike tells me how he’s fallen into teaching after years of not quite knowing his route in life, and how, for a fairly long stretch of his adult life, he was a competitive poker player.
“So you’re like Matt Damon in Rounders?”
“Yes! Precisely. Except I’m not also a law genius.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Well I think it’s hard for people who don’t play to understand this, but at a certain point you’re just gambling. It’s not really a sport, is it? I was good, but I wasn’t good enough that I wasn’t seriously risking losing everything every time I trotted out there.”
WHEN I STARE off the cliff of a mountain of soft sand, strapped into a snowboard that’s been chipped at the edges via boots that are as torn up as a homeless person’s duct-taped sneakers, I think maybe I’ve made a poor decision. The views, as so many in this area, are inspiring and sweeping, but right now I’m just concerned with not dying.
The biggest problem with sand boarding in the Atacama turns out to have nothing to do with safety – the sand is so soft that falling is more akin to tumbling on an oversized blanket. No, the biggest problem is that you board down the face of a mountain at a blistering speed that might take you a maximum of one minute, only to have to climb right back up it – in oppressive altitude – for five minutes. So one might argue there is very little upside. But it is oddly addictive. Sand boarding is a remarkably easy skill to figure out, and even by the second time I’m holding my own.
Our tour group is a cozy eight, including Michael, myself, and a couple French tourists from Angers who are amused that I am so excited to speak with them in their language. For a couple hours, the blisters and bug bites that are suddenly covering our ankles and arms like fresh tattoo sleeves are barely noticeable as our heart rates accelerate in the midst of this bizarro ski mountain.
Afterwards, at lunch, Michael and I sit at a café in the middle of San Pedro’s main (and only) public square and dig into some overwhelmingly mediocre Bolognese. At some point after eating, when Michael goes to the restroom and I am left alone watching the street scene by myself, I find myself suddenly in tears. Like I’m watching it happen from a camera just outside myself, I don’t know what’s happening. And then it gets deeper, and deeper, until my whole body is involved – but it feels different. It feels like a release. And then it is over as abruptly as it has happened. There are several dogs nipping at scraps along the tables at the various restaurants and a soft breeze. I see a few families shopping along the Inca-influenced souvenir shops. All is extremely quiet. Michael comes back and we share another couple beers. I tell Michael it’s been really fortuitous to meet him, and we share a strange dessert that has ingredients that are totally indiscernible.
That night, we take an astrological tour of the Atacama skies, which, according to many an astronomer, are the clearest in the world. In fact the sky is so mesmerizingly clear that the Milky Way looks like its been painted on a roof above us – we are even told that there are some 3,000 stars that are visible (with another 2,000+ that are still in the galaxy). It is even possible to see the Earth rotate, as evidenced by a start that was at eye-level at 10:30 and directly overhead one hour later.
The tour, which, amongst a sea of highlights might be the highlight to that point, seems to follow very much in line with the rest of the trip’s in serving as a constant reminder of my everlasting smallness. It’s oddly liberating.
We’re lead to a group of ten telescopes, including the largest in South America, all pointing to several different spots amongst the night sky. One points to Saturn, which comes to the eye in almost disconcerting clarity. Another points to a constellation of stars, which explode from the center like a black and white tie-dye embedded into the solar system.
After the tour, we huddle for hot chocolate and a question and answer session in which one British woman asks if he believes that we landed on the moon.
“You really want to waste one of your questions with that? Okay… No, I don’t believe we landed on the moon. I know we did. Scientists deal with facts and evidence. I don’t have to believe that we did.”
ON THE OUTSKIRTS of San Pedro, in the valleys of a mountain, is an excavated fortressed town called Pukará de Quitor. On rented bikes, Michael and I explore the region and I burn my nose with alarming force.
Throughout the town, there are little signs explaining the history of the military embankments, but the English is laughably bad so that even our poor Spanish is more useful than reading the garbled translation. So instead we climb, all the way to the top of the mountain, and watch the sunset come down over the orange tinged rocks.
At the top, panting and sweating through our jeans and jackets, we talk about Chilean cuisine and the prevalence of bread. And then we shut up. An hour passes before we’ve spoken again and decide to head back down before I have to get on an overnight bus to my next destination.
I feel a little heartsick at leaving this geological resort, but I have to use the ticket I’ve purchased already and I know that this is part of the traveling. Sometimes you have to move on before you’re ready to or before you even know its right, and sometimes you have to break your own heart to be true.
WHAT HAPPENS when you toss Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the seedier parts of Paris into a blender? The answer seems to be Santiago, by far and away the largest metropolis in Chile. The city’s population hovers around six million, a number that hardly seems possible until you’re walking down Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, trying not to be run down by the locals nipping at your heels.
When I land from the airport, I take a shared cab ride to my apartment for the next few days, a method that takes me, in breeze-like fashion, around the inner city neighborhoods so overcrowded with vibrantly colored graffiti that I start to wonder if there’s some kind of city-wide exhibit.
I get to my stay, a tiny apartment that has the similarity in design to a toy house. The kitchenette looks plastic and unusable; its stovetop is even marked as off limits by my hosts with blue tape over the counter. The only furniture is an ornate reading chair, which seems out of place – like my hosts have chosen to invest some of their money in one nice thing to preserve the illusion they live comfortably. But the whole center of the city is like this, striking me as oddly New Yorkish. Millions of people stacked on top of each other like Lego pieces.
Feeling already cramped, I start wandering around the city. Santiaguinos are just getting out of work, so the city is in full swing. Lines for buses wrap around city corners, and local panaderias are overcrowded with families scrambling to get bread for the night’s dinner.
Central Santiago is made up of a collection of tiny neighborhoods with distinct personalities, in an outwardly spiraling structure giving it an eerily similar feel to Paris, which it matches in its sprawling layout if not in cultural diversity.
After only ten or so minutes I’m already right in the heart of Bellavista, the arts district of Santiago. Street vendors selling used books by Isabel Allende and Octavio Paz stand next to others selling craft jewelry and quirky designs of posters with platitudes. The national opera is here, as is the city’s major public library and two universities, Universidad de Chile and Universidad Catolica.
I come across a huge modern arts complex, GAM (Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral), an impressive and newly constructed building with a full slate of arts programming, including several plays in repertory. When I realize one is happening in only twenty minutes, I purchase a ticket.
I make it inside an exquisite proscenium theater to see La historia de los anfibios, a brand new play presenting what a critic has called a scathing portrait of the Chilean educational system. The stage’s floor is a slanted chalkboard, a beautiful promise of an interesting set piece, which is sadly only used once. But, the play is fascinating – a faculty meeting which grows heated quickly as the death of a recent student causes the several professors in the room to frantically avoid culpability.
The excitement of this play has me rolling through the options of potentially translating a play or adapting a book; infinitely adding to my laundry list of things I want to accomplish as a writer but never have and maybe never will. What is it about the things we promise ourselves to do, but never do? Something still satisfying about thinking about all the possibilities out there and yet choose to neglect, as if the very act of thinking about exercise will complete the act itself.
WHEN CHILE was still being governed by the fascist regime of Pinochet through the 1980s, it’s social life was gravely limited in movement, or at least this was the perception and certainly continues to be for today’s over-the-shoulder Chilean population. When I make it to Santiago’s sparse but impressive Museo de Bellas Artes, which architecture looks like it has been carved out of a hollowed old train station, I get confronted almost immediately with this nostalgic paranoia so hauntingly presented by the Chilean painter Pablo Ferrer.
The paintings, which the museum describes in fractured English as, “the awakened memories of different places once inhabited” are stunning. The muted colors and viewpoints of small crevices and angles of rooms often forgotten are infinitely evocative; the corners of door frames, beds recently evacuated, blinds half-closed, a tree in a backyard with no discerning furniture or personality. It makes me melancholic and strikes an all too familiar chord with me, one of fearing that I’ve just missed the procession or that I haven’t been included. Without having the shared Chilean history of its people or even a working knowledge therein, I’m left to my own resources and struck by my own fear and limit in movement, even as I wander a city nearly six thousand miles away from home.
My next stop is just around the corner at the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, where a retrospective of David LaChapelle’s searing and heavily made-up Hollywood potraits hang over three floors of nearly empty gallery spaces. I am disappointed, not by the portraits, which are themselves extraordinary in their indictment of celebrity culture by using the celebrities themselves (one such series features Michael Jackson as Jesus), but by the 180-degree turn I’ve taken from Pablo Ferrer’s work. Where once I was studying the work of a Chilean local, I am now seeing an American’s.
But can one stay mad long enough to ruin the mastery of one of the field’s greatest contributors? I remember learning of LaChappelle’s work during my undergraduate days, and debating if the work of the artist actually glorifies its subjects rather than crucifies them – but either way the effect seems to be the same. Both parties have to move forward and find a way to justify our mass consumption of the plastic culture in which we’ve been raised.
In another part of the museum, I find a temporary exhibit by the Chilean photographer, Paz Errázuriz, whose series El Infarto del alma (roughly translated to “heart attack of the soul”) is presented along a corridor of a gallery. The series presents ten portraits in alarming detail; the photographs are printed in striking clarity and invasively up close. All the subjects are women, and their faces are landscapes of some sort of tortured past. They are all in black and white, and their gazes are accusatory.
I stare at these portraits with horror, but it feels like they are staring at me. I want to apologize to them – somehow I feel like I have hurt them all. Am I a stand-in for any man? Are they stand-ins for any women? There seems to be no letting up. And though I have the choice to walk away, I can’t. I cannot escape the feeling that I have done something wrong to these women I have never met and never will meet.
I GRAB LUNCH by the Plaza de la Ciudadanía, a massive square encompassing many of the state houses and bordered by a few museums. My meal, of bread, avocado and a hard boiled egg has become so standard during this trip that its progression in my liking of it has begun to mirror that of a stock; its value was low until I had it so much I hated it then rose exponentially when I couldn’t have anything else; my own culinary version of Stockholm syndrome.
As I continue to wander, I come across yet another art exhibit, which seem to pop up with the regularity of a neighborhood coffee shop, provided one looks and doesn’t stray too far from the city center. Here I find a retrospective of sorts of the graphic designer Julián Naranjo, whose poster work has decorated him with the Gold Medal of the Arts Directors Club of New York. The posters, which vary from sharp takes on old communist-era designs to modern stark monochrome patterns, line the upper walkways of this building, and the designs are so upfront that there is almost never any confusion over its message. One such poster presents a nude female body nearly in silhouette with a vibrantly yellow banana hanging from a string by her crotch – the poster (in English) asks if gender equality really exists. Another is a stick figure whose body is a heart with a face meant to symbolize that of the author Nicanor Parra, with his words strung along the forehead like strands of uncombed hair.
THE NEXT DAY I am at Mercado Central, the gigantic fish market with hundreds of fishmongers. At least half of the walking population in this cramped space is tourist, but the city seems reluctant to catch up; the area seems hardly touristic, save for a few restaurants that are almost Disney-like in kitsch. I instead pop in to a small restaurant off the corner of the market, Tio Willy, an old hat of a restaurant where I get razor clams baked with Parmesan cheese and a fish stew that more closely resembles an aquarium.
At the restaurant, a husband sits with his wife and a newborn in a cradle. He twists and plays with his cross necklace. I remember reading a study about the average happiness of people who are religiously observant versus those that are not, a study that reveals the happiness of the former to be much higher in unmistakable terms. And I wonder, perhaps out of an atheist cynicism, whether happiness is actually the best metric with which to measure a successful life. To be happy, in some ways, feels naturally repressive, like choosing to focus on a flower in a garden of snakes.
When I’m done eating, I push forward past my immediate desire to take a food-induced coma nap and walk up to the top of Cerro Santa Lucia, one of the highest vantage points of the city. At the peak, a huge crowd is gathering to celebrate a birthday; in the center of the group, a young man in a wheelchair stares blankly at me as I snap his photo and everyone sings to him. He does not care about this celebration, but a photogenic young woman standing next to him does – she poses for me and winks. I put my camera away and pretend to stare off somewhere else.
From this vantage point, the city looks vast and unvaried, accidental in its uniformity. It’s as if they all showed up to school one day and found they were wearing the same outfit by chance. It would seem, at least from here, that there is little class difference or barriers in this surprisingly cosmopolitan metropolis, but the truth is that the city’s richest live in a neighborhood far to the northeast of everyone else, elevated by an altitude of a few thousand feet.
That night I go to the National Opera. Situated in the center of the city, it bears no pretention – much like other art institutions of the city and in sharp contrast to its counterparts in North America and Europe. At the box office, the man behind the counter advises me, when I ask him how much a ticket would cost, that it is “the national opera after all, so its very expensive.” I say, “Okay, how much?”
He says, “Well the cheapest is 7,500 pesos.”
This is rough seven dollars. I smile and say, “I think I can afford that, thank you.”
At my seat in the gallery, an old man sits next to me. He wears eyeglasses that have been taped together aggressively. He started speaking to me in Spanish and I responded with my customary apology for my lack of ability to converse. He nodded and sadly turned back to stare at the stage. I can’t stop thinking about this man, a kindly and sloppily dressed geriatric with no wedding ring on. I think he probably comes here often. Perhaps he and a now deceased wife used to come here a lot, and this is how he honors her. I wonder if my grandfather would’ve done the same if he had been living in New York when my grandmother passed – just as he had once taken her to the Met for an anniversary trip not too long ago.
The opera that night is Il Turco in Italia, a comedy of errors love triangle by Gioacchino Rossini from 1814, which here has been adapted to some modern year I can’t at all decipher. There’s a trolley subway car and inside a pizza parlor is a television, but the costumes are all over the place. One of the protagonists wears a modern suit and another could pass for Elizabethan-era. But despite the haphazard staging, the production is saved by some world-class singing. At intermission, I run out and get an empanada to quell my angry stomach from a woman who is amused at my lack of Spanish skills.
While I shove the greasy fried matter down my face, a young medical student at Universidad Catolica named Francisco strikes up a conversation with me.
“I love the opera. My Father, he would play classical music in the home all the time. We used to come here together. Have you been before?”
“Just once. The Met.”
“Oh my... That’s the best! How does this compare?”
I feel self-conscious telling him that the Met is leagues apart, so I fib a little.
“Oh, well I don’t know a lot about music, but the singing is great.”
“Where are you sitting?”
“That’s awful, you should come sit next to me, there’s an open space.”
I follow Francisco back up the stairs and sit next to him in what can only be described as nosebleed bleacher seats – but they’re directly center. Where, in the first act, I had to crane my neck as far to the right as it would go just to get any sort of vantage, I am now almost too comfortably staring ahead.
On the way out, Francisco gives me some advice on seeing a soccer match the next day and offers up an apology for his fellow country men’s lack of English. I tell him to come to the States and then see how much worse it is the other way around. We part ways, and while I walk home I think about the Metropolitan Opera in New York – how for one night I bonded and understood the woman I had been sleeping with but who did not care for me, how for one night alone I forgot about the shouting matches we entered into with vigorous aplomb, how after seeing the show I sang the tenor’s highest notes in her apartment by the Lincoln Center and she had laughed, how she is married now, to the man she was with before me, how people usually move on, but not always, and I wonder if she thinks about me; that man she once dated and tried to convince she was in love with, or if she is just happy. Because that would be amazing enough in itself.
PARQUE FORRESTAL is a long stretch of a public park that in its geometry unwittingly mimics the country’s shape; long and impossibly thin. The surrounding neighborhoods are populated by the slightly more affluent Chileans that congregate its park with such fervency in the spring that it’s hard to imagine people are anywhere else.
I find myself here, at a nearby American-style café the next day, with my copy of Pablo Neruda’s Captain Verses, a collection of love poetry that was specifically written for his longtime mistress Matilde Urrutia. Neruda’s poems are structured with such cogent efficiency that they recall Shakespeare’s sonnets in their brevity and originality. They are so personal that it feels almost embarrassing to read them, like accidentally staring through the window of a couple about to make love and yet totally unable to look away and grant them the privacy they deserve. Like finding someone’s journal. And in fact his poems have the simultaneous effect of a journal that has been shamelessly unedited and yet perfectly distilled.
I thumb through ten or so poems before heading over to La Chascona, Neruda’s house that has been transformed into a museum and which, in 1953, was conceived ostensibly to keep up his affair with Matilde while he was still married to his first wife, Delia del Carril. The house is constructed gaudily and in the overwhelming style of a boat, a design choice made by the Nobel-prize winning poet after his love for the sea.
That the leading literary voice in Chile’s history and one of the world’s foremost voices for love was an adulterer is not exactly shocking, but I am searching for some sort of sign in this museum that the lover had some kind of shame for his long held secret romance. None exists, and I almost respect him the more for it – he was a man constantly swept up in love. In love with Delia, in love with Matilde, in love with the sea, in love with Chile, in love with Paris, in love in perpetuity.
THAT NIGHT, I agree to drink a cocktail so sinister and overloaded with sugar and fruity alcohol that a proper resident of Bourbon Street in New Orleans would find grotesque.
The terremoto (translated: earthquake) is one of the only truly Chilean drinks, a factoid most Chileans would probably find embarrassing. It’s a large plastic cup filled to the brim with vanilla ice cream and (usually) white wine. Sometimes the drink has red wine. Sometimes it is something entirely else and entirely indistinguishable.
It is a disgusting drink, but I have been told a necessity for a true Chilean experience, so I agree to have one (or two) when I meet up with Nicole, a British ex-pat living and working in downtown Santiago whom I met previously in San Pedro.
Nicole’s story is dizzying. While studying abroad in Brazil four years ago, she met and started dating a Venezuelan man for whom she moved to Santiago. But as soon as she arrived, with a worker’s permit in tow, they broke up. Instead of moving back to London, she stayed in the Chilean capital where she met a local man with whom she lived until about a year ago. Then they broke up.
“You must like living here,” I presume, when she finishes telling me all of this in even longer and stranger detail, “or else you would’ve moved back home.”
“Oh gosh, no. I bloody hate it, to be honest with you. Santiago is terrible.”
“Why are you still here then?”
“I don’t know. I figure I’ll ride this permit out till next summer and then see what happens with Miguel. We’re trying to work it out.”
“You’re still speaking.”
“No, not exactly. Haven’t spoken in three, four months.”
I decide not to interrogate her any further on her denial, and besides – her view at her apartment of the city is magical, overlooking the center of the city from the fifteenth floor of a posh new apartment complex, so I don’t want to ruin the night before it’s even started.
Nicole takes me to a bar that she says is “half tourist, half douchebag Chileno” but is absolutely a must in trying to absorb the culture. We meet up with her German friend Uta, who I’m assuming is seven feet tall but is in reality closer to six and who similarly moved to Santiago on a whim and for whom Santiago is also a “proper shithole.” Then we meet up with Jason, the final piece of our party, a Mexican-American who is not as vocal in his lambasting of his adopted city but still says, rather passively, “It’s difficult here.”
Why do these people slave away in a city they find repulsive? And what is it about them all that they have the courage to move to a city, spontaneously, for partners they barely know, but can’t find the courage to leave?
Before I can get the answers, we have to squeeze into an open-air bar that is so packed with people I momentarily feel as if I’ve been transported to Tokyo. The lone bar has a bunch of clear plastic cups pre-filled with ice cream and a bartender wearing a Yankees hat takes out an enormous jug of curious alcohol mix and dumps it, with reckless abandon, into the line of cups, and without any care for the enormous splashing of wasted alcohol that misses the intended targets.
We each get our own terremoto’s and head for a table to get carne a la pobre, the most ironically American dish I’ve ever had. Huge pieces of red meat, topped with caramelized onions and a couple fried eggs on top of a bed of thickly cut French fries.
The night is a riot as I reach the peak of both my sugar and alcohol highs. I ask Jason, who has been trying to get a start-up company specializing in commercial real estate off the ground, how he has found the adjustment from Mexico to Chile.
“The first thing I would say is that Chilean’s don’t speak Spanish. They speak Chileno. So language wise it’s actually been a struggle. And Chileans are oddly passive. And weird like – well they don’t want to be wrong. They’re scared of it. So if they don’t know the answer to something they just won’t even attempt. They’ll just let it pass. And not acknowledge it.”
Nicole and I share a cab back to her apartment. My stay is around the corner from hers, but when we arrive at her complex she pays the driver and we stand outside the building awkwardly. I am not sure what to do here. I don’t find her attractive but I don’t seem to be able to walk away either. I think, “maybe she is pretty.” And I think, “well I’m here, aren’t I?” Though I am not sure what “here” exactly means.
I’m saved from anything either way when Nicole suddenly pipes up “so… yeah let me know what you’re up to the rest of your stay here, maybe we’ll hang out again.”
I never saw Nicole again. I also never had a terremoto again. But I wonder if she and her ex have spoken recently, and when she’ll inevitably move back to London.
I MEET JAVIER in a large square where a twelve-piece jazz band is gathering made up entirely of men in military uniform. Javier, a friend of a friend of Michael’s, my British compatriot from the Atacama, is tall and fit, like a Los Angeles runner. He and Michael met through means I can’t decipher and he has been generous enough to suggest the three of us go on a local’s tour of the city.
Our first stop is a smaller fish market than the one I’ve already been to, where Javier gets an inordinately large amount of clams, shrimp and tuna, which we take to his apartment which he shares with his German wife, Angela.
Angela works for a firm specializing in public medical policy – the two of them met when they were both studying in Rio de Janeiro. They take Michael and I to an enormous three-story building with groceries, clothing and restaurants, like an unofficial Costco. We sit down at a lunch spot that offers three course meals for the price of half of one, it would seem, and I dig into a Chilean soup that has huge chunks of lamb meat, pumpkin and an uncut onion that floats like a matzo ball.
Over our enormous dishes, Javier talks about how Ecuadorans have become the working class of Chile and Michael explains the general lack of care most Brits have these days for the royal family. I talk about the international perception of American tourists, and then Michael and I have a casual debate over whether or not choclo, a Chilean baked meat pie, is similar to a Shepherd’s Pie. He says no, I say yes.
Santiago’s streets on this Sunday are dotted with locals enjoying the first unofficial days of spring, in several instances with traditional street dancers and busking musicians. We walk alongside a river that barely has any water left in it, and the little that is left is milk chocolate brown. The houses are either hot pink or neon green in this neighborhood, and it is difficult to tell where one establishment begins and one ends.
After a few hours, I split and go to the top of San Cristobal, the highest vantage point of the city, which culminates in an enormous religious statue of Mary Magdalene. The view of the city is sprawling, and the thick level of haze on this afternoon makes it nearly impossible to detect where the end of the city’s limits are. The Andes hover over the city like a giant wave about to crash, suspended in mid-air.
Later that night, I meet back up with Michael, Javier and Angela. They take us to a neighborhood bar, where, outside, many tables sit pressed against each other. There is a 1950s-era American style cover band vigorously singing lyrics they don’t themselves understand. Over several beers, our political talk continues – Angela about her name-sharing Angela Merkel, me about the sudden rise of Bernie Sanders in the Presidential race and Javier about the abysmally low minimum wage in Chile that has forced many people to move to much cheaper but ultimately more dangerous countries like Bolivia to the north.
Around midnight, we all head to a small concert venue way off the tourist path – a place that is so unofficial its backyard feels closer to a fraternity. Michael and I get a few drinks and head to the dance floor where we decide in drunken immaturity to pretend to know the lyrics to the songs being played by the band on stage, belting gibberish with fervor.
At the end of the night, Michael and I say goodbye for the last time in the only way American and British straight males know how: with a firm and hearty handshake. He tells me to come visit in Kent. I tell him to come to Los Angeles. It somehow feels like we will, even if the immense track record of international travelers everywhere might say otherwise. I walk away, ruefully, at four in the morning.
ON THE BUS to the stadium where Universidad Catolica plays, at the northern edge of the city at the very foothills of the Andes mountains, a sign above the window says to break the glass with the attached hammer in the case of an emergency. The word for “to break” in Spanish is romper, which I naturally associate with the one-piece and formerly ultra popular piece of women’s clothing that has found itself, much like the vinyl player, on a sudden re-emergence into the mainstream.
I wouldn’t even know what that piece of clothing looked like had it not been for someone I used to know. A someone I knew so intimately I did not know where I ended and she began. Strange how the weirdest words or phrases or objects or events can set off a riptide of nostalgic and even regretful memory: in Chile, on a bus to a soccer match, with a brain and heart six or seven thousand miles away and across a hemisphere.
I arrived at the stadium, finally, after a confusing string of public transportation. Rather than try and recount my experience at this match, here are my notes, verbatim:
Sections separated by barbed wire.
Ref wears pink.
Over half-empty stadium.
Concepcion in a delicious yellow.
Pitch is smaller?
Had to use passport to get in.
A big noisemaker made it on to the pitch and no one moved it.
Purchasing a kit was essentially impossible and I accidentally got a large.
Concepcion’s sponsor is a sausage company.
And then back to my apartment in Santiago, where I slept for the last time.
My final stay in Chile begins with the first stanza of Pablo Neruda’s Ode to Valparaíso, which I find carefully etched in print-like graffiti on a wall of the bus station:
What a crazy
Your mounded head
You never finish combing your hair
Life has always surprised you
Death woke you
In your undershirt and long underwear
Fringed with color
The city, which I had heard endlessly compared to San Francisco, would make even the least creatively imposed person a photographer. Comprised of impossibly steep hills, painted-over staircases, neon houses and old-school funiculars (nine of which still function), Valparaíso is a piece of art as itself. It’s neighborhoods are like snowflakes in their infinite variety, and, I am told, best explored by getting lost – a true wanderer’s dream.
After staying in such a cramped apartment in Santiago, I decided to afford myself a little bit more comfort in Valparaíso.
The house, which I get to only after my cab driver calls my host to get directions, is situated at the southern edge of the city; its accessible rooftop overlooks the bay to the left and the rolling hills to the right.
My host, whom I don’t ever meet, has left a bottle of wine for me on the kitchen table in this two-story Spanish style house, which I consume that night while listening to music in the vast and eclectically decorated living room.
I start wandering the hills that day in search of nothing, turning only when I feel I have to or something interests me around the corner. I passed a large black kiosk in the middle of a residential street, a small structure that used to stand as a neighborhood bookstore. Several soccer fields are carved into the mountainside of all these hills where kids play amongst spray-painted crests of the town’s local club, the Santiago Wanderers.
Valparaíso is like a messy bedroom, where remnants of the past artistic taste are brushed up haphazardly against the new with no indication that it’ll get cleaned up. Valparaiso residents seem to wear their scars and trash on their sleeve like merit badges, like a magnificent acceptance and awareness of the complexity of humanity – not making the slightest attempt to clean up for a guest arriving for dinner.
On every staircase there are words painted across in bold declaration, like one in Cerro Alegre that reads, “We are not Hippies. We are Happies.” Another painted like piano keys. All the poles and uprights along the way have caricatures of mimes and clowns, politicians and musicians and countless likenesses of Pablo Neruda, Isabel Allende and Roberto Bolaño.
Valparaíso is a city intent on proving the infinite color palette of South America. In one establishment that was painted a garish pink with geometric shapes haphazardly painted all around, I had lunch which made me feel like the chef had taken all that was left inside his fridge and threw it together to create something random and fun but perhaps not as delicious as you’d expect – a salmon filet topped with shrimp and calamari on a bed of quinoa and haricots verts.
I wandered in this city in the way I learned to wander – aimlessly, I suppose, though I hate that word. Aimless feels crass and juvenile. Like I did not know what I wanted or what I hoped to feel. I would rather say that I did not want to know what I needed, or what I wanted to feel. Perhaps I am being silly. Perhaps I am thinking too much about my wanderlust. But I suppose what I mean is that I went away to get lost inside myself so that I did not know that I was dealing with myself until I was in fact dealing with myself. I ended my trip in Valparaíso in much the way I had hoped to start it – not allowing myself the time to think about where I wanted to go, or where my mind hoped to take me, but instead just letting my brain and my feet simultaneously take the pathways they and I subconsciously wanted to take. Perhaps the synchronistic movement of my thoughts and my legs were mutually beneficial, as one drove the other.
In the end I found myself at one of Valparaíso’s iconic lookouts, which was perfectly nestled between the rough and high barrios behind me and the vast Pacific Ocean below. I stood, with the burden of my past and the fear of my future shroudingmy view like a literal cloud and lamented its ability to stop me from enjoying where I was. I thought of my grandfather, whose death inadvertently allowed me to take my trip in the first place, and how he circumnavigated the globe in accidental fashion by the time was in his mid-twenties. And then I was happy. And then I cried for being happy – because the relief of joy after so much regret was overwhelming. Where did all that self-beating come from? I ask it without irony, as if the answer is not contained in the question itself. And when I get back to my home for the last few days of my journey, I read more of Neruda’s poems as if they were written by myself for myself, and suddenly their weight is immediately recognizable.
What else to say about Valparaíso, or my trip as a whole? It feels almost sacrilege to try and sum up my experience in a city that by its definition is meant to provide a comforting sense of ephemerality. I suppose all travel is that way, but here it seems even more so – I cannot remember much of my experience there, except that it was wonderful at the very same time it was treacherous. That I moped at the same time I danced.
It did not seem to matter on this trip where I was; my thoughts inevitably turned to the same few subjects. I could be surrounded by miles upon miles of natural wonders and regret how I pushed a woman away who only hoped to get closer to me simply because I was scared. I could be walking the streets of an Incan village and think about the snail-like pace I imagined my career was taking. Very rarely, if I was lucky, I would tell myself I was proud of myself for taking such a leap across the globe. On my last night, while standing on the roof of my adopted apartment, I thought about my last night in Santiago with Michael. He had asked me whether, if I died unexpectedly the next day, I could say that I lived a good life. And before I could answer he did for me.
“I would say you have. You’re pursuing a life in a career that you love. Feels like enough to me. Takes a lot of courage, that.”
I spent the next couple hours telling myself to accept the faults and mistakes of my past, while simultaneously acknowledging all that which I’ve done right. And at times where I have no control, perhaps I’ll try and summon some great mystical and divine intervention.
Asa Nisi Masa. Asa Nisi Masa. Asa Nisi Masa.