Lost in the Wilds of South America

One way to explore a new city is to take a wrong turn, get lost, and discover new places by trying to figure out how to get back to the one place you know. This is something Carol and I tried shortly after getting to Santiago. Our experience was complicated by several factors.

I have no sense of direction—nada, ninguno, cero.

A few days after arriving in this city of six million I went to several convenience stores, a metro stop, and a tourism center (!) asking for a map only to be told “No. Es dificil.”

The GPS on my phone doesn’t work south of Florida.

I do not see well enough to read the tiny letters on the tiny street signs that show up at random intersections.

It was late at night. It was not late when we got lost, but I understand now why elderly people don’t drive at night.

We were in a country where we speak only a few words of the language and recognize even fewer. For instance, to an uneducated ear listening to high speed Chilean Spanish, derecho/right sounds a lot like recto/straight ahead. I do know Estoy perdido/I am lost, which I used repeatedly.

The people we asked for directions were more amused by my pigeon Spanish than distressed at our predicament. I stopped at a WalMart where the parking lot attendant found it hard to believe that anyone could get where we were while wanting to be where we wanted to be.

A woman taking out her trash was certain it was at least sixty kilometers, which sounds pretty far, to our house.

I tried to ask a street juggler at a busy intersection for directions, but he refused to break character. He seemed to think I was disparaging his art.

I stopped at an outdoor café where a young woman thought, “Me puedes ayudar? Yo quiero ir a casa/Can you help me? I want to go home” was the worst pickup line she had ever heard.

We live two blocks from the tallest building in South America. You might think this would make it easy to get home, but our lighthouse turns out the lights when it’s dark.

Chile feels no need to note the direction of the highway on which you are traveling. For instance, I spent a significant amount of time assuming that Costanera Norte went north and that if you were going the other direction it would be Costanera Sur, but this is not the case. (I have begun to suspect confusing signage is a clever way to encourage public transportation.)

Streets change names every few blocks for no discernible reason.

There are two roads named Americo Vespucio. One of them does not go where we needed to go.

One of the streets I most needed, La Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins, is always called Alameda, because who wants to keep saying La Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins? It’s still unclear why someone from Atlanta should be expected to know this.

We came really close to looking for a taxi and paying to follow them.

We eventually got home, but I have been lost frequently enough in the last three months to have time to reflect on this experience. A variety of religious faiths use the journey home as a metaphor for salvation. Jesus talked more about people being “lost” than being “sinners.” The language of lostness is worth reclaiming if we recognize the despair of getting lost and the joy of finding our way home.

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Blood, Sweat, and Shears

This is no place for a shampoo.  No gbarber814cels.  No mousse.  No hairspray.  No blow dryers.  Just real razors and serious scissors.

I got this from Google translate:  Yo no hablo mucho español. Quiero un corte de pelo. Yo quiero que se vea como el mismo.  No corte mas.  (I do not speak much Spanish.  I want a haircut.  I want it to look about the same.  Don’t cut much.)

But apparently I inadvertently said, Yo no hablo mucho español. Quiero un corte de pelo. Quiero ver como un niño de nueve años de edad. Piensa Beaver Cleaver. Por favor, use tijeras oxidadas. También me gustaría que ocupe algodón con alcohol para que me arda la cara como un fuego.  (I do not speak much Spanish.  I want a haircut.  I want to look like a nine-year-old boy.  Think Beaver Cleaver.  Please use rusty scissors.  I would also like for you to use cotton balls to dab on alcohol that burns like fire.)

We were the only two people in the barber shop—which makes sense now—so I decided to practice my Spanish.

Me: ¿Cuántos años un barbero? (How many years a barber?)

Barber:  Long, meandering, incomprehensible to me me five minute answer that ended with cincuenta anos.

Me:  Cincuenta anos.   Muy bien.  ¿Vive en Santiago toda su vida?  I had been working on “Have you lived in Santiago all your life?” for the last four minutes of his answer.

Barber: No. Yo vivía en el norte. This was followed by an extensive, circuitous response that I did not understand at all.

Me:  Si. El norte.  ¿Tiene una familia? I had been waiting with “Do you have a family?” for some time.

The Barber:  No. No familia.  Then he spent a significant amount of time explaining why.  I’m not sure what he said.  As best I could make out he was married when he lived up north.  They moved to Santiago or she may have left him to come to Santiago.  They split up or he killed her.  I realize how that sounds, but I thought I heard a wistful Yo la maté.  I recognize that he could have just as easily been talking about a bush (mata) or check mate in a chess match (mate).  Perhaps I missed him telling me about his time as a matador.  He was talking pretty fast.

If this were a movie the big confession would make sense.  Maybe he’s been carrying around this horrible truth for cincuenta anos.  He’s never told anyone.  Then this gringo with a severely limited vocabulary wanders in.  My barber realizes he can say anything and I won’t have a clue what’s going on.

Even if by some unlikely accident I hear “I killed her” and by some bigger fluke I tell la policia, who would take my word over his—especially since I clearly don’t understand 90% of his words?

He could say, El americano tonto me malentendio.  Lo que dije fue,  mi vida ha estado vacía desde que ella murió. Ella era mi todo.  (The silly American misunderstood.  What I said was, my life has been empty since she died.  She was my everything.)

I would believe him.

After he either confessed to a terrible crime or told me how much he missed his wife we didn’t talk much more, but he seemed lighter, relieved.

Which makes me wonder again if he really did confess something. Maybe during the final, protracted response I missed him saying, “I got married when I was nineteen.  She was kind and, in a curious sort of way, quite beautiful, but I wanted to be successful so I went to work early and stayed late.  I watched every penny, so she went without a lot of things she should have had.  We stopped really talking.  After a while we might as well have been speaking different languages.  She hung in there a long time, but after a while she got tired of living alone.  I should have been a better husband.  She died a few years ago.  I went to the funeral and sat in the back.  No one recognized me.”

I may go back in a month and tell my new barber about how I could be a better husband.  I can be stingy.  I don’t say what’s most important.  I don’t listen as carefully I should.  Confessing could be good for my soul, too.

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