San Felipe, Chile
The past few weeks haven’t quite been as adventurous and limit-pushing as previous ones. I wasn’t marooned on a Caribbean island of the coast of Panamà for several days, I didn’t ride down active volcanoes on go-carts of questionable structural integrity, and I didn’t nearly die of thirst in the remote Atacama Desert of northern Chile.
I’ve actually been acting like a normal twenty-year-old for the past two weeks.
Shocking, I know. But believe it or not it’s kind of nice, though I do, as always, look forward to moving on. Normally, I probably would have jetted out of this town after three or four days; however, since I have about three months to waste until the sea ice around Antarctica melts in late August, I’ve been killing time in any way I can.
For a majority of my time here in San Felipe, I’ve been staying with my friend Oscar (AKA Lamas,) whom I met in Constitutiòn when we were volunteering with Un Techo Para Chile. Here in this relatively sleepy little town nestled cosily in between the Cordilleras de la Costa and the fabled Andes Mountains, it’s not hard to find someone if you really want to. Just go to the local University (which, lately, has been plastered with protest posters and is essentially run by the students) or spend an hour in the Plaza sitting next to the quite aesthetically pleasing water fountain. Sooner or later, your guy will come wandering past.
And that’s how I found Lamas again. I was walking with my friend Marco (whom I mentioned in my last post) and BAM there he was, sporting his distinctive blue bandana and a pleased look on his face.
Lamas got his nickname from Lorenzo Lamas the TV actor, stemming from back in his younger days when he had long greasy hair and wore leather all the time. Thankfully, those fashions faded away with the years, but the nickname stuck. Now, at 22, Lamas is much more stable. Usually dressed in clothing that more than hints at his proud Chilean heritage (such as things made of alpaca fur) or a sweater of some sort, he radiates friendliness and brotherhood. He traded the Curtain O` Grease look for a more fitting short length, with just a hint of a mohawk. His face almost always wears a smile, framed by a pencil-thin moustache and a distinctively Latin-American soul patch.
Upon going through the obligatory greetings (which are quite extensive here in Chile, sometimes taking up to thirty seconds) I was immediately invited to stay at his house. This came at a perfect time, since Marco was leaving for Santiago the next day. I, of course, accepted, and went back to the apartment and packed up my bag.
Lamas and I arrived to his place after a brisk twenty minute walk. Soon we came to a large blue house, which was separated down the middle by a large black-iron fence. Apparently, two different groups of people lived here…sort of like a two-level apartment building turned on its side. Opening the creaky iron gate on the north end, we soon came to an old, peeling hardwood door, which stated in bold letters, ‘Lamas hueko como el Bruno’ (Lamas is gay like Bruno) scrawled in chalk across the centre. Lamas rolled his eyes and dusted it off as he unlocked the door.
‘Fucking roommates,’ he said to me knowingly as we entered the home. The door swung open to reveal a large front room which was partially connected to a rather dirty kitchen. The front room was sparsely furnished, consisting of only a twin bed shoved up against the wall, a love seat with the cushion and a large portion of the back support missing, and several plastic lawn chairs arranged in a rough circle around what apparently had been a metal disc filled with bed of hot coals the night before. Then, almost as an afterthought, a desk with an old cathode-ray TV sitting atop it was stuck in the middle of the wall, the bunny-ear antennae reaching nearly to the ceiling.
Lamas motioned to the twin bed. ‘You can put your bag there for now. I’ll have to clear some things out of Mathias’s room first.’ He walked into the kitchen, something soft squelching underfoot as he rounded the counter.
‘Do you want something to eat?’
I shrugged. ‘Sure, I could eat,’ and plopped myself awkwardly onto the crippled love seat. I stared absentmindedly at a blank piece of white printer paper thumb tacked to the wall with no apparent purpose except to make the wall look slightly yellow, as Lamas busied himself with chopping a strange-looking pumpkin.
‘The soup I am making is called porotos con riendas,’ he told me in Spanish. ‘It is traditional Chilean food. In it are beans, pasta, and pumpkin.’
That sounded pretty tasty to me, though the pumpkin he was slashing at didn’t look much like any pumpkin I’d ever seen. Instead of being orange like a proper pumpkin it had a pallid, whiteish hue. If you were to carve a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern out of this one it would probably look like a zombie-pumpkin, which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be bad for Halloween. The innards also had considerably fewer seeds than the handfuls of slime I was used to joyously digging out and flinging all over my mother’s clean kitchen floor.
Upon completion and consumption of the soup about an hour later, I discovered that zombie-pumpkin was fantastic! It was much sweeter that it’s orange cousins from the north, and when paired with pasta and beans, made for a delicious meal. I had thirds.
Later on that evening, Lamas’s roommates began to arrive; there was Toby, a large fellow with an even larger personality; Sebastian, who can only be described as a Chilean McLovin’; and Mathias, who would give me cigarettes without my even asking. Nice fellows, the lot of them.
Lamas and I spent our time intermittently between his house and the home of another one of my friends from Constitutiòn, Keto.
Keto is another very distinctive person; usually wearing a beanie hat of some kind, his clothing varies from camouflaged jackets to inexplicably random printed t-shirts (such as one from Freemont Baptist Church in Alabama and a blue March of Dimes one…where did he get those??) His long face is framed by a pair of black rimmed glasses and straight black hair that varies in length from nearly to the shoulders to just past the ears, depending on which part of his head you’re looking at.
His personality is quite eccentric. Able to juggle five or six of just about any object you throw at him, his hands are constantly moving. Conversation with other people can go on for hours as he tosses tennis balls to and fro in the air, the objects whistling around his shoulders and under his legs without any apparent effort.
Keto’s house is my favourite. When Lamas and I first went there, we had to climb five flights of stairs to get to the top floor dwelling of our friend. Upon arriving (out-of-breath) to the door, we banged on it unceremoniously.
The door opened immediately and out came Keto’s head, followed by a cloud of marijuana smoke that drifted lazily out into the corridor and hovered contentedly over our heads. We were greeted enthusiastically and beckoned inside.
This apartment was much smaller than Lamas’s house. Consisting of only a main room/dining room/kitchen, a tiny bathroom covertly hidden just behind the front door, and two small bedrooms, it was nonetheless homey. There were actual sofas, at least, and in the corner sat a small table upon which rested a stereo and a small guitar amplifier. Leaning against the table was a bass guitar and, randomly, a didgeridoo.
In the centre of the room were my favourite bits of furniture yet: two towering marijuana plants, reaching nearly to the ceiling and having so many offshoots that they were nearly as dense as a hedgerow. The afternoon sun glinted off the heavy, crystalline buds as they moved about in the breeze from the open window nearby.
Lamas instantaneously materialized next to the bass guitar, plugged it in to the amplifier, and began playing along to Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ while Keto surreptitiously trimmed his plants with a pair of scissors that would be at home in a kindergarten classroom.
Two hours later, the Floyd was playing solo as Lamas, Keto, and I lay glued to the couch and had conversations that, honestly, just went around in circles. Eventually that too petered out and we just lay there, starting at these huge green masses sparkling (yes, sparkling) in front of us, as Roger Waters and David Gilmour’s haunting voices looped in and out of our ears like audible smoke.
Keto was very politically active; his walls were covered with rally posters that said things like (translated) ‘ATTEND to create a better, socialized form of higher education!’ and ‘NO right turns!’ (this was followed by the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union.)
It appeared we would get along just fine. Later on, we found ourselves just starving, so Keto graciously whipped up some sort of chicken and noodles that really hit the spot.
Then there was a knock on the door, and in came the last member of my new little group of friends: the long legs of Paola, (AKA ‘Flaca,’ Spanish for ‘skinny’) pierced the atmosphere of the room as Lamas and I stood up to greet her.
Flaca isn’t called ‘flaca’ for nothing; she is a whisp of a woman, though she makes up for it with her towering height, the top of her head hovering at least four inches above mine. Her face is long as well, sharply defined by a strong jawbone that makes her look vaguely Russian. Framing her face is a mass of very curly hair cut to about shoulder length, tied up into a half-bun, red but clearly dyed from a likely dark brown. Peering out from her pale face shines a pair of sparkling eyes that are sometimes light brown and sometimes light green, depending on the light.
Everything about Flaca is long; her legs rival in length even those of my 6’1” father, and her arms can stretch far higher than my own. She usually wears a sweater of varying colours, which hugs her thin (yet, admittedly, attractive) body like a well made glove.
Flaca slid into a small unoccupied space on the couch that a pencil would have had trouble fitting into, and promptly joined in on the relaxation.
That’s how we have been; Lamas, Keto, Flaca, and I. Usually there are others, assorted friends and roommates, but normally, we four are there. There were exceptions, of course, such as:
When Keto, Lamas, and I went to Valparaìso for the weekend and saw a Pink Floyd cover band, and then later went to a rally during the President of Chile’s speech and got tear gassed.
When Keto went to Los Andes for the weekend and Lamas, Flaca, and I hosted a Goth party at his house (which was interesting in the same sort of way that pouring salt on a slug is interesting.)
Normally in the daytime, everybody else would have classes; therefore, I would stay at Lamas’s house, watch Spanish soap operas, (even though I hate soap operas) and eat tons of bread. Then, eventually, everybody would get home from the University. Sometimes there was studying, but more often than not there was rampant socialising. Perhaps a campfire, a visit to the river, or just sitting around and staring at Keto’s exquisite botany projects.
Some nights, there would be wine. A lot of wine. Chile has some of the best (and cheapest) wine in the world, and its local residents take notice. Wine-in-a-box is usually how it comes, though it’s vastly tastier than what you’d expect from something that comes packaged in cardboard; and best of all, it’s roughly CL$2.000 a litre, or about three dollars. The wine is usually mixed with Pepsi or Coke, and then drank in the same manner as a man in the desert drinks his first bit of water in two days. The end result is, of course, rampant drunkenness and general silly behaviour.
Sometimes, us four would go and visit the ruins of a palace leftover from the old Spanish regime, dating back to the early eighteenth century. This was an activity that I enjoyed immensely, as the place just radiates history. Obviously once a place of splendour, the old building now is reduced to a few standing walls at ground level. There is, however, quite a network of basement rooms still intact; if one follows the stairs down into the guts of the old place, after a few turns one can find oneself quite lost, the experience being similar to that of being stuck in a hedge maze.
The local vandals had, of course, recognized this place as an easy spot to scrawl badly-spelled messages in spray paint all over the weathered walls; consequently, lopsided hearts and ‘so-and-so te amo so-and-so’ decorated walls that were surely once decorated with gold.
In the centre of the old place stood a mighty chimney, protruding all the way from the basement and up ten meters into the air. If one was careful, than one could reach the very top and have a spectacular view of the snow-covered Andes to the east.
In front of the palace was an overgrown concrete pool about two feet deep, obviously the remnants of a reflecting pool. The rest of the grounds were hopelessly overgrown, with Mother Nature taking back with a firm hand what was hers.
Of course, not all of our time was spent relaxing or exploring; one afternoon, Lamas and I went to the Plaza, and, with the help of his Cultural History class, scrubbed graffiti off of statues. The charitable act was noticed by the community, and we were featured in the local newspaper. Gracing the third page was a photo of Lamas and I scrubbing with toothbrushes and paint remover the statue of the Lady of Springtime.
And so, I’ve passed two weeks here in San Felipe. It really is a nice little town, and I’m not sure how much longer I wish to stay. However, I do plan on making a trip into the Andes in short notice, and after perhaps back to Valparaìso to visit some other friends of mine.
Nos vemos, my friends,
The Modern Nomad