Quinahue El Boldal, Chile
I love Chile and Chile loves me! The day my Visa expires will be a sad day, as this country has shown me by far the greatest amount of hospitality, kindness, and brotherhood out of any other country I’ve visited, hands down. I’ve made hundreds of friends here, and definently a few friends that I will keep I touch with forever.
So. At the end of the last post I was in San Felipe and planning a trip into the Andes and a few more adventures in Santiago and Valparíso. The latter happened, but alas, I found the former quite impossible. After many queries to friends and officials alike, I was assured that a trek into the mountains was impossible, as all the passes were currently blocked by ten solid feet of ice and snow. I not being one to take no for an answer, I traveled to the pass anyways.
After a two-hour hike I found my way quite effectively obstructed by, as I was told, ten feet of ice and snow. I suppose some things really are impossible.
After a few more days frequented by binge drinking, and joint smoking, I decided to take my adventures away from San Felipe for a while so as I could:
A) Explore more of Chile, and
B) Give my friends some space.
The next day I packed all my dirty clothes away into my bag, rolled up the old tarp and blanket, and headed south for Santiago.
A few months ago when I first entered Chile I was contacted via couchsurfing by a fellow named Rodrigo in Santiago who wanted to meet me and have a few drinks. So I dug up the old email and replied, telling the guy I was coming to his city for a day just so as I could know the area better.
Ready for a day of mind-clearing hitchhiking, I stood outside of San Felipe, thumb out and facing in the general southerly direction of Santiago. It was a lucky day; a car soon stopped and took me all eighty-five kilometers to Santiago.
Now, my instructions from Rodrigo were to take the metro to the Baquedano station, where he was going to meet me at 2100. It was currently only 1500, and I didn’t have any money for the metro anyways, so I popped a squat on my pack and began playing music.
After about two hours a mere CL$1.200 had tinkered into my coffee tin, but it was enough for the metro and a few cigarettes. I smoked one out on the street just before I went into the underground tunnels of the Santiago subway.
However, fate had other plans for me. Just as I was about to finish my cigarette an older fellow came up to me and made some comments about the large size of my pack that caused him to fall into fits of righteous laughter. I laughed along with him, not wanting to upset any underlying violent mental condition that he may or may not have had.
He then invited me into the bar for a drink. Since I still had four hours to kill and had decided that the fellow was harmless enough, I accepted. We ducked into a dimly lit place and soon had a few glasses of beer frothing merrily on the table.
Introductions were made, and he announced himself as Alberto, the writer. How nice, I’m a writer too! Alberto was quite drunk, but this was of little surprise as us writers are often in such a state. He looked to be about fifty-five, sporting a short grey beard, glasses, a tattered tweed jacket, and a Depression-era black cap. He looked a lot like Sean Connery. As he slurred away in Spanish another one of the bar partons took interest on our conversation and joined us at the table.
This fellow raised fewer red flags than Alberto, and was considerably less drunk. He was Rodrigo Mardones, and coached the Chilean Olympic diving team! Fucking hell, what a job! Since it was much easier to understand him (being as his vocal chords weren’t soaked with brandy like Sean Connery over there) I talked with him much more while Alberto sang off tune dittys in the corner.
Around eight-thirty I left the bar, with a firm invitation from Rodrigo to visit him and his wife anytime I wished. I surreptitiously tucked his business card away in my passport; it’s useful for a guy like me to have contacts in a big city like Santiago.
I went down the stairs and into the metro. Thirty minutes later I arrived at nine o’clock sharp to the Baquedano station and met the other Rodrigo from couchsurfing.
As I was already a bit buzzed from the beer I had drunk with the other fellows and Rodrigo had classes the next day, we just went back to his apartment and had a much-needed meal and played Halo with his roommates.
The next day I left Santiago, bound for Valparaíso. After a few hours of waiting on the heavily-traffiked autopista, I managed to find a lift to the seaside town of Viña del Mar with a couple of used-clothing peddlers.
Viña del Mar is a mere two clicks from Valparaíso, and I know people in both Viña and Valpo. So I tossed my pack down on a busy street corner downtown and played the harmonica so as I could earn money to use the phone.
My efforts proved fruitful; coin after coin plinked cheerfully into my coffee tin and I soon found myself with nearly four lucas in less than an hour. Perfect! So I gave my friend in Valparaíso a call. After a bit of confusion on the line that cost me nearly 500 pesos at the pay phone he agreed to meet me at the McDonald’s in half an hour.
After buying a pack of smokes I went to the McDonald’s and waited.
Three hours and a few increasingly irritated voicemails later, I gave up. Fishing through the endless leaves of papers in my passport I extracted another one of my contacts in Viña del Mar.
No good, she was in San Felipe. And so it went, with all of the other phone numbers I had. No answer, out-of-town, the works. It looked like I was, as the old saying goes, up shit creek without a paddle. It was nearly midnight. Time to sleep on the beach.
I was hungry, and had spent all of my money on dead-end phone calls and cigarettes. So I went back to the downtown and played a bit more harmonica until I had enough for two enormous hot dogs.
Well, that was easy enough. I was still hungry so I went out and played some more, my notes echoing mournfully throughout the increasingly deserted streets. Soon a couple of guys with bags came up to me. They apologized for their lack of money but offered me a bit of beer instead, which was fine with me.
These fellows were clearly ‘people of the street.’ I never have had a problem with homeless people, and have slept with them under bridges and in other covert camping locations on several occasions in México and the United States. Anyways, I was homeless for tonight as well, so perhaps these fellows could point me to a good place to sleep. They spoke lightning fast Spanish mixed with so much slang that I had difficulty understanding anything.
Eventually, after a few bottles of beer and the purchase of a goodly bottle of rum, they invited me to their sleeping grounds, which were located under a bridge on Avenida Libertad. Happy to have found a place to sleep that wasn’t the cold beach, I accompanied them.
We arrived after a brisk fifteen minute walk punctuated by the occasional root through the dumpster by my friends for tin cans, which can apparently yield about CL$1.000 per kilogram. I filed this under ‘Useful to Know.’
The bridge was actually quite nice; they had a campfire blazing and four or five other bearded figures dressed in rags were sitting around it and drinking vodka straight from the bottle. Twords the back of the bridge was nestled four or five tents and an array of improvised beds, ranging from the humble strip of cardboard coupled with a dirty blanket to sleeping bags and even a few relatively clean-looking mattresses. On either side of the bridge were a few windbreaking walls made of cardboard, stone, and any other material that could be stacked.
There was even a sort of bathroom; on the other side of the bridge about fifty meters away was spray-painted the message ‘piss here’ and, a few feet away, ‘shit here.’ In any case, I had certainly slept in dirtier places in Perú.
My arrival was hailed as nothing short of a miracle; rum all around, welcome gringo! I set my pack down next to a tent and joined in the merriment.
Now, if you have half a mind and just a little bit of empathy, you’ll have wondered just what homeless people did to become homeless. Sure, you can say they are crazy; they can’t function in our society, and are forced to live off of whatever they can find on the street. Granted, some of them are.
Most of them, however, are not. I took this opportunity to talk to these folks and find out just what happened to these people, what went wrong in their life to cause them to currently be living under a bridge.
There was a guy who, all in one day, lost his wife to street muggers, his home to a fire, and his leg to a truck. This caused him to go on a drinking binge as soon as he got out of the hospital that has yet to come to an end. Another fellow has a horrendously crooked spine that is actually disgusting to look at that. He can’t work, and for some reason doesn’t qualify for government compensation. Consequently, he and his wife live in a tent.
Then there are the people who just don’t want to work, and the people who just like being on the street. To each his own, I suppose. I certainly don’t look down on the homeless, and neither should anybody else. Street people are just like any other class of humanity: there are good people, bad people, and crazy people, kind people, and any other type of person you can think of.
So, the next time you pass by that bearded fellow on the street who smells terrible and is asking you for a quarter, give him fifty cents and a smile. Sure, maybe he’s going to spend it on booze or crack, but how is that your problem? Anyhow, it’s only fifty cents, and maybe he really is going to use it for food like he says he is. A man’s gotta eat.
I spent the next two days with my homeless friends, playing the harmonica and living the vagabond life. I actually did end up getting ahold of one of my friends in Viña and had a very nice time with her, but I still preferred to spend another night under the bridge.
On the morning of the third day was the day I was awoken by a gaggle of about fifteen schoolgirls who bravely came under the bridge to give us some breakfast, a gesture of pure kindness that I was happy to see still alive in our youth.
That afternoon I hitchhiked back to San Felipe, ready to rejoin all of the great friends I had made there. A few cars and a semi landed me right in the Plaza, and I walked happily back to Lamas’s house.
I rested a lot in the following days, taking a vow of silence for two days and eating only bread and water so as I could relax and meditate. It was nice; no booze, no weed, no cigarettes. Just thoughts and a peaceful head.
However, I was ready to break the vow on Tuesday night. Chile was playing Honduras in the World Cup the next day at seven-thirty a.m., bright and early, and no one was going to sleep or be silent that night. The party started at ten that evening and went on for two days.
The atmosphere was festive and bright; when the game started that morning, everybody gathered around the television, Lamas tweaking the bunny ears and sticking bits of foil on the tips to get the best reception.
When Chile scored the goal against the floundering Honduran team, the world exploded. People banged their heads against the wall, threw chairs around the room and shouted at the top of their lungs, ‘GOOOOOOOOOOOL CHILENO CONCHA TÚ MAAAADRE!!!! CULIADO CULIADO!!! CHI CHI CHI!! LE LE LE!! VIVA CHILEE!!!’ Nearly all glasses that weren’t safely stored in the cabinet were destroyed in the meleé. People embraced, kissed cheeks, and jumped up and down.
We ran out into the streets, the force of our celebration too great to be contained in a mere house. The neighbours apparently felt the same way, and people poured into the streets from every home, all shouting their heads off in their joy.
One man, dressed in a Chilean flag and nothing else, stumbled drunkenly down the sidewalk shouting ‘GOOOLLL!!!’ At one point he nearly tripped over a bit of concrete protruding a few inches above the pavement, but managed to somehow regain his balance. This was fortunate for him since a fall at the speed he was going coupled with the outfit he was wearing would have almost certainly resulted in….pain and embarrassment. Maybe not now, but definently when he sees the video that his friends were currently making of him once he sobers up a few days from now.
An hour later the game was over. Chile, 1, Honduras, 0. The entire western coast of South America from Arica all the way down to Punta Arenas collapsed into celebration, our house included.
At two in the afternoon the festivities were still going strong; we blew into horns and sang along to ‘Hijos de la Tierra.’ The casual passerby would observe people standing on chairs and singing, jumping onto each other’s backs, waving bottles of beer around, and hear the sounds of the last of the glasses shattering against the tile floor.
Finally, later that night, we collapsed, exhausted, into our beds, and slept for what seemed like days. When we finally woke up we found the house in ruins; it looked like John Belushi and the guys from Animal House had spent a month here; broken glass was everywhere, an inch of spilled beer flooded the kitchen, and bits of food were splattered against the wall. Someone had scrawled ‘Chilenoooo’ on the window, the o’s getting smaller and closer to the ground as the author presumably passed out in the act of writing (the Castle Ahhhhh….) There were also, somehow, footprints on the ceiling.
When it was all cleaned up, the weekend was here. Lamas went to Quillota to visit his family, and I went with Jorge to his home near Santa Cruz, where I am now. His family is extremely nice and seem to love me. Plus it’s nice to have a break from all the parties.
On Monday, Chile plays Switzerland.
CHI CHI CHI! LE LE LE! VIVA CHILE!
The Modern Nomad