We have completed our first internal trip within Chile. It was, in the end, a success. We left very early on Friday morning, flew south for over three hours and touched down in what could easily pass for a winter day in Winston-Salem. We spent the rest of Friday trying to find our way around, got detoured to a grocery store – fortunate – that we could never find again – unfortunate. We saw penguins, climbed a mountain climbed before by Charles Darwin and, if Facebook is to be trusted, our friend Laura. We made a few new friends, ate at a place called Dino’s and hung out near (not at!) a number of seedy nightclubs. In the end, we made it back to hot Santiago and are now trying to wash the new form of dirt we discovered off our clothes.
There is a lot to unpack from the weekend and I have come to realize that this blog will be more of a journal of thoughts than a running tally. I hate composing on the phone and didn’t take the computer with me. I suspect this won’t be the last trip I make in such fashion on the continent.
It was, in another respect, a strange weekend. We were very far from home, struggling to communicate or to simply get the gist of how to function. I was struck by how it felt like coming home to re-enter an apartment we’ve only spent two nights in and which I still can’t find light switches. And, yet, when we walked in after an excessively long van ride through rush hour traffic, I felt the familiar sense of relief that greets any traveler upon reaching something that can plausibly be called home.
Given the news we continually read while in Punta Arenas – thanks, internet – the subject of refugees was often on the mind. I want to stress, I am in no way a refugee in Santiago. I came of my own free will, even enthusiastically, with the full backing of family, friends and, most importantly, my employer. I have a support staff here and the ability, should the situation demand, to simply go to the airport and fly home. I’m in good shape.
Still, every little thing takes work. How does one go about buying a toothbrush? What does a good restaurant look like? How do I get to Point B? How do I pay for gas? Etc. I had almost two years to prepare, have studied the language – hell, I’ve been here before – but to do any routine daily task I could do in the USA takes me a little longer and requires me to concentrate. It inevitably brings frustration before success. I drive to work and buy coffee at home sometimes without registering measurable brain activity. Here? If I’m not concentrating I get run over by a taxi.
Which brings me back to refugees. They’re in a superficially similar state. They’re somewhere they don’t “get”. They don’t understand how the new world works or how to do the simplest task. On top of that, obviously, they’re there unwillingly, probably don’t speak the language and did almost no preparation for the experience. But what has kept coming to mind is a story I have read and heard a number of times:
Often, refugees will bring everything they can get their hands on with them. Obviously, many arrive with nothing – being a refugee isn’t profitable work – but the ones who can lay their hands on material goods will bring the most mundane items. Toothpaste, toilet paper…you get the idea. The first time I heard it I laughed a bit. But here, where I’m not a refugee in any sense, I did much the same thing. For some things, I literally brought as much as I think I need for six months. I don’t know why. Intellectually, I understand that in a national capital of several million people there is likely to be toothpaste and underwear. And, yet, I packed a giant tube of toothpaste and enough underwear to slingshot me home. I can picture a refugee having a similar thought as they get the welcome news that they get to escape their present hell: “Great! Now where will they keep their toilet paper?”
Why did I bring so much toothpaste and underwear? I don’t really know (especially given that I didn’t pack a toothBRUSH) but I do know the thought of being stuck somewhere without either underwear or the sufficient understanding of the society to buy underwear is frightening. Having been an adult, legally, for almost 30 years I’ve come to assume I know how to take care of myself. Asking people for help for something as simple as how to check out of a pharmacy is humbling.
We must have looked lost because on several occasions people have helped us. Most people don’t notice us and that is how it should be. But a couple of times someone has smiled and gently pointed out how to do whatever mundane task it is we need to do. We had a waiter at Dino’s who laughed at a joke I made and helped us through ordering pizza. The person who does this may not remember it five minutes later as the task is wholly unremarkable. But it felt so good to us. Just a little smile and small piece of advice and we regain a little humanity.
It works the other way, as well. Mary keeps trying to help translate for non-Spanish speakers. Later, when I tell you about our hike up Monte Tarn with the remarkable Fernanda, I’ll tell you all about Mary’s Spanish. Suffice to say, if you need to make a deal with a Chilean cabbie and you have no Spanish, Mary is your girl. She also helped some hitchhikers out when, while we were filling the rental she saw the girl drop a stuff sack from her heavy pack. Mary rushed from the car and returned it to the girl before they could leave it. They exchanged perhaps two words. Maybe one. But they smiled at one another and treated each other with kindness and it made them both feel just a little more one with humanity.
A lot of wise men and women have pointed out that all religion boils down to the golden rule. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. If you dropped your stuff sack, you’d want someone to tell you. If you hadn’t brushed your teeth in a couple of days and were standing slack-jawed in a pharmacy needing, unknown to you, only to take a number, you’d want someone to tell you. And if your society had collapsed around you and you had only the shirt on your back and your wife and children huddled and scared around you, you’d want someone to help.
Very close to you tonight there are people who need some help and encouragement. Perhaps even you. Go smile at someone and share a kindness. The world needs it more than you know.
Postscript: If you’re looking for a little lighter reading, know that Monte Tarn ate a pair of hiking pants. So, if you had six days until I lost my first significant piece of clothing, congratulations.
The picture is an iphone panoramic showing the Monte Tarn ridge we walked up and looking north and west into southern Patagonia. The Strait of Magellan is on the right. The Monte Tarn hike is incredible and we were fortunate to have an outstanding guide (Fernanda) who was supplied to us by Patagonia Travelers. If you knew the area you could do the hike on your own but without a 4-wheel drive vehicle and some experience in the area, we highly recommend Patagonia Travelers and Fernanda. More on the hike later.