Sleepless in Santiago

It’s about 1am here and I’m still awake. I’ve been up cooking and chatting with my house mom all night, which is strange for me because I have class in the morning, but very normal for her because they don’t generally go to bed until about 2 or 3.

In my sleepless hours I have been thinking a lot about all the things I have observed in my first weeks here. Mostly about the people and they way they move around each other.

People here seem more concerned with their surroundings meaning traffic, construction, animals, people etc. The construction sites don’t have guard rails or blocked off areas so pedestrians don’t wander in; the man holes, street holes, and sidewalk canyons don’t have caution tape to keep people from breaking various parts of their bodies; cars pass each other in on-coming traffic; pedestrians walk in the middle of the road along side buses; cabs turn in busy crosswalks between women with strollers, etc. It’s as if the whole city runs on the belief that everyone is using common sense (or maybe running on the knowledge that no one sues the city for tripping on cracks in the sidewalk).

There’s more of a sense of being present here. People pay attention to where they are more then what is on their phones, or what they have to do later. I use the bus as my main evidence. There was a man the other day in a wheel chair trying to board the bus. As soon as he approached the doors, people on the bus got off to help him. When he left the bus, a man walking on the street stopped, ran to the bus door and pulled down the ramp for him.

There’s also the singers. Much like Venice Beach and the 3rd Street Promenade, there are artists who sing here for cash. They board buses and sing down the aisles from stop to stop. Sometimes, a small band with drums and all fills the bus with rhythm and sound. Other times a single man with only his voice is our entertainment from Plaza de Nuñoa to the metro station. The interesting thing about the cantantas though is that they sometimes sing these heart-wrenching songs about love and loss. They announce that it is their work, their life, and people listen. The ones who sing from the heart get more money offers then the ones who simply play good music.

So why is any of this important? Why does it matter that men in wheel chairs have a helping hand and singers with heartbreak get paid? I’ll use an anecdote from last night to explain. I went out for dinner and drinks with my monitor (a U Chile student assigned to be our guide through the mysterious workings of public university in another country) in a small outdoor joint in the middle of the artist’s district in Santiago. The waiter let us sit for a long time, waited for us to decide on food, and let us stay for a long time when we were finished. No part of the meal was rushed. And Carla my monitor didn’t seem to have anywhere better to be. There was no, “I have to leave at 10,” or looking at her watch or her phone. The entire time we talked she was focused on what I was saying and responding thoughtfully. We were there for hours.

And I understood her every word. This may not seem like a big deal, but for the Chilean accent, this is striking gold. I’ve been getting about half of what is said here because the accent is so thick. They cut off the ends of words and string entire paragraphs together in one long word. But with Carla on this one night, I got it.

It was as if I had to dedicate myself completely to the conversation and the atmosphere and the mentality of the room in order to get what she was saying, to understand her flow. I thought that because I knew the right verbs and sentences I would be able to successfully navigate my way around the Spanish spoken here. But it’s quite a bit more complicated. It’s a different city, a different mentality, a different people. I’m not speaking a language, I’m speaking to people, and I have to see it that way before I understand them.

Cooking till three am, helping on busses, sitting with a foreign student in a café for hours just to answer her questions about her grand adventure, they seem like they have all the time in the world to simply be.




4 thoughts on “Sleepless in Santiago

  1. How do people there know what life is really about & so much of the US culture is about accomplishing & succeeding? A friend told me of a client of hers: his mother spent her life doing her lists-nothing got in her way of checking things off & when she died, that’s what he remembered about her! What a legacy. Sometimes I relate (I keep lists) but would like to be remembered for things you talk about-true listening, compassion & enjoying the moment. Thanks for the reminder-your descriptions & feelings are so well expressed & it’s like I’m there-will be soon!!!

  2. Wow Cait! This is exactly what I LOVE about traveling to new places and finding the out of the way, hole in the wall kind of restaurants that capture the “true” culture of the country/city/town. Really beautiful things happen when you take the road less traveled…

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