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don’t forget to tip your bag-boy

I had never in my life started a slow-clap.  The first time would have to be on a bus in the middle of Chile.

You’ve seen this phenomenon in movies.  There’s some powerful, unconventional, emotional performance.  The audience is quiet, stunned, uncertain of how to respond, until one person stirs, putting his hands together once…twice…and then a little bit faster and a little bit faster as others begin to join him.  Slowly at first, but steadily, until the entire audience is on its feet, clapping, cheering, united in their adulation and enthusiasm for the performers.  It’s become a bit of a cliché, but after sitting in a bus on the side of the Pan-American highway for an hour, waiting for the six passengers that the bus driver forgot at the last station, the slow-clap seemed the only appropriate response.  As the bus shifted into gear and lurched into traffic, finally, I grinned at Angus and put my hands together once…twice…and then listened with glee as the entire bus erupted into cheers and hollers and laughter.

It was meant to be an eleven-hour bus ride from Santigao, south to Pucón, to Angus’s uncle’s farm.  First the bus was late.  Then it broke down.  Then it had to wait for the passengers it had left behind.  At first Angus and I were nervous, then incredulous, and then it just became entertaining.  We took turns at the window, watching the countryside roll past.  The hills around Santiago were brown and dry, but as we moved south they became greener, lusher, larger.  From hills to mountains to volcanoes.  We listened to our MP3 players and communicated in signs (Charades, rather than English or Spanish has become our first language.  As I struggle with the Spanish, I’m losing command of the English.  Inarticulateness is a new experience for me.).  Angus, the artist, drew himself an elaborate tattoo and I befriended the old Chilean woman across the aisle who wore a pale flowered dress and waved a black lace fan back and forth in front of her face.  She drew my attention to the recently-erupted Volcán Llaima as we drove past: a smoking black cone ringed with ashy clouds.

This was day four in Chile, and despite the monotony of the road, probably the most relaxing.  The first three days, in Santiago, I was in a daze.  Not four hours after landing, I was sitting at a table with a Chilean family, eating corn, tomatoes, and barbequed meat, struggling to speak Spanish, struggling to accept that this was reality.  Raquel, Raúl, and their children (José, 17, and Juan Pablo, 20) were helpful, welcoming, and patient, but it all seemed too far out.  Angus and I lazed through the scorching summer days (85-90F, easily) next to the family’s pool, ate what was put in front of us, and tried to follow the conversations that rolled around us like a hot Spanish wind.

La Moneda, home to Chilean's Presidente: a socialist single mother.  And they call this country the third world.

Raúl took us on a walking tour of downtown Santiago (el Centro), where we saw La Moneda, the house of La Presidente, and had our picture taken with the carabineros in front of the mansion.  They wore sharp white uniforms and carried thin, jeweled swords.

From L-R: José, Raúl, the Angus, Juan Pablo, Raquel, Sarah (a kiwi exchange student & indispensible translator for A & me)
For New Year’s Eve, the family ate a late meal, then took to the streets at midnight for the fireworks (fuegos artificiales) display.  People choked the streets, flinging confetti, kissing and hugging and wishing each other “¡Felíz año nuevo!”  Children ran and shreiked, champagne was poured, and when the fireworks ended, the party really got started.  Angus and I rode with José and Juan Pablo to an outdoor event stadium, and from 2 AM to 8 AM we danced, drank, and tried not to get lost in the crush of the 6,000 other young (16-20 year olds) revelers.  Raúl picked us up at the front gate of the arena at about 9 AM, just as the heat of the sun began to be unbearable, and we spent the rest of the day passed out by the pool.  The whole celebration might have been a hallucination; it still surprises me to realize that it’s 2008.

The timing of this place is disorienting.  The days begin late.  Breakfast is light, and the biggest meal of the day is at 1 PM.  There’s a snack around 5 PM, a light dinner at 10 PM, and then off to the discos when they open at 1 AM.  The keyboards in the internet cafés are different.  For the first time I can correctly apply accent marks and upside-down question marks without needing to consult Microsoft Word Help.  Supermarkets are overwhelming, and as I can’t understand numbers when they’re spoken to me, paying for things is a trial.  The young boys who bag my groceries get tips.  Taxi drivers do not.  Stray dogs are everywhere.  There is so much that is different, my eyes got tired, and my head hurt from trying to translate and absorb.  It was a relief, therefore, to get onto a bus and to have thirteen hours of nothing-time in which to work on assimilating the past days’ barrage of information and newness.

Not to say that the strangeness and unreality has disappeared.  Living on Angus’s uncle’s farm is like being in NZ.  We’ve been here for five days, hiking and exploring the countryside and enjoying being able to speak English.  I keep forgetting that I’m in Chile.  Still, there are new things to learn and plenty to keep us occupied, and there will be stories to follow.

In the meantime, ¡felíz año nuevo a todos!  Check out the photos: http://community.webshots.com/user/susanm483 and check back again soon!  Ciao for now…

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