The 10 hour bus trip was long and stuffy, filling up with more and more people as we neared Chile’s Capital. But the journey drifted through some surreal scenery. The Andes paralleled the highway till forever, emphatic hues of indigo and mazarine painted to the east. Arriving in Santiago later than expected and I was as usual stuck with finding a place to stay for the night. I walked to the University of Santiago, hoping to find the address of a friend I’d met in Bariloche, but the reception was closed. Of course. I asked the guards if there was a cheap place to go. I was given circumspect directions to a Salvation Army shelter and advised to watch my back. It reminded me of a line from a chill-hop song on one of my favorite playlists; ‘Follow the wind, but watch your back’.
I stepped unsurely through the streets in search of the shelter, not totally at ease as I skimped passed some pretty sketchy looking people who were arguing over drink and throwing punches into the air. Broken glass littered the concrete and rats scurried menacingly from dumpster to dumpster. I eventually came to a set of foreboding gates and was ushered into the lobby by a man with a limp and scraggly long hair. I took a seat, dropping my backpack in exhaustion on the floor. The room was full of a whole array of characters, some severely destitute, some who seemed as lost as I was, and still others who looked like they were just up to no good. Soon after being offered a simple meal of boiled potatoes and bean soup for dinner I was taken into an office to present my details. The officer, incredulous at seeing a young gringo arrive late at night, was very matter-of-fact about the security in the shelter.
”What are you doing here boy? This is a dangerous part of town. Where do you come from?”
”I’m from South Africa. I’m backpacking through South America and am on my way to Bolivia and Peru to go climbing”, motioning meekly at my rope and ice axes. ”I just finished high school and don’t have much money…and I’d like to travel for as long as possible…so I try to save on transport and accommodation wherever I can.” The man looked at me in amazement, shook his head and pushed forward a form to fill out.
”South Africa huh? Could’ve fooled me. We’ll keep your bags here and you make sure to leave any valuables in this safe. Also, keep your clothes on your bed, even your shoes! Do not leave anything out of arms reach. Got it?”
”Er….um….yeah…sure…I got it. Thanks. How much will it be for the night?”
”Son, this is a homeless shelter. And while I doubt you’re homeless you don’t have to pay anything, although any donations would be appreciated.”
”Yes, of course. Here, please take this.” I handed him a few crumpled notes and received more suspicious glares as he checked it was actually local currency.
”Get some rest gringo. Wake up early to avoid the queues for breakfast. And pay attention.”
”OK, thank you very much sir…I appreciate it.”
I stepped out of the office, my heart racing a little from the warnings, and saw dozens of worn-out, depressed looking men who lined the bleak corridors playing cards and moping around forlornly. The place reminded me of a prison. Everything was painted in a depressing grey. Rusted bars were screwed onto all the windows. No laughter could be heard. I sat down at a bench in the cafeteria, gulped, and opened up my journal, hoping to no draw too much attention.
”What the hell are you doing here Matt?!” I thought, kicking myself for being so brazen on the first night in a big, unknown city. Checking into a hospedaje would’ve been a way safer bet. But I had in me this inexplicable urge to stay in unusual spots, to experience the places I was traveling in from different perspectives to what might be encountered in hostels frequented mostly by bucket-listing backpackers. Despite being a little on edge in cities at night, I didn’t really give a shit where I stayed. I’d already found a roof over my head in all sorts of forms during my hitch-hiking journeys and was open to pretty much anything at this point. I also knew that these sorts of exploits would become stories worth telling.
A warm, smiling middle-aged man in a tartan waistcoat and twirling mustache approached me. He had a worldly disposition and walked like a pilot, shoulders back, head cocked in confidence. He began chatting as if he’d known me for years, talking about Chilean politics, history and culture. Long loathed by its Andean neighbors as a strongman that leveraged its military power to control land and coastline, Chile has experienced a chequered modern history.
Over a bitter tea and stale raisin bun breakfast the next morning, I met Jurgens, a man from Germany who had been living at the shelter for 6 months. He had deep bags under his eyes, salt and pepper hair and sandpaper hands. What was his story? How did he land up here?
”My mother brought my siblings and I here after the war. My homeland was in ruins and we had some family here who’d emigrated before Hitler invaded Poland and went on to destroy so much Europe. Life has been tough here though, we never really felt like we were completely accepted.”
”What work have you done here?” I asked as sensitively as possible.
”Well I always wanted to be painter and musician, but those professions were heavily regulated under Pinochet. Instead, I was forced to work simple construction jobs year after year. My mother passed away from a mysterious illness and then my brothers and sisters parted ways with me. They never said goodbye and I don’t know where they went, or if they’re even still alive. I was tired of running away, and decided to stay. At the same time it was almost impossible to leave. People were being killed all the time. We lived in fear. All we could do was keep our mouths shut and follow what the dictatorship told us.”
Pinochet’s 17 year iron-handed dictatorship began on the 11th of September 1973 when combined Chilean Armed Forces overthrew Allende’s government in a CIA backed coup. The presidential palace, La Moneda, was obliterated. The military junta then proceeded to systematically wipe out all political opposition, in what has been referred to as a classic form of politicide. Anyone associated – even remotely – with Allende, Marxism or socialism was murdered. Thousands were also detained and tortured, coming to be known as the desaparecidos, ”the disappeared”. Hundreds upon hundreds of families were torn asunder, gouging deep wounds in the fabric of Chilean society.
I wondered whether Jurgen’s siblings were also abducted, since they were fervent left-wing political activists at the time. I felt greatly sorry for him, the adversity and pain he had to endure, and in some way bad about the wealth of opportunities I had in contrast. There are things in life we can control, and those which we cannot. Maybe the lesson is to captain what we do have control over as best we can, despite the imposition of that which we are unable to control, as overbearing as it may be.
I hit the subway to the north-eastern district of Los Leonne to visit the US, Chilean and South African embassies. Hopes of getting a visa were dashed by the fact that I had to either be a resident of Chile or be in back in South Africa to apply for a US visa. Shit. My brother Mark was going to Alaska for a post matriculation adventure in June and I wanted to fly up to see him. I was aiming to spend 6 weeks or so up there, and then return to South America for the rest of the year. I had no commitments other than starting university the following year and so was eager to have some quality time with my bro before moving from Durban to Cape Town to study. But it was not to be. Just not to be.
Amidst the teeming streets of yellow double-decker busses, taxis and pedestrians, Santiago held an intriguing charm. Its colonial buildings, central plaza, churches and universities all shaping the city into one of Latin America’s major capitals, both cultural and financial. I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Avenida San Diego, searching for the ‘supposed’ camping stores that a guy at Raid Outdoor told me about back in Bariloche several weeks before. Despite having no luck this time, the scruffier appeal of the streets around San Diego was a treat to explore.
On the way, I helped a sick, old, homeless man across the street and gave him the rest of my bread, again struck by the struggles of those ignored on the sidewalks. Perhaps, in a way the sympathy I felt compelled my escapades of finding lodging in places where the homeless and destitute went, and thus try and get a small sense for what that kind of life might be like and reflect back on my own life with different eyes on my privileges.
So I’d gotten into this thing of not staying in backpackers, hotels or hospedajes. Sure I could’ve, but I wanted to get to know locals and experience life as it was for everyday people. A self-imposed cultural exploration that while freaking the crap out of me when wandering alone through shady streets at night, also inspired a window of opportunity to delve into society here in a way that most travelers seldom, if ever encounter.
I would knock on peoples’ doors and ask if I could stay with them for the night, sometimes spinning a sad story of losing all my money, mixed with non-fiction about my purpose for traveling in South America. It was often quite embarrassing, but I wanted to feel what it was like to be desperate, even just a little. ‘To whom much is given much is expected’, my mom always told me. And yet I had to remind myself of the profundity of those words. It was also very much about believing in the kindness and generosity of others, hoping for it while walking down dim, sign-less streets in areas where roaming around at night probably wasn’t recommended in travel guides.
At one house a very kind young lady gave me 1000 Chilenos – insisting I take it when I declined her offer – and at another a girl helped me find a place where I could stay the night for that exact amount (about a dollar and a half at the time). The grungy place had two dormitories and housed some seriously unsavory characters – to put it mildly – including an old woman with a bloody patch on one eye, drinking beer and chain-smoking, an eccentric guy who bore religious paraphernalia in the form of tattoos and broaches – a swastika, a star of David, a cross, an Om symbol – and still another who had been in jail for three years for beating his wife I learned. ”My god Matt, you’re out of your fucking mind staying here!” The place conjured up images of a medieval inn in the dark depths of Transylvania. One-eyed zombies. Witches. Plague. Poison spilling surreptitiously between suspecting drinkers.
‘’You know what the funny thing about life is?’’ A man straight out of Adam’s Family asked me straight up.
‘’Um…no…what is it?’’
‘’We all have ideas of who want to be, where we want to go, what we want to do. And maybe some of those things happen, or they don’t. Even if they do, what does it really matter in the end? We think we’re so important, this need to be superior, to immortalize ourselves.’’ I wasn’t quite sure what the upshot of his prose was, and lifted my eyebrows to squeeze a bit more out.
‘’We’re all eagles man. Just flying in the sky. None better or worse than any other. Freedom’s already been achieved. We just don’t see it because of all the hazy shit we create. Well, society plays its part of course! But we can stay stranded and allow our wings to be clipped, or take those wings and soar to our own rhythms. And our wings will do the rest.’’
Now how do you replace that kind of wisdom anywhere? Even if you do end up staying a dive that has you biting your fingernails about contracting a contagious disease from sipping at your glass. I still kept my shoes next to my pillow that night, but drifted off to sleep at ease, seeing those wings gently pulling air on to anywhere in the world.