As I chatted with a friend this week, she said, “You haven’t been writing”. My response was, “I’ve literally had nothing to write about”. The social distancing and lack of activities has led (I’m guessing, for all of us) to uninspiring and unexciting routines. How many of us find ourselves looking at our family members, thinking, “What do we talk about today?”
She said, “Why don’t you write about your travels? Places you’ve already been, but haven’t yet written about.” What a great idea! (thanks Alyssa!) For this post, I return to Chile once more.
It was October 2017. I had moved to Chile. I had found a new apartment (with Marta); I had found a job (online); I was making new friends (through Internations). I also thought to reach out to the Marine Corps community, to attend whatever birthday celebrations might be happening at the US Embassy.
The gunnery sergeant with whom I first made contact reserved a spot for me at the birthday ball. He arranged for me to sit with Marines from Valparaíso and Viña. I had no idea there were Marines in Viña and Valpo! But there were – two active duty Marines stationed with the Chilean Marine Corps, and one retired sergeant major (and his family). The sergeant major had been stationed in Chile years before (he’s originally from Colombia), met his wife (Chilean) and moved back after he retired.
He reached out to me because, even retired, he was still a Marine.
It’s normal for us to reach out, to connect, to include a new member in the local group. I love that about the Marine Corps. I know that wherever I go, if there are Marines nearby, I am not alone. I automatically have a family. He had just proved that was true. He invited me to his home to have a glass of wine with him and his wife, and to meet his two daughters. (picture below from the ball)
When he asked if I knew how to get to Playa Ancha, I replied, “yes” – with authority and confidence, no less! Of course, I had no idea how to find his home in Playa Ancha. But I wasn’t about to let him know that.
Besides, I viewed this as an opportunity. It positively terrified me to take a bus all the way up to Playa Ancha (into a very local area of Valpo, definitely off the beaten path), but what better way to get good at using the bus system?
You see, you had to know where you were going. The bus system did not have helpful signs. There were no electronic systems on the bus to warn you of the next stop. You had to know the location of your stop, be able to identify it, and then ask the bus driver to stop so that you could depart. This is somewhat problematic for someone going to a new place, who also doesn’t speak the language particularly well.
But I had a plan! It had worked before. I located the address on Google maps, identified the correct bus to take, identified the name of the stop. I practiced my Spanish exactly, to confirm with the bus driver that his bus went to this particular stop, to ask him if he could let me off when we arrived there. I practiced being polite, and using full sentences, as this often got me the best results (in any language, politeness goes a very long way).
My plan worked beautifully. The bus driver turned out to be a nice gentleman who responded positively to my request. I sat in the front seat, out of the corner of his eye, hoping that this would ensure he would remember I was there. I patiently watched the world go by for 15 . . . 20 . . . 25 minutes. I watched the bus climb the hills of Valparaíso, and wondered if perhaps he had forgotten me. But I had no way of knowing. So I waited.
At some point, he happened to look behind him, saw me, and exclaimed in surprise. He had forgotten me.
I wasn’t sure what to do.
Just as I had begun contemplating my options (Do I go home? Try another bus?), he waved down one of his compatriots going the opposite direction.
Two buses, side by side, with traffic rapidly piling up behind them both.
Before I knew it, my bus driver was ushering me off the bus and waving me toward the other one. His Spanish was nearly indiscernible to me (I wasn’t ready for this eventuality!) But I gathered that it was no longer acceptable for me to remain on his bus. This other bus driver was going to take me to my desired stop.
Would I need to pay again? How do I know for certain that he was going to take me where I needed to go? My whole plan had fallen apart, and I was rapidly developing emergency ways just to get myself home as I got off one bus, crossed the road (still with stopped traffic in both directions) and alighted to the other bus.
Can you imagine my mortification? The lone foreign woman, in the middle of a very local part of Valparaíso, stopped traffic because she has no idea how to find her stop – I was imagining all sorts of terrible things being said about me.
My new bus driver had no time for me. He did not demand a fare (kind of him). I attempted to communicate my original request, if nothing else to confirm that he was indeed taking me where I wanted. He waved me away impatiently, his Spanish so fast I could not even pick out individual words. I sat in the front seat as we began to move, very nervous (and very late for my invitation).
I had no idea how far past my stop we had traveled – 5 minutes? 15? I called the sergeant major to inform him of my predicament. He felt badly – he did not know that I was going to take the bus. He assumed I had a car and would drive. He asked to speak with the bus driver.
I thought, “Really? You want me to give my phone to a man driving a bus?” He was so insistent, I finally relented.
That did not go well. My bus driver waved at me impatiently, got more frustrated and finally directed me to sit in the seat at the very front of the bus. This seat is usually reserved for friends or family. This was not a seat regular passengers ever used (until that moment). It might be called, the “jump seat”. (pictures below)
If I didn’t already feel like I was the center of attention (causing all sorts of problems), I definitely did then. I sat quietly, hoping silently that he would let me off the bus soon. I just wanted to go home. My plan at that point was to get off the bus, wait for the next one, and take it all the way back to Viña.
Of course, the sergeant major hadn’t forgotten about me. He was positively worried, and feeling very badly himself. My bus stopped a minute or two later. It was the middle of nowhere (by my assessment). There was nothing that looked like residences anywhere. I had no faith that this was where I was supposed to be. But he insisted that I depart his bus – RIGHT THEN.
So I did.
I looked around, to see if I could identify a street sign (why are there never any street signs in foreign countries when you need them most?). Just as I was scanning the area, I saw a man approaching who looked distinctly like he could have been a United States Marine. He still had the haircut; he still had the walk. As he got closer, I asked him, in English, if he was the person I was looking for. “Ma’am! You made it!” was his reply.
What an adventure. Did I ever need a glass of wine after that! It turned out to be a lovely evening. I so enjoyed meeting him and his family. They had built a beautiful home, and expanded it to be a bed and breakfast. I just made four new friends. (who spoke English perfectly, and were unceasingly patient with my Spanish)
This remains one of my favorite stories. Travel is nothing without a little adventure and a little fear. Travel is all about pushing oneself outside one’s comfort zone. I learned (a little more) how to navigate public transport in Chile. I learned how to get to Playa Ancha! I learned (again) that I’m perfectly capable of figuring things outs (even in a foreign language). I learned (again) that the effort is worth it. I made new friends, gained some confidence and felt a little more at home in this new country.
I hope you enjoyed this post. Next week, I’ll tell you about my favorite work trip ever – my trip to Israel. Till next time!