(Atlanta, GA)–About 12 hours ago, there were four of us in the speeding van. A rock music photographer turned poker shooter sat in front of me in the middle seat. Beside him was a 19-year-old University of Connecticut student with a U.S. and Costa Rican passport. I sat in the back row with a former Hollywood D-girl turned poker writer. The student and the lady napped off and on. The photographer looked at the huge vineyards on the road from Vina del Mar to Santiago. I pulled my Bollé shades down over my eyes and watched a Chilean summer sunset.
I adopted the American south as my home region in 1997. The weather, the culture, and the food endeared me to life below the Mason-Dixon. I’m not capital “S” Southern, but I’ve gotten close enough. As Lyle Lovett once sang, “That’s right, you’re not from Texas, but Texas wants you anyway.” Texas may not want me, but the Deep South took me into its fold years ago. It’s not a perfect place by any stretch, but I like it. It’s still cold in the winter, so a trip to the southern hemisphere seemed in order.
The people with whom I shared the Chilean cab have become my friends. We’ve worked together long enough that we can speak in shorthand about our project, let the minor quirks of the job slide off our backs, and then have a beer after it’s all over. It’s those couple hours at the end of it all that make it worthwhile. We ranged in age from the late teens to late forties, but for these trips, we’re whatever age we feel after an 18-hour workday.
I liked Chile. A South American January summer is loads better than a European winter. What Chile lacked in good local beer, it made up in character and sunshine. The regional brew was Cristal, making for a frequent joke about how it would stand up to the champagne of the same name. Chileans may make good wine, but they are a bit behind in the art of beer. That did not stop a crew of around 50 people from storming into a bar called the Hollywood Pub at 3:15am Friday morning and drinking the place clean out of Cristal. None of us got more than two apiece, leading to the oft-asked question, “How can they run out of the local beer? It’s like St. Louis running out of Budweiser.”
While in Chile, I stayed at the Hotel Del Mar. It’s a five-star joint with an attached casino. It had all the luxury of a European hot spot with nary an ounce of the pretension. Where in Europe I would get supercilious looks when I asked for just about anything, in Chile I found the staff falling over itself to help me. On one dinner break, I decided I wanted to take my sandwich from the restaurant and up to my room. The restaurant had a rule about such things, but the waiter gave me the Chilean equivalent of a wink, put a silver cover over my food, and nodded toward the restaurant door. When we got outside, I tried to take the plate from him. He refused, insisting he would carry it up to my room for me. When we got to my fourth floor room, my key wouldn’t work. The dude refused to leave my sandwich behind. He stood sentry next to my plate while I went downstairs, got a new key, and returned. Sure, he was probably angling for a tip (and got one), but the effort didn’t go unnoticed.
Chile is not a perfect place. There is an expected level of poverty and homelessness. The streets of Vina del Mar are filled with stray dogs. There were two incidents of serious crime while I was there. I knew the victims of the first incident. It was just bad luck on their part. The second victim (who I didn’t know) reportedly got himself in the mess and ignored several simple rules about being on the road in a foreign country (Rule #1: Do not under any circumstances accept an offer from a local girl to go back to her place). At no time, however, did I feel unsafe. If I ventured somewhere off the hotel property, I did it in the light of day or with a reputable local guy who graciously offered to be our fixer. I like having a fixer. That’s a story for another day, but a damned good one.
I actually have a few stories from Chile I’d like to write, but at the moment, I’m just too tired to collect my thoughts. Last Sunday, I got on a red eye flight and flew to a South American country. The time zone was two hours ahead of Eastern Time. My workday went from noon to the early morning hours of the next day. I averaged a 6am bed time over the four days I was on the ground. Then, it was another red eye last night. I dozed a little, but not enough to make this three-hour layover in Atlanta any more fun.
Despite the fatigue, I’m happy to be going home. Barring anything unforeseen, I should be home until at least March when I am scheduled to go to Punta del Este , Uruguay. It will be another chance to get my warm South on when it’s still cold in South Carolina. For now, though, I’m going home to my family. I’m going home to my friends. I’m going home. By Chilean standards, I’m going to be a Northern man for a while.
That’s just fine with me.