Young man, there’s no need to feel down
On the road between Santiago and Valparaiso, there are eucalyptus windbreaks and tired dogs. I drift in and out of sleep, sometimes waking up in Chile, sometimes in California. The landscapes are identical. As we near the coast, dusty foothills give way to tall apartment buildings. A dirt path separates us from opposing traffic. Along it, sweaty men and elderly women in grey flare sweatpants use exercise machines. They are painted in primary colors, like playground equipment. Someone sells empanadas and sopapillas from a white cart. We meet our host families in a Mormon church.
Later that night, we make lasagna. The secret is leche de coco, Dili whispers to me. Chocolate milk. It is the best lasagna I have ever tasted. The next day, while eating leftovers at the breakfast table, I remember that coco means coconut, not chocolate.
I am crossing the street with friends in the early afternoon when a man walking behind us pulls out a knife. It is shiny with a black handle and six-inch blade. He pulls out a second knife and then a third and begins to juggle them. Later, in a café, we order waters. The glasses are an inch tall—half the height of the glasses our bartender used to measure pisco the night before. We laugh and laugh.
There is a pause in the conversation and someone says listen. Jazz music plays from black speakers overhead. After an extended trumpet solo, a female voice sings, “It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.” We are in tears now. After dinner, I light the calefont to heat water for my shower. Smelling a burning match—or seeing bottles of Garnier Fructis on supermarket shelves or hearing the Gorillaz on the radio or waking up to a cat curled up behind my knees—is comforting. I light another.
My biggest accomplishments here have been small: walking home from school by myself, learning how to coax hot water out of the faucet, finding sunscreen during winter. Last week a Chilean woman stopped me on the street and asked for directions. I have never been so flattered.