The other day when I was walking home from the bus stop, I was struck by how familiar and comfortable Recreo, my neighborhood in Viña del Mar, feels to me now. What struck me was not just that I feel at home here, but more so that I feel as if I am a part of the neighborhood, instead of just some foreigner stuck in limbo between vacation and immigration. My walk home from the bus stop is essentially uphill the entire way, but I never get tired of it. I get off the bus at Viña’s biggest icon and tourist attraction, “El Reloj de Flores,” which is quite literally a clock composed of flowers planted on a hillside next to the ocean. Now, ironically, the Reloj de Flores was recently wiped from existence when a giant pine tree was uprooted and fell down the hillside in a miniature mudslide caused by the unprecedented torrential rain of the past two days. The precious monument was destroyed without a trace and they are now estimating that it will take around forty million dollars to fix it. In my opinion, not worth it for a circle of flowers, but to each his own.
Anyway, as I was saying, the other day when I was walking home, before that weekend of rain and the Reloj’s tragic death, I was struck by how much my neighborhood had really begun to feel like my neighborhood. I know every dog and cat and where they hang around, basking in the sun and begging for food or attention or both. I know every crack in the sidewalk, every piece of graffiti. When I come up the stairs from the main, I wave to the store owner on the corner who’s almost always standing outside enjoying the day and talking with friends. He and his wife came over on Easter when my Chilean mom’s boyfriend made enough paella to feed a small army. I recognize the homeless men drinking beer on the steps near the park. I smile at the old man who always walks his poodle down to the lookout at the same time that I come home for lunch each day. I know at exactly what point the smell of Papa John’s will drift to me as I walk up to Diego Portales and turn towards my street, Arturo Prat. It seems that Chile shares the U.S.’s traditional of naming streets after historical figures that no one really likes and whom, outside of the nationalistic bias of history books, seem to have done more harm than good.
I have subconsciously memorized the barks of each dog that will sound off in order as I pass by their respective houses on the way to my own. My favorite is the paradoxical German shepherd three doors down who always sits perched on the ledge of house’s fence like a cat and whose bark is surprisingly high-pitched for a pup of (at least) 80 pounds. When I get to my house and take out my keys, I no longer have to study them to see which one has less rust (that one goes to the gate, the other to the house) because I can feel the difference.
I often recognize faces of people I know as I am walking around the Recreo neighborhood and it makes me feel proud. The man at the local liquor store, whose parents sent him to grade school in the U.K. so that he could learn English, always likes to practice speaking with me when I come in for cheap wine. My friend Amelia’s Chilean host mom who owns a boutique next to the sushi place by the train station, who is probably the sweetest, happiest woman I have ever met. My eccentric history professor who I always see reading the newspaper in Café Recreo. The parking attendant that always smiles and says hello when I pass by. The group of neighborhood guys that looked after my friend Colin and I when we first got here and are always excited to see me. Friends that I’ve made, young and old. And not just the people I have met in Recreo, but all of the friends that I have made here, friends that I truly care about. Friends that I can’t imagine leaving in a month and potentially never seeing again. They have all impacted my life here and who I am because of it, in their own way.
I have always been a strong believer that who we are as people is a patchwork made up of the influences of the people we encounter in life and the ways in which they help shape our heart, some obviously more so than others. There is an African philosophy native to the Nguni tribe in southern Africa called Ubuntu which, if you know me well you’ve most likely heard me talk about. Directly translated it means, “I am because you are.” But it is a way of life founded upon the belief that our humanity is constructed and nurtured through relationship with others, that we are all intrinsically connected in this way and, therefore, we should treat one another with love, graciousness and respect.
In that moment, walking down the street to my house, I thought about the people that I’ve met here in Chile and all I could think of was how fortunate I feel to have had them contribute to the ever-growing patchwork of my humanity. My heart is full!