I'm Not in Chilean Prison, But Somebody Should Be
Despite this mugshot that I was required to pose against a wall for, I have not been arrested, my face is trying to tell you another story. It’s all gone, my tools for art creation have been robbed from me, a part of my sense of wonderment temporarily stalled and replaced with a feeling of deep violation. My abilities to be a being of calm, rational, and compassionate thought have been pushed to the edge of a ledge with sheer cliffs, where a plunge would be a complete unraveling of emotional rage. In these past few days I’ve teetered on that edge, but have not fallen, thanks to the energy and warmth encapsulated in the balancing nature of love; now I find myself returning towards clarity with an upward swoop of the world’s ability to counteract chaos.
But what happened? What was the rollercoaster that has been my first few days in South America? As I expressed when I first landed, my wonderment exploded on approach to Santiago as the sun’s rise exploded reds, oranges, purples, and yellows across a quilt of white fluff blanketing the Southern Hemisphere’s Pacific Ocean. As the phallic metal fuselage with outstretched wings roared closer to land, the Andes showed their might, rising from rolling hills to solitary peaks, to a crescendo, a musical silent encore, of snow covered summits. Touchdown in Chile and whisked through the customs barrage, out to Alamo and an attendant who I had to communicate with in hand-signals, onto the autopista with manual transmission and signage in foreign tongue. I navigate with downloaded google maps thanks to my cousin’s advice and manage around a few wrong turns to arrive at the Castillo Sufrista Hostel. A sweet blonde German shows me the friendly grounds, my amazing balcony clad private room, and to the courtyard where other wandering souls sit in the sun.
I glance to the right and lock eyes with positive energy, Maude stands to say hello and speaks in a familiar French/English accent, her presence radiates a combination of some of my favorite people from home and abroad. I extend my hand in unison with hers, though my aloha instincts say a hug and lips to cheek greeting would be warmly welcomed, I don’t climb over the plant between us to do so and say hello to the other travelers instead. I know from the beginning that Maude is someone I am interested in hearing her story from. She and Christina, both of whom are doing a work trade for a month to stay at the hostel, join me for a walk in the evening along the raging brown river. We drink 3.5 bottles of wine between the three of us and lose time in conversation about the diversity of life and experience. Randomness in encounters with strangers during solo travel is a void I have had since relinquishing the lifestyle 7 years earlier – I say that not with intent to make you believe my current trajectory isn’t satisfying, but to let you know that I am uncomfortable in captivity and still seek the comforting uncomfortableness of the wild.
Careful what you wish for.
Maude has the next day off and I rented a car for a reason – I wanted to experience the coastal Chilean port city of Valparaiso, a place I have read explodes with colorful buildings and street art, providing an escape from Santiago – she jumps in the car with a stranger, me, and we go off to explore the coast, passing through dry rolling hills and the occasional vineyards. I had reserved a spot on Air B&B with Fernando, who advertises his room as a part of a 100 year old building in the city’s central region, the reviews and the pictures are pleasingly accurate as the rootsy feel and warmth of Fernando radiate as soon we ascend to the second floor of the flat. 4-5 rooms encircle a common area with a large skylight beaming down on the central area, and a “Where’s Wally” Book sits on the table. Fernando tells us that as he continues to renovate over the next year, he’ll open into a hostel called “Roots.”
It's already 2 in the afternoon and we want to explore before we head up the coast to a recommended spot on the sand dunes for sunset. With cameras in tow, Maude and I marvel at the simultaneous decay of the city’s buildings mixed with the vibrancy of creativity of color and form in each mural of street art. We climb elaborate stair cases, ride steep funiculars, I snap pictures of the murals, of exceedingly friendly street dogs & cats, and of Maude blending beautifully into the afternoon sunshine as it cascades through the steep hillside corridors of homes adorned with art. The afternoon is perfect, we share a Chilean beer we buy from a lovely woman in the bottelaria, who laughs at our attempts to disguise the alcohol bottle with a newspaper before we sit on the steps overlooking the Pacific and stacked buildings that extend from Valpo to Viña Del Mar. Twice in our wanders we are herded by older women who quietly whisper in Spanish to us “cuidado” – meaning “be careful.” Though we both have heard the stories radiating from South America about theft, we don’t see the threat in broad daylight in this beautiful city.
As the sun descends towards the horizon, we agree that we should begin our voyage a little to the north to sit on the sand dunes with our Chilean viño, queso, pan, and freshly cut jamón. To that end, we return to our street parking, where the bedraggled parking attendant who had allowed us to park on his street earlier that day with a small tip necessary, greeted us saying he had watched the car and there was only one small situation. I didn’t understand most of his comments and so we get in the car to leave. Just as I am about to pull away, a white truck pulls in front of us and blocks us in momentarily in a very strange manner, before pulling forward. We didn’t think much more of it.
I navigate through the streets of Valpo up the coast until a car keeps beeping and pointing at our back tire and Maude looks out the window confirming that we have a serious flat on the right rear. More annoyed that we may possibly miss the sunset on the dunes, I pull off the main road as soon as I can to find a place to try and change out the tire – interestingly at the rental car station the attendant had emphasized that I knew where the spare tire was. Up a side street and into a private parking area for some non-descript building, we find a temporary place away from the road and engage with the tire iron and lug nuts. I actually feel manly in my ability to climb under the car and find the proper place to put a jack to lift the rental car’s frame enough to provide space between pavement and tire – thanks papa bear, I may not have learned to rebuild an engine from you, but at the very least I can replace a fucked up tire in the heat of the moment.
Someone has tightened the lug nuts to an extreme, and I must summon all my bear strength to budge them. As I toil with the chrome caps, a man walks up from down the street and seems friendly in his approach, telling Maude in Spanish that we need to put caution triangles on the street to show that we are blocking the driveway because we are in temporary distress. Maude leaves my side by the tire and goes towards the street with the triangles we find in the trunk (boot). Meanwhile I finally break loose the nuts with some grunting force and am on my way to removing the deflated rubber. As I get a closer look while removing the tire I notice that this isn’t a normal nail in the tire event, there is a series of about 8 punctures around the perimeter of the rubber, clearly looking like someone has stabbed it with a knife. I am now a bit perplexed and think our parking attendant may have just been an asshole, but my thoughts don’t drift deeper into a conspiracy. A man from the building whose driveway we are rudely blocking approaches us and Maude explains the situation in Spanish, and in a flash I have the tire off, the spare on and the lug nuts tightened back down.
Maude tickles my ego a little with her words, “Holy shit you did that in like five minutes, that was a pretty epic display of manliness.”
And with that we are back on the autopista up the coast and stoked that we have 20 minutes before sunset after releasing ourselves from a small bluster of traffic in the last fragments of the city. We cruise another 5 kilometers and in one fortuitous glance over my right shoulder I see an empty back seat. The life immediately drains from my face. Pasó la vieja. My new Chilean friends later would tell me that phrase, used to describe a moment when everyone is quiet, but directly meaning “when the old woman passes away.” Pasó la vieja. My breath is gone, my heart accelerates, I had placed my bag on the seat when we got in the car, my passport, my camera gear, my life inside.
I know before I break the silence, “Did you move my bag to the trunk while we were stopped?”
“I put it there on the backseat,” I mumble in a panicked tone as I pull off the road at the gas station and jump out of the car, scrambling to scrounge every inch of the backseat and trunk; I’m at a loss, I have no ability to scream, I sit on the edge of the boot and close my eyes, and breathe deeply in and out. It’s gone, all of it, I know it. I don’t know how yet, I haven’t put all the pieces together, and Maude is equally baffled. Did I just leave it there? Should we go back and ask the man from the building?
I spin the car 180 degrees at the next opportunity and forget the sand dunes and sunset. I’m in a panic, there are no words, but there is a glimmer of something that we cling to, maybe, just maybe, it’s there in that parking lot, and then my cell phone rings.
Maude answers for me and it hits hard. “Its, American Express, they are calling about your credit card and fraudulent behavior.”
In 20 minutes someone has tried to charge $1500 to it. That card was with my passport in a case.
Pasó la vieja.
Our minds race in silence as we put it all together – the parking attendant cut the tires, he signaled his accomplices when we left, they followed us through the city telling us to pull over, they waited till we began, sending a man to seem helpful in putting up cuidado signs, all the while distracting Maude while I labored on the ground with the overly tight lug nuts, and in a flash another accomplish sneaks in the other side of the car and grabs the bag from the seat. Professional treachery at its finest.
Maude In the Fountain of Youth
It is now clear there is no reason to go back to the point of the incident, instead we call Fernando for help and he graciously meets us outside of his home to join in finding a police station that is still open in order to conduct a full investigation and have my things returned to me within the hour. No, that will never happen, but I need the formality of a police report so I can hopefully recover some loss via insurance and report to the embassy what happened. Though my blood is bubbling, my mind is full of self-pity, my soul hurts from being violated in this way, I immediately recognize the energy coming from both Maude and Fernando. Maude has already given the type of oxytocin releasing hug that could cure the world if people were open to it and in the voice and comments of Fernando I know that his sympathy is deep and he feels horrible that his home may be represented in my mind this way. I know in those moments I am not at all alone, and on a greater level I fight off the negativity to realize that wherever I go there is a tribe of humans to connect with on this level in just hours if I let myself as I have now. The truth is I still love Valparaiso, “You fuckers cannot take away experience, I will not let you,” my mind echoes some semblance of goodness still.
“At least the two bottles of wine were in your bag,” I glance to Maude and choke out the joke through my misery, “we still can sit on the rooftop tonight with those under the stars.”
“Your ability to say that shows something in your inner-strength,” she replies as I grind my teeth and bite my tongue.
The police officer is kind, but indifferent as a telenovela loudly provides a background to Fernando translating everything for me as we explain the story to the officer. Without Fernando in this moment I would be lost, the situation compounded by a language barrier, by having no clue where the station was, by being flustered and annoyed – I am able to be all these things and still make it through thanks to him. I am grateful. I am deeply grateful for these two sitting to the left and right of me. I still must bite my tongue, close my eyes, and take long deep breaths to keep from screaming.
After at least an hour of this we return to Roots, order a pizza and take the wine to the roof. We are joined by Fernando’s flat mates, a fantastical cartoon like character of Russian decent and his girlfriend. He strums guitar and sings a lullaby in Portuguese and cries tears of deep sympathy on Maude when he learns of what just happened and hugs me. He tells us how when he first arrived in Valpo a thief took his girlfriend’s IPhone straight from her hands on the street and as he tried to chase him down, he tripped on a crack, fell to the ground, and broke his own phone. We stay up until 3AM on the roof talking story, commiserating experiences, I share some music that provides me positive uplifting, world changing outlooks that they have never heard – Nahko Bear & Medicine for the People, Trevor Hall, and Leon Bridges.
Maude prepares me before we sleep that I shouldn’t be shocked when I wake up and this hasn’t been a really bad nightmare. When I wake in the morning I wish it was a really bad nightmare. It’s not. It’s very real. On this day I have to deal with the aftermath – the process of navigating back to Santiago and finding the embassy to make my identity return to life before I move south or across borders. After smoothly maneuvering across the countryside we are greeted by a frenzy of traffic in the capitol city as it surges with chaos the day before the public holiday commemorating the sexless conception of Jesus. Maude is late for work already as we go nowhere fast, turning down sidestreets to go even more nowhere. Finally, she jumps out of the car, runs across traffic, not death-defying considering no one is moving, and jumps on the nearest metro.
Now I am for the first time alone since it all happened and I turn on my data roaming to use navigation to search for the US Embassy. Address loaded, I slowly escape the melee, and go… until I end up on the complete opposite side of town an hour later at the prison. I check deeper and realize this is the same address, but the wrong place, the address exists twice in Santiago. There is a twitch of humor that passes as I look at the circular barbs on the tall concrete walls, but that passes and I finally lose my shit as I get stuck in another traffic attack and realize I was almost next to the embassy where I had begun. I scream, I smash my hands against the steering wheel, I shake it violently, tears stream down my face, my eyes reddening, I rest my face in my hands at the next light and shake from head to toe. I feel like a 12 year old, but I let myself be in it now.
Nearly 2.5 hours later, I finally find a place near enough the embassy in the underground parking of the posh W hotel. I still take my massive backpack (the one that wasn’t stolen) with me from the car – post traumatic theft stress invoking paranoia. When I finally arrive at the Embassy and get through its guarded walls they ask if I have my passport photos taken. Internal dialogue screams silently at the lady, “Are you fucking kidding me? You fucking make Passports here, it’s 2016, how do you not have the ability to use a fucking IPad and upload the picture?” I’m angry, I have not eaten today, I’m still in shock. What I actually say, “Where do I get my pictures.”
The answer is in the mall across the way, I leave, I run across traffic, some more remnant tears drip out. I find the photo booth and shoot my mug shot. I am not going to prison, even if I drove myself there, I am just getting a new passport, those fuckers who stole my shit should be dropped off at the prison. I get my new passport as the embassy closes for the day and for the week, in the nick of time, a glimmer of light.
The next day and half is a bit of haze, a serious hangover without the alcohol. I am not my smiling self, a bite has been taken out of my optimism, but like our skin does when we are cut, I quickly watch healing in action. I contact my friend from Hawai‘i and she connects me with her sister and brother in law in Pucón, who offer their home as a place of refuge to south, where I can jump off on my real mission to Patagonia (much more on them in my next entry). I receive kind messages from family and friends at home, Maude makes phone calls on my behalf in Spanish, the web of love is being cast around me to hold me up.
When I return the rental car before I bus south the next morning, my airport shuttle drops me off 4K away from the hostel and the subway is closed and the taxis don’t want to take me where I want to go. I see opportunity, 4 K is nothing, I take off running through the streets of Santiago and don’t stop until I am at the hostel’s gate. Through a dripping layer of sweat on the outside, endorphins release on the inside. I shower and give Maude a hug of thanks for being so supportive to a stranger. Oxytocin release. I know the powers of these natural internal drug cocktails in health and happiness. I feel the internal shift.
People tell me not to dwell on the “why did this happen” and for the most part I haven’t, but even in the upswing now traveling to the South in route to Pucón, I look out at the Chilean countryside, that question does creep in – why the fuck did this happen? I’m frustrated at the moments and visions of the world that I have already missed out on capturing. It is not the material value that bothers me in any way, it’s that my ability to create was ripped from me, my strength in sharing the world through my lens has been diminished. I deeply experience a place from behind a camera and though I will still remain awed and in the moment by the landscape that I enter, I cannot help feel anger that I was robbed of my passion. There is truth that this will only make me stronger and drive me harder in certain pursuits, but this fall really hurt; I’m lucky it is only emotional hurt though, I have my limbs, I have my ability to bounce back, and unlike the poorest in the world, I have no need to steal, I am gifted with opportunity and unwavering acts of kindness still and always surrounding me and that lesson echoes above it all.