Last night was the birthday party of Emilio’s friend, and the niece of our neighbor’s, Elisa.
In our normal style, we arrived late. I want to say this is a Chilean tendency but the truth is I have never been good at timekeeping. The party was already in full swing, with a huge table lined with children in the front room. Jose and his family had outdone themselves with the food, which was excellent, from crudo (like ceviche but with beef), mini empanadas de pino, and numerous other canapes. Hundreds of balloons were tied in an arch across the room and there were streams of tissue paper hanging in ribbons across the ceiling. There were chocolates with ‘Feliz Cumpleanos Elisa‘ and the party bags were canvas and filled with stickers, bubbles and candy. Elisa sat at the head of the table in a princess dress and crown, quietly eating crudo.
The room was dark and packed. A friendly match was playing between Chile and Paraguay, so we joined the men and older boys who were sitting watching outside. Both Luis and I were struck by the communal nature of the property, which you will remember me touching on briefly in this post. Basically there are three houses in front of a central courtyard which houses the family television and various odds and ends such as old bed headboards. The roof is mostly covered by corrugated iron and plastic but there are numerous gaps so I assume the rain still falls in (they are always fixing the roof so I believe my assumptions are correct). It smelled like damp and it wasn’t very clean. The houses had no locks on and I noticed that there was no order to who went into each room – they were all shared.
Emilio couldn’t care less and was soon playing with everyone, jumping around hysterically with a balloon and rolling about on the floor with ten year old Enrique, the adopted son of Jose (I do not know the story of his parents). There were about thirty children at the party but two stand out in my mind. One was Enrique, because I was struck by his kindness and affection towards Emilio, and he seemed very intelligent. The other was Ashley, daughter of Luisa, who was in charge of party entertainment and seemed years more mature than her age (11). One of these activities was kareoke, and it was bizaare to hear such young children singing about touching body parts (what a sign of the times). When the kids heard me speaking “funny spanish” most of them asked me where I was from. No-one had heard of New Zealand, confusing it with Norway (what is up with that?!) and most of them assumed it was part of the United States. One very young girl told me that she knew a few words and often watched subtitled movies. All of the children were sweet, friendly and loving towards each other, and all of them accepted Emilio as one of the group – Elisa actually kept trying to cuddle and kiss him throughout the night!
The adults were equally friendly. There was one man who very excitedly approached me and said “Remember me? I took you in a taxi one time and told you I didn’t need directions as we were neighbours!’ After racking my brain all night, I can finally remember him. Yes, I had taken his taxi months ago from outside Roberto del Rio hospital, when Emilio was hospitalized for seizures. I remember him telling me he lived close by, and that he really liked music. I remember him speaking to me a bit in English, too.
A lot of the night I talked to Jose. I have to be honest, but my Spanish ability seemed to go drastically downhill – I could barely understand a thing! Jose seemed intent on telling me about his life, as out of the blue he told me that he used to live on the street.
“Why?” I asked him, naturally.
“Because my parents were both alcoholics. The street was better for me than being at home with them. I left home when I was six and then I was taken into care. I was on and off living on the street until I did something bad, then I spent 5 months in jail.” Here Jose showed me his various arm tattoos, that were faded from the bad quality ink.
“What was that like?” I asked him.
“Terrible. There were so many people and it was just so bad. Inside I was with a guy from South Africa and someone from Ireland, and from them I learnt words in English. There was another guy from Germany, who taught me some German too.” After a brief interval of sharing our collective German knowledge, Jose continued.
“Things are very different for me now. I now know exactly what I want for my family, and for my daughter Elisa. And it is not that. I have turned my life around.”
I believe him. Jose is one of the nicest, most genuine and smiling Chilean that I have ever met. I can see that he works very hard and is loved by all. He then introduced me to his cousin Viviana, who runs afternoon tuition classes for students who are really struggling, and Francisca, who used to work at Recoleta’s special needs school but now is studying to be a Bach Flower Remedy practitioner. He also introduces me to Pamela, who (supposedly) speaks English but disappeared the moment after I opened my mouth to say hello. I talked with these women for a long time, about Chile’s education system and about Ojos Abiertos. They were very interested in our work and told me that they would love to bring our activity classes to Viviana’s programme in Recoleta (we don’t have enough volunteers – let me know if you want to get involved!). Viviana told me – and I have noticed this – that Recoleta is very interesting because the lower and middle classes are integrated and mix together. I have noticed this as well – our other neighbor, for example, lives in a veritable mansion and has a jaguar.
Emilio, by this time, is starting to get very tired. In Santiago I have noticed that children go to bed much later than is normal in New Zealand. Emilio sleeps at 8 and it is now long past that time. We are all dancing and singing along to Chico Trujillo and Americo, and everyone is amazed that I know all the words (they love it!). When I tell Jose that it is time for us to go because Emilio is exhausted, he admits that it sounds like Emilio sleeps too much. Elisa, who is the same age, is still quite happy and it is ten!
Most of the children have left now too, so the party is now for adults, albeit one with children. It continues out on the street, and we sleep to the beat of cumbia and the sound of laughter that sounds long into the night.
I am going to publish this blog post because it shows a different side of Santiago life. We are also entering into Las Fiestas Patrias, a time about coming together as a people. So instead of focusing upon the differences you may see notice above, how about focusing on the things that that you share?
I enjoyed last night and I enjoyed getting to know my neighbors a little better. Emilio had a great time. It didn’t matter to him what his friends looked like, what they had or what they will grow up to be like. Prejudices are learnt – children are children. I only hope that by sharing a friendship maybe they will both grow up to be more accepting and tolerant. No matter how soppy it may sound, opening your eyes and hearts is key for the future: En el pais de los ciegos, el tuertos es rey.