I arrived at Santiago airport early on a Tuesday morning, fatigued from spending the night at 30,000 feet and groggy from theValium and screwdrivers intended to make the 10-hour flight bearable.
I jumped in an airport taxi and headed for Providencia, one of Santiago’s many zonas. A friend’s girlfriend has an apartment there, and ostensibly I would be allowed to crash on her couch.
I was dozing off, staring out the window at the brown, garbage-clogged river running alongside the highway, when I received my first official welcome to Chile. An ordinary looking man in a colorless pair of coveralls, perhaps a mechanic on his coffee break, was squatting over the tributary, facing the highway and obliging nature’s call. All the scene was missing was a sign saying Bienvenido a Chile.
I received my second cordial greeting almost simultaneously. While I was still watching my squatting friend, wondering what he was going to use to wipe his ass, the driver chuckled and said, “Mira.” I looked at the overpass he was pointing at. Spray painted in giant green letters was “GO HOME FUCKING GRINGO.” Next to the message was a Mad Magazine-like caricature of George W. Bush. A giant phallus was prodding the Commander-in-Chief in one oversized ear.
“Go home fucking gringo” became a sort of mantra for me over my travels in South America, and I encountered the words many times. The funny thing is I never once felt like anyone actually wanted me to leave—ever. I was welcomed in every home with an unspoken invitation to stay for as long as I wished. How is it that I, blonde-haired and blue-eyed with my precarious grasp of Spanish, never fit the bill as this infamous gringo? And who is this gringo anyway? It was these questions that prompted me to think about what it really meant to be an American in South America.
After an hour-long power nap on a postage stamp-sized mattress in the fifth floor apartment of Paula, the gracious girlfriend, I was ready for Santiago. I needed strong coffee, preferably administered through an IV into an open vein. We hit the streets, my ex-pat friend and tour guide Jeffrey and I, hell-bent on stimulants and sustenance.
Jeffrey reasoned that I had been in Santiago less than three hours and I was paying, so we’d have lunch in style. Frederick’s is an elegant eatery in the Creole District catering to the jet set of Santiago society. Since it specializes in imaginative seafood dishes, and I hadn’t bothered to check the exchange rate yet, I was happy. Sure, 4,500 pesos sounds expensive for a salad, but it probably isn’t, right?
Jeffrey filled me in on some basic rules over double espressos and an amazingly creamy soup of conger eel.
“Take pictures as discreetly as possible, you don’t want to look like such a fucking tourist. Don’t cop to being an American unless you’re cornered. Remember, you’re undercover; you can be anything you want to be. Oh, and lose the Bruce Springsteen shirt, man.”
It was during this overlong, albeit well-meant, tutorial that the owner, a dapper Brit named Kevin Poulter, stopped by. He leaned in close over our white-clothed table to be heard over the din of executives having their power lunches and asked us how our food was. Jeffrey, who is in the restaurant business, struck up a conversation about the globalization of modern cuisine or some such nonsense. Perhaps it was my vacant expression or the way my gaze bobbed back and forth like a fan at a tennis match, but it wasn’t long before Poulter politely asked “Do you prefer English?” as if my monolinguity was a preference. I told him that I did, in fact, prefer English, especially on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Poulter is gregarious and engaging, so his switch between the politics of food and his own personal history seemed as natural as his shift in languages. He was, and to some extent remains, a big name in England’s culinary world. He has cooked for almost every member of the Royal Family I’ve heard of, and I’m a veritable fount of wisdom when it comes to British pedigree (there was that one guy with the wig and that lady with all the jewels). But he realized, as every artist does, that his creativity was being stifled by his success. So he did what any rational person would do: he packed up and moved to a warmer locale where he knew almost no one and didn’t speak the language, temporarily forsaking fortune and fame. And so it was that Frederick’s was born.
Squished into a corner of the train after lunch, I thought about how un-unusual Poulter’s journey really was. There was a time not long ago when people emigrated from their homeland for two reasons: economic opportunity or expansion of empire. America was conceived by the latter and grew through the former, hence the Melting Pot concept. But is this idea still relevant, I wondered? Certainly America is a land of opportunity, but can we seriously be so naive as to believe it is still the land of opportunity? The only nation where uncountable cultures collide, coexist and coalesce into a … a commingling cauldron?
The more I thought about our self-appointed and self-congratulatory position as the World’s Melting Pot, a model of tolerance and multicultural harmony, the more arrogant and inaccurate it seemed. A generation of American children has been raised on rhetoric that hasn’t been viable since the rise of the global economy and affordable aviation in the 1980s. Every industrialized country is a melting pot, bringing people from all over the globe for every imaginable reason: employment, education, adventure, love, chance, bad directions. But the United States is the country working on the next Berlin Wall. So much for tolerance.
Maybe it was a result of too much caffeine and not enough sleep, but suddenly a shaft of golden light angled through the dirty window across from me, interrupting my reverie. A cluster of minute moats was floating in it, a tiny galaxy within a shimmering universe. As I watched the moats grew and became discernable. The serene, cherubic faces of Alberto Gonzales, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney hung suspended in the air, the beam of light forming tiny halos around their benevolently smiling faces. Ah, the wonders of jetlag.
* * *
The next day Jeffrey got a call from his friend Christian, a documentary filmmaker for Mega, one of Santiago’s largest television stations. Christian knew I was a journalist and figured I would be interested in taking a tour of Mega Studios. The tour would be in Spanish, Jeffrey told me, since Christian didn’t speak English. Good practice, I figured.
We met Christian at the security entrance to the studio. He was well dressed and tired looking and seemed impatient to get us in past the guard sitting behind the desk. Greetings and farewells between friends are important, almost sacred, in Latin America, so it was strange when Christian simply waved us forward to the desk. Jeffrey handed the guard his residency card and nodded in my direction, “El es norteamericano. No tiene identificación.” My passport was back at Paula’s.
The guard looked at me suspiciously and said “De donde Usted?” as if Jeffrey hadn’t just told him.
I was about to answer when Jeffrey interrupted, “Gringolandia.”
The guard smiled and handed us both visitor badges, waving us through.
Inside the studio, Christian warmly embraced Jeffrey, giving him the classic American handshake/hug combo. He turned to me and extended his hand, smiling. I shook his hand as Jeffrey introduced us.
“Mucho gusto,” I said.
He replied with something that my brain struggled to translate but couldn’t. “Como?” I asked stupidly.
His smile grew. “Go back to your country, fucking gringo!” he repeated.
“It’s his favorite thing to say in English,” Jeffrey said. “It’s the first thing he said to me when we met, too. He thinks it sounds really Mexican.”
Christian laughed and patted me on the back, leading us down the hallway and starting our tour. As we walked, he explained the need for heavy security and why he had been so nervous getting us inside. Members of the media are often the target of violence in Santiago, and it’s difficult to get visitors into the studio. The only reason we were allowed in, he told us, was because it was a national holiday, so security wasn’t as intense as usual.
Christian walked us through the labyrinthine complex of buildings, explaining the production process and introducing us to his co-workers. We watched a live game show with a studio audience until we were asked to leave after I took some pictures without turning off the flash as I had been told to. It’s possible I momentarily blinded millions of viewers with my American brilliance. We looked around a deserted news studio, taking pictures of each other sitting behind the anchors’ desk. I stood at a podium, condemning American imperialism and positing my ideas on Chilean social reform while Christian laughed and gave me the finger.
When we were done with our tour, Christian brought us back to a suite of offices where his team worked on their documentaries. He opened the door to a closet-sized room where three men were editing video footage. We piled in and stood shoulder to shoulder, staring at the monitors. The screens showed an endless stream of clips, some in black and white and some in color. The clips showed violence in all its forms: rows upon rows of dead and mangled bodies, executions, firefights between soldiers, riots, and, most disturbingly, graphic footage of torture. We were spared the sound, but the silent depiction of torment and death had its own eerie, ethereal horror.
Christian explained that they were working on a film about the dictator Augusto Pinochet and his junta. Pinochet ruled in a one-party system of his own creation from 1973 to 1990. During those years thousands of Chilenos were imprisoned, tortured, executed and mysteriously went missing, Christian said. Pinochet’s primary targets were leftists, religious progressives and members of the media.
I looked at the guys in the room with me, and then through the glass doors at the other people working in the suite. Everyone was so young. In fact, almost everyone I met on the tour was young. The median age had to be well under 40. And this was one of the biggest TV stations in one of the biggest cities in South America. I was surprised.
I mentioned to Christian how young everyone was as he walked us out of the studio. Was it because Pinochet and the junta killed off the older generation of journalists? He allowed that this was a big part of it, but not the only reason, and it wasn’t a phenomenon unique to the media industry.
Chile’s economy prospered in the late 1990s, creating a climate of optimism. More young people could afford college. The face of Chile’s Generation X is motivated, successful, not only adjusted to society’s expectations but exceeding them, the antithesis of the stereotypes surrounding our own Gen Xers. Young people in Chile don’t exude the same complacency as their American counterparts. Progress is the currency of the land, it seemed.
* * *
The next morning Jeffrey got a call he had been secretly waiting for. A friend named Rusio’s family owned a beach house two hours north of Santiago. We were invited to come spend the weekend, which was an extra day long because of yet another holiday. We would leave Friday night and return Monday afternoon. This gave us one more day in the city before our weekend retreat. We headed for a nearby café to get breakfast and discuss our plans of debauchery for the day.
Breakfast in Chile can be quite an affair, especially when had by two young, hung-over caffeine addicts who disdain gainful employment. I’ve been to France, Mexico and the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, but nowhere in the world have I had coffee that compares to the espresso in Chile. Every morning found us on some café patio, bundled up against the winter cold, drinking frothy cups of steaming, heavenly mud, watching the teeming streets of Santiago and enjoying each others’ company.
We decided to spend the afternoon drinking wine, always a solid choice. Until recently Chile’s prime wine region, the Maipú Valley, has been overshadowed by the vineyards of Mendoza in neighboring Argentina, which is really too bad. Chile has a rich history of winemaking and produces some of the finest Cabernet Sauvignon in the Americas.
Quality wasn’t my only attraction to Chilean viniculture. There was an interesting story I had heard from a sommelier friend back home about a mysterious blight that struck vineyards throughout the world in the nineteenth century. It was so devastating and widespread that winemakers feared they would never recover. Chile and Argentina were the only wine producing countries in the world to escape the epidemic. I wanted to know more.
We hopped on a crowded bus headed for Concha y Toro in the Maipú Valley, one of Chile’s best and oldest viñas. Taking a bus in Chile is an interesting experience. Besides being filled to capacity at all times, the buses serve as a sort of moving venue for street vendors. The vendors get on, move up and down the tightly packed isles hawking their wares—everything from cigarettes and snacks to condoms and air freshener—and get off. There is an almost constant stream of them, but they seem to go generally unnoticed by the passengers.
After an hour-long bus ride we arrived at Concha y Toro. The next Spanish-language tour started in five minutes, and it was the last tour of the day. Although my Spanish was improving slowly, my ability to look like I understood the language was skyrocketing. I would nod sagely throughout the tour, I thought, and then have Jeffrey fill me in on what I didn’t get later.
Our tour began with a walk through the sprawling estate. The viña was built in 1883, and the ornate architecture of the residence and its guesthouses is amazing. The outlying buildings are connected to the main chateau by shady, tree-lined paths and there is an abundance of ponds and fountains. How peaceful, how idyllic, how incredibly boring. I took pictures like a good tourist and wondered if the unseasonable heat was a sign of Armageddon.
We moved down into the heart of the valley where the grapes are cultivated. Row upon row of creeping vines spread out into the distance. The fields seemed to stretch all the way to the Andes Mountains, which in turn seemed lost in the misty heavens, giving the illusion that we were nestled into a miniature Earth and the other side of the mountains was the end of the world.
It seems appropriate that, tucked into this mystical vale, I would find the answers I sought. It was here the mysteries of phylloxera would be unveiled.
Phylloxera is a disease caused by a tiny aphid that feeds on the roots of grape vines, our guide told us as we entered the basin between the estate and the mountains, eventually sucking the life out of the plants and utterly extirpating vineyards. The first known epidemic began in Europe around 1860 and within 20 years all of the continent’s vineyards were laid bare. The disease struck the wine-producing states of the U.S. again in 1983, forcing them to completely replant. There are many theories explaining why Chile and Argentina were spared. The most likely reason, our guide believes, is a combination of the countries’ strict agricultural import laws and their almost island-like isolation provided by the Andes Mountains. Whatever the reason, this good fortune has allowed the countries to harvest from the same vines without replanting, giving their wines a complexity unrivaled by European wines, our guide said.
My curiosity about grape pests was quenched, but my thirst was not. After all, the best way to learn about wine, like most things in life, is hands-on. So I was happy when we retired to a shady veranda looking out over the valley. Our guide passed out wine glasses and uncorked a couple of bottles.
Before we could commence to waft and quaff, however, there was something we must know, our guide told us. In Chile, only women hold their wine glasses by the stem. A man must hold his glass by the bottom, he said. This precarious grip would surely endanger my sporty Don Johnson attire. How far would I go to protect my masculinity, I wondered? I looked around at the other guys in our group. They were all holding their wines glasses in a proper, manly fashion. Maybe if I attacked our guide I could assert my position as the alpha male. Then I could set an example for the rest of the pack: everyone holds their wine glasses the same! And why am I the only one dressed like an ’80s television star? All men must dress like Crockett, or at least like Tubbs, from now on.
The idea of ending up in a Chilean prison didn’t appeal to me, so I decided on a compromise. I held my glass from the bottom. When no one was looking, I surreptitiously switched grips and took a drink, then quickly switched back. Not only had I solved the problem at hand, but I had found a way to look tough at all those wine tastings back home. Leave it to a Latin to make drinking vino look macho.
After our tour, and a prolonged stint at the wine bar next to the gift shop, we took a cab to Agua, the trendy restaurant where Jeffrey cooks.
The minute we sat down, the food started coming. First the raw courses: an assortment of sashimi, tuna tartar, oysters and ceviche; all paired with crisp Chilean sauvignon blanc. These were followed at a more stately pace by countless cooked seafood courses: Dungeness crab, some sort of whitefish topped with ravioli, another fish crowned with a single shrimp tempura doing a delicate balancing act; so many that I lost count of plates and time. When the meal was over I had the warm, floating feeling only a stomach full of good food and wine can give.
I didn’t recover my sense of time, or any of my other senses, until the wee hours of the morning. I have a vague memory of drinking pisco sours in a smoky café and bobbing my head to pounding trance music in a crowded discoteca, but nothing more.
I think it was the cold that finally brought the world back into focus. I found myself sitting on a graffiti-covered concrete slab in the middle of a park with Jeffrey, two of his friends—both named Caesar—and a small group of bartenders and servers we had picked up along the way. A bottle of rum and a two-liter of coke were making the rounds. The booze had made its way to the guy next to me and he was trying to hand the bottle to me. I looked down and saw I had a plastic cup, the kind you see at keggers, in my hand. I made myself a drink and checked my watch. It was 4:30.
The strange alchemy of testosterone and alcohol leads many a conversation down one of two paths: women or politics. Both can be dangerous and amazing. Lucky for me, this night I evaded danger and found enlightenment, if only in a very small way.
Caesar and Caesar had already said all that could be said about the vibrance and beauty of Chilean women, so the talk inevitably turned to politics and the United States.
Discussing the politics of one’s country is quite different when outside of that country. I see my country, when I’m abroad, as an older brother might see a spoiled and difficult younger sibling. It drives me crazy, sometimes I even feel like I hate it, but it is mine to hate. So I find myself defending it, even though its government is indefensible.
As night slowly faded, I tried to describe the fleeting solidarity in the aftermath of 9/11, which the war in Iraq so quickly destroyed. I explained that, even in a system of representative government, the peoples’ voice can be drowned out by the noise made by fat cats and special interests. I was eloquent, I was patriotic, I would single-handedly change the world’s perception of the American people!
And then Jeffrey, the conservative-turned-liberal ex-patriot, spoke. “We get it, man, and you’re right. But you also just summed up what the world hates about the U.S.; its arrogance.”
I’m well aware of the impact forced agendas and a holier-than-thou attitude has had on America’s image, but I didn’t see how this connected to my little sermon.
Somebody else spoke up, a bartender from the café whose name I never knew or have forgotten. “You keep talking about America, but you’re in South America. We’re as American as you are. America and American, they’re imaginary, man. They’re just ideas, names norteamericanos gave themselves to show their superiority.”
I wasn’t sure he had it all right, but I couldn’t argue with his logic. We all touched glasses in a final cheers and people started to wander off, alone and in small groups, looking for home. I laid back on my concrete block and watched the sun rise over the Andes, burning away the thick blanket of smog and shadows.