One of Dido’s most onerous tasks during our Chile trip entailed her working with a group of mentally and emotionally handicapped teenage boys, several of whom had what these days we euphemistically refer to as “challenging behaviours”; in truth, one or two of the lads turned out to be downright psychotic. To help her share some of the organisational and practical load Dido enrolled the assistance, for two weeks, of a former ballet colleague whom she had flown down from Los Angeles. But however difficult the forthcoming days with the boys would be, nothing could have been more “challenging” than the act of merely meeting said-colleague at Santiago Airport.
I wonder how many people reading these adventures remember the delirious scenes of joy and celebration on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv following the dramatic rescue of the hostages from Entebbe by Israeli commandos in 1976? Well, the arrivals hall at Santiago was that scene, but on steroids, and was happening when we arrived to meet our friend, and continued without abatement until the time we left – some three hours later – having failed in our endeavour. Fortunately, our friend – another seasoned traveller – on failing to meet up with us in the melee, used her initiative and made her own way to our hotel. As for why the arrivals hall was in such a state of continuous delirium, we never discovered…
Before the three of us began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality always had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no Nazis, no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree of kitsch, it was like walking into a cliché. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every facade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the owner of the hotel: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: With her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, she resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…
As we had a car for a few days we decided to explore the Coquimbo region. At one stop we received a lesson in “car-parking vigilantism” Chilean-style. We’d parked up by some roadside cafe miles from anywhere and were about to go inside for a snack when three boys – of disparate age and stature – appeared from behind the building. Before we had a chance to get out of the car they had positioned themselves around the vehicle in a manner that I can only describe as casually menacing. The largest and oldest of the three boys leaned against my side of the car and tapped on the window. Nervously, I wound the window down and in my best Spanish asked him what he wanted. He asked me if we intended to park the car here, to which I replied, yes. He then asked me; ‘But who’s going to protect your car while you’re in the cafe?’ to which I ingenuously replied; ‘Why do we need the car protected? There’s nobody here!?’ He then smiled wryly at me, with an expression far too cynical for a lad of his tender years, and said knowingly; ‘Well my friend, you never know do you? You never can tell what could happen, even in a place like this…’ then he revealed – as if by magic – a long piece of wood, an old bat of some kind, with a jagged nail protruding from its tip. He swung it nonchalantly by his side with his wrist then added; ‘But of course, with three trusty guys like us guarding your car, I can assure you that nothing will happen to it…but if not’ he continued, waving the bat more vigorously now, ‘I would be very concerned…’
We wanted to just drive on, but the next stop was over three hours further down the road, so with a mixture of repressed rage, fear and frustration I dug out a handful of pesos from my jeans pocket and placed it in the open palms of the smallest boy whose hands were reaching up towards me.
To be fair, the big lad was as good as his word, and they did indeed guard the car for the entire time we were in the cafe, and nothing bad happened to it…