First Contact: Emasculating Decisions and Vengeful Gods

Stepping out of the airport in Santiago, Chile, I forgot all about the exciting plans I’d made for my fall semester abroad: to immerse myself in the Chilean culture through an exchange program and host family, to see Patagonia and the Andes and Easter Island, to master the Spanish language, etc. etc. After a half a day’s worth of travel, all I could do was sleepily grumble to myself about the cold (38 degrees in August!). I recognized my name on a sign, and made my way over to a 5’5’’ Chilean Danny Devito and his even smaller, but slightly less round wife who waved it enthusiastically at me. I followed them to their little hatchback, and smiled and nodded as Señor Devito spoke words I couldn’t understand, sequences of foreign noises that fell on deaf ears. It was slightly after we stopped for coffee, and slightly before he looked at me and asked (in English, for the third time), “the long and windy road, eh?” that I finally began to wake up. The sounds he made began to form words, commentaries on our surroundings that elucidated shapes under the blanket of fog that obscured them from the eye. I learned that the vineyards on my right produced Chilean wine, which, in his opinion, was undeniably the best in the world, and that the protest graffiti on my left wasn’t indicative of Chile as a country, which, in his opinion, is the least corrupt and most economically successful in South America.

The next day, I took a bus to the top of a hill on the far side of town, and walked down the rocky pathway to a complex of intricately linked, modern-looking buildings that overlook the entire city of Viña del Mar out to the Pacific Ocean: the school I’d be attending for the next four and a half months. I made my way to the exchange student office, where the advisor went over everything that I had missed at orientation. As I was leaving, he added: “by the way, we always encourage our exchange students to try out for our sports teams. If you’re an average player of basketball or volleyball, you’ll be the MVP of every game.” I was excited. I’m the most average basketball player I know. I wrote down the tryout time, and convinced Alex,  another UF student living with me, to come to tryouts as well, selling it as a great way to integrate into Chilean culture and, more importantly, to live in a world where our mediocrity was elevated to superstardom.

The view from Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez

We had a bit of a mix up with our host dad about the start time, and were halfway to the basketball court at 6:45 PM when we realized tryouts didn’t start until 9:00. We went down to the water to walk around and for Antonio (our host father – who it turns out does not like the often drawn comparison of himself to Danny Devito) to impart a bit of motivational wisdom. Tragically, this pep talk was cut short by Alex’s full bladder.

We found the only restaurant nearby, a swanky beachfront place called “Tierra de Fuego” and pleaded with its owner  to allow us bathroom access in exchange for our purchase of a couple of cups of coffee. He relented, and we congratulated each other on the good deal until we saw the bill. We thought there had been a mistake, that the waiter had mistakenly given us the check from a table that ordered three course meals. But looking around, we found the restaurant to be empty aside from us: we had been taken for a ride. Antonio chuckled, and said, “next time you’re going in the ocean.”

Expecting to stun the players and coach with our almost-average basketball skills, Alex and I began what we were sure would be a fast and easy try-out. As the other players stretched and warmed up, we watched the girls team practice. We would soon realize that this was a bad choice. The gravity of our undertaking was made abundantly clear by the coach in his introductory meeting with the prospective players: he emphasized that this was not a team for those who wished to take vacations, this was a team for players who were prepared to dedicate every moment of their days, when not in class or studying, to basketball. As the tryout began, my dreams of rolling off the plane into athletic stardom faded from questionable to preposterous, and were gradually replaced with a sense of impending doom. A combination of altitude difference, jet lag, and the sickness that comes with adjusting to a new climate left us blown out on every drill, of which there was a seemingly infinite amount, nearly inverting our lungs in the process. Afterwards, barely able to stand, we looked at each other and agreed that maybe it’d be better to find a more relaxing, low-pressure way to stay in shape this semester. “How about a yoga class tomorrow morning?” I asked Alex, who could only nod his head in shame.

Later that week a terrible storm overtook the area, causing mass flooding that broke the sewer and metro systems in Viña del Mar. We used the free time we inherited from our rejections by the basketball team to watch Pacific waves crash over the sea wall. More amazing than watching the force of the waves  was seeing the same restaurant from before, completely destroyed by the storm! Were the Mapuche gods of the sea meting out punishment for Tierra de Fuego’s bathroom policies? Had we, and perhaps previous customers, willed them to destroy this predatory institution? Totally stunned and feeling a bit guilty, Alex and I resolved to stay on karma’s good side for the duration of our trip.

Alex in front of the former site of restaurant Tierra de Fuego

A more holistic view of the scene

The storm had a huge effect on the entire city: waterfront property was destroyed, a normally dry river bed became a torrent of muddy water, the sewer systems collapsed, and the metro was shut down.

Some felt the effects of the storm more than others.