If you had happened to be soaking up the midday sun in Santiago's Parque O'Higgins on Friday, you would have seen a Bulgarian and a gringa pushing a ramshackle car through puddles and mud. Contrary to what passersby may have assumed, car pushing is not a traditional Eastern European pastime. How did two pale foreigners find themselves in this situation on a beautiful spring afternoon? Let me explain.
Recently, I've been suffering from postgraduate malaise. I miss learning. Of course, my job and everyday life teach me new things every day; that's one of the reasons why I'm living in Chile, where even the most insignificant routine tasks become challenges by virtue of having to be carried out in another language and another latitude. Still, I can't help but feel that in the absence of classes and research projects, my mind is not-so-slowly rotting away. I took two years of calculus in high school, but now I couldn't even give a coherent explanation of what an integral does.
Possessed by the need to learn something, I asked my Bulgarian friend, V., if he would teach me to drive a stick shift. I knew that in addition to renewing my faith in my mental capacities, this would have practical benefits. Practically all cars in Chile have manual transmission, which I'd never dared to tackle before. Not that I plan on doing a lot of driving; actually, the only time I've driven in Chile was when my mom and sister came to visit and we rented a car. Still, you never know.
So it was that we coasted into Parque O'Higgins in V.'s car, affectionately known as the Hippopotamus for its lurching, lumbering gait and overall lack of grace. With me in the passenger's seat, we wound toward the Ellipse, a vast concrete lot that hosts a military parade on Chile's national holiday in September. I had never been quite clear on what it's used for the rest of the time, but I now know that it has a very important unofficial yearlong function: suffering the jolting stops and squealing tires of novice drivers. Unfortunately, the Ellipse was out of commission on Friday: A phalanx of police musicians marched back and forth across the slab, dutifully preparing for next month's festivities.
It looked as though we would have to take our lesson out onto the park's road, which caused me more than a little trepidation. Like so many other South Minneapolis teenagers, I learned to drive in a cemetery, where it was very unlikely that I would kill anyone. In the park, however, the living were present in abundance. Runners, bikers and lovestruck high schoolers traversed the side of the road in significant numbers. I took a deep breath.
After switching seats with V., I was introduced to the complex world of clutches and gears. A few lurching starts later, I was starting to feel OK. I switched from first to second to third and back to second again -- granted, always with my foot hovering at the ready over the break. I knew things couldn't go this well forever.
And they didn't. One of the Hippopotamus' many charms is that when it stalls, it does so permanently. No amount of key-turning can remedy the situation; the only way to get rolling again is to get out and push. This was exactly what we had to do after a clutchless maneuver left the car dormant in the middle of the road. V. pushed, I pushed, and a random runner pushed -- all while keeping his pace.
Once the motor sputtered to a start, I thought we were in the clear. Wrong. The Hippopotamus croaked a total of four times within an hour. Once, it was even thoughtful enough to do so in a dip in a dirt road full of holes and puddles. All in all, I spent almost as much time pushing the car as driving it.
Needless to say, the experience didn't leave me with a good impression of my driving skills. It did, however, leave me with a glowing impression of santiaguinos. During our multiple travails, we enlisted the help of around eight good Samaritans -- from athletes to groundskeepers to school kids -- who joined us behind the car with smiles and muscle power.
What's funny is that if you were to ask any Chilean -- capitalinos included -- to choose adjectives to describe the 6 million people who live in this city, I would be shocked if one of the words chosen were "helpful." Santiaguinos have the reputation of being pushy, rude and self-centered. And while I've come across my fair share of brusque types -- as, I think, I would in a big city anywhere in the world -- I've also experienced enough anonymous acts of kindness to jump to my neighbors' defense whenever I hear someone bash them as a group.
I just hope they'll be as kind-hearted when I accidentally stall a car in the middle of a busy street.