There's a hilarious Web site called Overheard in New York where people post the funny, disturbing and just plain ridiculous things they overhear people saying on the streets of NYC. I haven't come across a similar page dedicated to Santiago, but that doesn't mean eavesdropping here isn't every bit as fascinating.
I confirmed this Friday when I biked to the Banco de Chile in Quinta Normal. For the record, I hate going to the bank in Santiago. There are usually a few teller windows reserved for special clients, only a handful of whom are ever waiting at a time, and a single station for those of us unlucky enough to be "general public." This means we plebeians have to shuffle slowly through a line that zig zags through the bank and frequently snakes out the front door, which is a particularly agonizing ordeal for those – like me on Friday – so unwise as to show up at lunchtime.
With a roll of my eyes, I took my place at the end of the line and silently berated myself for not having brought a book. This was going to take a while.
And a while it took. I stood in line for an hour. It didn't take me long to realize, however, that not having brought a distraction along allowed me to focus on the details of a reality every bit as entertaining as fiction. Had I been reading, for example, I probably would not have noticed that the man waiting in front of me had taken the infamous Chilean mullet to a new, unrivaled level: A close-cropped cut devolved at the nape of his neck into stringy long hair, which had been woven Cancún vacation style into about a dozen tiny braids and tied off with a hair binder that the bottom. I was in awe. And I was just plain perplexed by another guy in the line, who appeared to be using a rubber band to intentionally cut off the circulation to all his fingers and see how long he could stand it.
The most intriguing part of the wait, however, was the soundtrack. As three little boys dragged along by their mother perfected their underarm fart technique, someone blasted “Gangsta’s Paradise” – that most fitting of bank anthems – from a cell phone. What caught my attention most, though, was a conversation between two middle-aged men behind me, one of whom apparently had been in some kind of army reserve program when he was younger.
“After ’73, I didn’t report for duty,” he told his friend. “They came after me and beat the crap out of me. I didn’t walk for a month. Because I didn’t show up, they assumed I was a communist.”
“’73,” for those who don’t know, refers to September 11, 1973, the day a coup by General Augusto Pinochet and the rest of the armed forces ousted socialist Salvador Allende from power.
The two men proceeded to discuss where they were when a massive earthquake struck central Chile in 1985. Meanwhile, I reflected on the fact that Chile is full of unexpected history lessons for those who open their ears. And realized I was glad I hadn’t brought my iPod.
Anyone who’s lived in South America knows that doing so involves a significant amount of waiting. Waiting at the post office, waiting at the immigration office, waiting for the bus, waiting weeks for the telephone company to install broadband. We in the States are used to a lightning-speed efficiency that matches the tumbling pace of our lives. Things are not done well unless they’re done fast. Here, however, certain things tend to take a bit longer. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, because – as I learned at the bank – it’s frequently when waiting that we find ourselves forced to focus on the fascinating reality of our present surroundings. And what’s the point of living abroad if we don’t unplug, look up and take notice?
Sometimes I wonder how much I’m missing when I walk through the city with headphones in. I suspect it’s a lot – another reason why I love being one of six million in this sprawling, cacophonous city.