Saturday, November 14, 2009

When good intentions go bad

I went to a party last week (gasp). When the time came to leave, I got in a car with a group of people who had agreed to drop me off at a major street where I could catch a bus home. Since it wasn't that late and buses run on said major street all night, I didn't anticipate any problems.

The late-night bus thing is pretty much standard procedure for me by now. I'll be straight: My Chilean salary simply cannot finance boatloads of cab rides. And, since the phrase "Just crash here" hasn't appealed to me for a few years, I go Transantiago, frequently by myself.

Chileans think I'm insane. Even more insane than they think I am for moving down here on my own. How could I possibly even consider taking the bus home by myself? Don't I know how many people are lurking in the shadows waiting to attack me? After all, I am foreign and female -- that most perilous of combinations. I should be afraid. Very afraid.

And I did end up being afraid last Friday -- for slightly different reasons.

When we pulled up to Major Street X, I got out of the car and headed toward the nearest bus stop, grateful that the others appeared to be letting me go without a fight.

Not so fast. One of the other passengers, a guy who had had a handful too many shots of tequila back at the party, got out too and began to follow me.

"Thanks, but it's really not necessary," I said.

I was told the guy's house was on the way to mine and that he would ride with my until his stop. "It's more for his protection than yours," someone whispered.

OK, I figured. I supposed there was no harm in him riding with me if he was heading in the same direction anyway.

The car pulled away, and I continued toward the bus stop. But alas, we couldn't go to that bus stop because my chaperone considered it unsafe. During our trek to the next bus stop -- a few blocks down a stretch of sidewalk that I consider sketchier -- I learned my white knight was from southern Chile and had been living in Santiago for four years -- enough time, apparently, to learn to be terrified of the city. As he tried to convince me to be terrified, too, I stood shivering and craning my neck to see down the street, praying the bus would come quickly and all this would be over soon.

The bus did come, but this was far from over. Soon after we had wedged ourselves onto the crowded bus, I learned that my new friend was one of the many Chileans who enjoy practicing English when drunk. And this guy enjoyed practicing it loudly. As the bus hurtled onward, each bump in the road threatening to launch me into the driver's lap, he treated me and everyone around us to an English-language panegyric lauding the bravery I had displayed by coming down to Chile all by myself.

My irritation quickly turned to anxiety when it occurred to me that the person who thought he was keeping me safe was actually putting me in danger. Despite what most people I know consider my dangerously irresponsible penchant for independence, I'm willing to admit that, the world being what it is, foreign women have to be careful. I realize that many assailants would consider me an easy and profitable target. With this in mind, I try not to call attention to myself when I'm in situations in which I'm potentially vulnerable, such as late-night bus rides. I keep calm, walk confidently, and don't yell in English about how I'm foreign and came down to Chile all by myself. Obviously, my tipsy companion did not find it necessary to take the same precautions.

For the record, I don't believe that Santiago all night buses are packed with shady characters waiting for an opportunity to attack someone. Still, if one of our dozens of fellow passengers had just so happened to be such a shady character, my amigo would have been providing him or her with quite an enticing scenario. Well, I was going to head home early and watch late-night variety shows with my mom, but now that I think about it, I might as well jump that gringa and that drunk guy.

I heaved a sigh of relief when the bus pulled off to my chaperone's stop. After I gave him the customary cheek air-peck goodbye, though, he didn't move.

"This is your stop," I said in Spanish.

It didn't matter, he explained in English, because he was going to escort me all the way home.

Oh God.

"Look," I said as the bus pulled out of the stop. "I appreciate the gesture, but I don't need your protection. Please get off the bus now."

He didn't, of course. And since it would have just aggravated the sitution to tell him that drawing the entire bus's attention to us was not doing me any favors where safety was concerned, I grit my teeth and endured several more blocks of loud, drunken English. I felt extremely, dangerously exposed.

When we finally got off the bus at my stop -- by ourselves, thank goodness -- I pointed out the bus stop where he would have to wait after dropping me off at my house. He scoffed, apparently insulted that I had felt the need to worry about his safety.

Luckily, our short walk to my house was uneventful. But I couldn't help wondering if I wouldn't have been safer simply taking the bus home by myself as I'd originally planned.

This wasn't the first time I'd pondered this. A few months ago, I found myself standing on a street corner at midnight in San Bernardo, which is so far south that only a slice of it appears on most maps of Santiago. A coworker had invited me to a club for a friend's birthday party, but the club had refused to let us in because one of the members of our group had a broken leg and was apparently too much of a liability for them to deal with. So it was that we ended up shivering on a street corner debating what to do next.

Anyone who has ever participated in a Great Chilean Plans Debate knows that they are rarely brief. As the minutes stretched on and I got colder, I noticed that express buses were passing regularly on their way downtown.

My coworker's eyes widened when I told her I was going to hop on a bus and head home. Me on a bus alone? No way in hell. The group was going to come up with a safer alternative.

About 20 minutes later, the safer alternative arrived. It was a pickup truck that was going to take us to one of the partygoers' apartments. Yep, all 12 of us. Yep, all at once.

As the truck accelerated onto the highway with all of us smashed into the bed (disclaimer: NEVER DO THIS), every instinct inside me was screaming that I should have just gotten on a damn bus. There was absolutely no way in hell, heaven or limbo that this was safer than my original plan. I lack scientific proof of this, but I'm positive I was more likely to get horrendously injured in that truck than I would have been to get robbed on the bus.

Nobody else seemed to understand this, though. To them, it was other people I had to be afraid of, not a multi-fatality rollover crash. And I suddenly despised Chile's crime-packed sensationalist TV news shows more than ever before.

Miraculously, we made it safely to our destination, a public housing project in Puente Alto. Already exhausted from silently willing the truck not to flip, I was ready to call it a night after about an hour of dancing. I announced my intention to catch a colectivo (multi-passenger taxi) and head home.

Absolutely not, I was told.

"You have to listen to them," my coworker told me. "They live here."

In the end, I did listen to them and crashed in the birthday girl's apartment, which was a few blocs over. Thinking back, I'm really glad I did. I had never been to the area before; how could I have presumed to know enough about it to strike out on my own at 3 a.m.?

You have to listen to them. They live here. I think about that advice a lot and wonder if it's always true. Should I, as a foreigner, always take Chileans' safety advice? On the one hand, the fact that they've lived here their entire lives means they know a lot of things I don't, like where not to take colectivos at 3 a.m. On the other hand, I don't find non-crime-related safety consciousness to be high here (seatbelts and bike helmets, anyone?). As illustrated in this entry, some of the alternatives Chileans suggest to your hazardously independent ways can be more dangerous than what you originally had planned.

But, drunk guys and pickup trucks aside, I don't think it would hurt me to swallow my pride and listen a bit more. After all, someone did try to attack me once while I was waiting for a bus in the middle of the night. I took him down, but I might not be as lucky next time. I think I need to work on learning to be more flexible -- sleeping on a trusted friend's couch isn't that bad, is it? -- while paying close attention to my instincts (no more drunk escorts, thank you very much).

What do you think?


Abby said...

Oh man. So much to say about this. I agree that sometimes it's hard to tell what's really dangerous because chileans have such varied and sometimes contradictory opinions about places that are unsafe. For example, one time I was in Plaza Italia around 1:00am, and the guy I was with let me take a micro home all by myself. Then on Saturday I was in Plaza Italia around the same time and the guys I was with wouldn't even let me take a taxi by myself. They insisted on going with me. I also agree that the sensationalist news is to blame for a lot of chilean's perceptions about which places are "dangerous".

That sucks about your annoying escort. I'm glad you made it home safe and sound.

victoriamagyar said...

Sounds wise, Leigh. When you are constantly being told how "brave" (by which many people mean "stupid") you are for daring to step outside alone, the knee-jerk reaction is to try to prove that you are normal, not "brave." But everyone (even men! gasp!) is vulnerable when they are alone and/or drunk (as your first anecdote shows). I dunno, sounds like you've reached a good middle ground.

PS--reading your blog makes me want to come back to Chile SOOOO bad. Well, that and reading recipes for terremotos online.

Lucie said...

What an annoying experience! Buses at night in Santiago are definitely sketchy. My friend told me that one time after a night out, she went to catch the bus home at like 1am and this guy came up to her asking her "how much"? He thought she was a prostitute!!! Apparently late at night, bus stops are the places to pick up prostitutes!

Sara said...

Chileans are paranoid. I agree. But, I am too. You sound a lot braver than I would ever be. I usually bite the bullet and take the taxi. It gets expensive. It's probably why I don't go out so much anymore.

About your companion's English. What is up with that? They are usually so shy when sober. Then it's like you give them one beer and they get loud, handsy, and have to impress you with their English. "Where you come from? You espeaka Spanish?"

Emilia said...

Leigh, acabo de encontrar tu blog y leer la historia... me entretuve mucho, y te considero sabia y precavida.

Un abrazo!

Juan K Peña said...

Nice to read you!

I don't know... I think your tipsy friend had more than good intentions going with you. But, maybe he didn't do anything feeling your uncomfort.

Was there any way to make him shut up? haha.

Maeskizzle said...

puta que lata. nada que hacer con el weon curado. ojala le retaste después. idiota! lo mejor para que el weon entienda, es retarle frente a otros chilen@s que están de acuerdo contigo.

I remember when I lived in the port in Valpo, I got a lot of comments. A prof. told me "vives en un barrio bravo, mi hija." And when my husband found out where I lived, he and his friend walked me home the night we met.

In Valpo, I lived 2 blocks from my fave bar & disco so getting home was never a prob. hehehe.

But I don't know, I think we stay safe with mixture of street smarts, luck, and perhaps magic-for lack of a better word.

Anonymous said...

By now it should be obvious to you that Santiago is not the safest place on earth.

It's quite simple really. This city is a stew of unpalatable ingredients: poverty, substandard education, lack of opportunities, class warfare, nepotism, racism, basic stupidity, etc.. It all makes for a fairly volatile casserole.

But, what does it all mean? Will get knifed the minute you step out of your home? Probably not. Will you be robbed as soon as you set foot on a bus? I say that's unlikely. There's plenty of crime in this city, but you need not be the victim of it. Should you live your life in fear? Absolutely not.

Having said that, though, how about a little common sense? When you go out with your friends at night, plan ahead. Figure out how exactly you plan on getting back home, and keep in mind that riding the bus alone at night is not the brightest thing to do.

Be street smart and don't be afraid to set your foot down. You could have simply told drunken King Lear wannabe to speak Spanish to you. Hablame en castellano! (Por favor is optional)

Francisco said...

Just dropping you a line to let you know that I really enjoy reading your blog. I am in the opposite situation as you are (Chileno viviendo en EEUU) so it's fun reading your experiences as a foreigner in Chile.
¡Escribes muy bien!

Un abrazo