July 25. More than forty-seven years ago I came to Chile. I was seventeen years old, young and foolish with two semesters of Spanish behind me. Despite all the things I did not know the trip to Chile changed my life in ways I could never foresee. I lived in Talcahuano, a seaport about six hours south of the capital, Santiago. I lived with a family, who are my family still today. I realize in retrospect that I arrived at a difficult time–the father of the family was very ill and died two months after I arrived. The oldest son’s wife gave birth to their first child, the oldest daughter was a newlywed living at home with her husband. Somehow, they fit me in as a member of the family, finding a space for me. I learned to speak Spanish, Chilean Castillano to be more exact, an ability that still brings me opportunities and friendships. I saw new people and places at an age when I was able to incorporate another family and culture and make them my own.
At twenty-two I applied for a job with Pan American Airlines; I was hired partially because I was bilingual, partially because I had lived outside the United States and because I had lived and traveled in another culture. I had just graduated from college and was ready to see the world. I was based in London. I traveled as far east as New Delhi, India and as far west as Detroit, Michigan. I traveled to Beirut, Tehran, and Karachi as well as Copenhagen, Paris, Munich, New York, and Spain. I swam in the Mediterranean and in the Adriatic, and in the North Sea. I visited Anne Frank’s attic in Amsterdam and the Tower of London. I visited the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort in New Delhi. I was named runner-up to Stewardess of the Year for the London base just before most of my class was laid off because of the oil embargo that followed the murders of Israel’s Olympic team in Munich, Germany.
While I still had flight benefits I returned to Chile, flying to Santiago and then down to Concepcion. I stayed in a hotel that looked down on La Moneda, the presidential palace where Allende killed himself rather than surrender to the military. I arrived not in the aftermath, but in the middle of a military take-over, but I had come to see family. Despite the precarious times, despite the 1000% inflation that was just being reined in, despite confusion and fears, despite arriving at a difficult time my family took me in and we had a wonderful visit.
I returned to the US and went back to school. I met my husband. He had traveled to parts of the world I hadn’t seen–Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam. He knew things I didn’t know. We had eight children. I taught Spanish (thank you Chile!); life was busy.
We traveled to interesting places. Eventually we moved to Arizona and began spending our summers driving through Mexico. Four of our children traveled to Chile, staying with extended family. Another son spent two years in the Dominican Republic and the youngest attended a boarding school in Mexico School for part of his time in high school. Es bueno ser bilingue! But during all those years I never went back to Chile.
A niece came to stay with us, and a nephew. My oldest brother and his wife came to Arizona. The oldest sister came to California for medical treatment and we spent a crazy day on the boardwalk in Santa Cruz. She came back with her husband and visited us in Arizona. The youngest sister–other than me–married a gringo and moved to San Jose, California. We were in touch, but for forty years I never went back to Chile.
The kids grew up, my husband’s body turned on him–the injuries he’d sustained to his neck and shoulder, the damage done to his ankle and knee in Vietnam–to name only a few, began to catch up with him and he was asked to take a medical retirement. We moved into a one level house on the Mexican border. We might still be there now, but my sister in San Jose called to say that our sister in Santiago was doing poorly. An autoimmune disease was taking its toll. If we were going to visit we needed to go. So I bought tickets and we flew to Santiago. I almost canceled the flight. There was a lot going on with our kids and grandkids, life was happening all around us. But we got on the plane. We spent a week in Santiago. Selma is doing better. She had cataract surgery while we were here. We took the bus to Talcahuano. My brother and his wife in Talcahuano have both had serious health problems, But they didn’t bat an eye. They gave us the grand tour and I knew I was home. We stood on the hill above San Vicente and I looked down at the fisherman’s bay below us and across the hills to the port cities and it all looked familiar. There is a new road across the hills. I remember walking over the hills from downtown Talcahuano to San Vicente to visit with cousins. I am amazed at how far I must have walked. I remember running up and down the hills from the house to the centro, taking the bus into Concepcion to the University. The hills are as steep as I remembered but the house is much further from the middle of town. I see the Mormon church that was under construction when I lived in Talcahuano. It is a nice building, a busy building, more than forty years old. Maria Elena’s 103 year old mother is in declining health. A son and his wife and two kids are staying at the house during the mid-year school vacation. A contractor is working on an addition to the house.
When is there ever a perfect time to visit? Now. It’s the only time we have.
I am sitting in a hotel in Lima, Peru, planning to fly to Cuzco this afternoon. My husband is still asleep. I am wearing him out. If I had planned ahead we would have come to Peru on our way home. But I didn’t buy the tickets that way. So we will be able to go back to Chile for another week before we return home. The taxi driver on the way to the airport in Santiago asked me where I was from, he couldn’t quite place my accent–maybe Mexico. The taxi driver in Lima asked me if I was from Spain. I am inordinately happy when my Spanish doesn’t blare gringa. But pride goes before the fall, and I become self conscious and suddenly can’t put two sentences together. Bueno. It’s time to start the day. This gringa chilena has places to see. Chao, chao. Until next time.