Día de los trabajadores. The nation’s second largest city of Santiago. In my travels, I don’t witness anything that would signify that the day is May Day… I find out later that they’d moved the public holiday to the 4th so that it would fall on a Monday. But something memorable from this Día de los Trabajadores, and some days after are encounters with persons who eek out an existence outside the formal institution of work.
Early morning. I’m drinking a cafecito in the lobby of the hostel where I’m staying. I overhear a conversation between a Canadian and a Texan. The Canadian’s lived in Costa Rica previously and is thinking of moving either here or to Colombia. The Texan, a rotund and grumpy man in a Hawaiian shirt is here on a recurring vacation. He says he has a lady he hangs out with here, a relative of one of his regular taxi drivers – that’s how they were introduced. The Canadian replies, “That’s good, ‘cause you gotta look out for those girls on the street.”
Lunch time. I sit in a restaurant, feverishly trying to get off as many emails as I can, using the free wifi available at the establishment. I sit at the table nearest to the entrance as there exists an electrical outlet here. As patrons enter and exit, a presumably homeless man periodically leans in, inspects the scene, holds out his hand and grunts a few muffled words, indecipherable but for the a priori knowledge of their certain meaning… ya tu sabes, quire menudo. I’m there but I’m not there – thoroughly focused in the bastard reality of the screen and keyboard – not quite internal but not quite external either. I re-enter the here and now for a few brief seconds to snap at the man, “¡No, no tengo nada, ¡Déjame tranquilo!” I am disturbed at, whatever high-minded rhetoric I may espouse, the safe distance that I maintain between myself and the Other.
Late Afternoon. I’m waiting for my bus back to the campo. A man in a wheelchair rolls up, his thick beard and ‘fro giving him a distinctive look in this clean-cut culture. He greets our group of waiting passengers courteously and articulately, addressing us as cabelleros as he makes his case to receive some of our spare change. I hand him a 1-peso coin with the apology that I do not have more to spare, handing over an additional 2-pesos past over by the woman sitting next to me. As the man wheels away, another man toting a box of cookies, crackers, cheese puffs, and cartoonishly large lollipops on his shoulder enters the scene. He comments that our friend just wants change to buy drugs, and wouldn’t it be better to use our spare change to help out somebody who’s working to get by. A 1-peso coin won’t buy anything he’s selling, however.
1 week later. Same location. I’m sitting alone at the same spot, the first passenger waiting for the bus. The same street vendor comes and sits on the bench next to me to get off his feet for a few minutes. We chat for a bit – he has family in the area where I live. I spend 20 pesos on some awful Chinese cookies – like unsalted Ritz crackers with a semi-sweet cream in between.
2 weeks later. I’m at a bela, or funeral party in a community on the other side of the hills, an hour’s walk away from my campo. I see a deaf man who I’d met some months previously, walking out of my site for the first time. He’s telling elaborate stories without saying a word, with his animated hand motions and facial expressions. A crowd of people is laughing with him. I smile at the fact that he’s a better communicator and is more socially apt that I am in this culture that relies so much on non-verbal expression. A few minutes later, I notice another man who’s pretending to be deaf (but who I am told is not really deaf). He has only a stub for a right arm, he walks with a limp, and he’s fast becoming the new life of the party. He begins by doing one-armed pushups with his stub. He then shows off his 6-pack abs and tries to get people to punch him in the stomach. He’s accompanied by a man in a clean white shirt who’s posing as his promoter, acting like one of those elixir salesmen who begin every statement with the words “Step right up!” An understandably perturbed funeral goer eventually interrupts the revelry, commenting that it's a bela and not a cock fight. I only mention it because I am almost sure that I catch a glimpse of the same jester a few days later, panhandling at a busy intersection in Santiago, limping between lanes of traffic.