‘¿Puedes ayudarme? Estoy perdido.’
It must have been strange to see this Norte Americano, with the flat-brimmed light grey baseball cap approach her at 10pm near a bus stop where she was playing with her 7 year old boy.
Earlier, around 4pm, I started the hike to visit “La Virgen” — a famous statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the highest hill in Santiago.
By the time I had started down, it was getting dark fast.
It took over 3 hours for me to hike up, and I didn’t start to head down till after sunset, around 7:45pm or so. In the darkened terrain I didn’t notice how the road down looked different till I was a quarter of the way down. At that point, a certain inertia took over, and I thought: ‘I’ll figure it out once I get to the base.’
But, the surroundings looked completely different — more like a suburb than part of the city center. And there were tall gates lining the highway, with barking dogs to keep people from approaching too close. I passed a couple of guys sitting on an old ratty loveseat who said something to me I didn’t recognize as I passed. I knew at that point that this was not a situation I could get out of by myself — I would have to ask someone for directions.
I went into a small grocer and asked, ‘Necisito direcciones.’ I pulled out the map and pointed out where I was trying to get to.
‘Esta lejos,’ he said. It was far. How far? ‘Tan lejos caminar.’ Too far to walk.
He tried to explain how I needed to get to the metro (subway). What he didn’t know was that I had tried to get a metro card earlier, but my card was rejected because I failed to notify my credit card company of my travels. ‘Pero, me gusta caminar.’ But, I like to walk.
A younger man walked in, and asked about the situation. I could only catch a few words in his rapid Spanish, something about it being way too far to walk, that I needed to go down this street, and take a left, and a right blah blah blah.
He seemed to get increasingly frustrated every time I said I wanted to walk. I was wondering why he was getting so worked up, and in my ignorance of language, body language, I thought the worst. I went, ‘Bien, qual modo esta metro?’ Something like: Okay, which way is the metro?
He thrust his arm to the right, and I left.
The route followed more of the high fenced wall, then I moved to the other side, which turned from a sidewalk to a wide dirt path. I passed a construction area, and a security guard took a look at me, then down to his paper he was reading.
I kept looking behind me, expecting me to see the young man with a group of friends after some easy prey. In my anxiety, I couldn’t grant him the benefit of the doubt. I just kept walking, even though I knew that really I should just stop and try to find another place to ask for help.
For all I knew I could be walking exactly away from where I wanted to go.
I thought of the worst. His last known location was a hostel in Santiago, Chile. He told no one his whereabouts. The last photo he posted to his Facebook account is this one:
A young guy passed, and I was about to ask him, but I saw him stumbling and weaving — casualty of a night out.
Finally, the bus station came into view, with a few people waiting for a night bus, and the young woman playing with her child.
Her eyes were wide, cautious, as she assessed me. I tried to look as harmless as possible as I asked for her help. She was possibly the best person I could have asked. She told me her name, but I have forgotten. I will just call her Mary.
She told me that the men were right: it was way too far to walk. ‘Cinco kilometres.’ 5 kilometers. She didn’t know how far I’ve walked, but walking that far, and not knowing my way, would make things difficult.
She spoke some english, ‘You are in a poor neighborhood,’ she said. ‘I am poor,’ she said and laughed a small laugh. When I speak Spanish or French, and other people respond in English, (like in Montreal) I think they believe I cannot speak their language well enough, and instead of hearing me mangle their language that it would be easier if everyone involved would simply speak English. They are right.
But her motives seemed more simple: she knew I could understand her little english better than her spanish. I responded in my meager spanish for the same reason.
Yes. All my life.
Cuanto anos tiene? (pointing to her boy)
He is 7 years old.
I have 2 kids, my other kid is 3. I am a young mother (laughs).
Cuanto anos tiene?
I am thirteen three.
I did the calculation in my head. She should be 21 now if her oldest son was 7. Something lost in translation.
A taxi passed. I said I could take a taxi. ‘No, it is too expensive,’ she said. ‘It is very far.’ She saw me take some peso coins from my pocket. ‘The bus does not take money. You need a card.’
Pero, no tengo una carte.
I will talk to the bus driver.
After about 30 minutes, the bus arrived. She stepped up ahead of me, and I could only catch a few words, but the gist of it was: He is a tourist. He doesn’t have a card. Can you take him to the station?
He nodded. ‘He will take you,’ she said, and offered her cheek. I only encountered this in Buenos Aires, the cheek kiss, and I brushed her smooth cheek with mine, air kissing.
I felt so grateful to her. I wished I had given her a card, an email address, something to stay in contact. And I regret not taking a picture. But perhaps this is for the best. She probably had a husband, or not, or whatever. And this way, it was another selfless act from a young woman to a foreign clueless traveler.
I pondered my luck. I have, except for a couple exceptions, felt fortunate in my life.
Then a thought crossed my mind: why was she playing with her kid at 10pm on a Saturday near a bus stop? And then a thought: there probably were no playgrounds in her neighborhood. That she worked odd hours, and this was time she made for her eldest son. And a bus stop with people is a safer place than a random piece of dirt.
I made it back to my hostel, to my Macbook Pro, my iPhone 6s, my ability to make money, and realized I had no problems at all. I turned on the light to my shared room, and my roommate shaded his eyes, and I quickly disrobed, turned off the light, and went to bed.
Originally published at gripandclip.com on April 30, 2017.