A guest post today from writer and master of all trades, Eb Ward, currently located ‘somewhere in the southern hemisphere’
I stepped off the dusty high street in Quintero and onto the bus to Valparaiso. I tried to pay, but the driver waved me away to an empty pair of seats just in front of the back row. I laid my heavy backpack down beside me and felt a little guilty that I was taking up two spaces. I sat for a while, waiting to see if I was going to get a free ride all the way to the city. Five minutes later the driver stopped the bus in the middle of the road and refused to drive until I came up to speak with him. He must have been expecting me to get up there and pay like every other passenger until he realised his faith in either the intelligence or honesty of gringos was misplaced. I paid my 1,000 pesos and walked back down the aisle. As I returned to my seat someone behind spoke to me in English.
‘Are you okay? Need any help?’ a man asked in a thick Chilean accent.
[No, no problem,] I replied in Spanish, in the thick accent of wherever it is I’m from.
‘Oh, you speak Spanish? Very good! Very good. You speak Spanish, eh?’
‘Well, a bit.’
‘I like to practise my English,’ he said, with an air of finality. I looked at him, a small fifty-something man with deeply lined and tanned skin, a bulbous nose, quick dark eyes and uneven patches of curly black hair piled on his scalp like campfire smoke. He bowed his head towards me with an ambassadorial air. ‘Welcome to Chile.’
As he spoke a younger man in the seat in front of me craned his neck to look back at us. He had thick, rubbery lips that didn’t quite fit into each other and watery greenish eyes under a thatch of black hair under a pair of sunglasses.
[What are you talking to him about?] he asked in Spanish.
[I’m talking to him in English] my new friend said dismissively, turning to me again. ‘We’re just talking, aren’t we?’
I nodded. He was speaking very loudly, almost shouting, and I wondered if he’d been drinking. It was embarrassing. I turned to face forwards again. He didn’t take the hint.
‘I learned my English in Finland. I used to work there.’ He paused and I just waited. ‘I used to have four or five women every week! They’d never seen someone with dark skin and dark hair before. Amazing, man! Five a week!’ I raised my eyebrows at the respective sizes of this claim and the small, unprepossessing entity from which it emanated. I tried to turn away a second time, but it was clear that the sex life of the Finns was not all he wanted to tell me about. He gestured towards the young man in front of me, whose lips were collecting a thin film of drool. ‘This is my… What’s the word in English for your brother’s son?’
‘Yeah, nephew. He’s my nephew. We’re going to Concón to pick up our pay packets for the month.’
I smiled and nodded in what I hoped was a conclusive kind of a way. He plunged on, asking me where I was from, what I did and where I was going.
‘Valparaiso? Really?’ He whistled. ‘It’s very dangerous. Be careful of your things, man. Really, be careful. It’s not safe there.’
I nodded again. He told me three more times to be careful of my things to make sure I’d understood. I felt as though he was trying to expand his nephew collection to include me by sheer weight of advice. I agreed I would be careful of my things. He advised me to walk with my hands in my pockets at all times. I found myself wondering why every Chilean I met made Valparaiso sound like downtown Mogadishu. He was warming to his theme, when he stopped and looked at me closely.
‘Hey man, what you think of my English?’ ‘It’s pretty good,’ I said. And aside from a few dropped words and some wayward grammar, it was.
‘Pretty good? You think my English pretty good?’
‘Yeah. It’s not bad at all.’
‘FUCK!’ he bellowed. The guy sitting next to him hugged his young son closer to him and glared. My new best friend bounced in his seat, delightedly. ‘Pretty good!’ He looked at his nephew who was watching him vacantly and trying to follow our conversation without the benefit of being able to understand English. ‘You hear that? He said my English pretty good!’
[He said my English is pretty good.]
[Really? Whatever,] he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
[It’s pretty good,] I confirmed, though after the sudden explosion I was beginning to have doubts. The nephew looked at me in surprise, while his uncle looked a bit disgruntled that I was trying to muscle in on his role as translator.
‘Yeah, my English is pretty good. Pretty good…’ He repeated it a few more times and each time seemed to inflate a little more. He looked at me with a gleam in his eye, then at his nephew.
‘My English is pretty good. You hear that?’ He paused, ‘You punkass bitch?’
I swiveled my head around to stare at him. He grinned at me, then looked at his nephew again.
‘Yeah, motherfucker! You’re such a fucking bitch.’
His nephew frowned, leaned over and tried a retaliatory slap which missed by a mile. Delighted, his uncle spread his hands wide and brought them down level with his hips as though cradling the shaft of an imaginary penis which, if real, would have been much larger than his torso.
‘Yeah, that’s right, you’re a fucking bitch! You know what you can do? You can suck my dick, motherfucker!’
A huge grin spread across his face as he ran through his repertoire at the top of his voice, like a small child going over the alphabet for his parents, accompanying the performance with enthusiastic pelvic-thrusting. The ambassador/uncle was now gone, and the man in his place spent a quarter of an hour inviting his motherfucking nephew to go down on him. My fellow passengers were shifting nervously in their seats, some of them murmuring to themselves and others staring fixedly at the floor or at their young children, hoping as I was that he would get off at one of the next stops. He did not. Instead he pulled out a plastic telephone calling card and handed it to me. For the first time, his nephew looked genuinely aghast.
[You’re just going to give that to him?]
[Don’t worry, it’s not charged up,] he replied. He turned to me, ‘Don’t worry, there’s no money on it.’ I must have looked confused, probably because I was.
‘The other side, man.’ I turned it over but all I could see was the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag.
‘It’s the flag of my country,’ he said solemnly. I waited to see why I should care. He laid his right arm across his chest, the balled fist over his heart. He raised his voice a little more, ‘It’s the most important thing in my life!’
I must have looked sceptical, probably because I was, although I still couldn’t smell any alcohol. He seemed disappointed but not discouraged, and his previous ambassadorial tone returned. ‘It is a present to you from my country. Please take it and keep it with you always.’ He smiled magnanimously as I placed it in my wallet. Satisfied, he leaned past me and grabbed a plastic carrier bag out of the hands of his nephew. I saw a green glass bottleneck sticking out of the top, and on it the familiar red, white and gold of Stella Artois.
‘This?’ He shrugged, brandishing the tall litre bottle and smiling slyly, ‘I’m sorry. This is a habit I picked up from the English.’
He took a long swig before his nephew tried to take it back.
[Wait your turn!] he snapped, holding it out of reach, then translating: ‘You gotta wait, motherfucker!’ He downed about a quarter-litre of Stella and then snatched the sunglasses of his nephew’s head. He looked at them for a moment, turning them in his hands, then tried to sell them to me.
He carried on trying to sell them to me for the next ten minutes, undeterred that I had a pair of my own hanging from the neck of my shirt. When he finally got off, shoving his nephew around as they disembarked, I saw row upon row of shoulders relax and I almost thought I could see the plate-glass of the windows buckle slightly, as if the bus itself were breathing a sigh of relief.