I grinned when I heard my first "sipo." It was in the airport parking lot, heading to the taxista's car with my luggage in tow. I shivered and put on my jacket. The sun was shining, but 7am was still cold, and it was still winter.
The Andes hovered in the distance, sentries guarding the city. They were old friends of mine, welcoming me back to familiar ground.
The old man driving talked like the country Chileans do, a slurred Spanish that makes them sound perpetually drunk. My rusty Spanish served me well enough, but the words came to me slowly, as if underwater. I could not volley back anything. My vocabulary was officially in a body bag.
We drove past graffiti and dry, yellow grass and shanties constructed on the other side of the Mapocho river. Stray dogs sniffed along the river bed. Litter was everywhere. A bank of smog obstructed the distance.
The smell of Santiago is the smell of diesel fuel. I breathed in cautiously, then full deep breaths. It had been too long.
I tried to remember which direction the traffic would be heading on the street where I lived. From 7am-9:30am it ran north. The rest of the day, it ran south. I grinned again. So complicated. So Chilean.
I wanted to hold on to every smell, every scene that swept by my window. The park near Providencia and Bellavista with the art statues. The bridges leading into Providencia--my favorite part of the city. The little corner stands with fruits and vegetables, scarves and earrings, water and snacks. And all the people. I forgot all the people. People begging for money and selling band aids for donations, people in the streets juggling; yo-yoing; throwing, spitting, swirling fire; chucking chinese sticks, knives, and bowling pins high into the air. Payasos and drummers. Dancers. Flag girls. A guy selling posters, selling palo santo (cedar wood), selling mote con huesillos (peaches and oats), selling honey-roasted nuts, selling churros con manjar.
My roommate had once said to me, "Santiago is all about the hustle. If you're sitting on a bus, chances are the person next to you is selling something." I couldn't have agreed more.
I wanted it all then. The greed overwhelmed me. I wanted to possess it. I wanted to make it mine forever.
I wanted to brand my memory, to have a tattoo of this place on my brain forever.
I arrived at the little house in La Reina, first opening the condominium gate with a satisfying "clack". Then through to the inner gate, locked with a master lock. Kanke's dachsund Ayoom was there. She jumped and wagged her tail which made her whole back end waggle, like a horizontal hula dancer.
I stuck my hands through the bars, unlocked the lock with my tiny key, and walked into our garden. The rose bushes had grown twice as tall.
I stopped to pet Ayoom. "Hey girl, long time no see," I whispered. We bonded for a moment, but I was too excited to stay long with her. I was almost, finally, home.
Then, I unlocked the top deadbolt. I remembed when Caitlin and I had first arrived a year ago how we had spent ten minutes playing with the lock because we'd both struggled to open it. The trick was turning the key twice instead of once. Then I turned the key in the bottom lock and opened the door. The light of morning shone through the windows of our living room, warming our normally cool house. The faint scent of kerosene wafted from the portable heater, mixing with the base notes of incense and palo santo.
I immediately felt a sense of calm and peace. The house was a little part of me, and I had missed it.
My room seemed smaller and emptier. There were no posters on the cold white cement walls. The old dog pee stain on the carpet (that then became a much large spot after I cleaned it) looked larger in the empty room. Same business-grade carpet covering the cement floor.
I still had my clothes in the closet, my clock on the desk, my big desk. It felt like I was receiving tiny messages or gifts from someone. "Take good care of yourself. Have fun. Here's some things you might need."
It was the star lamp I had purchased right before I left that made me think of Pollo. Of how he had come to pick me up at the bazaar where I'd bought the lamp. And even though all his friends had been there, he'd only had eyes for me.
Then Lua came out of her room. Kanke came downstairs, too. I pushed Pollo from my mind and spent my first day back in Santiago, laughing and telling stories and eating pan amasado (fresh bread) and avocados.
I was ready to breathe life back into my little corner of Santiago. All I needed was a place to sleep and a place to write, and here, in the little house in La Reina, I had both.