sonder n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.
The city ferments insignificance. I am so small in this place, but I loom over it. From my balcony I see the multitude of windows, windows that pulsate like stars, windows that breathe, that think, that sing, windows that gaze into the very soul of the city. From my balcony the windows look back, the infinite eyes stare at me, but I am insignificant. I am a speck of dim light that mottles the darkness, a speck of dust that swirls among a writhing column of seven million particles. The city smells differently at night, the hot dusty scent is replaced by a limp cool breeze, it carries the muffled sounds of the city upon it.
I walk the bustling streets, illuminated by lamps high above and the headlights of a unceasing stream of traffic that battles and screams its progression through the city. I pass restaurants and pubs filled with young chilenos, enveloped in warm light and music they smile and consume. The meeting places of the middle-class overflow with the sounds of warmth and laughter. The warm and the laughter spills out onto the streets in a pool of light every time the door opens to devour another. I walk past bottelerias with their owners standing behind iron gates, a small opening in the middle, a mouth that swallows pesos and spits back alcohol. I stop for a moment to converse through the metal bars, I pass 3000 pesos through the opening and a six-pack of Escudo is passed back to me, I stuff the rattling cans into my backpack and continue. Will they be there tonight? I hope they are not this time.
I pass apartment buildings that reach up into the murky night sky, and parks that are havens for lovers and stray dogs during the heat of the day, but now loom menacingly, the fresh green transformed into threatening shades of darkness. I move closer to the centre of the city, the sounds of warmth and laughter are subdued by frantic sounds of the city. The air is muffled with the thrashing of traffic, it feels like a hot chaos that churns the cool calmness of the night into a well of boiling water. A well that drags the world into it, that boils it, boils it until the world is reduced to utter confusion. Across the river Mapocho I can see the barrio Bella Vista, the district of night clubs and bars that within a few hours will ignite with lights and bodies and booze. I continue towards my destination, I know they will be there, I wish they weren’t, but I know they will be.
I drift down narrow streets strangled by lights, buildings straddle the one way streets and the lights from their windows sing down upon the stream of cars who scream back at them. I pass the hostel that I stayed in my first night in Santiago, through the windows I see a myriad of faces from all corners of the world, none are familiar, but all look happy under the brightness of the lights, their faces reflecting back at them through the bottom of their drinks.
I move towards a larger street where vehicles hiss by on four wheels through four lanes, stopping and starting to lights of red and green. Like an old man breathing they move, inhale, Vicuna Mackenna moves, exhale, Diagonal Paraguay moves, inhale Mackenna, exhale, Paraguay, inhale, exhale, the laboured breath of the old sick man continues and so does the beating heart of the city. They are there, I can already feel that they are there, I know they are there, they are always there. I reach the intersection of Paraguay and Lira, I turn left and cringe.
They are there. Large garbage containers lined the left side of the street neatly, dark green and tall, the lids opened at the top, and several bodies moved among them. Like animals they fell upon the bins, frenzied beasts clawing at the garbage with their soft pink claws, on hands and knees thrashing amongst the mud for it. Shreds of garbage erupted between their undulating bodies, stern, hungry faces glared blankly at the piles beneath them. As I walked past none acknowledged me, they were busy hunting for the same warmth and laughter as those I had seen in the restaurants around my apartment. At the end of the procession of garbage bins stood one sole chileno, his clothes were stained with dirt and his face was tired. He gazed out of sunken eyes and his bronzed greasy skin was pulled back tight along his cheekbones. I approached him with the last 5000 peso note I had, “Oye amigo, tienes hambre?” and handed him the bill. A meek “gracias” escaped his bare, defeated face as he took the bill and moved past me.
I continued, faster this time, I hated when they were there, not because I looked down upon them or I was frightened of them. I hated that the system we lived in allowed them to be there, in Chile, in Canada, it did not matter, the monster loomed its ugly head everywhere. A system that allowed men to fall so far, that necessitated that some fall so far so others can soar so high. My meager donation did not make me above it, I was no knight or revolutionary or pseudo robin hood, and as I rang the buzzer to the apartment and heard the sounds of laughter and warmth radiate from the speaker, I realized I was nothing more than a king of filth.
After returning from my solo travels through Pucon and Valdivia I settled into life in Santiago. I moved into my first apartment seconds away from Plaza Italia, and within 10 minutes walking distance to both my university and the bar district. I lived with a Dutch girl who was studying at the Universidad Catolica, and an older Chilean woman who was a Professor at another University (she was also the sister of the landlady of my second apartment). The apartment was nice and every morning at about 8:23 I would wake up to the sun rising over the Andes mountains, which blew my mind every single morning (except for the hungover ones).
the Facultad de Economia y Negocios (FEN), the business school of Universidad de Chile I was studying at, was incredible. The building was beautiful and modern. There was soccer fields and basketball courts, a gym, green space to relax on, a patio hangout complete with tables, couches, ping pong tables, fusbol and barbeques (every few Fridays there would be a large party held in this area complete with excessive drinking and chorripan eating. The rest of the international students studying at FEN were incredible and the classes I was taking were extremely interesting and improving my Spanish daily. Specifically my “Vitivinicultura y la Industria de Vino en Chile” (Wine making and the Chilean Wine Industry), which consisted of learning about the history of wine and its production in Chile, but with a big focus on getting drunk in class during wine tastings and frequent fieldtrips to local vineyards to drink wine (the drunkest university credit I ever received).
During the first semester of my studies I witnessed another outbreak of student protesting, which had been going on for a few years, demanding better quality education and government financial support for students (as going to university is very expensive in Chile and only accessible to the rich) a initiative I am very supportive of. I watched a few of the protests, some of the largest culminating to huge processions down Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the main streets through Santiago. The Carabineros (Chilean police) are notorious for cracking down harshly on these protests, utilizing tear gas, water cannons, and officers armoured like military. I had the unfortunate experience of getting teargassed on my walk to school as a procession of protesters passed. The stuff burned like crazy and during the class we could see plumes of gas going off in the streets.
During my first semester I was also lucky enough to go to the 2 day music festival Lollapalooza, it was an unreal weekend filled with some awesome musicians and good times with some of the international friends I had made.
The student’s association put on a large event that through the school sent all the students on buses to a nearby beach town for a large concert and party. I went along with a Chilean friend who had spent a semester at Carleton, who introduced me to other Chileans and although I struggled through the day with my broken Spanish I had an absolute blast. Every student had their faculty, bus number, and license plate written on their arm so that if they passed out on the beach they could be carried back to the right bus. Seemed a bit crazy until we pulled up the beach and saw the place spotted with drunken chilenos laying in the sand.
I was getting used to the South American life quick, and falling in love with it. My Spanish was improving daily and I was meeting the most incredible and interesting people. I missed my friends and family and my home, but I was starting to feel at home here in Chile, however as much as Santiago excited me, I was already looking forward to the next adventure.