Saturday, December 31, 2011

Santiago Summer (A Tribute to George Orwell)

Thick yellow curtains cover the window to the patio.  Sunlight defies them, seeping in around the edges while also illuminating the curtains in a pallid hue.  It is mid-afternoon, but an air of drowsiness and sloth resonates through our small 4th floor apartment.  Visitors from France arrived late yesterday, and their internal clocks are still recalibrating.

The heat in Santiago is nearly unbearable at this time of day.  The temperature is high, but more troublesome than the thermometer is the sun itself.  Here the sun strikes all it sees with a ferocity unequaled by any other place I know.  During the summer, even clouds dare not pass over our city for fear of catching its yellow wrath.  People walk the streets hugging the buildings to hide in the thin sliver of concrete jungle shade. Wherever there is a patch of grass, chances are a scorched man in a city-crested florescent jumpsuit is watering it, or just watered it. Grass must be watered multiple times daily, or it quickly turns brown, and then disappears into the dirt.

A chorizo on the stove hisses and spits in the background. It hates the heat as much as we do, but it only complains by ejecting fat and oil.  Lucky for it, its suffering is nearly over. Ours has months to go.

It is time to escape. I step into the hallway, and am immediately bathed in slightly cooler air. The apartment door slams itself behind me, and now the only light is white fluorescence coating the already white walls and doors. The elevator is waiting for me when I get there, and within a few moments I am crossing the lobby. I wave to the security guard as I pass, and we exchange a pair of muddled "buenos dias" as I push open the glass door.

The blacktop on the 3-lane one way is fighting back against the sun as best as it can.  My calves take the brunt of it as I half-jog across the street to the shady side. Once on the sidewalk, my eyes turn to search for a taxi.  Not 30 seconds pass before a familiar black car with yellow roof flicks its hazard lights, and stops with rear passenger door right in front of me. "Pedro con Grecia" I say, gently closing the door behind me.  No more words are uttered, and the driver takes off.

We pass intersection after intersection, all of which are spotted with people standing in the shade.  I check every face I can as we drive along, not a smile to be seen. Everyone sports the identical look of someone who just received their 3rd parking ticket this month.  If only one or two people looked like this, I would wonder about the source of their misfortune.  But when everybody outside shares the same facial expression, the source of their discomfort is obvious.  I look back out the windshield, but my head remains close to the open window.

The taxi pulls through the intersection of Pedro de Valdivia and Grecia.  The red digital ticker reads "2050", so I hand the driver three 1000 peso bills.  He hands one back, and smiles at me through the rear view mirror.  I can feel sweat beads gathering around my forehead and temples, but somehow his face is bone dry.  I smile back, and once again find myself hurrying a "buenos dias" as I open a door to the outside.  The driver had pulled close to the sidewalk, and this time I avoid crossfire in the constant battle between sun and blacktop. The off-white sidewalk had long given up, and there is an extra spring in my step as I walk up to the white apartment gate. The security man looks out, and a moment later the metal gate announces my entry with a grating buzz.  I walk past the security guard, who nods with a thin grin before returning to the small TV I hear in the booth.  With one look, he knows why I am here.

The joyful yelps of kids and the muted conversations of adults betray their presence before I can see them. I round the final corner of a white stucco apartment to see the pool, shining a brilliant aqua blue.  Children are splashing and jumping and diving, and the surface of the water dances in turn.  Adults line the sides of the pool, but not one of them is dry. Water beads run down their shoulders and back, giving their bare skin a much needed reprieve. My friends are on the shade's edge, ten feet from the pool itself. None of them are dry either. Saying a quick hello, I drop my bag and take off my shirt. It is time.

The kids avoid one corner of the pool as if they have anticipated my arrival. With my big toes hanging over the edge, I pause for a second to admire the artificial sea before me. This is going to feel incredible. The sun shines even harder on my back for a moment, pushing me in from 93 million miles away. I need no further motivation. My lungs fill with a little extra air, my leg muscles tense, and I thrust myself forward.


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