Christmas Eve on the other side of the planet, and we had just missed our bus. Raw chicken was thawing in my backpack as we trudged along la Alameda in Santiago’s 85-degree heat, through throngs of late shoppers and sidewalk vendors, from one bus station to another.
Susan and I were visiting our son Danny, who had just completed his foreign study program at la Universidad de Chile. Danny’s Chilean host family had invited us to overnight at their beach house in Maitencillo (my-ten-SEE-yo). They had already left for the beach, but since Danny had visited there once before, he remembered which bus to take for our two-hour ride to the Pacific.
Though we lived in California, we traditionally spent the holidays in Arizona with our extended family. We missed our other son and our son-in-law, our cousins, nieces and nephews. It was hard to be away from my sister, who had lost her husband at the beginning of that year, and our mom, then 95. We came from a Jewish family, but my sister had married a Catholic guy years before, and their three grown daughters had married two Protestants and an Orthodox Jew and produced six kids of their own.
So we had quite a sampling of Judeo-Christian religions. Our family holiday gatherings, which often numbered 15 or 20 at someone’s house or at a restaurant, were warm and gabby, inclusive and nonreligious. Sometimes we got together separately with the Jewish relatives to exchange Hanukkah presents, sometimes we did Hanukkah and Christmas together. Though we felt strange to be half a world away from the rest of the family, Susan and I were delighted to see Danny. It had been six months since he’d left for Chile, the longest we’d been separated from any of our kids.
Our bus to Maitencillo was scheduled to leave at 6:30 pm, and we grabbed a cab to the station with hours to spare. The bus station was on the same street as our hotel, just a few miles down Avenida Libertador Bernardo O’Higgins, known to Chileans as la Alameda.
To avoid arriving empty-handed at the beach house, we had stopped earlier at a supermarket and bought two bottles of wine, plus a few pounds of frozen raw chicken, hamburgers, and buns for that night’s barbecue. All this was stuffed into our small backpacks with clothing and toiletries.
Danny told the cabbie we were going to Terminal San Borja. The driver asked our destination, then informed us with grave authority that the bus to Maitencillo did not leave from San Borja. Perhaps we meant Estación Central, or Terminal Alameda? Danny hesitated, suddenly unsure of the station name. But, he said, “I know it’s on this street, and I’m sure I’ll recognize it.”
San Borja was close to a couple of other bus stations down O’Higgins, but the traffic gods were not with us, and it took forever to bushwhack through the thicket of Christmas Eve travelers clogging the streets. Eventually Danny called out, pointing to a huge building on the other side of the road. Our driver swerved into a U-turn, then lurched down a side street marked Terminal San Borja, all the while maintaining cheerfully that this was the wrong station.
After a long block, he found a ramp entrance marked Taxis and talked with a frightened-looking security guard in an oversized uniform who insisted that we were in the wrong place and wouldn’t let us in. Danny implored the guard to double-check before we went on a wild-goose chase to who-knew-where. The guard radioed his supervisors, and all agreed, in no uncertain terms, that the bus to Maitencillo did not leave from San Borja, that we should go to Estación Central, fortunately only a short distance away.
Our cabbie negotiated a maze of back streets and finally deposited us, triumphantly, at the rear bus entrance of Estación Central, which he had thought was correct the whole time. It was now about 5:30. We grabbed our backpacks, chicken and burgers and ran into the yard, but among dozens of buses from half a dozen companies, not one was going to Maitencillo. Drivers encouraged us to inquire inside the terminal.
Chaos ruled Estación Central. At that moment it seemed that all Chileans were passing through bus stations heading home to their mamas for Christmas Eve. Each bus company had its own booth with a long line, and listings of schedules were hard to find. After we waited for a while on the Pullman line, an indifferent clerk told us to try the next line over, a company called Turbus. Here another overburdened functionary blandly informed us, without consulting his computer, that there were no buses to Maitencillo from anywhere.
Can’t get there from here, I thought. But how to say that in Spanish?
Danny asked him politely in his best university dialect to check again. Now the man sighed through a brief computer search, then told us airily that yes, there was a bus, but it left from San Borja at 6 pm. We stamped our feet and shook our heads in frustration. It was now 6:05. “I told ya so” was in order, but the cabbie was long gone. Danny had been right the whole time. We would try again the next day, on Christmas.
We decided to walk back to San Borja, to check the schedules there and possibly buy our tickets for tomorrow. Which is how we found ourselves toting raw meat and wine through Christmas Eve crowds in the heat of the afternoon.
I felt curiously overdressed in the Southern Hemisphere’s December summer and visualized the melting chicken festering behind my shoulder blades as I led us through the crowds. Santiago is about as far south of the Equator as Los Angeles is north, and the terrain, foliage, and climate were similar. The preponderance of palm trees, Spanish signs, and Latin-looking people made me feel, not for the first time, like I was in California.
The San Borja station was at the back of a giant, multi-level shopping mall. Nearly 20 bus companies offered transportation to a huge array of destinations.
But there was no centralized display of arrival and departure information, so we had to wait on line and ask the clerk at each booth. Eventually we determined that several companies offered daily trips to Maitencillo from San Borja. We had missed them all and would be spending the rest of Christmas Eve in Santiago. If the cabbie had brought us directly here, we would already have been halfway to the coast.
“Chileans will give directions willingly,” Danny told us from experience. “But in an effort to be helpful, they’d rather make something up than admit they don’t know how to get somewhere.”
We bought bus tickets for Christmas night, then hopped a cab back to our comfy digs at the Hotel Plaza San Francisco. Since we were only leaving for one night, we hadn’t checked out. The management had jumped to attention when we departed with so much stuff earlier in the day — thinking, I suppose, that we were running out on the bill. They were surprised to see us back that night. I imagined the chicken dripping red blood across the carpet as we entered the blessedly air-conditioned lobby, waved to the desk clerk, and headed for the elevator, but the meat was well sealed and amazingly cool to the touch as I stuffed it into the mini-bar fridge. Our room felt like home.
We did eventually get to Maitencillo the next night without incident, but on Christmas Eve, after our unsuccessful effort to get out of town, our night together in Santiago was a hoot. The three of us had a late dinner in a booth at a fluorescent-lit café down the street from the hotel, the only place still open.
There were few other customers. We played Deuces, while waiting for our food, and Susan and Danny laughed at my usual cosmic density in recalling rules of card games. We devoured Kunstmann beer and a fabulous holiday feast —hamburguesas dinamicas, dynamic burgers, served with ketchup, sauerkraut, avocado (oddly called palta in Chile), and, like most dishes in that part of the world, a mountain of mayo.
We mused about who would be hosting the family that Christmas Eve in Arizona, which cousins we had recent news of, how different this holiday was turning out to be. Talking about family and enjoying each other’s company warmed our evening and made up for missing the bus.
Back on the street, to our wonder, we discovered 50 dancers and a live band in colorful folkloric costumes, including the impossibly nerdy Andean men’s knit caps with long earflaps that tied under the chin. Where had they all come from? I snapped a few pictures as they whirled pompoms on strings and performed tightly synchronized traditional line dances in front of our hotel, then pranced together into the 400-year-old church across the Plaza, the Iglesia San Francisco, for Christmas midnight mass.
The three of us adjourned to the hotel bar and toasted our family 6000 miles away. Chilean and Argentine wines and holiday wellbeing flowed freely.
It was always great to be together. It didn’t really matter where we were. And even though we hadn’t really gone anywhere that day, it was great to be back.