Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Santiago, part II

In 2005, I spent a half-year in Santiago as an exchange student. I spent a good portion of the time in near-constant haze of embarrassment from either 1) not understanding at all what people were saying to me 2) misunderstanding what people were saying to me or 3) being misunderstood. Even though I was studying almost constantly, I ended up with some of the worst grades I've ever received.

It was not all bad. I had a homestay with a family in Santaigo. Every evening, we'd have dinner and Marta and Mario would patiently endure my ugly spanish. Their children--all-grown--were whitewater kayakers, climbers, and former Pan-American Games athletes. Mario and Marta, themselves were the coolest retired people I'd ever met.

The most common slang word in Chile is güevon, which means literally “giant egg,” and is functionally equivalent to either asshole or dude, depending on the context. Güevon comes from huevos—eggs, i.e, testicles, and it has rich usage as a root word for other expressions. Agüevonar means to be disheveled or f'd up. Equivalently, güevona is a female analog of güevon. So one night when we were discussing the intricacies of Chilean slang, Mario started talking about how some people call everything and everyone güevon. He told Marta, güevon, to pass the bread, and I interjected that Marta would be more correctly called a güevona, since that is the femine form. However unbeknownest to me, güevona is not “dudette” but more like c--t. Mario feigned indignation and held up his steak knife towards Marta and told her to sacrifícelo, sacrifice me.

They treated me like family. When one of my host brothers married, I was invited to the ceremony, including the double-secret Chilean highlight, which is when the lovers crouch over some legal documents and sign them in the presence of the civil registrar (only civil servants have legal authority to wed in Chile.) I wanted to visit them very much when we went to Santiago.

Erin and I went to their house for dinner. We sat down to delicious roast beef with arroz, salad, cookies, chocolate and tea. It was just like when I was an exchange student, except for the yawning absence of Mario at the table.

Two days later at lunch Marta told me how it happened. Mario hadn't smoked a cigarrette in over thirty years, but about a year after I left Santiago, he fell ill. The doctors found lung cancer, and after fighting for a while, he died.

Mario went blind about 10 years before I lived in Santiago. He spent his time with his grandaughter building enormous lego castles and dabbling in number theory as he summed integers “to keep his brain limber.” Despite their uselessness to him, he knew by heart the location of the light switches in the house and would polish them. His collection of classical music was alphabetized so that he would only need to touch a couple braille labels to find the disc he wanted. He ran 5k and 10k roadraces with his daughter. I don't know if you can really bid someone farewell who is dying, since I know of no words that can penetrate something so final as death. But regardless of futility, I wish I could have said goodbye.

Yet, life goes on. In the past couple years, I have several new Chilean nephews, who are hilarious. My Chilean brothers and sisters are making a name for themselves in their careers. It's obvious how much Mario is still missed, but there is also much for which to be joyful. And for that I am very glad.

Martin is one of the recent added nephews. He is hilariously sly when he's misbehaving. When I came to the house at night, the lights in one of the bedroom were flashing on and off and I could hear Martin shrieking. Martin's mom--my host sister--opened the door and I remarked to her that I thought there was a tormenta, a storm in the room. Martin heard this and starting yelling "Soy una tormenta"--I'm a storm. When Marta came home we tried to tell her about it, but when Martin heard us calling him a tormenta, he made a puppy-dog face and said, offended, "No, soy un niño"--I'm a boy.

From santiago

The family

From santiago


  1. You have no idea who I am, but I too lived with Mario and Marta and Ale in 2001. I had lost contact with them over the years, but since the earthquake hit have been trying to see how they were.

    I'm glad I came across your blog, but am saddened to hear about the loss of Mario. He was an amazing man and I will miss him even more now that there is no chance of seeing him again.

  2. Ben,
    It is amazing how many lives Mario and Martita have touched, and that is pretty cool that this connection persists through cyberspace. I have heard that Martita and company were vacationing down south when the earthquake hit. They are safe and are trying to get back to Santiago.

    PS...Ale and Martita are on facebook.