It was a cool Wednesday morning, and I was waiting at the bus stop near my apartment to teach a class uptown. I was listening to some music on my Ipod and was startled when someone approached me. It was a homeless man (well, I'm assuming that he was homeless given his appearance) begging for money. His eyes were wide and pleading, and his dirty hand was outstretched. My first instinct in a situation like that is to just mutter, "Lo siento" (I´m sorry) and go on with my business.
I did just that, but there was something about this particular man. As he walked down the street he visited a house, and some people that were out on the porch gave him some change. His curly hair was unkempt, and he was wearing torn up shorts and a shirt that was practically falling off of him.
I broke into a run to catch up with him. I didn´t have any change on me, but I had a yogurt and an apple that I was going to snack on during the day. I tapped him on the shoulder and gave it to him. He had a pastry and a cup of tea in his hands now As I put the yogurt and apple into his arm, I realized I didn´t have a spoon to give him for the yogurt. He asked me for a bag to carry what I had given him, but I didn´t have one. I felt horrible.
He then placed what I gave him as well as the pastry and tea on the ground and wandered to the middle of the street and was looking both ways. Luckily there was no traffic coming either way, but I had no idea what was going through his mind.
I made my way back to the bus stop, but I couldn´t get my mind off of him. People in Chile seem to be pretty sympathetic to the less fortunate. People will give money to beggars, and it´s common for people will board the bus to play music or explain their financial hardships and ask for assistance. (As far as I know, there is no unemployment here). Sure enough, usually more than half of the people on the bus give the person a few hundred pesos (about 50 cents). It may not seem like a lot, but here that amount of money adds up and can make a considerable difference for a struggling individual or family.
I`ve never done research or much reading about it, but I remember hearing that a lot of homelessness is due to people having mental problems that go untreated or undiagnosed. There are also people who claim that the homeless are lazy and could find a job if they wanted one, but I think it´s not as easy as that.
It made me wonder about this man. How old was he? Did he have any family or friends? What was his life like growing up? What did he do to survive day to day? And how did he get to that point of his life?
I found myself realizing how much in my life I take for granted. I cried for the man and the other people here that do without so many basic things on a daily basis half of the bus ride to my class that morning.
Another event happened during a taxi ride on Tuesday evening.
It´s about a half hour walk from one class to another on Tuesday evenings, but with the colder weather I had gotten into the habit of taking a taxi. It usually only costs me about 1200 pesos, which is about $2.50 so I consider it a small luxury that allows me to start my class earlier and therefore get home a bit earlier. (By that time it is already 7:45 at night, and with luck I can get home at 9:30 after I finish my last class).
I got into the taxi and told him the intersection I needed to go to. He proceeded to take the roundabout where traffic piles up, and I asked him to take the side street to save some time. He tried to insist that there was no traffic at this time (it was rush hour), and I kindly asked him again to take a side street. He took a phone call, and as we came out of the side street I told him the more exact address. He then wanted to go around back in the direction we came, but I asked him to simply go right and leave me at that corner. He seemed annoyed but went there.
The total came to 1210 pesos, and I handed him a 1000 bill and a 500 peso coin. I started to gather my things, and he barked at me: "Mira! Es solo 100 pesos!" (Look, it´s only 100 pesos!)
I was caught off guard. I had heard of taxi drivers changing bills on people. What they do is you hand them a larger bill, (usually 10,000) and when you are looking away for one second they then change it to a 1,000 they had in their other hand quickly. They then complain that you didn`t give them the correct amount and then get you to give them more.
Sure enough, the coin in his hand was 100 pesos. I tried to explain to him that I gave him 500 pesos, but he went on a tirade about how he doesn´t try to take advantage of people. He told me to look in my pocket, and being confused I did. He then showed me that he didn`t have a 500 peso coin in his coin holder. (He most likely put it into his pocket or onto the side compartment of the door). He continued to go on and on and told me to get out and take the 100 peso coin with me.
I was too caught off guard to argue with him any further, and I had already been on the road since 7 that morning. (It was 8 at night when this happened). Looking back, I should have stayed put and insisted on the additional 200 pesos he owed me. I could have told him I was going to snap a picture of his face and take down his license plate and report him and put his information up on Facebook warning others not to ride with him.
I´m not always very good about thinking on my feet (especially in another language), and I got out of the taxi and slammed the door. If there´s one thing I really hate, it´s the feeling of being taken advantage of. One of the areas in which I`ve grown since coming to Chile is that I`ve stopped becoming a people pleaser and am more assertive. When something like that happens, however, it`s a big blow to your self confidence in regards to your language abilities and leaves you feeling stupid and incompetent.
It also highlights another element of living here as a foreigner. People see that you are different, and they treat you differently. People from the States in general are viewed as being rich, and so we are more of a target for pickpockets and taxi drivers. I walk around with my hands in my pockets on my wallet, cell phone, and Ipod. I usually only take the amount of cash I need with me and only take a credit card or bank card with me if I need it. I walk around with a luggage lock on my bookbag when I have my tablet or computer with me, and I almost always tell taxi drivers the amount I am giving them as I hand it to them. (I forgot this once, and this event was the result.)
On the flip side of things, having white skin and being a native English speaker puts you at an advantage for finding jobs as an English teacher. Sometimes waiters and customer service people will want to practice their English with you, and it´s a nice occasion to add a little variety to someone´s day and put a smile on their face.
I took some deep breaths as I walked into the building for my next class. My student´s mother must have seen it on my face, so when she asked how I was I was honest and told her what had happened. She was understanding, and seeing her concern for me was enough to start to relax and forget about it. My student was well behaved (he´s a creative 10 year old with lots of energy), and by the time class was over the anger had subsided. It was, however, a renewed reminder that living here as a foreigner that I need to stay on guard to prevent things like this from happening.
I see myself as a pretty serious and introverted person that likes to stick to his routine, but these two events are things that have evoked both sadness and anger in me that I don´t experience too often.
I think it´s easy to update with the things that are going well, but it´s unrealistic to leave out events like these. Is my life here in Chile perfect? No. Is Chile the perfect country to live? Far from it. What I figure is that you take the good with the bad, and you find what is going to best make you happy.