Monday, February 26, 2007

March 2005: Juan Carlos Gutiérrez, el bufón de Chile

The somewhat creepy South Pacific flava of our Easter Island trip drawing to a close, my usual international travel partner (dad) and I were enduring stop #1 amongst the cold steel-and-glass girders of Santiago Airport, patiently awaiting the plane that would take us on to Dallas and the good ol' U S and A. It has always been a relief to me to finally make it to the airport, security cleared and nothing else to do but wait.

So I sat down and relaxed, trying one last time to osmotically acquire some Spanish through the, I'm sure, hilarious episode of "Brujas" playing on the airport LCD tv. "Brujas" apparently is, or was, the thing in Chile, judging from how every tv I laid eyes on during that trip was either showing it or a commercial for it.

Dad took a seat in a less crowded area of the room. A couple of seats over was a mustachioed guy with glasses. Little did I now that this nondescript dude and his opinions would soon become the stuff of family lore.

I lost myself in thought and didn't pay any attention to dad until I got up for a restroom break. As I walked past him I saw that he was having a conversation with the guy sitting next to him. Dad likes to do that, strike up conversations with strangers when we travel.

Suddenly I got the joke. Earlier in the week, when we landed in Santiago on the way down, the lady at the customs booth had, after looking at my passport and nudging her partner, looked me in the eye and pronounced my name somewhat salaciously as "Hassan." I looked at her and smiled faintly, not sure whether to take it as a compliment or an insult. Right then, on tv, my differently-pronounced namesake was having his name whispered rapturously by a female "Brujas" castmember as soft-focus passion ensued.

Across the room I could see dad getting more animated. This guy must really be getting his goat. When he enters wide-eye-and-gesticulating-forcefully-mode you know something's up. I chuckled to myself and turned back to the tv. Politics always come up.

It was only later that I learned what had gotten him so worked up. The guy he was talking to was a native Chilean who lived part of the year in Vancouver. He liked to rile up Americans in his spare time. I'm not sure exactly how the conversation went, but apparently the guy, whose name was Juan Carlos, said Americans were a group of belligerent troublemakers who forced their will on all the other nations of the world. Not only that, dad related, but each one of us is directly responsible for it. "You," Juan Carlos had told him, "were part of the plot President Nixon hatched to have President Allende assasinated. You, you, you." That was where all the finger pointing came in. By the Doctrine of Juan Carlos, we, as American citizens, are complicit to all the pain and suffering our government inflicts upon our global brethren. That was the gist of their conversation, anyway.

Finally boarding time rolled around. Our group was called and we got up to get on the plane and the 8 hours of confinement that went with it. I handed the guy at the counter my ticket. He paused, then flipped it over and looked at the back.

"Sir, do you have your boarding pass?"

Umm, that's all I have. What else do I need?

"This is your ticket. You need a boarding pass."

By this time dad was up there too. He had the same things that I had. He didn't have a boarding pass either. Knowing how worked up he would always get at the mere thought of anything blocking us from arriving at the airport less than three hours ahead of our scheduled departure, I knew this would not be good. His eyes were already as wide as saucers.

"Here's our tickets. This is our plane. Can't you let us get on?" he said tersely.

"I can't sir. Not without a boarding pass. You haven't paid the departure tax."

The bridgeway was empty except for us. The plane was scheduled to leave in five minutes.

Ok, I thought. Simple enough. Apparently the people on Easter Island had forgotten to issue us boarding passes for Santiago. Let's just pay the departure tax now and be done with it.

Four minutes.

Dad had the same idea. "Here's my credit card. Just put it on this." After some hesitation, they agreed. One of the guys disappeared with the card.

Three minutes.

"Where is he?" Dad seethed, his face red. "If he has to go all the way back to the ticket counter, we're gonna miss the plane." I could see the helplessness in his eyes.

Two minutes.

Down the hall, first the footsteps. The guy was coming back.

"Ok," dad said with more than a hint of sarcasm. "Can we get on the plane now?"

I walked on ahead, down the jetway, hoping at the end would be the plane and not empty space. I glanced back to see where dad was.

He had his backpack off, a look of frustration on his face. A couple of security guards had stopped him halfway down the ramp and were rifling through his things. I caught his glance and shrugged my shoulders.

"Go ahead," he said, shrugging back.

Needless to say I was one of the last ones on the plane. I was informed by one of the flight attendants, rather impatiently, that we would leave as soon as all passengers were in their seats with their seatbelts fastened. I promptly complied, relieved that I had made it. As I was sitting down, I saw dad walking down the aisle. He had made it, after all.

To this day, dad contends that Juan Carlos had something to do with all that.

I was in the window seat. The whirlwind that had surrounded our boarding was just beginning to fade. I looked over to see who was sitting next to me in the aisle seat.

It was none other than Juan Carlos, social conscience of the Chilean nation.

He greeted me jovially, remembering me from earlier.

"Your father, I like him. He is a good man."


We shot the breeze for a while. He seemed like an affable enough guy. He asked what I did for a living.

"I'm a pharmacist."

"Good profession," he nodded. "You know what I like to do sometimes? I enjoy some good marijuana." He pronounced this slowly, wrapping his tongue around it and processing it in such thick Spanish inflection that the word itself became foreign.

"Hmm," I said. "That's nice." I wasn't taking the bait.

He told me I needed to do everything I could "to get Bush out of there." Nope.

We talked on and on, well past Peru and into Ecuador. He ordered a miniature bottle of wine with his dinner and our conversation turned to the finer things in life: wine, good food, women. He may have been about 60 but he had the enthusiastic spirit of a guy half his age. We talked and laughed on into the night. After a lull in the conversation I looked over and ol' Juan Carlos had tuckered out.

When morning came, the flight attendants passed out the customs declaration cards. I glanced over and saw Juan Carlos take out his passport.


Before long we were on the ground in Dallas. I saw Juan Carlos ahead of me, suitcase in tow, turn left into the human river of DFW.

Then he was gone.


Thursday, February 08, 2007

June 1994

During my high school days there wasn't a whole lot to do that didn't result in an undesirable update to one's criminal record. "Whaddya wanna do?" was asked so frequently that you think we could have created the answer that never existed.

Thankfully there were sports. Those weekends and summers consisted of tennis, backyard baseball, basketball, and mini golf. Epic battles, shots and hits that became part of our collective mythology. When we had conquered one game, we set out to work on another. Eventually the time came for us to try a new, more blue-blood pursuit.

Real golf.

I'm not sure who first sprang this idea. One of our clique used to amuse himself but whacking golf balls into the woods behind his house. It sounded like a fun enough diversion...the only problem was that it cost like 20 bucks to play a round at this little podunk course close to the house. A pretty good chunk of change. But we all came up with it.

So with one set of clubs for four guys, we headed out to the clubhouse. A handful of middle-aged guys in golf shirts and Titleist hats were spread out across to room, lounging, smoking cigarettes, and shooting the breeze. They looked up at as warily. The owner took our money and directed us toward our golf carts, instructing us firmly to "stay on the paths."

On the first tee we all took our cuts. My problem was purging the mechanics of my baseball swing from my mind, something I can't quite do even to this day. As a result I missed the ball completely 50% of the time, put wicked topspin on it 30%, or sliced/hooked it 15%. Do the math and you'll see why I found that I could just throw the ball and get much better results in shorter time to boot. The other guys weren't much better. The good thing was that once we got on the green we could hold our own thanks to our mini skills.

As you could probably guess we lost a lot of balls this way. Luckily for me one of my hobbies in earlier times was combing the cow fields and creeks that bordered another golf course for wayward balls. I made pretty respectable money selling them (back?) to the golfers as they passed by. But I couldn't sell them all, so I had tapped into my supply for this outing. The other guys didn't have such a reserve. They also didn't have the disposable income to buy new ones. Therein lay fate.

The other guys had found an elegant, albeit dishonest, way to circumvent their shortcoming. You could either pay $2.00 for a sleeve of three balls that would last maybe two holes if you were lucky or you could pay 75 cents for a small bucket of balls from the driving range. You can probably guess which one they chose.

So we played on. We had a blast thanks to the fact that we actually got better toward the end. I was still throwing the ball off the tee for the most part so I had about three balls left by the time we got back to the clubhouse to turn in our cart.

The atmosphere in the clubhouse this time had changed. It was as if all the air had been sucked out of the place. Any doubts we had about its origin were erased when we saw the owner standing there to meet us, face ruddy, eyes bulging.

"Have you boys been playing with range balls?"


His anger was increasing by the second.

"That's what I thought. I don't know why I even bother. You kids rip me off every chance you get. Why do you want to do things like that? Range balls are for the driving range! You don't play with range balls!"

The middle-aged men stood around us too, no longer lounging. Sullen and stern looks all. I guess they were there to catch us if we tried to make a run for it. We should have known he would have sent somebody out to spy on us. A gang of teenage boys given free reign over two golf carts and the whole golf course? Not a chance.

Then it was time to give each of us the treatment individually. He practically sprinted the six feet over to me when my time came. An indistinguishable rant into my face about my morals and motivations followed.

"I wasn't using range balls," I declared simply. "Oh yeah, you never do anything," came the sarcastic reply, as if he had known me all my life. "What's that in your pocket? Give me those!"

He had seen the bulge in my pocket where my remaining supply was. I complied as if in slow motion. He immediately took the balls over to the counter and dumped them into his "for sale" bucket.

So we left. That was the first and last time we played golf.