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.



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