santiago

Santiago, 1997

I will be in Chile. Dad will also be in Chile.

I will be in Chile because the scholarship allowing me to attend NYU carries with it membership to a scholar’s group that takes international trips over the winter break. Said trips involve sightseeing, community service, and a modicum of free time to do whatever it is college students do while abroad. I don’t know what that is, exactly. I can barely relax back home, let alone in a strange country thousands of miles away.

Why will Dad will be in Chile? I’m not sure. He is a “systems analyst” now. That’s what it says on his business cards. He has many different ones, and it seems each one is from a different company—NASDAQ, USAID, and a dozen other obscure outfits—with its own variation on his name. Eugene Callan. Gene Callan. Eugene A. Callan. Gene M. Callan…

Whatever his work is, it takes him across the globe. He spends a good chunk of my high school years in either Russia (right around coup time) or Hong Kong (right before it was given back to China). He’s also done time in many former Soviet republics in central Asia (The Icky-Stans, he calls them), Indonesia, India, Pakistan, and South America. He does not explain to me what he does in these countries, and I don’t ask. It’s not because I am uninterested. It’s because I don’t expect a straight answer.

Our trips to Chile overlap, and both of us will be in Santiago at the same time, for a short window. Dad suggests getting together for lunch. He gives me the name of his hotel and a phone number. His hotel is on Avenida Bernardo O’Higgins, a name that amuses him. Mine is nearby. I tell him I will only have one half-day to myself in Santiago but I will see what I can do. He promises to call.

Before I go to Chile, my group travels to Argentina, and it proves a stark contrast. Buenos Aires strikes me as almost European. A few years later, when I visit DC for the first time (I have been to the capital of Argentina but not my own country), Washington will resemble Buenos Aires to my eyes. It has grand malls and towering buildings, and it also has unscrubbed hip spots with colorful murals. Unlike DC, no one in Buenos Aires appears to be in a rush to arrive anywhere, or to do anything. It has that continental air of We’ll get it done when we get it done, and a general attitude of We like it here, but we don’t particularly care whether or not you like it.

The mood changes when we arrive in Chile. I can’t point to any one encounter or any one thing that demonstrates this, but there is a palpable tension. Every local I interact with is friendly and accommodating, eager to please, eager to show off his/her mastery of English. And yet, that feeling of trepidation is out there in the atmosphere, like a smell or a taste that lays on the back of your throat and won’t go away.

Santiago doesn’t have the same European cast as does Buenos Aires. There’s not nearly as much Spanish influence on display, not as many terracotta roofs or neo-Moorish filigree adorning the architecture. The buildings in the capital are resolutely square, in every sense of that word. There are a some libraries, government offices, and other edifices that look vaguely regal, Official. Otherwise, Santiago is plain, almost eerily so for a capital. It could be any city in the world.

Dad’s promise to call me while in Santiago goes unfulfilled. The clerk at my hotel claims I have no messages, and the little red message light on my room phone stays unlit. So the night before my off-half-day, I call Dad’s hotel. The person who answers the phone is polite and speaks English well, so there’s little room for confusion when I ask to leave a message for my dad and he tells me, “I don’t believe he’s a guest here.” The man doesn’t say that he can’t say if Dad is staying at this hotel or not. He declares himself certain Dad isn’t staying there.

The next morning, I decide to investigate in person and walk to his hotel, which is, in New York terms, 30 blocks or so away from mine. My hotel is the Chilean equivalent of a Motel 6. Dad’s looks a lot more fancy, at least from the outside, where globe lights sit on curved hangers and marble steps lead up to a front door more suited to an Edwardian brownstone than a hotel, surrounded by pale red stucco flecked with black specks like vanilla bean ice cream. But the hotel is also very thin. The building containing it can’t be more than 30 feet wide. From down the block, it looks strange, and it grows stranger with each step I take in its direction.

hotel_santiagoThe lobby has just enough room for a concierge desk and a bank of elevators trimmed with gold frames. It is January, which means it is the middle of summer in Santiago. Most businesses are outfitted with air conditioning or fans on full blast. This lobby has neither. It also lacks guests waiting to be checked in or out. The elevators make no sounds at all, no audible whirring from one floor to the next.

The man behind the counter wears a velvety jacket with glimmering buttons on the cuffs, a 1930s Hollywood idea of what someone working in a hotel should wear. He asks, “May I help you?” with almost no trace of an accent, which tells me I must look very American to his eyes. I ask if I can place a call to Dad’s room.

Como?” the man behind the counter asks, accent and native language suddenly emerging. I repeat Dad’s name, spelling the last, hoping this will be enough. It will have to be, since I speak almost no Spanish.

The man behind the counter looks at a ledger on the desk in front of him and turns its pages. I can’t see the desk or the ledger from where I’m standing. I can only hear him do this. The profound lack of air conditioning in the lobby begins to weigh on me. I’m wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers hat as protection against the South American sun, and the cap’s pleather band squeaks with sweat against my forehead.

“Hmmm…I don’t seem to have a Mr. Cayan here,” he says, giving my last name a pronunciation I’ve never heard before. I’ve been mistaken for a Callahan but never a Cayan.

“Are you sure?” I ask.

“Quite sure. Are you sure you have the right hotel?” He adopts a smile at the end of his sentence, a smile that transforms his words from question to statement, and the statement is, You don’t have the right hotel.

“Maybe I don’t,” I say. I mumble something like a thank you, then back out of the lobby and onto the street.

I’m not sure what to do with the rest of my half-day, so I wander down the avenue slowly, stretching out the long walk back to my own hotel. To kill some time, I stop at a newsstand and scan magazines I can’t read. A man near me flips through postcards. He’s wearing a navy blue Adidas track jacket. That seems uncomfortably out of season to me.

I leave the newsstand and continue my slow lope back to the hotel. A little further down the road I turn to my side to look at something in a store window and see, in my peripheral vision, that Track Jacket is a few steps behind me. This could mean nothing. This avenue is Santiago’s main drag, after all. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone “followed” me for several blocks of, say, Broadway.

I walk a few blocks and find myself nervously turning to my side again. Track Jacket is still there in the corner of my eye. Another few blocks, still there. I slow down to a crawl for a block or two and check my rearview again. Track Jacket remains.

I remember my passport is in the hotel safe. A New York State driver’s license is probably worthless here. I pick up my pace. My hotel is close now, maybe three blocks away, but it feels like a mile. I fight the impulse to run, thinking that would indicate I’m up to no good or have something to hide. I start to think that maybe I do, in someone’s eyes.

I practically leap into my hotel, taking the front stairs two at a time, and stop at the front desk to ask a question I don’t want answered. Track Jacket walks past the front door without stopping. He doesn’t even look inside. I decide that he was a random stranger and I was just paranoid, but I can’t explain why I was so quick to feel this way. I chalk it up to that unnameable something in the air here. I go up to my room and try to read for a while, but the words won’t stick. I’m still too nervous. So I try to make sense of local TV, but that doesn’t distract me any better. I draw the curtains. I’m done with exploring for the day.

I meet the rest of my group for that day’s activity, a bus ride through the countryside, and back to the city for dinner. In the company of others, the weirdness of the morning lifts. After dinner, I wander with some friends to a park near the hotel. It is wide and hilly and almost completely unoccupied. We repair to a bench on a small hill and talk loudly about nothing. Nobody is drinking or doing anything else that should land us in trouble. The city around us is quiet. We appear to be the only people around for miles.

And then, a trio of shadows advances up a hill at an even pace, like they have all the time in the world. The shadows cross under a street lamp over a nearby footpath, and I can now see they are three soldiers in olive fatigues, each brandishing a rifle. They’re painfully young, no older than any of us, if at all. They don’t appear threatening, apart from the fact that they are all holding rifles aimed in our general direction.

One soldier asks a firm question in Spanish, which I cannot understand. One of my friends, who does speak Spanish, answers him. The soldiers’ expressions lighten a bit. They begin to laugh.

My friend explains, “It looks like we’re not supposed to be here. The park’s closed after dark.”

If that’s true, we’d seen no signs to that effect. There wasn’t even a gate around the park. And in any case, this seems to me a bit excessive to send soldiers to do a policeman’s job…

This is when my brain stabs me with the thought: Hey stupid, this country is ruled by the army. Pinochet’s still in charge. The soldiers are the police. So I nod politely at the soldiers, who are smiling and chuckling and seem to mean us no harm except, again, for their guns. I do my best to not show that certain words in are flashing in tickertape across the front of my brain. Pinochet. Allende. Coup. CIA…

It is at this moment, this precise moment, that it all clicks. Dad’s mysterious hotel, Track Jacket, and these soldiers all converge as one in my mind to form the border of a very large puzzle. I have never before wondered how my father could have elevated himself from recovering alcoholic to jetsetting whatchamacallit in the blink of an eye. I see the answer to a question I never asked, pointed out to me by the barrels of these guns.

Dad is somewhere in this city, but he is Not Here.