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Pentimento
photograph of South American city
Past perfect
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Just before Christmas 1997, the year after I graduated from BC, I left the Viceroy of Lima, Peru, for the ancient city of Cuzco, bused my way through Bolivia, hitched through northern Chile, crashed on the couch of a friend in Santiago, and walked into Argentina and camped in the backyards of Patagonia and Chile before taking a 60-hour bus ride through the driest desert in the world back to Lima, witnessing two sunsets and three sunrises along the way. I had all my belonging on my back, wore the same four T-shirts for two months, ate bread with jam at least twice a day, and slept where I stopped. I also had a buzzed head, a fuzzy face, would go days without showering, and could spend as much time as I wanted reading a book, struggling through the local paper, or wandering through the streets, sometimes barely talking for days.

Nearly four years later I find myself, as a result of want and circumstance, back in South America. Santiago, Chile, to be exact. My employer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wanted someone right away who could speak Spanish and knew the company. So to Chile and Peru I head, this time with three suits, six dress shirts, two cell phones, a computer, a power adapter, instructions on how to connect remotely to the Internet, a quota, a two-week agenda, a pocket dictionary, spreadsheets, datasheets, shoes that need to be shined, hair that can and needs to be combed, and a chin that must be kept smooth.

In Santiago I find myself darting from one meeting to the next, past people selling food and useless knick-knacks, beggars, and men in business suits like me. Up the elevator of a modern skyscraper, past a secretary (always a woman), and into the office of the gerente (always a man). I describe in great detail what we can do for his company and how much it costs. He then barks things I can barely understand while chain-smoking in the middle of his cramped office. The people I'm with poke fun at my Spanish and then laugh at the fact that my company's name sounds almost exactly like a Chilean soap. I joke that the service we provide is very clean. Everybody laughs, the smoking gerente agrees to try the service, without commitment, of course, we shake hands, exchange pleasantries, and I'm off to another meeting.

In the middle of this, slightly lost, I come across the apartment building of a BC classmate where I squatted when passing through several years before. It takes me a second to recognize the place and its surroundings. Like a child putting the pieces of a puzzle together, I stop, waiting for the picture to crystallize in my head.

There is the brown, eight-story brick building where I slept, happy to have access to a refrigerator and somebody else's books. The Metro station just a few steps out the door, to the right (although the man selling the interesting combo of soap and white undershirts no longer loiters at the entrance). The caf˘ tables with red and white tablecloths lining the sidewalk across the street. People and cars zipping around each other, the sun fighting its way through Santiago's eternal smog, the snow-capped mountains barely visible in the distance.

I stand still until I realize that I am late for a meeting. I cross the hectic street and head toward another skyscraper, hoping the gerente is in the mood to buy and that he doesn't smoke too much.

Matthew Wolfe '97

Matthew Wolfe's "The Lower Road," an account of his journey into a Bolivian silver mine, appeared in BCM's Fall 1999 issue.

Photo:Downtown in Santiago, Chile. Photo by Pablo Corral V / Corbis

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