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