When I was packing to leave home I put two unopened 8-packs of Hanes socks in my suitcase. I planned on rationing them out over the years. That turned out to be a stroke of genius because after several dozen handwashings socks start to feel less like cotton and more like paper towels. Whenever I inaugurated a new pair my feet threw a little party. This past weekend I put on the last new pair. Other things are running out as well. I lost my last Bic pen a couple months ago. I am writing this with my last mechanical pencil. I have just one Gillette cartridge left. All of these serve to underscore a message that lingers in the back of my mind. It’s time to go home.
Of course I’m not going home because I ran out of socks. I could buy more of almost everything I need—pens, pencils, razors—with one important exception: I am running out of time. When I started with Holy Cross Associates in August 2005, my end date seemed an eternity away. I’m used to thinking of the finish as so distant that it’s a shock to have it suddenly waiting on my doorstep.
In my two-and-a-half years in South America I’ve seen things hidden from many visitors; I’ve not just been to attractions, I’ve been through experiences. I did my shopping at the feria, I went to community celebrations, I ate countless onces in friends’ houses. I also did things that most visitors wouldn’t want to. I washed my clothes by hand, I lived through the campo winter without heating, I lived in places where gringos don’t normally live. Though the experience carried more challenges than I imagined, I can only describe it as rich, and I can describe Chile as a home.
After decades I don’t understand all things American, so it would be foolish to think that I could understand all things Chilean in just two years. All the same, I feel at ease being here now, like I understand the way life works. Last year I started a list of ten things I loved about Chile and ten things I hated. Over time I was surprised to find that many of the items on my hate list had fallen off it. While I once found Chilean’s unique slang and accent supremely frustrating, now it’s endearing. I laugh at napkins that are so thin you need twenty to get anything done. When people say things in confused, broken English, it’s amusing, not infuriating. I don’t mean to idealize this country. There are still a few behaviors that enrage me—like how Chileans drop their garbage wherever they please, or how protests are an excuse for kids to light fires and break windows—and others still that irk me. And of course there are still parts of this country that shock and surprise me. Just last week a co-worker asked the origin of my last name. I explained, he jumped backward, and when I asked why he told me, “It’s just that I don’t like Jews.”
Over time I have come to judge Chile as I do my own country; I see both its strengths and its flaws. Sometimes those are just two sides of the same coin. When I first arrived in the Chilean campo I found the relaxed pace of life refreshing. People seemed eager to drop what they were doing and actually listen to one another. At the same time, I got angry with the complete lack of punctuality. I would schedule a meeting for 5:00 and wouldn’t see anyone until 6:15. Though it seems an obvious connection in retrospect, both of these are symptoms of a different attitude towards time.
There’s that time thing coming up again. I have two weeks before I leave Chile. Already I’m in the process of finishing my work projects. I’m trying to squeeze in those last few things I want to do before I go. I’m preparing for goodbyes. I can tell myself it’s not quite here yet, but the socks on my feet and the pencil in my hand tell the story. The end is here.