Tuesday, June 17, 2008

No sabe español

Ever since they moved my customary post in front of the Santa Isabel grocery store on Huerfanos, I've been looking for the perfect place to lock my bike while at the grocery store. While in Chile most bike thefts are a wholesale affair, I prefer to at least lock the frame and the front wheel, just in case anyone looks at the mariposa (quick release) on the front wheel and gets any bright ideas. So I need a solid but slender pole. Sure, there are poles up and down the street, no parking signs and the like, but I miss the old one. It was located right between the paño (dishcloth) sellers and the people with the rigged scales that sell suspicious-quality in-season produce from large open baskets right outside the grocery store.

My new pole is a bit before the store, and the last three times I've locked up my bike there, I've noticed that there's a (most likely) Korean woman, with long straight hair and perfect triangular jaw-to-chin ratio. She sells spring rolls from a cardboard box on a luggage cart, with a paño on top. It's a curious place to stand, because they're building yet another massive (hopefully earthquake-resistant) highrise apartment building right across from where she stands, which is definitely not a pleasant work environment, what with the clanging and pounding and the dust. But it's chock full of pedestrians, which is probably good for spring roll sales.

What she's doing is illegal. There's quite a bit of illegal selling going on in the streets in Santiago. In truth, with the exception of the shoeshine guys, the snack carts, the newspaper sellers and licensed folks with disabilities like the blind gentleman I bought my bunny ear antenna from, all street commerce is illegal. Perhaps she stands on Huerfanos because she's never gotten caught there. When the police do find people selling illegally, they confiscate the goods, and try to fine the sellers, though they usually run away.

When I lock up my bike, I shoot her a smile. I can tell by the way she smiles back that she remembers me, or at least me with the bike. Yesterday a man of questionable sobriety was accosting her. He tottered back and forth, showing her the oranges he had in his hand and muttering. I quickly put myself between him and her, smiling, saying, "Me quedo acá hasta que se vaya." (I'll stay here until he leaves). It was the sisterhood of women, of foreigners.

And she looked at me, and she said, "No sabe español." (A grammatically incorrect rendering of "I don't speak Spanish." And so I asked, hoping against hope, inglés? (English?). No.

So she stands on the street, day in and day out, listening to construction, and watching the world go by, selling the occasional spring roll. And I can't help but wonder, was it worth it? Did she come to Chile promised something else? Or did her family or friends tell her that it would be just like this? Drunk men with oranges and well-meaning gringas on bicycles all talking to her in a language she doesn't speak?

And I have no way of asking her.

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