Princess Peluda

Programs for this blog post

Liberal Arts

Authored By:

Jonah B.

One of the first things I noticed about my house in Chile was that it was much like the country itself: long, narrow, and full of opportunities to make mistakes. The wood floors, rickety windows and pale yellow walls stretch out as if someone pulled at the edges of the house to see how far they would carry. The entryway is crammed from floor to ceiling with ceramics: vases and bowls and humanoid figurines with blank, clay stares. One false move, one errant step on the slippery wooden floors, and chaos ensues. My host mom, Maria Paz Briseño, is a retired flight attendant turned ceramics artist. Although the two professions at first don’t appear to be very related, to me it makes perfect sense; I can almost feel the years of stress and sleep deprivation from working on an airplane being poured out into the clay and sculpted into the silent guardians that stand watch throughout her kingdom. Judging by the sheer number of pieces filling the house, Chileans must not treat their flight attendants very well. In addition to her ceramics, Maria shares her house with her cat Princess Peluda, an agile and loving calico who lives up to her name by shedding on everyone and everything. Indeed, I take Princess Peluda with me wherever I go, both in fond memories in my head and physical hair on my clothes. When I get back to the US, I could probably reconstruct her piece by piece provided I don’t do any laundry beforehand. 


As far as familial units go, I would say we compare favorably to the state of Chile after the fragmentation of Pinochet’s dictatorship: fragile, yet fundamentally united. Maria Paz, while friendly, maintains her distance from me and my roommate, Keyron. We’re left to our own devices, and share dinner together as just the two of us every night, sitting on wooden stools under a brightly lit counter and facing a refrigerator plastered with magnets. “Today is a good day to shut the HELL up,” one reads. Or, perhaps my personal favorite, “I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day.”


Actions speak louder than words, yet Keyron utilizes both prodigiously. Within a week of arrival, they had already purchased a set of rollerblades, and Santiago’s streets soon became pedestrianly perilous. Coupled with a Guatemalan rainbow poncho, long, curly black hair that elegantly explodes from their scalp, and quilt-patterned dangling earrings, they make a sight to behold careening over Providencia’s cobblestones. It’s not uncommon to come home after a long day and find Keyron frying up corn tortillas in the kitchen, belting an early 2000s pop-punk song at the top of their lungs. This vocal proclivity is not enjoyed by all; on one memorable occasion, Maria Paz was berating me for our lack of cleanliness regarding the kitchen counters, whilst Keyron was singing in the shower with a rather astonishing range. I’m not sure how much it improved Maria Paz’s mood. 


All things considered, Keyron and I have grown quite close. One might imagine this newfound closeness has resulted in a grand number of new Chilean adventures and explorations  together. This is true; however, most memorable are our sesiones de Kukuy™ (pronounced “Koo-Kee”). About a week into our semester, Keyron and I discovered that the Leche Entera cartons from the supermarket, when combined with the rolls of Kukuy that go for around $1.10 USD, not only unite to make “la eterna delicia de Chile ™,but work wonders to assuage the festering neglect felt from our estranged host family relationship. We have tried every variety of cookie-milk combination found in Chile, from the abortion that is Costa MAX Choco-Chips to the succulence of Kukuy Classic. Our dairy consumption has been staggering; aside from a fateful two-day period where we subsisted on the bowel-wrenching Leche Sin Lactosa, we down cartons of whole milk almost daily. Maria Paz, in the early stages of our campaign, told us where she stored extra milk in case we ran out. After we made short work of that supply, we now shuffle towards the nearby Oxxo convenience store, usually at night in our slippers, to replenish our stock. 

The setup is as follows: after dinner, we fill Maria Paz’s small, goblet-like glasses with cold Leche Entera. We then carefully slit open the wrapping of our rolls of Kukuy, allowing  ample room for the cookies to relax against each other like dominos mid-fall. Keyron opts for Kukuy Chip-Chipers, the more expensive and chocolate chip-filled version. They claim the taste is orgasmic, with an unparalleled texture. My weapon of choice is Kukuy Classic: I find the smaller cookies more dunkable, as well as having a structural integrity suitable for prolonged exposure to milk. Keyron also practices a slightly different form of consumption; they plunge their Kukuy Chip-Chiper straight into the glass, giving it a creamy Hammam before housing it whole. I err more on the side of giving my cookies shorter exposure times; despite our differences, however, Keyron and I end our sessions by placing the last Kukuy in the remaining milk puddle, giving it a good swirl, and tilting it back in toast to our sacred ritual. 

To the tune of classes, there’s not much to sing about. Most of my courses are at Universidad Diego Portales; I say “at”, but there isn’t a central location so much as a constellation of buildings across three city blocks in central Santiago. It’s almost as if someone loaded a shotgun with shells full of brutalist architecture and renovated historic buildings, took aim at a section of Santiago, and pulled the trigger to scatter-blast the campus into the city. To get to my classes, I ping-pong between crowded city streets from one building to another; straight from my program-run Spanish course to the crowded dining hall, then whacked across the street to my soporific poetry class, then smashed three blocks down to my digital photography class.  All in Spanish, most interesting, none entirely easy to follow. 


Chileno, supposedly one of the hardest Spanish dialects to interpret, infiltrates quickly. My ramshackle foundation of college-taught Spanish was rocked by slang, different verb endings, and quirky pronunciations. Fiestas become carretes; chevere becomes bacán, and cachai and ‘po are slapped onto the end of every phrase or sentence like linguistic cabooses. Spanish words and expressions started to trickle into my English brain, and I subconsciously started to translate my English expressions and thoughts into their Spanish equivalents. My dreams are often conducted in Spanish now, which was an exciting development, especially after having a conversation with former Miami Dolphins defensive linebacker Cameron Wake in free-flowing Chilean Spanish. While the rapids of language learning are mostly exhilarating, the water, like the Rio Mapocho, can become choppy and poop-brown at times. To express my shame at being a Potterhead, I said on my second day to our Chilean student ambassador: “Estoy embarazado con mi addicción a los libros de Harry Potter.” Embarazado signifies something quite different than embarrassment, so that it made it seem like I had a pregnant belly full of lust for Harry Potter. But to be fair, I think the original statement stands, especially if you’ve seen my wardrobe and bookshelves. At a certain point you stop caring about your mistakes, because not only do they lose their initial taste of shame, but you soon begin to become too exhausted and linguistically stuffed to pay much heed to a misplaced word or verb ending. As the day closes, you find yourself in a sort of comatose state, not capable of articulating in English or Spanish, so that me start to point and grunt to food and groan loud then sleep.  


Training in Santiago makes running shoes feel like combat boots: you lace up for war. Your main tangos are with cars, which comprise the agile tanks of the Santiagan urban armada; the rest are made up of cyclist regiments, pedestrian infantryman, the terrifying death squads of electric scooters, and chemical warfare in the form of dense city smog and greasy smoke from completo stands. Chilean drivers don’t seem to take much heed of traffic signals, and enjoy giving their brake pads a life of minimal exertion. They make liberal use of their horns, and seem to regard green walking signs as an all clear for turning into the crosswalk. Within my first month, I had already witnessed a car-bike collision; thankfully, the biker wasn’t hurt, although he did unleash a breadth of Chilean swear words that I'm excited to share in our daily segment in Spanish class, nuevos palabras. The skeletally safe options for running are confined to a strip of park sandwiched between two major thoroughfares. Confined within this green vein is an anorexic bike lane, and an even more pitiful trickle of a dirt path for runners. After my first day of hurdling several terrified dogs on the path, I brought my bipedal talents to the bike lane, where the blinding bike headlights and constant near-pancakings with scooter riders and commuters keeps me well on my toes. This energy is hard to contain, and along the path are constant eruptions of Chilean life. Couples sharing an helado, groups of uniformed students within the occasional haze of smoke, and 50-person lightsaber battles all conflagrate along the verdant stretch of public space, an artery amidst a lifeless sprawl of roads. I come back from these plunges into Santiago’s urbanity sweaty, yet always exhilarated. It’s a jolting change of pace from Oberlin’s bucolicism; less peaceful, but regularly more eventful. I even get permission to use Maria Paz’s outdoor shower after my runs; however, in her words, “Por favor no desnudo”. Somewhat less perilous are my twice a week sessions with the track group I joined here. Profe Tere, a venerable old woman who eschews handshakes for knuckles, heads a small university track club. I connected with her son, Gabriel, through Lilah Drafts-Johnson, an Oberlin track alumni who studied abroad here in 2017. We run on a poorly lit, ochre colored track in the back of a high school, yet are surrounded by Chilean track legends. Gabriel kept pointing to various people on the track, identifying the Chilean record holder for the 400m, the 1500m, and the 400m hurdles. He also informed me that he and Lilah had struck up a relationship during her time there. I told him we should continue the tradition. 

There is a metaphor from Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral’s “The Poetry of Place: My Country” that compares the geography of Chile to a cycle of life. You begin with the barren sterility of the Atacama desert in the North; as you travel southward, the valleys grow and ripen, aging down into the “grandiose sylvan beauty” of the South, streaked with silver and grey, until the country crumbles away into ice and water. A Chilean semester has the same evolutionary ring; at times I feel compressed into a long, thin Chilean tube, where time works quite differently. You’re pushed through so much development in such a short period that you feel squished and wrung dry. At many times you get wedged in, and time crawls at a snail-like pace, making you feel as though you’ve been and will be here forever. Pour a different language into that tube, and shake it thoroughly with a new university, new friends, new landscapes and even new kinds of ketchup, and you get a fizzling, popping, slightly red mixture, perhaps dangerous to uncork. When I feel the lid starting to come off, though, I’m suddenly grounded by the new, unexpected, yet familiar: a driver screaming at me for darting across the street, a warm breakfast with Princess Peluda on my lap and Keyron across the table, and even a street vendor selling knockoff Sponge-bob beach towels with a loafy, perforated gentleman on the front named Sandwichboy® . I can emerge from the concoction at brief points to be able to scramble together a piece like this one, but not frequently. All it takes is a Kukuy and milk run or a malfunctioning metro card to pull me back in. But perhaps you want more out of me? Well. I can only please one person per day. Today is not your day.