In a few days, I’ll be leaving Santiago and returning to Manila. This fact hit home when, late last week, I went to visit my barber one last time. Her name is Nataly. She’s in her late sixties or seventies and she’s married to the old, V-neck-sweater-wearing gentleman who runs the money changer next to her peluquería, on the ground floor of Crowne Plaza. She reminds me of Sally Fields. I say ‘barber’ but Nataly is what one may more appropriately call a ‘hairstylist’; I may be, for all I know, her only male customer. (Geographic incompetence had fortuitously led me to her instead of to some other, more traditional barbershop.) “Esta es mi última visita aquí,” I said to her, “porque tengo que volver a las Filipinas para la Navidad con mi familia.” After brushing and sweeping the hair off my shoulders, Nataly gave me a hug, as warm and soft and delicate a hug as only a meticulous silver-haired mestiza can give.
Don’t look too sad, she said. You’re going to be very happy to see your loved ones again.
Nataly is not the only woman in Chile to whom I have said goodbye. There’s also red-haired Grandma, whose real name I still don’t know, even though she has served me lunch and offered seconds multiple times a week for the last several months in her humble Chilean—what to call it? carinderia? café? eatery?—her humble Chilean cafeteria, a block off Providencia on Monsignor Müller Street. There’s the kind Mapuche woman at the hotdog stand in Bellavista from whom I regularly order Chilean completos; she’s always smiling and she has the gentlest brown eyes in the world. There’s the marble-eyed cleaner who cleans our apartment once a week, whom I had once asked about a faulty laundromat, and whose Spanish-song-singing voice seems to float in the air, through the halls of the building I will soon stop calling home. But is it such a surprise that seeds grow where they have been scattered?
Then there’s her—Viña del Mar, about a hundred kilometers northwest of Santiago. She is so beautiful. I went to see her with my friend K from Hamburg and we drove up in a rental Chevy along Ruta 68, a winding highway that, once we reached Casablanca Valley, teasingly branched out to acres and acres of winery. (Why I waited until my second-to-the-last weekend to go for the first time, I couldn’t tell you.) The weather on that day was perfect. We rolled our windows down—eyeing and imagining verdant countrysides, Chardonnay plantations, voluminous grapevines, all the tangible joys of Chilean spring—until finally we approached the last of the hills and could smell the smell of the sea.
First, we stopped at Valparaiso, Viña’s charming coastal neighbor, and got out of the car. There, an old, raggedy woman—bless her soul—approached us while we were sitting at an alfresco café. She was begging for alms but I did not have change. Then she asked for a cigarette, and I said I didn’t have any cigarettes left. The woman walked away, stopped at the corner of the street, looked back, and shouted to me (in accusatory English), “Your heart is very poor!”
My heart is very poor all right. It is also very weak. This must have to do with having to leave. K, who, for work, spends months at a time in foreign cities (Santiago is as foreign to him as it is to me), wisely let me in on the dangers of attachment. “Saying goodbye is kind of like dying,” he said as we drove on. “You go back home, you think everything is the same, yet you are not the same. You are never the same.” I find indeed that with every act of farewell—however hurriedly it is performed, however disaffected and undemonstrative it is intended to appear—my heart breaks and I die a little.
The slayer is no brute. She is quite the opposite. Viña del Mar literally means “Vineyard by the Sea,” and she is also known as Chile’s “Garden City”—fondly, la ciudad jardín. Even though I only knew her for a short time—too short, in fact; an afternoon!—Viña del Mar is, for some reason I cannot explain (at least not with words), the one to whom I will have the most difficult time saying goodbye. Or could it be precisely because I only knew her for a short time, and no more than that? There is no guarantee that a hundred afternoons will be a hundred times better than one afternoon—or even as wonderful. We take what we have for what it is. And here’s what I have: an everlasting image of Viña’s greyish blue waters, her long stretches of white sand, those steady rocks that line her coast and tame the anxious tides of the Pacific.
Before heading back to the city, K and I went to another café on the palm-lined oceanfront promenade, along which old couples ambled, children bicycled, lovers kissed. From there we could see Castillo Wulff, a granite German castle nestled magnificently on a rocky seaside cliff. It was the crowning touch to Viña’s beauty, which rallied me toward an exalted moment of restfulness and peace, while at once reminding me of the world that I had to love and leave.
And leave I did—exiting the shore, driving out of the carpark, heading toward the southeast, and dying a little once more.