Chile doesn’t have any real tropical jungles, but the concrete and linguistic ones offer sufficient challenge to navigate. Life here in the Chilean jungle has always been complicated—my (very Chilean) daughter says it’s “against the law” for anything to be too simple!
However, these days the jungle of the past looks like a stroll in the park. Particularly since our city went into lockdown quarantine last week. I’m still trying to figure out why the dogs are permitted to walk (or be walked) but I’m not. How’s that for tangled in the bureaucratic Chilean jungle?
But, ahem, I digress. Returning to my book idea of a few weeks ago… The Quarantine Tales presents 101 evenings of stories spun around a campfire on the coast of Chile.
One of my favorite elements in a story—reading or writing—is the intertwining themes, motifs, and symbols. Themes of language and poetry, reading and lifelong learning recur often in my own books. And these same thematic threads relate to the first of the campfire yarns, as does the image of a figurative Chilean jungle.
“Nothing happens unless first a dream.” –Carl Sandburg
Now, the situation delineated in The Quarantine Tales stretches beyond even my imagination’s power of creation. As someone has said, “You can’t make this stuff up.” On New Year’s Day 2020, who could have invented the jungle path this year has taken?
Law of the Jungle
Just so, the first of The Quarantine Tales is no dreamed-up story, though it oppresses like an ongoing nightmare those who lived through the experience.
Rachelle Peterson came up with the idea of a storytelling competition to pass the days of quarantine with her friends and cousins, so she takes her turn first. Raquel or Keli, as she goes by in Chile, selects the coffee mug and the paperback from the bag of prompts. As with the rest of the cast of narrators, her choices reveal her character and priorities.
Her saga, called “The Crisis Hits Café Cuentos,” revolves around the attack by masked delinquents on her library/coffeeshop, “Tales,” during the recent social upheaval. What began last October as a spontaneous, localized riot gathered strength and exploded in a major revolt that spread to the entire country and persisted for months. The law of the Chilean jungle prevailed.
Ensnared in the convoluted politics of the day, Keli’s small, struggling business is first threatened and terrorized, then smashed into and vandalized. By the time she arrives on the sorry scene, the hoodlums have set fire to her life’s dream.
But in an unexpected display of solidarity and support, Keli’s neighbors come to her rescue. They fight off the attackers with broomsticks and garden hoses, beat out the flames, and carry most of the books to safety…for the future enjoyment of the community.
Her commitment to providing pleasure and a taste of culture in an otherwise depressed area has finally brought forth fruit. The people surrounding Café Cuentos show appreciation for Keli’s open door to everyday education.
Keli had sparked joy for them. Now they restore her hope.
“That’s what we storytellers do. We restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.” –Walt Disney
Lost in the Jungle
I’ve remarked before on the binary black hole here: the lack of a reading mindset compounded by the lack of reading materials. Possibly part of the problem stems from our linguistic isolation. Tucked between the mountains and the sea, the desert and the glacier fields, we’re perhaps lost in our own vernacular jungle.
As a case in point, one of my daughters has recently written a book in Chilean Spanish. However, she says, it will have to be retranslated to work for other Spanish speakers. No wonder we gringos struggle with the choppy accent, the countless idioms, and the awful slang.
Not to mention the spray of single syllables with which Chileans preface almost every sentence. I quickly learned that ya in this context is a transliteration of ja, German for yes. But it’s taken me nearly a lifetime to distinguish between some of the fine connotations of words whose full-length originals have long since been dropped or forgotten…
For example, both sa and cha indicate a measure of scornful disbelief. And pu, bu, and chu all mean something like, “Oh, too bad, sorry to hear that”—with variations of sincerity and emotion.
Speaking of lingo for gringos, I’m thankful for the enlightening tips found in a handy-dandy reference guide called How to Survive in the Chilean Jungle, by John Brennan and Álvaro Taboada. The young expat who put it together helps both newbies and oldies learn what to say to sound cool and what’s better-not-in-polite-company.
Survival in the Jungle
We may not have a lot of books or libraries here, but I’ve discovered entire dictionaries of idioms and proverbs. Some of these tell stories in themselves:
- “To look for the cat’s fifth paw” means to split hairs, seeking an invisible flaw.
- You may find it “where the devil lost his poncho”—in some impossibly remote place—on a “fireman’s payday”—in other words, never, because firemen are all volunteers in Chile.
- However, it may pop up “even in the soup.” Speak of the devil, here, there, and everywhere.
- If that happens, it’ll taste “better than bread and baloney.”
- “Flies don’t enter a closed mouth,” so I’d better end this exercise in proverbial tall tales and zip my lips.
Many unique proverbs seem targeted specifically to surviving life in the Chilean jungle. With style and humor, as they usually do. As I’ve plotted The Quarantine Tales, I’ve used some picturesque proverbs to highlight my themes.
For example, Keli’s story illustrates, in a sense, the saying, “Niño que no llora, no mama. The child who doesn’t cry doesn’t eat.” Unless you make a big fuss, nothing happens. So goes the general reasoning.
Then with a sad sigh, she finishes: “They’ve gone from new broom to old rag.” In other words, their solutions have “progressed” to the same old-same old. If only we could sweep out all the dirt and chaos and usher in a new age of peace and prosperity.
A measure of truth may lurk behind the graffiti slogans streaked and scrawled on the walls of Keli’s literary café. Such as, “We shall become the nightmare of those who steal our dreams.” But as she tried to share with her neighbors while they painted over the ugliness, “Only the Word of God can transform our country.”
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.” –Robert McKee
Storytelling is building, not destroying. It leads to growth, not stagnation. A simple story, told for God’s glory, can snatch resurrection from death and danger.
While I can’t condone the horrific violence, neither can I fail to sympathize with visions of a better life and a more just society. So I’ll just keep launching ideas—God’s ideas—through the medium of stories that touch hearts and nurture better dreams.
The magic power of language will always be one of my themes. The Word and words are mightier than the sword. Books can accomplish more than ballots and bonuses ever will.
Though some remarkable flowers only flourish in the desert, I believe even more bloom in the fertile need of the world’s jungles. As we blaze a trail through the Chilean jungle, may we sprinkle messages…of victory to the victims, healing to the hopeless, and the richest of resources to the ruined and wronged.