Friends mean more than money

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Editor's note: Justin Cox, a Scott City native, is writing about his experiences while living in Chile for six months.

Aug. 24

Thanks to fortuitous timing and flexible travel plans, I have been visited by several college friends here in Antofagasta since I arrived a month ago. They have come in varying conditions and for different lengths of time, but the reaction of my Chilean family to each visit has been remarkable. I continue to be astounded by their generosity. They seem utterly incapable of saying no to these complete strangers, even when they should, because they don't have much to spare, and even before anyone asks for anything.

Over the last month, my family has given countless meals; provided beds; sewn clothing ripped in the Peruvian jungle; made phone calls for reservations at hotels so that my friends don't get the "gringo price"; patiently engaged in long conversations with people whose Spanish ranges from halting to quite good; and taken items directly off shelves in their living room and given them as gifts because they can't afford to buy anything new.

They have done all of this graciously, with no real prospect of having their kindness returned. When I asked my host father why, Alfonso replied, "In Chile, it is more important to have friends than money."

All of the visits have kept me busy the last few weeks. There isn't a whole lot to do out here in the middle of the desert, but this past weekend I tried sandboarding.

I had never before attempted to balance myself on small slabs of moving wood on any surface (snow, water, etc.), so I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to stay upright most of the time. Yes, I fell -- a lot -- but the sand was powdery enough to prevent injury. For an hour or so, I practiced on the small hills on top of the 600-meter-tall sand dune. After a few successful short practice runs, I eyed the dune eagerly. I asked our guide if people board all the way down it. I should have paid more attention to the hesitation in his voice when he said yes, but my early success gave me confidence.

Despite one nasty spill halfway down the dune that resulted in sand filling my mouth, ears, nose and pockets, I was able to make it all the way down. I just didn't think about how I was going to get back up. The powdery soft sand that I had been so grateful for when falling quickly became something to be cursed. For every three feet I climbed up, the sand slid back two and a half. Exhausted, dehydrated and sand-laden, I crested the dune nearly an hour after I had zoomed to the bottom.

There are two things I will never forget about that day: the incredible feeling of racing down a sand dune on a board, overlooking a Pacific Ocean sunset; and the Spanish word for "ski lift."

Justin Cox is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and is spending six months teaching English in Chile.

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