Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Biejito Pasquero

It was the morning of Christmas eve. There were only a few hours left before our bus left to go out of town to stay with my boyfriend's grandparents. We were running out of time, but I had already bought the remote control car requested in the letter, ("Bueno biejito pasquero, queria pedirte hargo muy especial para mi y mi familia...") Despite the rush, and the fact that that the phone number listed in the letter had been disconnected, it was not yet time to give up.
By that point, the letter was all crumpled up from being lugged around in various bags and pockets to ferias, shops, and other households during my Christmas spree, but it started out on crisp graph paper pulled from a home-made envalope with real colorful flowers fastened to the outside. Along the bottom, a crayon doodle of a young boy slept happily in his bed, alongside a fancy decorated Christmas tree, while four yellow reindeer pulled Santa and his large blue sack of presents through a floating dream bubble over his head.

My boyfriend doesn't have a lot of patience when things go wrong, so I was nervous to point out that I actually hadn't been able to contact the family, nor did I know quite exactly where they lived. I pretended everything would go smoothly as we bought veggies and meat for dinner for a family of 6. I pretended not to be confused or surprised as the "streets" on my sketch from google maps turned out to be small alleys and staircases. Carefully watching the numbers, I suddenly announced "We're here, I think." Then we just stood there. The house number didn't exist.

I was sure we were in the wrong place, as the houses didn't look like they would hold the family in the complicated situation described in the letter. But then a mailman emerged from a staircase that dipped behind and below the houses at street level. He said he wasn't aware of the people we were looking for, but to check it out ourselves. Down below was a dirt path lined with stay animals and 5 doors, including one with the number we were looking for. But the door was ancient and cracked, sealed with months or years of dirt on all sides. For some reason we knocked, as if someone was going to be inside to open the door after all this time. Of course nothing happened; no wonder the phone was disconnected. We just stood there, wondering what to do with the bags of food. As a last ditch effort, we knocked on the next door, to ask if they knew where we could find the family. The door opened a crack, and a skinny 11-year-old asked who we were. My boyfriend said we were looking for the family of the young boy who used to live next door because we received his letter to Viejito Pascuero. He said to hold on while he went to get his mother, and shut the door again. As soon as the door shut, we heard a small voice "caballero, caballero, down here!! I'm down here!!" My boyfriend crouched down to knee level, where one eyeball peered through a finger-sized hole in the door. The door opened again, and we stood back up and explained the story again to the mother. Before she responded, she told the boys to put some clothes on, the younger one was now hiding behind her in his underwear. "That was my son. Come in." It was the boy in the peep hole who had written the letter after all.

As the door opened and we took a few steps inside, I was reminded of the Laura Ingles Wilder dugout house which I had visited many times as a kid. Their house showed a level of poverty I've never really seen with my own eyes. I felt strange, wanting to observe every detail yet not wanting to be caught doing so, and worried they would feel uncomfortable having me there. I immediately regretted not having brought more to give than we had. It was dark inside, but the walls were made of dirt with cardboard stapled to them. A small kitchen sat off to one side, with appliances so old I had never seen similar models. There was a small fake Christmas tree sitting on a shelf. It had a couple decorations and a string of lights, which the mother pointed out had been broken by the children. To the side was what appeared to be a closet, but we were told that the father was there resting, as he had spent the night in the hospital. The older boys weren't home.

Right behind the door was a filthy and lumpy bed where it was apparent many people sleep. The younger boy jumped back up on it, still in nothing more than whitie tighties, and shouted "I bet that bag is full of our presents!!! Isn't it?" Before waiting for an answer, he set off on a mission to prove to he'd been good this year. We were presented with report cards, craft projects, and notebooks filled with handwriting drills.

My boyfriend started asking what the kids like to do for fun. The older one liked soccer, and the younger one said he liked Playstation. My boyfriend said that its good to have some hobbies that are more active than playing Playstation. The little one paused to think about this, then responded "Like Nintendo!" The boy was only 6 years old, but he had the personality and street smarts of someone three times his age. From a shelf near the floor he pulled out a towel, taller than himself, and announced he was going to sell it at the street market for $1,000 pesos, so he could buy a Playstation. The older brother laughed, but nobody had the heart to mention he might come up short.

The mom was very humble, seemingly very happy we had brought some things for Christmas. There weren't any other presents sitting around. She let the boys indulge in their excitement to show off to the visitors, occasionally looking a little embarrassed of the things they came up with. My boyfriend showed them a few tricks he does, and I have never seen anything so adorable as the eagerness with which the boys wanted to learn the special handshake used by Tuga the mime; they were so proud to be in on something.

The younger boy asked if we had read his letter. I said yes, and asked if he really wrote it or if one of his older brothers helped. He said he decided what to write, but the dad had written the letter. Learning this, I felt bad, because one of the reasons that letter stood out to me was because of the all the misspelled words and poor grammar. He asked proudly if I liked the flowers, which were his idea.

Although we claimed we were just helping out Santa with the delivery, the boy said he already knew Santa isn't real. "Last week el Viejito Pascuero came to my school, but I told my whole class he wasn't real, because it was my uncle in the red suit!!"
"...He ruined it for the whole class," added the mom.

We handed over all the food to the mother, and gave the boy his car, though it was wrapped up and he was told not to open it til midnight. The letter hadn't mentioned any other gift ideas, nor the ages or gender of the siblings, but we felt especially compelled to do something else for the family, so we ended up giving away some of the gifts in my bag which were designated for other people. I knew the mom would love the thick flower patterned beach towel I was tempted to keep for myself, and when we handed him a light, round, present covered in colorful wrapping paper, the older brother gave us a content, knowing wink as my boyfriend said "you'll have to wait til midnight to find out what this one is!"

Suddenly my heart sank, as I realized I had forgotten one of the batteries needed for the remote control car, and even if the family had the money to buy one (which I highly doubted), there wouldn't be any place open at the hour they unwrap the gifts. Its only expected that a kid must try out a new toy immediately!

We said our goodbyes and left the house, now extremely behind schedule for our trip. But I couldn't shake the feeling of disappointment of having screwed up about the battery. We checked all the neighborhood stores, but nobody had the right one. On the way home, we passed a supermarket that would have the battery and I impulsively decided we had to get it and head back. It cost about $2,500 pesos! After we climbed back up the hill and dropped it off with the older boy, I felt much better.

I kind of hope we see them again.

Since then I have questioned a lot the balance between doing good for helping others, and doing good to make yourself feel good. I know that both elements come into play, and I think thats fine. It will always be that way, and it doesn't have to be a negative aspect of doing good deeds. My feelings were affirmed when I saw the Friends rerun where Joey challenges Phoebe to find a single selfless good deed, and I decided to again write again about my experience, even if its slightly exploitative in nature, because I do feel that this is something I want to remember and share.


  1. Qué brígido. Yo creo que me hubiera impresionado mucho con todo eso.
    En mi caso al menos, creo que me sentiría un poco mal después, por que quizás me gustaría ser capaz de hacer algo más por todos ellos.

  2. Beautifully written Lydia. Thank you for sharing.

  3. truth is.
    this program is a shit.

  4. haha anon, care to expand upon that thought?

    marmo- its true. but its hard to tell how uncomfortable the families feel about receiving things. sometimes i get the feeling they might be very proud and embarrassed and the simple thing was enough

  5. Exactamente. Ir más allá podría ser incómodo para todos. Antes me faltó mencionar que lo que tu pololo y tú hacen me parece algo digno de respeto y admiración, realmente los felicito. Parte de lo incómodo que las familias puedan sentir es que deben pensar "ok, ¿y dónde está la trampa en todo esto?" (what´s the catch?), así de escasos son los actos desinteresados por estos días.

  6. Thanks for sharing. I think it's wonderful that you've been able to help these families.

  7. Good Morning, I am planning to relocate to Chile in June or July and was wondering what the best/easiest places to get a resonable apartment and possibly some kind ofemployment... Any help would be fantastic, I am 27 year old fully bilingual U.S Citizen :)

  8. Sounds pretty selfless to me Lydia! So what if it makes you feel good too? You made that family's Christmas and reminded them that there are indeed people out there who are willing to extend a hand.
    Thanks for writing about this!

  9. What a lovely post. I really liked how at the beginning you kept up guessing as to whether you found them and then if they had let you in. I think I felt a little tear in my eye.

  10. Thanks guys, i definitely recommend looking into it sometime, even if its just to check out the letters to see what its about.

    sara- unforrrtunately, that was kind of leading up to the last letter-- we never found the house. its not really worth a whole post in the end but the letter was written by a kid who didnt get his own address right, or they live on an unofficial pasaje which isnt on maps, etc... weve looked everywhere and spent more money on buses and collectivos in order to look for the house than we did on the presents themselves. we even went back after christmas, but after being cheated and lied to by a bunch of drivers who dumped us off in the middle of nowhere we decided that the address is just wrong. we did finally find what we thought was the street, but the numbers didnt go up high enough to the number he had listed, and the neighbors had never heard of them.

    so it wasnt a total sucess afterall. perhaps sometime we~ll give it another shot if we can get a clue to where the house actually is...xmas in july:?? jajaj

  11. Doing good always makes people feel good. There's really no way around that. And I don't see anything wrong with it. So what if doing this for the family made you feel good -- are you supposed to feel bad about it? It made you feel good and hopefully made them feel good and there's nothing wrong with wanting to share that.

  12. hi lydia,

    what an experience! i came across your blog while searching for information about american ex-pats living in chile and laughed when i saw that you're from minnesota, like i am. i'm planning to move to chile in august after i graduate to teach or doing something medically related for a year or two, and as i have a number of questions about the general process of beginning a life there (how you first found a job, somewhere to live, etc.). if i could somehow contact you, it would be much appreciated!
    thanks so much, and thanks for writing!


  13. Enjoyed looking through your blog. There is nothing wrong in showing kindness, this world could use more people like you.

  14. I found your blog from SaraBeck's blog. I will be back often.

  15. Hi all,
    Ricardo - well your questions aer quite open ended, but overall the easiest way to get employed is to try out an institute, teaching English. There are good bad, great, etc ones but you kinda got to get a feel, and a lof of it might depend on hours and location, to minimize your travel time. I dont have any great tips about housing either, though bulletin boards still seem to be going strong.

    Sara - leave me your email address in this, or another, post and I'll send you an email so we can talk about some of your questions. '
    penny- welcome!

  16. Hi Lydia-

    Perhaps sharing the story and encouraging others to think about the more complicated side of doing good is the actual selfless act?

    On another note, I'm the editor of Expat (, a site devoted to developing comprehensive destination guides aimed at easing expat transitions abroad. At the moment we're trying to find expats living in Chile would be willing to share their experience to help others better prepare for their move. Would you be interested in being interviewed (via email questionnaire)?

    Thanks again for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.