Everybody has a story: Pen pal led to love in Chile; death returns man to Clark County

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I had been regularly visiting Vancouver and Clark County since the early 1980s, and had totally fallen in love with the area. After a divorce California-style, I was able to move from the San Francisco Bay area to Orchards in 2002.

I became close friends with one of my neighbors. She spoke with the slightest of accents that I could not identify but thought inappropriate to inquire about. Several months later, she commented that she’d grown up with a girlfriend in Santiago, Chile, and her friend and I shared a lot of common interests. She asked if I might be interested in sharing e-mails with her friend. I told her that I would enjoy having a pen pal from another country.

Her name was Victoria Elena, or V.E. for short.

Initially, we seemed to hit it off very well. I thought that she seemed quite a fascinating and interesting lady. After about a month, she went from fascinating and interesting to being a very special lady, and I began investigating the possibility of a trip to Chile to meet her. If nothing came of it, I figured, I would enjoy my first trip to South America anyway.

At first I found the round-trip flight fare to be prohibitive, but two weeks later, I checked the fare again and found that the price had dropped by half. In the spring of 2003, the two-week trip was on.

My friend was correct in that I had so much in common with V.E. that it was almost unbelievable. We were two people from different countries, with very divergent backgrounds, languages and cultures. My Spanish was, to say the least, very limited, consisting of only a few words and the names of Mexican restaurant menu items. Her command of English was far better than my command of Spanish, but within days, we resolved this with what became our personal version of Spanglish. Most communication barriers fell by the wayside.

My plan of a two-week trip was quickly extended to five weeks. The time had come for the obligatory meeting of her friends and large family, and some phone calls back to my family and friends to announce our engagement.

My plan was to return home, and liquidate my house and personal belongings, and return to Chile as quickly as possible.

About three months after our initial meeting, V.E. and I were married in a typical ceremony, a large traditional festival that would rival the best wedding receptions in the U.S.

I soon learned that Chile is one of the best-kept secrets in South America. The history and geography are amazing, and the people are warm and friendly. As in many other countries, many Chileans do not agree with the foreign policies of the U.S., but they simply love Americans and can’t wait to embrace us with open arms and hearts.

I assumed that this Spanish-speaking nation would be similar to Mexico, but it was just the opposite: There is severe animosity towards Mexico, but much as we have maintained a close relationship with England, Chile has a fierce loyalty to Spain and the Spanish heritage despite having been invaded by the conquistadors. Chile is the only country not to be defeated or conquered by them.

Travel in Chile is quite amazing, from the Atacama Desert in the north — surprisingly, it is the driest desert in the world — to Easter Island, and south to the Straits of Magellan. The cold waters of the Humboldt Current provide a variety and quality of seafood that reaches far beyond the Chilean sea bass that we are familiar with in the U.S. The food is much more delicate, in the Spanish tradition, than I had expected.

When I first began traveling the local highways and byways, I noticed all sizes of white flags hanging along the roadsides. I thought, “The country is not at war, so why are they flying flags of surrender?” But the white flags are the signal that pan, or bread, has been freshly baked and is available for purchase. Chilean pan is to die for and varies from region to region.

There are several cultural differences between our two countries that I found fascinating. In my experience — and unlike so many other places — the Chilean national police, or Carabineros, are totally and completely honest. Try and bribe your way out of a traffic ticket, and you will immediately be hauled off to prison and not for a short sentence. Unlike law enforcement officers in the U.S., when they have finished their assigned shift, the carabineros check in their weapons and go off duty.

Chilean first responders are unique. They are called bomberos. One thing few if any are reporting since the earthquake on Feb. 27 is that they are all volunteers, but not volunteer firefighters as we know them in the States. They stand regular shifts but receive no funding or pay from the government, receiving their money only from the general public. It is very typical, on weekends and during major holiday periods, to see them standing in the middle of major intersections, dressed in full firefighting gear, begging with tin can in hand to accept donations from the public. It is from these donations that they must finance everything, including training from as early as age 14, upkeep of buildings and equipment, and even meals. Officers of each city department are democratically elected by their peers.

We lived in a small town about 25 miles south of Santiago. Our fire station was not much more than a large carport for the only engine. In Santiago, the stations and equipment rival anything we would expect to see in the States. Whenever I saw the bomberos out in the streets, I would donate the equivalent of about $5. Their reaction was one of total surprise, almost disbelief; most Chileans typically donate the equivalent of about 20 cents.

Although this system works for the most part, it creates a terrible inequity. Donations are plentiful in major metropolitan and wealthier areas, while in poorer, smaller cities and towns, bomberos scrape for their very existence and are not as well equipped.

It is devastating and painful for me to see in the media the condition of my beloved Chile after the earthquake. I hope that all Americans will recognize the severity of the recent earthquake and be generous with donations.

Sadly, my wife died in my arms of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in 2008. As much as I love Chile, her loss was so devastating that I opted to return to my other love, Clark County.