It started the way all cab rides start: “You can drive me home but you have to promise not to fall in love with me.”
Okay, it wasn’t like that at all. In reality, it all began with your run-of-the-mill ride to the metro station.
On this particular day, I was on my way out of town for a weekend trip to the South of Chile. Living, as I did, “a la chucha” (Chilean for “really f**king far away”) I needed a colectivo to get to the metro to get to the bus station, so I stood and waited on my usual street corner near my house, suitcase at my side, until a colectivo finally made its way to me.
Brief sidebar: A colectivo is a form of public transportation in Chile that is essentially a shared taxi that moves along a set route–say from a certain neighborhood to a certain metro stop–and stops along the way to pick up passengers until the car–usually a five-seat sedan–is full. There were already a couple people in the car when it got to me, so I scooted my way to the middle back seat as the driver, a 60ish year old Chilean man looking typically campero donning a gaucho hat, put my suitcase in the trunk.
From my spot in the middle back seat, my easiest view was straight ahead through the windshield. My eyes would occasionally fall to the rearview mirror and when they did, I would catch the driver looking back at me. I’d turn away quickly and re-focus my eyeline elsewhere, cricking my neck around the passengers at my sides to see out of one of their windows.
When we arrived at the metro station, the driver got out again to help me with my bag. “Do you speak Spanish?” he asked in Spanish as he opened the trunk. “Yes,” I replied. “You have gorgeous eyes.” Despite the fact that he was around 60 years old, I took the compliment, said thank you, grabbed my suitcase and walked away.
A few days later I returned to Santiago. Outside the metro station, I approached the line for colectivos where various drivers usually wait to pick up passengers. As it was a Sunday, there was only one colectivo in line, and it just so happened to be the same driver who dropped me off at the station the Friday before. I was one of only two passengers, and instead of waiting for a full car, which could take a while on a Sunday, we set off for the neighborhood. The driver asked me about my trip and I told him where I went and that it was good. When he dropped off the other woman, he then asked me where he should drop me off. I gave him my usual street corner, but he offered to take me directly to my house—a service which usually costs a little extra– so I wouldn’t have to carry my suitcase. I said that really wasn’t necessary, but he insisted. You try talking a Chilean out of something. And so he drove me to my door.
Many routine colectivo rides happened before I ever was driven by this one again. Then one Sunday afternoon, I stood on the corner for a long time. I was supposed to meet a friend and each of the few colectivos that infrequently passed by was already completely full with passengers on their way to the metro station. After about an hour, the familiar campero colectivo driver drove by in his own personal truck. He pulled over to the side of the road and rolled down his window. Donning his usual hat, he greeted me and offered to take me to the metro. Running late and stranded in suburbia, I was pretty desperate for a ride and he was a pretty non-threatening guy, though I had the standard thoughts, reservations and mild terror about getting into a car with a near stranger that mothers would be proud I had and would chastise me for ignoring as I climbed into his pick-up.
The driver introduced himself as Marco and we began to chat. He asked what I was doing in Chile, whether I liked it, if I had a boyfriend. He told me he likes to take trips up to the mountains, and that he was thinking of organizing something soon if I wanted to go and take some friends. I’d been wanting to go up to the Andes, but the thought of going to a deserted and isolated area in some strange man’s truck seemed a little too much like the premise for an after school special for my liking. On the other hand, I felt cool to be mingling with the locals. Being driven to the Chilean Andes by a Chilean man in his Chilean truck was surely what I’d come to Chile to do, wasn’t it? Marco interrupted my musings by asking me where exactly I was going in the city. Since he was heading downtown anyway, he’d drop me off at my destination instead of the usual metro station. I told him I was going to Pedro de Valdivia—a nearby and usually bustling area–and meeting a friend at the metro station there. I repeatedly told him it wasn’t necessary to take me all the way, that dropping me at the usual metro station would be fine, but he insisted once again and I didn’t really have a reason not to trust him. He was a driver for a living, and he was already on his way downtown. It wasn’t like he’d been driving up and down the streets of the neighborhood looking for me, he was merely passing by when he spotted me and generously offered help.
So Marco dropped me off at my destination. He told me to take down his phone number so the next time I needed a colectivo, I could just call him directly and wouldn’t have to wait forever. I obliged and put his number in my phone. Then he said, “Now call me so I’ll have yours.” Note to self: Next time a strange man offers me his number, jot it down with a pen. Pretend you left your phone at home and don’t remember your foreign number. Sitting in his passenger seat with my phone in my hand, I had little choice but to call him, and he saved my number in his phone with my name.
Now Marco knew exactly where I lived and he had my phone number, and I didn’t feel great about this, but I slept soundly knowing that I was living in a very nice neighborhood in a very secure house with locking doors and gates and an alarm system that even I, as a resident of the house, didn’t have the code to.
A few days later, Marco called me. Ten times in a row. A little while later, I had to go out to meet friends but was a little concerned that my colectivo driver would end up being Marco. I left the house anyway and as soon as I turned the corner, Marco was standing there, leaning against his personal truck as he had apparently been doing for hours, waiting for me.
“I’ve been waiting for you. I was thinking of going to the mountains today. You didn’t answer your phone,” he said. I made up some lie about it not working and said that I was running late to meet a friend. He offered to take me and, even though this is the part of the movie where everyone is yelling at the screen “Bitch, what are you doing? Do not get in that car!” I got in that car.
I can’t explain some of the decisions I made in Chile. I ignored a lot of red flags out of desperation and true fear of what would happen if I didn’t, and it really didn’t always turn out okay. I got myself into some trouble that way. But deep down, I still felt that Marco was harmless. I told him I was going to the exact same place where he dropped me the other day, the Pedro de Valdivia metro station. As we drove, he talked to me about his “intentions.”
“I hope you don’t think I want anything from you. I just want to be your friend.” I nodded and stayed quiet. I couldn’t remember if I had told him I had a boyfriend, but I hoped I had. He dropped me off and I thanked him for the ride. He insisted on a kiss on the cheek, the Chilean way, and since it seemed relatively benign compared to what could have happened, I obliged. I safely exited the car and ran far away from the metro station, processing that I was officially being stalked by a colectivo driver.
How was I ever supposed to go home, or leave home, ever again? Why did I ever get into a car with a stranger? Hadn’t I learned my lesson in the countless scares—and few actually terrible situations– I had already had in Chile? (Well, when you live a la chucha in Chile, you have to take a lot of cabs and bum a lot of rides. It’s inevitable.)
The thing is, sometimes you get into a car with a near stranger and end up making a great friend. The type of friend who helps you move apartments after knowing you for less than a week. The type of friend who invites you to Christmas dinner with his family so you won’t be alone for the holidays, even though he just met you fifteen minutes ago, and you’re Jewish. The type of friend who will drive you to the airport and tell you they’re really gonna miss you and that things won’t be the same without you. Even the type of friend who will write poems about you and recite them in Chicago coffee shops. These are the types of experiences with riding in cars with near-strangers that I had had before Chile, and I was spoiled by them, definitely, but I should have learned my lesson already in Chile. Yet even as I’m writing this, reflecting on all the bad things that happened, and all the bad things that could have happened and, out of sheer luck, didn’t, I still think I’ll probably continue getting into cars with near strangers…sometimes, not often, and strictly on a case-by-case basis according to my gut feeling and circumstances. Because even though I’ve made a few errors in judgment in a very few instances (read: I’m almost always right, and you need to remember that) in the past, I trust myself and my judgment and think, naively, that perhaps risking a little for the chance of making a new friend is maybe sort of sometimes worth it.
After that day, it seems Marco got the picture that I wasn’t very into being his friend. I wasn’t quite comfortable with answering his calls, not quite okay with him waiting outside my door, not really interested in going up to the mountains with him. And it’s a shame, because if he hadn’t come on so strongly and creepily, it would have been nice to have another Chilean chum. As luck would have it, I never had to ride with him again, but that just meant that I’d have other colectivo drivers and that, once again, I was stuck riding in cars with strangers, be them potential stalkers or potential friends.