A Tragic End (Santiago, Chile)

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A TRAGIC END-  Santiago, Chile-Oct. 2008

October rolls around, and I begin to feel homesick. My favorite season is Fall because in Colorado the trees turn shocking colors of red, yellow and bright orange. It is not Fall here in Santiago, Chile where I’m studying abroad, but I see pictures from friends back home, all walking through beautifully colored trees and playing in the falling leaves. In order to cure myself of the longing to sip spicy cider and carve pumpkins, my friends and I decide to treat ourselves to a night dedicated to Fall activities.

Liz, Callie and I meet up at the metro station and walk to the market. It is too warm outside and nothing at all like the pictures we see from back home but we set out with the purpose of finding some huge orange pumpkins to carve. When we get to the fruit and vegetable section of the store, we are incredibly disappointed. They don’t carry anything that looks even close to a pumpkin. When we ask a bored looking employee where we might find one, we are led to the Halloween candy aisle and handed a hollow, neon, orange, plastic pumpkin, used for collecting candy.

“No, no, no!” We scream in unison. How dare he. This is obviously not at all what we are looking for.

Filled with desperation and a deepening homesickness, we stand helpless between the tropical papayas and mangoes. Nothing here resembles a big, chubby pumpkin that can be made into pie. There is no goo to scoop or seeds to roast! Callie suddenly spots an ugly, grey looking spherical vegetable and gives me a sly look.

“What do you think of this thing?” holding it up without masking her disgust. The sign above it informs us it is a zapallo europeo, or European squash. Our hopes are lifted and we scour the pile for descent looking squash that might reasonably fit a jack-o-lantern face. We lug them home, excited that we have found something that might contribute to our homemade Fall day in Chile.

Armed with steaming cups of apple cider nearby, the table lined with newspapers and equipped with the largest kitchen knives we could find, we start to cut a hole in the top of the zapallos to make a lid. Instantly, our eyes meet and the same message is conveyed between the three of us. This is going to be very difficult to cut through. It takes a good ten minutes just to cut a circle in the top and when it is pulled away, we are surprised to see that the walls lining the inside are about four inches thick. How on earth are we going carve into something this thick? But we are determined to make jack-o-lanterns just as if we were celebrating Halloween at home. We turn on some tunes, and spend the next three hours or so hollowing out our squash, scraping the inner walls thin enough to eventually carve some descent looking faces. Every once in a while, my friend’s host mom creeps into the room to check on us and asks if we are hungry. She seems baffled by our crazy gringo activity. But we are much too busy to bother with food, determined to see the job through. She walks away shaking her head.

As the sun begins to set, we have finally completed what we set out to do. We place tiny tea lights inside the squash, sit back, and admire the work we have done. Three squash sit on the table, each with their own personality: scary, happy and…a silly pirate? We are covered in orange goo, it is all over our clothes and hair as if the vegetables in front of us had exploded instead of been carved. Callie and I leave Liz’s house and head to our own host family homes to proudly show them the work we have done.

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When I get home, I present to my host mom what we have been working on the whole afternoon. The look on her face shows me she has never seen anything like it. (Not sure if that is a good or bad thing?) I explain to her that in the United States people go to pumpkin patches and choose a pumpkin, bring it home to carve designs or faces and leave them outside of the house for kids to admire as they are trick-or-treating. Halloween is a relatively new holiday in Chile (seeing as they are Catholic and Halloween is considered “Pagan”) and all the traditions that go along with it have still not reached this far down below the Equator.

She gets so excited about my pumpkin that she promises to put it outside in a few days for Halloween. For now, we leave it on the dining room table for other passing admirers and head off to bed. I am exhausted from spending so much time trying to carve this masterpiece.
The next day when I get home from school, our nana (nanny who cooks and cleans the house) is making dinner. I am happy to see her and excited to show her what I have made.

“Hi Ester! Did you see the pumpkin that I carved?” I notice it is no longer on the table so I assume it has been put outside like I talked about with my host mom.

“Yes Ali! So beautiful! Thank you for bringing it home and sharing with us.”

“Of course! No problem. Do you know where it is?” I’m still searching around the room looking for that smiling face. She tilts her head and looks at me funny.

“Well,” she points to the pot simmering on the stove, “I made soup!” saying it in such a way that she is confused as to why I hadn’t already figured that out. My face must be priceless in this moment since I am completely shocked by what she is telling me.
I excuse myself to go to my room before dinner is served. Shut my door, sit down on the bed, reeling over what has just happened.
In minutes, my host mom is rushing into my room, after arriving home from work.

“I am so sorry Ali! I had no idea!” she is close to tears, knowing how hard we worked to carve the Halloween squash. My mixed emotions immediately turn to hilarious laughter at her reaction. I can’t help but laugh not only at the fact that my silly jack-o-lantern is soon to be served to my family as dinner, but also at my host mom for taking it so seriously. I try to explain to her how funny it really is and eventually she is convinced I am not upset or going to ask to switch host families.

This cultural mix up is one for the record books. When we head to the kitchen, I see that Ester has been informed by my host brother of what she has done and she is holding the remaining pieces of the silly face out to me as a peace offering. At seeing this, I start laughing even harder, and she realizes I am not mad. We spend the entirety of our dinner discussing the delicious demise of my zapallo europeo.

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