Santiago's Almagro Park: full of shade and surprises. (Photo: ha+/Flickr)

It was a surprisingly clear afternoon in downtown Santiago. The smog that usually parks itself over the bustling metropolis had vanished and in its place, the sun was beating down. On the footpaths, sweaty tourists dressed in shorts, t-shirts and sunvisors, strolled passed sweaty businessmen who had shed their suit jackets and rolled up their sleeves. The motionless street dogs lay sprawled out in the shadows, their rubbery tongues hanging limply from their mouths. Even the sparrows were conserving energy. They still hopped, skipped and flittered through the air but without their customary enthusiasm.

Finding myself with some free time in the afternoon, I was sitting on a shady bench in the middle of the Almagro Park, a few blocks south of Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda. One of just a few decent sized parks near the heart of downtown Santiago, Almagro stands out for its generous tree coverage and a series of large stone sculptures arranged in a circle, a bit like Stonehenge only not quite so mysterious or spectacular. Having just polished off a pistachio gelato and plugged in my headphones, I was settling back to enjoy some hard earned nothing.

And then I saw her: a large woman in a yellow, floral-patterned dress was ambling purposefully towards me, her lips moving. Trotting along by her side was a young girl, about seven or eight, silently munching on a toffee apple. As she drew nearer, the woman continued speaking so I pulled the headphone out of my right ear and strained my eyes in concentration, doing my best to understand what she was saying.

Her accent was unusual but in true Chilean style, the words were flying out of her mouth like bullets spraying from a Hollywood machine gun. I winced harder but it didn’t help. She was speaking too fast.

Just as I was about to tell her I couldn’t understand, one of the wayward bullets hit the target. “…la…lalala…la.., lalala…lala…moneditas…lala…” Moneditas. Coins. A magic word. I smiled and gave a knowing nod to convey that I now understood and began fumbling around in the too-small coin pocket of my jeans. The first attempt only produced 50 pesos (about 10 cents) which didn’t seem like enough so I decided to fish for more money. The second attempt produced another 50 peso coin. Bingo. It may not seem like a lot but 100 pesos is usually considered an acceptable donation on the streets of Santiago. And besides, I didn’t want to have go foraging around in the coin pocket again.

I reached out my hand to give the two small coins to the woman and she took them. But instead of saying thank you and walking away as I had expected she would, the woman in the floral dress sat down next to me on the bench. The young girl stood hovering in the background, still chewing at the toffee apple, and the woman, who I presumed was her mother, kept talking. Pulling the other headphone out of my left ear, I finally gave her my full attention.

“Pardon?” I said in Spanish.

“Give me your hand,” she said.

I stared back at her, not quite sure what she was getting at.

“Give – me – your – hand,” she repeated but this time she spoke more slowly, enunciating each word carefully. “I can tell you are a good person and I want to help you. Give me your hand,” she repeated again, reaching over to me.

Still confused, I scratched my head and twisted my face into what I hoped was a confused-looking expression. And then it dawned on me that she wanted to read my palm.

“Oh, no thanks,” I said, feeling  just a little uncomfortable and embarrassed. “I don’t really agree with that sort of thing.

But the woman wasn’t about to take no for an answer.

Instead she tried a different approach. “Where are you from?” she asked, sliding just a little closer on the bench.

“Australia. And you?” I fired back, noting her strange accent again.

“I’m from Chile,” she replied. So much for that.

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’m teaching English at an institute in Huechuraba,” I said, glancing at my watch. It was about 4.30. “In fact, I have a class in about one-and-a-half hours.” I paused before hastily adding: “But I’m only here until February; after that I’m returning home.”

“Give me your hand,” she said, reaching for my hand again. “I can tell you about your coming journey.”

“No thanks, I really don’t want to.”

“Trust me,” she said, staring into my eyes. Unable to match her intense gaze, I turned away. The girl was standing quietly in the same position, still munching on the toffee apple.

“I trust God,” I said slowly. “He has always looked after me and I’m happy to keep trusting in him.”

“Of course, I trust in God too. He always comes first but I have the power to help you. I can see that you are a happy person but I have I can show you to make things better. I can tell you about your future, your work, your love life…”

She paused. Perhaps my face had twitched or my shoulders had sagged – I’m not exactly sure – but for whatever reason, the woman sitting next to me on the bench sensed she was onto something. Once again she changed tack.

“You have had bad luck in love,” she said, looking back into my eyes. “Even though you smile, you are harbouring pain.”

“Everyone has some pain,” I replied, just a little too defensively.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Give me your hand.”

I shook my head, hoping she would give up and move on. But she didn’t.

“Give me your hand.”

I shook my head. Again. “I really don’t want to.”

The woman pulled her hand away from mine. “Won’t you at least give me another monedita?…For the child,” she said gesturing over her shoulder at the girl who had now almost finished her toffee apple.

Delving back into the coin pocket, I pulled out a 100 peso coin and gave it to the woman, hoping that now we had reached the end of our conversation. But she had other ideas. Holding the three coins in her palm, she said: “Give me one more coin and I can make a cross.

I couldn’t believe it. She wanted me to cross her palm with silver. I didn’t think that kind of thing happened any more. But she was deadly serious.

“Why a cross?” I asked. I didn’t like the way this powerful symbol of life and love had been appropriated.

“It is a powerful symbol. It opens the way.”

I searched for something helpful to say. “The cross of Jesus has already opened the way for me…” Even though I believed what I said, the words sounded feeble coming out of my mouth.

The woman paused again before trying one last approach.

“Someone is jealous of you,” she said. “They don’t want you to be happy. Give me one more coin and I can help you.”

By now I was feeling frustrated. “No thank you. I don’t want to be part of this,” I said, doing my best to speak firmly but politely.

At last, the woman reached her limit. She got up from the bench and walked away without saying a word. The girl followed obediently.

It wasn’t the way I had wanted the encounter to end. “I’m sorry,” I called out. “I didn’t mean to offend you it’s just that…”

The woman turned around, held up her hand to show she wasn’t interested, and then continued on her way with the young girl tagging along behind her.

Sitting by myself on the shady bench, I replayed our conversation in my mind, thinking about how I could have said and done things differently. I felt very sad.