Colourful character: The only time Marcelo wasn’t smiling was when I asked to take his photo.

Making my way along the path leading down from the lookout on Valparaíso’s Artillery Hill (Cerro Artilleria), I am stopped in my tracks by an unexpected question. With his eyes fixed on me, a small man in a large, beige jacket addresses me in stilted English.

“Where are you froh…?” he asks, a disarming smile spreading across his face. “Germany?”

“No,” I reply in Spanish. “Soy australiano.”

“Ah, Australia,” the man in the jacket says, his eyes twinkling and his mouth still grinning. “I know Australia. Byootiful country…but you look German. Very similar.”

Even though it is a public holiday, the man is wearing a sky blue business shirt and a dark-blue patterned tie. At first glance, he appears quite elegant but on closer inspection, I notice that he’s actually rather scruffy. His brown leather shoes are scuffed and several small stains show up on his black trousers. As he speaks, drops of spittle form in the corner of his smiling mouth before spraying in the afternoon air. Some of the droplets settle on my jumper but I pretend not to mind. The man’s face is covered in an uneven layer of stubble and unruly tufts of hair poke out from his crevassed dimples like weeds sprouting up through the cracks in a concrete footpath.

He is a little odd but a lot of friendly. And I’m curious.

“Where did you learn English?” I ask, eager to learn more about my new companion.

“On the sea. I work on ships many years…You from Australia. I know Sydney, Auckland, Wellington…byootiful place.”

“Oh, I’m from Sydney,” I reply, not bothering to point out that Auckland and Wellington are actually in New Zealand.

Byootiful,” he repeats with added emphasis.

We are standing in the middle of the pathway and the camera-toting sightseers pause from admiring the sweeping harbour vistas to stare at us as they trundle past. From time to time, my friend in the beige jacket looks up to survey the passing crowd. The broad smile, still spread across his face, suggests he’s relishing the attention.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Marcelo. And you?”

“Tim,” I say extending my hand.

“Pleased to meet you Teem,” he says shaking my hand and glancing over my shoulder. I turn in the direction of his gaze and realise he has spotted some more interesting people. I think he would be pleased to meet them too. Ambling up the hill are a pair of tall, Caucasian-looking backpackers, dressed in black.

Turning towards them Marcelo calls out loudly in English.

“Where are you froh…? Germany?” It appears to be his standard line.

I roll my eyes as I wait for the lanky backpackers to respond. A few of the other tourists walking along the path pause to look up as well.

“Ja,” the backpackers reply.

They keep walking by without stopping to talk but Marcelo doesn’t mind at all. In fact, he looks rather pleased with himself. Almost smug but not quite. Impossible as it seems, his already big smile has grown bigger and now it stretches from one of his protruding ears to the other. Literally. He calls after the tall backpackers in German as they continue making their way up the hill. They turn back to wave goodbye and now, they are grinning too.

With the Germans gone, Marcelo returns his attention to me.

“It’s a byootiful country, Germany,” he tells me. “But they have lots of problehs in this moment with the Greeks.”

“Hmmm,” I say with just a hint of exaggeration.

“They have a big army too…just like befoh,” he says raising his right arm in a mock Heil Hitler salute.

I look over my shoulder to make sure the Germans are well and truly out of sight. Thankfully, they are. But the other tourists on the path are now staring at Marcelo again with puzzled expressions on their faces. Because I’m standing and talking with him, they are staring at me too and I feel just a little uncomfortable. Eventually he lowers his arm and continues the conversation. I breathe a sigh of relief.

“I know some Germans when I work on the sea,” he says. “And a Filipinos. There are lots of Filipinos on the sea…”

“So I’ve heard.”

“How much you think they pay the Filipinos?” he asks, still smiling

“Um, I’m not sure.”

“Noh much. They don pay Filipinos much. They pay them nothing,” Marcelo says. He pauses to think before launching into a different line of inquiry.

“Is pay good in Australia?”

“Yes, it’s a fairly good country in that sense.”

“Are there lots of rich people?”

“I suppose so,” I reply, “but the gap between the rich and the poor isn’t as big as it is here in Chile. It’s a more egalitarian society.”

Marcelo’s eyes light up.

“Egalitarghiyah?”

“Yes: igualitaria.”

“How you spell that?” Marcelo asks.

He reaches inside his large, beige jacket and pulls out a dog-eared, pocket notebook. Opening it he hands it to me, still smiling. The worn pages are filled with a jumble of English words. Words about sport. Words about travel. Words about music. The latest entries are all related to cars. “Accelerator, brake, clutch, anti-freeze…” The list goes on. Perhaps earlier in the morning he bumped into an English-speaking German mechanic. Or perhaps not.

Marcelo points to a blank spot on the page and, looking up at me, he says: “Egalitarghiyah?”

“OK,” I reply. “Do you have a pen?”

Fumbling around in another jacket pocket, he produces a black biro and hands it to me. I print ‘EGALITARIAN’ onto the page and give the book back to Marcelo.

“There: egalitarian.”

“Egalitarghiyah,” he says with a big smile. “Egalitarghiyah.”

I look at my watch. The sun is starting to sink into the sea and and there are still a couple more of Valparaíso’s hills that I want to explore.

“OK, Marcelo. Nice to meet you. I’ve got to keep moving now.”

“A pleasure.”

We shake hands, say farewell and I rejoin the crowd of tourists slowly making their way down the hill, smiling to myself as I go. It’s contagious.

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