With Gabriela Mistral and Bernardo.

Ominous clouds hung over the Valparaíso hills, reflected grey in the waters of the harbour below. It was a grey kind of day. That’s not to say there was no colour – far from it. In every direction there were eye-catching walls, coated in primary colours and graphic street art, breaking up the view like patches on a handmade quilt. But it still felt grey. Not bad. Just grey. Nothing like the sun-drenched city splashed across all the postcards.

Perhaps it was because I had just come from Pablo Neruda’s house. Perched high up on the hill with panoramic views over the bay, the five-storey home once served as an artistic refuge for the Nobel Prize-winning poet who, like Peter Pan, had refused to truly grow up. In the middle of a serious and sober world, he built his house as a sanctuary and filled it with  toys – a giant rocking horse, music boxes, a glass bottle collection – and his friends, whom he served personally from his custom built pink bar. While he poured, they drank and laughed and played parlour games. Then they drank and laughed some more.

Now a museum, the house has been restored with almost all the original knick knacks and furniture in place, right down to the poet’s favourite armchair. Even though it’s almost 30 years since Neruda’s death and the home’s narrow staircases are now overrun by tourists, there is still a sense of fun and playfulness that permeate the place. Most things pale in comparison. Especially under such a grey sky.

I was in need of a coffee so I hurried along the narrow streets that led down the Bellavista Hill in the direction of the city’s main cafes and plazas. Although it was still rather early, I had a self-imposed schedule to stick to and nothing was going to get in the way. But this grey day had a surprise in store.

As I walked past a row of brightly painted houses and a green park filled with statues, I heard a colourful voice calling out.

Oye Flaco! Hey skinny! Are you lost?”

Turning around, I saw a man in a grey jacket and dark, grey jeans. His closely cropped hair had the slightest hint of grey too, but it was colour in his voice that captured my attention.

“No, I’m not lost. I’m just on my way to the plaza,” I replied, stepping closer.

“Which plaza?”

“Sotomayor.”

The grey man with the colourful voice cocked his head to one side and squinted hard, as if the facial contortion helped him think more clearly. He was standing quite close to me now. Close enough to smell the lit cigarette that was squeezed between his fingers and the beer that saturated his breath, even though it was well before midday.

“Well the best way to get there from here is to…” He rattled off a list of thorough and surprisingly accurate directions.

“Yes, I know. I’m not lost,” I replied without thinking. “But thank you,” I added, trying to be a little more tactful. Fortunately, my abruptness hadn’t caused any offence and the colourful voice continued unperturbed.

“What’s your name?”

“Tim.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I live in Santiago and I teach English there. I’ve come here for the long weekend. What’s your name?”

The grey man took a deep breath before unleashing his voice in a dramatic burst: “Bernardo Alfonso Rodríguez Muñoz Álvarez Contreras…” the surnames kept coming “…González, commander of the Chilean Navy.”

Having completed the recital, he smiled in satisfaction. I nodded slowly. Not for the first time in Chile, I didn’t know how else to respond.

“Pleased to meet you Bernardo,” I said, reaching out my hand.

El gusto es el mío. The pleasure is all mine,” he replied, another grin spreading across his face.

I didn’t doubt him. He seemed to be having a great time. Tilting his head to the side once more, Bernardo prepared to say something else.

Looking me in the eyes, he spoke solemnly. “You’re beautiful, like me. Beautiful…”

Now it was my turn to cock my head to the side. Racking my brains, I searched for something appropriate to say.

“I suppose we’re all beautiful in our own way, aren’t we?” I blurted out, shuffling my feet a little uneasily as I spoke.

“No. Not everyone. But I am…and you are.” He paused and I kept shuffling my feet. “Do you know where true beauty comes from?”

“Ah, yes. Of course. It’s not about your appearance…it’s about your personality, isn’t it?”

“No.”

“No? Then where does it come from?”

“Your soul,” Bernardo replied in a hushed tone, like a sage imparting great wisdom.

At that point, I probably would have continued on my way but my esteemed companion tilted his head to the side again, loading up for another revelation. Concentration was etched across his face and there was a twinkle in his eye. I was trapped. Held captive by his enthusiasm. So I waited.

After a long pause, he straightened up his head and asked me: “What else can I tell you?” Another question followed by another pause. It was rather anticlimactic. “Oh. I know. Ask me about the secret formula!”

“What secret formula?” I asked, smiling as I realised I’d unwittingly met his demand.

“The secret formula about anything. I have a gift and I can tell you all sorts of secrets. Just ask me. Ask about anything you want.”

I stopped to think but Bernardo read my mind.

“Don’t think about it. Just ask me. Ask me about anything.”

I tried not to think but now I had started, it was difficult to stop.

“Ummm…what happens to you after you die? What’s the secret formula for that?”

“I don’t know,” Bernardo responded without pausing to think, “because the Bible doesn’t tell us.”

That wasn’t the answer I had been expecting and it didn’t convince me. But I figured there was little point in trying to reason with Bernardo.

“Do you believe the Bible?” I asked instead.

“Of course.”

“Good. Me too. But now I’m going to have to keep moving. Can I take a quick picture of you before I go?”

“Of course. Let’s take one together…over there with the statue of Gabriela Mistral,” he said pointing in the direction of a stone figure who was hunched over on a park bench just 10 metres away. I nodded. If I was going to have my photo taken with a false naval commander, who better to join us than an acclaimed dead poet?

Bernardo called out to a woman selling an odd collection of postcards, mugs and T-shirts to tourists on the other side of the small park: “Can you take our photo?”

Shrugging her shoulders, she ambled across to us. Though she didn’t open her mouth, she rolled her eyes and looked at me with an unmistakable expression. “Why are you going along with this?” it said. I just smiled and handed her the camera.

 Bernardo stood on Gabriela’s left and I stood on her right. We put our arms around her and said “Whiskey”.

“One. Two. Three.” Click.

“Oh. One more. One more,” Bernardo said in a high-pitched voice like an excited schoolboy.

“One. Two. Three.” Click.

“And another one now. But this time let’s change sides.”

I moved to Gabriela’s left and Bernardo moved to her right and we repeated the process all over again.

“One. Two. Three.” Click.

“Another photo?” Bernardo tried again. But this time the postcard vendor’s patience had run out.

“No, I think that’s enough.” Handing the camera back to me, she started the slow amble back to her stall.

“Thank you,” I said as she walked away.

“OK, Bernardo. It was really nice to meet you but now I really have to keep moving.”

Bernardo was clearly moved. With tears starting to form in his eyes, he gave me a suffocating bear hug and shook my hand.

“It was a pleasure to meet you. You are a beautiful soul. Take care and God bless,” he said, holding my hand firmly in his.

“Goodbye,” I said. “And God bless you too.”

I turned and headed down the hill, past a mural of the crystal blue sea and into the greyness.

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