1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – Ponte a Jugar! On Being Broke in a Strange Land


Chile isn’t excessively expensive, but more so than I had thought back when I planned to come here. The economy started sinking near the end of my undergrad studies in the States, and the tips weren’t flowing like they had been in either of the bars I’d been working at for years. I landed here in Chile, found the cost of living higher than I expected, the tips a joke and my Master’s program way overpriced. In short order, twenty dollar steaks at my neighborhood pub were no longer on my agenda, and neither was school. I was broke – and it was good. Yes, it teaches a person things. One: Weird ways of earning money always pop up. No, I’m not talking about the Cafés con Piernas. [Coffee Shops “with Legs” – exactly what it sounds like]

The funniest “job” I’ve had was this ridiculous game show. It was called Muralla Infernal (Hell Wall, or the Infernal Wall if you will) based on a popular Japanese show.  I had no idea what I was getting into when a friend asked me if I’d be his teammate on the show. I was to don a sparkly, full-length silver body suit complete with elbow and knee pads. Across my helmet was emblazoned Sharlene, although the hosts called me Char-lay-nay. I took one look at myself in the size small suit suctioned to every crevice of my body and promptly requested the large. The staff tried to convince me I looked hot in the small one. Ha! I told them. You are all so funny. In the end, after I was thrown off the moving walkway into the pool full of freezing water it mattered not. That suit was fully glued to my skin and I spent weeks listening to men mention how much they liked my outfit and that it must have been cold in there. Gross.

The game was on and we were pitted against two other people. We had to answer trivia as well as fit our bodies through humanoid shaped cutouts on a moving wall. If we couldn’t fit, we’d get swept into the pool. At the start and close of commercial breaks very sexy male and female dancers shook their barely clad bottoms to this ridiculous song, while my pasty white counterpart and I tried not to look bored. I love to dance to most music, but this song is just intolerable. In the end we won, which meant we had to return. I had not been informed of this beforehand. By our third night we found the backstage bar was open for us during breaks. Nice.

So in order to pay us for acting like fools on live national television for three nightly events, we had earned several hundred dollars apiece – payed to us in grocery store check cards! Hell, I needed them, so I stocked every last shelf in my kitchen and sold the remaining tickets at a 15% discount for cash exchange and paid my rent. That saved me. The other nice thing about living broke was I learned how to make nearly everything from scratch and invented several weird recipes that turned out to be delicious. Case in point, I was down to a potato, an apple and a slice of cheese. I baked and mashed up the produce, added garlic and tarragon, topped with cheese and broiled. Fantastic! I now make all my broths, stews, bean burgers and such from scratch. I haven’t had a canned soup in years. When I start getting tempted to be lazy and buy the stuff, I think about how much healthier the homemade is – not mention cheaper in this land over-flowing with fresh produce – and I slowly back away from the processed food shelves. I’d rather save my health and my cash for traveling.

My last point is actually traveling. Of course it’s nice to stay in fancy places and have a fancy meal on occasion, but I have met the most interesting cast of characters from traveling on a budget, like the guy who lives in a tiny boat on the Caribbean coast. Or the happiest person I’ve ever met who was not able to speak, but we got along famously. I don’t mean that fun can’t be had with money, but the need to be creative without it can really make things more interesting. Take Cuba for example. I went there after I purchased a flight in cash in Venezuela. My friends and I were told how much would be a good amount of dollars to bring (no using ATM’s of course), which turns out was not enough. The tourist section was terribly pricy and looked like a museum, a lovely museum. Drinks in Hemingway’s bar cost enough to feed four people in a clandestine home “restaurant”. After my only friend to bring excessive money spent it on a case of bootlegged puros, we had no choice but to stay in a casa particular (cheap private residences authorized to accept guests) in the non-touristy neighborhoods. We walked up the 8 flights of stairs in the apartment building along with the 80 year-olds who took intermittent breaks on the landings. The elevator only ran from 2 to 4 PM on Saturdays and Sundays. We ate where the Cubans ate, listened to live music in the plaza and spent many evenings in people’s homes having a rum or a coffee. I walked through the nearly empty stores and understood why there is no violence. There is nothing to steal and nobody has weapons, plus everyone has free, quality healthcare. This would definitely not have happened if we had stayed with all the Europeans safely tucked into the old historic district. This was a much more real way to do it, mothered into existence by low fundage.

Granted, I am not poking fun at real poverty. I would also find it hard to give up the material gifts my life has given me, but I try not to take more than I need or whine when someone else has more stuff. I just want to say that being low on money can spur creativity and lead to fascinating situations and lessons in life, and for that I am very thankful.


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