The place was Santiago, Chile, the hour was 10 a.m., and the sun already was burning high over the city skyline. I had asked for a car and a driver who spoke English in a place where I had never been and did not know the language.
“Good morning, sir,” the driver said.
He extended his hand. Already he was a surprise. I had expected only a guy behind the wheel, someone who knew where he was going – a cabbie, basically. I figured if he muddled through English, I’d be happy.
But this man sported a gray suit and a red tie, neatly groomed hair, strong features. His English was nearly flawless, and he took great strides to be sure his tenses and syntax were correct.
“What would you like to see?” he asked.
I said I’d like to see a bit of the city and, if possible, drive out to the mountains.
“Very good, sir,” he said.
He closed the door for me. An unexpected tour
As we drove through Santiago, I asked if he could indicate some highlights. I was hoping he’d point at a building and say, “That is the capitol” or “That is our biggest movie theater.”
Instead, he said, “Yes, certainly. The city of Santiago was founded on Feb. 12, 1541.”
Now, if you take a cab ride in a Detroit – or for that matter, New York, Miami or Chicago – I doubt the driver could tell you the date the city was founded. Or who founded it. Or who invaded it.
But that was just the start with this man, whose name was Hernan. He continued answering any and all questions: about the Andes Mountains, about wars, about climate, about the indigenous Mapuche population.
As we left the city and the landscape emptied, he said, “Would you like to know the history of my country?”
Sure, I said.
He began with the 15th Century. The price of freedom
Now, remember, this man was a driver, not a tour guide. His knowledge of his nation’s history, leaders and key dates was remarkable. He spoke about a man named O’Higgins – the illegitimate son of a Spanish officer from Ireland – who eventually became the first leader of an independent Chile.
“Chile was run by an O’Higgins?” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he said, delighted.
As we drove through the mountains and the roads became windy, he spoke about the political upheaval of the last half-century. He spoke of the leftist Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in 1973 by a military coup led by Augusto Pinochet, the brutal dictator who ruled Chile with an iron fist for almost two decades. Under Pinochet, the media were censured, free speech was curtailed, hundreds of thousands were arrested – and many were never heard from again.
“I myself,” the driver said, “was put in jail.”
“You?” I said. “For how long?”
“More than three years.”
He then spoke of his time in a cell, his time in solitary confinement, his time with one plate of food pushed under a door. His “crime,” he explained, was having leftist literature in his home when it was invaded by Pinochet’s secret police.
“You got three years for that?”
“Yes,” he answered.
The day went on. His stories continued. We drove into the mountains, found a lodge that let us ride horses on a trail through the valley. I asked Hernan to come along and, with his suit still on, he mounted the horse and rode expertly. He remarked on how beautiful all this open space was, and I guess if I had been in a cell for three years, I would feel the same.
It was nearly dark when we returned to the hotel. I thanked him for a nice day. This was several weeks ago, but I can’t stop thinking about him.
I think about all of us here, so lucky in America, yet so ignorant of our history, happy to watch “American Idol” and be numbly entertained. I think of cab drivers I’ve had who could barely speak this nation’s language, who talk on cell phones the whole ride. And I guess you learn what you have to. And you only truly cherish something – like speaking freely about your country – when you know it can be taken away.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).