Surrounded by the towering snow-capped Andean mountains, Santiago boasts a rich cultural heritage that fuels its emergence as a must-see destination of the vibrant South American landscape. Dotted with lush parks and winding side streets, this sprawling city retains an old world feel to match its New World discovery. It was here I found myself, in the cultural, financial and political heart of Chile, and here that I would invest the hours and drink Pisco Sours to find that elusive Tinderella.
In my travels from Central America down through South America it had become clear that the prevalence of English speakers declined the further away you get from the United States (SHOCKING, RIGHT?!). My basic Spanish got me by in Costa Rica, but here, deep in the South American continent, I was stranded on a non-English speaking Island with no discernible way off. Truth be told, I went to the same pizza place four nights in a row and pointed to the picture of the Pepperoni pizza on the wall because I was struggling to order anything from a written menu. So, if you were to ask me what the best local food is in Santiago, I would say ‘Dominos’. While a disconnection from the local language could be seen as a negative, I chose to make the best of a tough situation and arranged a date with a beautiful local Chilean woman named Maria*.
Our Tinder conversations had been, as you might expect, somewhat stifled because her English was average and the only thing as patchy as my Spanish was the Wi-Fi in my hostel. But, thanks to the magic of emoji’s, we forged ahead and as the sun rose over another glorious Santiago day, we had our very own lunch date to look forward to.
You might be wondering, just how is it possible to arrange a date with someone without speaking the language? In this case, it was all about taking notice of subtle clues and working with them. I’m nothing if not a Sherlock Holmes of the online dating world. Her profile, for example, had a range of colourful emojis. I noticed heaps of things that we might be able to talk about (and I use that term loosely considering our language barrier). A football emoji meant we both loved the world game. She used a globe emoji which meant we both loved travel. And she posted the emoji of a man, a bright red heart, and a woman. And whether that meant we both loved family or we were both looking for ‘the one’, I could get onboard with either noble sentiment.
As I sat and waited for Maria in the bustling Plaza De Armas, surrounded by neoclassical architecture that housed national museums, government buildings and century old churches, I was struck by what my travels were allowing me to do. I was able to try new things and entertain new ideas and attitudes that had been brought to my attention purely from meeting so many people from around the world. It was while indulging in this mindset that I found Maria. Despite the constant rush of human traffic that drove through the plaza, Maria stood out. She was taller than me without wearing heels and had long brown hair that looked straight out of a shampoo commercial. She was very pretty, wearing make-up that looked almost professionally applied. Her lipstick lined lips framed a beaming smile as we introduced ourselves in person.
Despite the emoji based nature of our Tinder conversations, her English was, thankfully, much better in person. She told me about her job as a teacher’s aid, her life in Chile and how she loved her country despite having been all over South America. We struck up a great conversation and in the shadows of the ever-watching Andean mountain range above, our chemistry was electric.
Before our date began though, and we had planned to have lunch in one of Santiago’s many parks, we had to stop off at a local book shop to find some textbooks she needed for her class. We must have walked for an hour at least before finally finding the right shop. And realising it was closed. And while that journey was ultimately for nothing, I’d essentially had a free walking tour of the city so I guess you could say there were two sides to every story.
By the time we’d reached the park it was clear that our date plan was a popular one. Couples lay sprawled throughout the park, hidden from the Chilean sun’s harsh rays by a green foliage that covered this urban paradise, leaving dappled light to filter through. The setting was romantic as fuck.
Now, I’m no stranger to some public affection, as my experiences in Colombia showed, and there was obvious flirtation behind Maria’s park chat.
She told me how impressed she was that I’d come so far around the world looking for meaning and purpose. That she hadn’t met many men like me. That I was so open to my feelings and to new experiences and how attractive that was. I felt this praise might have been misdirected, as I couldn’t think of many men who wouldn’t want to spend time with a woman as gorgeous as Maria, but it’s a skill to take a compliment so I just smiled and nodded in reply.
She went on to talk about her childhood, how her parents were so supportive of her choices in life, her goals for the future, and all the while her hand flicked lazily to my thigh, her fingers stroking haphazardly and gently. Now, lust is a funny thing. It builds, sometimes slowly, sometimes with great force, but it inevitably reaches a point where nothing can stem the growing tide of testosterone. It makes you forget your surroundings and your senses. You look for that one primal way to relieve your sexual stress. I was at that point and there was nothing that could hold me back. Nothing, that is, until Maria mentioned she played football as a kid with the boys in high school.
“With the boys?” I asked. “They have mixed teams here in high school?”
“No” she replied, “when I was a boy."
When. She. Was. A. Boy.
Everything started falling into place within seconds. She was as tall as me without heels. Her parents supported her choices in life. She was amazed at my openness to try new things. And those emojis on her Tinder profile? They weren’t a man followed by a heart and a woman because she was looking for a bloke. It’s because she had transitioned from one.
While there is no salacious ending to this Santiago story, it remains a highlight of my Chilean adventure. Maria, to her eternal credit, was incredibly understanding of my amateurish mix-up. I came clean and told her I’d made a mistake, that I’d been lost in translation and had not connected the dots in the way I should have. I told her she was beautiful and truly meant it, and she told me she was still amazed at my journey across the globe looking for meaning that had been lacking back in Australia, and I’d like to think she meant it too.
We spent another hour or so in that park chatting about life, the universe and everything before we called it a day. The topic of transitioning, and indeed trans people, has come to dominate the online space in recent times and while I’ll always support the right of anyone to direct their own happiness, whether it be leaving their job to travel the world or leaving their assigned gender to find comfort and solace in a new one, I’ll admit I had no first-hand connection to trans issues. Maria showed grace and poise in dealing with my ignorance, answered any questions I had honestly and openly and was a living, breathing example of how happiness is really all that matters. I felt like my eyes had been opened, at least a little, to the struggles faced by trans people and that my life, born in a body that I identified with, was certainly easier at times.
So, there was no romance to be had, and no public affection to indulge in. Instead, just two people, from wildly different walks of life, enjoying a lunch date in the park in the stunning city of Santiago, before going their separate ways. I hope Maria finds all that she seeks in life, not just the acceptance she craves and deserves from society, but those bloody text books that we walked around for an hour and couldn’t find too.
*Not her real name
Alexander Porter is a 27 year old with a degree from Sydney University. When Alex isn't writing he is watching his beloved St George Dragons let him down, drinking flavoured milk and planning new travel adventures. You can follow him on Instagram @alexander_le_great and you can check out his own blog, Inked and Abroad, here.