There is much to be said about friendship. Growing up in the DC suburbs of Fairfax County Virginia in the late 60s one favorite memory is the road trip to the beach and hanging with my high school classmate Jon May. Forty five years later that day still burns bright, but pales compared to our recent reunion. I last saw Jon during the autumn of 1969, our freshman year in college, when I made a bus trip up from Nashville to visit him at Indiana University (IU), Bloomington. We lost contact afterwards until recently, he found me on a Fort Hunt High School alumni site and was I happy to hear from him. Turns out he’s living in Chile with a restaurant business. I asked if I could visit and he gave me the obligatory mi casa es su casa.
Reconnecting with old friends can sometimes be dicey. Friends often outgrow one another and compatibility over the years can wear thin like an old garment. You try it on after a long absence, notice the threadbare seams and remember why you abandoned it. I was anxious over our reunion wondering if we could recapture that adventurous fresh freedom we experienced as young men. I went on to become a lawyer and he a successful businessman. Life placed us on separate super highways that down the road would reconnect in Santiago.
Jon was always a people person. I knew that the moment the friendly 16 year old new kid struck up a conversation in the hallway between classes. Still years later he’s the only person I know who will stop and hold a conversation with a toll booth operator like old friends. He has a sharp sense of humor, loquacious, gregarious and ever the conversationalist. Then as now there is never a dull moment with my friend. He decided to show me some of the Chilean countryside and the best way to experience a foreign land is by the side of a local who knows the back roads and best inexpensive places to eat and sleep.
I happened to arrive on Good Friday and with the holiday weekend he had standing dinner party invitations for the first three days. He’s part of a community of international expatriates he calls his tribe. Having worked at the IMF and the World Bank briefly in the 80s I have since been enamored of that web of international networks and felt very much at home with his friends. On day four with the parties behind us we set out on a road trip south to the Casa Blanca Valley. Located on Route 68 between Santiago and the city of Valparaíso, at about 30 minutes southeast of Valparaíso and 50 minutes northwest of Santiago. It is a region known for white wine grapes, especially Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
The original plan was to visit Valparaiso, but the week before the port city was hit by the Gran Incendio de Valparaiso. The Great Fire swept the hill tops killing 15 and leaving 11,000 homeless. The curious and non-residents were urged to stay away. We heeded the advice and detoured to Zappollar with two stops along the way, the Matetic Vineyards and the Museum House of Pablo Neruda.
Matetic Vineyards are located in Rosario Valley, a subdivision of San Antonio Valley, 120 kilometers from Santiago between Casablanca and San Antonio. Equilibrio, the restaurant at Matetic specializes in traditional Chilean cuisine. We lunched on seafood appetizers and beef entrees. Not only was the food superb but I had this memorable citrussy sauvignon blanc I’m on a mission to find here in the states.
Sated, our next stop was the beach at Isla Negra and home of Chile’s famed Nobel Laureate poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda. Named for its isolation and wild black rocks, Isla Negra beach is associated with the poet’s love for the sea. The house is chocked with Neruda’s eclectic collection gathered over his life time of travels. Like most of the house his study is crammed with among others things display models of ships, butterfly collections, astrological charts, portraits and an antique wash basin.
Next we drove down the pacific coast with no particular destination in mind. Jon decided to show me some of his old beach stomping grounds. And he had plenty having raised three children he pointed out the landmarks and shared memories. Taking it all in with great interest I marveled at the spectacular beaches set against the panoramic mountainous terrain.
Whenever the stimulating conversation lulled there was always good music accompanying the spectacular visual landscapes. An avid music lover it was Jon’s love for music where we first found common ground. When I paid that visit to IU it was for a Dizzy Gillespie jazz concert. Jon played drums in a band while in college and with a working knowledge of the keyboard and guitar music remains his passion. It seems there is a perpetual soundtrack to his life.
The Spring of our senior year he took me to see the now classic Monterey Pop movie at DC’s old Biograph Theater in Georgetown. The film has since served as my survey course Rock and Roll 101 introducing Jimmie Hendrix, Janis Joplin and a whole host of other greats from that era. I in turn took Jon to see Paul Carter Harrison’s Tabernacle performed by the Howard University players at the Ira Aldridge Theater. He was so taken with the Jazz and Gospel musical ensemble we returned 2 more times. We still talk about those shared experiences with the same enthusiasm. Sports, politics, current affairs, such was the conversation on the road that day filled with what other life experiences we had to share over our forty five year absence from one another’s lives.
So caught in recounting the times of our lives we neglected to consider dinner and accommodations. Ordinarily I plot out my travels but Jon flies by the seat of his pants making this excursion all the more adventurous. It’s not my style, but I love the way he rolls. By sun down we reached Zappallar, a picturesque coastal town with beautiful beaches that sits on the wooded hillsides running down from the steeply forested coastal mountains. During the high season it’s a favorite summer destination for Santiago’s wealthy. For me it was déjà vu, from out of the past that trip to the beach.
It was late April and well into Chile’s autumn. We were turned away from the popular restaurants that serviced the high season crowds either because they were closed or hosting private events. Hungry and ready for sleep we stumbled upon the Restobar Zappallar, an inexpensive café where we enjoyed delicious beef sandwiches fries and beers. With our appetites taken care of next we needed rest. Jon inquired of the Restobar proprietor who suggested a place around the corner. The great thing about traveling without spouses or kids we could afford to be less discriminating. Jon managed to find us rooms at a place he initially called a dirt bag. I thought it was anything but. Although we couldn’t get the cable TV with the antennae to work it was clean and comfortable sans towels but that was just fine. This establishment displayed no name so I dubbed it Zappallar Arms with 3 stars. I would return with my own towel if necessary. To start our journey back we breakfasted around the corner in a far from luxurious working class neighborhood café enjoying cold biscuits and eggs washed down with a cup of tasty Nescafe. It was all so satisfying.
Two journeys to the beach 45 years a part, where in the latter I found my lost friend much the same, except his hair is white and thinner, waist a little thicker, but otherwise little has changed. My friendship with Jon was extraordinary from the beginning. He is white and I am Black. It was the 60s and the Fairfax County School system was still evolving from segregation. None of which made any difference to us on a personal level. Nevertheless, but for that change we may have had less fulfilling life experiences.
Jon is still opening doors to new experiences for me, and hoping to reciprocate I thank whatever powers that be for bringing us back together again. It was through traveling to a foreign place I rediscovered and reestablished an old enduring friendship. Just saying.