My Chilean colleague greeted me at the airport in Santiago.
"I've made all the arrangements," he said. "We leave early tomorrow for Balmaceda."
"What! We're going south?" I was stunned. "There must be some mistake. I was told in Washington that we were going to the northern desert."
"No, no," he explained, flatly. "We're headed south, to Balmaceda."
"But I only brought tropical weight clothing." I mentally scanned my suitcase filled with light weight clothes. "Balmaceda is cold."
"Yes," he said. "That is true. Very cold. Weather forecast is frigid temperatures, some wind, too." He saw my blanch. "But no snow." He smiled.
I stared at him. I had worked often as a consultant out of Washington, DC on international development projects. Preparations were usually meticulous and worked out well in advance. My Chilean counterpart and I were to rendezvous and head for the Atacama Desert to assess prospects for local economic development. The north is hot or mostly warm. Instead, we were to head south near the glaciers. Chile is a long string bean of a country stretching from the perennial warm climes in the north more than 2,600 miles to frigid regions of the south, well into the Arctic Circle.
"And we leave tomorrow morning, early," he said. "Our flight departs at seven a.m."
Oh great. No time to straighten things out, and no time to even buy new clothes.
The next morning at six we are at the airport ready to board. Passengers milled around in parkas and heavy coats. I stood there in a tropical weight, looking like a Toucan in the Arctic. I wore two t-shirts and two business shirts, but my tan tropical weight looked stunningly out of place.
A few hours later we landed at Balmaceda in the shadow of the Andes. At the exit door of the fuselage, I poked my head into the cold air and was bitten by a stiff wind. I hurried into the primitive terminal, more to gain relief from the blowing than to retrieve my bag. The wind followed me in and swirled about in tiny cyclones in the bare corners of the barren building. Bag retrieved, I retreated deeper into the building and finally found refuge in the men's room. Even there, the muted howling sound of the wind followed me like a menacing assassin singing a dirge.
Opening my bag, I pulled out the only garment that could save me from the relentless wind. It was a lightweight bodysuit meant for scuba diving. This I brought in anticipation of a rendezvous with my wife in the Galapagos Islands after my assignment in Chile.
It took me at least a half an hour to undress in the tiny stall and squeeze into the body suit. I pulled on my tan business attire over the neoprene and walked out into the terminal to meet my colleague. I felt a little like the Michelin Man or somebody in traction, arms all lifted out and puffed up.
"What happened?" My colleague asked.
"Extra undies," I explained. "You know, for warmth."
"Macanudo," he said, meaning roughly, 'terrific, cool.' He was an economist of few words.
I had to make small efforts to keep my arms close to my body as we shuffled to the taxi queue. People stared a little uncomfortably. This hatless stranger was obviously out of his element. But the suit was holding up, doing its job. Though the wind was undiminished, the biting cold was not cutting through my neoprene armor.
Stepping out to hail a taxi was the next test. Still no bite, at least on the torso. My nose and ears began to stiffen up. I thought that's how they must feel just before frostbite sets in. But the rest of me was OK. I began to feel if not like Superman, then at least protected. I strode out into the cab pick-up area with my partner, a burgeoning new confidence in my walk. I relaxed my efforts to hold my arms in, now impervious to the wind and cold.
A couple hours later we started the first meeting with our counterparts, three regional officials from the province. We sat huddled around a simple wooden table. An iron wood-burning stove labored ineffectively in the corner. Our Chilean hosts were cloaked in heavy woolen coats, our hands cupped around warm coffee, our breath floating out into the air, tracing our abbreviated sentences before drifting up to the rafters.
"Excuse me, sir, but are you comfortable?" The leader said. "It's a little nippy in here," he added in a lavish understatement.
"No, no. I'm fine, really." They looked at my tropical weight tan suit, and then at one another, some with slightly tilted heads or raised eyebrows.
"No need to fall back on formalities," he said.
"Perhaps you wish to be polite, but we are used to having to work in the cold, and maybe you are not." Another chimed in. "We do have some woolen blankets, if you wish."
"Oh, thank you. But I'm quite comfortable, really." I wrapped my hands around my cup of steaming coffee. An awkward silence fell over the room. One in the Chilean team mumbled something. The two others looked at each other as if to say "OK, the guy wants to be macho, let him."
Our conversation was clipped and efficient, as if by cutting our words to a minimum, we might keep the cold at bay. An orderly entered the room for the umpteenth time, circulating fresh cups of hot coffee. We all swapped out our cups for more.
After my fifth or sixth cup, I began to feel an internal pressure and excused myself for the men's room. Then I discovered I had a problem. I peeled off the tropical suit but discovered I couldn't reach the zipper in the back of my diving gear. I could barely turn around in the tiny stall. My neoprene weather shield had become a strait jacket. It took me twenty minutes to wriggle out of the damn suit. After relieving myself, it took another fifteen minutes to get dressed again and back into the meeting. My hosts met me with inquisitive expressions. Was I sick? Was I OK? Did I need something, perhaps some hot soup?
My partner stepped in. "Looks like you're OK, no?" half inviting me to explain the mystery, perhaps frozen pipes or something. Questioning looks hung on the faces of the others.
"No, no. I'm fine," I said, lifting my voice in a kind of cheerful rally, attempting to steer them away from their concerns. "High tech," I said, lifting my collar and pointing inside. They stared at me. "Undergarment -- for cold weather." They nodded, reluctantly, exchanging more puzzled looks with one another.
That night the stars shone like searchlights. We walked the short distance from our hotel to the town square. The temperature had dropped abruptly, well below freezing. But my hidden armor was still holding up. I strode chest-first out into the dark, frigid night. At least the wind had died. The Andes towered above us. The few people in the public square thought maybe I had too much to drink, or not enough. They stopped and gazed at me in my tropical lightweight.
Thankfully, the weather turned a little more accommodating for the balance of my mission work in Balmaceda, and anyway, I found some bulky woolens at local stores. After many interviews and much discussion, we could understand the military's rationale for keeping a presence in tiny Balmaceda, but the government was going to be hard-put to stage an economic upsurge in the god-forsaken place.
A week later I rendezvoused with my spouse in Quito and caught an Ecuadorian Navy plane to the Galapagos.
By then, I had grown quite fond of my neoprene savior from the wintry winds of Balmaceda. In my first water outing near Daphne Major, a small island in the Galapagos, I thought it would be fun to celebrate, to balance out the ledger in the great equations of outdoor apparel. But I couldn't get that tropical-weight suit underneath the neoprene, to reverse the components, as it were. That just wasn't going to work. Instead, I shed the neoprene and took to snorkeling in my tropical-weight suit coat. It was a little awkward, and the other tourists were as puzzled as the Chileans. But I was an ineluctable draw for the fur seals, which would circle around repeatedly for another look.