Strings of red and green lights dangled over the street as I hurried toward church. A life-sized Nativity scene decorated downtown, and English music about snowmen and sleighs blared from speakers nearby. I found that hilarious, considering the temperature smoldered at 90 degrees here in Chile. Sweaty shoppers swarmed the sidewalks, some loaded with packages and others barehanded except for drippy ice cream cones.
I spotted the two orange vans waiting at the curb. Boxes of food and donated clothing were overflowing from the back. I handed my duffle and sleeping bag to the driver, then crammed into the only available seat with my best friend, Manuel, and two other kids, giving a whole new definition to the word close.
“Just think, Eva,” Manuel whispered. “If our church had donated three more boxes, we’d have to ride on the roof.”
As if on cue, Mrs. Clayton squeezed into the front seat, balancing yet another box on her lap. “It’s a 10-hour trip from Quilpué to Dichato,” she said. “So let’s get going.”
As we pulled out of the city, I leaned over to Manuel. “Have you ever been to Dichato?”
“Not since the quake. I hear they felt it 10 times worse down there.”
Many of the coastal towns in the south had been torn to pieces, not only by the earthquake but also the tsunami. For months, Chileans had worked to rebuild, raising billions of pesos for those in need. My church sent supplies down every few weeks, and this time they were dragging the youth group along.
“I don’t get why they needed us to come,” I admitted to Manuel. “Wouldn’t it be easier to ship the boxes?”
“Come on, amiga, it’s two days till Nochebuena,” Manuel said. “Where’s your Christmas spirit?”
I shrugged and reached for my iPod. Coming on this trip wasn’t my idea. My mom made me go.
“Can you imagine losing everything and then celebrating Christmas with nothing?” she had asked. I couldn’t imagine it—at least, I didn’t want to. Besides, “nothing” had to be an exaggeration. We’d sent food, clothing and school supplies for 10 months; that had to make a difference, right?
About halfway through my “road trip” playlist, I drifted off.
I woke up as the vans crawled up a bumpy road toward a sea of wooden houses with slanted roofs. Even in the dark, Mrs. Clayton’s face beamed. “We’re here.”
We’re where? Dichato is—was—famous for tourism. But I saw only shacks and debris. How can it still be this bad? I wondered.
While Mrs. Clayton exchanged hugs with our hosts, we piled out of the vehicles. Everyone collected backpacks and sleeping bags. Except me. I tugged the driver’s sleeve. “Where’s my stuff?”
He searched the rack and shrugged. “Nothing else here. Must’ve gotten left behind—or fallen off.”
“It’ll be fine, Eva,” Mrs. Clayton said, a little too confidently. After all, she wasn’t the one who had just lost everything.
I stood there, wishing I’d worn a cuter shirt that morning, as a girl about my age greeted me with the customary kiss on the cheek. “I’m Carolina. Come on. You’re staying with us tonight.”
She took off into the night. Following her proved to be a challenge. Rocks jutted through the sandy path, making it hard to keep my balance.
When we reached the house, I didn’t notice the plywood walls or the holes in the ceiling. What caught my attention was the scrawny artificial tree in the corner. Even in a place like this, it couldn’t be Christmas without a tree.
“Maybe you’d like something to eat?” Carolina asked hopefully. “Mamá makes the best homemade bread.”
Southern Chileans are known for their hospitality, and I didn’t want to risk offending her. “Sure,” I said, still wondering where my luggage went.
She was right; the bread was amazing. Between bites, I tried to think of something to say. Tell me about the tsunami. No, that would be weird. “What do you miss most?” I asked.
Her mouth twisted to one side. “My stuffed animals, my pictures, my music. The personal stuff you can’t get back.
“When the earthquake hit, it tossed our house around like a feather,” Carolina continued, wincing at the memory. “I woke up to glass shattering around me. My family grabbed a few things, got out of the house and ran up these hills. Then the waves came and swallowed the town—our house, the restaurant, everything.”
Wow. I was not ready for that.
I lay awake for hours that night, thinking about the trip and Carolina and wondering what I was doing here.
Morning light stabbed through the window. I sat up and realized there was a stack of neatly folded clothes on the end of my bed. Carolina peeked through threadbare curtains into the room.
“Hope these clothes fit OK,” she said. “The restroom is three houses down. If you go now, you’ll beat the morning crowd.”
I jumped up, grabbed the clothes and bolted for the door. With no shower and no toothbrush, it didn’t take long to get ready.
After breakfast, we made our way toward the beach. About a block from the shore, we stopped in front of two crumbling cement walls. “This was our house.” Carolina pointed at a plot of sand. “And right there stood our restaurant.”
I tried to picture her life before the tsunami: going to school, helping her parents in the restaurant, playing on the beach. It’s like she was a different person then. I wanted to bring the old Carolina back, to somehow give her a few minutes of normal.
I reached for my iPod and pulled up one of my favorites. Carolina must have recognized it, because she started to hum the chorus even before I could give her my earbuds. We stayed there all morning, listening to every cheesy pop song I owned. I couldn’t tell if she was going to laugh or cry.
When we got back to camp, we saw Mrs. Clayton pulling boxes out of the van.
“Eva, how about you and Carolina carry a couple of these to her place.”
As we stacked the cans and dry goods in the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice there was less here than I had thought. With so many people still in the camp, two vanloads could only go so far. What if they had to stay here another 10 months?
Carolina’s mamá walked in as we finished. She kept insisting it was “too much, too much,” and that only made me feel worse. My mom brought home more than this every time she shopped at the grocery store.
All of a sudden, it was time to say goodbye. “How much longer do you think you’ll be here?” I had to ask.
Carolina shrugged. “Until Papá can find work.”
I bit my lip and looked down, only to realize what I was wearing. “Whoa! Sorry, I almost walked off with your clothes.”
A dimple formed in her cheek. “Keep them. They’re yours.”
“Please,” she insisted. “You have no idea how good it feels for me to help somebody else.”
This wasn’t right; I was supposed to be serving her. I tried to give her my iPod, but she just laughed. “How would I recharge the battery? Besides, I know how important it is to you.”
“All the more reason.”
She shook her head, kissed me on the cheek and walked away, waving at me.
God Wanted More
Everybody had room to spread out on the way home. Manuel lay in the back seat, sunburned and snoring. His trip must have been very different, because I couldn’t sleep at all. I sat by the window and stared at the mountains, so much greener than they were in the north.
Two days ago, I didn’t understand why we needed to go to Dichato. We could have shipped the food and clothes, but God wanted more. He wanted me to meet Carolina. He wanted me to see that scrawny Christmas tree, taste her mamá’s bread and listen to music together on the beach. Now that we were friends, I could never let her go hungry again.
We pulled into Quilpué just after midnight. On every street, we saw families gathering to celebrate Nochebuena. The air filled with delicious smells and a dozen different Christmas carols clashed around us.
“Feliz Navidad, Carolina,” I whispered. “See you soon.”
What Is Nochebuena?
Nochebuena is a special celebration that takes place every year on Christmas Eve. After church, families in Chile gather together and share a huge dinner. They make special dishes to celebrate Christ’s birth, such as roasted turkey, papas duquesas or green bean and tomato salad. Everybody opens presents and sings Christmas carols. Since it’s summertime, many people spend the night outside, talking with their friends and showing off the new gifts they received.