The city of Valparaíso has gone duck-crazy. A week before the arrival of our enormous yellow visitor I read the newspaper headlines and laughed, “The Worlds Largest Duck to Arrive in October.” My host mom Emma and her longtime friend and roommate Raul chuckled at the idea of the duck around the dinner table as we ceremoniously enjoyed our post-dinner snack, “once.” I think once is really just another meal that Chileans created as an excuse to eat more of there beloved bread. In fact, the average Chilean eats about 200 pounds of bread per year. That’s a lotta’ bread, Fred.
Initially, I had no interest in seeing the duck. The cynical side of me believed that the whole event was a scheme controlled by the World Duck Organization to make some green off of selling little rubber duckies and other merchandise. At school, we joked about it. We just didn’t get it. I wondered if the duck had some sort of cultural significance that I couldn’t understand as a foreigner, but I was overthinking it. Well, the more I read about it the more intrigued I became. It turns out a Dutchman named Florentijn Hofman is the creator and self-proclaimed artist who created “Rubber Duck”. Hofman claims that the goal behind his art is to bring a simple childlike joy and healing to all who experience it. I can get behind that. He seems like a decent guy. Still, the duck had me confused and feeling old. Was it art? Was it a statement? Or was it just a giant inflatable rubber ducky? The duck was to be in Valparaíso’s port for 4 days in October. I miraculously managed to make it till the late morning of the 4th day without giving in and joining the loons (yes, that was a duck joke) but finally I threw caution to the wind and went down to the port.
This day in early October, with summer just beyond the horizon, maybe the peek of my travel bewilderment and hilarity. Here I am, a 21-year-old man wandering around the city with binoculars hanging from my neck asking the locals, “so how do I find the duck?” I knew I was getting close because I began to see children playing with rubber duckies and parents wearing yellow hats with the silhouette of a duck. Valparaíso’s curvy streets are packed full of vendors who yell and sing through megaphones to slang whatever they happen to slanging. Today, they were slanging “patos,” and lots of them.
The port had all the ambiance and joy of the Iowa State Fair. There were clowns and performers, fried foods, carnival music and games. There were huge crowds, parents with their kids on their shoulders, and smiley elderly couples who clearly hadn’t left the house in a good while, but there was no duck in sight. Perhaps the only thing more baffling to me than the duck itself is that thousands and thousands of cognizant human beings showed up to see it, and they seemed to be enjoying it. The kids were overjoyed with ice cream and new toys. Most parents seemed cheerful too, if not by the duck itself by the happiness of their kids. But I was on a mission and I didn’t have time to sit down and enjoy an ice cream, I still hadn’t spotted the duck. So with churro in hand, I ditched the crowd and climbed to the top of a nearby parking unit but still couldn’t find that elusive yellow friend. For a moment I thought, “Is this what it feels like to go crazy,” and then quickly moved on to a better vantage point. I never saw it.
Defeated, a little lonely amongst loads of families, and slightly sunburned I sat down for a cold drink. It was an especially hot and cloudless day so it felt great to get off my feet and sink into the red plastic chair. The owner of the little shop was a sweet elderly lady who was helping 3 Filipino tourists hail a taxi when I arrived, which is not a simple task in Valparaíso. The owner and I got to talking as she brought the ice cold drink and a much-needed ice cream. She smiled and told me that the duck was great for her little business. The last couple of days had brought her lots of money and happiness. Finally, I asked her, “So how can I actually see the duck with my own eyes,” to which she responded with something along the lines of, “Oh, sweetie, the duck left hours ago.” We both laughed for a little bit too long.
As travelers, we are presented with unlimited opportunities to learn on a daily basis . Whether it’s through a fulfilling conversation with somebody who you thought you might have nothing in common with or an afternoon spent in the busy plaza sipping tea and watching the city move, there is always some nuance to be found. The duck still comes up at the dinner table as we eat our bread. I think back to my day spent hunting down the giant inflatable duck and laugh. That was one of the best days I’ve had in Valparaíso. Sometimes we all need a giant inflatable reminder of what it means to be happy.
Jacob Levy is a Spanish major at the University of Iowa. Jacob will be spending his semester in Chile on the CIEE Valparaíso Liberal Arts Program.
Student blog entries posted to this International Accents page may not reflect the opinions and recommendations of UI Study Abroad and International Programs. The blog is intended to give students a forum for free expression of thoughts and experiences abroad in a respectful space.