The Chilean Miner
The 80’s music that constantly stifled the air in Rodrigo’s apartment seemed to echo in my ear as I walked out from Arica. Out on the pavement, my shoes and legs blasted by wisps of sand blown across the road, I walked. Down along the way into the unknown went the road, a dark river curving into the light-colored hills.
It wasn’t long before a private car stopped. The driver didn’t miss a beat as he got out and popped the trunk. My suspicions of taxi were unfounded as he informed me that he too hitched south once. A private car it was; after months of truck hitching in Peru, I was in a place that toted plata, and hence many more private rides.
The driver gave me half of his chicken sandwich and we sped off into the hills. The desert is a big place, and Arica was just the beginning. Behind I left a short pleasant town not want for the Chilean version of Gypsies (who tried to defraud me once walking from Rodrigo’s house), and before me I had the grand Atacama Desert, the world’s driest.
The young driver sped at unnecessary speeds to 257 kilometers out. I was let out at the crossroads to Iquique, a coastal city, but I would be heading south in the pampa to the famed area around San Pedro de Atacama. Geysers, moonscapes and stars.
A quick ride brought me the rest of the way into Pozos Almontes, the next town. How pleasant, the wood frame shading the sidewalks. At the other side of town the sparse shade would have to suffice for the wait.
On my map the terrain was brown at the bend in South America’s western bulk. From the Peru-Ecuador border at Tumbes, the brown bend slid down the Peruvian coast and into Chile. It stretched all the way to just north of Santiago. For me the desert is a lot like the tropical San Blas islands in the sense that the locales are spectacular, for a time. Eventually I will crave trees, grass and obvious seasons.
I began to walk out of Pozos Almontes when a car sped by. I’d thrown my thumb out in time for the driver to catch a glimpse. He pulled over. Inside I met Claudio, a Chilean version of a member of my father’s hockey team, Steve. For those unfamiliar with Steve, he’s shorter and has a somewhat square face. And if the Chicagan’s pronunciation of “A” had a Chilean equivalent, Claudio could mouth it for you.
“You’re not Chilean?” he asked after I’d introduced myself.
“Nope. From Chicago.”
“Ah, American. What are you doing around here?” he asked.
“I’m going to Calama, and to the, that San Pedro town.”
He told me that it was a lovely little town. I knew it was a tourist hotspot, but I didn’t mind. “It’s lindo,” he said.
After the usual back and forth, we talked about Chile, the War of the Pacific, and about my travels.
“I’m a vagabundo,” I told him.
“No, you’re not a vagabundo, you’re a trotamundo.”
I knew that vagabundo in Spanish had connotations closer to homeless than vagabond, but I never kicked the habit. Claudio assured me I was a globetrotter.
“I’m an engineer in the mines,” Claudio said. “6 years it took me to get my diploma. Did you study something before?” His thin eyes peered at me with curiosity. The road was smooth and the sun beamed through the window onto my bare arm. I hoped it wasn’t burning my skin.
“I studied French, some linguistics, international stuff,” I replied.
“Ah very good, very good.”
“I don’t have any kind of profession though. Not like you. Sometimes I regret having studied what I did, but then again maybe if it had been different I would never have decided to travel like I am.”
“What you’re doing is very important,” he replied. “You are learning not only about culture, but you’re building for yourself your own culture.” I was a bit surprised. “You take back what you learn or see here, and you tell others. Maybe they don’t have the time.”
I looked at him. “I always say time is the one thing I do have.”
The road leveled out and we were on a vast plain speeding by cracked earth. “Looks thirsty.” “Ah the desert, it’s very dry here you know, driest place on earth.”
I sighed at the sight. “Well I suppose sometimes I feel like I’m losing time. I met a Swiss carpenter once who told me he felt that way.”
“What do you mean?” Claudio asked.
“Everyone I know is in their job, or studying to get more credentials to get a job later. On top of a shitty economy, every job has these minimum requirements. Years. Two years’ experience minimum in this or that.”
“I see. But Chael, you’re not losing time. What you’re doing is very important. Don’t convince yourself otherwise.” Claudio’s words were reassuring.
“I suppose I’ll have to depend on my own informal sector.”
We passed by long flattened hills in the distance.
“Those are called tortas, they’re the old leftover rock and sand after a mining operation. Most of these places are abandoned.”
“No one lives there now?”
“Just the tortas and abandoned houses.”
I saw a few walled cemeteries off the road. They looked prickly, with dozens of crosses. “So what happened?”
Claudio looked at me. “You know, I’ve never been to one of these places. They’re national heritage now. No one can touch them, but we can go in I think.” He pulled off the highway and onto a long dirt road that led to the base of one torta. He stopped at the nearby cemetery.
“Wow,” I blurted out as we exited his car. Over the adobe brick wall the spiky hallowed ground rested. We found the entrance and walked in among the scene. The crosses were a dark crinkled wood, and the ancient rusted nails barely held the crossbars to the principles.
“There are a lot aren’t there?” Claudio said.
“How old are these graves? They’re so old!”
“19th century. Chilean patrimony; these places are protected. There’s a lot of respect. Look there.” Claudio pointed to an above-ground tomb that had collapsed on one side. Someone had hauled out the wood coffin and pried open the cover. I stepped close and peered in. A stained skeleton was all that was left of a decayed corpse. That was a person, I thought, somewhat Pedro-ly.
The graveyard was compact, graves rubbing shoulders with graves. Corroding metal gates surrounded some, and some where unmarked humps. Claudio took a few pictures and then we left.
We decided to drive up to the abandoned town and torta.
“These places are called salitreras, because they used to mine salitre here. Sometime in the early twentieth century Europe came up with a cheaper, synthetic form of the stuff and these mines went bankrupt.”
We walked in the town, the vestiges of communal housing built with massive adobe bricks crumbling all around. The ground was littered with age-old cans long since rusted out, clothes and shoes from another world, a world of horse carriages and ladyhood.
“Treasure hunters are forbidden here. That’s why there are so many little artifacts. Like that can by your foot, that’s a sardine can, early 20th century,” Claudio informed me.
The factory where they once processed the salitre was also adobe.
“Best not go in there,” Claudio warned.
We looked down over an old building from a small incline. There were what seemed to be open pit graves. A chill shot down my spine.
“What are those graves doing there?”
“Ah yes, those are from the Pinochet years. You know Pinochet?”
“Yes the Chilean dictator,” I replied.
“He did a lot of good stuff, but where he screwed up was when he started killing people. Those graves were unmarked. The military shot a lot of folks out here, buried them in unmarked graves like these.”
“Shit,” I said.
“Yes. The communists had this land before. Pinochet took it and shot the communists. Actually a relative of his still owns all of this, and all the mines where I work too. There’s a more recent abandoned town down the road where he kept political prisoners. He mined the surrounds so they couldn’t escape. Tortured them all.”
“The extremes are never correct. Right or left, or what have you, extremists are all horrible,” I offered.
“Well, shall we?”
Back on the highway we drove passed dozens more tortas and abandoned 19th or early 20th century mining towns. Each site seemed to come with its graveyard. A lot of people have died out here. What worlds, what lives they must have had. What memories, left un-etched in the blowing rock. It was terrifying and exciting at once, a whole scene frozen in time, slowly deteriorated by the unavoidable rot and rumble of the desert scorn.
“So you’re going to Calama?”
“Yea, gotta see the stars.”
“I will tell you something,” he said. “I’m a boss. My brother and I have four companies that we run.”
“4? Why not just one?”
“Taxes here in Chile are too high. So, we have four companies to pay fewer taxes.”
“Sounds like a lot of work,” I said.
“Yea well, where there’s money, there’s money. Anyway, I’m going to Maria Elena. It’s a mining town. Have you ever been to a mining town?”
I though hard, “I think so.”
“Not like this one you haven’t. The whole town is owned by Pinochet’s relative’s company Soquimish. The whole darn desert here, can you believe it? Anyway, the town is Soquimish, so normally you might not be able to get in and wander around. But I’m a boss… why not come spend a night there, and then tomorrow you go to Antofagasta with a worker of mine, and the next day we go to Iquique. You told me you didn’t see Iquique, that’s a shame.”
A beginner hitchhiker usually has the rule to not to go with their stranger ride anywhere off-course. The experienced hitchhiker has his fingers crossed for chances like these. “Ok, sounds great. Maria Elena and then Iquique,” I said.
“Good. You’re going to see real Chilean miners, a good mining town… Chilean hospitality. I’m just warning you it’s very bizarre for this to happen here in the north. They’re more carinoso in the south. But I like what you’re doing, and I want to share.”
Claudio told me that I would not be allowed to pay for a thing. He asked only that I pay it forward one day to someone else. I agreed. I owe a lot to the road.
Maria Elena is about 10 kilometers off the main highway. Claudio enthusiastically pointed out the great mineworks in the distance. We entered Maria Elena then, and drove toward his house. He had three there.
The town was filled with long blocks of integrated housing. Claudio had told me that the whole municipality was another Chilean National Heritage site, and that no structure could be altered. “This is the only surviving salitrera town, because they found other minerals nearby,” he had said.
The houses were all one-story and made of wood. A 5 foot awning hung out over the facades to protect walkers from the brutal sun, which hung in the sky unwilling to depart until the horizon would finally claim darkness.
At the central plaza I saw breathy trees and a church cracked from numerous earthquakes. Dozens of miners walked in packs, their bright orange jumpsuits or yellow vests and citric hardhats glistening in that high sun. There was also a music stage being constructed.
“Ah yes,” said Claudio, “there’s going to be some sort of concert tomorrow night. You know it’s a long weekend here in Chile, Monday and Tuesday are holidays.”
“I don’t know.”
We parked in front of one of the three houses Claudio’s company owned. It was also one-story, and a small gate wrapped around the struggling grass in front. The town ended here, and piles of rock from mining operations past dotted the beyond. Inside I met Floridor, the 49 year old administrator, Claudia, one of the workers, and Paola, Claudio’s girlfriend. They kissed hello.
“This is Chael. He’s going to stay with us and then come to Iquique.”
I watched Paola’s surprised reaction, and there was a good deal of reserve in her eyes as she smiled with a mouth full of braces, but she agreed. I went with Claudia to walk around the town, to see the market of weathered wooden rafters and gape at the prices for Caterpillar model heavy machinery.
In the evening I went with the crew to a local restaurant. There was no one in this town who was not a miner. All the scruffy faces glanced up from their soups at this stranger walking in through the screen door. I could almost hear the food drip from mustaches and beards back into the bowls. This was not the first time I’d eaten with workers. In Mexico, just east of Mazatlan, I’d been picked up by a construction boss. Everyone in that restaurant had thought I was a Swiss engineer and headman.
Our server was a very large young man with a tight shirt, long hair and a high girly voice. The irony of this character’s working in a world of macho miners was not lost on me. I wondered what kinds of things he wanted out of life.
We ate meat and potatoes and I struggled to follow the conversation. Chilean Spanish, say the Chileans, is bad. Linguists say there is no bad spoken language, and I tend to agree; although, my ear for Chilean at this point is indeed bad. Letters are dropped, the linking patterns as well as stress patterns change, and it’s rather sing-songy, like a cut rhythm bursting forth after being delayed slightly. The ‘-as’ ending of verbs conjugated with the second-person subject pronoun ‘tu’ is always pronounced “a-ee” and the ‘-es’ ending pronounced “ee”, which was more than a little confusing. Chileans are always saying “cachai” within utterances, a lot like Americans say “you know”. Not to mention the addition of the strange word “po” at the end of every sentence (like the Peruvian “pe” or “pes”). My only reprieve is to share in what I’ve decided is a uniquely Chilean boisterous laugh.
After the meal, outside I stared at the horizon. In the east it was black and sprinkled with stars, while the west glowed a resistant yellow fading skyward into blue. At the house I laid out my thermarest and fell to sleep.
5:00 am showed up suddenly. I woke, left my things in the corner, and went with Floridor and Enrique, another worker, in their truck. The mining trucks Claudio prefers are the cheaper Mahindra Indian version, called “pik-ups” and spelled thusly. All the pick-ups in town have, in addition to a roll bar, a tall mast with a signal flag and light that marks their position for the giant ore haulers to avoid crushing them. When they’re not in the mining area, the flags are bent over into the bed.
We went to the casino, as the miners here call their mess hall. The ceiling was high. It was like being in a school lunch line again, my metal tray filled by a second party. I ate wet scrambled eggs and toast, all the eyes rapping at my back. I didn’t mind any.
We drove to Antofagasta in 3 hours. The desert was much of the same until we arrived to the decline toward the city. The sky was suddenly coastal gray, a thick haze clinging to the sloping hills. We entered Antofagasta. The pair had plenty to do. When Floridor was running to and fro, Enrique was doing his version of a Spanish accent for me. We drove everywhere in that blasted city, through the tall streets of concrete and bustle, from heavy machinery showrooms to the modern seaside mall, from municipal government buildings to the fish market.
I ate an otherwise 8 dollar meal (4,000 pesos) with the guys, if not already paid for by Claudio. A giant fried fish and guacamole potato salad, coke to wash it down. The bread on the side is called ayuya and soaks up liquid magnificently. We got the meal at the “Terminal Pesquero” where greasy gruff hands chopped heads and fins in a delectable display of market fresh. The only thing missing was a chantey.
Floridor and Enrique taught me that “polola” means girlfriend. There goes my mind, back to Lima again, I thought. They taught me that “mina”, besides meaning m’ine ‘, also means a hot girl. Lima. They taught me that “filete” and “la roja” mean cool. I listened to the guys argue, Floridor a boss and Enrique his underling. Hmm, their ‘tr’ consonant cluster they pronounce just as we do in English.
In the evening we arrived back in Maria Elena. A quick meal among the hordes of miners, a brief shower at the house, and then I went out with Floridor, Enrique, Claudia, and a few other of Claudio’s employees to catch the concert.
The plaza was filled with about a thousand miners and their families. On the stage we watched an opening act from Antofagasta, a woman singing from her seat on a cajon box drum, and a large-set man raking guitar strings. Then came the vice president of Soquimish to introduce the next act.
Desert air chills, spending the night missing the day. It tickles your skin.
“I am very happy to bring to you a reunion of two great musical contributions. The first comes to us from our northern neighbor Peru.” I thought briefly about the War of the Pacific, which Claudio had explained to me was fought because Peru raised taxes on the Chilean salitreras in Peruvian territory, and so Chile took that land flat out. “Please give a warm welcome to the lovely Eva Ayllon.”
I didn’t recognize her, but I knew her name from somewhere. She was a bulging powerhouse of a vocal artist. She came to the stage and sang her songs with great resonance from the crowd, and I knew immediately where I’d heard her music. It was from the Cholo Soy album that I listened to at so many occasions with Mayra. The music was following me…
The singer bellowed out the line, “me pagaste mal, sabiendo que te amaba! You hurt me, knowing that I loved you!” Air tickled around my neck as a shiver of memory frizzled down my spine, and my chest felt dozens of stories. As though in a trance, I was back in Lima, back on the 24B, heading to her apartment. She opened the door and peered out at me from the other side with those milk chocolate eyes. We would lock the door behind us.
A group of Maria Elena teens strolled by, the girls’ saturating perfume snapping me out of the pleasant memory. The guys were dressed like American gangstas. If anything counts as globalization…
Eva Ayllon disappeared off stage and the presenter introduced the main act, Illapu. The members were older and had long hair. Later I would learn with little surprise because of the high quality of their performance that they were the country’s flagship ensemble of traditional Chilean music. They had spent much of their lives exiled in Europe during the Pinochet years. Their harmonizing was beautiful. (Pops-buy one of their CDs, the one with the linked song on it).
We spent one more day in Maria Elena, because Claudio had some extra work to attend to. I slept in on my mat. When I woke I went to the restaurant as Claudio had instructed and ate a meal on the company’s tab. In the main plaza I drew the church, and drew a crowd. One miner was drunk and lay on the ground in front of me. His friend insisted I draw him. The crowd of 10 or so miners gathered around to watch, the florescent stripes on their vests reflecting the light across my lap. Their hands were all mammoth calloused claws.
Back at the house I spent the day alone watching movies and the news. Students nationwide had been protesting for months. In Arica I saw schools with chairs and desks jammed into the perimeter fencing. In Antofagasta the same.
Also in the news was police brutality, and fan brutality at the “Classic”, a soccer game between the two biggest soccer teams in the country, the U and Colo colo, both based in Santiago. A number had died in post-game violence. I remembered that Camilo liked to use this violence as evidence that soccer is better than other sports. Bah humbug.
We ended up leaving that night, Claudio, Paola and me in Claudio’s white sedan. Maria Elena was behind us. The miner’s town is a machine, each pick-up truck and each individual orange-clad miner a functional piece of the mechanics. It is where it all begins. Sometimes in the over-developed world we forget that all the gadgets, buildings and infrastructure come from raw material threaded throughout the rock of the earth. It has to be dug up, put through a chemical process that involves clean water becoming dirty water, and then shipped to some other part of the world for processing. Then it’s sold to some company that specializes in some other manner of processing. Then another, and another, until finally the end result is a tiny piece in your iPod that lets you listen to Fall Out Boy or some other bullshit band. Or maybe you like Vivaldi.
We drove down the winding road to the coastal highway, and from there sped northward back to Iquique. Claudio’s house was a large one, stuck to the sides of his neighbors’ homes. His parents were his neighbors. His brother lived across the street. So it goes.
“Families in Latin America are very close,” I said.
“It’s that here family is more important than in the States,” replied Claudio. “There, love is cold.”
“Well now wait a minute. It’s not cold. It’s different. We are more independent, is the positive way to put it. But yea, families here stick together.” Maybe being apart from loved ones make you appreciate them all the more, I thought. I’ve thought that many times.
That night we ate dinner with Claudio’s parents. His father was a short man frail with age, but stone hard of character. Claudio introduced me to everyone as his gringo trotamundo. We ate steak and lentils.
“What do you think of Chilean cuisine?” Claudio asked. Paolo and his parents glanced at me.
“It’s good,” I said. “But I do love Peruvian ceviche,” I said, testing their resolve.
Everyone agreed. Claudio said Chileans don’t like to cook. He said they want it fast and simple. I suppose that’s fine by me.
I slept in a warm bed in the guest room. There was stuff, things, all over the house. I met Claudio’s 18 year old son Coto, who liked to call me John. He had thin eyes as well, and was a quiet person. He was also very large. In his room there was a flat screen TV. There were two more flat screens on the first floor, one in front of the kitchen and workout room, and one in front of black leather furniture. The garage housed a Mercedes-Benz sports car, and upstairs Claudio showed me his sauna. The family had money; that much was made very clear.
The next day I drove around with Claudio and his son. We bought several bedframes, Claudio visited the bank, and I drank three cups of hot chocolate in the car dealership showroom as they bought two more Mahindra pik-ups.
Iquique is a mining jewel on the shores of the Pacific. The coastal range of dune rock scoots up close to the water, giving Iquique a slope to crawl up. The sun shines year-round here, reflecting off the high-rises and glistening off the water. The mines have brought obvious fortune to the city, but it is not without its delights. The city spans out in many directions, but its heritage is guarded in the colorful wooden buildings at its center that have survived the 19th and 20th century idea of progress.
We drove up the dune hills to fetch Claudio’s play thing; his RV, or casa rolante. It was a long weekend, so we were going to go camping. It was also Claudio’s 50th birthday that Sunday.
The next day, the RV loaded down with a ridiculous amount of things, we drove off back south down the coast. We stopped briefly at the airport to pick up Claudio’s 8 year old son just flown in from Arica, and then went to the beach spot. The shore was a rocky crag of a coastline, the resplendent waves smashing in over the boulders and caves.
We made camp on the sand near other campers. The beach curved around into the distant haze, dark spots showing where others had set up shop along the crescent. The RV was large. I wondered if this could count as hitching an RV, perhaps indirectly. With Coto, I helped set up two shade structures, unloaded the barbeque grill, and pitched my tent alongside the pick-up truck Coto had brought along.
The younger son was also named Claudio, and he was a chubby round boy with familial thin eyes and heavy breathing. He also had a cell phone, which I found peculiar. He was shy, but soon enough he was poking my head or stealing my hat. He called his grandparents, who also came along, “Nona” and “Tata.” I called mine “Granny” and “Boppa,” “Grandma” and “Grandpa.”
The day unfolded under the cloudless above. Claudio and Coto got right to it on the BBQ, or parillada. They threw big juicy slabs of meat, some as thick as a well-lived fist, over the grill, and then poured sea salt over it all. The smells were rich and warming.
In the night we built a fire and sat on tripod chairs. I drank Corona and Claudio drank rum and coke. We sat with his father and talked for hours about the War of the Pacific.
“Chileans never surrender!” exclaimed Claudio in a drunken stir.
His father’s voice had long since lost its bass, and seemed to scratch out sound waves that barely influenced the air, “That’s right, Chile has never lost a war either.”
Fire and beer and old Chilean patriots. The star-filled sky and sparkling ocean. And a bit of drunk.
We spent two nights and three days camping. The second day was marked with attempts at building sand castles. Claudio was firm with his children, suggesting to me that Chilean fathers are that way and American ones are not. I didn’t have a comment. That States are too damn big.
The sand was perfect for forming structures. Crouching to hide my bare legs from the bitter sun, I carved walls and moats, and got to thinking. The building of sand castles is awfully human. In fact, the whole beach experience seems to be an exercise in humanity. We built a sand castle, and soon a wave pounded forth and reclaimed the territory. Stubbornly, however, we continued to build, in spite of the waves and knowing that they would once again destroy our work. We did this three times instead of moving further back. We’re drawn to the water; for some reason we have to be close to the water. On the other hand, it is a challenge to coopt nature, to lure the current away from our prized castle with manworks that defy the water’s direction.
But then, no matter what we did, the water would always return. Our works always fell to ruin. All humanity will eventually fall to ruin. It is so much a truth that it hurts to appreciate buildings and cities and works of art knowing that, one day, the world will reclaim it all. Geologic time. Humanity is nothing but a hiccup in all of existence, like the millions of footprints in the sand easily washed away by a rising tide. It makes you wonder why you would fight with anyone. Or why not.
The triviality of humanity kept my interest for the day, but was superseded soon enough by the joy of shooting air guns with Coto. Cans ringing from the pellets. In the evening more friends showed up, including Claudio’s brother Raul. They got damn drunk, those vociferous laughs exploding into the night air. Raul kept impersonating Michael Jackson for me, yelling, “Aruwhoake!” We ate more slabs of grilled meat and potatoes, and drank beer.
In the morning it was Halloween. I read some of The Sound and The Fury, by Faulkner, which Sammy had given me. Then we packed up camp and hit the road back toward Iquique. I drove in Coto’s Mahindra. He seemed to enjoy loud party music. I stared out at the hooking waves, which in voiceless violence broke over the rocks. There were rocks to my right as well. Thousands of red rocks littered the sloping hill. I thought about them. They might have been here for thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands of years. Rocks laughing at the humans driving by in their vehicles, a furious one spitting as it yells, “you’re nothing! You humans are nothing but a cough in it all! I am the omniscient earth and you are temporary!” You would think civilization exists in order to exist in the future… I have seen little to convince me of this.
We unloaded the RV of all its gadgets and toys. The family seemed to forget about me as they went about their evening dealing with business or returning Claudito to the airport. I watched TV and thought about Halloween back home, once an important holiday for me, when I’d help my dad set up our haunted house. It exists here, and children rang at the door, but I did not answer. This was not my home.
The next day was Tuesday, and I lazed around the house. The family had definitely forgotten about me and my stomach felt it, but that evening I took to the road once more with Claudio and Paolo. Goodbye to Coto and the grandparents, and goodbye to Iquique. Once more down the coastal road, passed the laughing rocks, and up into the pampa again, arriving to Maria Elena in the night.
The mining town was sleepy. We built the beds they’d purchase in Iquique in one of the empty rooms of the house. I ate a plate of meat and noodles and then passed out on the new chemical-reeking bed, only thoughts of Lima filling my head.
In the morning I shaved. 9 nights had passed with the miner Claudio. In the early morning he dumped a handful of change into my pocket (15 bucks worth).
“This is for some meals. Eat a good meal a day, at least.”
“Well, thanks Claudio. Thanks for everything.”
“Don’t mention it.” He had on his hardhat and orange vest. “Floridor will come and take you to Calama. …We had some good times, didn’t we?”
“Sure did,” I said.
“Keep going. Espero que tengas un buen rumbo.”
“Gracias huevon, lo agradezco mucho,” I replied.
And like everyone else, he drove off into memory.
In Search of Stars
On the way to Calama, we passed Chuquicamata, the world’s largest copper mine and according to Floridor, its largest mine period. The torta was stacked upon itself many times, appearing like a cake of earthly must.
Calama is a miner’s town, but unlike Maria Elena, it is a city with its many sorts of professionals living there. Floridor dropped me near the center and I walked out toward the highways. I was back on track, intent on making my way to the Salar de Atacama to see some of the clearest stars from anywhere on the planet.
I passed a sign leading to Chiu Chiu, and recalled the name from reading the Nomad’s tales of the Atacama Desert. I decided to try to get to San Pedro de Atacama, the touristy place, via Chiu Chiu. I walked for a spell before deciding to first spend some of Claudio’s cash on a meal. 1500 pesos for rice and two small dried meat patties. I should miss Peru in this regard as well.
I found a piece of raw copper on the ground and added it to my bag of souvenirs. Then a pick-up pulled over and took me across the desolate plain to Chiu Chiu, about 40 minutes out.
The town made me feel tall, with its short mud brick houses rising in height to no more than 7 feet. The plaza pleased me, its resident birds’ unobtrusive call a veritable delight. The small church appeared wavy, loping and curving, reflecting a brilliant white. Once across the threshold to the interior, the suddenly cool air tickles. Uneven rock slabs made up the floor, and an old wooden roof looked sturdy enough. Alone, I drew the place.
Chiu Chiu defines what it is to be quaint. However, I didn’t have a connection to stay longer, and so I went hitching toward Caspana, hoping to eventually curve around to San Pedro de Atacama.
Alas, after a couple hours of no luck, my mind changed and brought me back to Calama, this time with a Bolivian. I had thought briefly to jump the border near here, not 150 kilometers away, foregoing the visa. For some reason, though, southbound seemed more attractive.
An hour and a half of walking across Calama once more brought me to the road toward San Pedro de Atacama. I waited in the shade of a sign. Dust devils, small wispy and harmless tornados, danced around the plain, their spouts bending and twisting in the air.
A couple picked me up then and took me the 102 kilometers to San Pedro de Atacama. The way there crosses more empty plains, eventually climbing the Cordillera de la Sal to bring you a spectacular view over the salar. To our left were great salty walls of the range, and to our right spread out the mystical land they called the Valle de la Luna, Valley of the Moon.
I thanked my ride as I got out at SP Atacama down in the green valley beyond the cordillera. The woman gave me an apple to compliment the bread and pate I’d purchased in Chiu Chiu. I sat in the shade of a small tree.
In the distance opposite where we’d come from, the volcano Licancabur dominated the horizon. It was around 5 in the afternoon, but the sun lingers until around 7:30. An Argentinian strolled by, “oye como andas loco?”
I greeted him as he passed. Then I hauled the pack to my shoulders and got to strolling myself. The town architecture was similar to that of Chiu Chiu’s, albeit having undergone obvious restoration. I could understand why so many people called it a magical place. However, it was far from magical for me.
Despite the town’s beauty, most of the buildings were hostels, souvenir shops, tour agencies or tourist restaurants. I frowned at the scene. Apart from the unattractiveness of the entire town seemingly catering to “tourism”, it was inhabited, it seemed, by only foreigners. Backpackers and flip-flop clad board-short hobbling hippies roamed the streets. There were hundreds of them. I felt suddenly like a cow in a herd. I don’t mind tourism when it’s part of the town, but when the town is tourism, it turns me off completely.
I filled my water bladder after having to convince a local gal that tap water was fine in her town, her trying to convince me to purchase bottled water. One saving grace is free Wi-Fi in the town plaza, which is filled with white people on their computers and blackberries. And I, another cow.
The cord for my computer had crapped out in Iquique, but the machine still had 3 hours of battery life. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi didn’t work on the Asus. It only ever worked 30% of the time. Damn it. It was proving to be a problem, as I’d come to depend on the laptop to write articles and these posts, saving a bundle not having to use internet cafes, and making enough money to over my expenses.
Not 30 minutes after arriving to San Pedro de Atacama, I was already walking out. I bought one avocado before leaving, costing me 500 pesos. The cheapest menu I’d found had been around 4,500 pesos, over 8 dollars.
A friendly man took me in his truck back to the top of the Cordillera de la Sal, with several viewpoints overlooking the Valley of the Moon. I found an empty viewpoint and sat staring at the smooth rock faces, their bases connected with gilded waves of sand, not unlike on the moon. The formations were made of graded layers of deposits and rays of red. A group of French tourists arrived.
“Salut, est-ce que je peux vous demander un petit service? Hello, can I ask a small favor of you?” I’d approached one woman. She enjoyed my French and allowed me to snap a few photos with her camera and my memory stick.
The sun was approaching the horizon, and across the road I followed a sand bank into the valley. It rounded into a horseshoe wall of rock, an exceptional camping locale hidden from the winds. I found a dead goat, its cord still attached around its skeletal neck. Something had eaten at the scraps. So it goes.
That night the winds died down and I emerged from my tent to behold the sky. A black splash of universe spread out over my head. The stars shone out like light through crystal, powerful and clear. I gazed at the peach glow of a brilliant Jupiter. I strained my neck at the heavens for a long time, thinking about science fiction or Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica or everness. And of all the songs to sing, I sang Singing in the Rain, in the driest place on earth.
In the morning a trucker returned me to Calama. Then a three hour ride with a family, the mother next to me cuddling an Anika pup, took me south back to Antofagasta. I remained in the pampa, not entering the hazy city. The family waved goodbye after gifting me crackers, cookies and an apple. Gusts of wind almost knocked me down as I waited, eventually to be taken to the next crossroads down the way by a water truck.
The next crossroads was the true southern exit from Antofagasta. Processing towers within the cement factory complex dominated the area, and all the surrounds were blasted by fleeing white powder. Then , the walk and the wait.
Hours passed before a trucker pulled over. He was the Chilean Gerard Butler. We drove for two hours into the most desolate land of all; irregular earthen tablets of mud long since dried, their crevices like canyons forming miniature labyrinths through the Atacama pampa. Brightness engulfed everything, and the star in the sky beat down with a furry through the pane and onto my bare arms. Gerard Butler played agreeable 80s and 90s hit music from the States, but he didn’t have very much to say. I felt boring, but later would realize I simply require prompting to rattle my mouth off.
Animitas lined the highway, with one appearing every kilometer or so. The small covered alters appear as tiny chapels and mark where a car accident took someone’s life. Families of the deceased maintain the animitas, often leaving vases of flowers and artifacts bundled around the casita. I wouldn’t mind my family marking my place of doom, I thought. I had seen animitas throughout Latin America, but never bothered to ask what they were for. Many rides would cross themselves as we’d pass them.
We drove passed a few and I glanced at the trucker. His eyes were closed.
He pulled over after I woke him up to sleep for an hour. When the nap was up, he drove me into the night and let me off at a town called Chanaral, back on the coast from the high desolation of the pampa.
Gypsy women were roaming the gas station asking people for money. A kid followed them around, grasping at their tie-died dresses. I wanted nothing to do with them, but thankfully they didn’t seem to consider me a good catch to peddle to.
The Copec gas clerk was not accommodating to my desire to pitch tent on the property, but the PetroBras gas clerk was. It was dark, and I would stick to my rule of not wandering out of a city in the nighttime. I slept behind the station.
I woke very early. There were dozens of trucks parked around the place. I asked many truckers and then stood thumbing for a time without luck. 4 hours. The hours pass rapidly. The days should too.
Some truckers wouldn’t even acknowledge me. The manageable feeling of wretchedness when the hitch is sour slowly crept into the back of my skull. I did what little I could to suppress it. Only one trucker seemed honest as he told me that he wished he could take me, but that his bosses were too vigilant.
Another 2 hours passed when I was walking away from yet another ‘no’. The honest trucker I’d spoken with before was in a restaurant doorway whistling at me and waving me over.
“Man you’ve waited so long, I’ve decided to take you after all. You want a tea?”
After a tea, I threw my pack into the open trailer of the semi on top of scrap metal. The trucker looked like my friend Jacob, albeit much older.
“Where are you headed?”
“La Serena,” I replied.
“Ah yes, nice place. You know, it’s the second-oldest city in Chile.”
“I didn’t know. I’m going to the Elqui.”
We were underway. He showed me all the gadgets in the cab, which was complete with a fabulous radio, a television and DVD player, GPS, and several add-ons whose purposes I couldn’t gander at. Peruvian trucks, and, in fact, most trucks in Latin American countries were stripped of luxuries by thieves. Chile was a much more organized country.
We spoke on many important subjects and themes of current events. He explained why there were so many protests happening, that education simply costs too much. He spoke of taxes and the government, suggesting that no one really knows where all the federal coffers’ contents go.
“The problem in this country is that every minister and person with a political post, and I mean everyone is an empresario, a businessman.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Everyone. Look at the president, for God’s sake, the man is the head of LAN airlines, Chile’s biggest carrier. Now who can say that that’s not a conflict of interest? Yea yea he has a blind trust to run the damn thing, but the fact is disconcerting anyway.”
“I don’t think businessmen should be in politics either,” I said. “Like Berlusconi, who thankfully, finally, is being ousted.”
“Yes, exactly. Businessmen think business, they don’t play the political game correctly. They don’t think about the pueblo. And the way they handle investments of the country’s resources is ridiculous. For instance, look at this road. How many peajes, tollbooths, have we passed?”
“I’ve passed fifteen since Arica. Fifteen! It’s ridiculous. They just built a tunnel in 2005 and placed a tollbooth on one side to get that money back. Businessmen think always about gains and never about improvements, expenditures. The tunnel should be bought, flat out. The money spent is spent for good, and that should be it, but no, they have to get it all back.”
The conversation swung around for a few hours. We stopped at a restaurant and he treated me to a meal of beet salad drenched in oil and sprinkled with salt, a steaming chicken breast, fideos noodles, and a giant bottle of orange Crush soda.
As the hours passed driving down the road, the desert began to change. We drove passed the desierto florido, where the once-a-year rain had recently fallen, causing to sprout from beneath the sands tiny purple, blue, yellow and white flowers which in their millions created a scene of absolute seduction; an endless carpet of colors stretching as far as one can see.
Eventually the desert seemed to break, and the road slowly descended once more down the Bajadera Buenos Aires toward the sea. The beautiful lingering mist was pierced by rays of sunlight, brightening the bushy surrounds. Green once more held sway over the land. Green. Soon, forests. It seemed almost novelty.
Upon arrival to La Serena around 3 p.m., my gracious trucker gifted me another bottle of Crush and 2 packets of powder cappuccino. We shared a nod. Off he went, off toward the rest of his life, and I standing there with mine.
The day was young, as the sun would not sink until after 7. But, why La Serena?
I could stare at my map for hours if time allowed, and it often did. The cartography of this particular map is considered an art, and there is even a small notice in the corner which suggests that the map is indeed a piece of art that is not meant to be used for travelling. Alas, it is well enough for travelling, and staring. Dozens of symbols mark various sites, from each and every mine to asterisks that signal where hot springs lay. Near La Serena I had circled over half a year ago an asterisk indicating “El Tololo Observatory.”
La Serena was a beautiful colonial city hugging close its bay of water. A long avenue drawn up a hill toward the center was lined with bushy trees, their shade cast down over dozens of replicas of ancient Greek statues. A stroll.
Beyond La Serena, into the mountains, was the Valle de Elqui. On my map was marked the largest observatory in the world, El Tololo. There are many observatories in the valley today. They say Atacama has some of the clearest skies in the world, but they say that Elqui’s are even clearer. I wanted stars.
I decided not to tackle the road toward the valley until the next day. I wandered around town, admiring the architecture, buying bread and pate, and breathing heavily of the coastal breeze.
A half-hour walk north from the city down the Panamerican brought me to a river bed, and following the artificial dike of concrete slabs revealed an open pasture of strange plants, far from anyone’s view. I made camp and examined the strange plant life. The ground was covered with short cauliflower faces of thick light green leaves that squeaked when I walked over them. They bore miniscule capsules of clear slimy liquid along the veins of their stocks, giving them a permanent dewy appearance. I crawled into my tent for the cool evening.
In the morning, I made my way to the mall to find free Wi-Fi at McDonalds. The signal was strong but my computer would not allow access to the internet. The cord was not supplying power to the computer still, so my fear was confirmed. I walked around the big mall complex to a café in a strip mall. The woman allowed me to check for a signal before purchasing anything. Nothing.
As I placed the computer back into my backpack, the middle-aged man who seemed to be the owner of the café came over.
“You can’t get internet?” he asked me kindly.
“No, it’s that my computer sometimes works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
“Would you permit me?”
I was surprised to find him so eager to help. I opened my computer and turned the switch.
“Ah, well, here’s your problem. This is a Windows 7 Starter operating system. It’s not original. Where did you get this computer?”
“My buddy sold it to me in Peru.”
“Ah yes, everything pirated. You only have 40 minutes of battery power left, do you have the cord?”
“Ah well, I don’t know what’s going on with the power supply. I don’t know if it’s the cord, the adapter, or the converter.”
“Let me take a look,” he said.
“I was just going to deal with all the electronic stuff in Santiago.”
“Nonsense, you can have them check this out here. Look.”
The man was named Richard, and showed me on his blackberry where to find the electronics store in town.
“Come back here tomorrow around 3, and I’ll try to fix your internet problem.”
“Really?” I said, quite surprised at the offer.
“Sure, I’ll meet you here tomorrow then?”
I found the electronics store, and after a quick test and 800 pesos I had a new cord to power my computer. Now, it was time to find the stars.
I stocked up on bread and pate, ate a personal pizza and began walking out of town. A quick hitch in a pick-up brought me to out beyond the airport. A second ride with a Nestle salesman dropped me at Villa Puclaro, a small commune beside a dam and large reservoir just before the larger town of Vicuna. This is where I would climb a hill and camp alone under the stars.
The salesman had handed me two big bags of Animal Crackers, and three handfuls of soda pop candies. I asked a few folks around town about Tololo. Apparently I’d be able to see it if I climbed the hill just beside the commune. I began the hike.
Just before exiting the town I stopped dead in my tracks, staring just over the gate of a private home at a plant. It was a tall matte green cactus, smooth and vertically ribbed. San Pedro. My mind strained as I stared at it. I had only ever taken the Pedro in urban situations. Camilo and Franco’s stories of Pedro at the beach had peeked my interest to experience it in nature. Now Elqui, star capital of the planet. San Pedro, alone under the white dots. Damn it.
I continued up the hill, the San Pedro idea laid to rest at the private house. I’d have to convince them to let me cut it, then to let me cook it for twelve hours. Unlikely. Perhaps some other time, some other place.
The hike was arduous. I hiked until the lake was like a distant memory and the town a small convolution of cement among dirt and rock. I reached a telephone line antenna, where the wind blew at great speeds, almost knocking me to my knees. I could not make camp here. The access road I’d hiked continued along the hill to higher elevations. I could see the Tololo observatory and another beside it far in the distance.
After following the road around, I came to where the construction had ceased, and a wide flat perch terminated within the shadow of the mountain. Perfect. I pitched my tent and stashed my gear within. Then I scrambled up loose rock, weaving cautiously through cacti whose hair looked harmless, but which of course was actually a ruthless defensive beauty of rigid spikes. I summited the hill and beheld the beyond with wet eyes and awe and tire. The valley of Elqui spread out below from the reservoir, and the encompassing hills glowed orange in the fading light.
Hints of fright accompanied me as I descended the dangerous slope. I became aware that I descended the rocks as I would snow on a pair of skis, which I know very well to do. Out there, the horizon boasted a red slice of mountain. Dusk. Once back to the tent, I wrapped myself in my bag and fell purposefully to sleep.
Our bodies can be trained to wake when you want. I woke at 2 a.m. Slowly, I unzipped the tent flap and emerged to a world I’d never known. Stars populated the sky in the millions. I squinted through my glasses and found layers of stars, a depth of stars so profound it was dizzying. The universe showed me its splashes and hidden corridors of stardust, the whole thing an un-navigable maze of lights, some of which in this moment exist without source. Those lights spoke to me, telling me of the infinite histories detailing the cosmos’ break and limitless zenith. Magnificent.
The morning was windy and warm. I walked down to the reservoir after circumnavigating a fence and “Prohibited entry” signs that, for a vagabond, might as well read “Please, please enter.” There I bathed on the muddy shore and used the last of my bar of soap to scrub my socks and shirt semi-clean. The shirt remained blotchy.
40 minutes later I was wishing my ride farewell, back once more at the airport of La Serena. I waited. A carload of adolescents drove by and flicked me off, and I did likewise, as is customary. A family eventually took me back into town. It was morning, and at 3 I would return to the Boulevard Café to meet Richard. I stalled by sitting in the cathedral to watch mass and draw.
I returned to the café and met Richard. He introduced me to his wife and kid, then took my computer and the new cord into the restaurant next door.
I looked at his wife. “So he owns this place right?”
“Yes, and the restaurant beside it. Don’t worry he isn’t stealing your computer.” We laughed and I reassured her I wasn’t thinking at all of that.
“Messing with computers is his hobby, he’ll fix your problem for you surely.”
I passed time looking at my map and writing in my notebook. 3 hours later Richard showed up again and invited me to the restaurant. There, we went into the kitchen and up to the second floor, where in an unfinished room stood a table, our computers and a bathroom.
“You want something to eat?”
“That’s alright, I have my bread here.”
He chuckled, and disappeared downstairs. He came back with a cup of tea and a hotdog wrapped in pizza crust. “Here you go. You know, I hitched down to Chiloe way back when. I saw you with your pack and thought I ought to help out somehow, so no worries.”
He offered he bathroom were I want for a shower, but I thanked him for his generosity. 2 hours later his 9 year old son and I were talking about video games as he worked on my computer. Then we turned the screen toward me.
“There ya go. You are now the official owner of an original Windows 7 package, and the Wi-Fi signal connects you to internet now.”
I thanked Richard immensely. It was getting late, and he had to run, but let me stay and use the internet a bit before I took to the road once more. I bought a few tomatoes at the Lider grocery store (owned by Wal-Mart), and returned to my field near the dike. Literally hundreds of mosquitos clung to the netting of my tent as I stared off into space, wondering about how the world seems to fix me up with the right people at the right time.
I walked toward La Serena’s neighbor Coquimbo until a construction contractor decided to take me all the way there. Coquimbo is a port town about to become a major port city. The highway connection down the Elqui Valley to Argentina is about to be upgraded with a long tunnel, making Coquimbo that country’s main out to the Pacific trading sphere. I drew Coquimbo’s mosque.
A group of cellphone tower repairmen picked me up after a long walk down the road. They were a cheerful group of guys. The countryside changed into brown hills of bushy polka-dot shrubs. Then the coast grew to cliffs and a damning land of rock. We stopped for empanadas, paid for by the company.
Three hours down the road we arrived to the caleta fishing town of Los Vilos, where they would let me off. But not before inviting me to a meal of Chilean seafood. After a mariscos empanada, the crackling crust oily and delicious, a seafood soup. I scooped up spoonfuls of fish, shrimp, clams and mussels, and washed it all down with orange Crush once more.
Goodbye to my benefactors. Back on the highway I stuck out my thumb and a trucker picked me up. He too spoke of the fucking taxes and where the hell does that money all go? A few hours later I wished him well and debarked into the town of La Calera, a municipality just north of Valparaiso. Santiago, the country’s capital, lay an hour to the east, but I would not be going there, not yet.
I wanted to get to know the country’s most famous city, Valparaiso. I had made contact with a CS host, Pame. It was already late afternoon, so I decided to make camp in La Calera and arrive to Valparaiso fresh in the morning.
Dinner was a splurge on a liter of lucuma ice cream. Despite the high prices of Chile, I’d spent less money here than in some other countries due to the fact that everyone invites you to meals.
Walking out of town the camping pickings looked slim. I decided on a hill, but when I’d climbed to the flat area, I discovered a wide irrigation ditch. Although I was quite tired, there was still sun in the sky, and I felt a pull to continue up the hill. Around the bend I found a fallen tree and crossed to the opposite slope over the running water. After a scramble up, I found another irrigation ditch just before a steep climb up through golden fields. I jumped the ditch, and at the top of the hill final found flat ground and an expansive view over the town.
I pitched my tent under a perfect tree that I’d found alone among the golden hairs of grass. I sat to appreciate the sea of colors over La Calera. The cement factory smoke stack hummed calmly, a lullaby in the departing light. I sat watching over the town’s valley like some pariah devising a return to normalcy. The height seemed to amplify my appreciation for the scenery. I wondered what it might be like to combine San Pedro with heights.
In the morning it was a long wait for a quick ride to Quillota, and from there a ride with the head of a new mall’s security to Vina del Mar.
“Anything at all you need, you just come right back here,” he’d said as I wished him well.
Hours walking into town, eating a chirimoya gifted at Quillota, and then bread and salami. Vina del Mar and Valparaiso are physically the same city, Vina on the north side of the natural harbor, and Valparaiso to the south. I came to a summit view over the city, so expansive I could cuddle it in my palm. High rise buildings gathered in groups, all hailing under the bits of sun breaching the clouds. I strode through Vina’s streets. They were wide avenues lined through and through with thick trees. The place was orderly and clean, and the urban design was simple.
After finding the town center, I walked down the pedestrian streets until I decided to hop a bus to Valparaiso. The bus screamed along the bay road. Mammoth cargo ships loitered in the deep water, awaiting space in the harbor to make their port call. Their presence is romantic, speaking to the hundreds of other worlds they have known. The stories that their crew can tell.
Valparaiso began just beyond a hill that was encroaching toward the surf. I jumped off the bus and admired the surrounds. The city is an obvious change from Vina del Mar, something that is immediately apparent in the colorful houses that seem built one atop the other on the city’s numerous hills. Indeed, Valparaiso is constructed on many hills that cradle the flat plano city center. The port’s shipping containers are stacked to 6 or 7 high, and the reds, blues and yellows of their metal seem to fit with the scene.
I met Pame, short for Pamela, on the intersection of Pedro Montt and La Heras. She was a head shorter than me, and smiled with big bright teeth, the muscles near her temples affirming the authenticity of her gaiety. I dispensed with subtleties and rather brusquely began directing her impression of me toward that description that everyone uses for me; weird, but in a good way!
“Pretty much everyone at one point in their time knowing me calls me weird,” I told her.
“Yes. Everyone tells me that I’m crazy.”
“Birds of a feather!”
She took me up a hill toward her house. We climbed a long and narrow staircase between the concrete foundations of the buildings, finally arriving panting at her door.
“Welcome to the house. It’s named Cuartel.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet the house,” I said.
A taller girl with frizzled hair and beaming red lipstick came to meet us. She looked at me through big plastic designer sunglasses.
“Hi! A guest? Welcome!”
“Chael this is Leticia,” Pame told me.
We greeted and then I met Pato, Leticia’s boyfriend. His large eyes shone happily and we shook hands. Inside the house was a covered balcony overlooking the city center, the port being visible in the distance. The couch was yellow, and the wall was covered with randomness left by hundreds of guests that came through. Old wooden planks creaked under my weight.
I met also Mocho, who had black-rimmed glasses and a wealth of beard. Everyone was polite. Politeness can be diluted after hosting so many people, but the Cuartel’s inhabitants held true to Chilean kindness.
Carlos was a young Colombian who showed up later. He had a scratchy voice that could deceive his age, and the black hat that he always had matting down his shiny black curls made him look like what I’ve imagined Little Timmy must look like. He wore a scarf and label-less garments, which for me gave him a air common in the early 20th century.
Everyone in the house was frugal like me, so I quickly fell into the quotidian rhythm, a rhythm that was painfully familiar to me from the House of No Ends. Leticia sold soy hamburgers and beer in the plaza, and Pato and Carlos made their money busking or playing in restaurants and on buses. Pame confessed that she did nothing. So it goes.
Valparaiso was a veritable city, and quite bohemian at that. The Cuartel seemed to fit snuggly in among the main of the city’s residents, a grand part of who were students. Pame and I walked up to Cerro Concepcion, the more popular area for tourists. I had known that Valparaiso was a tourist hotspot in Chile, but I saw few.
We walked up through winding hidden inlets and closes, up and around tall narrow stairs and down unlikely walkways. Many people had warned me that Valparaiso was dangerous, a warning I’ve decided is unfounded, except that the small throughways of the hills might and do facilitate robberies.
Murals and graffiti and art of different tastes saturated the experience and I seemed to bloom with lust for the variety of it all. It seemed every derelict wall and fence, stair face and railing was turned colorful and interesting by the locals.
We walked by the port, passed Pablo Neruda’s house and through the plano. The city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its improvised urban planning and diversity of architecture, a title it rightly deserves. The feeling I felt in the street was the opposite of the more upscale and mainstream Vina del Mar. Vendors of all wares and appliances, artisans and well-fed dogs roamed the main squares. Valparaiso is filled with iconoclasts and freaks of all kinds, creating an ascetic vibe that champions the alternative, artistic and zany.
On more than a few occasions have I heard conversations of what is a revolutionary in the house. Revolution is a powerful theme here, and its importance manifests in the street protests which in recent months have become commonplace.
“You guys going to come to the protest today?” asked Pato through his shades.
“Ahhh, no, I don’t want to,” said Pame. “I hate when it gets violent.” My ear peeked at this.
“Aw come on let’s go check it out at least,” I added.
Later we had descended to the main avenues. There, we encountered long processions of students bearing banners of all shapes and sizes. They read “Free education now!”, “Copper for education!” and any of a number of demands.
“Wow, are all these people students here in Valpo?” I asked Pame.
“No, a lot of them came over from Santiago to protest. They’re going to walk on congress.”
“Congress? Isn’t Santiago the capital?” I said.
“Yeah, but they moved congress to Valpo to decentralize the country,” she replied.
Later we would see on the evening news that there were over ten thousand protesters in the street, making it quite a deal larger than others of its kind, which have been happening for many months.
Different universities’ students seemed organized together, and I remarked to Pame and the others that it had the appearance of a well-planned event.
“Yea, well I just want to see the concert they’re going to put on at the plaza, but it always ends bad,” said Pame.
The streets were shivering with excitement and anticipation. Dozens sported their own gas masks and goggles, and I amused myself by guessing the malicious contents of certain marchers’ backpacks. We stood on the curb watching the progression for a time. Bands banging big drums tromped by, and masked dancers seduced the sidelines with their movements. Yelling, chanting and shouting accompanied the beats, and it was no small matter of fact that there seemed a devout resolution in many of the voices that rang in the air.
We entered the endless line of people and walked with them up to the plaza. A funny man dressed in a frizzled wig, short shorts and a soccer jersey seemed to be the director of an enormous Chilean flag that welled up with air above the march, so as it created a fabric arch half a football pitch long that the walkers had to pass under.
“That’s Cazueli,” said Pame.
“Who?” I asked.
“The guy with the kinky soccer outfit. He’s a famous, kinda flamboyant soccer legend here. That guy dresses up like him and brings this big flag to the protests.”
We made it to the wide, open plaza, which was packed tightly with students. The bohemian undercurrent of the city seemed exaggerated by the masses, and from punk to metal head to the stranger, all types of young people had gathered. We could see about a block ahead of us the crowds continuing toward what Pame informed me was the congress building. The long line of humanity continued to pour into the plaza from the opposite direction, and the concert got underway. It was a powerful ska group that sent the frontline into a mosh pit of significant proportion.
Pato, Leticia and Carlos were somewhere else, and Pame and I stood watching the stage. Suddenly I spotted out of the corner of my eye the movement of water at a block away toward congress. I didn’t have my glasses with me.
“Hey Pame look, there’s something shooting water.”
“Is it a green bus?” she asked.
“I don’t know, I can’t see,” I replied.
“I yea I forgot you were blind,” she joked. When she had found a better vantage point she said—“yea that’s a police bus. I thought they’d let the protest closer to congress. Oh well.”
From where we stood I could see dozens of projectiles flying through the air at any one moment and slamming against the bus from all directions. The building behind the concert stage must have been under restoration as there was a wooden scaffolding ring, and hundreds of people seem to have climbed this for a better view of the violence. The roofs were also filled. I spotted Leticia and Pato on the roof.
“Pame, I’m gonna go check it out.”
She looked at me rather gravely, “Alright, just be careful.”
I found my way through the crowd. As I approached the front the crowd was markedly more militant. Many had masks in place and hoods drawn to cover their faces, and the battle cry “paco culiao! / fucking pig!” filled the air.
Along the sidewalk I encountered an interesting sight. Some of the hooded guys, or “encapuchados” were using heavy iron rods to smash the sidewalk and pry up rocks for their fight. An elderly woman was vehemently ranting at them.
“Don’t you see that your being aggressive isn’t helping your cause to any positive end!?” she implored.
Some of the men unmasked themselves to reproach her, revealing that they were not men at all, but boys. Their reasoning for their actions seemed ill-thought and immature:
“Look at those fucking cops! That’s why we’re attacking them!”
Pame would later tell me that there was real animosity between two groups: the younger crowds that would infiltrate the students’ peaceful protest with the malign intention of causing trouble, and the protesters trying the Gandhi approach. I felt more inclined to support the peaceful ones. But then, I didn’t know much of Chilean police.
Just then I heard an uproarious cheer as the police bus suddenly began a brisk retreat from its frontline. I had found my front row tickets, the police canon’s water having fallen just before me. A group suddenly ran passed me away from the front, carrying a protester over their shoulders, and he clutching a bloodied rag to a gushing slash over his forehead. Maybe I should do likewise and split.
It was rightly so that I had resolved to return, because just then there came a renewed clamor from the cloud, but this time in the form of laconic screams and yelling. A small army-green armored police vehicle came flying up to the crowd and suddenly released from its side panels thick plumes of dense white smoke. Accompanying this offensive was the battle-scarred water bus and a huge line of charging policemen. All at once everyone took flight. In just seconds it had turned from triumph to fear as all present fled, I myself suddenly swept up in the emotional imperative to get the hell out of there before the water canon could topple me and the police bludgeon me like the rest.
The crowd was so thick! My immediate estimate of things told me that falling down had never been so dangerous. I rounded a corner, unable to penetrate the masses to get back to Pame, but more so because the current of bodies required it. The loud booms of discharging weapons rang sharply through the air, and above my head I saw canisters drop in high arcs, spewing in a trail their nasty concoction. The turn was a good move, and the crowd thinned out. It was surreal to see all the bodies eerily move through the mist of the gas. I took to a speedy walk. My eyes then felt a ripping sting, as if someone had squeezed the concentrated juice of an onion directly onto my iris. I coughed with a twang and pulled the handkerchief Pame had warned me to bring over my face to avoid breathing the tainted air. Tear gas indeed, I thought.
After rounding a few more corners, I had returned to where I’d left Pame. I found Leticia, Pato and Carlos instead. Soon we came upon Pame. The police line had stopped half block from the concert, which was still pounding away. The water canon resumed a sort of status quo attack, with the protesters’ projectiles to match.
“Pacos culiao,” said Pato. He was soaked.
“Man, I thought I was gonna get trampled or something,” I said.
“I thought you were too. Right when you left it all got bad up there,” replied Pame.
Right then more bursts of armaments took our attention, and we watched as a dozen tear gas canisters came landing in amongst us, with one even landing on the stage, causing the band to flee. I had been more upset by the war-mongering of the delinquents at first, but I reserve a healthy amount of disrespect for a police force that attacks a concert.
The uproarious din of fear that flew then from the crowd racked at my beating heart, and I thought it like some diabolic symphony, pierced by the screams of girls overtaken by the roughness of it all. We took flight, and for the second time in years I found myself sprinting. The police had spontaneously decided to shut down the whole show, which meant gas, water and charging. Everyone around me seemed to be running with great intent, and I saw that those who stopped to suppress their own diffidence were not long in looking back toward where the police were charging from, and were soon running at full throttle once more.
We turned a corner on the street that would lead back to the Cuartel. Pato and Carlos stopped and urged me back. But just then a block down, a different water canon bus turned onto our street and sped toward us, blasting water at anything that moved. Up until now, local shops either had their metal shields pulled down, or were prone to do so. I thought briefly of getting into one, but decided instead to remain with my friends and run, fast.
The smash of rocks against storefront shields shocked me, as I realized I was almost hit over the head with one such projectile. Fucking kids, I thought. When we’d reached a distance where a corner shop remained open and some older folks were walking about, we rested. But in a moment, there appeared one of the police armored cars on that very corner. Everyone stared at it in anticipation, and when it squirted its plumes of tear gas, we all yelled in disgust, “paco culiao!” for there was no reason whatsoever to torture us with that burning fog. The horrible sensation returned and I felt my face wanting to melt off. My friends cried and yelled.
Finally we made our way sloppily up the staircase to the Cuartel, there to pass the next few hours discussing the whole day. Mocho returned later sweating and jumpy. He had been throwing rocks all morning.
The next day Carlos, Pame and I returned to the University, where we were stealing free internet. The streets still had the hint of the previous day’s struggle in the form of a sour air that molested the eyes.
Online I’d received a message from an old friend that he was also in town and would come to find us at the university. Alas, after nearly a month and many hundreds of kilometers, I would once more see my friend Sammy.
He must have come directly after he messaged, because he showed up in classic Sammy fashion. Without saying a word, and without me noticing, he sat to our table, surprising Carlos and Pame to a considerable degree.
“Sammy,” I exclaimed.
He smiled wide and said, “hey.”
“Tell me all.”
And so we spoke of our individual adventures since last we’d parted ways in Puno, the city further on from Juliaca, where we’d shared in a righteous drunk. He had his two shoulder strap bags with him, something I pointed out to Carlos and Pame as ultra-light. His skin was darker, betraying his whereabouts in the previous weeks. But now the desert was over and we were scheming for our future encounters already.
“So, Francisco says we should probably head to Santiago at the end of the month, because he’s a busy guy right now,” said Sammy.
“Right-O. So, end of November. What are you going to do?” I asked.
“Well, after two days here—thanks for asking Pame to let me stay, by the way—I’m heading to Talca and Concepcion, then eventually to Chiloe where my folks have friends.”
“Oh yea, that house you told me of,” I prompted.
“They’ll be there?”
“Ah-ha…” I said suggestively.
And our plan was set, that we’d meet once more in Chiloe before returning to Santiago.
“Oh, and Monica is also going to be in Santiago the 30th, for two weeks I think,” I said.
“The whole crew,” he said.
Monica and Francisco were two friends, the former German and latter Chilean who we had grown close with during our time living in France. Over 3 years had passed since we’d last been all together, and chance just so had it that we should all be converging at the same moment in Francisco’s native land.
Sammy spent a few nights in town. Pato, Leticia and Carlos departed for a beach, and Mocho went to the south of the country. Sammy, Pame and I hit the cheap bars. Beer, I remarked was cheaper here than in Peru, “a better alimentation than bread.”
The second night we cooked a good meal and sat to box wine. As though reliving our drunk in Juliaca, we three drank between us 4 liters of red, and the room spun for us all. Whatever our conversations were, they must have been important, for in the morning my head was painfully pressured by whatever new information I had acquired. I only recalled defending the fact that many Americans introduce themselves as from their city or state against Pame’s objections, imploring her to consider the size of the country.
On the third morning Sammy disappeared, leaving only a note: “Tried to wake you guys, but couldn’t. Thanks Pame!” Typically Sammy.
I took to reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which might have something to say for the style in which I’ve recently been writing. Pame and I sat around alone in the house, cooking delicious cheap eats and conversing.
One night there came a ring on her phone.
“Hello?…Yes I’m Pamela…Who?…Oh, yes…Yes, he’s right here…Do you want to talk to him?”
I looked at her puzzled as she handed me the phone and said, “it’s Albert.”
I yelled into the phone, “CATALAAAAN!!”
10 minutes later I was rushing down the stairs to go meet my old friend. When I’d arrived to Valparaiso I’d sent him a message just in case he had still been in Chile, sending Pame’s number as well. I knew he had been around or near to Santiago 3 weeks before, so I was quite doubtful that he’d be lingering once I made Valpo. But alas, chance smiles on the spontaneous.
It had been many months since last we parted ways in Nazca. He and Andres had continued to Cusco and I had returned hastily to Lima, to the House of No Ends, in order to pursue Mayra until she would see me. The sting of wonderful memories has a curious way, such that you feel both forlorn and grateful at once.
At the intersection I found Catalan, a thick Mohawk separating the two bare sides of his head. He looked thinner than before, and his clothes and purple parcha seemed caked in a solid layer of dirt.
“Chaaeel! Oye huevon como andas?” he greeted me in welcome high spirits.
“Catalan, shit man, I didn’t expect you to be here at all! How long have you been in Chile?”
“Man I have plenty of stories to tell you. Thanks for hooking me up with a place to crash.”
“It’s a lot like the House back in Lima,” I offered.
“In that case I may stay a while.”
I smiled at the last as more memories of Camilo and Franco came to the surface. I remembered our great times in the house, especially the night FC Barcelona beat Manchester United and Catalan roared about the place in absolute celebration, and I petted the wall which for the first time in my life was moving. Catalan’s raucous manner, which might at times repulse a person of refined manners (NOTE: as writing, small earthquake shakes house) is one of his ineffable qualities.
At the house I introduced him to Pame, and he suggested and we duly accepted to run out for booze. The night slowly unfolded with each glass of red. We were soon beset with reminiscing and hardy laughs. As the room became more and more dizzying I took notice of an exchange of touches between Pame and Catalan, that kind of touch that secretly asks, “are you up for it?” and the other that yearns in response, “yes.” I retired to the back room and fell heavily to sleep.
I was glad for my friends, and I couldn’t help but feel a creeping pride in having been a piece in the puzzle of their encounter, for all encounters are puzzles in the purest sense of the word. Pame and Catalan would make many beds while I delved into Dracula on the porch or wrote this ridiculously long post listening to Bach or Beirut.
I must admit freely that it was an interesting shift in the house once the two of them began their affair. I noted a change in Pame in that she treated me slightly harsher, and that she agreed, if not by words then by actions, with much of Catalan’s doings and sayings. I had felt a twinge of pressure from my gracious host in the beginning; that she needed a physical release was clear to me. For that I am glad for my friends, for it was never to be me; I may be physically in Valparaiso, but I am in every other way still in Lima.
The days went on; Pato and the rest returned to the house, and Carlos was surprised to find there Catalan, who he had met once in Bolivia. So it goes.
Catalan was a good addition to the house. He would go out and sell his crafts, or, his new way of income since I’d seen him last was juggling at stoplights. He had many stories to tell, including his arrest in Bolivia for possession of pipes as he was about to purchase pot from two others, who themselves were also arrested. He showed me a video he had of the police showing off their bust of his merchandise to the local news channel, and there was Catalan leaning on a wall in the background, flipando!
Despite Catalan’s somewhat philistine way, he has a very square head on his shoulders, and we spoke much of politics and the world. It was good to see another old friend, and all within so little a time.
The days ended in beautiful sunbursts highlighting the outstretched clouds. I made short work of Dracula’s 400 pages, and even picked out a favorite passage:
“The tomb in the day-time, and when wreathed with fresh flowers, had looked grim and gruesome enough; but now, some days afterwards, when the flowers hung lank and dead, their whites turning to rust and their greens to browns; when the spider and the beetle had resumed their accustomed dominance; when time-discoloured stone, and dust-encrusted mortar, and rusty, dank iron, and tarnished brass, and clouded silverplating gave back the feeble glimmer of a candle, the effect was more miserable and sordid than could have been imagined. It conveyed irresistibly the idea that life—animal life—was not the only thing which could pass away.”
I am conscious of my impressionability in certain things, and that most recent being my style of this last part of the post as that of Stoker’s. Alas, perhaps this is how a good thing never dies.
Pame smiles all the time, and despite my often difficult humor, she finds ways to humor me yet. Catalan is man as ever, always displaying rough and sometimes vulgar attributes, but shining out whenever his smile would pull the skin of his face and forehead back to reveal a happy and harmless friend of mine.
For now I find this a good moment to call the post a post and let the rest begin to shape. Sammy has gone south, and so shall I. Catalan, I’m not sure. Who is ever really sure, anyway? The only thing we positively brainstormed as yet another reunion is Brazil. February. Carnival.
…So it goes.