Authors: Sara Wheeler
We came to dead ends, reversed out of them, and at midday stopped at the end of a long avenue of raspberry bushes. An old woman appeared, and we found out that her son ran a commune beyond the house. She had thirty grandchildren, and two of their offspring were persecuting chickens among the raspberries. Pedro kept talking as we picked our way on foot along a path above a river. At the end of it, in front of half a dozen huts, two children up an apricot tree were shaking branches, and the fruit was bouncing over the mud courtyard. A handsome, youngish man with white hair came out of a hut, smiled, and signalled for us to sit down in some old cane chairs in the shade.
Pedro explained for both of us. The white-haired man said, ‘You are welcome to stay with us. We are Chilean practitioners of Agnihotra, an ancient Vedic science of healing. Only my family and I are here at the moment. Our ceremony takes place at sunrise and sunset. You can join in, or not, as you like.’
A modest daily rate was quickly agreed, and Pedro and I were installed in two small wooden cabins on the riverbank. One side overlooked the green, fruit-filled valley and the other a path heading towards the high pass to Argentina, along which miniature straw-hatted shepherds occasionally appeared on horseback, threading their way behind a flock of ragged sheep to their pastureland in the cordillera. We ate with the white-haired Leo and his wife in their hut; the food consisted mainly of vegetable and herb stews, apricot tea and bread cooked in a
hole in an outside wall. It was very good. The wall of the hut was decorated with two pictures of Hindu holymen who looked terminally ill and a lifesize poster of Christ.
‘The ceremony’ (correctly called homa) took place in a bare room further up the slope. We sat cross-legged on purple cushions while Leo prepared a fire in a copper pyramid using sun-dried cowdung coated with ghee, and at the exact moment of sunset he began chanting the first mantra. Precision, apparently, is crucial, and a computer printout is dispatched from Agnihotra headquarters in the United States with daily timings – down to seconds – calculated according to latitude and longitude. During this mantra he sprinkled grains of ghee-moistened brown rice onto the fire. This was repeated with another mantra, and meditation. The principle behind Agnihotra is that fire purifies the atmosphere, releasing healing energies: ‘Heal the atmosphere, and the atmosphere heals you.’ Some people eat the ash of the cowdung as a sifted powder after the ceremony, but we were spared this.
Leo didn’t care what we did during homa, as long as we kept quiet. There is no hierarchy among Agnihotra practitioners, and no sacerdotal status; anyone can attend the ceremony, and anyone can perform it. Pedro told me afterwards that he felt perfectly relaxed sitting in the homa room (though when I asked him what he had thought about during the first ceremony, he said he had been worrying about whether anyone was feeding his cows).
Late one night Pedro announced soberly that he was trying to decide whether to marry his girlfriend. That was why he had come to the commune: to think things over. He wanted to know what I thought.
‘Are you in love with her?’ I asked, casting around rather desperately.
‘I think so. But I’m frightened about giving up my independence.’
He came from a small village of farmers; in that environment a single man of his age must have constituted something of a social aberration. I thought I was probably the wrong person to consult about relinquishing independence; I was still constitutionally unable to undertake joint trips to the supermarket.
We were sitting on the riverbank, and it was rustling with its night noises. The stars were like a fine layer of icing sugar. Pedro talked about his village. He had grown up there. It wasn’t long before he got onto 1973.
‘They came to interrogate a man from Allende’s Popular Unity, but took another one whose name was the same, by mistake. They made him walk across the square – it’s a very old one, in our village, with beech trees round three sides – and shot him first in one knee, then the other. Then he had to drag himself forward in order to be shot in the head.’
During the day I often sat under the willow tree next to the river, and sometimes Leo came down to catch trout. He was a calm, charismatic figure, dedicated to ‘self-realization’ and a lifestyle which in the city would be pigeonholed as ‘alternative’. I wasn’t very keen on the idea of burning cowdung, but I admired his commitment to the transcendental within himself. He could never have been a proselytizer, and that appealed to me too; he thought there were many different spiritual paths to choose from, and that they led to the same place. He drove me down the mountain after three days at the commune and dropped me at Monte Grande, and as I watched his trailer disappear, four small children waving from the back, I felt unexpectedly regretful.
It took me a whole day, after he had left me there, to fail to hitch a lift to Vicuña, take recourse in a bus two hours later, locate my other bag at the Yasna, pick up a
Serena, unite myself with the press pass I had arranged to get me into the observatory the following day, collected Rocky III from Hertz, and check into a hotel in town. The Regional Director of Tourism had arranged the pass for me. The observatory was famous; it had the biggest telescope in the southern hemisphere. It was famously difficult to get into, as well, and it was that, of course, which made me want to go there.
Visiting regulations at the Tololo observatory, shrouded in a conspiratorial veil of formality, stipulated arrival at the lodge on the valley floor at nine o’clock in the morning sharp. This entrance turned out to be a forty-five-minute drive from the observatory itself, and when I drew up in front of the barrier a uniformed official appeared to check me off on his clipboard. He returned to his office, made a phone call, came back and told me that the road was extremely dangerous and that in the event of breakdown I was forbidden to leave my vehicle. The man at the tourist office, the man at Hertz and the man at the hotel had already explained, patiently and with relish, how dangerous this road was. They had clearly never driven on the Andean passes to the north. The road was a hundred times better than those the Rockies and I were used to.
Nine vehicles had been granted permission to enter that morning and we crawled up to 6600 feet in convoy, emerging above the clouds moving briskly along the Elqui valley. At the top of the mountain three white domes rested on stainless white stumps, like futuristic mosques, and a row of equally immaculate white VW Beetles glinted in the sunshine. The neat white gravel paths were roped off. The driver of one of the cars, standing between two domes, coughed to confound the silence, and when I looked over the uninterrupted view of mountains below us, I felt a visceral thrill.
A man in a white coat came through a door concealed in a stump and introduced himself: he was an astronomer, he was called Gonzalo and he was going to show us round. We filed into the middle stump. I had assumed that I was going to be looking through large black telescopes and seeing things. But it wasn’t like that. It was like looking round a nuclear power station. The biggest telescope had a lens measuring twelve feet in diameter which could capture light as far back as fourteen thousand million years. Its movable portion weighed around 300 tons and looked like a Cyclopean blue doughnut, yet it was so finely balanced that with the brakes off Gonzalo could move it with two fingers.
I had also assumed that I was going to be seeing stars. It hadn’t occurred to me that it was daytime.
Scientists at Tololo reckon on between a hundred and fifty and two hundred nights a year with perfect visibility into infinity. The big telescope had taken pictures of the birth of a star. ‘We,’ said Gonzalo, ‘are those who look into the past. Astronomy is anthropology—we see the birth or death of a star, and we learn to know ourselves better.’ This last part sounded like something Leo might have said.
Tololo is financed by the US Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (Aura), and Chilean scientists are granted 10 per cent of the night. Astronomers visit from all over the world, and have to book a year in advance. Gonzalo told the story of a Japanese scientist who had come recently for one night, but clouds prevented him from seeing anything, and he had to go home again. Everyone laughed, and Gonzalo looked pleased.
As I was well into the valley already, I decided to travel further inland when I left the grounds of the observatory; I had no plans for the afternoon. It was a perfect day which even a puncture couldn’t spoil. I was lying under Rocky, grappling
with a hydraulic jack, when a pair of blue boating shoes appeared. A face came down to meet them, and it offered to help.
This person was about my age, he had black hair which curled over his shoulders, and he looked like a youthful Salvador Dali. His name was Pepe, and his smile was dangerously beguiling. When we had fixed the tyre we went to his sister’s cottage to clean up. He asked me where I was going, and when I told him I planned to head straight up the valley he said,
‘No, don’t go there. The river’s dead up there. Polluted by the gold mine. I’ll show you a better place.’
He was an agricultural scientist recently turned freelance, and although he lived in Santiago, he spent as much time as he could in the Elqui valley. Pepe hated Santiago. He was an ardent ecologist, and became quietly passionate on the subject of the many scandalous depredations of nature for which he held his country responsible. He knew a lot about these things, and was making it his business to learn more; the idea of illuminating me, a foreigner, who might go off and tell others, appealed to him a good deal. He was gloomy about the possibility of whipping up any concern among his countrymen.
We walked along the bank of a clean river to a deserted grove of stiff green fronds, the ground covered with a thin layer of sweet apricots and the white fruit of the first fig crop. Further upstream we visited a friend of Pepe’s, an actor from Santiago. He had put his tent up on the riverbank for a month, and was lying in it. When we arrived he gave us a pot of warm apricot jam he had just made on a primus stove, and two spoons.
‘Are you North American?’
‘Es mejor, por lo menos
’ (That’s better, at least). I was always
chastened to remember that ‘at least’.
Pepe took me to a cave on the hillside with a sign outside which said, ‘We villagers pay homage to our ancestors, who gave us their name.’ Inside they had made lifesize models of these ancestors. The cave overlooked a hamlet called Diaguitas, the name of the people who once occupied the valley. Most of the Diaguita, who spoke
, farmed territory which is now in north-west Argentina; some of them came over the Andes, but their culture was probably eradicated by the Inca even before the Conquest.
The villagers were working in a large shed, packing bunches of table grapes, and a long row of young women wearing hairnets sat on stools snipping off bad fruit. The men were spraying, and puffs of sulphur rose very slowly into the still air.
We visited friends living on mountains in half-built houses, drinking herbal infusions and generally chilling out in the great Elqui valley tradition. Pepe was a hippy at heart. He didn’t own anything, he didn’t eat any refined foods, he rejected politics on the grounds that all its practitioners were corrupt, and he rejected too the values he had grown up with. His parents, who had been semi-skilled manual workers, were dead; he had two sisters, both married with kids in the city. They complained at him for not having a house or a wife or a full-time job.
At one hippy house in the valley there was a very small slug at the bottom of my tea mug. I didn’t like to say anything; I thought perhaps it was supposed to be there. Our hosts were listening to Pink Floyd on a battery cassette player. (People often mentioned Pink Floyd as soon as they met me. Eventually I realized it was because they wanted to demonstrate the only two English words they knew.)
Before I drove back down to my hotel in La Serena we went to watch the sunset over a glass of wine at the Peralillo social
club. Peralillo is a ratty little village, but its
was spectacular. We sat on a Raj-style raffia sofa with blue silk cushions on a balcony overlooking the whole valley, as well as the mountains beyond, and a man with unzipped flies brought a wicker flask of local wine.
Pepe and his sister, a feisty woman living in the valley who had told her husband that he was looking after the baby for once, called for me in La Serena early the next morning and we set off on a day trip. It was a plan conceived at the Peralillo social club. Pepe had the idea that we should visit Enchantment Valley (Valle del Encanto) a couple of hours away in the semi-desert.
When we got there a man with no front teeth emerged from a hut. Pepe went in to pay the entrance fee, and when they both came out of the hut the man looked suspiciously at me.
‘Is she foreign?’ he snapped.
He’s going to say only Chileans are allowed in, I thought. Then I realized that being foreign meant I had to sign the visitors’ book. I had already signed getting on for forty visitors’ books, and I wondered if this enthusiastically pursued national obsession reflected their sense of geographical isolation.
The valley was as still as a mausoleum and spread with a deep layer of smooth boulders. Between them spherical fruit blistered from the tips of cacti. Pepe took a great interest in the San Pedro cactus, still used for its hallucinogenic seeds – it was an ideal landscape for hallucinating, too.
As the unusual climatic conditions of the region create the astronomical near-perfection of Tololo, so on the coast to the south they enable a small rainforest to flourish in the semi-desert. We drove on towards the ocean through familiar dry and cactus-spiked terrain, past hopeful vendors waving prawns and fat discs of goat’s cheese, and arriving at the Fray
Jorge forest was like walking through the looking-glass into another world—a lush and verdant one, blossoming with tiny purple and yellow flowers and clammy creepers which clung around our ankles. Fray Jorge is a rainforest in a zone where annual rainfall may be as low as three inches. Sea-mist, produced by warm river water discharging nearby into a cold ocean, provides the equivalent of between twenty-four and thirty-six inches of rain a year, sustaining its own private tropical forest.