Authors: Sara Wheeler
The ever-gracious Rowena drove me to the bus station, making a spirited attempt at conversation despite my semi-comatose condition. When we got there I bought a bottle of water from a stall, and noted that the souvenir industry was not trying to flog ashtrays fashioned in its country’s eccentric image: it had hit on bookmarks. They were made of copper, and I bought one to replace the boarding card sticking out of Darwin’s
Voyage of the Beagle
As it was a thirty-hour trip up to the northern border I had allowed myself to buy a ticket on one of the more comfortable buses. The couple in front of me boarded in their best clothes and asked me to take a picture of them posing in front of their seat. It transpired that the husband was a second-hand car dealer called Jesus.
The driver crossed himself as we pulled out of the bus station. I dozed fitfully for an hour, then tried to keep my eyes open as we travelled along the Panamerican highway through the central valley. It was curious to see horses pulling ploughs and women crouched in the fields so near the urban sprawl of Santiago. The yellow foothills of the Andes, wobbling in the heat, were stained with olive green blotches. When we stopped, people rushed on to the bus selling avocados, conserved papaya, savoury pastries and sweeties.
The Panamerican is the only longitudinal road in Chile. It runs up the country like a spine, with two lanes and a tarmac surface all the way. It simply goes north. If it weren’t for a few stretches of jungle higher up you could probably keep driving until you hit Vancouver.
The price of the bus ticket included meals, and we parked outside a café on a featureless plain for lunch, which consisted of watery chicken broth and a chunk of meat of uncertain origin with boiled rice and a flaccid salad. In the early afternoon the central valley melted away and the landscape became scrubbier, the road following a depression between mountain ranges, at one point so narrow that it was like travelling through a tunnel. The coastal mountains vanished sometimes, leaving a thin strip of plain next to the ocean: that was Chile. But the Andes were always there, the one constant in the landscape. They were going to be the constant in every Chilean landscape.
I was trying to follow our route on a map. Chilean cartographers are still grappling with the problem of representing something very long and thin in a user-friendly format. They should go back to the old system of rolling them out on a spool like a toilet roll. I had three maps, and after two of them had brought me to the verge of a breakdown I gave up and looked out of the window. After several hours of scrub it got dark. The musak stopped, but respite was denied us as the television was switched on in its place, delivering interminable North American soaps in washed-out colour. At midnight the steward pressed a plastic token into my hand ‘for dinner’, and when the bus stopped we trooped into a noisy diner. In the centre of the room they had put up a ten-foot high perfectly conical Christmas tree made out of fluorescent green wire; I realized that it was already the middle of December. Dinner was the same as lunch.
I fell asleep almost as soon as we set off again, and I dreamt
that I was back at home, at my leaving party. In contrast with the uncharted territory outside the bus, the familiar faces and furniture appeared in brighter colours. In this dream I was standing in my kitchen and a friend asked me if I was frightened. I laughed and said no. (It was true that I wasn’t a bit afraid of what the friend was asking me about: bandits, rapists, illness and thieves. I was more likely to confront those hazards in Mornington Crescent, where I live, than in the Atacama desert.) Then someone else, whom I didn’t recognize, appeared in the kitchen and said, ‘She’s not going to South America really. It’s all a joke. She’s only going on a journey inside her own head.’
I woke up with a start, feeling cross, and hit my elbow on the window.
When I next woke up it was light. Every molecule of air was pulsating with bright, clean desert light. The sky was blanched, and the naked sand was broken only by one long, straight road. Desert Chile, called the
, the big north, covers approximately a quarter of the country (excluding what they refer to as Chilean Antarctica). It embraces the driest places on the planet, and much of it is lifeless. The transition zone between the central valley and the desert is called the
, the little north, or the northlet, and I had slept through most of that.
After several unpunctuated hours of that featureless landscape, travelling in suspended animation, we pulled in at a customs post (Chileans, I was to learn, are fond of internal customs posts) which consisted of two or three hardboard shacks, two pairs of goalposts, a three-legged dog and six women in cerise ponchos picking the pellets off corncobs.
Halfway through the morning the ground fell away to our right, revealing a deep valley. A green ribbon appeared at the bottom of the valley, but the rest was smooth toffee brown,
and the opposite rim was straight, flat and bare. The distance between the rims widened, perhaps to two, even three miles. Later, proximity to Arica, the most northerly Chilean town, almost at the Peruvian border, was signalled by a Coca-Cola logo carved into the hillside, and as if it knew it had almost made it, the refrigeration system cooling our oversweetened drinks broke down.
Thirty hours is long enough on a bus. Four rows ahead of me a Chilean emigré from Miami had found out I was foreign and kept shouting, ‘How are you, darling?’
My spirits rose as shacks became bungalows and bungalows three-storey blocks, and we lumbered into Arica bus station. The station clock had stopped.
Arica is the unofficial headquarters of the north Chilean
trail. (Although the word
simply means ‘foreigner’ – similarly
for the female of the species – it is usually perceived to have negative connotations. I even saw it translated in a book once as ‘foreign asshole’. In Chile
are regularly deployed as affectionate and humorous terms of abuse. Foreigners who use the word about themselves are seen to display a healthy sense of self-deprecation.) I had scarcely put my bags down when an anxious young Dutchwoman picked me out of the crowd of Chileans struggling to reunite themselves with their luggage.
‘Shall we share a room? You are alone too? It is much cheaper, I think.’
Bemused by this presumptive strike, I allowed myself to be led to a
(clapped-out cars that run regular routes like buses and charge a flat fee) and we were driven into the centre of town.
Heeta found us a tiny room overlooking a courtyard full of pink flowers, and after taking a shower she went to the beach. I tried to have a shower, but unlike Heeta I failed to master the controls, which were positioned on a large brown box
resembling a pre-war wireless. My efforts produced only scalding or freezing jets, and caused a small but alarming flood.
When Heeta returned she said:
‘I have met a Canadian boy and an Australian boy. They are picking us up for dinner at eight, yes?’
Heeta, the two men and I loitered in Arica for a few days, meeting up with and parting from other foreigners like ants in a colony. I hadn’t planned to hang out with backpackers, and I didn’t intend to continue, but I enjoyed doing so for that brief period, and it was a way of beginning.
Arica felt like the frontier town that it is. Seamen eddied around in little gangs. Cooling ocean breezes just didn’t exist up there, and it was always hot, so dry you expected the brittle buildings to crumble. There were a lot of people on the streets, even at two in the morning, and they were either eating outside cafés or purposefully going somewhere. The pavements revealed an amalgam of cultures: sleek-haired indigenous women wearing bowler hats carried babies and shopping on their backs in bright pink woven slings, yet most of the food we ate was in the shape of a burger.
The whole town was overlooked by the
, a pale cliff where Chilean troops defeated the Peruvians in the War of the Pacific in 1880. They were fighting, basically, over the nitrate- and guano-rich territories to the south; at that time they belonged to Peru and Bolivia (both of which share a border with Chile). During a particularly tense period in the triangular relationship Peru had entered into a secret alliance with Bolivia, effectively ganging up on Chile, and when it was exposed Chile declared war on both of them. In the treaties and agreements which followed Chilean territory was enlarged by one-third. The nitrates of the Atacama desert were to shape the country’s socio-economic development, in the process transforming the labour movement, realigning the
class structure, facilitating industrial expansion and, ominously, creating an export-dependent economy. Bolivia and Peru sorely resented their loss, and still do. One of my predecessors, a travel writer in the 1920s called Earl Chapin May, noted, ‘Signs have appeared in Arica such as, “No dogs or Peruvians wanted”. President Leguia [of Peru] once issued an order prohibiting the entry into his country of “Russians, Chileans and prostitutes”.’
They had set up a life-sized nativity scene in the palmy
Plaza de Armas
. The flat-faced Mary was wearing a traditional Andean bowler hat, and there was an alpaca at the crib. We had been brought up to expect holy figures who looked like us.
‘Those must be the three wise dudes,’ said Colin, a tough Canadian engineer who had packed in his job to spend six months in South America.
The square also had an open-air hairdressing salon where a middle-aged woman was having thin curlers put in her glossy hair. It was overlooked by a strange, multi-coloured church designed by Gustav Eiffel in 1875 and brought from Peru block by block after all the churches in Arica were destroyed by a tidal wave. They had a lot of tidal waves; a US steamer was once carried a mile inland. It was impossible to refloat it, so they turned it into a hotel.
One day I took a
to the Azapa valley. It was where Salvador came from, my friend from the lido. Two llamas were grazing in a quiet, sunny cul-de-sac opposite the sand-polished ruins of an Inca fort, and a woman was pushing a wheelbarrow containing a baby and a gas canister. A small archaeological museum behind a fence traced local habitation back 10,000 years. There was a sixteenth-century hat in one of the glass cases, woven in stripes.
Outside in the road again I asked the wheelbarrow-pusher,
on her way back, minus canister, if she knew Salvador’s grandmother; he had made me promise I would find her. She pushed a small curtain of hair from her eyes and pointed to a diminutive house at the top of the road, square on.
Before I reached this house I saw her, stooped outside, fiddling with a plant, and as I got closer I could see that she was picking leaves off it. She was wearing a hat exactly like the one in the museum. She stood up and looked at me, shading her eyes with a hand. I thought I could see something of him in her, an echo of his face. When I reached the gate I introduced myself, and said that I knew her grandson, Salvador, that we were friends in London, that I was travelling in Chile and he had asked me to find her and send his love.
‘Is he coming home?’
I looked down at the gatepost.
‘Not yet. But he will one day. And he’s very well.’
She gestured for me to enter, and I sat on a wooden stool in the shade of a banana tree while she brought two glasses of a bitter herbal infusion from the adobe kitchen. I told her about Salvador’s life in London, describing the city in as much detail as I could, and she kept her eyes on mine, interrupting with questions. When I had finished she looked in the direction of the mountains, lifted her hands in the air and raised her eyebrows, as if to say, that’s all very well,
but where is he
She softened a little, then, and talked about other members of the family, and the llamas, who had recovered from a long viral infection, and the problems she was experiencing irrigating her small plot that year. After an hour I stood up to leave, and she embraced me, but it was only when I was on my way down the road that she called out,
‘Don’t forget to tell him about the llamas.’
Years of dictatorship by the last Prussian army in the world have not separated Chileans from Chile. The military rulers have prevented them from living like human beings, but they have not been able to prevent them from surviving like Chileans.
Chileans say that life goes on in the churches, the courtrooms, and the cemeteries. The rest is survival. They will survive General Pinochet and the dictatorship, because on the other side of their bondage is Chile.
Back in Arica Santa pranced around on street corners and sweated to the tune of ‘White Christmas’ while gruff money-changers cruised the gringo hangouts and wherever we were a succession of hawkers importuned us with anything from counterfeit Rolex watches to live furry spiders. One evening, in a café near the port, we were offered coloured condoms a year past their sell-by date. We were talking, at the time, about the worst truck journeys we had ever endured.
‘I sat on the top of twenty crates of uncovered wet fish for four hours in Greece once,’ contributed an Italian art student.
‘Well I’, said Paul from Tucson, Arizona, whom nobody
liked, ‘hopped into the back of a lorry in Kurdistan carrying frozen pigs’ trotters.’
I persuaded myself to stir from this easy and agreeably indolent life and start doing things properly. I wanted to move east, right up into the Andes, to the oxygen-starved volcanoes, cold lakes, strange lichen, green peat bogs and abundant camelids. Only one bus a week went up there. The day before the next one left I bought candles, food, water and a bus ticket, said goodbye to the others and went to bed early.
The bus pulled out of the station before dawn. Later, in the half-light, we passed geoglyphs of men and animals, carved into the hillsides by some wandering tribe, centuries before the accursed Spaniards appeared on the continent. We stopped among the alfalfa fields at a village called Poconchile, at a customs post; I rested my head on the dirty bus window and missed the gringos. They had been my transition zone.