Travels in a Thin Country (4 page)

BOOK: Travels in a Thin Country
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There was a valley with a wide green floor. As we travelled higher, above the valley and past a borax mine, the wrinkled hills transmogrified into brown shale pierced with candelabra cacti. The landscape was oppressively arid, and the contrast between the fecund valley floor and the rough brown cliffs and slopes seemed shockingly stark. The dreamy light of dawn had quickly sharpened into desert glare, and static on my sunglasses attracted a filmy layer of dust which re-appeared almost as soon as I had wiped it off. At the Restaurante Internacional, where erratically tufted dogs limped around the baked mud floor, we ate dry biscuits and drank coca-leaf tea, an infusion often prescribed to combat altitude sickness. I learnt – months later – that you need a catalyst for this brew to have any effect at all.

Three men we had passed working on the road came in. They were wearing all-in-one garments resembling snow-suits, as well as cotton hats and goggles. I thought, What are they hiding from?, and I looked outside again, and realized
they were hiding from everything – sun, wind, cold, dust. It was as harsh as another planet up there.

The vegetation changed again after the oregano and potato fields of Socoroma, a typical Andean village where Aymára and
mestizos
(Chileans of mixed indigenous and European descent) had built their abode houses around a crooked white church. The bus stopped, and the driver got out to hand a package to an Aymára man who took it and turned away, without a smile.

Groups of Aymára entered Chile centuries ago, probably from the Titicaca basin, and their existence has been an unrelieved struggle against the brutal conditions of the high Andes. Nobody knows a great deal about them; the written history of most of the indigenous peoples west of the Andes before the Spanish conquest is sketchy, at least compared with that of the high cultures of more northerly Latin American countries. It wasn’t until I got home and historically minded friends asked me about ‘sites’ that I realized there weren’t any – or very few. Chile didn’t breed any great empires and civilizations like the famous cultures of Mexico, Central America and Peru; it was frugally peopled by a heterogeneous (though often related) collection of tribes, each rich in its own particular areas of development. Most of them subsequently melted into oblivion. There was one exceptionally strong culture to the south, the Mapuche, which continues, but even they never had a centralized government. The other indigenous peoples were too fragmented to present a united opposition to the Spaniards. With the exception of the Mapuche, small groups of other Araucanians (of which the Mapuche are a branch) and the northern Aymára, miscegenation assimilated the original Chileans fairly swiftly.

The racial mix of the nation therefore settled at an early stage, compared with other territories of the Spanish empire. Relatively few black slaves were brought in. Approximately 65
per cent of the thirteen million contemporary Chileans are
mestizos
, 30 per cent are white and 5 per cent indigenous (this latter concentrated at the bottom of the social scale). I remembered what a salient feature racial differences had been in Brazil. They barely exist in Chile, which enjoys an ethnic uniformity almost unique on the continent.

The rolling high plains of the central Andes above about 12,000 feet are called the altiplano, a word which has worked its way into the English language; it refers to the entire discontinuous series of plateaux and basins extending from southern Colombia to northern Chile. The high desert around the intersection of Chile, Peru and Bolivia is also known as the Puna, and it is the largest tableland outside of Tibet.

When we reached this territory we found long-necked vicuñas (close but wild relations of the llama) grazing on bunchgrass, and rocks covered with the rare llareta (
laretia compacta
), a dense and bright green lichen-like plant which ónly needs a twentieth of an inch of water a year and which protects itself from the environment by turning hard and gathering into dome shapes. I glimpsed a mountain vizcacha – a furry grey rodent which resembles a long-tailed rabbit – sunbathing on a rock near a cushion bog. Spangled volcanoes overlooked lakes skimmed by black-headed Andean gulls and giant coots, and on the shore of Lake Chungará, at 14,800 feet probably the highest lake in the world, I got out of the bus and waved goodbye as it trundled towards Bolivia.

Deep silence. I walked across to a tiny wooden refuge pointed out by the bus driver. It was run by a genial employee of Conaf, the national forestry service; he was called Umberto, and he said I could sleep on the floor of what purported to be an office. I sat talking to him outside the hut, and almost immediately the salmon pink streak of a flamingo curved above the lake.

The change in air pressure had caused my fountain pen to
leak over my clothes. I wondered what it was doing to my body. I drank a lot of water, didn’t move much for twenty-four hours, and watched the vicuñas next to the hut. They were eating bunchgrass as hard as granite and spikier than a gorse bush. Umberto knew them all personally. He told me that they were much nicer than their relations the guanacos, who live at lower altitudes; guanacos spit.

As the sun prepared to set, delicate pink fingers curled around the volcano in front of us.

On the second day Umberto unfurled a Chilean flag on the flagpole.

‘What’s that for?’ I asked.

‘We like to put one up because we’re so near Bolivia,’ he said. ‘The last one got ripped in the wind. Besides, the boss is coming up tomorrow.’

The next morning he scrubbed the hut, shaved and put on a clean shirt, tie, pressed trousers and regulation Conaf sweater. We sat outside watching white-throated sierra finches hopping in the shale. The boss never turned up. This didn’t bother Umberto. It was difficult to imagine anything ever bothering him; he was so laid back I wondered if he was on anything, and if he was, I wanted some. His maternal grandmother was pure Aymára, his other three grandparents
mestizos
; he had been brought up in a valley not far off. He was diffident when he spoke, but apparently completely at ease with himself and his isolation. I asked him how he liked living alone so far from anyone else, and he laughed.

‘It’s better than the town! Pure air!’

‘Thin air!’ I said.

‘Thin for you, not for me. My lungs are used to it.’

‘Do you like it best when there are people staying at the refuge, or when you’re alone?’

‘Alone! I like peace. I like my thoughts. I like to write poetry.’

I walked to the shore of the lake, and counted the giant coots’ nests floating on the water.

When I woke up on the fifth morning I surprised myself by feeling stirrings of desire to move on; I was uncontrollably eager to grasp more of the country. Inconveniently positioned mountains meant that I was obliged to go back before I could go forward, so I decided to leave for Arica. After packing my bag, however, I had an attack of altitude sickness, called
soroche
in South America. I threw up my breakfast, had a tight headache that aspirins wouldn’t dislodge, and felt weak. It wasn’t only oxygen deprivation which made life punishing up there: it was viciously cold at night, too. I had worn all my clothes to bed, including hat and gloves, and in the morning there was always ice in front of the hut. But during the day the sun was remorseless. I sat still inside the hut, recovering, and in an attempt to entertain me Umberto turned to Princess Anne’s signature in the visitors’ book, and asked me if I knew her. I wondered if she had suffered from altitude sickness.

By early afternoon I felt better, and decided to return to Arica after all. I said goodbye to Umberto and walked down the road, reasonably confident of picking up a ride down to the coast. Umberto was singing. I sat on a rock and looked back, so I could see the volcanoes behind the lake for a little longer. One of them was the highest volcano in the world. Chile has over 2000 volcanoes, and about fifty of them are active; they were all gods to the early peoples, many with names and personalities. Two of them were reflected in unbroken lines on the waters of the lake. Agents of the Pinochet regime had tried to drain that lake once, claiming they were going to pipe the water to the people of Arica. As it is salt water and they were apparently not building any desalination plants this was not very plausible. It was eventually revealed that the object was to increase the water supply to a hydroelectric plant
which they were about to privatise. The project was dropped.

The wind whipped up little typhoons of brown dust. After an hour a juggernaut crawled over the ridge. I knew it was Bolivian, as virtually all road traffic over that section of the Andes carries freight from landlocked Bolivia to Chilean ports. Bolivia lost its coastal territory in the War of the Pacific, and is obliged to station its navy on Lake Titicaca. Over a century after the war, its demands for free and full access to the coast continue to poison bilateral relations. I had already been told a laboured joke three times about Bolivian representations at the UN, which for some reason, according to the Chileans, were expressed in English (‘We want sea’). Turned around (‘Sea, we want’), this allegedly sounds very much like ‘Yes, bollocks’ (
Sí, huevón
) in Chilean Spanish.

The lorry skidded to a halt a few yards ahead of me, causing a minor cyclone, and I climbed up into the grimy cab, greeted by two sweaty and smiling dark brown faces. I reckoned the journey back down to Arica would take about eight hours. It was to turn out rather differently.

The truck was loaded with 34 tons of timber on its way to the United States. Simón and Rodríguez sat a couple of feet apart in the front seats and I perched on the narrow wooden bed behind them. A large plastic model of the Virgin in prayer, her body wreathed in fluorescent roses, was swinging violently from the mirror. (This, the South American equivalent of the furry dice, was to become a familiar sight on my trip.) Most of the metal in the cab was exposed and dented, and wherever possible it had been decorated with circular stickers printed with pithy Bolivian aphorisms such as ‘Virginity kills – inoculate yourself’. Every few minutes the two men dipped their stubby fingers into crumpled paper bags on the dashboard and took out lurid jellyish sweeties. I ate one of these later. It tasted of Swarfega.

I had underestimated the capacity of 34 tons of wood to
slow a vehicle down. In addition, the height of the cab magnified the bumps (there were many bumps) and I often clenched my eyes in pain as
soroche
flooded back. When the sun began to set I made a headrest out of my sleeping bag, and then the pink and orange liquid Andean sky turned my torture chamber into a palace.

I began to realize that there was more to the extraordinary slowness of the truck than was immediately apparent. It was slowest when we went downhill. Whenever we confronted a sweeping slope downwards, beads of sweat appeared on Simón’s brow and he rammed his foot on the brake and changed down to first gear.

We passed two other Bolivian juggernauts parked on a verge, and pulled over. It appeared that each truck needed a tyre change – an astonishing coincidence – and a team effort was required. This took two hours. I sat on a rock trying to be patient and finished Gavin Young’s
Slow Boats Home
.

We set off again, and I estimated that we could still make Arica by midnight. I asked Simón when we would be arriving. ‘
En un ratito
,’ he said, a phrase I had already heard many times in Chile. It had the same connotations as
mañana
in Spain (without the sense of urgency, as the old but reliable joke goes). It was the first of many journeys which took far longer than it would ever have been possible to imagine at the outset, and by the end of my six months in Chile I experienced a sense of achievement whenever I actually arrived anywhere.

When we pulled over again, at ten o’clock, a building materialized in the blackness, and it was surrounded by Bolivian trucks. Simón hustled me inside, where an Aymára family was watching television behind a straw screen. In the front portion of the building Simón and Rodríguez greeted about fifteen of their compatriots and we joined them at a long table.

Thus it was, then, that at 13,000 feet on a cold night in the heart of the Andes I had dinner with seventeen Bolivian truckers. They all had masses of glossy, straight black hair, dark skin, thin moustaches, high cheekbones and large, straight white teeth. We ate
cazuela
, a staple Chilean dish I became very fond of comprising potato, corn and a chunk of meat in tasty brown broth. The truckers were in high spirits (though they didn’t touch alcohol) and graciously tried to include their strange dinner guest in the conversation, but I had just about got my ear around the Chilean idiom, and this Bolivian Spanish defeated me. The volume, inflection and accompanying gestures indicated that they were not discussing the finer points of the Bolivian constitution.

As we left the building Rodríguez cheerfully announced that we still had four hours to go. This was depressing news, as the boarding-house where I had left my bags only received its guests until two o’clock. I fidgeted on my wooden bed. After a couple of hours we reached a section of road allowing one-way traffic only, and had to wait in a line of trucks for half an hour until we were mysteriously waved through. And then, at one o’clock, we drove into a lorry park where Simón announced that we were to snatch ‘a couple of hours’ sleep’. Rodríguez, whose sole role was apparently to allow Simón to boss him around, was dispatched into the back of the truck with blankets. I was motioned forwards while Simón made up the bed behind the seats. He lay down, breathing heavily. I sat rigid in the passenger seat.

‘Why don’t you come back here?’ he said alluringly. ‘It’s much more comfortable.’ After two or three further attempts at persuasion he fell asleep. I tried to do the same in the passenger seat, but the man could have snored for Bolivia, so I put my thermal gloves on and watched the stars until the sky transformed itself from deep black to the pale pearly shades of an oyster, and sunlight leaked from the east.

BOOK: Travels in a Thin Country
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