Authors: Sara Wheeler
‘Well done,’ said Matthew. ‘You didn’t flag.’
Patronising bastard, I thought. He applied himself to the task of clipping his nails, and I removed a new branch of the salamander family from the soap dish, filled the bath and got in, the steam-filled room lit by a single candle. A bottle of chilled Krug would have gone down nicely. I would have settled, in fact, for a pint of warm Chilean Sauvignon blanc, but I had nothing, not even a cigarette, as I had given my last packet to an old Aymára in the back of a broken-down truck. Even coffee would have provided a token stimulant. I considered inviting Matthew into the bath,
faute de mieux
, to make an occasion of it, but decided against it and ate half a packet of the flavour-free strawberry wafers.
The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand;
They wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand
Through the Looking-Glass
As we lurched down to the Panamerican I began to glean one of Chile’s less visible but most salient characteristics: the geographical differences between north and south – the feature that had brought me half way across the world – were only part of the story. It was the contrast between the interior and the coastal plain that struck me then – a contrast which manifested itself in the landscape, economy, infrastructure, social organization and even racial mix, as – generally – the higher you go the purer the indigenous blood. People seemed very conscious of the division between mountain-dwellers and plain-dwellers: I had heard several men in Arica referring to themselves as costeños, coastal people. Christopher Isherwood came across this distinction in other South American republics, and in his excellent travel book
The Condor and the Cows
he calls the two groups of people the Ups and the Downs.
You end up driving around a lot in the desert. You have to.
Distances between anything except sand are long, and when you do get somewhere, nothing happens. It was curiously agreeable, as if our minds had flattened out like the baked plain. The sun blanched our anxieties, and life began to seem less complex. There was a tension out there on the sand, but it was a subtle, faintly delicious one, hinting at the possibility of creative eruptions.
We stopped at a semi-derelict complex of buildings, a ‘Keep Out’ sign dangling vertically from one nail on a wall next to the entrance. Once the flourishing nitrate community of Humberstone, since the people had disappeared the buildings had dried out into sturdy husks, potent symbols of the transience of the Chilean nitrate age. Inside an exercise book lay open on a classroom floor, its pages bleached, and on the basketball pitch the indentations of feet that had scuffled round the posts were filled, emptied and refilled with fluid sand. The tricks of the sun coloured in the gaps, and if you turned your head too quickly you caught a child running through the streets or a couple kissing a first kiss under the moulded iron streetlamps.
The resources of the desert have bestowed upon the northern provinces (about a third of the country’s landmass) a significance out of all proportion to their meagre population (less than 15 per cent of the total). The nitrate industry was a nineteenth-century development; it was Chilean acquisition of the land after the War of the Pacific that marked its beginning. In 1883, Chile’s industrial working class was born up there in the north.
Small metal plates nailed to rusted engines were engraved with the words ‘Made in Lancashire’, or ‘Cobb & Son, 1897’. Señor Keith had shown me a curling photograph of his great uncle attending a meeting at Humberstone. He was standing next to six handlebar-moustached Victorians sweating in their worsted shirts.
‘Fertilizer’, said Señor Keith emphatically. ‘He told me they were arguing at that meeting about how best to refine their nitrate ore to make it into fertilizer and export it.’
The government quickly learnt to depend on the fiscal revenue the burgeoning industry brought it – though it also had to get used to the socio-economic volatility engendered by dependence on a world market over which it had no control.
The population of the north doubled in twenty years as the nitrate plants sucked in manpower. The workers were exploited relentlessly in the usual horrific ways, but for the first time they used a collective voice in protest, and Chile had its first general strike in 1890. The labour movement spread south and into the new manufacturing businesses, and the country was soon experiencing the problems of urbanization faced by most of the nations of the developed world as they ushered in the industrial age. The rapid transformation led to more or less permanent economic conflict.
During the First World War German scientists started trying to make synthetic nitrates, and when they succeeded the Chilean industry went into long-term decline. The Depression of the 1930s hit the country harder than any other, according to League of Nations statistics, and many of the British left; Señor Keith’s great uncle had been virtually abandoned. Chile was to look to the United States from then on, in almost every area.
Humberstone was shut down completely in 1960, and its shell had been designated a national monument. I had already learnt that if the authorities didn’t know what to do with something they turned it into a national monument in the belief that the gesture absolved them of responsibility towards it.
We got back into Rocky and kept driving, mesmerized by the hot, empty space, and later we left the highway to penetrate the interior. The style of the churches had altered
dramatically during this short journey southwards, and the simplicity of the white thatched altiplano chapels was gone. We stopped for Matthew to photograph gaudy iron buildings with large dented domes and chipped plaster columns. Then the trees faded away and we entered a textbook desert landscape consisting of nothing except undulating smooth sand and throbbing air. We sweated, even with the wind rushing through the windows, and spent a lot of time refilling our water containers: however much we drank, it was never enough. A village appeared in the distance, a dark green, abruptly circumscribed oasis, and we stopped to drink juice freshly pressed from its citrus groves.
We took a different route out, though it was almost identical to the one we had taken in, and saw nothing for twenty-three miles except sand. Later, on the edge of the Pintados salt lake, a collection of geoglyphs – almost four hundred different images – broke up the sandy surfaces of the hills. To get to them we had to cross a long-disused and once nitrate-bearing railway. The railway came to Chile in the middle of the nineteenth century to facilitate the copper industry, and by the early 1880s the nitrate lands had railways too, most of them built by the British – the railway engineers of Conrad’s Sulaco. A hundred years later a family had installed themselves in two broken-down carriages rusting next to the weedy track, and their washing was drying over the long axles.
Rocky the jeep had to go back to Hertz in Iquique, where I had arranged to leave him. He was no longer white. Matthew, also considerably darker than he had been at the outset, was to be deposited in Iquique too. I was going to catch a night bus to Calama, a town further south in the Atacama, as I had made arrangements to meet my friend James Lloyd, who was flying from London to visit me for his Christmas holiday. It was Sunday 22 December, and honking trucks cruised the streets
of Iquique playing ‘Jingle Bells’ over their tannoys and bearing black-haired Father Christmases and beribboned acolytes who tossed sweets to children on the pavements.
I bought a ticket for a bus leaving at midnight, and before settling into a bar with Matthew admired some of the grand old residences of the nitrate barons and the opera house built by Eiffel. Iquique was a town of Parisian elegance after the parched and cracked utilitarian style of Arica. The well-stocked shops were full of customers, and the tarmac streets were thronged with cars; I would have liked to know if this prosperity extended to the kind of behaviour referred to darkly in an article in the
in 1878 which described Iquique as ‘the Sodom and Gomorrah of the Pacific coast’. The town had survived the collapse of nitrates, emerging in the 1960s as the centre of a major fishing and fish processing zone (the waters were as rich as the arable land was barren) and by the 1980s the government was claiming that measured in volume handled it had become the largest fishing port in the world.
At eleven-thirty Matthew kissed me goodbye and pushed me into a taxi to the bus station. I was sorry to leave him; we had got on well – most of the time – despite his unreconstructed attitude towards women and especially considering that we hadn’t been out of each other’s company for five days and had barely met each other before that. He was a good travelling companion, really, and the difficulties and isolation of the trip had forged a bond between us whether we liked it or not.
The station was jammed with people; I couldn’t imagine where they all came from, although they had apparently all been shopping, as most of them were labouring with huge boxes of electrical goods from the tax-free commercial zone just outside Iquique (which in Aymára means ‘rest and tranquillity’).
I fell asleep almost as soon as we left, but at three o’clock in the morning we had to get off at a customs post. All the luggage was lifted onto a long bench and an official walked along inspecting it, mechanically inserting both hands inside each bag while he looked at a girl in a miniskirt at the other end of the station. The passengers stood around like the living dead, pale-lipped and flesh tinged blue by neon signs offering them draught beer,
I had known James since university, and we had met up in various spots around the world over the years in spite of our foolishly blasé attitude towards
. ‘It’s always better,’ we used to say, ‘to have a very vague arrangement, because anything more precise is always thwarted.’ A plain case of hubris. This time I had told him to get on a bus from Santiago as soon as his plane landed, and that I’d meet him twenty-four hours later in Calama.
Seventeen buses a day arrived in Calama from Santiago at five different terminals, each located in a different part of town. I met all seventeen, and James wasn’t on any of them. I knew he would call at the tourist office if I didn’t appear, and as it was permanently shut I pushed a note halfway under the door with his name visible in big letters and anchored it with a stone. The note told him to go to my hotel. I spent the day shuttling between bus stations. In one of them I made friends with a small girl who told me her name was Laydee. When her mother appeared she told me that she had named her child after Lady Di.
I filled in the time between buses buying Christmas presents for James. I found him a pink woven duffel bag – suitable for a barrister, I thought – and matching pink plastic sunglasses, a bottle of clear brandy and a loaf of special Christmas bread. As I walked past the post office I suddenly remembered that back at home I had given my December address as Poste
Restante, Calama. Inside they had pinned up neat lists of recipients’ names, but as mine did not appear, I queued up and enquired if there was any possibility of an oversight. The functionary cleàrly thought there was a very strong possibility, and after several minutes of fossicking around under her desk produced two bundles of letters held together with elastic bands. When she had gone through these and found nothing, she admitted that a big box of unsorted letters was languishing in the basement. I asked if I could look through it myself. After some hesitation and in order, I suspected, to get me out of the way, she ushered me into the bowels of the post office, pointing at an orange crate overstuffed with an assortment of envelopes. At the bottom of this crate I found an orange and a letter for me from my vicar. I waved the letter around in triumph; the staff evidently thought it hilarious that someone had found something they wanted in that crate. They probably still talk about it now at office parties. Reading the missive as I left the building, I collided with a back-to-front tricycle carrying an uncovered tray of rum babas. Father Tom said they missed me at St Mark’s, and wished me a Happy Christmas.
At half-past ten that night I was drinking James’ Christmas present out of a toothmug alone in my room. The brand name on the bottle, I noticed, was ‘Control’. I had repeatedly checked that my message remained in place at the tourist office; I had left notes in the gents’ toilets at the bus stations; I had given careful instructions to officials about tall, red-haired gringos; and I had telephoned James’ mother in Kenilworth to check that he had left. In the furthest station, at midnight and with Puccini playing over the tannoy, I met the last bus, and he wasn’t on it.
The shops were just closing on Christmas Eve when an unshaven James ran out of a bar as I walked past.
‘I got your message! I told you the wrong arrival date. Sorry.’
We were out of Calama within ten minutes. Several weeks previously I had booked us a room in one of the only decent hotels in the Atacama desert, planning Christmas in an oasis as a treat. The relief which followed the anxiety of the previous twenty-four hours imbued the project with a real sense of celebration.
I procured another jeep from Hertz and we travelled for two hours through the sand to reach this oasis.
Twenty-six political prisoners were shot somewhere along that route in October 1973. They were journalists, lawyers, union officials – the usual kind of people – and they had been held at a military installation nearby. It happened during General Sergio Arellano Stark’s now famous helicopter tour of six such installations in the north. He had ordered a tribunal for the twenty-six the next day, but while he was having his dinner in Calama they were murdered. Did he know it was going to happen? He says he didn’t. He was called ‘the Wolf’. When the junta came to power Pinochet had been head of the army for only three weeks, so he had to purge it quickly. Arellano took off on this tour, making it clear that army personnel were going to have to be tough to survive.