Travels in a Thin Country (8 page)

BOOK: Travels in a Thin Country
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The time came, of course, when the Wolf too was surplus to requirements. Pinochet didn’t have him killed; he just brought his career to an end.

Daliesque configurations of rock led into San Pedro de Atacama, an old and fertile oasis village with a thousand inhabitants. Arriving in an oasis is like waking up from a dream: everything is different, and you feel momentarily disorientated, then relieved. The hotel I had booked us into was quite famous, but it was characterless, with nothing much to recommend it, and the food was poor. Poor food didn’t matter too much when it cost tuppence, but when it was
expensive – well, that was galling. On that first night we had dinner in the village square instead. It was lined with pimento trees, and at eleven o’clock we watched young villagers dance around the church to a military drumbeat. Another group, in possession of an amplification system, acted out the nativity scene, and a crowd of small shepherds brought a recalcitrant llama to the crib.

Just before midnight we followed clusters of people into the church, built in the eighteenth century of big, bulbous lumps of rock and painted white. The dancing troupe fidgeted in the aisle during the service (led by a woman, as there weren’t any priests available); towards the end the dancers began gyrating energetically, changing tempo when an MC blew a whistle. More flamboyant than the girls in every way, the boys were wearing black satin waistcoats sequinned with a cross.

We both forgot that it was Christmas Day at first. After breakfast we packed up Rocky II with the few Christmas presents we had, a spartan picnic, a six-inch inflatable Christmas tree, two crackers which James had brought (he had wondered if they constituted firearms) and ten bottles of water. We set off south, alongside the greyish-brown Atacama salt flats, frayed white at their curling edges, a vista of emptiness extending to every horizon. The sun was already punishing. We were waved through a police control post (the policeman had threaded tinsel through the belt loops of his shorts) and stopped in the square of another oasis to climb up the exiguous eighteenth-century belltower, built of volcanic rock and cactus wood, and after that we watched a woman working llama-wool on an open-air loom, cactus wood needles slung around her neck.

Every day was hotter than the last, or so it seemed to our European physiologies. To the east of the village we took off our boots and walked along a shallow river in a ravine. The
still air, closed in by steep cliffs, was perfumed by citrus groves.

There was a lake called Laguna Lejía up in the mountains near Argentina, and we had settled on it as the venue for our Christmas dinner. The roads were terrible. Someone had marked the Tropic of Capricorn with a pile of volcanic breeze blocks, cemented together at odd angles. It was on a mountain pass which scalloped ahead for miles, the kind of mountain pass on which you might imagine spotting a caravan of yaks in the far distance. At about 12,500 feet the lake appeared, and in its shallows stood many hundreds of flamingos. They took off, when they felt like it, great sprays of pink foam crossing the volcanic backdrop and coming down on another part of the fluorescent water.

‘Beats the Queen’s Speech,’ said James.

The wind was gusting between the mountains and the party hats from our crackers were soon whipped off, brushing over the heads of horned coots and geese in the shallows. We read the cracker jokes to each other. (
Man on telephone
: ‘Is that four four four, four four four four?’
Voice at other end
: ‘Yes it is.’
: ‘Would you mind coming over? My finger’s stuck in the dial.’) Then we opened our gifts and sat on the sand next to the lake to eat a Christmas lunch of stale cheese rolls, a small, raw plum pudding my mother had insinuated into my bag before I left, apparently assuming that a four-hour steaming facility would always be near at hand, and
. This fruit, as yet not exported, had become one of my greatest pleasures. It has a warty olive-green rind, a pulpy white flesh, and glossy black pips; it is a member of the custard apple family and I believe is properly called a Jamaica apple in English. Its technical name is
anona cherimolia
, and it tastes like pears and honey.

James was happy, because he claimed to have seen, on the far shore, a group of James’ flamingos, the rarest species in the
world. He had brought a field guide with him just to identify this bird. I was never convinced that he really had seen any.

On the return journey, beyond the miles of salt and borax the mountains were phosphorescent and flushed with burnished copper. Whilst we were enjoying the view, we bogged Rocky in deep sand at Zapar, a small oasis in a concealed valley. The tinsel policeman had led us across the sand to this place, driving his jeep as if he were competing in a grand prix. He had disappeared, and we were stuck four hours’ walk away from the nearest inhabited shack. ‘Happy Christmas,’ said James. By some seasonal miracle two small boys emerged from a derelict cottage and fetched branches which we wedged under the back wheels. Hearts beating with relief when we finally drove the vehicle out, we gave the boys a huge tip, forgot about the prehispanic ruins we had gone to Zapar to see, and headed home to San Pedro as quickly as possible for a large Christmas drink.

James and I were used to each other’s company. We could sit up till three with a bottle and our books, not saying much. That evening we were lounging at a table on the grass outside our room, the air still enough to read by candlelight. Suddenly Colin appeared, the Canadian engineer from Arica.

‘Happy Christmas,’ he said. ‘I thought you might be here.’

I was delighted to see him. He had a German man with him, and quickly told me that Paul from Tucson was about to join us. He hadn’t been able to shake him off. Paul was the traveller none of the gringos in Arica had liked. He was in his early forties, quite a loudmouth, and he had given up a well-paid job designing industrial air conditioning units in order to see the world for a year or two. One day he had told us in some detail about a recent sexual encounter with a Chilean woman. He wasn’t boasting; quite the reverse, actually, as he said he hadn’t made a very good job of it (those weren’t his exact words). It is a universally acknowledged truth that there
is no more popular topic than other people’s sexual peccadilloes. But Paul achieved the impossible. He made his sound boring.

Six or seven other gringos turned up, bearing cartons of wine and diluting Paul’s company.

‘We won’t swap addresses’, said Colin when he lurched off into the darkness many hours later, ‘as I know I’ll see you again down the track.’

But he never did.

Compared with most indigenous cultures in Chile, Atacaman civilization, much of which has been preserved in the desert sand, is reasonably well documented. In the museum at San Pedro they had a mummy, labelled Miss Chile; even her long dark hair was intact. The museum made me feel I could walk out into the desert, dig my fingers a few inches into the warm sand and pull out a broken cup or a human bone. The arid sands struck an odd contrast with the rich treasures they yielded. There was a statue outside the museum of the grand master of Atacaman archaeology, the Belgian Jesuit Gustav Le Paige (he was a dead ringer for Gordon Jackson from the television series
Upstairs, Downstairs
), and alongside a paean to his life’s work I read that the Atacameño were agriculturalists and herders, oppressed by other tribes prior to the Conquest. Their little-studied language,
, was spoken up until the end of the last century.

North of the village the landscape transformed itself into a still and rocky valley where sapphire dragonflies pitched on the marshy riverbanks. We climbed to the top of the ruined Pukará de Quitor, a fort built in about 1200. A Spaniard attacked it three hundred and forty years later, and with just forty men on horseback he took it.

Pre-Columbian peoples had no concept of geographically defined nationality. Tribespeople in what has become Peru
referred vaguely to the land to the south as Chilli or Chile, and a
appeared there on his horse in 1535, forty-three years after Columbus first crossed the Atlantic. Diego de Almagro, an illiterate peasant like many of the Spanish conquerors, had been granted a slice of territory south of Peru called Nueva Toledo by the Spaniards. His expedition to this unknown land, where there were no glittering piles of gold and silver as there had been in Peru and Mexico, was such a disaster, and he spoke so bitterly of Chile, that the tribes there were left in peace for five more years. (Almagro was subsequently strangled in Peru by a rival army of
.) But in 1540 Pedro de Valdivia – in whose honour the love hotel in Santiago had been named, four hundred years later – set out from Cuzco in Peru with between five and twenty Spaniards, hundreds of indigenous people, and his mistress, Inés. The boy in the café where we drank our morning Nescafé in the square in San Pedro said that the house opposite was Valdivia’s, and perhaps he was right; the social status of the Spaniards and their workers diminished in line with the distance they lived from the

Valdivia called the country Nuevo Extremo or Nueva Extremadura after his homelands in Spain, the harsh Extremadura which bred many of the hungriest
, and in 1541 he founded the first colonial settlement, which he named Santiago. It was destroyed within six months by the locals, but Valdivia was not a man who gave up easily. He waited two years for reinforcements, refounded the city and soon made himself governor. During the next decade his territory was confirmed as the Kingdom of Chile, extending from Copiapó down to Osorno. Settlers began to arrive, almost all in the central valley. The heart of the Spanish empire remained in Peru, however, and Chile, controlled at least partially by the viceroy in Peru and the king in Spain in a kind of double slavery, was perceived as the poor relation
of that great empire – though Valdivia did find some gold. In 1553 he was killed by a group of indigenous people; the apocryphal history of the country has it that they poured molten gold down his throat.

At dusk we drove out to the Valley of the Moon, where the hot wind had sculpted the soft rock and banked the sand to create a desertscape unique even in the Atacama. There was a ridge of sand so high and so straight that it looked as if Julie Andrews might appear over it singing ‘The Hills are Alive’.

There was no question of finding the Tatío geysers in the dark, so we hired a guide for the day to come with us in the jeep. He called at our hotel at quarter past four in the morning, as we had arranged, in order to reach the geysers by seven and see them at their best.

It was very cold as well as very early, and James refused to get out of bed. Ruben the guide, who was wearing a black headband, offered to drive, and immediately pushed a salsa tape into the deck. I thought it was a bit early for salsa. He was rather a diffident type, and the music meant that he didn’t have to talk. When he did speak, he did it quietly. I guessed he was about my age. He was tall, and strong, and walked with a limp; I got the impression that he suffered a good deal because of that limp. After an hour the sky began to lighten. You couldn’t sleep through the colours of an Andean dawn. A volcano was smoking, silhouetted against a silver blue sky, its mouth edged with a fine yellow line.

The fumaroles around the El Tatío geyser field, at 14,500 feet the highest in the world, were gurgling, croaking and exuding sails of vapour, and mineral deposits had solidified like anaglyptic contour maps on the hard ground. A sculpture of rusted desalination apparatus stood nearby, the relic of a failed project to convert geyser energy into electricity. Ruben produced two eggs, lowered them into the shallows of a
geyser and walked off to smoke, leaning against the bonnet of the jeep. Fifteen minutes later he handed me a peeled hardboiled egg which tasted of sulphur.

As the morning went on we discarded layers of clothing; at seven we were wearing woolly hats pulled down over our ears and by ten-thirty we were sweating in T-shirts. We followed ridged tracks for a couple of hours through mountain pastureland until we reached a cemetery just before the altiplano village of Caspana. It looked more like a fairground than a cemetery, bedecked with lurid wreaths and other garish accoutrements of death. The village itself didn’t appear to have changed much since the first settlement in about 800 BC. The uneven houses were thatched, with hive-shaped ovens built among ancient cypress trees, and the hillsides were cultivated in traditional Andean terraces (the word ‘Andes’ comes from the name of the terraces created by early agriculturalists). A boy crouched in the pampas grass next to the stream and flicked a llama-hair whip at three grazing donkeys.

A woman was suckling a child in the thatched bandstand, and beyond it and her we climbed up to the crooked houses of the old village and a church with a tottering cactus wood choir. The dwellings in these lumpily flagged streets had no plumbing, and three dry-stone toilet cubicles balanced over the edge of the cliff, cunningly built around indentations in the rock face. The toilets themselves were wooden boxes, and when you lifted the lids you looked down the valley.

I had brought a picnic lunch for us both, and we ate it on the bank of the stream, fending off noisy llamas who were being shepherded home. Ruben told me that the five hundred inhabitants of Caspana possessed four surnames between them. The sun seemed to thaw him out, and he began to talk about himself. He was from Santiago, a canapé chef by trade, and had come to San Pedro on holiday five years previously
and immediately decided to abandon the big smoke. As there was little call for canapés in the desert he worked as a driver.

On the long journey home we watched llamas and ducks on the salty edges of the Putana river, tracked a rhea (properly Darwin’s or lesser rhea, a South American ostrich), and frightened a troop of nine baby partridges following their emerald mother in small circles. At the old sulphur works we prodded hillocks of lime-green powder, and at the end of the day Ruben smoked while I sat in the thermal pools of Puritama on the floor of a deep and deserted valley half an hour north of San Pedro.

BOOK: Travels in a Thin Country
12.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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