Authors: Sara Wheeler
James decided that he wanted to see Chuquicamata, the site of the biggest open-pit coppermine in the world, so we packed our things and drove there before taking Rocky back to Hertz in Calama. We saw Chuqui in the distance, like an eruption in the desert. It was as if we were approaching a pollution factory. When we got there, the streets were empty, their identical houses built in close rows and numbered like prisoners. We walked around for a while. Besides the plant and the houses there wasn’t much, except a Seventh Day Adventist church designed to resemble one sail of the Sydney Opera House, some semi-detached managerial houses and, in the middle, an army barracks guarded by soldiers who looked at us as if we had just murdered their children. Chuqui’s colourless, austere buildings and joyless streets where the odd dog pursued a plastic wrapper caught by the breeze reminded me of the outskirts of Warsaw. A man passed us on a bicycle, pedalling in the direction of the obese chimneys which cast a yellow pall over the houses.
The town was built and is maintained by copper, and the size of the operation was out of all proportion to everything else I had seen in northern Chile. Salvador Allende, President from 1970 until he died in office in 1973, referred to copper as
‘the salary of Chile’. Large-scale exploitation began in the nineteenth century, mainly funded by foreign capital, and although it was temporarily overshadowed by nitrates, later it regained its pre-eminence as the country’s main export: up until the mid-1970s it accounted for between 70 and 80 per cent of the value of Chilean exports and by 1991 had settled to about 40 per cent. Dependence on the international copper price has been an almost permanent cause of national pain.
More importantly, years of US ownership (mainly through subsidiaries of two powerful companies) has meant that this vital national resource has been subordinated to the interests of another country. In the context of this complex dependency culture, copper has always been a controversial issue, even during boom periods, and serious trouble began between the wars as a result of the US government’s obeisance to the interests of international capital.
It was clear that Chile was not making as much money from its copper as it should or could, and Chilean politicians recognized the urgent need for a shift in the balance of power. In 1964 President Frei, a Christian Democrat, launched a Chileanization programme, but it was ultimately perceived as a botched job as it failed to place copper under Chilean control, and the US parent companies continued to reap plentiful profits. The next government – Allende’s – nationalized the large companies. It was one of the few proposals the leftist coalition got through Congress with a large majority. Most of the North American ex-owners were promised compensation payable over the next thirty years, but Allende announced that the two big ones weren’t going to get anything: they had made enough already, and should really pay some of it back. It wasn’t the end of the industry’s problems: it might have won its independence, but it still had to operate within a world market.
The US businessmen didn’t have long to wait. In 1974 they
began to invest in Chilean copper again. Pinochet did not privatize the industry, however; he needed it. In his 1980 constitution he stipulated that 10 per cent of all copper sales (not profits) were to be handed over to the military to finance, specifically, the procurement of weapons.
A large sign at the police post on the way out of Chuquicamata wished us a very merry Christmas from the police force of Chile. James wanted to photograph it, but was too frightened to get out of the jeep in case a policeman shot him.
We took the back roads to Chiu Chiu, past salt lakes, slag heaps and outposts of the mining empire. Chiu Chiu was an oasis with cobbled streets, and at the end of one of them we ate our lunch outside San Francisco’s church, built in the early seventeenth century and allegedly the oldest in the country. Further into the interior we climbed up a twelfth-century Atacaman fort at Lasana and watched figures working in the cornfields on the valley floor below. A football match was in progress nearby; I had been impressed to see that every two-bit village in northern Chile not only had a pitch but a mini-grandstand too. How such tiny, remote villages managed to raise both teams and a crowd to fill the stands, however, remained baffling.
The only things we saw, for the first twelve hours of the bus journey to La Serena, were sand and a water pipeline. The bus made one short detour to the ocean at Antofagasta, the largest port in northern Chile, dipping through several miles of urban squalor which had seeped up from the central basin of the town. Antofagasta was a grubby, lustreless hole. I read in a guide book that ‘city tours’ were available, and that they took three hours.
We had given Hertz their jeep back and taken another overnight bus trip, moving south of the desert to spend James’ last few days with me in a more temperate climate. It was too
big a step for me to take downwards all in one go, but we needed a break from the punishing desert environment, and I planned to sneak back up a little way, after James had gone.
The sound tracks of the US films shown on the bus were so poor that we couldn’t tell if they were dubbed or not. The vehicle smelt of turpentine (this turned out to be a woman behind us eating mangoes). I managed to sleep, but James didn’t, and he was in a very bad mood when we arrived, shortly after dawn, at La Serena, an affluent colonial town at the mouth of the Elqui valley. We almost immediately caught a
up the valley to a village called Vicuña, where we checked in to a ‘hotel’ with the Tolstoyan name of Yasna. Our room was made entirely of hardboard, the bathroom locked on the outside and we had to unscrew the bulb to turn the light off. In addition, a chalked board of bar prices was propped against the doorframe, and early in the evening a drunk veered in demanding a glass of wine.
‘It’s green!’ said James as we strolled around the outskirts of the village. The cultivated fields were soft on the eye, after the desert. It was like switching a television from black-and-white to colour. The angles of the hills were gentle, and the proliferation of plants, shrubs and trees belonged to familiar species. We felt we were breathing more deeply, as if the desiccation of the north had constricted us, and although it was hot, it was a benign heat. It was only when I arrived in this temperate zone that I realized the implicit threat of the desert, a threat constantly hovering just below the surface. Like an intense relationship, I had loved it passionately but I felt the relief of getting away.
The Elqui valley was burgeoning with neat and healthy moscatel vines. The grapes are eventually crushed and distilled to produce pisco, a clear brandy which is widely drunk throughout the country (and other South American countries) and probably constitutes the national drink. I
myself had drunk it widely too, usually in pisco sours, mixed with egg white, a little sugar and the juice of tiny lemons.
On the third day we took a bus up to Monte Grande through more of these vineyards and made a pilgrimage to the grave of Gabriela Mistral, among Chile’s finest poets and the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (only four others—Asturias, Neruda, Márquez and Paz—have won it since). She was born in Vicuña and went to school in Monte Grande, where they had restored her classroom, a polished wood abacus in the corner and a six-foot long relief map of the country on the wall, the tips of the Andes worn away by children’s fingers. In the back garden the branches of the pimento trees were sagging, and the papery covering of the dusky pink fruit came off in our fingers.
‘La Gabriela’, as they call her, asked to be buried ‘in her beloved Monte Grande’, and her tomb, in a leafy grove, was diligently polished and swept by the reverential villagers. (Monte Grande hadn’t been quite beloved enough, as she moved to New York as soon as she became famous.) A man with a wooden leg was watering the iridescent blue convolvulus. ‘I knew her, you know. When we were children, she used to play at the river with us. She left here when she was eleven, but she was always one of us.’
She would have been pleased with that; she felt closer to ordinary rural people than to the literary establishment. Her poems are lyrical and expansive, emanating spiritual passion and a Romantic vision of nature; there was something noble about her. Her real name was Lucila Godoy Alcayaga. She was a teacher (Neruda was one of her pupils in Temuco) and, like many South American literary figures, later a consul in the foreign service. When she was twenty she fell deeply in love with a man who later committed suicide, and she never married; she always carried that within her. People thought she was eccentric. Her work has never found its translator:
perhaps it will, but I had a feeling that the US critic Margaret J. Bates was right when she wrote of her, ‘She has created a plant that does not grow on English soil.’
The next village, Pisco Elqui, used to be called Unioń, but they changed the name in 1939 to counter what they refer to soberly as a Peruvian initiative to claim international exclusivity on the name Pisco, which comes from the Quechua
, flying bird. Tired out by the walk, we sat under a trellis of vines in the courtyard of an inn painted tangerine orange and green. It had a large wooden balcony, and below it a man kept winding up an old gramophone and playing scratchy French 78s.
We discovered a boarding-house straight out of a Gothic horror novel. It had a high pointed roof, an overgrown garden, arched and cracked windows and a sign painted with the flaking words ‘Don Juan’ which was obligingly swinging in the wind and creaking when we arrived. We stayed one night there, fussed over by an old woman who had lived in the house for forty years. The staircases and panelling were solid mahogany, the walls of our bedroom, at the top, were made entirely of glass, and in many of the velvet-curtained rooms downstairs thick layers of dust had settled on heavily tinted photographic portraits.
We returned to Vicuña on New Year’s Eve on an overburdened bus which stopped every few minutes to disgorge passengers and pick up replacements, most of them clinging to battered cardboard boxes tied up with string. Children were sitting at the side of the road making floppy monkeys out of rags and cardboard; these were to be burnt as the old year passed. We were ineluctably drawn back to the Yasna, and drank a bottle of cold Chilean champagne in the courtyard. I was glad to be sharing the New Year with an old friend.
At dinner later we got friendly with a lively young waiter.
His family were throwing a party at home, and he invited us to go along with him when he finished work at midnight. We killed time very agreeably.
The waiter lived with his mother in a small, modern house in which a variety of aunts, uncles, cousins and nieces had convened. James and I were obliged to dance with everyone, and they even made us do the
, the national dance (now rather hackneyed), despite our total ignorance of its steps. The general idea was evidently to imitate a cockerel and wave a hanky. Much later, most of us adjourned to the community hall, where a six-piece band was playing an exuberant blend of rock and folk music and there was a bottle of pisco on each table. The only tense moment in an otherwise delightful evening came a couple of hours later when our waiter friend told James that he was a very bad dancer; but we got over that. Almost the whole village had turned out for this occasion, and they were still making the most of it when we crept off at four-thirty and knocked up the crusty proprietor of the Yasna, who emerged in his pyjamas to unlock the door, unmoved by our New Year’s greetings.
Chile is at least a place where one can find oneself and find other people with a compass which is that of real life.
Victor Jara, folk singer, 1970
There can be no better land to live in than this one.
Pedro de Valdivia, letter from Chile to Charles V of Spain, 1545
It was unfortunate that we had planned such an early start the next morning that we had to wake the old man up again to let us out. I was to set off on a quest to discover one of the communes reputedly concealed at the top of the valley. I had heard about them from Chileans I had met in London when I was organizing the trip; everyone seemed to know about these communes, but nobody had been to one, and I had failed to obtain any reliable information on the subject when I made enquiries in Santiago – though everyone there had heard about them, too. I just had to go. James was off to spend a week in the south, so we said goodbye in the square, too numbed by the after-effects of the previous night to feel sad. ‘I must take a photograph of you,’ he said, ‘in case you’re never seen again.’
The location of these communes (if they existed) was not arbitrary; not at all. The upper reaches of the Elqui valley have become a kind of mystic spiritual centre, attracting a range of disparate tranquillity seekers from Vedic sects to devotees of the extra-terrestrial. We had come across various hippy types in the valley playing plangent guitar music and chanting in incense shops run by women in kaftans. A combination of geographical and atmospheric factors, notably the Humboldt current offshore, the vast cloudless Atacama desert to the north, and the laminar air flow over the Andes (whatever that is) creates the clearest sky on the planet right over the Elqui valley, and it has consequently been labelled ‘a window to the heavens’ and ‘the magnetic centre of the earth’ – hence its concentration of ‘spiritual’ disciples. Naturally the valley has attracted the scientific community too, and three of the most important astronomy centres in the southern hemisphere have been built, with foreign capital, in the region.
Thus the Elqui valley is a kind of astronomical and spiritual Mecca.
By some small miracle a bus arrived in the square and took me up to Monte Grande. From there I walked a mile or two; I had a hunch that if I moved upwards and away from the villages, I might find a commune – or find something, anyway. I felt so ill that I thought I might actually die, and I made the usual New Year’s resolution about never drinking again. By another, larger miracle (1992 was performing well) a shiny new car pulled up next to me. A spruce, balding man in his forties got out, skipped towards me and shook my hand enthusiastically, revealing himself to be a farmer from the south (a wealthy one, judging by the car and his appearance). Pedro was alone, wanting a few days of mental space to take stock of his life, and as such he was as anomalous as me. Neither of us knew where the communes were, or if they really existed, but we both wanted to get to one, so we
naturally started looking together. This was one of my great slices of luck, as I never would have found a commune if I hadn’t met Pedro. His most salient characteristic was a tendency to talk all the time. He often wanted to discuss history. In the stifling car on a deeply rutted track half-way up a mountain near Argentina he asked my opinion on the fall of the Roman Empire.