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Asymptote – n., a line or curve that constantly approaches nil without ever reaching it.

Si la presidenta no te cuenta la pulenta, lo hago yo
Chile está en venta desde que la Concerta ganó el NO
Aylwin, Lagos y también Frei dieron paso a Bachelet
Donde el mercado se hace rey y el subcontrato se hace ley

Mi canto no es de mala fe, tengo evidencia suficiente
Pa’ condenar a muerte a veinte dirigentes malolientes
Solamente basta con mirar las calles desde el Transantiago
4 millones de detalles cotidianos

Me confirman que la ciudadanía está pintada
Elección tras elección, la votación no cambia nada

If President Bachelet won’t tell you  what’s up, I’ll have a go:
Chile’s been for sale ever since the Concertación won one for NO.
Aylwin, Lagos, and then Frei made way for Bachelet,
where the market is king and outsourcing’s the big thing.
I’m not singing in bad faith. I’ve got sufficient evidence
to condemn to death twenty foul-smelling leaders.
All you need to do is look through the windows of Santiago’s buses,
4 million pieces of evidence every day,
confirming that the people are are the ones taking the hits,
we’ve had vote after vote, and the elections don’t change shit.

Infórmate, Subverso

"Fewer Political Prisoners - More Politicians in Prison"

“Fewer Political Prisoners – More Politicians in Prison”

The Chile that was now racing past my window on the bus was not the same country it had been just two years prior (and if we go back a bit further, say, 120 years, I would not even have left Perú yet, but that is another story). For the past year, the country had been undergoing a long-overdue thaw after roughly two decades of hibernation. To understand the Chile I was now in, we must go back about thirty years.

The 1980s were a time of escalating mass-upheaval in Chile. The economic “reforms” implemented by the Pinochet dictatorship under the tutelage of a handful of Milton Friedman disciples from the University of Chicago known as the “Chicago Boys” – for which the dictatorship was and is roundly praised by the business press – had brought the country to the brink of collapse. The privatised pension funds went bankrupt (by sheer coincidence, the pension funds for the armed forces and national military police, who ran the country, had remained public, and thus, intact), the deregulated and privatised banks had fallen apart (bringing a cool billion to Sebastán Piñera Echenique, then under investigation for bank fraud and now president of Chile). Protectionist policies were abolished, and Chile’s fragile domestic industries either folded due to unrestricted competition with their heavily subsidised foreign (read: US and European) counterparts, or were taken over by them. Wages went into freefall, and unemployment skyrocketed. Meanwhile, the faux plebiscite by which the 1980 constitution (which remains in force to this day) was imposed, had provided the spark that ignited a more assertive movement in opposition to the Pinochet’s reign of terror.

Pinochet’s military junta had been able to keep the majority of the population in on the defensive since taking over the country in

"The Resistance to Pinochet's System is Rising Up: The Struggle for the People's Rights Continues"

“The Resistance to Pinochet’s System is Rising Up: The Struggle for the People’s Rights Continues”

1973 with a combination of extrajudicial executions (though Attorney General Holder informs me that these are in fact perfectly legitimate “targeted killings”), hellish torture (sorry, “harsh interrogation tactics” is what the New York Times would like me to call it), and “disappearances” (a practise recently codified in the US when Obama signed the NDAA), all in the name of national security and “protecting freedom” against “terrorists” and “extremists”. Any segment of the population deemed a threat to Pinochet’s rule – principally poor people and anyone who worked with them to improve their lives – systematically decimated in a vicious campaign of state terror (sorry, “counterinsurgency”). It was, as you can see, not exactly a propitious climate for independent political organisation.

By the 1980s, however, people were increasingly fed up. Over that decade, large segments of the population defied Pinochet’s goons to organise 22 national days of protest, as well as countless less visible forms of protest and resistance throughout the country. At one point, Pinochet was almost “targetedly killed” himself. The poblaciones (slums) of Santiago, full of people with generations of experience with brutal repression, became foci of militant resistance.

Even a number of prominent supporters of the coup and the régime that rode in on it jumped ship and joined the opposition for various reasons. Some, such as ex-president Eduardo Frei Montalva, whose speech against the 1980 constitution was one of the first public acts of protest, did so on principled grounds. Many coup supporters had assumed that this coup would be more or less like the other (rare) military coups in the country’s history, in which the military more or less immediately handed power over to the Congress and held new elections, only to be sorely disappointed when the junta shut down the Congress, effectively banned all political parties, dotted the land with concentration camps, and started making people “disappear”. This camp also included Tucapel Jiménez, the popular leader of ANEF, the public sector workers’ union, who had trusted the coup plotters when they promised a better deal for his membership, only to find public sector employees subjected to a massive attack by the dictatorship’s economic policies.

Both Frei and Jiménez met bad ends during the 1980s. Frei went to hospital for routine surgery before a planned trip to Europe, and died in a freak “therapeutic misadventure” later to discovered to have been something to do with weaponised botulism being injected into his body.

"Mapuche in Prison for Defending their Ancestral Lands"

“Mapuche in Prison for Defending their Ancestral Lands”

Jiménez, who had been forced out of his position as head of ANEF due to his opposition to the dictatorship and declined a substantial “severance” payment offered to him on the condition that he shill for the dictatorship’s private pension scheme (“I’m not going to deceive the workers.”), was murdered whilst driving the taxi with which he was left to try to make a living. The murder was staged by the CNI (secret police) to look like a robbery. The CNI actually went to the length of finding an alcoholic, unemployed construction worker by the name of Juan Alegría, filling him up with wine, and forcing him to write a suicide note confessing to the murder of Tucapel Jiménez. The whole thing probably would never have been uncovered had Alegría’s mother not remembered that he had repeatedly told her about people following him, and noticed that the wine bottle found with his body was white wine (Alegría only ever drank red wine).

Others, such as Patricio Aylwin, had no real quarrel with the coup or the policies of the dictatorship, and simply felt that Pinochet had outlived his usefulness. He had done everything they wanted him to do, and now stood in the way of new faces (i.e., themselves) moving in to manage the house that Pinochet built.Aylwin went on to become Chile’s first post-dictatorship president, and just recently, in early June 2012, gave an interview praising the Pinochet régime.

Eventually, the disaffected coup supporters joined forces with the members of the political class who had opposed the coup and the régime all along, the Socialist Party (founded by Allende), the Communist Party, the Radical Social-Democratic Party, and the newly formed PPD (Party for Democracy), to form the Concertación de partidos por el NO (Coalition of Parties for the NO Vote), which campaigned against keeping Pinochet in office during the 1988 plebiscite.

The NO vote ultimately won, but it was in many respects a Pyrrhic victory for average people. The Concertación agreed to what

"The People, United, Are Being Fucked by the Parties"

“The People, United, Are Being Fucked by the Parties”

eminent Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar describes as an “institutional transition”, which left the fundamental structures of the dictatorship intact. This meant that the 1980 constitution imposed by the dictatorship, which carved into stone the far-right social and economic policies of the régime, remained in force. The Senate was packed with “designated” senators, hand-picked by the executive branch, as well as “senators-for-life” (including Pinochet himself). A certain number of seats were set aside for unelected military officers, the backbone of the dictatorship. The national police force, Carabineros de Chile, itself part of Pinochet’s junta, had substantial autonomy from the courts and the elected government. The “binominal” electoral system crafted by the dictatorship made it next to impossible for any party to gain a majority in the Congress, whilst ensuring that the phenomenally unpopular right-wing parties would always have enough seats to control the legislative agenda no matter how the people voted.

Meanwhile, the years of dictatorship had caused the Socialist and Christian-Democratic Parties, once mass parties with a significant working-class base, to become élite organisations, alienated from the grass roots. Sharing power under the banner of the Concertación, they governed Chile for twenty years, from 1990 to 2010, and not only never once deviated from the dictatorship’s economic policies (which left working people utterly at the mercy of multinational corporations, with no meaningful social safety net) – they actually intensified these policies, handing control of crucial infrastructure – roads, public utilities, even the water – over to foreign corporations. For all their condemnations of Pinochet’s brutal repression, they proved quite enthusiastic users of the very institutional infrastructure of repression they had once (verbally) opposed. Protests by workers, students, and the indigenous Mapuche people were brutally repressed (the latter have seen quite a few activists killed by police with no credible pretext), and their organisations systematically crushed by the police and intelligence services. All this led, predictably, to that special blend of generalised discontentment and a sense of helplessness to do anything about it that his commonly known as “democracy”. People were so focussed on surviving in a hostile environment that they left politics to the small élite that owns the place.

The overall mood was nicely summed up by an acquaintance of mine on the twentieth anniversary of the “return to democracy”:

They say the NO vote won, but we have the YES constitution, the YES electoral system, the YES Labour Code, and the YES ban on therapeutic abortion. What the hell did we win?

"The Dictatorship Never Ended"

“The Dictatorship Never Ended”

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Arica, always Arica, greater is my loyalty

Arica, always Arica, greater is my loyalty

The landmines – that was certainly a pleasant surprise upon entering the country – didn’t get me, but the road construction nearly did when I ventured out of the hotel the night of my arrival in search of food, and discovered that the pavement abruptly ended – without warning – on the other side of the intersection I had just crossed, leaving me to run through four lanes in order to get to the side of Avenida Santa María that featured someplace to walk and, hopefully, to eat. I did much better on the former score than the latter.

Because it is two hours later on the Chilean side of the border than on the Peruvian side, it was already after 6 PM when at last we pulled into Arica’s international passenger terminal.

Arica is Chile’s northernmost city, but not the northernmost populated area, a title that goes to Visviri, a tiny desert hamlet on the three-way border between Chile, Perú, and Bolivia. It is a fair-sized city, with approximately 260,000 inhabitants, and boasts one of the most pleasant climates in the country. With temperatures ranging between 15° and 25°C year-round, it is affectionately known as the City of the Eternal Spring. It is bordered on three sides by the Atacama Desert, and on one by the PacificOcean. The proximity of a large body of water, as you can surely imagine, was a welcome change after seeing little other than sand for twenty-four hours.

Avenida Diego Portales

Avenida Diego Portales, Arica

Like its Peruvian counterpart,Tacna, Arica is profoundly economically depressed. Because it is convenient to pretty much nowhere – even the other major desert cities are roughly 1000 km away – the major shipping routes do not bring much business to its port, preferring the ports of Iquique (12 hours to the south, in the shadow of an epic sand dune) and Valparaíso (in central Chile). It is over 2000 km away from the capital in Santiago, which, in a state as militantly centralised as Chile, means that the government only come calling if they want something. The upshot of all this an official unemployment rate of around 25%.

When during my research I realised what a monumentally long trip I had in store for me, I decided the most sensible thing would be to break it up into two legs:Lima-Arica and Arica-Santiago. I would spend a night in the City of the Eternal Spring (a name that instantly endeared the place to me), sleep in a proper bed, take a leisurely shower, change into clothes that had not spent 24 straight hours clinging to me, and go out on the town for a nice dinner out. Then, refreshed, I would sit down in the next bus, and arrive, greeted by friends, in Santiago a little over thirty hours later.

I had scouted out several pleasant-looking, inexpensive hostels in Arica during my online research. All promised free wifi, a convenient location, and included photos of lush, king-sized beds in airy rooms. Unaccountably, I failed to make a note of any of these places, and couldn’t remember the name of any one of them upon my arrival.

Arica Bus Terminal

Arica Bus Terminal

Fortunately in a sense, I was so comprehensively knackered upon my arrival in Arica that I no longer cared. All I wanted was someplace to lay down my luggage, wash off the dirt I had caked on me during the trip, check my e-mail and let people know where I was headed next, and some kind of flat surface to collapse on. Above all, I did not want to walk even another yard with all this crap on my shoulders.

As it turned out, there was a row of hostels directly opposite the bus terminal on Avenida Diego Portales.

There is scarcely a city, town, or village in Chile without at least one street commemorating Diego Portales. He earned the undying admiration of the Chilean ruling class two hundred years ago when he successfully subverted the country’s first constitutional convention, which was threatening to become too democratic, with a combination of violence and treachery.

Following Chile’s independence from Spain in 1810, the country was ruled for years by General Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, another ubiquitous street name, who had declared himself the “Supreme Leader of the Nation”[1]. This was, however, not at all what most people had understood “freedom from Spain” to mean. When fellow street name regular Manuel Rodríguez suggested that it might be an idea to have actual elections, O’Higgins had him wacked.

Before being murdered, Rodríguez uttered the words “Éste es el pago de Chile” (These are the wages of Chile.), a phrase that has become immortal as an expression of the bad ends met by those who actually try to do right by the Chilean people.

Arica

Arica

The entire country erupted in rebellion to get rid of “Liberator” O’Higgins, and eventually succeeded in kicking him out. This is depicted in orthodox iconography as a stately affair in which the great Liberator decides before a grateful nation that it is time to make way for new leadership. In reality, however, O’Higgins clung to power to the bitter end, and only stepped down in a hastily arranged ceremony when it was clear that the alternative was to be run out of town by pitchfork-wielding villagers.

A similar tack was taken by another self-appointed “Supreme Leader of the Nation”, Augusto Pinochet. After a decade of escalating protest and resistance to his dictatorship, when even his CIA handlers had grown sick of him, he allowed the population to vote on whether to keep him as dictator. When the majority voted to send him packing, he arranged a ceremonial departure from the presidential palace  under the slogan Misión cumplida (“Mission Accomplished”), which sounds a bit more dignified than “OK, OK! I’ll leave already!”

After O’Higgins left office, there began a lengthy process of drafting a constitution Outside of Santiago, where the artisans, fishermen, and farmers who were the backbone of the country’s economy lived, people had a long tradition of local self-government through assemblies in which all citizens could participate in decision-making. Unsurprisingly, they hoped to create a constitution in that tradition. In Santiago, home to the merchants and bankers who spent their days finding ways to make money off of the work done everywhere else without actually doing any themselves, the prospect of letting their golden goose make its own decisions was not well received. Under the leadership of Diego Portales, they sought a highly centralised structure that would keep the important decisions in their neighbourhood, if not directly in their salons.

Arica

Arica

Portales and colleagues arranged to have the constitutional assembly held in Santiago, their home ground. The representatives of the rest of the country – who were directly accountable to those who had elected them and could be recalled at any time – were forced to travel a long way to take part in the debates (and considering how long the bus ride is, just imagine what it must have been like on horseback!). Once there, they were subjected to an unremitting campaign of harassment by the Portales mob, who ensured that they had no decent places to stay, ridiculed and defamed them in the press, and disrupted the deliberations in hopes of controlling the process. Even so, it did not appear that they would get what they wanted.

Eventually, they induced a segment of the army, under General Prieto, to mutiny against their commander, General Freire, who sided with the democratic aspirations of the people. Freire’s forces, with overwhelming popular support, quickly had Portales and Prieto on the brink of defeat. Prieto’s reaction was to request an audience with Freire, in Prieto’s camp, to negotiate a surrender. Trusting that Prieto would not abuse the right of surrender, Freire came unarmed. Prieto’s men ambushed him and his party, and launched surprise attacks on his forces.

In the end, Prieto was able to fight to a draw. In the negotiations, he and Freire agreed to mutual disarmament. Demonstrating a less than impressive learning curve, Freire had his troops give up their arms first. Prieto and his men kept theirs.

While I can cite no source in support of this, I have a feeling that this may have been the origin not only of Chile’s political malaise, but of the typical Chilean expression huevón (pronounced we-ON), which means “dickhead”.

And that is how the street I now surveyed got its name. There is a habit of this in Chile. Being a treasonous, murdering bastard who subverts democracy in defence of the interests of the moneyed oligarchy is much more likely to get you a street name than being someone who defends democracy against such people. Today, no street remembers General Carlos Prats González, murdered by Pinochet for his opposition to the coup that brought him to power, and only a few small side streets (not one of them is in Santiago) remember General René Schneider, who was murdered by the CIA-financed coup plotters in order to prevent Salvador Allende taking office at all. Col Roberto Souper, however, who led a disastrously failed coup attempt against Allende, has a street in one of Santiago’s nicest neighbourhoods named after him. Éste es el pago de Chile.

Lest anyone get the wrong idea, I should note that this is hardly a specifically Chilean phenomenon. The US is full of streets commemorating Woodrow Wilson, but how many streets celebrate Eugene V. Debs, whom Wilson sent to prison for a decade for making an anti-war speech during his presidential campaign? Or Emma Goldman, who was run out of the country during Wilson’s violent crackdown on the labour movement? How many streets remember the victims of Chicago’s Haymarket Massacre, in which police opened fire on workers striking for the eight-hour work day? Is there even a single street commemorating the victims of the Ludlow Massacre, in which soldiers machine-gunned striking miners and their families whilst they slept? If anything, the difference between the US and Chile is that, in Chile, ordinary people are much more likely to remember these names, even if those who name streets do not.

One of the other places to stay in Arica

One of the other places to stay in Arica

As much as I would like to be able to claim that these were my first musings upon seeing the name of the street I stood in, that would be an utter lie. My thoughts, to the extent that they were articulate enough to merit the name, were something more along the lines of: Fuck, heavy. Back hurts. Arse hurts. Arms hurt. Tired. Need sleep. Need to eat. Need to eat sleep. Shit, am becoming incoherent. V., v. bad!

Something needed to be done.

With these thoughts firmly in mind, I slogged my way through the front door of the Rocca Luna hostel  diagonally opposite the bus terminal. I had settled on this place because it was five minutes’ walk from the bus station, appeared relatively well-maintained, and advertised free wifi.

A man in his mid-50s with a big black moustache welcomed me with a smile.

“Have you got any rooms free?”

“Indeed we do. How long do you plan on staying?”

“Just one night.”

“That will be 6,000 pesos,” he replied.

I handed him the money and my passport. He filled out some forms, asked for my signature, and gave me my room key.

At the time, I had not yet worked out a shortcut to convert between US dollars and Chilean pesos, so I was only aware that this was a very affordable price indeed. I since worked out that one can reliably approximate the dollar value of an amount denominated in Chilean pesos by taking off three noughts and multiplying by two. 6,000 pesos, for example, works out to roughly 12 dollars. 100,000 pesos is approximately 200 dollars, and 1 million pesos is about 2,000 dollars. And so on.

Rocca Luna was a decidedly basic establishment. My room, which was on the top end of a long and narrow staircase, was just large enough to accommodate the bed and my luggage. The bed featured a foam-rubber mattress about three feet wide, and had a profound sense of history. A window opened up into the open-air corridor. The light flickered when I plugged in my computer.

But I didn’t give a rat’s. The shower was clean. The water was hot. The bed was…a decent approximation, and the employees were lovely (I didn’t have to carry that damn suitcase up the stairs). And that was really all I was asking for from life at that particular moment.

That having been said, had someone shown up and offered me a free suite with a king-size bed, 1100-count cotton sheets, an obscenely large stack of pillows, an ocean view, a complimentary bottle of Bordeaux, and a bathtub deep enough to swim in, I would most assuredly not have said “no” (especially if a nice, fluffy bathrobe were included).


[1] I am indebted for this narrative in large part to the concise and engaging account of Chilean constitutional history found in En nombre del poder popular constituyente (In the Name of the People’s Constituent Power) by the eminent Chilean historian Gabriel Salazar.

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Los pueblos americanos
se sienten acongojados
porque los gobernadores
los tienen tan separados.

¿Cuándo será ese cuando,
 señor fiscal,
 que la América sea
 solo un pilar?
 Solo un pilar, ay sí,
 y una bandera.
 Que terminen las bullas
 en la frontera.

¡Por un puña’o ’e tierra
 no quiero guerra!

The peoples of America
feel suffocated
because their governments
keep them separated.

When will the day come,
Mr Prosecutor,
that America will be
a single pillar?
A single pillar yes,
and a single banner,
to put an end to the noise
on the borders.

Don’t go starting wars
over a handful of land!
-Violeta Parra, Los pueblos americanos

The endless Atacama desert

The endless Atacama desert

I’ve never really been one for tourism. Brief visits of no more than a few days have always left me quite unsatisfied, as I must invariably move on just as I am finally beginning to settle in. Nor have I ever been a fan of the standard guided tour, in which one is whisked from place to place in the less-than-thrilling company of the sort of foreign holidaymakers who are unlikely to be all that sorely missed in their countries of origin, and who distinguish themselves either by their overall sense of superiority to everyone and everything they encounter in the country they are visiting (“Oh, we’ve got one just like that in Peoria/Parramatta/Slough, but ours is much nicer.”; “Have your people come to Jesus yet?”) or by running commentary that makes the most asinine thing you’ve ever heard seem like a flight of erudition by comparison (“Look, honey, they’ve got BMWs in Germany, too!”). (more…)

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Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Cricket lovely Cricket,
At Lord’s where I saw it;
Yardley tried his best
But Goddard won the test.
They gave the crowd plenty fun;
Second Test and West Indies won.

–  Victory Calypso (“Cricket,  Lovely Cricket”)Egbert Moore, 1950

We don’t wave flags or make a sound,
 or we’ll be evicted from the cricket ground.
 We’ve got corporate boxes and the MCC,
 and we lose by an innings and forty-three.
 …
 Cricket, English cricket
 at Lords, where we play it,
 we politely lose our wicket,
 unless the rain comes to delay it.

– Comedian Mark Steel’s parody

Fortunately, the Megabus luggage policy was not as strict as it had seemed two hours earlier. This was particularly lucky, as it turned out that the problem was not the weight of my suitcase, which I could theoretically have done something about, but its dimensions, which I was rather stuck with. I was allowed on the bus, but only after everyone else’s luggage had been loaded, in order to make sure there was enough space. This, while annoying, was a lot better than being stranded in Pittsburgh at 11:00 PM with no place to stay. (more…)

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Cuando se siente el fervor de cientos de miles y miles de hombres y mujeres, apretándose en las calles y plazas para decir con decisión y esperanza: Estamos con ustedes, no cejen, ¡vencerán!, toda duda se disipa, toda angustia se desvanece. Son los pueblos, todos los pueblos al sur del río Bravo, que se yerguen para decir ¡basta!, ¡basta! a la dependencia, ¡basta! a las presiones, ¡basta! a las intervenciones; para afirmar el derecho soberano de todos los países en desarrollo a disponer libremente de sus recursos naturales.

Cientos de miles y miles de chilenos me despidieron con fervor al salir de mi Patria y me entregaron el mensaje que he traído a esta Asamblea mundial. Estoy seguro que ustedes, representantes de las naciones de la tierra, sabrán comprender mis palabras. Es nuestra confianza en nosotros lo que incrementa nuestra fe en los grandes valores de la Humanidad, en la certeza de que esos valores tendrán que prevalecer, no podrán ser destruidos.

When you feel the fervour of hundreds of thousands and thousands of men and women, pressed together in the streets and public squares to say, resolutely and full of hope: We are with you, don’t back down, you will win! All doubt dissipates, all angst vanishes. It is the peoples, all of the peoples to the south of theRío Grande, who are standing up to say: Enough! Enough dependency, enough pressure, enough intervention! To affirm the sovereign right of all developing countries to determine freely how to use their natural resources.

Hundreds of thousands and thousands bade me farewell when I left my country and gave me the message that I have brought to this assembly of the world. I am sure that you, representatives of the nations of the world, will understand my words. It is our confidence in ourselves that increases our faith in the great values of humanity, in the certainty that those values must prevail, that they cannot be destroyed.

SalvadorAllende at the UN General Assembly, 1972

          

Atacama

The Atacama Desert
(C) Élise R. Hendrick, 2012

  “Vengo de Chile, un país pequeño” — with these words, Chilean president Salvador Allende began his famous speech to the United Nations: I come from Chile, a small country. From these words alone, I can tell you with absolute certainty that Allende did not take the land route north.

No matter what the map might tell you – more on this later – and no matter what impression one might get from the surface area of Chile as compared to other countries, “small” is not the first descriptor that would occur to someone who has just travelled even half of the country by land. Having just recently done so twice – once to get to Santiago and once in order to return to Lima- I can tell you that the first descriptor that comes to my mind is: long. Interminably long. Painfully long. Assuming favourable conditions, Chile is so long that a trip from Santiago, in the central area of the country, to the northern border city of Arica, takes well over one full day. That kind of drive will take you roughly from New York City to Chicago, or by train from Barcelona to Berlin.

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Those of you who have been following Reunion – a Travelogue may have noticed that not much – OK, bugger all – has been written in recent months. A combination of writer’s block and various personal disasters, one of which involves a strong candidate for Worst Dentist in Southern Ohio, have conspired to delay my progress in finding an amusing and informative way to chronicle my travels through Europe in Fall 2010, culminating in my reunion with Berlin after 10 years of absence.

However, thanks in part to the Worst Dentist in Southern Ohio (more on that later), I have begun working on what I intend to use as a second part to Reunion, narrating a month and a half spent travelling through Chile and Perú, a preview of which you can find below…

(more…)

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Amazingly, it seemed I was going to arrive in Barcelona more or less when I had told Hortensia, the mother of a good friend of mine and my hostess during my stay in the city, that I would arrive.

As I pondered this with no small satisfaction, I noticed that the bus had slowed down, and that we were in what appeared to be a small city. This, I thought, must be Figueres. The bus circled about through the extremely narrow streets for around twenty minutes, giving me an opportunity to gain a first impression of this new environment. Figueres appeared to be a medium-sized city, with a centre full of shops, restaurants, and hotels, all of which (except for the hotels) were closed for the night. The signs were virtually all in Catalan, rather than Spanish, as is often the case in Catalonia. Fortunately, I had at least a decent reading knowledge of Catalan.

Even more fortunately, virtually all Catalan speakers are bilingual in Spanish. While I had never before been to a country in which Spanish is officially spoken, it is essentially my second native language, one I often find easier to speak than English. My Spanish is decidedly Latin-American in flavour, an improbable mix of Venezuelan, Chilean, and Mexican. I was rather excited at the prospect of being in a place where everyone spoke it.

Meanwhile, the bus had at last come to a stop at what appeared to be the city’s bus station. It, too, was dark, with the exception of a kebap window in the back. My stomach, which had lapsed into lethargy out of sheer exhaustion and despair, began making demands on me with a newfound vitality. Alas, it was going to have to wait yet longer, as we only had a few minutes to get the Figueres railway station.

Everyone else seemed to know where they were going. I decided to take the optimistic view and assume that this was because they did in fact know where they were going, and that they were going to the same place I was.

On our way, which was fortunately quite short, we passed through the Plaça de l’Estació, which must look quite striking by daylight. On the end we first entered, there was a well-maintained playground, which was deserted, of course, at this hour. The centre of the square was occupied by a stately palm tree, with a trunk at least three feet thick. Were it not for the complete lack of light, I would very much have liked to photograph it. From here, the station was clearly visible and only about 100 feet away.

The Figueres station was a small, quite tidy affair, staffed at the moment by a single fiftyish man behind a Plexiglas window. After my experience in Perpignan, I was positively ecstatic that, when asked for a ticket to Barcelona, he actually gave me one (for only €10.00). not only that, but he actually knew what platform the train was leaving from, and was kind enough to let me know – in a rather friendly tone – that I would have to run to catch it, as it was leaving in less than five minutes.

I did not need to be told twice. I took my ticket and my luggage, which was getting heavier by the minute, and ran to the platform. Fortunately, this did not involve hidden doors, long flights of stairs, or any of the other dubious pleasures I had encountered during the last 24 hours.

The train to Barcelona was a sleek commuter model, only a few years old. Upon getting aboard, I was quite happy to see that it was equipped with vending machines for snacks and drinks. My stomach approved grudgingly, as if to say: Am I to understand that there will be no chicken kebap with hot sauce and chips on the side?

At least there was no trouble finding a seat. I stowed my things quickly, and eagerly returned to the vending machines. I selected whatever seemed the most substantial, though I no longer recall what it was.

This is because, whatever it might have been, I didn’t get it. Instead, the vending machine returned my coins, rather stroppily, it seemed to me.

Dejected, I returned to my seat. Evidently, there was to be no snack for me on this train. This news I took with a surprising degree of aplomb. If there’s one thing you learn from Perpignan, it’s resignation.

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