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Aunque los pasos toquen
Mil años este sitio
No borrarán la sangre
De los que aquí cayeron
Y no se extinguirá
La hora en que caíste
Aunque miles de voces crucen este silencio.

(“Even if this place is touched
for a thousand years by footsteps,
they won’t erase the blood
of those who died here.
Nor will the hour in which you met your death
be extinguished,
even if thousands of voices cross this silence.”

Illapu, Aunque los pasos toquen

Casa Memoria, ´Avda. José Domingo Cañas no. 1367

Casa Memoria, ´Avda. José Domingo Cañas no. 1367. One pole for every person killed at this former torture centre.

One of my more memorable excursions whilst in Chile was to the memorial that has been built at Avenida José Domingo Cañas no. 1367. This address, in the heart of a well-to-do residential part of the Santiago district of Ñuñoa, was once one of the most feared places in Chile’s capital. While the pleasant-looking suburban home (complete with in-ground swimming pool) that once stood there might look to some like an address anyone in Santiago might count herself lucky to call her own, the screams that could regularly be heard emanating from inside for thirteen years (1974 – 1987) made it clear to the neighbours was a place to steer well clear of.

The “taboo house” – as some of the neighbours called it – at José Domingo Cañas 1367 was a torture chamber, one of many clandestine sites in Santiago and throughout the country operated by the “security” services of dictator Augusto Pinochet. For many of Pinochet’s political opponents, this was the last place they were ever seen, alive or otherwise. Many more physically survived the ordeal, but never truly recovered.

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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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Al medio de un gentío
que tuvo que afrontar,

un transbordo por culpa
del último huracán,
en un puerto quebrado
cerca de Vallenar,
con una cruz al hombro
Run-Run debió cruzar
Run-Run siguió su viaje
llegó al Tamarugal.
Sentado en una piedra
se puso a divagar,
que si esto que lo otro,
que nunca que además,
que la vida es mentira
que la muerte es verdad,

In the middle of a crowd
that had to face a ferry voyage
because of the last hurricane,
in a broken-down port near Vallenar,
with a cross on his shoulder
Run-Run had to cross.
Run-Run continued his travels,
arrived at the Tamarugal.
Seated on a stone,
he began to ruminate.
If this, if that other thing,
if never, and furthermore,
that life is a lie and that death is the truth.
Violeta Parra, Run-Run se fue pal norte

My first night in Chile – with the possible exception of having to dodge traffic on Avenida Sta María because no one had thought to advise pedestrians that there was no place to walk due to construction on one side of the street – was fairly calm. I dined on a thoroughly middling meal of empanadas (Chilean calzones, but smaller) and chips – chips, I would find, are almost invariably good in Chile – and then retired to my room at the Rocca Luna to recharge my camera batteries, check the bus timetables, and then recharge myself. Even given the manifest shortcomings of the bed, my body did not require much coaxing in order to fall asleep.

I awoke the next day, thoroughly refreshed, took another shower (I could never shower enough after these long bus rides), and went downstairs, where I was greeted by the man who had welcomed me the night before.

“You still planning on leaving today?” he asked, after the pleasantries had been exhausted.

“Yes,” I replied, “in a couple of hours.”

“Do you need any help with your things?”

I indicated that this would be greatly appreciated.

“Any chance I might be able to leave my bags here for a couple of hours while I take care of a few things in town?”

I did not want to be burdened with all that luggage while getting coffee and bus tickets, or anything else, unless absolutely necessary.

“Of course,” he replied.

“Great. I’ll be back in an hour or so. Thanks.”

I did not go too far. I simply crossed the street to get to the bus station, where I planned on getting my tickets and a cup of coffee.

As I looked for the Tur-Bus counter – a company I had decided on by virtue of having heard of them – I considered my plans. I had been thinking of taking the trip in two legs, first stopping to spend a few hours in Iquique, which I had been told by a friend who lived there was a lovely city, and then continuing on to Santiago. Fuck that, I believe, were the words that put an end to my deliberations. I very much wanted to see Iquique, but I wanted to end this journey even more. I was not looking forward to schlepping my luggage about whilst trying to explore a new city. I just wanted to  reach Santiago, where I was very eagerly awaited by friends and the opportunity to get some proper rest (recovering from this trip would take a few days at the very least).

A Semi-Cama in the Copiapó Terminal

A Semi-Cama in the Copiapó Terminal

Tur-Bus offers four classes of buses, the basic Clásico, which I have never actually experienced, Semi-Cama (Half-Bed), which is the fairly standard intercity bus with reclining seats and not much more, Salón-Cama, offering something in the nature of an easy chair, and Premium, which I am told is so comfortable that one barely realises one is on a bus.

The bus I ended up taking was a Semi-Cama due to leave Arica at 2 PM, giving me a good two and a half hours to get ready. Assuming everything was on schedule, I would be arriving at Santiago’s main bus terminal, Terminal Alameda, at 6 PM the next day.

Upon my return to the Rocca Luna, I found that my suitcase was already downstairs waiting for me.

“I’d like to get online for a little bit just to let my friends in Santiago know when to expect me, if that’s all right.”

“Feel free”, replied the man, who I hope does not have chronic back pain from lugging my things up and down that narrow staircase.

I went over to one of the tables set up for this purpose in the downstairs common area, set up my computer, and informed everyone who needed to know of my itinerary.

I would be staying in an apartment made available by my friend Cristián in the district (comuna)

"Chile: Open House of the Apocalypse", one of Cristián's best

“Chile: Open House of the Apocalypse”, one of Cristián’s best

of Recoleta. Cristián, a popular political cartoonist with whom I had maintained an artistic exchange of sorts for the past couple of years, based on a shared sense of humour and shared political convictions, occasionally used the apartment as a studio. When it was not in use, he often hired it out to people looking for a place to stay. Many a mutual friend had spent time there.

This I was greatly looking forward to. For one thing, I had always admired Cristián’s work and enjoyed our conversations, which I was excited to at last be able to continue in person. For another thing, it would be nice to have a proper apartment, rather than impersonal hotel, to stay in.

The announcement, some weeks prior, of my upcoming visit  , had unleashed a veritable wave of creativity amongst my friends there, nearly all of whom are involved in independent media in one way or another. Several had online radio shows with which I had collaborated as a call-in guest on various occasions, and hoped to do live shows with me during my stay. Cristián was in the process of launching an online TV show in which he and whatever guests happened to show up for a taping would engage in freestyle discussion of current events and whatever else came to mind, and wanted to have me on the show. Quite a few others were simply excited to get to meet me in person after months – and sometimes years – of online correspondence. It was extremely mutual.

It was clear that Santiago would be extending me a welcome, the like of which I had never before experienced in a new city. Essentially, a whole community of like-minded artists, writers, and journalists were awaiting my visit with a degree of excitement that I am quite unaccustomed to generating. Though I had never before been to the city, and knew of it only what I had gleaned over the years from exhaustive reading and what I had learnt from my friends there, I was, in a sense, already part of a community there. I could not wait to arrive.

Having informed my welcoming committee of my ETA, I decided to make my way over to the station. I still had over an hour left before I had to get on the bus, and the station was just across the street, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. For one thing, I wanted to budget enough time to make it to the station whilst loaded down with luggage. It seemed likely that I would have to stop and rest my aching shoulders at some point during the 300 metre walk to the nearest crosswalk. For another, I am quite paranoid about missing trains, buses, and flights. The last thing I want is to find myself stranded because I’ve missed the final boarding call by 30 seconds. As such, I generally try to be an hour or so earlier than is strictly necessary, and tend to plan an overnight stay if I am going to have to transfer between modes of transportation during a long trip such as this one. That way, late arrivals will not require me to rethink my entire itinerary.

I arrived at the station with 45 minutes to spare, stopped at the kiosk in front to pick up a copy of THE CLINIC, a satirical newspaper that also includes occasionally informative reporting, and went inside to get a cup of coffee.

The coffee, as it turned out, was some crap instant variety that made a valiant effort to look like coffee, but lacked both the flavour and the caffeine. At the time, I assumed this was down to the fact that bus station snack bars rarely offer haute cuisine. However, I later discovered that this was more or less the standard of coffee on offer at most establishments. In part, this is because Chileans, by and large, are tea drinkers. For another thing, most of South America’s abundant coffee production is for export to North America and Europe. Finding a good cup of coffee in Chile would prove to be a matter of considerable trial and error.

I found a spot in front of the terminal, arranged my bags around me, and read the paper while trying to convince myself that I was actually drinking coffee. This was not easy.

For a long time, I have felt that the instant coffee manufacturers who insist on insulting our intelligence with these “blind taste test” adverts should not be allowed to cherry-pick their footage, showing only the reactions of agusia sufferers. They should be required to use the first take, no matter what the reaction:

PRESENTER: Good afternoon, I just wanted to tell you that we arranged to swap this establishment’s normal whole-bean coffee for Plonker’s freeze-dried crystals.

            PATRON: Ah, that explains it, then. Thank you for informing me. We were just about to tell our waiter that the coffee must have gone off, weren’t we, Clive?

            CLIVE: Yes, we were just remarking on how the coffee had the same full-bodied aroma as my socks after an afternoon at the tennis court.

            GUEST AT NEIGHBOURING TABLE (interrupts): Oh, fuck off, did you hear that? This mob are trying to save money by swapping our coffee for that powdered shit from Plonker’s!

            HASTY CUT TO VOICE OVER: Plonker’s Crystals – Our flavour is our trademark.

Not too far from me, I saw a thin, mid-twentyish man having a smoke next to a well-worn rucksack. One of his shoes appeared untied.

“Excuse me”, I began, “Just thought you might want to know your shoe’s untied.” He would likely have discovered this on his own in due time, but the fact was that I was starving for conversation after what already felt like a hundred years of solitude.

“Ah, so it is”, he replied, “Where you off to?”

“Santiago.”

“The two-o’clock?”

“That’s the one.”

“Turns out we’re waiting for the same bus,” he grinned.

We exchanged names, and as is my habit, I forgot his almost immediately. I recall only his surname, Toloza, which I glimpsed when he took out his ID at a police checkpoint.  Toloza, as it turned out, was a student at Arica’s Universidad de Tarapacá, on his way home to the northern coastal city of Tocopilla, about 16 hours south of Arica. I was not exaggerating when I said that Arica was convenient to nowhere.

We got on immediately, both quite happy to have a companion for the long road ahead. Not long thereafter, a friend of his, who had come to see him off, joined us. Following the introductions, Toloza asked if we’d fancy something to eat.

“Do you think we’ve got time?” I asked.

He checked his watch.

“Oh yeah, heaps. Plus, it’s not too far away.”

“Sounds good to me, then,” I replied. I had rather been hoping to get something decent to eat, since I doubted anything edible would be available on the bus, but, after the medley of mediocrities I’d risked my life for the night before, I had no idea where I might find anything.

Toloza and his friend picked up my luggage, leaving me with nothing to carry but my purse, and we proceeded down Avenida Santa María in search of sustenance. My back hadn’t felt this good since New York. We ended up at one of Chile’s many pollerías, which are fast-food-type restaurants specialising in chicken in all its forms. Chicken is extremely popular in Chile, and quite well prepared virtually everywhere it can be found. We divided up a roast chicken, which I combined with a monumental, order of chips, and had a lively and enjoyable conversation, of which I can recall pretty much nothing except how good it was to have someone to talk to. I quite enjoy travelling alone, but I was not really accustomed to spending so much time in silence.

Once we’d finished, we made our way back to the station. Hugs and kisses good-bye followed, and Toloza and I went inside.

“Do you have your boarding pass?” Toloza asked me.

“My ticket? Yeah, right here”, I indicated my pocket.

“No,” he shook his head, “you also need a boarding pass to get onto the platform.”

I had never heard of a bus terminal requiring a boarding pass in addition to the ticket, and, indeed, no other station I visited in Chile had such a policy. I imagine it is probably a way to keep at least some of the tourism revenue in Arica, rather than all of it going to the home offices of the bus companies. In any event, the boarding pass cost only 100 pesos.

Soon enough, the bus arrived, and Toloza and I handed over our checked baggage, boarded, and found two adjacent seats in the back of the bus. Once we were seated, I pulled out my camera and attached the wide-angle lens so that I would be ready as soon as anything photogenic came into view.

It turned out that Toloza was an excellent travelling companion in more ways than one. He was, in fact, something of an area specialist, doing postgraduate work in the history of northern Chile, and knew pretty much every inch of the land between Arica and his home in Tocopilla. As we progressed southward on Ruta 5, he made sure to let me know in advance when something noteworthy was coming up. Because of his studies, not only could he tell me when something was about to come into view; he could actually provide all manner of interesting information about what it was and how it got there. This was the first time I’d ever had such a knowledgeable guide, and it was entirely by coincidence.

We passed the hours talking about everything that came to mind, but every once in a while, he’d change gears:

“If you look out the window in just a second, you’ll see a riverbed that dried out thousands of years ago. It’s what’s known as a wadi.”

A wadi just south of Arica

A wadi just south of Arica

I had heard the term wadi used many times, but had never actually been clear on what it was. What it was, in this case anyway, was spectacular. Shortly after Toloza made this announcement, a huge rift in the earth, almost a canyon, came into view, with steep, smooth walls and a smattering of intense green that looked like grass or small shrubs at the bottom. It was impossible to get a sense of scale from our vantage point on top, but, even so, it was clearly immense. In the photos I took of these chasms, clearly the product of water having eaten through the ground for untold millennia before finally drying out at some point in advance of recorded history, I noticed later that the wadis could have been anywhere between two and two thousand metres deep.

Fortunately, a few hours after our departure from Arica, we actually passed through one of these wadis, one in which there was still a bit of water flowing. This wadi was home to the small desert town of Camarones (“prawns”, for some reason) on the border between Arica and Tarapacá Region and Iquique Region. From below, it is much easier to see the order of magnitude on which the wadis of the Atacama Desert exist. What I had thought when looking from above were small shrubs and patches of grass, turned out in fact to be trees as tall or taller than the bus we were in. Cars, buses, and semis driving on the inclined corkscrew road that allowed them to ascend to the high ground, looked like something small enough for a toddler to choke on. If you were to try to take it on foot and climb straight up the wall of one of these wadis, you would have at least a day of extremely hard going.

Wadi

Wadi

My eyes may have been playing tricks on me after so many hours surrounded by shades of brown, counterbalanced only by the purest, bluest sky I have ever seen, but I don’t think I have ever seen a more intense, vivid green colour than those rare green spaces in the desert, especially those in the wadis of northern Chile. I have always had a neutral attitude towards the colour green – my favourites have always been red tones – but the splashes of green in the midst of so much arid land were positively spellbinding.

When I got dressed that morning, I had decided to put on my ankle-length, full denim skirt. It seemed the most comfortable option for such a long bus ride, since it was long and loose enough to curl up underneath like a makeshift blanket. This, it turned out, was an exceedingly bad idea indeed. In my defence, I would like to note for the record that had no way of knowing this beforehand, but I soon discovered that the toilets on Chilean buses (at least on Tur-Bus) were most likely not only designed – but also field-tested – exclusively by men. This is the only explanation that occurs to me for the decision to put the toilet seat on a spring that makes it pop up unless you keep constant pressure on it. The upshot of this was that, every time I visited the facilities, I had to lift up my skirt to avoid the hemline dragging in the decidedly unappetising collections of fluid that had accumulated on the floor, whilst using the other hand to hold the door shut, because it did not latch properly, and somehow simultaneously hold down the seat long enough that I could sit down without falling down a hole that could easily have been given pride of place in Dante’s Inferno (perhaps as the punishment for misogynists). This would have been enough of a feat as it was, but I also had to do all of this whilst holding my breath so as not to pass out or vomit from the stench of excrement that had clearly been simmering for days in the desert heat. Consequently, my visits to this corner of the vehicle were extremely rare, and made only when I had reached the point of longing for a Foley.

It was jeans and t-shirts for travel days from then on.

Eventually, the sun set over the desert, and we were surrounded in nearly total darkness, save for the incredible array of stars that can be seen in the area. This is, as I have noted ad nauseam by now, the most arid place on Earth. It has virtually no humidity, and the skies are almost always cloudless. Because of this, you can see what appear to be millions of stars spread out before you if you look up. It is truly breathtaking. So many stars are so clearly visible in the Atacama Desert, in fact, that the European Space Agency acquired some land in the most arid section of the desert in order to build an observatory. The land had been owned by a pirquinero, a poor, small-time prospector looking to stake a claim to a small portion of Chile’s vast mineral wealth, but was bought up by a Chilean businessman – who did not see fit to tell the pirquinero why the sudden interest in this barren tract of land – when it became known that the ESA wanted to build an observatory. The pirquinero received a tiny fraction of the ultimate sale price paid by the European Union for the land. While even that tiny fraction was enough to significantly improve the living standard enjoyed (or endured) by a pirquinero, I can’t imagine he was overjoyed to discover that he had been swindled out of a sum of money that would have more or less guaranteed that he would never have to work again.

A few hours after dark, the bus began to slow down, and one of the two drivers announced that we were going to have to get out for a customs inspection. Arica is part of a zona franca, a duty-free zone. For customs purposes, this area is not entirely considered part of Chile. As such, the customs service inspect all southbound travellers before allowing them to proceed. Toloza and I got out with our carry-on luggage and waited on the pavement for the drivers to unload our suitcases.

“They are going to do a manual inspection”, the driver announced, prompting groans from a number of people who had been hoping to get back to sleep sometime soon.

Personally, I didn’t mind all that much. The air was brisk, with a pleasant breeze, and I had a chance, after so many hours, to stretch my legs and have a smoke. There were tables set up under the shelter roof for our belongings to be laid out, so Toloza and I set ourselves up there and waited. It was probably at least half an hour before an agent showed up to inspect our things. When she did, all she did was unzip my suitcase a few inches, run her fingers through it, and zip it up again.

“Right, you’re set, then.”

When she was out of earshot, I couldn’t help laughing a bit.

“What the hell was the point of that?” I asked Toloza, “Are they trying to catch the dumbest drug smugglers in the hemisphere or something?”

He laughed, “Actually, what they’re really interested in is consumer electronics. They want to catch people out who bought more than the maximum permitted.”

“Still”, I said, “how would they ever find anything with an ‘inspection’ like that? Anyone could just put a few layers of clothes over their stereo or whatever, and customs would never be the wiser.”

He thought about this. “Touché.”

“But at least, thanks to the Chilean National Customs Service, we’re finally getting a decent smoke break,” I added, and we both laughed.

I dozed off not too long after that, and awoke again at sunrise. The driver’s assistant was handing out little packets of what was meant to be food. Mine contained a roll that could be used to break windowpanes, some sort of petrochemical spreadstuff, and a drink box purporting to contain pineapple juice.

The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert

I gave the breadbrick and lube a miss, and decided to concentrate on the “juice”, which tasted less like pineapple tastes and more like a well-used habitrail smells. Still, I reasoned, a little blood sugar couldn’t go amiss.

One of the curious things about these long drives was that I ate virtually nothing (apart from the “juice”), but never actually felt hungry. Most likely, I wasn’t actually consuming enough energy for my body to notice, given that my days were spent staring out the window, reading, taking the odd picture, dozing off, waking up again, shuffling around a bit outside when we were able to get out of the bus for a few minutes, sitting down again, staring out the window some more, taking more pictures until my memory cards and both batteries were thoroughly exhausted, and dozing off again. Not exactly strenuous.

About three days after my arrival in Santiago, around midnight, however, my body apparently conducted some sort of internal audit. It has come to my attention…can this possibly be correct?…that you didn’t fucking feed me for three days. Suddenly, although I had actually eaten quite well in the days since my arrival, including that day, I was so gripped by hunger pangs that I felt as if I were about to collapse. The thing about Recoleta, especially the part of Recoleta I was staying in, is that the district pretty much closes for the night at around 10 PM. By the time my hunger attack kicked in, there was literally nothing – not even a pizza delivery service – open. Out of sheer desperation, I got a bit of watermelon – I have never liked watermelon, with its mothballish texture and syrupy flavour – out of the fridge just to have something in my stomach, and tried to console myself by spending the night researching the best pizza in Santiago in order to treat myself the next day.

Alto Hospicio

Alto Hospicio

Another thing about these long journeys is that it becomes very difficult to maintain one’s sense of time and chronology. The pace of life is so slow and repetitive, with no real need to know what time it is, that things can start to run together. For example, I can’t for the life of me say for certain when we arrived in Iquique (though I remember the event itself very well). I know that the sun was either just rising or setting, and that we crossed into the region in which Iquique is located after nightfall, indicating that our arrival in Iquique must have occurred sometime in the morning (since otherwise the entire chronology would make no sense: if we had arrived in Iquique the same night as the customs inspection, it would have been dark, which it wasn’t, and had we reached Iquique the next evening, there is no way we could have been in Santiago until two days after leaving Arica, when I know for certain that it was the day after our departure).

The dune

The dune

In any event, at some point, I glimpsed a town rather a bit larger than the ones we had been seeing. We passed a small flower garden and hill flanked by three flags and a large painted stone plaque reading COMUNA ALTO HOSPICIO. Alto Hospicio is a town just north of Iquique, one of the few major cities this far north.

Overlooking Iquique

Overlooking Iquique

There are few sights more striking in the Atacama Desert than the northern approach to Iquique on Ruta 5. The altitudes in most parts of the inland desert are quite high, so high as to be literally dizzying due to the thinner air. As such, you approach Iquique more or less from the height of a passenger jet just coming in for landing, via a road etched into what looks like a mountainous pyramid of sand. From this vantage point (provided that you are facing westward), you see the entire city of 226,000 people laid out before you in miniature, and just beyond it, the Pacific Ocean, fading into congruence with the sky on some impossibly distant horizon. If the sun is just rising (or setting), a warm glow is cast over the entire city, causing it to radiate golden light, reflected in a trail in the ocean that must be hundreds of miles long. And after hour after hour of soil dried and cracked by millennia of unyielding sunlight and heat, it felt like a glimpse of paradise.

Iquique

Iquique

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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.

(more…)

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