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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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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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