Thursday, July 31, 2014

South America 1989: Gormless tourist on the moon

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I have just added StreetView to my iPad, because I love cruising the mean streets of Mexico, Brazil and Rumania. I was bumbling about in Paraguay when I accidentally dropped the little guide man on the Pan American Highway on the Chilean coast. Then suddenly; I realised I was looking at a place I had actually been.  The most moon-scapey place I have ever been, and yes I have spent time in Queenstown. The Atacama Desert of coastal Chile and Peru is something else. Note; the top scene here is Chile (white lines), the lower one Peru (yellow lines). These spots are something like 700km apart. And in between is… pretty much the same.

This was my first trip overseas. Manuel and I flew from Sydney to Santiago on our way to Lima, Peru. He had more money to throw around than I, so he flew up the coast to LIma while I went all the way by bus, changing buses at the border. I was 21 years old, had a smattering of night school Spanish, and I was extremely gormless. I have just realised that next month is the 25th anniversary of our trip.

The two bus rides together took 40 hours. A large stretch of it went through the desert. You hear a lot these days about how deserts are actually full of LIFE and VARIETY and so on. This one is just your classic empty sandblasted sandsville. Silver grey sand stretches from the ocean as far as you can see inland, usually to the line of sandhills not far from the road. Now and then you see small groups of tiny huts. The only colour is Chilean flags flying from almost every possible spot.

Streetview screen grab. More pics here or just go to Google Street view itself obviously!
Here is my diary and a couple of drawings from the bus ride.

This story starts in Santiago. When planning, we had decided that we would split up there, and meet up again three days later in Lima. I was on a tighter budget than Manuel, and I couldn’t justify flying when the bus was one fifth the price.

The bus left Santiago at about six in the evening, and headed north on the Pan American Highway. The Pan American stretches from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, with the only break in Panama due to the impassable Darien Gap.

I was sitting next to a serious young man named Bernardo. We kept to ourselves until, when we were well out in the desert, I asked him if he would mind me taking a photo (he had the window seat). We started talking then, I told him where I was from and where I was going. He was the first South American I spoke to at any length. He was a student in Santiago, travelling to Calama I think.

I was headed for Arica, on the Chile/Peru border. This was supposed to take 28 hours (followed by 22 hours the next day from the border to Lima).

I was captivated by the desert, as I had never seen one before. There are areas in the Atacama desert that have never in recorded history had rain. I have always been fascinated by the idea of such massive empty spaces, and had often painted such scenes at art school. There wasn’t the dead flat horizon of my paintings, but the emptiness was mind-boggling. I spent hour after hour just staring out the window at the panorama.
In places images have been formed by arranging dark stones on the lighter sand. Some massive examples date back to extinct pre-conquest tribes, but there are many smaller religious words and images and people’s names.

Much of the time we were travelling along the Pacific coast. One place sticks in my memory, called Gran Playa. It was a flyblown truck stop. There was all kinds of rubbish sticking out of the sand, half buried. Across the road from the grubby restaurant was about 400 meters of “beach”. It was just the same as the ground on the inland side of the road, but it had waves crashing on it. If the bus had waited, I’d have liked to walk down to the water and look back at Gran Playa and the vastness that surrounded it.

The drawing [above] was done two months later, passing through the same area in the other direction. Santiago is at the same latitude as Sydney, Arica about the same as Rockhampton. I’d never been further north in my life than Gosford, so the intensity of the sun was not something I was used to. It glinted fiercely off passing cars, and even the grey-yellow sand and rocks seemed to reflect back pure white.

The desert is chock-full of valuable minerals. It was formerly Peruvian and Bolivian territory, which the Chileans captured in the War of the Pacific in 1883.
Calama has the largest copper mine in the world, and mining is all that really goes on in northern Chile. Originally they mined nitrates, but when synthetic nitrates were invented in WW2, they came to rely on copper.

The Chilean bus was quite comfortable. It cost around US$30 for the trip. The trip was overnight, and a steward went down the aisle putting everyone’s seats back at about 9 o’clock. The same steward went down the aisle waking evryone and giving them a cup of wierd tea and a roll at about 7 o’clock the next morning. That afternoon they showed a video - a black and white bedroom farce apparently made in Argentina.

We stopped in Valparaiso, Copiapo, Antofagasta and Iquique on the way. I can only remember the stop at Antofagasta. We drove through the suburbs to the bus company’s terminal. It was hot and dusty, and the whole town smelled of fish. I sat with Bernardo and ate, probably chicken I think. I ate a lot of chicken on the trip, because it was plentiful everywhere and likely to be fresh. It was usually quite tasty too.

The company's bus station was up here in the hills above the port of Antofagasta.
I said goodbye to Bernardo and continued with the bus to Arica. It was around nine pm when we arrived. The desert sunset had been spellbinding, but the darkness fell quickly. I remember seeing the lights of Arica, and travelling along a modern expressway into the city. The bus terminal was over the river from the area where I wanted to stay. I felt a little scared, but I decided to walk and see a bit of the town. It was Saturday night. Several streets were blocked off, and there were many young people wandering around. Music floated through the warm air from many different dance halls and clubs.

I found the Residencial Nuñez in Calle Maípu. They had no free rooms, but they had one that was occupied by a shift worker. They rented it out to someone else at night at a cheaper rate. The SA on a Shoestring describes the Nuñez as “dreary”. It was very basic, but it had hot water - it cost around one dollar per night.

I wanted to take a photograph of Señora Nuñez with the Jesus and Mary teatowel hanging over the reception desk. My accent was and is terrible, and something I said made her look worried and annoyed. I think I said “camera”, because it sounds like one of those words that is basically the same in both languages. She may have thought I said “camela” which means “flirt”. I should have said “maquina fotographia” or just “foto”. When she cottoned on to my meaning, she sat at her desk and gave me a huge smile. I don’t have the photo - the film was in my pack when it was stolen 2 months later.

Calle Maípu in Arica - the Residencial Nuñez ius no longer listed.
The next day I shouldered my pack and headed downtown to find the train station. There is a short railway from Arica to Tacna, the first town on the Peruvian side. It is generally better to cross a border on a bus or train than on foot, or in a private car or taxi. Your driver and fare collector do the same trip every day, and know the border guards and the procedure. If there are any bribes to be paid, the company usually does it and factors it into the ticket price. It is a much neater may of ensuring you get over OK than giving the sergeant a few bills on the spot to give you an entry stamp.

Because it was Sunday the train wasn’t running - that left me the choices of a walk back to the bus terminal for an international bus, taking a colectivo (an irregular minibus/taxi) or waiting another day. Because I was in a hurry to rejoin Manuel, I decided to get a colectivo to Tacna.

First I did a bit of sightseeing. Arica is dominated by the Morro de Arica, a big headland (notable because it doesn’t have a giant cement Jesus erected on it.) I walked around the shore below the Morro, and sat under an equestrian statue to watch big pelicans diving for fish in the water. I’m not sure who the statue was - it could have been San Martin, Bolivar, Grau, Pierola, O’Higgins or Salaverry, but probably Grau. Everything in South America is named after one of these people, from countries to soccer teams to hamburgers. 

The plaza by the Morro de Arica
While I was staring out to sea a young man approached and asked me for a cigarette. He assumed I was an American, and wanted to practise his English on me. His name was Alejandro, and he told me he was an orphan. His parents had died in an air crash, and he cried as he told me about it. Then he told me he hadn’t eaten for three days. I doubted a lot of his story, but when I bought him some empanadas, he gobbled them so fast he was choking. Empanadas are like a meat pie that is all pastry and salt, with a bit of meat accidentally left in.

We sat outside a cafe for a while, and he told me about what had happened in Chile in the last ten years. He said a lot of people were prepared to forget about the disappearances and other human rights abuses because the Pinochet regime had turned the Chilean economy around, and had inflation under control. (I later heard Peruvians say that they needed someone like Pinochet to fix their economy and crush the Shining Path. Alejandro volunteered the information that he hated Pinochet - I never heard anyone else voice an opinion.

I got up to find a moneychanger, as I had run out of pesos. Alejandro insisted I follow him to where I would get a better exchange rate, I think he wanted me to tip him. I decided to get rid of him, and said “This is not a very good rate at all - you’ve taken me out of my way for nothing”. He skulked away, and I took my pesos to where the colectivos gather. There were three ladies and a man looking for one more person to share their colectivo across the border, so I joined them.

Looking back at Chile at the Chile-Peru border.
So far, 2069km by bus and 22km by colectivo. Still nearly 1000km to Lima.
My first border crossing went well, except: when we were in no man’s land, I suddenly said “I think I left a plastic bag on the ground at the last checkpoint”. The driver briefly panicked, until he realised where we were. It is illegal to stop or turn around between a border marker and a checkpoint. We were between the Chilean marker and the Peruvian marker, and out of sight of either checkpoint, so he stopped and unlocked the boot - my bag was right there.

We drove into Tacna, Peru, and I changed my pesos and some dollars into intis. The rate was then 3300 intis to the dollar. The peso rate in Tacna was very poor; the pesos I had paid a dollar for over the border were now worth about 2600 intis. Travelling towards a border, you always have to tread a fine line between ensuring sufficient funds and getting stuck with nearly worthless currency. I changed my watch as well as my money - Peru is one hour behind Chile.

I didn’t feel very comfortable in Tacna, and I decided to just sit on my pack for the two hours before the next bus to Lima. I tried talking to a man who was also waiting, but he spoke too rapidly.

One of the older parts of Tacna ...
.. and one of the up-and-coming newer parts of Tacna.
The Peruvian bus was a rattletrap compared with the Chilean version. The passengers seemed to mostly be smuggling Chilean goods into Peru. Tacna seemed to be some sort of free trade zone, possible because it was Chilean territory from the War of the Pacific until 1929 (as a legacy it still has the highest education standard in Peru). The bus was stopped and searched twice by the customs police (who looked like the army - maybe they were the customs army). I was sitting next to a woman who had lots of silver jewellry sewn into the hem of her skirt - she showed me. Another man had a radio, which he hid in a crate of bananas when we were searched, but played at top volume and sang along to the rest of the time.

The bus to Lima went via Arequipa, Nazca, Ica and Pisco, but I can’t remember any of my impressions then - I saw them all again later. It was probably dark. I  remember dreaming that I was sitting next to Pippa, our labrador who had died a year earlier, and feeling very content just to sit next to her. I woke up and realised it was the woman with the jewellery leaning against me.

We arrived in Lima at 8.30 am. Ten minutes later I was lost. (To be continued)

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