Thursday, April 22, 2004

Somewhere round the 20th of April

Yes, I´ve fallen way behind with this journal, so I´m going to skip over quite a bit (which I´ll catch up on later), and provide an update. Right now I´m in Caldera, on the coast about halfway between Santiago and Calama. Caldera is a tiny port town, and down the road is Bahía Inglesa, a busy beach resort in the high season. At the moment, both are well and truly off the beaten track. Chile´s first railway line went to Caldera, from the nearby copper town of Copiapó. It´s not historical interest that´s brought me here, though, rather a recommendation from Connie, a receptionist at Hostal Bellavista in Santiago. She suggested it as somewhere nice, off the tourist trail, and a place to investigate voluntary work - since Habitat para la Humanidad has some projects here, where they help local people to build houses. Plus the fact that her cousin Alex runs a hostel and associated operations at Bahía Inglesa.

The bus ride here was a little over thirteen hours from Santiago, and much worse than it should have been. It was a "semi-cama" bus, with super-comfortable seats which fold back to 65 degrees. For comfort and value for money, Chilean and Argentinian buses are, in and of themselves, unparalleled. The only problem is the insistence in keeping the heating wacked up at night time, to maintain an interior temperature of no less than 28 degrees (I know this because the temperature alternates on a digital screen with the time and the availability of the bus´toilet). With near-zero humidity and general passenger body heat, this dehydrates the hell out of you and makes it near impossible to sleep. Or at least for me. The accumulated light snoring of those who had dropped off didn´t help either - including that from the bloke who occupied the seat next to me from about halfway through the trip and immediately begged for some of my water - he said he´d been sitting in the terminal eating and drinking a little beer, and was terribly thirsty.

When we started off, about 8:00 pm, the heating was way up. After about 20 minutes into the journey, when it became clear it was likely to stay that way, I asked the guy who comes round to clip the tickets if they could turn the heating down. He said yes, they would fix it in just a bit. Sure enough, they turned it down, and the temperature came down to a much more comfortable 21 degrees. But about 10:30, when the movie finished and they turned off the lights, it was whacked up once more.

Conversations with people today and previously suggest that this is standard practice, so the "viejecitos and guaguas" (old people and babies) don´t get cold. But, as we all agree, a temperature close to 30 degrees where it´s impossible to to sweat is at least as unhealthy. I´m thinking of writing to the bus company and asking them to justify their rationale.

Am I sounding like some kind of middle-aged American or something? What a wuss, I can hear people saying. Wait till he gets to Peru and Bolivia, where equally long or longer trips take place in ancient buses with uncomfortable seats, jammed full of pigs and chickens...

It´s always a little daunting, arriving in towns like Caldera as a traveller, especially in a semi-conscious state first thing in the morning. There you are, bien gringo, getting off the bus with your blue and purple Great Outdoors backpack, generally in the dusty outskirts where the bus stations tend to find themselves, no idea where you´re going. Subjected to double-take looks from local people, like, what the hell is he doing here? And you don´t really know the answer yourself...

Still, weird as it may feel at the time, out of the way places tend to leave a disproportionate impression on you, even if you´re only briefly passing through. I have quite vivid memories of, for example, Comitán in Mexico, a pretty but nondescript town near the border with Guatemala, where I felt like practically the first foreigner to visit.

The best way to get equilibrium in these situations, I´ve found, is to buy a pack of cigarettes. This serves a couple of purposes. It immediately involves you in a couple of transactions with local people - the first in the store or kiosk where you buy the cigarettes, subsequently with anyone who tries to bum one off you - which proves that you´re not actually an alien being, and can speak the language. It also gives you something to do as you walk along and makes you look slightly less geeky.

I found a place to stay in a residencia by the plaza, which is listed by both LP and a Chilean booklet. It´s pleasant enough, but the owners are rather the opposite of gergarious; they´re an elderly couple who seem rather ambivalent about having guests at all. They have a "salón de belleza" out front (a hairdressers, really), and seem a bit irritated by the guests.

Before getting some lunch, I talked to a Colombian girl who was selling necklaces and other artesanías by the plaza. She said she was from Cali, and had travelled down through Peru and Ecuador to Chile, selling her things along the way. She had a beautiful, soft accent, and I felt kind of pleased to meet a fellow traveller. She said I should definitely go to Cali, where "they treat you well". I didn´t want to be pressured into buying anything; I showed her my pounamu necklace and said that was all I need to wear, and now wasn´t yet the time for buying presents. Anyway, I was really hungry. She said "bueno, comes; después hablamos". I went to eat and then snuck out of the diner to avoid talking to her again. But later I thought that one of her shark-tooth necklaces would have made a great present for Meghan or Ben (step-niece and nephew), for only 1,000 pesos ($1.30 U.S.); I could easily have mailed them home. I looked for her later in the plaza, but she was gone.

After lunch I walked to Bahía Inglesa. It took longer than I thought - they had told me "half an hour, tops" in the diner - but was worth it for the landscape. The area around Caldera is completely, romantically, desolate. Especially today when the sea fog had come in early and stayed all day in a low-hanging drab overcast above the coastal desert. From the town outskirts, in the typical Latin American urban fringe textures of tin, concrete, dust, graffiti and litter, the desert stetches off - sand, a little rock, and the most rudimentary and occasional forms of scrub, towards the fog-shrouded mountains and grey sea. Boy, you could make some dialogue-light existential films here.

No comments: