Tuesday, May 11, 2004

On the road to Bahìa Inglesa, I took a picture of a road sign where someone had scratched the leg off the 'r' on 'Ruta 5' so it read 'Puta 5'. Infantile, I know, but against the grey desert spreading off into the distance I thought it had some pathos. Later, walking back the other way, I saw a sign that had received the same treatment - only this time someone had come along and actually painted the leg back on the r.

Bahìa Inglesa is a curve of coarse white sand facing a big blunt headland, "El Morro", on the other side of the bay. The evidence of the summer rush only goes one block back from the beach, in the form of a couple of hotels and restaurants, and the little cabañas crowded together at each end of the bay - then the town disappears into the desert. On an overcast mid-April day, it was eerily quiet.

I couldn't have missed Connie's cousin's place, "Chango Chile" - it's constituted of a cluster of canvas domes right on the beachfront. One giant dome houses the restuarant/bar/reception area, while four smaller domes have beds for guests. I talked to Connie's cousin Alex and the three or four Chilean guys who work with him. They were friendly, if seeming a little anxious. The whole place has been there for only a couple of months, and I guess after some fairly major investmenmt they're keen to drum up some business.

The domes don't have anything to do with some kind of hippie ideal (I can see you snickering Dad). Rather, it was a design they liked after looking at a few different options. The frames were assembled by bolting together metre-long steel struts, which form a skeleton principally of hexagons, each dome ending up with five pentagons. They did this bit themselves according to the design, and cut out the specially-made fabric, which was put in place over the domes with professional help. The windows and skylights in the domes close with velcro.

The concept is quite daring. Granted, despite the suggestion of drizzle the first day I was there, as a rule it doesn't rain in Bahìa Inglesa. One thing they may not have counted on though is the level of chill that can creep in. When I was there some people came in for dinner, and they had to bring in the gas heater to warm the main dome, while Alex wandered round frowning, saying "It's actually colder inside than out...".

Alex has been in Chile for twelve years, and speaks the "huevòn, huevòn, huevòn" chileno patois with fluency. His best friend at school in San Diego was Chilean, and after school finished suggested they take off to explore Chile. Alex went along for the ride and never left.

I talked a bit to one of the guys, Marcelo, who brought out a pot of mate sweetened with cinammon sticks. He studied anthropology at university, and spent eight months living with fishermen on the coast south of Caldera for this thesis. Right now, he says, there's a vague possibility he could get involved in a community development/technology transfer project with some local organisation. But for the present he seemed content to cruise along working for Alex. Incidentally, his sister Gabriela finished her studies in agriculture at Lincoln University, currently worksin Christchurch and is living in Lyttelton...

While I was at Chango Chile, the big concern was to organise a photo shoot showing the domes and the bay with people enjoying themselves. The photos were to appear in a Californian magazine, and the deadline to supply them was about up. The only problem was that for the pictures they needed (a) sun (which came out the next day)and (b) some girls (who are not that abundant in Bahìa Inglesa in mid-April). There was some frenetic discussion following the appearance of "Mono", the proprietor of (the) restaurant down the street, to ascertain the availability of his (as it eventually turned out) stuningly beautiful French wife Sylvie and two of her friends to appear in the photo shoot.

After talking with everyone, Alex offered me a discount and I said I'd come and stay the next night there. I started walking back towards Caldera through the desert as the twilight started to fall. Though I was on the wrong side of the road to hitch, a truck driver pulled over and offered me a lift back to Caldera. He said he worked as a policeman in the area for twenty years and got sick of it. Now he is in the recycling business, which is what the truck was for. Dirty work, he said, but "buena moneda". I said something like, well, you're still doing something for the community too. He heartily agreed, and we talked some more about the development of tourism and eco-tourism in northern Chile.

I took a stroll in the plaza, cooked dinner and had a bottle of beer at the unfriendly residencia, and tried to catch up with my journal. I was starting to feel ok about being in a small town.

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