POSTCARD FROM EL NORTE
Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God. So it came about that after some discussion and arm-twisting, Miki, tag-teaming with Eva, persuaded me to visit the North of Chile. I was promised incredible scenery, great food, and a very relaxing trip. My erstwhile ladies made good on the first two promises and hey, two out of three is not too bad. Right?
Maps present a landscape, but writing about a place re-represents a place as it was experienced, the feel of a place as it registered in one’s muscles and bones. If we experience space as an idea, we experiences places through sensory impressions – the seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted. Bear with me then, as I reprocess my memories.
Eva, Miki’s sister, whom I’ve actually known a couple of years longer than my wife, did the tour planning and arrangements. Eva was born in Germany and Miki in Chile. That should have been my first clue, as our tour took on a lot of the aspects of Rommel’s march to the sea – not a minute wasted, everything meticulously planned and flawlessly executed. Rest? Well, you have plenty of time to rest when you’re dead.
After a 14-hour flight, we arrived in Santiago Thursday morning rather exhausted, despite the unusual luxury of being able to fly first class with our mileage on American. We had attended my cousin’s daughter’s wedding in Chicago over the weekend, flew back to LA on Monday, worked Tuesday, and flew out on Wednesday. Eva met us at the airport in Santiago with a rented car, helped pile in our luggage, and we were off…on a relaxing six-hour drive up the coast to La Serena, the beach resort where Eva has a condo. The trip was uneventful, punctuated by numerous tollbooths, where we helped contribute some 10,000 pesos (about $20) to the local economy. I have to say, the road was excellent, and the scenery sufficiently attention grabbing that I was loath to fall asleep.
We made it to Eva’s condo by the mid afternoon, where we received warm greetings from the men who keep watch on the condo complex, no doubt delighted to see the arrival of the generous lady from the States. Eva’s unit has an unobstructed 180-degree view of the ocean and the beach, which we enjoyed – for about five minutes. Then, it was time to unpack, stow the provisions, and hit the beach. The summer herds had already returned to school and their jobs, so we pretty much had the place to ourselves. After being in a plane for 14 hours, and in a car for another six, Miki and I decided to take a walk along the almost empty beach, as Eva lay down to soak in some rays. We’ve been here before. The waves – mound, curl, foam – have been what I remembered. This time I hear the silence the waves interrupt. The sun was just starting to set, and we soon saw how the beach received its name – Gaviota Beach. (Gaviota means sea gull, for all you non-Spanish speakers.) Hundreds of sea gulls raised themselves from their perch on the sand, temporarily disturbed by a frenetic dog vainly chasing after them, or a young boy whooping through their midst, arms flapping amidst squealing giggles. (Miki, always the defender of the down trodden, became frequently concerned about the ability of the poor gulls to get any rest. Hell, they were getting a whole lot more rest than I was!) The soaring birds, outlined against the setting sun lighting the clouds and changing the foam from the waves orange to pink, and with the giant cross of Coquimbo in the background, did make for a few good photos.
At this point, I was more than ready to crash and call it a day – a very long day. Unfortunately, I neglected to take into consideration Miki’s (and apparently Eva’s) need for regular four-hour feedings. So off we went to a local eatery for our first sampling of Chilean seafood. It was very good. I think. That’s the best I can recall as I was trying to avoid doing a face plant in the soup from exhaustion.
Despite the fatigue, we woke up rather early the following morning, our internal clocks still ticking to LA time. Just as well, as Eva had planned a day’s outing for us to the Valle del Elqui, the narrow valley that bounds the Elqui River, where the sun shines 361 days out of the year. This was one of the other four. It sprinkled. Actually, I didn’t mind at all, as the overcast kept the temperature in the cooler zones I personally prefer, and it made for better photos.
The Valle del Elqui has a number of claims to fame. Aside from it’s scenic beauty, (considerable) it is the home of pisco, an alcoholic beverage of high potency distilled from grapes grown on the terraced slopes of the valley, and the basic ingredient of pisco sours, served at most Chilean gatherings. Pisco, I found, helps improve my Spanish comprehension considerably. (Or maybe after a couple of glasses, I no longer care what anyone is saying.) It is also the birthplace of Gabriel Mistral, the remarkable woman who found her way from a small remote village to a life as an international political figure and writer, one of the two Chilean winners of the Nobel Prize for literature.
We stopped to visit a small town, El Molle, lined with pepper trees, white washed buildings with thatched roofs, and windows framed with Mediterranean style ceramic tiles. We paused briefly by the large reservoir created by the new dam, where the few fruit and souvenir sellers remaining from the summer trade looked up from their stalls, but quickly resumed their languor after realizing we were not good prospects for the sale of their wares.
We passed the turn off to Tololo, the giant observatory of La Serena, whose domes were just visible on the peaks of the Andes. I was informed this is the second largest such observatory in the world. We actually have an acquaintance, an astrophysicist from Cal Tech, who works there. Small world. We also visited the Museo Gabriel Mistral de Vicuña, housing mementos from her life, as well as showcasing the modest home in which she grew up. What drives people from these tiny places to, against all odds, take their prominent roles on the world’s stage?
By now, we were getting beyond the margins of the sisters’ four-hour feeding schedule, and even I was starting to feel the need for some sustenance. Fortunately, just about then, we reached the Hotel Elqui. We entered a small courtyard covered with a grape arbor, where reaching up we snatched a few incredibly sweet, flavorful grapes, the kind of which I had not tasted since leaving my parents’ vineyard in Hungary. The walls were lined with large old bottles, the kind wrapped with woven wicker I remember from my boyhood, in which we would store wine and spirits. We were the only customers in the restaurant covered with a thatched roof, and open on all sides to the elements. The meal of empanadas and one of the best bowls of chicken soup I’ve tasted was washed down with a good local beer. We all felt better.
You would probably think that after all this running around, we would spend the next day sleeping in, lying around the beach, reading a good book. But then you would be wrong. Eva, our blond Valkyrie, had other plans for us. In the morning we hit La Serena’s new mall, a modern complex of shops anchored by the pervasive Falabella, Chile’s large department store chain. We also visited an artesenal, a collection of booths selling various traditional Chilean and South American handicrafts. Given the company I was keeping, I knew this was not going to be my only exposure to malls and shopping. I was right. (Miki did end up with a butter-soft red leather jacket as an early birthday present, and we found a number of nice presents for friends.)
Eva, who’s incredibly organized, had already purchased a number of postcards (or pestcards, as a friend of mine appropriately refers to them) prior to our arrival. We spent our first awake night writing the usual trite phrases one expects to find on the back of these glossy photos, to remind our friends and loved ones that we were thinking of them, and secretly hoping to raise a smidgen of envy in their hearts that we were away from the daily grind of life in some far off exotic locale while they were back home dealing with the mundane of existence.
Eva and I dropped Miki off at the central post office to mail our cards, while we circled the central square of the city where this august building was located. Civilization had come to Chile. There was no place to park. Miki soon reappeared, relating the story of the post office clerk. When Miki inquired regarding the amount of postage required to send a card to the USA and France, the woman quoted two prices for each, the higher one being for mailing the cards with prioridad. Asked what was the difference, the woman replied, “Well, do you want to mail them, or do you want them to get there?” Since our goal was that you receive your cards, we did indeed send the mail con prioridad. And they did arrive – three weeks after we mailed them. We do take a lot for granted here in the States.
In the afternoon, we drove back to the Valle del Elqui to have lunch with Rosie Kramer, and her husband, Mario. Rosie is a friend of Eva’s who looks after, and rents out Eva’s condo during the year. She and her husband moved out of La Serena a few years ago, bought a section of land filled with eucalyptus trees overlooking the river and the mountains, and proceeded to build their dream house. Houses is a more accurate description, because in addition to the main structure, they also a built a small, separate house with three glass walls and a portion of the ceiling, also of glass. They use this place to sit and watch the stars at night, which, in the Valle del Elqui, are not the few faint spots of light we’re used to seeing, but bright, shining orbs in myriad profusion, veils of gaseous nebulae scattered enticingly across a black velveteen sky, capable of eliciting awe in the most cynical of souls. This almost always-present celestial kaleidoscope is one of the hallmarks of the North, one that brands the memory with a glimpse of the infinite wonder of the universe contrasted to our paltry significance. The third structure, constructed also from the native woods, is Mario’s music room. The walls are ingeniously insulated with egg crates, covered with a burlap material of dark, muted color, providing inexpensive but excellent acoustic quality for the audiophile owner. Here, as we sipped our pisco sours, looked out over the tranquil valley, Mario serenaded us with Beethoven, Mozart and jazz from the big band era. I could have sat and listened to music for hours, but by now the afternoon lunch was ready. We made our way up the tree-lined hillside, planted with flowers as well as raspberries (Rosie gave each of us a jar of home made raspberry jam to take home that must have weighed at least 10 pounds) to a terraced picnic table adjacent to the outdoor barbecue on which our outstanding lunch was prepared. Chilean cuisine is enhanced by the ready availability of fresh, high quality ingredients, a liberal use of mayo and butter, as well as the ever-present palta, or avocado. It’s heaven for a cardiologist looking for business.
We drove back to La Serena fully sated, past the ubiquitous signs promoting Capel brand pisco, past the Casino, which, judging by the number of cars in the parking lot was doing good business despite it being off-season. We made it back just in time to watch another Technicolor sunset over the beach.
The next morning we had hallullas for breakfast, a round bread about the size of an English muffin, but with a flavor more that of a biscuit. We lavished these with some of the jam provided by Rosie, who had decided to join us for our tour of the Atacama Desert on the northern end of Chile. The plan was for us to pack up our stuff, and drive back all together to Santiago, (no small feat, getting four people and their luggage inside a Nissan Sentra) where we would catch a plane the next morning to Calama and the Atacama Desert. And since Eva had masterminded this whole operation, we, like good soldiers, followed the plan. (For those unfamiliar with Chilean geography, the country is over 3000 miles long, but only about 280 miles wide at its widest point, with about 5000 miles of coastline. Santiago, the capital, sits almost exactly in the middle. The central valley resembles California both in natural features, vegetation, as well as climate. To the north is the desert, and to the south, chains of lakes, farms, forests, leading into Patagonia, the glaciers, and Antarctica.)
Rosie unfortunately speaks no English, so our conversations were always in Spanish – of which she speaks a lot. And very quickly. She realizes she has a lot to say, and life being as short as it is, she has to say it fast to get it all out. I, on the other hand, don’t speak Spanish beyond some rudimentary phrases. I understand 70-80% of what is being said if the person speaks reasonably slowly and I concentrate on the conversation. I concentrated very hard. I understood very little, except that there seemed to be a growing, dull, throbbing feeling at the base of my skull. Given that we would be spending four days together, I calculated the supply of Aspirin I had brought with me on this trip. It was not going to be enough. Please don’t misunderstand. Rosie was (and is) a lovely lady. It’s just that she was not only speaking all the time, but seemed to have a catalytic effect on Miki and Eva (no slouches in the speaking department) so that they, too, were accelerated and vocal. Often simultaneously.
We arrived back in Santiago after another six-hour drive down the Pan Americana (the highway from Canada, I-5 in the USA, that extends all the way through to Chile, the end of the road) fuelled by the petrol from the Copec gas stations (they charge $4 – $5 for a gallon of gas in Chile, but they also pump the gas, wash your windshield, and provide full service for the car) as well as the torrent of words from my companions. That night we stayed with Ana and Hernan, a lovely couple with a beautiful home filled with artistic touches. Eva and Ana are best friends, and we were all welcomed as family. There is a warmth in Ana’s house, created by the subtle interplay of light, the comfortable, over-stuffed chairs with their pastel patterns, the objects d’art in each room arresting the eye, all suffused with the personality of the occupants. I wish we could have lingered longer.
The next morning Ana and Hernan were already gone by the time we appeared for breakfast. Though retired, they lead busy lives involving study, sport, travel, extended family obligations…. the list goes on. As we had a “free” morning in Santiago, Eva marched Miki and I off to the one of the city’s malls, so we could say (paraphrasing Caesar) veni, vidi, visa (I came, I saw, I spent). We then stopped in to see Alan and Eva’s new apartment in Santiago. Great location, very nice place. It was good to see Eva so excited by her find. In the afternoon, having divested ourselves of about 50 pounds of purchases and extra clothes left in a suitcase at Ana’s, we made our way to the airport for our flight to Calama, and the Atacama desert.
LAN, the Chilean national airline, offers impressive service. On a less than two-hour flight, we were served a full meal, complimentary cocktails and wine (in coach, no less) all done with a minimum of fuss. As we approached Calama, Miki was pointing out the sights. Her father, a civil engineer, worked here for several years, building a new hospital for Chuquicamata, the largest copper mine in the world. As kids, they would fly up to visit from Santiago, at a time when Calama was about 10% of its current size. We could easily see the circular terraced descent of the mine pit from even 30,000 feet.
Thanks to Eva, LAN Tours had a van waiting for us at the airport for our two-hour ride across the desert to San Pedro de Atacama, a small oasis in the second driest place on earth. (The last rain was over two years ago.) The tiny town, boasting the oldest church in Chile built by the Spanish in the early 1500’s, has become the focal point of the growing tourist industry used to explore the region. We stayed at the Hotel Kimal, an excellent choice as several locals later informed us. (Eva, naturally, was the one who scouted out the lodging.) The place is run by a British woman married to an Atacaman. The walls are constructed of irregular stone blocks, chiseled by hand, and laid together without the aid of mortar in a manner that made it difficult to slip a thin credit card between any of the surfaces. Wood beamed ceilings with skylights, and a minimalist but tasteful décor made it a welcoming place for our four-night stay. (To show how the world functions, on our way home to the States, we were given a copy of the Sunday New York Times. The front page of the travel section featured San Pedro de Atacama and the Hotel Kimal. On arriving home, there was a travel feature on MTV, featuring Cameron Diaz; you guessed it – staying at the Hotel Kimal.) Most of the guests were from Germany, England and Brazil, with a smattering of other Europeans.
Eva had also arranged half-day tours for us. Morning tours. Afternoon tours, And lest we get lazy, night tours. In short order, we were exposed to archeological digs, as well as a reconstruction of one of the villages as they would have existed 2000 years ago. We got to climb the Pukara of Quitor, a series of terraced buildings adapted to be a fortress under the Inca rule. Climbing over loose stone and rubble, walking along inch thick narrow steps, and looking down dizzying heights to the ground below without the aid of restraining railings provided clear proof that the American legal system had not yet invaded this country. We were treated to endless vistas of sand dunes, pink and orange rock formations eroded by the corrosive forces of nature into monumental sculptures, as well as a terrain so extraterrestrial in appearance that it was used as the test grounds for the recently launched Mars Rover. We saw the Valley of the Moon, glittering with sparkling white diamonds of salt, testimony to the ancient ocean’s presence here some two million years ago. And everywhere we went, we were ringed by snow covered volcanoes with wisps of steam coming from their tops, all presided over by Licancabur, the triangular “perfect mountain” enshrined in Atacama legend.
One evening we climbed a huge sand dune, the best vantage point from which to observe the drama the setting sun creates as it spotlights, then dims the lights on these wonders of nature. There is a silence in the desert, one that brings reverence more profound than produced by the greatest of man-made cathedrals, as we witness a process of sunset turning the peaks and valleys around us orange, pink, then purple in rapid order. We feel a kinship with our ancestors witnessing this grand spectacle, and feel the same urge to bow down in respect for what has been revealed to us.
Perhaps the highlight, at least for me, of the trip came on our night tour. A French astronomer, Alain Maury, who did his post-doctoral work at Cal Tech, married a woman, Alejandra, from La Serena. Together, the two of them came to San Pedro de Atacama, and bought a piece of land out in the desert, on which they set up four large telescopes. Through these, he shows off twice a night the marvels of the Universe, allowing us to see (and feel) not only the wonders of our planets and their moons, but to look into the spaces between the stars. Time is the absence of perfection, and mortality creates a desire for knowledge. The search for answers to unknowable questions places the prophet and the physicist on the same side. The whispering of stars are still in my head, as I vainly attempt to comprehend the magnitude of infinity; the galaxies, each with millions of stars, existing like a never ending series of nested Russian dolls in an ever expanding Cosmos.
By now, I am exhausted. I tell Miki to let Eva know I’m en huelga – on strike. Perhaps because the tours were all full, or because she knows the worst still lies ahead, Eva decided to give us a “morning off” followed by a relaxing afternoon at the Termas de Puritama, a small oasis in a narrow canyon, where crystal clear, 85°F water cascades through a series of pools to disappear again into the desert sands. The pools are lined with tall marsh grasses and shrubs, providing both a measure of shade as well as privacy. We pack a picnic lunch and luxuriate in the warm waters. I finally start to relax. We dine in the evenings at Adobe, a restaurant Eva claims is the best one in town. Given that the food is excellent, the place always full, and the atmosphere, highlighted by a central open fire pit exposed to the night stars (in a place it only rains every two years, why have a roof?) very charming, I’m not inclined to disagree with her.
The desert holds many mysteries. One is the lake by Chiu Chiu. It is always full, even in the worst droughts, when the surrounding oases become dry mud-holes. The water is salty, though the lake is 150 miles inland from the ocean, and 7000 feet above sea level. Jacques Cousteau explored its depths in a submersible, but could not find the source of its waters. A German geological team, recently using aerial sonar, also came up empty handed. In a place where water can be more valuable than gold, the lake maintains its elusive enigma. Then there are the mysterious lights which appear from time to time, raising a host of speculations about UFO’s. No one claims to have seen any green men running around, but several locals we spoke to described what’s best termed as “strange happenings.”
Unrelated to the above is Proyecto ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array), eighty 12 meter radio telescopes currently under construction at the top of a 16,000 foot mountain, representing a joint project between the North American, Japanese, Brazilian, and Southern European astronomical communities to answer the mystery of the birth of the Universe. Chile has donated the land, and the telescopes, with a resolution ten times that of the Hubbell, are due to be online by the end of the decade.
I’ll skip over our visit to Caspana with its terraced fields where we were admonished not to take photos of the native population, the pukara of Lasana, the one room school house where the teacher taught not only math and science, but Kunza, a dead Indian language. I should mention the spectacular sunset over Laguna Chaxa, a section of the Atacama Salt Lake providing sanctuary for thousands of Andean flamingoes, where I was able to capture several of these wonderful birds in flight like so many Escher prints against the darkening sky, then move on to our last day in Atacama. The day actually began at three in the morning, as we had to check out with our bags in order for the van to pick us up by 4AM, in preparation for our visit to the Tatio geysers. At 17,000 feet, these are the highest volcanic geysers in the world. (In preparation for the altitude, we were cautioned to avoid alcohol or a large meal the prior evening, and the hotel provided tea with Coka leaves for us to drink prior to departure.) Since the steam plumes are most spectacular at sunrise, and it takes almost two hours to get there (on non-existent roads skirting very existent precipices) we needed to get an early start. (I also suspect the driver preferred the trip in the dark, as to keep from getting distracted by tourists screaming hysterically. I say this, because Miki, who was sitting in the back of the van, did scream when she thought the driver was going to hit a car behind him as we were picked up and the van was turning around. She was calmly reassured by our guide that he had been doing this for 18 years, and was a professional driver.) The trip thereafter was conducted in blissful ignorance.
I have to concede to Eva that the sight of the geysers was worth the early departure. As we watched the sky reach a truce between the uneasy hours of darkness and dawn, the wisps of steam coalesced, separated, formed phantasmal creatures, then drifted in tight spirals straight into the cold morning air. And cold it was. Our breaths created miniature geysers around our faces. I expected T.S. Eliott to come strolling from the mist and begin a reading from his epic, the Wasteland. Blue, green, and brown algae formed modernistic abstracts around the steam vents. Periodically (and unpredictably) a geyser of hot water would burst into the cold air, creating a cloud backlit by the rising sun. Our guide made use of the geothermal energy by placing eggs and a carton of milk in a plastic bag, and lowering them into one of the geysers. In short time we had breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, coffee (brought in a thermos) and hot milk. It wasn’t long before the coffee, the bouncing ride in the van, and breakfast resulted in the not uncommon sequelae – the need for facilities. Unfortunately for the fastidious of the bunch, the facilities consisted of large boulders on the surrounding hills. (The use of one of the “inactive” holes in the ground was definitely not advised – unless one was looking for an unusual bidet effect.) Rosie, having joined Miki in search of an appropriate spot, kept circling her rock in order to place the maximum distance between herself and any offending pair of eyes. Just when she had placed herself into a position of maximum functional utility, she found herself pinned in the headlights of a newly arriving van. I’m not sure if her plumbing has yet been restored to order, but I fervently hope so. She is, after all, a very sweet lady.
After the geysers, we continued to tour other less spectacular though still impressive sights. We spotted (and photographed) a number of wild llamas, vicuñas, donkeys, and even a Chilean relative of the ostrich family. Without stopping at “GO” we continued on in this fashion until we were deposited at the airport in Calama, shedding layers of clothing along the way as the temperatures rose from our arctic morning. Back in Santiago in the early evening, we said our good-byes to Eva and Rosie before being picked up by Eduardo, Pupi’s husband, and Cristobal, one of their sons. Pupi is one of Miki’s best friends from Chile. They, along with another group of ladies we were to soon meet, had been together from kindergarten through the 12th grade at Santiago’s Deutsche Schule (German School). Now, we only had a brief two hour ride to Santo Domingo, the coastal resort city of Santiago, where Pupi’s mother was generous enough not only to let us use her beautiful ocean side condo, but even her bedroom facing the waves. Pupi, always the gracious hostess, was waiting for us with dinner, which we were too tired to eat, but sat at the table with her and the family without actual loss of consciousness.
The next morning, feeling almost human again, we had a chance to walk on the wide, and almost deserted beach. The Chilean summer had just ended, kids were back in school, and we pretty much had the place all to ourselves. Until the afternoon. When Miki’s classmates were arriving. For lunch. With which, by the way, Pupi asked me if I wouldn’t mind helping. She told me it was going to be a barbecue, and since she had observed my culinary skills on her recent visit to the States, she felt sure I would be up to the task. Actually, I didn’t mind at all, and was grateful for the opportunity to do something to help repay her and Eduardo’s hospitality. I confess to a few misgivings when later in the day I saw the mounds of chicken, pork and beef that needed to be prepared, but hey, I’ve cooked for big parties before. I had seen Eduardo unload a Propane tank from the car on our arrival. The level of my misgivings increased several notches when Pupi informed me they had never used this barbecue before, and reached crescendo stage when the “barbecue” turned out, in fact to be a gas heated wok. So, I said quite calmly, do you have any olive oil? “Oil? Yes, sure. I think we do. Somewhere. Oh, yes, here. No, I don’t know how it opens. We haven’t used it in some time.” Fortunately, the oil was OK. It was also a bit disturbing when I asked Miki to bring me some spices. She returned with salt and pepper. NO, I would like some SPICES! Well, this is all we could find. Luckily, some more searching turned up oregano, pimento, and some kind of all spice. By now, everyone had finished appetizers, and it was do or die time. As it turned out, the meat was quite passable, and the rest of the spread Pupi prepared covered up any deficiencies in my preparation. The next morning at breakfast, Pupi told me she had a great deal of trouble sleeping that night. Seems as though she had bought soy sauce specifically for the wok – to cook the meat and vegetables, but totally forgot to tell me she had it. So we do it for the stories we can tell. Pupi and her friends were all wonderful, and seemed genuinely happy to be able to reconnect with Miki. They laughed like the schoolgirls they were in high school. It was nice to see Miki so excited and happy.
The next day, we had another relaxing walk on the beach, during which Miki snapped a photo of two men galloping their horses through the surf of the otherwise deserted beach, followed by another lunch. This time it was for the group of women Miki knew when they were studying in Quimica y Farmacia at the University of Chile. I had a chance to visit with Margaret again, who remarkably doesn’t seem to age between visits, as well as see the people whose names I’ve been hearing since I first met Miki. I also had the chance to walk around a beautiful golf course with Eduardo and Cristobal as they played a quick nine holes in the afternoon.
All too fast, our Chilean holiday drew to a close. Eva really did a masterful job of planning and execution. I truly enjoyed seeing Ana and Hernan, Pupi and Eduardo again, as well as meeting Rosie, Mario, and Cristobal, a fine young man. Its wonderful to see new places, but its friends who draw you back again and again. I feel very lucky to have seen so many remarkable sights, but even more so to have met so many wonderful Chileans.