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travel | by Priya Lal | March 09, 2004 at 09:41 AM | comments (0) | trackback (1)

after over 48 hours on buses, here i am in san pedro de atacama, way up north in the desert. an hour from the bolivia border.
before i get carried away with details about the here and now, let me make true on my earlier promise to fill in the details on my last few days in chiloe. there's nothing that i hate more than rewinding and having to do the chore of logging all the stuff i wanted to write in days past when there is so much to note down about the present, but at the same time its nice to have the few days of reflection time.
and now i can be a bit more picky and choosy about what i'm going to include.
i feel a bit of stream-of-consciousness coming on, to make this whole thing a bit easier on myself. sorry, readers, here we go. hang on:
as anita and kristina and i grew into a tighter trinity during our last days in castro, andres and simon faded from the picture. julia from geneva, though, stands strong in my memory: spreading out her veritable collection of all kinds of herbal remedies on the kitchen table to make a concoction to treat her fading bronchitis. telling us about her life, talking about her 10 years in the circus as a trapeze artist until a trapeze accident a few years ago, calling the circus her passion. (as kristina says: that's it. she's pretty much reached the apex of human coolness. being in the circus does that for you.) buying cooking essentials for the nasty hostel and telling everyone "i bought this for the community." inciting us giggling 3 after dinner to sing - telling us she's a singer and breaking into a low hum with a beautiful, deep, rich alto... asking us if we knew gospels, that she likes to sing together, in groups. besides julia, what do i remember? a long conversation early in the a.m. that kristina and anita (and a little bit of a drunkes andres) had about traveling. i felt on anita's side, traveling "to find yourself" is a concept that makes no sense to me (as does "finding yourself" at all), living and working in one place is far more rewarding than constantly hugging the road. we tried to explain to kristina what we meant by false advertising of bubble-residing travelers of "knowing" a place, and then the discussion proceeded to become an abstract noodling session in refreshingly non-academic terminology on what it meant to "know" anyplace in general. conclusion: truth does not exist. how deliciously postmodern!!! (a little bit of sarcasm meant here...)
chiloe before the national park: rolling green hills sprinkled around tiny islands dotting the misted-over ocean around the main isla. rain, sun, rain, sun ... all in a couple of hours. fishy and salty smells. dried seaweed hanging from stalls everywhere. rumours of trauco, the mythical forest spirit who seduces unmarried women and inpregnates them, rumours of the mystical ship that appears on the horizon at nite. colorful, colorful houses covered in crazy, perfectly shaped wooden panels that resemble siding from a distance. palofitos- houses sitting on stilts on the beach, looking out on the ocean. the most strangely, simply beautiful all-wood churches i've ever seen - especially the one in small town anchao's plaza, with it's unpainted golden-brown warmth.
and then. the last nite in castro, at our favorite bar, our table invaded by a silly young chilean guy who started, and kept on, freestyle rapping in our faces and trying unsuccessfully to get us to give him our instant messanger i.d.s. our meeting with the very vacan group of santiago men, a welcome change from the slimy scene we'd become accustomed to. the rest of the nite a whirl... smoking in the plaza (minus intoxicated 8 year old boys this time, thankfully), a trip to a very clandestine green house from which an old woman emerged from behind a curtain at 4 am and handed us bottles of beer through the window very quickly, riding bikes insanely in the rain in the empty streets, talking. and, at 7 am, deciding with kristina and anita to change our plans for departure, pleading sick at the bus station at 8 am and changing my ticket, grabbing a few hours of sleep.
and then. heading out to the national park. us 7 trekking for about 3 hours with all our gear through the most magical-looking ('jurassic park'-ish, as willy liked to keep joking), unpopulated landscape: in a valley filled with nothing but these enormous fern-looking plants that grow in clumps and have leaves big enough for a human to sit or even curl up and sleep in, green mountains around, a rainbow. then. an empty beach, wind wind wind, the widest stretch of sand i've ever seen - so wide it could have been a little desert if you subtracted the waves from the corner of your eye, and waves waves high and tough and threatening. no one on the beach, a horse or two. a lot of smoking and drinking of red wine out of canteens, the arrival of darkness, recognition of a dilemna in that we had to cross a river to reach campable ground and that we couldn't spend more time on the increasingly windy and unmanageable beach. finding a solitary house across the river, agreeing to cross the river on a "boat" aka a door nailed onto a few pieces of big styrafoam with a rope to pull ourselves across. me and two guys getting on with the little boy from the house, going a bit in and then toppling completely over with all our stuff into freezing water. trying again, one at a time and kneeling, making it across, freezing and being wet, setting up tents, making a fire, laughing, smoking a lot, sleep.
next day waking in anita's cozy tent to the guy's laughter and proposals of breakfast joints, seeing them make true on the proposal, giving into the proposal, making breakfast and lunch slowly, setting out in the afternoon for a walk, jumping fences and crossing single-log bridges over streams, finding a hidden waterfall and climbing as far up and in past the top as we could, wading in the icy ocean, coming home to the fire and soup and lots of talk and games of truth or dare without the dare, or: talking about sex.
i left the next morning alone, early, to catch the afternoon bus from castro. i spent 3 hours just past dawn heading back on the beach, seeing not a single person the entire time, just a few vultures and, before heading out on the inland trail, the most surreal, unexpected, almost felliniesque sight: a group of cows ambling and lowing and munching on washed-up seaweed on the sand as if it was grass - just hanging out in the fog on the empty shoreline. finally making it back into the town, still seeing nobody, sitting by the side of the road in my pajama pants and ratty jacket and ripped scarf and water-logged sneakers and with a bag full of river-soaked, smelly clothes, finally being picked up by the first car, making it back.
that was that.
and then: 14 hours on the bus to santiago. a few highly drowsy and confused hours in the santiago bus station, eating/drinking my new favorite: mote con huesillos (dried peaches and soaked barley floating in a light syrup). another 24 hours on another bus past la serena and antofogasta to calama, a groggy hour in calama, and finally the 90 minute ride to san pedro. what i've seen of deserts has been california's mojave (dry, brushy, flat, sometimes cactusy, unexciting in general) and western india's thar (golden sand stretched out as far as the eye can see, nothing growing at all, the occasional sand dune, camels, the "romantic" desert). never had i imagined anything like this atacama of northern chile: alien, eerie, gripping. a palette of colors, amazingly for a desert: green-streaked muddy yellows in the foreground, vivid orange-browns in the middle bleeding into dark pinks farther away, purple peaks rising steeply on the horizon ending in snow-capped tips. rock formations that i could never have envisioned splayed around the single, curved road (more to be seen in the next few days).
and here in san pedro, another tourist hotspot, a funny little town so much a desert town with dust and heat and cold nites and white adobe buildings.
tomorrow: valley of the moon (valle de la luna). in days to come: the geysers, the chiquicamata copper mine. friday or saturday i'm off on the 3day jeep tour to bolivia. from there i've decided to make a pit stop in potosi to check out the mines there (inspired by some searching for, of all people, galeano on amazon: i am rich potosi: the mountain that eats men (s. ferry photos with g. intro,)) and and and...
... and. if you can dig it, here are my more current notes from this morning, on the here and now:
san pedro is a bit kooky. i woke up this morning and while i was going down the stairs outside to hop in the shower below, i looked out in the little yard of my hospedaje, and underneath the lines of clothing drying in the sun was sitting a llama. whoa.
and yesterday i was trying to find out what to do about my tragic laundry situation (leave wet clothes in a sealed bag for two days, and you're left with a very stinky bag of semi-moldy fabric that needs to be washed the real way)... i asked around and found out there was only one laundromat in san pedro. but it never opened after siesta time. i asked another man and he told me there was a lavenderia clandestina (clandestine laundromat) disguised as an internet cafe down the road, so i went and sure enough there was an internet cafe with a little note scribbled with the clothes-washing details hung in the corner of one of the windows. weird. like moonshine, except for laundry.
this morning over a lovely, much-needed breakfast of eggs and toast and real coffee and yesterday's newspaper in a rather silly but comfortable chic-boho-traveler joint, i overheard these aging hippies talking about india... they were
talking in spanish to the barista about how goa is like san pedro, started the tourist craze in that region as has this town... with all the young backpacker cultural-awareness/like to party-types, uber-expensive, cutesy alternative hostels and cafes, etc. i didn't interrupt. i was too interested in my el mercurio, which i, surprise surprise, can actually sit down and read quite normally now without consulting a dictionary. i read a bit about this biotechnology conference (directed towards developing countries' contexts... read: india, bangladesh, etc) that recently took place in the southern chilean city of concepcion, and this anti-conference that was hosted in the same city by a network of women's organizations trying to support indigenous and traditional farming practices... "las mujeres aseguraron que, en todo el mundo, el campesino es capaz de producir los alimentos que el hombre necesita." ("the women affirmed that, across the world, farmers are capable of producing the food that man needs.") go ladies! i'm so sick of these biotechnology discussions about fortified rice and resistant potatoes and all that shit... how about returning to/preserving/augmenting already existing and increasingly threatened forms of small-scale agriculture? that's the real path to sustainable development...
another article in the paper treated the subject of the great child labor debate in particularly with respect to chile, where unicef estimates that 5% of children work (of course superior to estimates of 25% in asia and 45% in africa.) what i loved about the article is that it recognized the hypocrisy of this debate in a country where the #1-selling pop album is by a 6-year old superstar named christell, who supports her parents, makes appearances all over the media, and recently returned to the spotlight just days after a bout of appendicitis. the christell thing has been sickening me since i arrived in chile, and it was nice to read an honest evaluation of the implications of her fame and very real exploitation. here she is, miss christell (a.k.a. poster child for child labor and disgusting tendencies of popular culture), along with a revealingly ridiculous interview, on this page.. (with apologies to non-spanish-reading folks, but at least look at the photo.)
off i go to write some letters in the sun in the plaza... enough blogging for now, eh?

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Island and deserts and lots in between
Excerpt: Priya Lal shares her fascinating adventures in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. San This charming desert village, located at 2,450 metress above sea level, is near the north side of the great salt deposit of Atacama. Here's an excerpt to whet your travel a...
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