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The International Writers Magazine: Travel in Chile

• William Blomstedt
I woke to the sound of tires crunching through gravel by the walls of my tent. The engine noise died and the tail-end of a drunken conversation filled the yard. Hooting laughter bounded off the dry stone walls and it soon followed the sound of scuffing feet into the nearby hostel.


The early morning silence, ashamed of its own fragility, crept back to the courtyard but I was already awake. A foam sleeping mat in a stinky one-man tent did not promote lounging in.I dressed quickly and threw a few things in my backpack, including a bag of homemade granola my mother had just sent me. This care package contained a mixture of love and guilt, for my trips back to the US had been becoming less and less frequent. The last time I had talked to my mother on the phone she had blatantly asked: “Why don't you come home?” The words hit me, but I didn't have a good answer so I began asking about the weather in Massachusetts.

I walked inside the hostel, brushing my teeth, and found three of them smoking cigarettes on the sofa. A 'No Smoking' sign hung on the nearby wall, but this wasn't an hour for reading. It helped that the hostel manager was one of the three.
“Buenos dias,” I said.
“Ooooooo buenos dias,” they laughed. One of them sat forward and pointed at me; “Buenos dias” he said and then pointed at the three of them, “Buenos noches,” and they dissolved into a pile of laughter. In South America, like Europe, they take their overnight partying seriously, even in this desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. Bars and clubs close at five, just before sunrise. Most of the next day is spent sleeping and the hangover lasts until Saturday night, when the party starts again. The weekend is destroyed.

I threw my toothbrush into the tent and picked up my backpack. Bright stars watched from overhead as I walked down the dark dirt road, but a small glow on the eastern horizon reminded me that time was ticking. When I passed through town, everything was quiet. The parties had ended yet the town had not woken up. I had hit the golden moments between shifts.

I walked towards the rise outside of town where I had watched the sunset the day before. The magnificent snow-capped volcano lay to the east and the sunset had painted the glacier an evolving pallet of colors until they migrated to the clouds above, across the sky and eventually disappeared into a glow on the horizon. Seeing the colors on the mountains that evening stirred my curiosity about what they would look like as the sun came up over top of them, and when the gravel-crunching alarm clock woke me this morning, I decided I would find out.

When I reached my spot of the previous evening, I had the place to myself and the sun was still well tucked under its mountain covers. I turned and looked at the next hill, one about a thousand feet higher. I had my eye on it yesterday and it took only a moment to decide that time was on my side. My boots crunched the gravel and I began the ascent.

I had spent the past six months living and working in central Chile, but a recent 28-hour bus ride had had been my transition from stationary to traveling. This transformation was not without its pains, and the negative memories of past trips overshadowed the good. Another dumpy hostel. Another weed-smoking owner. Another tidal wave of shallow, conversations about who you are and where you are going. Hours of sitting in cramped buses and meal upon meal of cheap, fried food. The constant battle against getting swindled. Another town filled with tour agencies every fifteen feet and sun-burnt tourists flocked together in groups.

Atacama Desert I crunched along the desert ground which was somewhere between rock and sand. My feet brought me up one hill but I had to descend to the next valley floor before I could climb my intended peak. When I reached the base I found a fence blocking my way and a quick jump had me on the other side, putting foot over foot uphill as the light steadily crept overhead.

Why do I have such a dislike tour groups? I asked myself as I walked. Why do I insist on doing everything myself? For certain activities, ones that are impossible or drastically more expensive on your own, I sometimes consent to taking a tour, but most of the time I will try to do it on my own, even if it means walking ten kilometers, hitchhiking or even jumping over fences. I think it's because when seen with other tourists I feel dehumanized – lumped into a group that is seen as a bearer of strong foreign currencies and most interactions with local people become based on the exchange of money, rather than curiosity or interest in of each others cultures. One can defy this label, but it is a difficult process without time.

In places off the tourist path, as well as bigger cities, it is easier to find hidden corners and escape these feelings, to meet people who are actually interested in you as a person. But a location like San Pedro de Atacama, a small town grown fat off of the tourist dollar, is facing the beast full and center. It is a town like this when I ask myself: why I am here? Why am I traveling on such a budget? What do I get from sleeping in smelly hostel rooms with snoring strangers, sharing grimy bathrooms and shivering under weak showers?

Turning around and looking at San Pedro, I wondered how many beds there are in town against how many people who actually live there. The sun was rising quickly, and all but the brightest stars had winked out of existence. My goat trail along the ridge suddenly merged with an official, stone-lined path. I could see a structure at the peak, and the higher I climbed the more detail the valley below gained.

The answers to these questions do not always come quickly and it takes me a hike in the woods or a wander through a city before I can formulate a response. There are many different types of traveler in this world – from the cruise ship passenger down to the wandering hobo. The bell curve, where the majority resides, is somewhere in the middle, and these people travel the main tourist path, take guided tours, go bungee-jumping, dune boarding and use all the other enterprises that have sprung up to entertain foreigners flocking to the area. And this is fine – it's one way to see the world, and the tourist dollars are good for the economies of these places.

I prefer a different kind of travel, one that is just slightly above the wandering hobo. I find exceptional pleasure in going to a foreign city that I have never heard of before and sitting on a bench for hours. Or walking through a market, one for food not for tourist goods, and exploring new tastes and smells while watching the small wheels of the world turn. As opposed to a day of mountain biking and conversation with other tourists, these simple activities show me a place and culture as it is: unfiltered, raw, normal.

The sun painted a few mountain peaks in the distance, but my hill lay in the shadow of the volcano. To my left was a memorizing sight; a desolate valley decorated by innumerable arroyos and sharp ridges of rock. In the next moment something clicked; I recognized the scene from advertisements posted around town; "Tour the Valley of the Dead, today with free snack and pisco sour." These tours suggested a half-day guided trip and here I had stumbled upon it, just a easy kilometer or two walk out of town.

I continued upwards, approaching the peak cautiously. As I neared I saw a monolithic stone structure with a giant four-faced cross. Each face had the same inscription written in a different language, the words echoing across the landscape with nothing to hold them back: "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me."

The sunshine crept down the neighboring mountains and onto the desert floor, adding brilliant light and mysterious shadow to the valley below. I sat down against the cross and waited, crunching on handfuls of granola and savoring solitude of this sacred place. In a simple moment the sun peeked over the side of the volcano and lit up the world. I had to shield my eyes.
“Sorry Mom,” I said to the brilliant sun, “This is why.”

I stayed by the cross and watched the desert floor until I saw the first white tour van drive up the valley. Then I began my descent.

© William Blomstedt March 2013
Atacama Valley of Dead

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