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Chile: A week in the desert
Brian O'Sullivan
Six hours after we left Santiago, El Nino arrived and by the morning 30,000 homes were flooded, a number dead, and the PanAmerican highway we had just come up was washed out.

We didn´t go to Argentina. During quite possibly the most interesting time in the history of Argentina to visit (Cheap booze and steak, crumbling economy, social unrest, World Cup, Argentina v. England), we didn´t. We got the bus to Santiago and bought a ticket to Mendoza, Argentina, heart of wine country and loose passions and a mere 6 hours and 16,000 feet over the Andes. Luckily/Unluckily the ticket chappie came after me and informed me that we couldn´t go. I nodded pleasantly as he jumped up and down and told me that no less than 12 FEET of snow had fallen on the pass and that it was closed. "But I have a ticket, you can´t stop me!", I countered with a smile, running through my head all my recently aquired snow trekking skills. I was quite ready to give it a go, looking forward to a heroes welcome in Mendoza and some mulled wine to warm my frostbitten toes. My smug smile at my exagerated fantasies almost made him burst into tears, so I capitulated, not for the want of trying, mind you.


So we went to the Valle Del Elqui, home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, wine, fruit, astronomical observatories, strange magnetism and complementary new age crusties. Got a nice room with a swing outside in a fruit garden.

Those of you who know me will know how important a swing is to me in choosing a room and how at home I would be in a fruit garden, but I digress. I flicked on the telly, and yet again discovered we had just averted a Chilean national disaster.

About six hours after we left Santiago, El Nino arrived and by the morning 30,000 homes were flooded, a number dead, and the PanAmerican highway we had just come up was washed out. Desperate - you might have heard about it. It was 24 hours TV coverage, and was fascinating. The Government channel took it very seriously, and actually had a ´We will overcome´ slogan flashing every now and then, and sent the President out to offer the ladies a masculine shoulder to cry on. The Catholic Channel (no joke) had an angel of mercy type going out to poor families to do a "Here is Juan, he has 17 children, 4 dogs and a wife. Now, they are gone. No, not really but his floor is very wet." Actually she was very good, and it seemed to work.

Now before you get a picture of a little old nun, this was a gorgeous blonde in a miniskirt, but catholic. This is South America after all. Speaking of which, I was watching a world cup programme where 7 blokes argued and moved subbuteo figures around with violence. Hang on, I said, theres a chick there too! They had her playing on the internet for the whole programme, and said nothing. Someone told me that the men would not be able to be so passionate unless there was a woman present!

Woke up at 3.00 am with an earthquake; just a little one.
I was still sleepy and quite enjoying the sensation till Eim grabbed me, eyes wild and bloodshot. There was a general rumble, the window was rattling and the TV hopped about a bit. I don´t know if any of you have experienced an earthquake, but it is quite an amazing feeling knowing that it is all coming from the belly of the earth. This didn´t stop Eim looking suspiciously at me; she obviously first thought it was coming from a belly much nearer to her. In return, I told her in my esteemed opinion as a graduate of Earthquake Studies at Trinity College Dublin, it most definitely felt like a foreshock, and to brace for the "big one". Needless to say, I fell back asleep and she was not impressed when I woke the next morning. We stayed there three days, watching the floods in Santiago, and not once thinking that we were only 400 miles away and El Nino was bound to reach us sooner or later.

So, we had a very wet third day, in a place famous for its sunshine and clear skies, and cleared out, once again narrowly missing washed out roads and floods. The taxi driver was informative about our near miss earthquake disaster, "Yes, gringo, it is unusual to have an earthquake around here so late in the night..."

We headed for Calama. They say it has never rained in Calama, so we should get a sunny day, and if it does rain, it will be an event in itself. It didn´t rain, but it turned out to be a shitty mining town, so we moved quickly on. To San Pedro de Atacama. On our first night we bumped into every other gringo we had met to date, they just kept walking through the door, like rats from the wet south. I proceeded to get pissed, I really wanted to let the hair down a bit, as this town was the coolest, most laid back place we had yet seen. Nobody else got pissed, so I made a bit of a tit of myself, but apparently everyone does that when they get to San Pedro first.
The stoic German I was sitting beside apparently walked on his hands around the fire when he got here first, so he kicked my ass. Everywhere around here has an open fire in the centre of the pub/restaurant, as it is freezing at night. Very handy for the odd drumbeater who may come in, or drunk handwalking Germans for that matter. Anyway we have been here a week, very hard to tear yourself away, so I will limit myself to two more anecdotes and save you some boredom.

We got to know a whole load of people, most interesting of whom was Adam, a little Australian guy, aborigine in looks and hair. It stuck out for a foot in all directions, and every single shopkeeper without fail said, "What happened, you skick your finger in a plug?". Children would run away crying and hide behind their mothers skirts on sight. Incidentally, he is an airline pilot, so go figure! It was Adam´s last night, and a local guy high on peyote joined in. He brought us outside and showed us which particular star he was on ("no, to the left!"), and asked us to join him. It looked nice up there, and we considered it, but as both our girlfriends had gone home hours ago, and he had to get a bus in the morning, we thought the better of clucking like chickens for the next 24 hours, and not being able to explain why. I was recounting this to Eim the next day over lunch, and it was vey funny. Who was it she said? At that point I spied him walking along the roof at the other end of the restaurant, obviously trying to figure out where his star went, and said "That's him there!". In the spirit of San Pedro, she just said "Oh right" and we continued our meal.

The next day, I went out to the Valley of the Moon (again). Amazing place, I had cycled there a couple of days ago, and went again with Eimear. There was one difference this time - there was a group of soldiers wearing desert fatigues looking at a group of soldiers wearing jungle fatigues on the other side of the road. We drove through them, and thought no more of it. We ended up taking to a couple of Chilean army officers (desert fatigues) that night, and as it turned out, one of the jungle fatigue guys turned out to be the commander in chief of the British Army!! He was in San Pedro, a sleepy little desert town in northern Chile, sightseeing! They wouldn´t tell me which hotel he was staying in though.

Off to Bolivia in the morning.

© Brian O'Sullivan June 2002

"Brian O'Sullivan"

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