An imagined country
[ places - april 07 ]
In towns and cities where we sleep alongside millions the notion doesnít arise. But out here where there is nobody, weíre terrified of seeing a single man, precisely because thereís nobody else. For why would anybody be out here if he wasnít reeling around the mercury sands with an idiot grin that changes to a grimace as soon as he sees the tent?
The gleaming bus is heading north through green hills. Santiago is far behind us and the black asphalt road flows through the countryside like a sleek river of oil. Out here beyond the grey sprawl of the capital, you start to feel Chile for the first time; the Chile that hasnít aged since the Conquistadores arrived. The size of the blue sky always feels like the New World and through a squint of the brain you can imagine that the rivers and villages that are passing by outside the AndesMar bus have not yet been named. The road is good. Everything is smooth and something is not right.
The trouble with Chile is that it is always in-between. Neither South American nor European - a little of one and not enough of the other. Its heart remains in the New World but the reality is more confused. It is an awkward country that canít be imagined without the tingling of a dislocated jaw. Think of its shape - a long, thin, sinister looking eel. Think of the jagged spines of the Andes, the lifeless Atacama, mythical Patagonia clouded in mist. Think of the gaucho green in the central valleys and the grey congealed smog of Santiago. It is nothing if not schizophrenic. Trying to hold Chile in your mind is an impossible feat. Like an aleph or a photograph in a faded passport; the closer you come, the further it slips away.
I remember sitting in a police station in Santiago on a hot Wednesday afternoon. It was an old colonial building and a narrow rectangular map of the country stretched from the floor to the high corniced ceiling. It was the first time I fully appreciated the vast length of the land and I recall a vague feeling of dread running along my spine as my eye worked its way slowly from Punto Arenas in the south all the way up to Arica in the north. Chile still retains the aura of an imagined country.
As the sky darkens, the clouds above the hills bleed their last into night. The bus draws to a halt in front of a wooden shack which serves as a police outpost for the boundary between Region III and IV. Yellow windows burn in almost-night. Inside, a police man watches television with his feet on a metal table. In the adjacent room another officer is stuffed into a desk writing up his reports like a school boy. Outside the front door there is a table with a tray containing a stack of papers. A stone rests on top. Our driver lifts the stone, places his sheet containing the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all his passengers on top of the pile and then replaces the stone. Turning back to the bus he shouts into the officers and they shout back.
If treaties and laws are the classical physics of statehood then these quiet shacks are its quantum mechanics. The dust in the hall, the shadow of the metal water tower, the limp flag pole and the bored officers - they disappear as soon as you mention their names.
The black windows of the bus reflect the sleeping passengers and only occasional lights hint at any villages in the darkness outside. We have no idea how far is left and the miles unfurl in the 1:1 scale of the imagination. At around nine we arrive in Copiapo. The bus station has the lingering peace and sadness of all small South American bus stations. Solitary figures wait with battered suitcases. Women pace up and down with sleeping babies. Old men on hard luck hunker down for a night of neon and dirty floors. The country emerges like a photograph developing in the dark.
Tomorrow is the national holiday, the 18th of September, but the grubby sand filled streets between the terminal and the main square are defiantly deserted. A few shadows move through the milky white light that streams from lampposts. Pepper trees with gnarled old barks and dark branches circle the square. A few corner stores exhale brief signs of life.
Down calle Rodriguez the houses are distinctly Chilean. Flimsy wooden shells are topped with corrugated iron roofs. Everything in a small Chilean town looks as temporary as a cheap film set. Even if theyíve been here for a hundred years, the buildings still look like they were built in haste with the express purpose of being replaced at a later date when more money might be available. I like these houses. They are the rough stubble of the west, the thin dreams of immigrants who have forgotten what country they came from. The streets are naÔve and faintly sad, like the face of an old gaucho who crosses a street in Santiago carrying memories of cattle and the pampas in his skull. The country seems incapable of growing up. It can never grow rich, never starve, never find home. Ever since the first lice ridden farmers arrived from Aragon, their descendants have been stuck in a dream of exile.
The town, like many in Chile, is devoid of attractions or repulsions. It simply exists. There are small movements in the night; shadows, dogs, voices. A faint echo reverberates all the way back to Spain. Turning into calle Venezeula, there is silence; turning again into calle Rodriguez there is not even silence anymore.
At a small residencia, the old owner is watching NBA basketball in his dressing gown in the front room. It is warm. The front door is open and a dog curls around his feet. Rising with a wheeze he leads us down an alley, under stars, past a budgeria full of dark drowsing birds that cheep like fire alarms on the blink. At the end of the alley is a damp room with brown wall paper. It is chilled like a refrigerator. A sagging bed, hollowed by decades of strangers, creaks under my weight. Ghosts of long dead whores and suicidal runaways are chained to the metal post and the heavy mattress smells of unwashed sleep. Outside, the voices of long term residents mingle with the bubble gum tones of tiny television sets.
The residencia is unremarkable. No one could say it is some place you had to see before you died; yet you canít help dreaming of all those who did have to sleep there before they moved on.
After dropping anchor in the room; we go back to the streets. From a small silver caravan a fat wrinkled woman fries chips and makes us palta sandwiches with large green gloops of avocado paste. Behind her, an armoury of pots and pans hangs on the wall. Down by the square, the main attraction is a pack of dogs tearing at plastic bags by the steps of the white wooden church. On the night before the national holiday there is nothing to tell us what they might be about to celebrate. Scrawny dogs are attacking each other; one limps up the steps yelping in pain.
Off the main square marimba music leaks out of a bar. Once the door opens, there is an explosion of noise that is inversely proportional to the number of people inside. A handful of men sit glumly at the counter. Three or four tables are inhabited by silent couples. Behind the bar a matronly madame, dressed in a micro-miniskirt and deadly red lips smiles mechanically. There is a faintly seedy air about the place. The men lean desperately on the taciturn smiles of the women. Everyone stares at us for a few moments, but like a pendulum swinging past six, they turn inward and leave us to our litro bottles of Royal beer. In the corner, the bright green of an English football pitch glows on the television screen. Between songs, the silence dips to absolute zero.
The sun bounces up and starts to fry the tin roofs. Morning throws water on the sad faces and washes them clean. From the bathroom window, through a small rectangle of moulting wood, you can see telegraph wires at the end of the alley. A Chilean flag wags its tail like a dog thatís about to get a bone. It is the 18th of September, and whatever happened on this day three centuries ago, no one really knows or cares. For the people of a desert town, this is a day off work, a day for waving flags, a day for drinking.
In the centre of town families are milling around stalls of balloons, flags, lollipops and ice-cream. Children shout, babies are pushed along in prams and a man in a red suit sings karaoke beneath a bandstand. We are celebrating with mouthfuls of Diablo wine, fresh from the morning carton. The small print says that it is the produce of the Central Valley.
Floats and bands parade along the main street cheered on by the flag waving crowds. The brown, round faces of children with mixed Indian blood bounce up and down on the shoulders of sallow skinned fathers. There are marching bands and acrobats, farmers and vintners, school children and football teams. All the town is on display, they cheer themselves in the mirror of the parade. Bringing up the rear is the military, replete with tanks and trucks, battalions of camouflaged infantry, jewel encrusted generals, and antennae laden communication officers. The people along the burning footpath cheer as machine guns and belts of bullets glint in the desert sun. The final division is a squadron of female soldiers marching high in black boots and kaki; rifles braced across their breasts like crucifixes. For all their faith they might well be nuns as they march past the viewing platform of the dignitaries - the mayor, his counsellors and their wives. These shady small town celebrities sit like waxwork effigies. They do not holler or shout like the shade-less crowd. Stiff in their suits, adorned with sashes and peacock wives, they neither smile nor frown. They are much cooler and whiter than the faces sweating beside me.
We worm our way out of the crowds, back to the quiet alleys. The further we walk from the main street, the more ragged the houses, until, backing up onto the parched yellow hills, there are just dirt roads, ramshackle huts and tangled aerials rising from the rocky slopes of the mountain. A group of men gathered in a doorway shout at us and raise their bottles of pisco sour in a chorus of triumph.
On the national day, the bus station is quiet but functioning. The ticket clerks sit in bluebottle boredom behind glass panels and a handful of locals are sitting in metal seats. We find a bus that takes us north through irrigated vineyards. After an hour or two, the vineyards give way to a blank yellow canvas that extends to the red mountains. At the little desert port of Caldera, the sweep of blue bay is a relief to the hungry eye. Paper bags blow around the empty square and the streets look tired and sleepy after a day of shouting. Outside of town we find a place to camp along the shores of Bahia Inglesia where the water is still and turquoise. The desert stretches away behind us, rising slightly to meet the cordierra a hundred miles to the west. The air is a throat in need of water. Endless lassitude melts into the heat and the wind blows sand into the eye. There is something terrible about the place; something wonderful too. A strange gravity that is not vertical but temporal drains away all thought. The sun is pulled down below the horizon and no lights come on around the bay. As we pitch a tent the bay vanishes into a hum of surf. A day lasts a month here.
The little afternoon pier in Caldera is crowded with fat, pot bellied boats; rusting and unkempt like the alcoholics in the diner down the road. The hour long ride up the coast passes a cluster of houses clinging to the shoreline. Here again, the Chilean flag is fluttering, though this time it seems to be trying to reassure the people in the houses that they are not lost. Without the flag they might be just six families clinging to nothing.Approaching the town of Chanaral, the first thing you notice is the black light house high on the hill. The guidebook cheerfully notes that "nothing in Chanaral might tempt you off the Pan-American Highway" - we pay it a compulsory visit.
It is dead town. The streets are covered in dust and sand; shacks crawl up the hill like half-dead fleas trying to right themselves. Truckers pull off the Pan-American Highway, stopping only to refuel at the Esso if theyíre travelling north, or the Copec if their going south. The town itself lies a few blocks away from the highway.
Everything in Chanaral has a yellowish tinge. The place is slowly returning to the desert. The people walk with sand in their shoes, the dogs are thin, the local supermarket whirs with cold air conditioning and the tangle of telegraph wires look like cobwebs. From Chanaral we need to get a taxi to the gate of the Pan díAzucar National Park that lies at the end of a twenty mile dirt road. Itís dusk before we find a taxi and after a run through the number line, he speeds out of town, churning up dust as he takes a left by the corner of the cemetery.
Silently, he takes us down to the coast. The mountains rise around us and the horizon of sea and sky can be seen between peaks. It grows dark and cold. The further we move into the mountains, the more desolate it becomes. The headlights flicker over myopic patches of sand.
In complete darkness he drops us by a gate which might be the turnstile to hell. Waves break nearby, but in the dark we canít distinguish between land and sea. A rhythmic - boom, ssssssssh, boom - pounds away as we watch the dark swallow the taxi. Behind us, a few hundred metres away, a fire is burning in an oil drum. Shadowy figures lean into its thin heat and nerves race as we pitch the tent in the sand. As our eyes adjust we can make out a few shacks clustered together around what looks like a headland. Further back, on the bluff of the hill, there is a bigger house, with lighted windows. We doze and wake with every shout from the crowd gathered around the oil drum. In dreams they draw knives.
Poking my head out of the tent in the morning I catch the first glimpse of our whereabouts. The real world is much less impressive than our nightmares. A bay churns slowly with stony waves. A cluster of poor fishing shacks are sprawled over a small rocky outcrop. The light is overcast and grey. Twenty yellow boats float in the bay.
Behind us the desert looks derelict. In the foreground, a vulture is perched on the crossbar of a goal. The perimeter of the pitch merges imperceptibly with the desert. Two other vultures fish with their awkward beaks in the stringy melted ash of last nightís fire. Their wings look like torn dishcloths.
Setting out for the hills behind, we rise along a rubble path to a plateau with thousands of prickly cacti. It spirals upwards and small desert flowers burst occasionally from the earth. These are made, as myth would have it, by the delicate fingers of the desert. Each finger is said to disintegrate as soon as the petals are complete. A slow process no doubt. Slower than our progress up the path and the rapidly fading huts below.
Reaching the top of the ridge, we can see a dozen yellow valleys stretching out west, each one flooded with lakes of soft, sinking sand. Away on the other side, the blue ocean laps against the dry bones of desert.
I am about to wake a woman whoís sleeping in a chair with the sun warm on her face. I stop myself, and watch her a little longer with the boats floating behind. Then pressing play, I touch her gently, and she wakes to see me pointing foolishly at the sign for food on her door.
She gets up to cook some fish. Her husband makes salad. Inside their house a radio hangs from a nail. The Virgin de Mercreole, the Pope and the Chilean flag clutter a shelf. A fisherman comes by with three sea bass. Their tinfoil eyes, tarnished and not altogether dead, watch us from the back of the door. Outside a child flies a red kite high over the roofs. The string cuts into his small hands and the poor bird gets smaller and smaller until it is flying among the unorthodox angels of the desert.
Strolling up to the mini-bus behind the huts, I ask the driver what time heís leaving.
And the next bus?
He laughs as we tear down the tent and haul it into the bus; a strange parachute with a trailing afterbirth. His wife sits beside him reading the paper, bouncing a child on her lap. They take us back to Chanaral via the cemetery. Coming into town, I think of the girl who told me once how she was caught here for a night. In the morning, she was promptly photographed by the director of tourism. Her portrait, she was informed, would hang in his office as an example of a tourist that had stayed. Chanaral is going through a rough time since an arsenic spill up the coast drifted this way on the current. Zero business has turned into minus figures.
There are no northbound buses, so we have to hitch unless we want to add our portrait to the gallery in the tourist office. We shower in the bathroom of a Texaco while four dogs sleep in the sand by the petrol pumps. The one nearest the curb has purple splotches of hairless sores on his back. He seems the happiest - he doesnít move when a car pulls in; just raises his head, uninterested.
In the white heat beyond, gleaming trucks pass up and down the Pan-American Highway in clouds of dust. A group of kids are crawling through a small hole in a plaster wall that runs by the side of the petrol station. A wasteland of sand and plastic rubbish lies behind them. We follow the mysterious little group as far as the road. They continue on; running up over the sand dunes on the other side, on their way to the deserted beach. One of the older kids has difficulty pushing his bike through the sand. The girls are giggling and singing; feral in their innocence. They have the whole desert to themselves.
The afternoon is radioactive with heat. Cars stuffed with whole families stare at us. We juggle stones, wander into the middle of the road, stay there awhile looking all the way north and all the way south. Giving up on the southern approach, we walk north along the bubbling tar; passing the bus terminal, a row of shops and two broken down cafes. There is a poster advertising ice-cream attached to the door of one of the shops. A young European girl wearing a blue bikini opens her mouth to bite on a choc-ice. Behind her, perfect Californian spray cools the eye. The glamour is surreal beside the squalor of the store. A runny nosed kid giggles and runs beside us.
Eventually, a truck carrying long black pipes pulls in and we sprint after it.
"Adonde va?" the driver shouts down to us.
"Las muchillas..." - he indicates the long trailer behind. But searching around the rear of the truck we canít find anywhere to put our bags. It takes two enquiries before we realise that we have to climb up over the wheels to drop our bags down into the container that holds the pipes.
He smiles faintly; already regretting his decision. He is bald with neat stubble, his shoulders and neck are bullish, his eyes soft and weak.
Climbing into the cabin he tells Celine to sit in the middle between the two seats.
Sitting high over the road, the sweep of controls makes you feel like the co-pilot of a spacecraft, and as we pull out onto the highway, the cool air-locked cabin seems to glide over the surface of a red planet.
Our driver introduces himself as Patricio. He says that he wants to learn English, that he stopped because I have the face of an English speaker.
"But yours," he says to Celine, "yours is Latina." He smiles. Clearly, it is good to have company - any company, even gringos.
He takes down a Spanish-English dictionary from a ledge over his head and begins flicking through it. He has a trick of resting the small book in the centre of the steering wheel and turning the pages with his right index finger while he steers with the palm of his hand.
He looks up the English for "building" and "clouds" and "truck," trying them out for size on his tongue. Hesitantly at first, then less self-consciously, we exchange new words and laugh at each others pronunciation. As children playing together for the first time, we get used to each other and learn how to say all that we want to say without much difficulty.
He shows us pictures of his family - his eighteen-year-old son, his mother, his brother, his ex-wife. There are holiday photos of Chilean towns weíve never seen. Photos of friends standing with big grins beside enormous trucks. A curious photo of a smiling woman, with a bed sheet wrapped around her naked body. She sleeps in the bunk of a truck - this trunk.
Floating downhill between two ranges of mountains, a bus comes against us with Santiago flickering on its forehead. Then emptiness for an hour at a stretch.
He roots in a box and gives us two beers.
"My country is beautiful," he says.
He should know; he drives from one end of Chile to the other every week. Twenty-six hours of non-stop driving sees him from Punto Arenas in the south to Arica in the north. But the more he talks about Chile, the less I recognise it. Iíve seen this kind of thing before. The first person I stayed with in Chile was a portly retired engineer, a Pinochet supporter. His daughter, a nurse in her thirties, would have breakfast with me in the mornings, and tell me about the wonders of the malls along the wealthy avenida Vitacura. Also impressive in her view, was the absence of black people in the capital. Her father would nod approvingly, adding that the Indian population had dwindled to only a few thousand.
Patricio was different, but he did have some things in common with the old engineer. Listening to either of them, you could be forgiven for thinking that Bolivia, Peru and Brazil existed far away on another continent. They both talked like expatriates. But expatriates from where? There was no particular country that they were pining for. They held a vague assumption that they belonged to Europe. The engineerís daughter was educated in Paris, and she spoke of her irritation when her Parisian classmates made fun of Chile as a country lost in the arse end of nowhere. For those French girls Chile was so far away that it didnít exist, but for her and many of her generation, they desperately wanted Europe to be closer than Bolivia. It hurt them to be lumped together with their Indian neighbours, and they never lost any opportunity to distance themselves from Bolivia and Peru. It went some way to explaining their obsession with wealth and progress. The engineer would tell me proudly about his engineering projects, about new highways and dams. Things were often "better than Europe" or "better than New York."
But however much they tried to distance themselves from La Paz, Lima and Ascuncion; they could never get around the fact that they were surrounded by developing countries. Argentina only worsened their paranoia because it had a true European heritage. While this insecurity was not universal; it was repeated often enough to be understood as the viewpoint of a sizeable portion of the middle class.
Argentina, on the other hand, is less insecure about its origins and makes no bones about its dislike of Chile. I remember an engineering student who brought us back to his house one night in a small village just ten miles from the Chilean border. Generously sharing meat and wine, he told us, half-seriously, that Chileans were dirty, that they had no culture, no past, no education - nothing. He himself would be ashamed to marry a Chilean girl. His friend pulled him up on this, reminding him that he had kissed a Chilean girl in the disco last Christmas. He laughed. Waving to the dark hills beyond, he said: "they shit in their back yards."
At sunset Patricio pulls into a roadside diner whose wooden walls might collapse if you slam the door too hard. He knows the old woman inside and they shout and joke as she starts to make some steak sandwiches. On the television screen are dancing girls in bathing suits. The three of us stare at the screen.
"She is my love," Patricio says pointing to the presenter. "Look at her teeth. I love this..." he runs his finger along his yellow incisors.
We eat steak and palta sandwiches. Patricio just drinks tea and broods over us like a mother. Another truck pulls up and he rises to greet his old friend Jimez. They slap each other on the back before getting into a heated discussion about trucking, some recent incident, something I canít follow.
Patricio is talking differently. If you wanted to paint him, now would be the time to start. Heís frowning and laughing, his voice less chirpy, his laugh less shrill. The silence between words is not a strain.
Jimez has the face of Giovanni Ferri. Music circles his eyes. Heís a little older and a little happier than Patrico, with wiry hair bristling over joking eyes.
When his plate comes, he hunches over the table and wolfs it down, talking all the while with a full mouth. Moping up the last of the gravy with brush strokes of bread, the scene looks like a great unpainted masterpiece.
Trucking is a quasi-monastic life and these two men look like monks at a refectory. Patricio however, has given himself over to the wrong religion and remained a novice all his life; but Jimez is a master, you can hear it in his laugh. The banter that breaks the thousand mile vow of silence is full to the belly with a common understanding of petrol tanks, delivery schedules, waiting cities and desert sunsets.
When it is time to go, Jimez says goodbye to the two gringos. It is a warm goodbye, and now we are out in the cold. The sun has fallen behind the mountains and the sky is red-orange-blue - an oil spill of colour, wet to the touch and cooling like a radiator.
As we daydream, high over the dark road, Patricio starts to tell us about his ex-wife. She left him because of the hours. She never saw him. "She go on the road for sometime... she sleep in this bed..." He points to the little pelt behind, grins, stops grinning, stares at the road.
They separated. She got the eight thousand dollar house and now he lives with his mother and son in a shack in Lamache.
"I need a wife," he says, "because I want more children. But trucking is a bad job. Always moving. Never normal. No free-time. It is lonely. Too much time with no one."
Twenty-six hours at a stretch, to think it through and thereís nothing worse than thinking it through. He says heís worried about falling asleep and crashing. Last week a friend of his crashed into an oncoming bus. The acid he was transporting burnt right through his body until there was very little left.
He gives us a demonstration of how a truck can wobble on the open road. The wheels snake back and forth across the broken yellow line in front of us. He goes a little further than he meant and the tyres squeal in the hard shoulder. When the nervous laughter dies, all is quiet again. It is dark out, nothing but the beam of headlights flickering across the desert.
Suddenly Patricio sighs irritably: "Ehh! Silencio!" We are tired now and failing in our job to keep him smiling and awake. There are no other cars on the road and we settle into an uneasy quiet. The loneliness of the desert eats at him. The needle on the speedometer does not stir from the 100km/hr mark. His truck is a tiny point of light that sinks in the desert. Not a single shack can be seen outside. We are aware of the noise of the engine for the first time; but Patricio cheers slowly. And out of all this, as if he knows how to end a chapter, he does something miraculous.
He turns off the headlights so that we can see the stars. With a flick of the switch, the desert suddenly reveals itself as the cabin is plunged into darkness. We can see the teeming stars and the delicate line that separates mountain and sky. The truck cruises in black silence and we strain our necks to look up at the sky. Sailing in a pirate ship, everything is beyond language, and our driver does not understand it, but stares straight ahead, with his thumbs resting gently on the black wheel.
Flames rise from the silver towers of the oil refineries. Weíre standing on the side of the road surrounded by tall barbed wire fences draped in electrocution notices and Mobil logos. There is a 360 degree sweep of factories, lights, wires and wasteland. It looks nothing like earth. Two girls emerge from the dark to tell us that we wonít find any buses on this road. A constant stream of trucks and cars pass at high speed. We must walk on ahead and take the turn off for Antofagasta. Just hitch, the girls tell us, there will be no problem.
It is nearing midnight and weíre tired. A late night Copec station is crowded with shift workers on their way to the refineries. Theyíre dressed like lemmings in identical yellow boiler jackets, and they pile into a yellow van. They look like branded slaves. The refineries are demonic, pumping out smoke and flames in their sleep, just as they do when the sun is up, though itís impossible to imagine this place in daylight. It simply canít have daylight. It is an industrial inferno that needs thousands of men in yellow suits to keep the boilers going, to keep the lights flickering and the electric wires humming.
Crossing the Pan-American Highway, we have a quick look both ways, as though we might catch a glimpse of Tierra del Fuego at one end and the Panama Canal at the other. By the time we reach the junction we are lost in thick grimy fog. There are yellow haloes around the roadside lampposts. The small road that leads away from the highway disappears into darkness. A signposts says "Antofagasta 15km." It is more peaceful off the highway, but the fog is eerie and heavy; clotted with dust from the cement factory across the road. Chimneys are ringed with blinking red lights and the smoke billows forth like an inverted waterfall. Our throats are sore and we start to cough.
This is not a good place to be stuck. Few cars are turning off the highway, and the stand of trees opposite the cement factory does not look like a promising spot to pitch a tent. The few cars that pass ignore us. Yet something has to happen, something always happens. Hitching is easy; just so long as you donít have to be anywhere, just so long as you donít mind getting to know every inch of a turn in the road.
A black Ford Fiesta stops and a middle aged man with a baseball hat, pony tail and Metallica sweater asks us where weíre going. He takes us down the road. The car is neat and tidy with an air freshener stuck to the dashboard beside a crucifix.
Orange lights wake us as we enter the suburbs of Antofagasta, a town that has grown from the excretions of the oil refineries. Nameless streets back onto graffiti riddled walls. Hardly a beauty spot; but it is a relief to see houses and streets no matter how ugly and rundown. There is a motel beside the bus station where the neighbourhood reeks of crack, urine and broken glass. We donít have very long to consider this before we collapse in a dirty bed in the cheapest part of town.
Six hours out of Antofagasta and the mountains weíve been aiming for have obliged by growing a millimetre taller. The peaks are snow capped, but below the snow line the same unmoveable lake of yellow heat remains. In the village of San Pedro weíre greeted for the first time by touts selling hostels and adventure. Unused to such attention we sit down and wait for the bees to scatter. After ten minutes, the dogs are the only ones still interested in us, and the neat adobe houses take shape in the heat. The wind picks up and blows sand into the prosperous doorways. The houses have a designer roughness to them, modern and fake, readied for the tourists. Souvenir shops and adventure companies are stuffed into old revolutionary homes. This corner of the desert went back and forth for many years - Bolivia, Chile, Argentina - no one could hold onto it for long, and many a gunman spent a hungry night hiding out in what are now gourmet restaurants and Rip-Curl outlets.
Hostel Eden has a dozen small rooms surrounding a patio with a hammock and a table. A willow tree tinkles like a glass piano in the breeze. Next to us is a young chain-smoking Brazilian who shows us his files of black and white photographs, among them a shot of a dead corpse on the streets of Sao Paulo. Sharing a bottle of pisco sour he tells us about his times travelling around Europe, where he got so fed up with the police interrogating him about the purpose of his visit that he left for home. Originally he started out as a mural painter but he had to give it up because of the fumes. Endless hours of work with aerosol cans have left permanent black circles under his eyes, as deep as crushed eyeliner. His father is a doctor in the slums, and when he starts talking about the poverty in Brazil, itís like watching sodium touching water:
"I donít want to be rich and eating escargot inside my house, high walls around the garden, gulping them down alone. If I have them, I want the others to eat too. I donít know why I say this, I donít even like escargots. Itís just that they are so fucking expensive..."
Weíre cycling along the asphalt road with moon packs on our back. White cliffs are falling into oceans of yellow rubble and our noses are filled with the smell of creosote. Turning off the highway into a small canyon the tar gives way to rubble, then sand. Itís impossible to cycle, so we wheel the bikes deeper into the canyon, until it widens like the Rhone of the future - the former vineyard slopes incinerated to reds and yellows. Among these sandy reaches a couple are sand-boarding down the dunes. They are adventure guides from town, taking their own holidays, and they give us a turn on the board before giving us directions up the valley. We follow a contour that for some reason reminds me of Napoleon marching his troops across the Alps, which in turn reminds me of Muldoonís: it might not be today or tomorrow, but sooner or later the Russians will water their horses on the shores of Lough Erne and Lough Neagh. Iím thinking of water.
Itís an hour before we emerge at the other end, onto a plateau. The wind is gone and we cycle up and down red molehills until the dirt road flows at last into the great asphalt river of route 102. The smell of tar returns and the evening expands like a yellow sine wave. Occasionally weíre thrown off course by the wake of silver trucks, but the clouds clear, and the desert is wide open once again.
Nearing sunset we turn off into the wilderness, aiming vaguely for a small tower in the distance. It turns out to be a sculpture in memory of a lost village. The walls of the former houses rise to knee height and the steps of the tower widen in a helix. The little viewing platform is a blind-ending like a haunted door opening onto a vertical drop of memory.
Finding a dry river bed protected by salty banks, we set up the tent for the night. The long strip of highway, stretching into the distance begins to disappear, leaving only the headlights of trucks to navigate north, while stars light the sea lanes above.
With silence comes wonder, with wonder comes fear. There are the same number of stars in our galaxy as there are neurons in our head. We ask ourselves who might be out here. In towns and cities where we sleep alongside millions the notion doesnít arise. But out here where there is nobody, weíre terrified of seeing a single man, precisely because thereís nobody else. For why would anybody be out here if he wasnít reeling around the mercury sands with an idiot grin that changes to a grimace as soon as he sees the tent?
As the desert cools, there are strange sounds - clicking, burrowing, soft hissing. We reassure ourselves that it is just the sand contracting after the dayís heat and I get up and walk outside. The sand is still warm on the soles of the feet. The moonlight casts two long shadows - a tall thin figure beside a dome. There is a bubbling noise, like coffee percolating, but itís just me urinating. A patch of mercury turns black. The drops that fall on the feet are cold.
The driest desert in the world my arse. At dawn there is a faint tapping of drops on the tent. A fine mist hangs in the air and there is a little wet dew in the sand. As the sun comes up the temperature rises and the mist evaporates.
We take a walk up the hills, with sand blowing in our ears, our eyes, our bones. There is a moon valley on the other side, with ridges and grids the shape of ziggurats, hexagons and other science fiction fractals. Gusts of wind rip through us like a uranium fallout. These are the future landscapes of a dead planet.
By the time we get back down the tent is lucky to be still standing. It contorts itself in an epileptic fit and we can do nothing except sit inside to weigh it down and wait for the storm to pass. It doesnít. Kneeling into the wind, swallowing mouthfuls of sand, we take it down, piece by piece, grabbing each flailing rag that is being sucked into the yellow whirlpool.
It takes an hour before we reach the highway, but once the wind is at our back, it pushes us up the incline. Peddling in the dust, the road lurches downwards and we start to freewheel through a shadowy cathedral of Gaudi sculpted walls and towers. The road continues downhill for a few miles before levelling out by the dry river on the outskirts of San Pedro. Our hair is standing on end, electrocuted by sand. The owner of the hostel laughs as she hands me the matches to light the gas heater for the shower.
Thirty-six hours later Iím sitting in a cold classroom in Santiago staring at twelve children who are stuffed into seats like convicts. Neither of us know what to do. The clock on the wall is terrible. The pine trees outside the window are terrible. The sound of birds is terrible. The only thing that is not terrible is the note that Raiko scribbled down. Raiko is fourteen and knows nothing about English. Sheíd never even spoken a word of the language until last year, but today she writes:
faster than before,
more oranges on the tree.