Saturday, October 10, 2009

(old) From Icky Iquique to Yay, Chile.

I felt rather bad waking up. No, not ill, just a bad conscience. I felt responsible for that Bastien and Anita had followed us to Iquique because on first impression it wasn’t anything special. After breakfast at the hotel (the one good thing about the place), we walked to the beach. The stretch the furthest away from the town was nice and there were lots of families and surfers already out. But the closer to the city we walked, it started to get not so nice starting with the appearance of lots of graffiti, then the drug addicts and/or homeless folks we had to step over and a stretch that smelt like human piss. Once we got through that and arrived in the old part of town (photo above), things improved but not enough to make me feel any better. Iquique was an old port full of old clapboard seaside buildings. It was a nice change after Bolivia but it wasn’t pretty. And I’m sure Bastien and Anita were wondering what they were doing here when they woke up this morning. We didn’t see them as we walked down the pedestrian promenade so I hoped that they’d taken the first bus out as they had planned.

But we were here for a few days trying to make something of our detour. We popped into a local tour company to see what there was to do, other than the beach. The owner was a lovely old guy who spoke very little English. He was happy to find out we were Canadian because according to him, Canadians were a lot more polite and orderly than other nationalities who he found very demanding. Luis started showing us some of the tours he offered, and trying his best to explain in English what we would see. I told him that Spanish was okay but he told me that he was trying to teach himself English because so most of the foreigners who come through speak better English than they do Spanish. He showed me the website he was using and said he’d been at it for 4 months. At the moment he was a little frustrated by his progress because not only does every English vowel have 5 different sounds but every verb seems to have 50+ meanings. He pulled up “do” as an example and showed me the list of meanings for it. I agreed that it was more difficult than Spanish but also told him that most of the meanings they had listed weren’t common and to just treat “do” like “hacer”. Adrian tried to convince him that English was so much easier than Spanish but wasn’t making much progress – mostly because it’s not true. In the end we ended up talking about languages for an hour before getting back to the tours. Another customer came in so we quickly signed up for a fairly comprehensive all day one for tomorrow. It was pricey but included lunch and we hoped it would be an improvement from our mine tour with Evil Julio.

The promenade ended at the town square and it was interesting only because there was no cathedral on it. Instead there was theatre and bunch of fancy schmancy dining clubs. I wonder if that means Chile is less Catholic than the other Latin American countries we’d been to. It probably had more to do with the English shipping company influence in this part of the continent because we eventually found the Cathedral it was beyond the main drag in the area we’d been in last night. Even in the daylight, the area was quite grotty and didn’t feel safe. So we embraced that feeling and walked towards the port area, which was deserted on the weekend. We popped into the naval museum that was dedicated to the Battle of the Pacific. You’d think that since there was a museum that Chile won this sea battle in their war with Peru but you’d be wrong. Nope this was a museum dedicated to the heroic sinking of a ship, heroic because the captain didn’t surrender, and used his ship as a really big battering ram killing everyone on board in the effort. I guess I’m just not a warmongerer since I’d have surrendered rather than drowned. The museum was full of ship-spotters eating up all the model ships and naval paraphernalia, however it wasn’t quite our thing so we did a quick and polite tour of the room and then left.

Continuing on with our embracing of the dodgy and seedy we continued on to the bus terminal. Like the beach, the neighbourhood smelt of piss both human and canine as it seemed like this is where all the stray dogs (as well as humans) hung out. The terminal was a small building with 10 tiny kiosks crammed inside. We walked down looking for any offering a trip to San Pedro the Chilean end of the salt flats. One of the clerks saw us searching and called us over to help us out. When I told her what I was looking for, she told me that they were the only company that went directly to San Pedro but that it was a night bus. She was very nice and took the time to tell us all the other companies’ schedules. They all involved changing buses in another town and due to the vagaries of the schedules we’d have to spend the night in that town before we could catch the bus to San Pedro. I told her I was going to ask one of these other companies and she encouraged me to. Of course, she was right (as well as being super nice) so we decided to buy two tickets. She told us we’d made a good choice since the bus would stop for 4 hours in the night so we could get a good sleep and we wouldn’t need to spend money on a hotel room. Actually, I’d have preferred that the bus just continued directly to San Pedro but at least we’d be getting into town at 10am rather than the middle of the night. As she handed our tickets to us she explained everything slowly and carefully one more time just to make sure we understood. I hope everyone in Chile is this nice.

Adrian had already decided that they were all nice and convinced me that we should continue walking to Iquique’s other famous landmark, the Zofri Free Trade Area. It was located just north of us according to the map and looking in that direction it appeared to be the seediest part of town. I tried to convince him not to, but the promise of duty free products was too strong a pull for him so we plodded on. It was indeed even seedier and grittier. It was weird – although Chile (or at least Iquique) looks more civilized than Bolivia it felt more rundown and a whole lot less safe, so much so that I wouldn’t even take my camera out. It didn’t help that once we passed the entrance to the Zofri, we were immediately in an industrial area surrounded by shipping containers, fuel depots, car import lots and distribution centres. After 30 minutes of feeling uneasy I told Adrian we should turn around. I began searching for a bus or taxi to take us back but saw nothing. Then ahead on the horizon, Adrian spotted a mall, a gigantic mall. This was the Zofri and inside was a collection of small kiosks that looked more like a gigantic flea market than what I would call a mall. It was an Honest Ed’s the size of 5 football fields. We soon discovered that cheap was realitive. For Chileans the cost of the electronics and brand name items for sale may have been cheap but compared to back home they were the same or even more expensive. I find shopping about as enjoyable as drinking battery acid so after 30 minutes of wandering around, I had a mall headache. Luckily Adrian was prepared to walk away empty handed, finally convinced that there were no affordable PSP games in the giant complex.

Back outside in the daylight and fresh air far away from the glazed-eyed crowds of shopers and oxygen-poor air, we refreshed ourselves at a juice stand. Actually, stand is a stong word – it was a shopping cart full of oranges, and a cooler of ice under a scrawny tree just beside the ginormous parking lot. As we drank our juice, I asked her where we could catch a collectivo or bus back to Cavancha and she pointed to the corner. She also let us know that we shouldn’t pay more than $1 each and if they tried to charge us more not to give it to them. She was so adamant that I expected a hassle when we got on board but the driver asked us for about 80 cents, the same amount he asked from everyone else on board. The bus took off towards Cavancha but rather than travel along the beach road, it took a road further inland, letting us off about a kilometer or two in front of another large mall. Oh, the horror made worse by the fact that the mall was the main obstacle between us and the beach road. I took a deep breath and we stepped inside, attempting to walk through it to get to the hostel. Unforutnately after a month in Bolivia, we’ve lost all our mall navigation skills and we were unable to find an exit amongst the fast food chains, neon signs, and familiar brand names in every window. If it weren’t for the Spanish signs everywhere I’d have thought we had to some anonymous suburb in North America, not Chile. Eventually, we managed to retrace our steps to exit the same way we entered, still no closer to the beach than when we started. But we followed the steady stream of cars through the parking lot and on to the main road until we stumbled across the beach road once again.

Seeing the beach snapped us out of our mall daze. But didn’t help with our disorientation. This end of the beach was lined with modern condo buildings and the beach itself was filled with families, and scantily clad hardbodies enjoying the sun and the water. We could have been in Southern California. Since none of the people in the water had blue lips, icicles off their noses, or other obvious signs of hyporthermia we cut across the boardwalk to the water’s edge. But when we dipped our toes in the Pacific, we were shocked by the icy water. Nope we were definitely in Chile with the ocean bringing the cold Antarctic waters north. Further down the beach, the surfing competition was still on although the waves had died down leaving the young girls competing at the end of the day nothing to ride for more than a few seconds. Just beyond the beach was a rocky bit where the waves were bigger and where the real pros were having a go. At least I hoped they were pros as they were dangerously close to slamming into the rocks. We watched them until I couldn’t take the anxiety anymore and had to head back to the hostel.

I tried to get the hotel’s wifi to work but after an hour gave up. We headed out to find some food vaguely aware that there was a strip of restaurants and bars somewhere nearby but no clue in which direction they were. We didn’t find them but we did find a corner shop, run by a Pakistani family who were happy to speak English with us. They also had a tiny internet café inside so we logged on and tried to catch up with life back in Canada and UK until we were distracted by commotion out on the street. Cars were beeping their horns, people were yelling and chanting. The family explained to us that Chile was playing Colombia in a World Cup qualifier and at the moment Chile were ahead. Suddenly the commotion became chaos as everyone in the neighbourhood ran out to the streets. The game was over and Chile had won. It became impossible to concentrate in the internet café so we headed to the small greasy spoon next door for something to eat and to take in the celebrations. As we ate our chicken and chips we alternated between watching the tv coverage of celebrations in Santiago with the celebrations here in Iquique. Apparently every Chilean of every age was out in the streets turning the entire country into a giant street party. Although we were on a small street in a residential neighbourhood cars were trolling up in down in front of us, with the drivers’ palms firmly on the horns bleeting out a morse code of congratulations to one another.

The beach road was even worse. This appeared to be the main party drag and every vehicle in town was commandeered by happy partiers, from Municipal garbage trucks to Mercedes SUVs. From each one people were hanging out the windows and in some cases the trunks, waving flags. We even spotted a small dog wearing a small Chilean flag as a cape held on the roof of one car and numerous babies wearing red white and blue bandanas being dangled out of windows. As the party progressed, road flares, fireworks and even lighters were thrown into the mix next to the thrown rolls of toilet paper, shredded paper, broken bits of stryofoam and wedding confetti. It was just a party but a public service announcement about fire safety. A couple of flat bed delivery trucks were turned into portable stages and dance clubs with bands and dozens of dancers bouncing up and down. If this is how they celebrate just qualifying for the World Cup, I can’t imagine what would happen if they actually won. Despite having to dodge the occasional fireworks, we sat at the side of the making the side of the road to take in the spectacle. The atmosphere was infectious but at midnight we called it a night, although we could hear the party going on until almost dawn.

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