Sunday, October 11, 2009
(old) Turning the clocks back and forth.
“What day is it?”
“Do you mean the date or the day?”
“Either, I guess.”
“I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“Not really, I guess.”
Adrian and I must have had this exact conversation about 100 times in the last 7 months. I’m not sure when we lost track of the day or at least the day of the week, but I know it happened relatively quickly. Although we’ve discovered that we have a knack for trying to visit museums or galleries or other sites on the one day of the week they are closed. We’ve also gotten very good at forgetting what time it is. But most of the time it really doesn’t matter. And Bolivia this was particularly true. There the only clocks people use is the sun. They get up when it’s light and go to bed when it’s dark. And as for calendars, well their way of life really hasn’t changed all that much in the last 100 years. But here we were in Chile which had already shocked us with such modern wonders as shopping malls, stoplights and Pakastani corner shops, so it was rather fitting that last night before going to bed I had to dig out the alarm clock (my cell phone) to charge it and set the alarm. Today we were on tour time and I wanted to make sure that we’d have plenty of time to get ready before professor Luis came to pick us up punctually for our tour.
The stress of having to be some place at a certain time, meant I got up before the alarm went off. So I had my shower and returned to the wake up Adrian and turn off the ringing alarm he was ignoring. I was feeling mighty pleased with ourselves for leaving us enough time to gentle wake up when the hotel bell rang. It was Luis – 45 minutes early. He must have been very eager to continue his English lessons. I told him that Adrian was in the shower still so he said he’d go and pick up the others and then come pick us up. He got back in the van and headed back inside to tell Adrian to hurry up – although I don’t think he heard me over his loud shower singing. As I quickly scoffed my breakfast and packed Adrian’s up, the hotel clerk turned to me and said “ahora mes por verano,” which didn’t appear to make much sense. Now is a month to summer? I assumed he was talking about the weather or something equally banal so I smiled and nodded and repeted “verano” to him to which he smile and nodded in return. Adrian was finally out of the shower and I hustled him, or at least tried to, but since Luis was an hour early, Adrian didn’t feel the urge to rush. Luckily when the van returned we were ready although both a little annoyed by Luis’s early arrival.
We scrambled into the minivan that was full now full with Chileans. This was the first time we’d been on a tour and it was local tourists rather than foreigners. I guess, Chile is the first country we’ve been to in a while where the locals actually have vacations and the money to travel. Sitting nearest to us were Catalina and Ivan, who spoke perfect English and were happy to translate for us. Since I was still rather discombobulated by Luis’ early arrival I appreciated the break. The couple were from Santiago and had flown here for the long weekend (ah, good to know that tomorrow was a holiday). He was an environmental lawyer and she was a journalist. And both of them were very nice, despite Adrian continually calling Catalina, Catarina to go with what he called Ivan’s “odd Russian name”. Oh Adrian, the Miss Manners of the road. Luckily, Ivan and Catalina found us entertaining, particularly when they heard about our trip. We did our best not to bore them to death as we headed out of town to our first stop on the tour.
It was this first stop that Adrian and I were excited about. The tour was taking is to Humberstone in the middle of the desert. It was once a thriving town built to house the workers of the British nitrate mining operation on January 1st 1961, the town was closed, the people moved out and everything left in the desert. Adrian and I both love ghost towns. Just like us on this trip, time has stopped for them. But we also like the broken down, decaying state of everything and this site was mecca for us. Because it was the first stop on the tour, I feared we might be rushed but we ended up spending almost 3 hours exploring every nook and cranny. And there was lots to explore, the town had living quarters for all its staff but also everything to support them. There was a theatre, some churches, a swimming pool and school. But there were also many stores and shops. You see the crafty British managers didn’t pay the workers in cash but in company credit good at only the company stores. So the workers had to give back what they earned to the company. As long as nitrate was in demand, the company was laughing but soon the market dropped out and the company could no longer support the town and its workers. So they just abandoned the whole place and for decades it was left untouched until the Chilean government realized they could make some money out of it by turning it into a tourist attraction. They stepped in and stopped the decay and in some places they were even trying to fix up the old buildings hoping to prevent the tourists from injuring themselves on the broken floorboards and rusty nails and to attract a different type of visitor. The old hotel was now available to rent for events although I can’t imagine many people wanting to host their wedding in the midst of this eerie ghost town. The mine operations were also open for exploration and there the combination of rust and decay was awesome, particularly in the early morning sun (photo above). I’m pretty sure after the first hour that most of the people on the tour were bored but Adrian and I were sad when Luis told us it was time to go three hours later.
If the tour had ended now, I think Adrian and I would have felt like we’d gotten our money’s worth, but we still had the whole day ahead of us. But the sites were far spread out far across the desert giving us lots of time to take in the landscape. There were the huge sand dunes that surrounded Iquique forming the cliff we’d come down on our arrival in town two nights ago. And Humberstone was located in the rocky desert. Now Luis stopped on the side of the impossibly straight highway that was surrounded by some weird lumpy plain. As he picked up some of the lumps and threw them on the ground they broke apart revealing that they were salt and we were currently in the middle of the Chilean salt flats. Luis invited us to touch our tongues to the rock and we stupidly did. And it tasted exactly like a brick of salt, d’uh.
Before we were burnt to a crisp on the black hardtop, Luis shuttled us back into the van towards our next destination. Back when Luis had outlined the itinerary of the tour Adrian was disappointed that we wouldn’t be seeing El Gigante, a giant petroglyph in the desert. Luis had told him, that he had something even better in store. But Adrian still pouted. As we pulled up to our third stop, he finally stopped the pouting. We were at Cerro Pintado (or Painted Hill). From back on the highway we could see a series of markings on the hills the lined the edge of the desert. As we drove across the desert the figures got clearer. Here there were over 350 different figures from 4 different eras and four different people. There were some from the Tiwanaku, Inca, Aymara and Quechua people and for some reason that anthropologists have yet to determine, they all chose this spot to leave some sort of message that was still visible centuries later. Some were simple geoglyphs but there were also animals and humans depicted. And the sheer number made Adrian forget about El Gigante.
Soon everyone started grumbling about lunch – a bit unusual since it was only about noon. But I guess Chileans are used to eating at exactly noon. Luis placated us with cold drinks and snacks from the cooler and told us the next stop was lunch – an hour away on the other side of the desert. As the air conditioned van cut across the desert road, I was just thankful we were inside as we could see the heat rising off the highway and even the sand. At first I thought I had even spotted a mirage but it was an oasis and our destination. The town of Pica had been built around the oasis hundreds of years ago and was now known for its springs and orange trees. But the only site that my fellow passengers cared about at the moment was the café where we were stopping for lunch. We ordered and then chatted while waiting for our food to be prepared. When it finally arrived, everyone dug in and it was silent while we chowed down. As the dishes were being cleared away, I noticed a clock on the wall and noticed that it said 3 oclock not 2. I asked Ivan if there was a time difference between Chile and Bolivia. He explained that there was now because the clocks had sprung forward last night for daylight savings time. D’oh, Luis wasn’t an hour early this morning, we were an hour late. And the clerk at the hotel wasn’t say “Ahora mes por verano.” He was saying “Una hora mas por verano” (One hour more for summer). I guess we really had lost track of time.
It was a good thing it was so hot out so everybody was as redfaced as I now was. The heat was truly oppressive here in the middle of the desert but Luis told us he had just the thing to cure it. He took us to the hot springs in town. Unfortunately soaking in a thermal bath was the last thing I felt like doing. Adrian had no such qualms and immediately changed into his trunks and jumped in amongst all the families in the water. Ivan and Catalina invited me to walk with them into town but I passed and found a shady spot to hang out and wait for him and Tatiana, the only other one from the van who decided to jump in. And it was Tatiana, who proved to be the one who held us up as she dawdled out of the water and then back to the van and all of us were soon overheated.
It suddenly felt like a very long day but Luis had two more stops for us. Both were small towns with some very important churches. The rest of the tour group were happy to get out and explore but Adrian and I were less enthusiastic. Ivan tried to encourage us but we explained that these were the upteenth churches we’d seen on our trip. But since we were here we took a look. The first town was Mantilla and the church must have been important but we missed Luis’s explanation. So we tried to figure out our own explanation. It was white and red and a church and that was the best Adrian and I could do. The second stop was La Tirana and here I paid a bit more attention. La Tirana was famous for its yearly carnival celebrating the Virgin of Something or Other. But it wasn’t carnival so the only attraction was the church which was interesting because it was made out of wood. When we were done looking around it, we joined Ivan and Catalina to wait for the others who were shopping at the stalls in the square. We thanked Ivan for his translation services and jokingly asked how much he charged. But instead of handing us a bill, he handed us his phone number and email address and told us to give him a call when we arrived in Santiago so he could show us around the city. He and Catalina also invited us to join them for dinner and drinks that evening but Adrian was determined to watch the NFL game that night so we passed. They were really the nicest people and their generocity was awesome and we would definitely have to give them a call when we got to the city. When we got back to Iquique, we said goodbye to our new Chilean friends and set out to search for an open restaurant or pub where we could watch the game. However nothing was open, not even the chicken and chips place from the night before. Either everyone was still confused by the time or everything was closed on Sundays. We walked another street over and stumbled across a chirasco shop. Chirascos in Chile appeared to be sandwiches the size of our heads we discovered when our orders came. We stuffed as much as we could into our bellies and then rolled back to the hotel where Adrian watched the game and I went to sleep.