Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Remembering Taquile

A storm is raging outside as I write - thunder, lightning, cascading rain - the whole shebang. We've made it to Potosí, highest city in the world, once the biggest, the scene of insatiable greed, countless deaths, despair and tragedy - all because of man's lust for a shiny metal called silver. I plan on visiting the infamous Cerro Rico mines tomorrow, so will have more for you on that in due course.
Jenny's home in the hostel, sick in bed, so I'm taking the opportunity to write of Taquile, altogether a happier place on Lago Titicaca, where we were just before we fled south to Bolivia in time for Christmas.

There was great excitement on the boat over. Women and girls in big colourful skirts and white blouses sitting on or beside huge bags and boxes of stuff. Chatting and giggling among themselves. Boats from Puno only leave in the morning so this was their only opportunity to bring goods over from the mainland. A vital link to an isolated community.
The men, meanwhile, in their traditional dress of black trousers and white shirts, wide multicoloured belts with furry pouches attached, and floppy long knitted hats, were shit-faced drunk, despite it being 8am. The captain even took a few slugs from a bottle as he was driving. Thankfully he wasn't as drunk as the rest of them (although he had the music at nightclub levels) and he managed to steer the boat towards the island. (Albeit slowly - it took us three and a half hours to travel just 35km.)
The sun didn't oblige either, and it was damn cold; everybody huddled under blankets on the way over.

We met an old man knitting on a wall after we climbed the countless steep stone steps up from the port. He offered us accommodation and took us through the "town" to a tiny smelly room with a tin roof above a stone shed with a wooden step-ladder to the door. I think the family lived in the shed below.
Each bed had six blankets, two underneath and four above. Just as well too - it was freezing!
There was no electricity so his daughter later came up to give us a candle which she put in a beer bottle in the window. There's feck all electricity at all on the island, so we also had to invest in a flashlamp which we promptly lost the next day.
The old man showed us the hats he was knitting but they weren't as nice as those on show on the boat so we paid him the €5 for the room and went out to explore this beautiful island.

Like Inishbofin off the coast of Galway, there were sheep everywhere. Baaaaaa was all you could hear from the tiny stone-walled fields which were stepped in terraces up the hill. There are no roads on Taquile, and consequently no cars nor noise therefrom. The silence (apart from the sheep and the odd cow) was bliss. There are also very few, if any, dogs on the island.

We walked up and up, past women working with picks and spades in their modest patches, past stone cottages and lonely weathered trees, past tiny stone-walled pens for the misbehaving sheep. We walked along an old stone path probably there since before the Incas, before it gave way to the natural stone path there before anyone.
It was breathless work but we eventually reached the top, 4,050 metres high. (Don't worry, we started at 3,815 metres.)
There was an old stone church there without a roof. Jenny was mad impressed, saying it was the perfect place for meditation. She sat down to take in the peace and natural beauty. The view over Titicaca was magnificent, and we could see the mainland and other islands not so far away.
I'm hungry though, and you can't eat scenery, so we move on.

On the way back we found more ruins, and saw a lamb in distress unable to jump up to join its frantic mother (or relative, maybe the lamb was visitin') on the next terrace, before it finally managed to scale the giant two foot embankment. (The mother really was frantic. She pegged it to the nearest shed/house as if to alert humans to the little lamb's plight.)

After a dinner of fresh fish from the lake the rain started pelting down. We sheltered under our tin roof waiting for it to pass.
The family we stayed with asked to know what time we'd like dinner served, and they were so nice we forced ourselves to eat another one. Fresh fish again. Very fresh, it must have been flapping just before they cooked it. Defishious! And we were in from the rain.

Afterwards they sat down to tell us the history of the place. Quechua is their first language, their Spanish isn't great, and ours no better, so quite a lot was lost in translation unfortunately. A pity. We gathered that 20 families came to Taquile to live after the Spanish routed the Incas. All the natives had moved to the Altiplano (the highlands) to escape the invaders.
Now 4,000 families live on Taquile, all Quechua-speakers with limited Spanish. The family tried teach us a few words of Quechua but they were too complicated to remember even two minutes later. (Nice illustration there of the difference between too, to and two. Maybe I should be a teacher after all.)

I cursed my luck when I had to pay a visit to the outhouse in the middle of the freezing dark night. I thanked it as soon as I stepped outside however. The clouds had disappeared to reveal a sky crammed with trillions if not squillions of pinpoint stars above. Like Wexford on one of those rare clear nights. I gazed up for as long as my bones could withstand the cold before jumping back under the covers.
A mouse or a rat kept foraging for something in the roof, but thankfully I was able to sleep again and ignore the cold. Feckin' sheep outside woke me up again in the morning. Baaa, baaa, BAAAA!!!
After breakfast the old man's grandson gave us a presentation of the various items of clothing worn by the natives; who wears what, what married and unmarried men wear etc. He explained that the really colourful hats, the ones with all the colours of the rainbow and more, only luminous, which I'd had my eye on since the boat over, were only worn by men in authority. Such ridiculous hats. I baulked at their price, S/.35 (€9), but regret not getting one now. I haven't seen them anywhere else since.

The sun came out after breakfast, and the whole island was bathed in a glorious light, the earthy tones mingling with the rich greens and friendly stone greys as if urging us to stay another day.
There wasn't time however. After more rambling around the "Inishbofin de Titicaca" in the morning, and another fish dinner, we bid adieu to our hospitable family. The father even hugged us both as we were leaving, wishing us the best on our travels with a huge warm smile. Definitely the nicest people we've met so far.
We may just have to go back.

All the pictures from wonderful Taquile are to be found here:

Monday, December 28, 2009

La Paz

La Paz is an unforgettable sight when you first descend into it on the bus. Turn a corner and suddenly it's all spread out there below you at 3,650 metres. Like an upturned bowler hat with its centre at the bottom, the city clings to the sides of the mountains around it, branching ever upwards and out until it can climb the steep sides no more, its rim overshadowed by the great snow-capped peaks of Illimani poking through the clouds behind.
I say it's like a bowler hat not just because it is, but because the women wear them here too! It's mad. Everywhere you look there are round women with long plats under bowler hats perched at odd angles on their heads. Mad angles even, just like the hats. Stan and Ollie still setting the trends for Bolivian women to follow.
The traffic in this sprawling city is unbelievable. You put your life in someone else's hands everytime you cross a street, while the pavements aren't much safer. Cars honk, people shout; there's chaos and confusion all round. Somehow though, it still manages to be quieter than Perú where the only volume is deafening.
Hectic market areas are frequented by all sorts of weird and interesting people, shady characters hanging around, shoeshine boys hoping to polish up, peddlers crying and chancers trying, all drawn to Bolivia's unofficial capital with hopes of making it big or even just surviving.
The poverty is tangible. Invalids, cripples, down-and-outs, old women sitting on the pavements; their hands are drawn to us as if by magnets. The hands rise towards us everytime we pass, clutching, grabbing, desperate for something. Moaning or crying, some of them are really pitiful. It feels helping them just prolongs their pain. Kids work the streets, shining shoes or selling chewing gum - school don't put food on the table.
Warnings of crime and the need for vigilance are everywhere. A policeman told us to watch our bags and pockets as soon as we arrived, before advising us to take a taxi rather than walk. Restaurants have signs advising diners to guard their bags at all times. The hostel warns of assaults and robberies and tourists, and a woman in the market told us to be extra careful with our money yesterday.
Just half an hour ago a bandito managed to swipe our bus tickets to Potosí from my bag. I noticed him lurking behind before he suddenly disappeared and another tourist shouted: "Hey! He got something from your bag!" I caught up with him and managed to get the tickets back. He hadn't time to take anything else. Thankfully we won this round, and we'll still be going to Potosi this evening.
Apart from more than a million people, most of them very friendly (taxi drivers and other motorists excluded of course), the city is home to 74 squillion pigeons if not more, all better fed than a lot of the people. The people actually buy them seeds and feed them in the squares, gathering huge clusters of the feckers flying and fighting around them.
We actually saved one from an over-playful dog this morning. The poor old pigeon was clearly injured and in no mood to play with this big dog, but the dog kept batting him with his paw and jumping on him. The pigeon couldn't fly, but was too stupid to waddle between some railings out of paws reach. He was too stupid to even make his escape while Jenny shooed the dog away. We had to shoo him away too. I'm sure the dog just came back and gobbled him up in the end.
La Paz's a good place to shop, particularly if you're a witch. The witches' market is famous for its offerings of concoctions, potions and mysterious charms. These include weird herbs and seeds, figurines and dolls, dried snakes, dried llama foetuses, stuffed armadillos and other wonderful ingredients for non-conventional cures for all sorts of ills and ailments. Some of the craziest stuff I've seen with two eyes, or even one.
Yes, La Paz is mad. I like it.

More La Paz pictures can be found here:

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Isla del Sol (And Christmas thereon)

Old stone walls, cosy little farmhouses, gentle green hills - Isla del Sol could be Ireland, but for the sun of course.
Jenny reckons it should be called Donkey Island however, Isla del Burro, due to the sheer numbers of the unfortunate creatures on the island. Never mind all this Inca ráméis about the birth of the sun.
The donkeys are everywhere! All working like donkeys. Again, like Taquile, there are no roads or cars on Isla del Sol so these beasts of burden are being used accordingly by the locals, to haul all their shite from the harbours up the steep hills to the villages.
We could have done with a couple of donkeys ourselves; it's a good 25 minute breathless hike with luggage up to where the hostals are.
Nevertheless, after dumping the bags, we set off again down a stone path to explore the island. The sun bathed everything in light and the birds were chirping as if they knew it was Christmas Eve. The sheep joined in the chorus, baaing without humbugs.
Since we arrived in Bolivia I noticed the local women wear black bowler hats, several sizes too small so they sit are perched on their heads like 1920s Laurel and Hardy wannabees, only with long black pigtails and traditional dresses.
The womenfolk of Isla del Sol are no different, and so attired, they herd their little flocks of sheep along bódhreens between one small stone-walled field and the next.
We stopped after I urged Jenny to give one of her choc-chip cookies to some donkeys in another field. But it seems donkeys have no interest in choc-chip cookies. Luckily, I was able to attract a resting dog's* attention to the unwanted cookie and once he actually found the damn thing, he devoured it with gusto. We were friends then for a short while until he realised he'd get no more. (*All dogs in this part of the world are permanently resting. I've no idea what they get up to to make them so tired.)
Later we passed a couple of llamas grazing in another field. They'd barely look at us. Llamas are incredibly proud and hold their heads high at an angle so they can look down their noses at everything. Such a stupid-looking animal; such misplaced pride.
An old man walked by with two pigs ambling along in front of him. The pigs paused briefly and grunted hello before ambling off again. "Buenos dias," we wished the old man. "Chancho!" he replied.
Further on we found another couple of pigs, one of them snuffling around in the muck for something to eat. Sure he had nothing there, so I jumped down and offered him a cookie. He didn't need to be asked twice, but slurped it up in one go. Smack, smack, smack! His kindly little piggy eyes twinkled with delight.
"Happy Christmas Piggie!" I told him. I'm sure no one ever gave him a choc-chip cookie before.
The reason Jenny had choc-chip cookies to begin with is because Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th, no patience whatsoever. We wandered on and sat on a rock overlooking neat little fields in the valley before the bay below, stone Inca terraces making steps with crops up the side of the hill. The quiet! Just the chattering birds and the odd sheep to be heard. (Some of them were very odd - two of them were chasing each other around and around a house just across the field.)
Jenny was happy when I surprised her with a modest present - she wasn't expecting anything at all. Unfortunately it jumped onto the floor and smashed itself the next day. Some emergency St. Stephen's Day super-glue surgery and all will be okay again.
We didn't bother with any of the Inca ruins or any of that. After looking at countless piles of rocks and so-called archaeological sites, I generally find most ruins' best days are behind them.
Christmas Eve dinner was in a modest family-run joint, one of trout from the lake, with chips and rice (as always - they must catch the chips and rice in the nets too) proceeded by asparagus soup which they ran out to buy in the shop while we were waiting for it to be served. It seems Christmas caught them by surprise - there was no tree, no decorations, no Christmas music, nothing. Pan pipes accompanied our meal as they do every meal in Bolivia.
Lamentably we couldn't splash out on a bottle of wine. My credit card parted company from us sometime in the days before and we'd no way of taking money out in Copacabana. Luckily we were able to exchange some dollars but funds were too tight for luxuries. We had to share a breakfast on Christmas Day the next morning, and lunch consisted of a pack of crackers sitting on a different rock.
Unfortunately I found the islanders not to be as friendly as their Peruvian cousins on Taquile. The hostel woman barely said goodbye as we were leaving - she'd had our money at that stage, while the man didn't reply at all. Another woman tried charge us B$1 to get change when we tried pay her.
All the prices are inflated for the tourists. They blame the long trek which the donkeys need to make to haul everything up from the harbour. Donkeys' wage demands have sky-rocketed in recent years don't you know.
They really shaft the tourists at every opportunity. The boat out to the island cost B$10 but to get back cost B$20! I asked why it cost double to go back exactly the same way and was given some bullshit excuse about more people travelling to the island than back to the mainland. I guess they all swim back.
We returned to Copacabana with my sense of seasonal goodwill dented and B$1 between us (10 cent). Thankfully all the shops were open and we were able to exchange some emergency €uros and have a proper Christmas dinner that night. Jaysus, we were starving! We ordered a load of stuff: wine, real soup, salad, beef for me, veggies for Jenny, and a mango shake - not very Christmassy, but yum!
We didn't mind that we blew €10 in one go. I even splashed out €1.80 on a café irlandes later on. What the hell, it was Christmas! It'll just have to be water and mouldy bread from now on.

More Isla del Sol pictures can be viewed here:

Missing you a Werry Christmas

So it's a white Christmas in Ireland. Typical! The first time I haven't been home for it, and the snow decides to fall...

We're still at Lago Titicaca but we've made our way to its southern shores, to Copacabana in Bolivia. Bolivia! Too often in Perú I wished we were here already. We spent Christmas Eve and most of today on Isla del Sol, birthplace of the sun and the first Inca, more likely just gulls and frogs (the biggest in the world my uncle told me, although I haven't seen any at all so they can't be that big). I'll write more about the island in a future broadcast.

The Christmas feeling started catching up on me once we arrived at the lake last weekend. Probably because it's more like Ireland, rainy and cold - it's bloody freezing 4km up at night.
On our way to Bolivia we passed green fields full of sheep, plenty of donkeys, cows and pigs too. Little cottages are scattered haphazardly around the rolling hills. Certainly the most Irish part of South America.
Before that however, we spent a night at Taquile, a wonderful island unspoilt by modern annoyances like cars or even dogs. The natives were the nicest people I've met on this trip yet, definitely the nicest Peruvians, but enough on that, I'll revisit Taquile in a future post.

I guess it's hard to get into the seasonal spirit when you're on road and you don't want to get any presents because you'll have to carry them. Nevertheless, since we got to the lake, thoughts invariably turned towards home, to friends and family, people I won't get to see this year.

As I mentioned, it's my first Christmas away from home. I can imagine what I'm missing: Christmas Eve pints in the locals, the hangover at the yearly Mass the next morning, hyper kids getting their toys blessed, the toneless choir screeching through the carols, before Santa comes for a "surprise" visit after his long night's work, ho ho hoing up the aisle in his broad Wexford accent. The Christmas stroll, the commotion before dinner, the wine and brandies, the crackling fire, the smell of pine, presents, more brandies, and then up to Noddy's house around midnight to discuss the day with him and Sully. Poor aul' Noddy won't be there this year though - Australia is still coming to terms with his arrival - so I guess Sully's talking to himself right now. Yes it'll be a quiet Christmas in Whitechurch.
I'm sure trees in the area were trembling in the run up to it; but there wasn't going to be any Christmas tree hunt under cover of darkness this year. All those branches quivering without cause.

I've already wished you all a happy Christmas, and you would have read all this and more had my last message not been cruelly erased by a humbug Bolivian computer, but to be honest, I'd rather wish my wishes in person. Just for a day of course - Bolivia remains to be discovered! Feliz Navidad once again.

Pictures from Copacabana, which will be forever associated with not being Whitechurch at Christmas, are to seen here:

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Missing you a Copacabana Christmas

It's hard to have a Christmas spirit when the very message you've been writing for the last 44 minutes disappears from before your eyes. Computers in Bolivia don't give a shit for seasonal goodwill I'm afraid.
Unfortunately our boat for Isla del Sol leaves in six minutes so this will have to be brief.
Today is the first day of Christmas spirit (for me anyway, up to now) and thoughts are invariably turning to home, to friends and family. I just want to wish you all a Feliz Navidad, peaceful, stress free and happy, well away from Bolivian computers. Nollaig shona dhuibh.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Titicaca floating

We've made our way to Lago Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world, and definitely the one with the best name. This is allegedly the birthplace of Manco Capac, the very first Inca, and his sister-wife Mama Huaca, and - may as well go the whole hog - where the sun itself us supposed to have came from.

At 3,810 metres above sea level, it's not the incredible scenery which leaves you breathless here, although to be honest I'm having fewer problems with the altitude than before. The oul' lungs must have expanded sufficiently to be able to cope with mere scraps of oxygen.

Sunday we visited las Islas Flotantes (the world-famous floating islands) where the Uros people have been floating in existence for centuries, since they first sought refuge from the warlike Incas and other pesky tribes.
Dark-skinned, with huge-cheeks and round friendly faces, the Uros are ready to break into a wide warm smile at a moment's notice, but they also have big sad eyes. The women, like their mainland cousins, are short and frumpy, sitting on the ground as if they've no legs at all, and they also have their long black hair tied back behind their heads in long long plats. They sport wide-brimmed colourful dresses and round straw hats.

Everything's made of straw; it's everywhere! As we look around we're stepping on it, walking on it and sitting on it. Even the houses are made of straw or reeds - I was just waiting for the hay fever to kick in.
The islands themselves are made of reeds cut from the lakeside and placed over the older rotting reeds below which may have been there a few months. Thus the islands are constantly replenished with material from the very lake on which they float.

The ground is soft and spongy underfoot, the reeds swishing as people walk above. Of course I didn't jump up or down, wander too near the edges or light any bonfires, but the ground felt relatively secure. I'd say the islands are stable enough, as long as you don't bring any elephants or heavy machinery on board. Pigs and other smaller animals do roam around without any problems.

Tourism is a big earner here. All the natives were selling trinkets and other souvenirs, ceramics and figurines, stuff that will end up on mantelpieces in lands far far away.
Even the little kids, scruffy in their old worn clothing, walked around selling postcards.
The island itself was tiny, not much to explore, so they really had a captive audience as we waited for our boat to leave.

Boats too are made of reeds. Very impressive they are too, with straw heads like the old Viking ships, complete with little straw ears sticking up towards the heavens.
We went for a spin in one made of two bound together, a "catamaran" as one of the old men called it. He was joined up front by another old man, while two of the women took the rear. It was slow progress as they all paddled at different times and angles, but we eventually got where we were going. Another island. There are about 40 altogether.
"Este es la isla grande," one of the women proclaimed. It too was tiny. One minute 45 seconds was all it took to see it all. Straw everywhere again, spongy ground, more bouncing around, before it was time to go back to Puno.

On the way through the still silvery waters, we watched lakeside fields sliding by, the old Inca terracing still there in places. Crazy-looking blue-billed ducks sat in the water beside the reeds, floating amongst them as if showing them how it's done. There were plenty of reeds. It seems the Uros will be floating plenty more years to come.

Pictures of Puno, Lago Titicaca and the Islas Flotantes here:

Adieu Areqiupa

After bidding adieu to Chile after too little time - I'll have to go back - I made my way back to Arequipa in Peru.
The border crossing passed without incident this time - the Peruvians don't give a rat's ass what you bring into the country - and I boarded the next bus to find a little old man with no teeth in my seat. He had his head out the window, observing all the hustle and bustle with great interest, blinking and clucking at all the craziness, a big grin on his wrinkled face. He was so excited I couldn't kick him out and so sat down beside him.
We promptly made friends, as close as the lack of communication would allow. He was only travelling as far as Moquegua and he opened his eyes wide when he heard I was going all the way to Arequipa. That was as much as our lack of communication would allow. He promptly stuck his head back out the window. He might as well have had his tongue hanging out of his mouth as the countryside began to speed by.
Soon after, the bus was stopped by police; everyone ordered off to have their luggage checked. Only half the bus got off so I stayed on too, luggage under my seat going nowhere. Half an hour later the bus took off again. It seems police controls are voluntary in Peru. Somewhat defeats their purpose - I doubt drug or arms-smugglers would voluntarily hand their luggage over to be searched.
Hours later, after dark, the police boarded with flashlamps and conducted random searches. Again, they left me alone despite seeing my rucksack stuffed suspiciously under the seat. Instead they picked on the unlikeliest smugglers, old women and babies, before eventually letting the bus proceed again.
My new friend beside me meanwhile, told them to feck off, shooing them away with his hand as if he couldn't be bothered putting up with them. No wonder we got on so well. He used to call over the women selling sweets and drinks to the window whenever the bus stopped, ask them how much everything was, and then shoo them away too, before turning back to me again with his huge grin.
There were no controls for the dreaded fruit fly outside Moquegua this time. Not only must they presume all fruit flies travel by bus, but that they travel between 9am and 5pm too!
I wished the old man all the best as he disembarked. "Que te vaya bien." He shook my hand, nodded, grinned and gave me some advice I couldn't understand. I'm sure it was good whatever it was.
Later once again, the police got on for more searches, much to the annoyance of my fellow passengers, and once again they ignored the likeliest suspects. It was damn late when we pulled into Terminal Terrestre in Arequipa.
Our last night coincided with Greig's birthday, one of the volunteers, so we all went out for a meal. It was a disaster. I'd be doing the staff a favour if I called them incompetent or stupid.
They could only take one order at a time, each time the waiter forgetting his notebook. Just two tables were occupied at the time and the place crawling with staff. The chips were raw, and came back rawer if anything after I asked to have them cooked.
Instead of clearing the dishes, one waitress picked up a little dish for peanuts, asked if a half-full bottle of coke was finished, ignored the empty one beside it, and went back to the kitchen with just the peanut dish.
Everyone got their meals at different times. In the end poor Charlotte didn't get any at all. For over three hours she waited, waiting for her meal, watching everyone else eat. Three times they brought out her pizza with meat on it, despite her telling them repeatedly she was a vegetarian.
It ended with a huge row when the boss refused to come out to talk to us, and when the only discount offered was for the vegetarian pizza with meat on it which wasn't eaten. I had to tell them nobody would pay at all before they eventually offered a token reduction.
We consoled ourselves afterwards with jelly shots before finding ourselves in two nightclubs. It was very late and drunk getting to bed. All in all, a fitting end to our stay in Arequipa.

All the Arequipa pictures can be found here:

Monday, December 21, 2009

Humberstone (Ghost Town)

Doors swing and bang, floorboards creak and the tin roofs on the old worn wooden buildings rattle. The wind swishes through the dusty streets, through the broken-glass windows, through the houses' unfurnished rooms to the dusty streets on the other side. Nothing else stirs, nothing else moves, 'cept a lonely lizard who scampered from a rusty pole behind a pile of wooden beams discarded outside.
The market was empty, no produce on display, no merchants crying their wares, no haggling shoppers, no hustle or bustle. No actors on stage at the theatre, no audience to applaud them; no guests at the hotel, no staff to serve them; no children at the school nor teachers to teach them.
Not one human did I see in Humberstone, a tidy ghost town abandoned to the elements around 50 years ago after the collapse of the Chilean nitrates (fertiliser) mining industry. Everyone long gone, leaving this desert town deserted in more ways than one.

I made my way up to the old factory behind it, a huge chimney protruding up like a beacon calling for attention. It had been a long time since it got any attention, huge metal workshops all rusty now, creaking, groaning and banging in the wind. Bang! Bang bang! Big wheels and old conveyor belts, all rusted to immobility, chimneys poking up no longer with a purpose. Old steam locomotives lay scattered around the yard outside, great hulking masses left to rust and rot under the merciless sun.
The wind whistled and howled through gaps in the wall, banging the sheets of corrugated iron above my head. But nothing else could I hear, no life at all, not even a bird dared chirp in this forsaken place.
What ghosts still roamed the factory floor? What spirits its houses? What tales and stories would too be forgotten after Humberstone's residents suddenly turned their backs on their town?

It's all the Germans' fault actually, for inventing the process of making nitrates, rendering the need to import it from Chile obsolete. In one fell swoop, Chile lost its main export commodity, and workers in 170 desert mining towns suddenly found themselves out of work. Humberstone was just one of those towns, all subsequently abandoned as their residents went looking for other work.
Jenny showed no remorse at all when I told her what her fellow countrymen had done. She wasn't even aware of it! "Oh no, they don't teach you that stuff in school!" I told her.
But still she showed no pity for the poor old Chileans' plight (Bolivians and Peruvians too). "If Germany hadn't invented it, you wouldn't have had anything to do, nothing to look at," she replied. I guess she has a point. Ghost towns sure are more interesting than mining towns.

All the pìctures of Humberstone, including images like the one on the left from its hey-day back when, can be seen here:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

La Tirana (The tyrant princess)

When the Spanish arrived in Chile, there was a native princess who who was such a bitch towards them, she became known as La Tirana (The Tyrant). After hearing of their plans to introduce Christianity to the people, she vowed to fight the intruders until every last one of them was dead, and it was this pledge and the deeds which followed it which earned her this name.
Legend has it that Huillac Humu, as she was known to her amigos, was an Inca Kolla princess who was brought on Diego de Almagro’s expedition south from Cusco in 1535. She slipped away along with 100 highly-trained Wilkas (Inca warriors) when they landed in the Atacama and for the next four years she waged war against the Spanish, declaring death to all and all those they baptised.

After one particular attack, her party captured Don Vasco de Almeyda, a Portuguese miner who they imprisoned and sentenced to death. La Tirana fell in love with him however, and told her people that the gods told her the prisoner must be kept alive until four moons had passed. This worked, but over the next four months, she began to neglect her duties as she went to see him every day. Her people got suspicious, and began to keep a secret watch on her. Soon they discovered her betrayal.

La Tirana asked her lover if they'd be reunited in heaven once she died if she too were baptised. Of course, he said "sure thing baby," and he proceeded to baptise her. Just then the door was burst down and both were killed in a hail of arrows.
With her last breaths she said she was dying happy because she would soon be reunited with her love. "All I ask is that you bury us together and put a cross over our grave."
About a hundred years later a priest, Padre Antonio Rondón, found a simple cross on the spot where La Tirana was killed. He built a simple chapel there, and this was later replaced by the building you'll still find there today, the one you see in the pictures. The town was then built up around the church

"It's a story of love and hate," Rodrigo told me as we drove to see it. His version of events was slightly more dramatic, with La Tirana's own father ordering her death on learning of his daughter's betrayal.
Every year on July 16th, up to a quarter of a million people come from all over Chile to this small town to pay their respects to La Tirana, to dance in wonderful costumes and to make offerings to her. It's meant to be a helluva party. All in the name of love.

For more pics from this town built on love:

Friday, December 18, 2009

The driest place on Earth

Chile's Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth. In some places it hasn't rained since humans began taking note, over 500 years ago. For all we know it may never have rained there at all!
The Andes stop clouds coming over from the Amazon basin in the east, while a high pressure point over the Pacific keeps moisture out from the west, as do more mountains and the cold Humboldt current flowing northwards from the Antarctic - it chills the desert air preventing the build up of moisture in the sky.
Some parts do get limited moisture from a thick fog which rolls up from the deep Pacific, and this allows some hardy plants survive in places. Some fog herders have managed to harness this phenomenon using fine mesh nets to get water. They're the lucky ones however. In the heart of this desert, there isn't even that. Nothing lives here for nothing grows. Not a cactus, not moss, not bacteria, nothing. The air is so dry, nothing rots (metal needs moisture to oxidise) and meat can be left outside for a long time without going off.

So you can see why I was a bit anxious about trekking the 30km hin und zurück to see El Gigante de Atacama. I had gone to the restaurant Ruta del Gigante in Huara, the nearest civilisation, to suss out the possibility of a lift. Your wan's eyes opened wide when she heard where I wanted to go. She looked at me like I was crazy. Not a chance. There was nothing, not a taxi, not a spare donkey, nothing.
"¿Bicicleta?" she suggested.
I seized on it and asked her if there were any to rent.
"No," she replied, dashing all hope as soon as it arrived. Another guy, who'd overheard everything, said I'd be better off going back the 73km to Iquique to do a tour from there.
Damn it, I'll walk so. I bought a big bottle of water and set off in good spirits. It was hot, but it wasn't unbearably hot. Ten minutes down the road I heard a car beeping behind me. When it stopped I saw it was your man from the restaurant. That's when I was introduced to Rodrigo y Ricardo, gay lovers who took pity on a gringo so determined to see El Gigante he'd walk through the driest place on Earth to get there.
"We couldn't let you walk. 'That poor guy,' we said, so we're gonna take you there," Rodrigo said. "Get in." So I did.
Rodrigo was a former tour guide, and he explained that El Gigante is the largest human-form geoglyph in the world at 86 metres, about 1,000 years old, and probably drawn by the Aymará people in reverence of the sun, or Pachamama (Mother Earth). They built it by scraping the sand away and filling it with a paste of sand, clay and piss. This formed a rock-hard cement which is constantly cleaned by the wind, leaving the image clear at all times. Cool huh?
In between telling me all the local history, he stroked his boyfriend's arm, danced to every song on the stereo and sang every word, as we sped through the desert to the tunes of Sophie Ellis Bextor and the Pussycat Dolls.
They brought me to La Tirana and Humberstone (future posts), giving me tips for the best Chilean rums to try, before we finally said goodbye and I thanked them profusely. So I'd been all set for a huge ordeal, but instead it was a gay excursion through the Atacama in Ricardo's 4x4. I was so happy I didn't take a tour.

El Gigante de Atacama

He was still there when I arrived, still standing, waiting patiently just as he had done all those years.
"Howya," was all I could say. I couldn't think of anything else. As soon as I said it I wish I'd thought of something better.
He looked surprised to see me, eyes wide and mouth open as if in shock.
"Are you surprised to see me?" I asked.
"Eh... no," he replied. "Hrummph!! It's just no one ever spoke to me before."
"Not even to say hello?"
"Nope, hrummph!" (For he hrummphs a lot). "They come along in groups with cameras hanging from their necks, ooh and aah, take photos and then piss off back to wherever they came from without a word."
"How rude!" I concurred.
I waited for him to calm down before asking: "How do you know what a camera is?"
"How do you know what a camera is? You're 1,000 years old or so, no one has ever spoken to you, and yet you know what a camera is."
"Well... actually, hrummph! You're not the first person to have spoken to me. There was a girl from Japan, very pretty she was too. She asked if she could take a picture, and showed me a picture-making machine which she called a camera."
El Gigante sighed. "Now all the feckin' tourists have them. They just click away without a thought for my feelings. At least that Japanese girl had the manners to ask."
"Yeah, the Japanese are very polite alright," I agreed. "What happened to the girl?"
"She took her pictures and we chatted a bit but it was difficult. Her Spanish wasn't great - terrible pronunciation, hrummph - and my Japanese isn't what it should be."
"Your English is very good."
"Ah, you're just plámásing me now."
I was amazed. "Plámás! Where did you hear that?! It sure as hell wasn't from the Japanese girl!"
He chuckled to himself. "I knew you'd like that! I get to meet a lot of the old heroes of legend in the other world, including the Irish ones, Cúchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill and all those lads and they're always saying that. It's their way of getting more compliments. They can never get enough, hrummph, especially from the girls."
"Wow! So they're still knocking around. I'd wondered where they ended up."
"Yep, the other world. Sure where else would they be?"
"And how come you're free to go in and out?"
El Gigante chuckled again. "Well my young whippersnapper [compared to him], I'm a living legend amen't I? Hrummph! Neither dead nor alive, and we get special dispensation to do whatever the hell we want."
"Ah, it's not all that great. The more time passes, the more I realise things just never change, neither here nor in the other worlds."
"Worlds?! You mean there's more than one?"
"Of course. You don't think they'd put everyone in the same world would you? Hrummph! That would be frightful! All squabbling and fighting over the most tedious things. No no, that wouldn't be good at all. In fact, if I had my way everyone would be given their own world, left in peace without having anything to do with anyone else."
He sighed again. "Now that would be heaven."
"Sort of like what you have going on here then," I suggested. "You're on your own in the middle of nowhere and apart from the odd minibus of tourists and the odd nutbag who decides to walk across the desert, you don't meet anyone at all!"
He remained quiet. "Hmmm," he said eventually. "Maybe you have a point. Maybe it isn't so bad after all!"
With that, I noticed I still hadn't taken any pictures. "D'you mind if I use my camera Gigante?" I asked, not daring to offend him by simply whipping it out.
"Not at all! By all means my friend. Work away man! Work away."
Cautiously, I snapped a few shots which I'm pleased to display here for your viewing pleasure. While he had given out about the tourists before, I could see El Gigante was actually quite happy to have his photo taken, secretly delighted to be the centre of attention. He posed in the same manner in which I found him, and I'm delighted to be able to share these with you now.
I left him in a much sunnier disposition to which he'd been in before, if that's possible in a place it never actually rains. I left in a much sunnier disposition too; after all the time and effort to get here, I was thrilled to have finally seen El Gigante de Atacama!

More pictures of El Gigante can be seen here (with his permission of course):

Wednesday, December 16, 2009


Today I made my way south to Iquique which exports more fishmeal than any other port in the world. It actually reminds me of San Francisco, not because of the fishy goings on, but because of the low wooden buildings and old saloons with swing doors and balconies. The old buildings are fairly decrepit and their best days are clearly behind them. Those were when sailors would saddle up at the bar after a long journey at sea. A few cold beers before thinking of female company. I'm sure not too much has changed.
Of course, when I saw Hostal San Francisco I knew I had to stay there. Unfortunately the only thing going for it is the name. The smell from the bathroom is incredible. I know already I won't be showering there tomorrow. I'd come out smelling worse than when I go in. Ch$6,000 a night. Everything costs thousands here. One €uro is over 700 Pesos, so it's not the place to come if you're not good at maths.

But I'm here for El Gigante De Atacama. He's waiting for me 87km away. Unfortunately there are no buses there, a tour there includes some other shite I don't want to see for Ch$18,000, and a taxi would cost an outrageous Ch$35,000.
So I'm gonna have to get a bus to Huara, 15km away and walk the rest. Through the desert. The driest desert on the planet. I'm hopeful that some passing farmer (in the desert?) will offer me a lift in his tractor, or that a donkey looking for something to do will wander by. Fingers crossed!

For Iquique and the pictures I took on the way, see:

Road to Chile

When the old man started talking to me at the back of the combi I knew it was going to be one of those journeys. Thankfully he didn't persist. "Mucho gente" was all I could understand from his toothless mouth as we drove through the market area on our way to the bus station.
He was right. There was mucho gente. Gente all over the place, all milling around, shouting and cajoling for business. Upsidedown featherless chickens hung in the sun, thoughts of a tan far far away from their swinging heads. A woman selling ice cream was shocked I didn't want one for S/.0.50 as we passed. (Everyone does their shopping through bus windows here.) At least she saw the funny side. Meanwhile three calves sat in the dusty street in front of one stall, bored - they'd seen it all before.
The bus to Tacna was at 12, but I managed to buy my ticket after 12 before boarding. Such a thing would never happen in Germany but I guess when there's a seven-hour journey ahead of you, you can afford to wait a half-hour or two.
A Peruvian Del Boy was onboard too, selling DVDs of human anatomy. "¡El cuerpo humana es una maravilla natural!" he announced before showing a clip of childbirth on his portable DVD player. "¡Una maravilla natural!" he shouted above the noise. Walking up and down the aisle, he continued his impressive sales pitch as he handed out sample discs to his captivated captive audience. Unfortunately they were were only captivated until they heard the price. S/.10 for three. Outrageous! They were all promptly handed back and we continued on.
Just when I was remarking to myself what an unremarkable journey it was, (contradicting myself in so doing, for it was remarkable in its unremarkability), after we had passed through desert with stonier and greyer soil than Monaghan, the bus stopped outside Moquegua. Engine off. Everyone grabbed their luggage and disembarked. What the hell's going on? I wondered.
We had to put our luggage through an x-ray machine, I presumed for guns or drugs. After putting my bag through however, I realised they were looking for fruit. Fruit! To keep the fruit fly out of Moquegua, they scan all the baggage coming into town. I guess they're working on the assumption all fruit flies travel by bus. I hate to break it to you lads, but fruit flies can fly!
An apple in my bag escaped undetected. I took extra pleasure in eating it later on.
Five minutes after we got back on the bus, we stopped again. A roadblock! Feckin' Moqueguans protesting over something; not a car, bus or motorbike allowed through in either direction. Engine off again, and everyone filed off the bus, again. It was then I ate my apple. I prayed the core was stuffed with fruit fly larvae as I threw it into the bushes.
Two hours passed before we were finally allowed move on again. Then more remarkable unremarkabilty as desert zipped by on either side. Stones, sand, rocks; the sun setting on distant hills; cloud wisps stained pink in the orange desert sky; beautiful.
A couple of hours later, after we had sat through the last of three films each more gory and violent than the one before, I finally saw the twinkling of little orange lights far below us in the distance. We'd finally reached Tacna!
Now for the bus to Chile. It started with a hullabaloo in the station. I couldn't buy a ticket without filling in forms, couldn't board without buying a tarjeta de embarque (tax), still couldn't buy a ticket, running back and forth like an increasingly pissed off headless chicken. Eventually I boarded without buying a ticket at all.
The bus was crammed with bags of toilet paper. Evidently it's much cheaper on the Peruvian side and all the passengers had been stocking up with giant packs of 24 rolls each. Chilean arses are choosier it seems, and the Peruvians didn't want the added expense of luxury brands.
We all got off at Peruvian border control, everyone bringing their toilet rolls for fear they'd be stolen on the bus, and a soulless official stamped each passport or form with out even looking up. Bang! Bang bang!
Back on the bus for the short drive to the Chilean side. Again, everyone lined up with their rolls of precious papel hygenico under their arms.
After I get my passport stamped, I'm asked to accompany an official who brings me to another building. Questions, questions, questions. Where are you coming from? What were you doing there? Why did you pick Peru? How long you staying in Arica? How much money did you bring? He fills in a form as he fires questions at me.
A goon in a jump suit is brought in and he asks much the same questions, and whether I'm carrying any drogas, before telling me he wants to look in my bag. Work away, I tell him. .
Well Jaysus, he goes through everything! He even pulls out my diary and leafs through the pages, (I didn't like that), before asking if I write in it every day. "Solo lo que es interesante," I tell him, making a mental note that I'll be writing this shit in it. "Soy periodista."
He even goes through my guide book, stopping at a hand-drawn map of Arica given to me the night before. Who gave you that? A Chilean or a Peruvian? "Un alemán," I reply. He wasn't expecting that.
Then I've to take off my shoes. He goes through the left one, but declines the other. They didn't smell but I guess he'd had too many bad experiences to take any chances. He felt through the stitching in the rucksack's handles before eventually admitting defeat; no drugs to be found.
"Hasta luego," they say as I head out the door. Hopefully not, I think to myself. Just one more x-ray machine to put my bag through, and then finally, I make it! I'm in Chile! The rest of the bus journey truly was unremarkable.

Road to Chile pictures (just six) are here: