Monday, October 4, 2010

The one where Chile and I reconciled ...

So Santiago querido and I had our ups and downs.

But now sitting in a far-away country (in fact, about as far away as you can get), and looking back on the place like past relationship, I'm feeling a little sorry that I harped on about its bad points, badmouthing it to all and sundry. Because just like a past relationship, once you get some distance (about 10,000 km seems to do the trick), you can actually revisit those good moments and see them for what they were - unique and intense and character building.

And in actual fact, I think I realised this while I was still there, it just took a minor breakdown and escape from the city for me to do so.

It came after nearly six months of wedded bliss putting up with each other, by which stage it was apparent that Santiago and I had some serious differences of opinion on all the things that I thought mattered - personal space, openness, tolerance, and appropriate waiting times in a bank. And as our anniversary approached and it became clear that neither of us were going to change our minds on these matters, our options seemed to be either going straight into couples counselling or taking some time apart.

I opted for the latter. Which you could envisage as a-slinking-away-tail-between-legs departure, but which I prefer to consider a braveheart style run-for-the-hills with our Mel in a skirt screaming freedom beside me.

Now every Chilean I've ever met has told me that if there's one place guaranteed to (re-)kindle your love affair with Chile, its the South. Apparently the South is where people are the most friendly, the scenery is the most magnificent, the food most delicious.
So, ever determined to do the opposite, I headed north.

I went as far north as you can without actually leaving Chile - to the Parque Nacional Lauca in the top right hand corner of the country, jammed up against the borders of Peru and Bolivia, and very very high. It is Chile at its most extreme - highest, driest, furtherest away. It was brilliant.

For a place that seems completely off the radar its surprisingly accessible. We actually arrived via La Paz - I had met up with a friend there and we had plans to travel in the area immediately bordering Chile on the Bolivian side as well as in Lauca, a sort of borderlands expedition. Even from La Paz getting to Lauca is easy - the park has the dubious distinction of having a long distance truck route cutting straight through the middle (you know, the one that gives Bolivia its access to a sea port, ahem) and the road is built to Chilean standards - making it the smoothest road in the whole of Bolivia. All buses between Arica and La Paz pass right through so there's plenty of transport, although they don't make a scheduled stop, so its up to you to tell your driver where you want to get off, and of course, pay the full fare all the way between Arica and La Paz.

Aside from its ease of access, however, Lauca is an isolated place. The bus set us down at a refugio on the shore of Lago Chungara - over 4500 meters above sea level and one of the world's highest lakes. Other than the refugio and its caretaker, there is nothing there. You, the lake, the volcanoes, the road, and the occasional semi-trailer barreling past in the thin air. Its a strange kind of isolation.

View from the refugio over Lago Chungara and Volcan Parinacota.

The caretaker of the refugio was kind of surprised to see us turning up on his door but let us stay the night in the bunkroom. I was glad not to be there on my own, as the refugio is also where he lives, so there was a slightly awkward vibe of crashing someone's house.

We sat out on the porch watching the sunset over the lake. And of course even out there, Chile is Chile: every 5 minutes a truck would cut through the picture, reminding us that even this amazing landscape was a place for progress of the industrial kind. They had built a wonderful road, but the refugio's caretaker appeared to have no food to eat other than a (seen better days) joint of meat and tea made from a garden herb.
A strange kind of isolation - perhaps that's my motto for Chile.

The next day we walked through the foothills looking for a village that never materialised, drank all our water, tried to hitchhike back to the refugio, discovered that Chileans do not like to pick up hitch-hikers, got altitude sickness/dehydration, slept it off in the tiny bunkroom in the freezing night, tried again to hitch-hike back to the border, remembered previous day's experience and cursed Chilean cautiousness, and finally persuaded the driver of a tour bus from Arica to take us up the road to the border, which he very kindly agreed to do even though it wasn't where he was headed.

We even saw what's got to be one of the world's stranger animals - the viscacha. Looks like a rabbit, but with a long curly tail. Apparently they make good eating.. or so our friend the caretaker said.

So what's my point with this rambling and almost forgotten relationship analogy?  I guess it is seeing the bigger picture. Overlooking the club foot for the whole package. Santiago and I still don't see eye to eye and may never do so, but Chile and I are back on track. Thanks North.