Tales from Valparaiso (and beyond) No. 4

The Atacama Desert

The wind comes up usually in the afternoon – when I grew up here you used to be able to hear it moving through the town – it was rather a pleasant sound – of course, you don't hear it nowadays. Indeed, the desert oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama has become a tourist destination within the last decade or so and the various craft outlets and restaurants tend to play their own music. So it was that Ann and I found ourselves at the cafe in the town square listening to a play-list which included Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Portishead - but also extended to Serge Gainsborough and Silvio Rodriguez - while a man with two pet llamas hung around the square with a shoulder bag of chañar nuts (which the llamas were constantly trying to get their noses into) accepting donations from tourists (who all wanted to photograph the llamas) until the money was enough to buy a litre of milk (the llamas were both still young and being bottle fed).

Also on the cafe play-list were a number of Beatles songs – especially early ones - “Twist and Shout”, “Money Can't Buy Me Love” etc. This was an odd experience for Ann who was a young teenager in Chile when those records first came out:

'You've no idea how big the Beatles were in Chile – much bigger than in the UK!'
'But you weren't in the UK, so you don't realise how big they were there as well!'
'But people were really hysterical about them here.'
'What about Chilean singer-song-writers like Victor Jara?'
'Oh, that was much later.'

Once we'd settled into San Pedro, we transferred to a hostel called La Rose d'Atacama, a focus for francophones run by an extraordinary Frenchwoman called Marie. A “cultural centre” as well as a “hostal”, Marie and her team regularly show films and put on concerts in their courtyard – none, unfortunately while we were there. To sit in that garden in a fusty old armchair drawn up under the shade of a pomegranate tree, conscious that there were hundreds of miles of arid desert beyond the town in almost every direction, the garden lilies coming into bloom, the predominant sound that of doves (a different sort of dove from ours) cooing and sparrows (a different kind of sparrow from ours) chirrupping, the house cat sunning herself in her favourite spot, was, as we English would tend to put it, “very nice indeed”.

I'm trying to keep these blogs to the subject of music, or at least sound, so I won't go into details about our various trips into the desert – to the Puritama thermal pools, the salt lake of Cejar (in both of which we swam), our walk out to the fort (or “Pukara”) of Quitor (where the local Kunza people held out against the combined forces of the Inkas and the Spanish between 1536 and 1540), our walk across the salt flats to the local swimming pool fed by a natural well a few miles out of town along the main road to Bolivia, our day trip to Tocanao and the beautiful lush “Valle de Jerez” - or even my afternoon out riding with a guide, Sergio, (a late 60th birthday present from Ann, whose bad back wasn't up to it, but who insisted I go anyway) through the “Valle de Muerte” (the “Valley of Death” - and as we cantered over polished rock strewn with large stones I thought to myself how ironic it would be..... or again when, after riding up and along the cliff top looking over the valley on the way back Sergio suddenly turned and started to ride straight down over the cliff, leaving me to follow, urging my reluctant horse down what looked – to both of us seemingly - like an impossibly steep downward path). Nor will I go into our interesting conversations with Marie about local politics (complaining about the local mayoress, who had used all of the town's cultural funding to have an olympic swimming pool built, completed four years ago and never yet opened) or with the woman in the off-licence whose remarks opened this blog.

Suffice it to say that while in San Pedro I heard no live music, other than the guitar-accompanied responses in mass (which Ann and I blundered into late, and at which I found my way to an empty pew which, it turned out, was the queue for the confessional) and Ann occasionally practising Lucy Campbell's on the tin whistle which Dexter had lent her for the week.

One last anecdote, however: at the entrance to the Valle de Jerez in Tocanao, just past the rather forbidding-looking lithium miners' base camp, the woman taking the ticket money (much is cheap in Chile, but nothing is free) obviously had time on her hands – we must, I'm sure, have been the only tourists to go past that day. We being foreigners, she immediately enlisted our help with her son's homework which she'd been puzzling over. His English teacher had given them a number of different countries whose flags they had to draw and colour in. One of the last listed was “Pern” which puzzled her.

'I'm sure it's supposed to be “Peru”' - suggested Ann.
'No, it's definitely an “n”'
'But no doubt it was the end of the school day, your son was tired, and made one little copying mistake' - I ventured in my bad Spanish.
'But have you ever heard of a country called “Pern”?'
'Definitely not – honestly – seriously – I'd try “Peru”'

But she seemed to remain unconvinced. You'll be pleased to hear, however, that, among the countries whose flags had been identified, correctly drawn and coloured in (whether by the son or by his indulgent mother), besides the Union Jack, was the Scottish flag.

We arrived back in Valparaiso yesterday – a 24 hour bus journey – to see posters for a John Lennon tribute concert at the Piedra Feliz on Sunday – maybe bearing out Ann's assertion about the special relationship between Chile and the Beatles.

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