On the Edge of the Wild

Trip Start Jun 16, 2006
Trip End Aug 15, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Sunday, July 23, 2006

Pearls that swim the rift of me, long and weary my road has been. --Chris Cornell

Another 24 hour bus ride. Another farewell to another Latin American Capital. I spend my last night in Santiago eating at a sushi bar. I`m drinking Austral beer, which is pretty good, and eating sushi that has a little too much cream cheese in it. The restaurant is upscale and sophisticated, but there aren`t too many people in it.

The eating options are more varied in Santiago than other South American cities. There`s seafood, a variety of Asian cuisines, and Peruvian restaurants. I`m still nostalgic for the food on Palawan Island, Philippines, and of course, the Mexican food in Tucson, Arizona though.

I decide Santiago is not too bad. It`s a very liveable city and would be a fun town to go out with friends during the night. Everything is clean and everything is efficient. The streets are wide and the Metro is the quickest and most spotless I have encountered. This city could be Chicago if the earthquakes subsided, permitting the buildings to grow to the sky. But this would be a tough city to visit again. The world is too big and I`m afraid my life is too short.

So enough with Santiago. I was getting really weird there anyway. Living near Pablo Neruda`s (the Chilean poet) house and writing too much. Becoming a writing machine--holed up in my hotel waiting for my Fedex package to arrive. Think of the creepy writer, i.e. Johnny Depp in Secret Window. What was supposed to be a narration of South America is now quickly becoming a story about me. So now I`ve got to be a little more like Nick Carroway (The Great Gatsby) and a lot less like Marlow (Heart of Darkness).

So I pass through the Atacama Desert on my way up north. The most heightened of contrasts: I leave the verdant pastures and orchards, the postcard farmlands, and coasts, for well, practically nothing. This is the most barren landscape I`ve witnessed. Impossibly arid. In some places, it has not rained for centuries in the Atacama. Not a trace of plants or animals. A true lunar wasteland--just coarse dirt, rocks, and dunes. But there is beauty in this wasteland just as there is beauty in the favela.

Now I`m in San Pedro staying in an adobe hut. I shower in an outhouse. Quite a change of pace--trading a metropolis of 5 million for a village of 5000. Here there is no power after midnight. There is no heating, so I rely on wool sheets and adobe to keep me warm.

San Pedro is a strange town and I like it. It has crumbling houses and dirt roads. People linger in the streets and cars kick up the dust. It has a main square dotted with pepper trees and an old white church built almost 300 years ago. It`s located in the middle of nowhere in the desert. I`m not sure how they get their water. It`s hot during the day and inhospitably cold during the night.

Yet it remains a backpacker`s paradise--it would be a ghost town without the tourism. Europeans, Aussies, Japanese, Chileans, Argentines and Brazilians coming together under one roof.

Europeans buying tacky wool ponchos. Europeans in mountaineering gear, North Face Jackets and boots. Europeans speaking 4 different languages. Sensible and prepared (If you can`t tell I`m jealous). But also Europeans getting sunburned from the thin air and strong sun. Not me though, Half Filipino Power forever!

There are tour agencies and cheap lodging everywhere. We`re here to see the nearby geysers, volcanoes, salt flats and lakes. The secret of Northern Chile and Southern Bolivia is out.

We`re at 7200 feet and I`m exhausted and have a headache. I can`t keep pushing like this. Why am I here? Why am I doing this? I could be on a beach in Costa Rica drinking an umbrella drink. Instead I`ve got a high altitude bike ride this afternoon and an early morning tour tomorrow. I`m going to see the colored lakes and Salar de Uyuni of Bolivia. Then I have it arranged so the tour agencies drops me in the middle of nowhere.

Another couple meals alone and I`m going crazy. I eat lunch at a natural foods store and have a damn good coffee and a damn good omellete. I needed that. Sick of that Nescafe bullshit. Another expensive dinner with excellent Chilean wine. Now I`m definitely outside the budget. I need to stop doing that.

After dinner I walk away from the city to watch the night sky. Probably shouldn`t have done that--rabid dog could jump out of nowhere and bite me, but whatever. It`s sufficently dark and I`ve never seen a sky like this before. They say Northern Chile has some of the clearest skies in the world, but I`ve never imagined this. The stars burn bright. Absolutely gorgoues. Absolutely stunning. I`m disoriented--I can`t find the traditional constellations because everything blends together. I`m in the Southern Hemisphere and I can`t even find the Southern Cross. The Milky Way forms a band, a halo across the sky.

I think of the Polynesian navigators who were directed by these stars. I think of Leaf Ericson and the Norse, the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas. Maybe they saw skies as bright as this.

In his next entry, the author promises to focus less on himself and more on the character and nature of South America and its people.
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