"Adventures in Sand boarding," with Emilio

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Sunday, July 9, 2006

Saturday, 7/8/2006 Sandboarding with Emilio

To open, I must say that Emilio, the man I hired to take me sandboarding in Death Valley, came to as a result of rave reviews from the two girls I was traveling with. One had hired him two days in a row, the other one: both went with him to the altiplano lakes, one went sandboarding. Fitz, who went on those same tours, told me that during an entire day, Emilio didn't say more than 10 sentences to his tour group.

Emilio came to pick me up in a hired car on Saturday at 9:45, 15 minutes late. He sat in the passenger seat, and his driver, a chubby, jovial San Pedro Indian handed me a book on the region's history, printed and compiled by CODELCO, Chile's national copper company, while Emilio looked for the other five people who'd promised to come sandboarding that day.

Emilio is a wiry Uruguayan man of in his late 20s, by my best estimation. He could be older, as the cracks in his sun burnt face and worn hands are permanently filled with a film of sand and grime. Nonetheless, his European ancestry is impossible to hide: dirty and worn as it his, his skin is as light as a tourist's, and his accent (the butchery of Js and double Ls) is all-too-characteristic of an "Uruguaayjo." His shoulder-length hair is dirty blonde and unkempt. He pranced around town, when he didn't have a client, in well-worn Bolivian-knit pullovers and cargo pants.

Emilio and I stopped at about 4 locations, and returned with no one. In silence, we drove to Death Valley. This was the point where I should have ensured that Emilio was planning on giving me the price he'd given Sarah the day before-about $14-because it looked like I was going to get private lessons. After all, Latin American tour guides, like taxi drivers, love to screw you if you don't fix a price beforehand.

But I didn't. The picture book was interesting enough, anyway.

After the truck stopped, Emilio asked if it would be "OK" if we only stayed out until noon. I said sure. The dune was big, but there was only one way down it, and I assumed I'd be bored of sandboarding after two hours. Emilio pulled the board out of the bed of the Nissan, waved off the driver, and we headed uphill.

The first trudge up the dune was the hardest. Probably more for Emilio than for me. You see, he explained that, the night before, he'd been out with two of the girls who'd promised to come that day, and that they'd stayed out until about 1. And Emilio, breathing a little too heavily for someone who leads tours on an almost-daily basis, was clearly still feeling the effects. He called the current situation his "worst nightmare."

I did two short runs to get used to the feel of the board, a cheap laminated plywood construction that Emilio had rented from a local shop. It had to be waxed before every run, with a few streaks, and Emilio did that for me since there was no other purpose he could possibly serve-sandboarding is like snowboarding, you just don't turn, because you'll fall.

Used to the board, Emilio and I trooped to a higher ridge on the sand dune. He waxed the board again, and I flew down, stumbling at a few spots. The run couldn't have lasted longer than 15 seconds.

I trooped back up to the top, the slight rush of adrenaline making the climb a little easier. When I got to there, Emilio was sitting down, waiting for me. This time, he just gave me the wax. I drew some lines on the base, gave it back and handed him my camera. I asked him to take a few pictures and headed back down. It was starting to get redundant.

Climbing back up, I had grown tired, and paused at a few points for breath. The climb to the top could have lasted no longer than 5 minutes. Once at the top, I found Emilio, who was lying down on his side in the sand, not moving, breathing softly and dreaming about who knows what.

I sat down to catch my breath for a few seconds. Then I tapped his foot. No response. I did it again. The same. So, I got up and shook his shoulder. When he awoke, opening and closing his mouth to try and moisten it, I asked for the wax. He gave it to me and half-apologized, saying it had been a long night. He refused to speak Spanish, because I was to be his English practice. "Yew know, mahn, aye was out wit dose girls ahnd ... "

I didn't give a damn, and raced back to the bottom, with a little more wax. Two turns this time. Still not terribly interesting. When I made it back to the top, Emilio was asleep again. I woke him and asked for the wax. For a moment or two, he propped himself up on an elbow and stared off into the distance, acting as if he hadn't been sleeping. He'd already fallen asleep once, what did he have to lose?

I asked for the wax again. He casually gave it to me, then he offered, you know, to like take pictures from another angle, whatever that meant.

Once at the bottom, I looked up and he gave me a thumbs up. Somehow, I knew he'd be asleep when I got to the top. When I reached our bags, which we'd left halfway up the dune, I could see him passed out at the top. I searched through his bag and found another stick of wax. Walking up to his feet, I did three more runs, making noise but without waking up his lazy, scraggly, hung-over ass.

Then some other boarders showed up. I walked to the top of the dune and sat at Emilio's feet. I looked at my watch, it was about 11:30. I sat for a while and took in the scenery. The newbies trooped up to the top, stepping around me and over Emilio, asleep as ever. As they passed, they accidentally kicked a little dirt on him, which accumulated on his black and white knit pullover. Nothing fazed him.

Trying to act like he wasn't there, drunk and asleep, I thought about how unbelievable the view was, and how strange it was to be in such a place and to still long for home. The whole region simply reminded me too much of lands back home.

I shook Emilio awake. It was 11:45. I told him that the next would be my last run, and that I wanted to meet him at the bottom to wait for the truck. I said I would be too tired to hike back up. He nodded. I waxed up, flew down and crashed at the bottom. Sand everywhere-it'd take hours to get it all out of my clothes and ears, despite a long shower afterward-it was the best part of the whole trip to the dunes.

I wriggled out of the board and looked to the top of the hill. He wasn't moving

I waited five minutes. Emilio was motionless.

So, he was asleep for a fourth time, no big deal. Then I heard the truck winding up the valley. I realized I was, in fact, going to have to climb up and fetch him. Who was the guide now? Hell, he should have been paying me for the English lessons. I made it to the bags and shouted his name. It took him 30 seconds to come to his senses, perhaps he awoke and stared at the mountains with that same empty look, and the tramped down the sandy slope. Acting as if nothing had happened, the sketchy jerk said, "I furgot to tell yew, I take your bag to ze bottom on ze last run, but iss OK if you wawnt to take it ... "

I took my bag off and tossed it to him. In some way, he was going to earn his pay-at least some of it.

I beat him to the truck. He handed me my shoes. I took my bag and got in without a word. The drive back was silent. Even our driver acted like Emilio was a sketchy bastard, and gave short responses to the scraggly Uruguayan's attempts at idle conversation. Back at the hostel, Emilio got out with me.

"I furget to tell you ... becuz ze other people not come, I got to charge yew 10 thousand pesos for ze tour." That was four dollars more than anyone else had to pay. A series of responses ran through my mind, here are a few:

--I'll give you eight
--Here's eight ... that's ten, minus the time you spent sleeping
--I didn't know sleeping lessons could be so expensive
--Here it is, now get yourself a goddamned haircut
What did I do? I paid him the 10 luca ($20). Everyone else charged that price, after all, and they didn't give you the hill to yourself, totally to yourself. Emilio's last words to me?

"Ok, so how long you in San Pedro until?" (implied question: can I screw you into another tour, Mr. Loaded Gringo who doesn't complain?)
"Tomorrow, Emilio. I leave when my friends leave."
"Ok, well, maybe I come by and say goodbye to Sara, Sarita ..."

I looked at him, said "whatever" and walked away. I never spoke to him again. He didn't come by and say goodbye to his beloved "Sarita"-local tour guides, I guess, are better when you've got breasts and blonde hair. Walking around town with her on Sunday, though, we passed him. She said "hi," and walked on awkwardly. All he got from me was a drop-dead stare.

At least he was looking healthier. When I looked at the photos on my camera, later that night, half of them were shadow; the shadow of a longhaired man, on his side, propping himself up with one elbow, a camera in the other hand. That'll be the shady little memory I'll keep of Emilio.
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