Calama, Chuquicamata, Santiago

Trip Start Feb 14, 2006
Trip End Aug 2006

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Monday, July 10, 2006

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Sunday meant relaxing and waiting around for the bus to Calama in the evening. I wandered the town, looking at Lapis Lazuli and kept balking at the prices. By the time I'd decided to make a purchase, the shops had closed down to watch the World Cup Final. We all caught most of it over a cheap lunch on a small TV, whose signal faded in and out. Mark left at 3 to take his sister to the airport-he would return after I'd left to catch a bus with Sarah toward Arica, beginning their voyage north to Peru and Cuzco.

Sarah and I wandered the town until 6, when I left. We talked, and I wrote some of this-though clearly not all of it, it's far too long and far too much information. We said goodbye.

I sat down on the bus, hoping to get some video of the barren desert, but it was too dark at that point, and I just admired the view on the road toward Calama: the mountains fading from red to blue, the near-full moon above them, and the lights of town and of Chuquicamata, whose orange glow flared up in plumes of dust.

There, I wandered town looking for a cheap hostel. The best I could get was $11 a night, at a place called "el Arriero." Your bargaining power is nil when you're a lone gringo, and the owners knew it. The bathroom was trashed and the rooms had no heaters-though the beds had lots of blankets. The place clearly doubled as lodging for out-of-towners working in the mine, and they were crammed into rooms to save money.

Later on, in an internet cafe, I tried to piece this together, and a strange woman begged me for money-first by simply asking, then by asking to see my hand (for good luck), then by pushing out her stomach to act as if she were pregnant and then by tapping the wooden room key in my pocket (saying it was my wallet and that I surely had a "monedita" for her). All I had was bills, I refused her and repeated "Lo siento, Señora" until she left. I wonder if I've become calloused in the face of such things.

I went to bed early, wrapping myself up in the mummy sleeping bag, hoping to awake and call to arrange a tour of Chuquicamata before the plane left. My cold didn't seem to have improved much over the previous 5 days, so I loaded up on decongestants and closed my eyes.

Monday, July 10, 2006

I awoke rested, and called the numbers I had for Public Relations at Chuquicamata precisely at 8:00 a.m., as the man who'd given me the number advised-the tours fill up quickly, he said. But no one answered. As I packed up and got dressed, I kept calling and no one responded still, even at 8:45.

As I left, I walked out with some miners clad in yellow, waterproof suits, splotched thoroughly with mud and covered in a film of dust. We nodded, acknowledged one another, and I left. Not trusting "el Arriero" to store one of my bags until night, I walked up the street to a more reputable-looking establishment whose owner allowed me to stash it for free.

The tourist information center was only a few blocks away, in part of a run-down city park, and inside the ladies working there informed me that Codelco might not be offering tours-the Friday before, a deadly accident had occurred precisely where the tourist overlook was located. Uplifting. They told me to come back at 9:30 and pointed me toward breakfast-$4 worth of undercooked eggs. The fruit juice was good, though, and I got to see a new part of a new town, looking on the bright side.

When I came back, the women in the tourist center said everything was in order and offered to reserve my spot on the tour for free. They told me to start heading up to the mine at about one in the afternoon. To burn the time, I wandered town, and when 13:00 rolled around, I walked to the plaza to find a yellow colectivo, a type of taxi that doesn't leave until it's full and follows fixed routes (to save its passengers money), boarding one of the five that were lined up on the corner.

In short order, we raced across a barren stretch of land, where ground appeared to have been broken on a massive development (there'd been some moving of dirt, at least), up the hill and into the town of Chuquicamata-"Chuqui" for short. It reminded me of every other company mining town I've ever seen (Silver City, Jerome, Sewell ...), though it was probably most similar to Tyrone, N.M., which sits aside another famously huge open pit mine, the Santa Rita. The atmosphere was working class, and a little run down-most bars were "employees only," and no one walked in the parks.

It turns out that, because of a recent accord Chile signed onto, no one is allowed to live in an "industrial area," so Codelco was moving all of the workers away from the mine and into Chuquicamata-hence the ghost town atmosphere.

After waiting around in the lobby, an expensive building filled with old wooden cabinetry and lined with American-made "antiques" from before the 1950s, I listened to a brief introduction in Spanish, skipped the English one (inevitably less informative) and boarded the bus. Once everyone boarded, English and Spanish speakers alike, the pretty tour guide began to describe what we were seeing, first in Spanish and then partially in English: what was once the world's largest steam shovel, now replaced by smaller, more efficient machines (it had to be operated by 12 people at once); the pools of sulfuric acid, to leech out the copper from the rock; a large dump truck, too small to be efficiently used in the mine any more, etc. I think she was basically hired to be a visual attraction, so some of the strange things she said would go unheard.

One of those odd sights was a mountain of tailings that, she said, covered what was once the local hospital ("one of the most modern in all of Latin America"). Apparently, because the dump trucks burn 3 liters of gas a minute, it's cheaper to dump the scrap rock in town.

Why dump so close to the residents? Well, the guide began to describe the "Plan Calama" to move people away from Chuqui, saying it would be done in 2007 ("next year") and pointing to its successes, like a small housing development near the airport. The funny thing is that my guidebook says the project should reach completion in 2003. I assume his info came from the same tour as mine. But 5000 people still live in Chuqui. How long have they been saying "next year" at Codelco? Could they have at least waited a little longer before burying the hospital?

The closest we got to the mine was a metal observation deck on the mine's lip. Over a mile and a half long and a mile wide, Chuqui is a truly massive hole in the ground. An intertwining set of spiral roads, dozens of them and all about a football field wide, weaved up the pit's walls. I began to think that Santa Rita was a bigger mine, but remembered that you only look down into Santa Rita, and that I was much younger and smaller when I saw it. At Chuquicamata, the opposite rim was about 30 stories higher than where the viewpoint stood-and several kilometers off.

Massive dual-wheel trucks cranked up the roads to the smelter with ore, and barreled back down for more. They dwarfed the Toyotas tailing them, as well as the out-of-commission dump truck left out for the tourists (the in-service ones, German-made, were almost twice as large-and I was only half as tall as the wheel on the smaller of the two).

The trucks move 60,000 tons of rock a day-the equivalent of one Cerro Santa Lucia, the famous hill in the dead center of Santiago. They work day and night. It may not be underground, but there's still no night at Chuqui's mine.

Basically, though, we were left to stare at the pit for a 15 minutes, dust spiraling up out of it, before the guide called us back onto the bus and ended our cursory, hour-long "tour" of the mine. Mildly disappointed, but with a grasp of Chuqui's singular size, I left in another yellow colectivo for town, where I piddled away the time, waiting to go to the airport. The sunset out the airplane window-when I finally got on the plane (none of the announcements were in English and you know how hard intercoms are to understand ...)-was unbelievable. All of the dust thrown into the sky by the mine, by the supposedly under-construction housing developments (el Arriero?, reflected the fading sun in deep violet, indigo, red, yellow, orange and even some green (ROY G BIV, yes it was like a rainbow).

The flight was routed through Antofagasta, half an hour to the west. Two of LAN's flights that day had been cancelled, and my 1 hour, 20 minute flight dragged on into 3. Haggard and ready for bed, I stumbled off the airport shuttle and went up to the apartment, where I gave the family a short overview of the week's activities and drank some Nescafé. They wanted to feed me, but even though I was tired, some friends were leaving the next day and their goodbye dinner was that night.

At 11:30, I arrived at the Brazilian steakhouse they'd gone to, just in time to have a beer and say goodbye. I walked around for a few hours with two friends and hung out at one's apartment. Time flew, and I got home at 4 a.m.

Without much sleep, I ran around town to turn in almost-overdue library books and to turn in my last paper. When night came, I ate dinner with the family-lasagna made with ketchup-and began to pack, ready to be out, for dad to come and for our trip: 3 weeks, the two most famous archaeological sites in South America. Until then ...
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