In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a
to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship . Because it was going to be a long trip – about three months in all – and we had been married less than a year we decided that I would go along too. As it happened, Dido required her work to be visually recorded and so she appointed me her video cameraman. children with learning problems
When we arrived, Chile had been a democracy about the same length of time that we had been married, so this was a dramatic voyage of discovery in more ways than one. In fact, looking back on that trip now, over 30 years later, Dido and I agree that it remains one of our two or three most remarkable joint experiences.
We decided to keep a written journal of the trip even before we left England, but within a few days of our arrival so many weird and wonderful – not to mention hysterical – things had happened to us that I decided to record the most amusing and surreal in a series of cartoons. Presented here are a selection of those pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is relatively little breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries. These pictures are a humorous and affectionate record of all aspects of the-then new democratic Chile, through the eyes of two wide-eyed newly-weds.
In the words of Inti Illimani – “VIVA CHILE”!!
When we arrived at Santiago Airport we were virtually kidnapped by a trolley porter who then took us through the red channel. When we were then searched by fearsome looking Carabineros and I couldn’t find the paperwork for the large video camera in my possession. My explanation that the camera was not new and the property of the Ealing Educational Authority failed to impress the policemen who then separated me from Dido and escorted me – with the camera – to a small room by the side of the customs hall. Once in the room they told me to sit down on a low wooden chair in the corner and to keep the camera on my lap. There was a glass window in the middle of the opposite wall through which I could see a very worried Dido still standing among all our ransacked baggage and suitcases. For about twenty minutes I was left alone with one Carabinero, who stood leaning against the door just staring at me expressionlessly. Then two more policemen entered the room and – ignoring me completely – turned on a TV fixed to a bracket suspended from the low ceiling. There was a football match on and soon all three men were totally engrossed, occasionally shouting at the screen. At first I’d been too frightened by my predicament to take much notice of the game, but as the minutes passed I realised it was an international game and one of the teams was Chile. And then, as fear turned to boredom I began to watch the match too, until I finally recognised one of the Chilean players. Without thinking, at the moment I recalled his name I blurted it out, “ Ivan Zamorano!” The three jackbooted Carabineros all instantly turned to look at me with looks of amazement on their faces. Then, one of them who spoke English asked me, “Zamorano! You know him?” “Of course! He plays in Italy for Internazionale” I replied, then added, lying through my teeth, “He’s one of my favourite players. I’m a big fan!” And with that it was as if I had turned on a switch. Next thing I knew, the three men were all smiles and charm personified and I was being escorted back to Dido, with our camera and sent on our way. Who says football is just a game…
Dido’s first port of call was the small Atacama Desert town of San Pedro – just over 1000 miles north of Santiago. We decided to use the same mode of transport that most Chileans used then for such long journeys – the famous Tramaca coach. Being only the start of the trip we were as-yet uncertain of how our funds would hold out, so rather than travel in the relative luxury of the cama bus with their lauded 1st class aircraft seats and cocktails, and airline-style meals served by attentive stewards, we opted for the regular-seated bus. We would be traveling to San Pedro in three stages, stopping first for a day at the port of Antofagasta – a journey of twenty-five hours. Initially, apart from the stunningly beautiful landscapes we motored through, there was nothing remarkable about the coach journey itself. But then we stopped for a driver’s rest break and it was like no driver’s rest break on any coach journey we had ever encountered before. As the doors of the coach opened a virtual caravan of peddlers and food sellers streamed onto the vehicle, offering assorted newspapers and magazines, all sorts of drinks, from fresh juices to beer and tasty things to eat. Most delicious of all were the empanadas, fried and baked – reminiscent of Cornish pasties – filled with either cheese, tuna or meat. And there were also huge, green, sweet ripe palta – known to just about everyone else in the world beyond the borders of Chile and Peru as avocado…
One of the most exciting aspects for me in particular regarding our adventure was that it was my first time across the Atlantic Ocean – in fact, it was my first journey into a significantly different time-zone. So, when by our second evening in Chile I still hadn’t suffered any apparent symptoms of jet-lag it made me sceptical about the whole concept. That evening, following our long bus journey from Santiago, we were spending the night in the coastal city of Antofagasta before catching our next ride to Calama the following afternoon. Dido was still quasi vegetarian in those days (she ate some fish) and often got a craving for pasta, and as luck would have it, our Lonely Planet guide recommended an Italian restaurant as being the best place in town. After almost a day on a coach eating nothing but snacks, we were both ravenous and ordered extra large portions of pasta and we must have been about half-way through our respective plates of spaghetti when I was struck by an acute attack of something known as “delayed jet-lag”. The last thing I remember was feeling as if I’d been given a sudden heavy dose of anesthetic gas. Then, the next thing I knew, I was staggering into the street with my arm over Dido’s shoulder with Bolognese sauce all over my face. According to my mortified wife, I had fainted head-first into my pasta, and the maitre d, assuming I was drunk demanded that we leave – immediately…
The breakfast at the Hotel Splendid in Calama turned out to be as “charming” as . As we took our table in the dingy breakfast room we were confronted with a pot of hot water, a jar of instant coffee and two slices of dry toast. When I asked the lady of the establishment – a stocky little woman with unkempt greasy grey hair, a cigarette stub apparently glued to her lower lip, and wearing a food-stained pinny – if there was any butter, she grunted in the affirmative. Then, to my amazement and horror, she went over to the neighbouring table where an elderly man in a dressing-gown was eating his breakfast and took the piece of toast from his hand, picked up his knife and scraped all the butter she could from it. She then came back to us and spread his butter scrapings onto my toast… the sleeping arrangements
Back in the early 90’s place to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, at least if one considered oneself a real traveller, was “Bobby’s Place”. From what I can recall Bobby herself (Bobby was a she not a he) was an Australian lady in late middle-age. She was the epitome – almost to the point of being a walking-talking cliché – of the intrepid travelling adventuress, finally settling down in the evening of her years. Long silver hair tied back in a ponytail; sun-stained leathery skin; bright eyes glistening with weary knowledge and intelligence, she could have been Karen Blixen’s antipodean younger sister. And her eponymous establishment was as laid-back, affable and welcoming-yet-world-weary as she was herself. We loved almost everything about our stay at Bobby’s – the faded Hemingway- the esque hunting-lodge atmosphere, chilly evenings, sat around the vast open fireplace sipping her delicious pisco sours and the clean, comfortable quiet rooms. The only feature of Bobby’s place which failed to please was the shower. Not so much a shower actually as a gravity defying twin trickle/dribble of water which miraculously descended in a form of arc, so that if one stood beneath the shower-head it missed one altogether. Getting clean meant opting for one of the two dribbles and having the patience of a saint…
Bobby had a large dog of mixed parentage and as with his owner, the dog was hugely affable towards all the guests staying at his mistress’s establishment. But on occasion, with guests who reciprocated his friendliness, he would take a special liking and become virtually inseparable. During our stay the dog took just such a liking to another couple. His affection towards them was understandable as they were particularly charming and charismatic. A little older than us, she was German and ran a travel business in Santiago, while he was a junior English diplomat on secondment at the British Embassy. They’d come to San Pedro for a romantic long-weekend and their favourite pastime (when not in their bedroom) was going for ambles alongside the local river. On the third afternoon of our stay we were sitting on the stoop outside our room when we were confronted with the scene portrayed in the drawing above. But it was only later that night that we found out the story behind the picture: Our couple had gone off on their usual riverside walk accompanied by the dog, which was fine, until they passed by a woman grazing her two sheep. Without warning the dog jumped one of the sheep and killed it. The woman, naturally distraught and angry began screaming and shouting at our couple for failing to control their dog – at which point, as if on cue, the local mounted policeman appeared. After listening to the woman he told our couple that they would have to compensate the woman for her dead sheep. When they then explained the situation and their relationship to the dog, the dubious policeman told them to take him to the actual owner of the dog, which they did, with him – bearing the woolly carcass on his mount – the bloodied dog, the woman and her remaining sheep in tow. Of course Bobby sorted out the situation, and even cooked the sheep a couple of days later for her guests. It was the best mutton stew I ever tasted!
During our stay in Iquique we took a day trip to see one of Chile’s ancient man-made wonders, The Giant of the Atacama. We anticipated that getting to see the “largest anthropomorphic geoglyph in the world” with our own eyes would be a highlight of our visit to Chile, and so it would have been, if we hadn’t vastly overestimated the number of fellow travelers to the same site. We presumed The Giant would be a mecca for a whole host of visitors, including everyone from the millions of credulous believers in Von Daniken to the thousands of people with an interest in pre-Columbian civilization – and all those in between. Obviously, aware of the remoteness of the site we didn’t expect everyone to be there at the same moment, but we took it for granted that there would be dozens of people there at any one time. Thus, it never entered our minds that we would have any trouble getting to and from The Giant without our own car. Even worse, we had misread the distance on our – by now very worn – map, from the Highway 5 bus stop to The Giant as being only 2 kilometers (easily walkable, even under the desert sun) when it was in fact 12! Nevertheless, when a car stopped and we were given a ride to The Giant almost before we had even begun to raise our thumbs, our original presumption seemed to have been correct. However, we had been at the site barely ten minutes when our kindly lift-givers got bored and decided to leave. So, when they offered to take us back to the highway bus stop (which we now realised was 12 k’s and not 2) we had a decision to make. Ignore the significant fact that we and our ride buddies were the only people there, and stay on a while longer at this amazing site, or do the sensible – “been there / seen it” – thing and accept the lift. Like the classic “ Darwin Award” idiots we all read about everyday in the newspapers (who go fell walking in sneakers, or swimming in pools known to be infested with salt-water crocodiles, or who light up a cigarette while standing over a cesspit) we decided to stay on “a while longer”… Needless to say, an hour passed and nobody came. So, we decided to walk the actual 2 kilometers back to the dirt track (marked as “minor-road 15) and see if we could at least get a lift from there. Problem was, by this time we were already down to the last few sips of water in our single 1/2 liter bottle and beginning to roast as the sun reached its highest point in the vast desert sky. By the time we made it onto the track we knew that we might be in serious trouble. There was no shelter of any kind, our water was gone, and our exposed arms were beginning to burn. At this point we didn’t know whether we should stay put or attempt the 10 k walk to the main road. After a ten minute rest we began to walk – or rather, stagger along the track, and then almost immediately we heard a vehicle approaching from behind, going in our direction. But our elation was only momentary, as the car sped past without even slowing down, it’s exhaust and dust adding mocking insult to injury. But then, after about another hour, a second vehicle – a small truck – emerged from the east, heading west and its driver , this time, took pity on us and dropped us at the bus stop. Now whenever we think of The Giant, or just about any other South American geoglyph our first reflex is to reach for a water bottle…
No stay in Chile’s northernmost city of Arica is complete without an excursion to the Lauca National Park – with its fabled lakes and volcanoes. Only problem was, the park sat at 4500 meters above sea-level, and altitude sickness was likely to be a serious issue. One of the ways of militating against the worst effects of this however was to make sure one traveled up to the park in the hands of expert guides with state-of-the-art oxygen and resuscitation equipment. But sadly, our limited budget made us forget the lessons of our near-disastrous trip the previous week to Atacama Giant and we opted for the cheapest guided tour we could find. We sensed the worst when we boarded the clapped-out minibus with hard wooden benches for seats and two broken windows. However, there was a big oxygen canister on a shelf above the driver, and it was only a day-trip for goodness sake, we reassured ourselves – what could go wrong on such a short trip? There were about ten of us on the bus, and by the time our vehicle had crawled up past 3.500 meters the more elderly passengers were already beginning to feel the effects of the thinning air. Dido and I at least, felt fine during the entire drive up and it was only when we disembarked at Lake Chungara that the “puna” (the colloquial term for altitude sickness) hit us both – like a brick. The only way I can explain the sensation was that when I tried to walk it felt like one of those bad dreams, when one is trying to flee from some horror or other and one’s legs won’t move. And it wasn’t just the sluggishness; it was actually quite hard to think straight. To this day, I have barely any recollection of how I managed to fill an entire roll of film with some the most spectacular shots of the entire trip – of the lake itself, the surrounding volcanoes, the herds of grazing guanaco and the incredible candlestick cacti. Even Dido, who was super fit in those days, had to lie down after a few minutes of walking around, while I found the only way I could be comfortable at all was to adopt a kind of Muslim prayer position on the ground. Meanwhile, I recall seeing people chucking-up all over the place and one other poor old American guy pass out altogether. It was then that the guide told us that the oxygen canister was empty, resulting in another member of our party – a retired GP as it turned out – having to resuscitate the American gentleman in the manner illustrated in the picture above. Eventually, we all managed to clamber back onto the bus where the guide had brewed up a kettle of coca tea. Whether or not the tea had any effect, somehow we were all still alive by the time we got back to Arica…
About halfway through our stay in Chile we decided to take a few days off and visit the lake district. We booked the train for the overnight journey from Santiago to Puerto Varas, believing we had reserved a compartment. However, we were disappointed to discover on boarding that we were in a couchette with half-dozen other people. A short time out of Santiago Dido went looking for the loo. She returned in an animated state saying that the next carriage comprised only compartments, and that they were all empty. When the porter then came to clip our tickets I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to a compartment to which he shrugged, smiled and muttered under his breath ‘perhaps’… Without thinking I reached into my pocket, and pulled out about $40.00 worth of Chilean Pesos from my wallet . Then, checking his expression and seeing that he was receptive I discreetly slipped the money into his hand. ‘Twenty minutes’ he said gesturing with his head back towards the next carriage; ‘I will prepare the first compartment for you’. And good to his word, the compartment was prepared. It was beautiful: Old British rolling stock from the age of steam, like a scene from From Russia with Love or Murder on Orient Express; only slightly faded, deep green velvet drapes and furniture and shimmering mahogany paneling. The porter had immaculately turned down the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets on the two broad bunk beds, in addition to his final touch – two expertly prepared pisco sours in old-style crystal cocktail glasses placed on the little pull-out table. We were in romantic heaven, and needless to say we enjoyed one of the best nights of our trip…
The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides. While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!
Before we began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids in Santiago, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree it was like walking into a dazzling palace of kitsch. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every façade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the landlady: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: with her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…
We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is so infectious she had the knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays. I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft. I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill. Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us. Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture above describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club. My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!
As a fitting finale to our trip, on our very last day in Chile, Dido had somehow arranged for a meeting with Chile’s top academic in the field of South American folk music and dance. Among other things she was keen to learn more from him about the native dances of Chile, especially the history of the national dance of Chile, the famous Cueca. The good professor – who shall remain nameless – manifested as a human whirlwind. A cross between the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and a classical ballet dancer, from the instant he welcomed us into his small office at the University of Santiago until the time it came for us to leave he was in perpetual motion. We never sat down during the hour or so we were with him and neither did he – in fact I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. Thinking about it now, I don’t think that the professor was physically capable of sitting down, any more than a goldfish can stop swimming. Occasionally, as he considered one of Dido’s many queries, he would momentarily hover on one leg balancing himself by making elegant conductor-like movements with his outstretched arms. Then, as an answer came to him he would pirouette back into spinning mode, all the time grabbing papers and pamphlets from the top of shelves and filing cabinets – before seemingly in one motion, depositing them in an ever-growing pile in Dido’s grateful arms. Like his beloved Chile, the professor was quirky and rewarding in equal measure, and we will never forget him or his equally weird and wonderful country.
With only ten days to pick our olives and prune around a thousand vines, among many other farming chores here on our Andalusian finca, this post has few words and is all about the pictures. Suffice to say, I always felt the dry chalkiness of thickly applied gouache was a perfect medium for expressing the tonal aridity of the fabulous Atacama Desert. As ever, I hope all of you who pass this virtual way agree! Wishing all my visitors, readers and followers a 2018 as epic as the incredible Chilean desert itself…
One of my most visited posts was
– a photo record of my wife Dido’s career as a professional ballerina and model. Dido was injured out of the ballet in 1985, about four years before we met, and so very sadly, I never got to see her dance. Before We Met
Nevertheless, I was privileged to witness Dido as she utilised the single-minded commitment and personal discipline she learned as a classical dancer to retrain; firstly as an occupational therapist (OT) and then later as a scientist specialising in the development of children’s brains. These qualities combined with her intelligence, imagination and wit meant that ballet’s loss has been a considerable gain for countless numbers of children with a range of conditions from autism to hemiplegia.
Seasoned readers and followers of this blog may already be familiar with our trip to Chile through my series
. But, for those who are not in the know, I should explain that in that in 1991 Dido – then starting out as an OT – was awarded a generous Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to go to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. As we were only recently wed, and as Dido would be gone for several months we decided that I would travel along, ostensibly (and actually, to a significant degree) as her cameraman (still and video) and thus provide a visual record of her work. Our Real Cartoon Adventure
All but one of the photos presented here are recreational however, and provide a happy record of our travels through that wonderful country, from Lago Chungara in the extreme north to Lago Llanquehue in the southern Lake District. What I particularly love about these pictures is the way they illustrate Dido’s adventurous spirit, her sense of fun, her incredible toughness and her beauty – inside and out. Moreover, they provide compelling evidence that there’s lots of life to be had beyond showbiz!
*In addition to being a Winston Churchill Fellow, Dido was recently made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts for her contributions to Neuroscience, Occupational Therapy and the Arts.
Glyph and Lady (Cerro Unitas – Atacama)
Lying down again at Coquimbo
Racing the tanker…Pacific swim at La Serena
Mi bella esposa neuva en La Serena
Emerging from a near-freezing Lago Llanquehue
A happy swimmer with Volcan Osorno in the background (Llanquehue – Chilean Lakes)
A seriously cold Lago Todos Los Santos (Petrohue – Chilean Lakes)
At work with the kids in Santiago.