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…
Twenty-four years ago I experienced the dubious complement of being burgled of three of my favourite paintings.
We’d more or less completed the construction of our house in Andalusia when all our household belongings arrived from England. I say more or less completed, because we had yet to make the house secure with things like window bars and securely locking doors. However, situated as we were, in the proverbial middle of nowhere and with only a handful of people knowing our house existed, we felt reasonably secure receiving our possessions. And looking back on it now, I don’t suppose that eight months of living on a building site devoid of all creature comforts and luxuries had done much for our sense of judgement when it came to matters of domestic security?
A perfect illustration of just how crazy we were is represented by what happened the very first night we got our stuff back.
After an entire day of frenzied unpacking I decided to reward us by rigging up our much-missed stereo. Our ghetto-blaster had broken halfway through the build and for the past four months the only music we had to listen to was whatever happened to be playing on our matchbox-sized radio. Now, at last we could hear our music, on our wonderful sound system and most importantly of all, at our volume.
And as it was the volume I craved as much as the music itself my choice of tune for this auspicious occasion was Led Zeppelin’s superlative “Trampled Underfoot” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftknR1gf9qw). My first hearing of the number was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old in the fifth row at Earls Court in 1975, when it had changed my life, and so it seemed like an apt song with which to celebrate this new chapter.
I put it on at full volume and immediately went out onto our north terrace to enjoy it against the appropriately spectacular view of the crimson Sierra Tajeda bathed in flaming sunset. Soon I was gyrating away in a state of manic bliss; then joined by our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, who, teddy in mouth joined in the head-banging. Shortly Dido appeared on our little bedroom balcony, next to the terrace, fresh from the shower, stark-naked, executing a superb go-go-dance.
All-in-all, quite a party…except that during one of the brief inter-riff silences in the music I thought I heard goats! And again, in the next silence, I could hear an instant of goat bell mingled with goat bleat. Then to my horror, I peered down the slope beneath the terrace, to the dirt track beyond our little vineyard to find myself staring into the face of one of the local village goatherds! I don’t know how long he’d been watching us, but his amazed expression was clearly visible, even from fifty yards away…
To cut a long story short, for years afterwards we were known in the village by the sobriquets that title this post. To this day, we still get odd looks from some of the older villagers.
Sadly, it wasn’t just the goatherd who brought us down to earth with a bump. The next evening, when we returned from a visit to the coast we found that three of my paintings had been stolen, including one of my favourites of the ships in Arica Harbour in Chile. What made the pain of the robbery worse was that we knew exactly who the guilty party was (not the poor goatherd by the way!) but for reasons too sensitive to divulge here, we also understood that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. Fortunately I did at least photograph the three pictures and have presented them here…
Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.
Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…
This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…
Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…
Of all the photos in my extensive archive of old camera film, there few that still excite me as much as those I took in the Atacama Desert in 1991. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have something of a passion for deserts and wildernesses.
Rather than try explain in words what it is exactly that gets my juices going (and to be honest, I’m not even sure I fully understand myself) here are a set of images from that trip. I made a series of mostly huge canvases together with a complementary set of small gouaches from these pictures, and they were the basis of two of my last one-man shows as a fine artist – one held at the Chilean Embassy in 1992. The first picture presented here (91 Chile Atacama) was the basis of the super-large canvas that eventually found it’s way to an architect’s studio in Seattle, as payment for the designs for our house in Spain.
The original images were taken on my then-antique Nikon FE using Agfa chrome slide film, and one day I hope to have a scanner with sufficient power to faithfully reproduce the pictures digitally — or better still, pay the Atacama a return visit with my current camera. Nevertheless, I think that with these pictures I’ve managed to reproduce some of the magic of Chile’s genuinely awesome “Mars on Earth”…
Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.
But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.
All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.
Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;
Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;
A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;
Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.
About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;
Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);
In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;
And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.
However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.
The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).
Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…
One of my most visited posts was “Before We Met” ( https://adamhalevi777.com/2014/12/23/before-we-met/ ) – 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.
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 “Our Real Cartoon Adventure” (https://adamhalevi777.com/2014/12/31/chile-our-real-cartoon-adventure-part-1-of-10/ ). 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 had only been wed a few months, 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.
All but one of the photos below 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.
The parable contained here is obvious; that a love of long distance, wild-water swimming and extreme myopia are a dangerous combination.
Those of you who know my wife Dido will be aware that this combination exists strongly within her person and the strip below tells the tale of what once nearly happened because of it. Just a couple of things to point out; firstly, the actual swim happened at La Serena on the Pacific coast of Chile, and not on a cold winter’s day in the UK – my point at the time (I made these comics in 1994) was to highlight Dido’s love of freezing conditions. She was one of those strange people who used to break the ice of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Day, and once, she even managed to shock a load of hardy Swedes by going for an inter-Island swim near Stockholm, in mid-winter. And secondly (and also obviously), she didn’t actually crash into the oil tanker (let alone sink it), but merely swam far too close to it, causing a crew-member to warn her away using a megaphone.
Aura and I spent many a terrifying hour, just as depicted in the strip, staring out to sea, waiting for Dido to return, which thank goodness, she always did, eventually, though often landing up a mile or so up the coast because of currents and her appalling eyesight.
These days, with the mellowing of age, and out of compassion for me, she only swims “laterally” so that I can keep an eye on her at all times…
Followers of this site will already be familiar with many of the details of our remarkable trip to Chile back in 1991, just several months after the demise the Pinochet regime.
As if to mark this new era of democracy, freedom and hope, the month we arrived, the southern Atacama Desert experienced – what we were assured by the locals – were the first meaningful rains in forty years, and so exploded in a celebratory riot of colour. It was as if a vast technicolor carpet had been laid atop the normally monochromatic desert floor as every cactus, every succulent and every dormant seed erupted into flower.
Even in normal circumstances Chile’s many disparate landscapes offer a stunning smorgasbord for the visual senses, but this was simply wondrous. Rarely have we experienced, before or since such good luck being in the right place at the right time.
The dozen or so images presented here give a taste of what we were so privileged to witness with our own eyes…
Those of you familiar with my posts might already have seen my cartoon record of our trip to Chile in 1991. Well, here are some images from that same wondrous journey, from photos taken just months after the new democracy had been born. From the man moodily anticipating his bowl of chicken cazuela in a Santiago soup cafe to the gentleman posing dignified and proud before his humble Antofagasta home, the people of of this amazing country were an endless source of photogenic fascination. But of all the images here, the unfocused and shaky picture of two waitresses doing an impromptu cueca (Chile’s famous national dance) remains one my most cherished visual records from all of my many travels…
During our time in Santiago one restaurant in particular became something of a regular stop for us, both for its fairly priced good local food (the roast partridge was our favourite) and the fact that we became friends with Sergio, the guy who ran it.
So friendly did we become with Sergio that one Sunday he invited us and some other of our new acquaintances to visit him at his cabin in the countryside south of the city. There he would show us his small holding where, in addition to growing all his own herbs and vegetables, he also raised rabbit, chicken and partridge for the restaurant. The idea was that we should get to him mid afternoon so that after looking over the farm he would feed us a leisurely Sunday lunch of his own roast suckling pig.
Unfortunately we never got to see Sergio’s farm or eat his Sunday lunch. The girl driving us was an old friend of his and should have known the route as she claimed to have been to his country home many times, but for whatever reason, she became hopelessly lost soon after leaving the main road. So, instead of dining on roast suckling pig and washing it down with copious amounts of the excellent local cab’ we spent hour after hour driving along the dirt roads between the rural towns of Rancagua and San Fernando. By the time we returned to Santiago later that evening, weary, hungry and thirsty, the main memory of our aimless tour had been getting stuck behind a pair of Holstein cows fornicating in the middle of the road – a formidable sight I have never seen repeated, even on the cow-strewn roads of India!
(Sergio, true to his kindly “sympatico” nature, rather than be angry, took pity and gave us a complementary slap-up dinner at the restaurant the following evening…)
Our final excursion from Santiago was a day-trip to the famous port city (and the seat of Chile’s parliament – an astonishing example of late 20th century brutalist architecture) – Valparaiso.
Most of what I thought I knew about Valparaiso was from old novels and black and white movies. But modern Valparaiso had about as much in common with those preconceptions as does Casablanca with its 1942 Hollywood counterpart.
So imagine my reality shock when walking into a “typical sailors'” bar (as described in our travel book) on the port itself and instead of seeing a scene from To Have and have Not – with a Hoagy Carmichael-type gently tinkling the ivories in a corner, while a Lauren Bacall lookalike leaned against the piano, wiggling her hips provocatively, warbling a soft, sexy accompaniment – we were confronted with a dysptopian, murky prediction of the bar set from Blade Runner. Admittedly, there were no androids (at least I don’t think there were) and no actual freaks of human nature; but this was the most intimidating, grim and unwelcoming drinking establishment we had ever encountered. Not only was there no Humphrey Bogart-like character in the bar, Bogart at his toughest would have been fearful of entering. The thing I remember mostly now was the greyness of the place – everything was either painted or coated grey – and peering through an almost tangible fug of cigarette smoke towards a bar, at which were seated about half-a-dozen men who looked as if they had been selected from central casting, under the “maritime-thug” label.
As a seasoned traveler I’m well used to entering bars and pubs where one’s presence is made to feel surplus to requirements, either by the regular drinkers, the tavern-keepers or both. But never – not in deepest Wiltshire, not in the roughest part of Marseilles and not even as a Pom in an Aussie pub in Perth full of Aussie miners, with an Ashes cricket match on the TV – have I felt the level of sheer dread, merely at the thought of approaching a bar, that I experienced that day in Valparaiso. Needless to say, we went somewhere else…
As a fitting to 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 and I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. In fact, 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.
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.