This one speaks for itself…needless to say, we avoided further visits to this couple.
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 on the right-hand side. 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 below. 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…
As I’ve implied earlier we liked most of the food we ate in Chile. While the cuisine is basic, there was a wide and exciting variety of raw material – animal and vegetable – and nearly everything was simply yet expertly prepared. This included the hamburgers, which, everywhere from Puerto-Varas in the south to Arica in the north, were always huge, freshly made prime-beef patties. Grilled over charcoal in the posher establishments, or on hotplates in the diners, they were reliably succulent and filling. The only problem I had with the Chilean hamburger was the choice of accompaniments with the burger within the bun. At first I found the ubiquitous slice of beef tomato, cos-lettuce and thick slab of avocado – yes, avocado – to be a novelty. A tasty and healthy change from cheese, bacon or salad onion say… But by the time we were in Arica the novelty – of the avocado in particular – had worn thin. I’d come to the conclusion that avocado and a beef patty just weren’t good bedfellows. They didn’t so much complement each other as vie for attention in the mouth. In simple terms, they just didn’t get on. But by removing the avocado, the burger then became somewhat plain and bare, and the local vinegary ketchup certainly didn’t help matters. Then one afternoon we were at our favourite eatery (where we’d already established a steady supply of good fresh coffee) and I asked the cook if I could have some onion with my burger in place of the avocado. First of all, he looked at me as if I were crazy, but then he shrugged his shoulders and accented. He asked me how I wanted the onion cooked? I tried to explain that I wanted it raw. More looks of incredulity and then another shrug of the shoulders…I went and sat down and waited for my burger, which came about five minutes later with an onion; with a raw onion no less; a bloody great onion, skin and all, perched precariously on top of my beef patty…
For most non-European readers of these adventure, the next two episodes will not seem surprising at all. But for us, then, the whole concept of “fruit checks”seemed like a hangover from the Pinochet era – just a way of controlling the free movement of citizens. As it happens we were wrong and fruit-checks were / are a key method in preventing the spreading of potentially lethal agricultural pests. Nevertheless, the fact that in Chile, these checks were carried out by jack-booted carabineros with all the charm of a pack of pit-bulls on an enforced vegetable-only diet merely reinforced our misconceptions and resentments. Both of our fruit-check experiences occurred on the long bus ride back south from Arica to Santiago. The reason for this was that our luxury “cama” coach journey (we were feeling a bit more flush with our budget by now) crossed several regional (state) lines and the unlicensed movement of fruit and vegetables was prohibited from one region to another. Our first check was on the Arica/Iquique border when we were all ordered off the bus while two officers searched the vehicle. We’d all been nervously standing around on the roadside for about five minutes when one of the carabineros slowly made his way down the steps of the coach. Holding up a half-eaten bunch of grapes in his right arm he glowered at us before demanding that the guilty party declare him or herself. After a few moments, during which we all exchanged anxious looks, a middle-aged man stepped forward with his head bowed in shame – like a naughty schoolboy being summoned to the front of the class by the teacher. The carabinero then read the poor man the riot act, threatening him with all sorts of sanctions and fines before eventually offering him a way to make amends – to finish the bunch of grapes then and there. This the man did, fairly gorging them down in his relief , and so allowing us to continue on our long journey…
Back in the early 90’s the 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-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 below. 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!
After Dido had finished her work in San Pedro we headed north-west back to the coast and the city of Iquique. We arrived in Iquique in the early hours of the morning and our small, family-run hotel wouldn’t be opening for hours. I think it was about 5 am when we settled down on a bench in a small park near our lodgings waiting for the town to wake up and find somewhere to have breakfast. I guess we’d been sitting there around half-an-hour when two weird and wonderful things occurred, the second of which is depicted in the picture below. Just as the sun began to rise, we noticed that the trees surrounding us all contained large dark oval fruits; but then the fruits all began to move, and then expand, and then we realised that these weren’t fruits at all but a gathering of dozens of crow-like birds, waking up and opening their wings. And just as we were recovering from that shock, something else began to stir; about ten feet along the path from where we sitting, a steel trap door, slowly opened. Then, from under the ground a group of four men emerged – yawning and stretching . When three of them were out, the fourth passed them up assorted brooms, dust-pans and litter spikes, and they immediately set to work sweeping and cleaning the park. This wasn’t so much a case of sleeping “on” as sleeping “under” the job. Surreal…
THE AMAZING GENESIS OF MY “ARK IN TOLEDO” STORY
It was one of those moments during sleep where “God” speaks to you, in a voice like that bloke in De Milles’s movie of The Ten Commandments. Except in my case, without the American drawl―I suppose because I’m English? God had a decidedly English accent.
It must have been around 1990.
My fiancé Dido and I were en-route from southern Spain back to London and we were spending the night on the Spanish side of the border with France in a one-street mountain town called Bossòst.
Bossòst was a typical Pyrenean set up. Picturesque in a rugged grey sort of way, all slate and stone and wooden shutters built either side of a fast flowing, silver flecked stream. And of course it was raining an icy, relentless mountain rain.
We’d eaten a typically good Catalan dinner; I distinctly remember we had roast wild rabbit with prunes washed down with a moderate amount of the local red, just enough to make us pleasantly dozy, not drunk. We certainly went to bed replete and content and I must have been sleeping for several hours when I had the dream-like event.
As a rule, I’m not great at recalling dreams or dream-like events of any description, even powerful dreams, even waking dreams.
But this was different. There was no forgetting this.
After all, one doesn’t hear from God every day, or every night for that matter. At least not these days―except perhaps if one is an Evangelical Christian. Especially an Evangelical Christian from the American Midwest (they seem to be on regular speed-dial terms with God). But, I’m not an Evangelical anything.
In fact, I am now and was then a non-practising Jew and an atheist to boot. And God hasn’t spoken to any Jews since God-knows-when, and He’s certainly not spoken to lapsed Jewish atheists like me.
So, imagine my surprise―even in sleep―when God announced himself to yours truly in the aforementioned mellifluent tones.
No fanfare, mind you. No heavenly choirs. No winged chariots. Just the blackness of sleep. And that voice, in my right ear.
And He didn’t hang around for long.
It wasn’t some tedious, rambling, revelatory rant. No sublime psalmist prose either. Rather, just a couple of very brief statements.
The first no doubt to grab my attention―which I can tell you now, it did, big time.
And the second―to give me the ‘gen’.
I say the gen but in reality we’re not talking major details here, which would have been so much more helpful in the long run. No, this gen was to information what IKEA assembly instructions are to…well, assembly instructions.
But, for all its minimalism it was still impressive enough to have me wake bolt upright, eyes glazed in terror, cold sweat pouring down my back—the whole cliché.
It will hardly surprise any psychologists reading this that the event coincided with a particularly tumultuous time in my life, both personally and professionally.
Dido and I had become engaged to be married just days before setting out on our drive through France and Spain.
We were also involved in planning an epic journey to Chile early the following year (Dido had won a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, and the trip was planned for just after our wedding).
In addition to this I was in the midst of the busiest and most lucrative period I’d yet enjoyed since graduating from art school some seven years previously, having just a few months earlier made the momentous decision to shift my artistic direction, from the ostensibly noble but hard-up path of fine art towards a ‘shallower’ but more financially secure future as a commercial illustrator.
By the time of the dream I’d been working as an illustrator for only six months but had already won myself the services of a top agent, who in turn was getting me almost more work than I could comfortably handle, some of which paid extremely handsomely.
So it was that by mid-1990, although I was feeling pretty good about life, I was also going through a period of radical change.
Change, however potentially life enriching and fulfilling can still be emotionally unsettling. And, unsettled emotions, in my case at least, generally lead to disturbed sleep—only this time the disturbance was particularly violent, waking the wife-to-be into the bargain.
Now I don’t know how many other people might have noticed this but as a rule blond people take their sleep far more seriously than do dark-haired people.
In fact, I would say, through personal experience, from sharing dormitories at boarding school with blond-haired schoolmates and then later in life, occasionally sharing my bed with the odd fair-haired lady, that the amount a blond person cherishes their sleep is in direct correlation to the degree of their blondness. It must be that growing blond hair utilises more energy than dark hair or something like that, but whatever, Dido was a very blond person, and her annoyance at having her sleep disturbed was almost more dreadful than the dream itself had been.
Sympathy and concern were in distinctly short supply.
‘What in God’s name is your problem?’ she growled contemptuously from beneath her luxuriant flaxen locks on the pillow next to me.
‘Funny you should ask.’ I muttered nervously in reply.
‘Funny? What’s so fucking funny?’ Dido normally only swore when driving. She really was very angry.
I took a deep breath and braced myself before continuing.
‘It’s just funny that you should have mentioned God. That’s all. You see…that’s what woke me up.’
Still growling but incredulous now, she queried; ‘Did you just say God is what woke you up!? Is that what you just said!?’
‘Yes. I mean…in a sense. You see, I just dreamt that God spoke to me.’
At this point I was relieved it was too dark to see Dido’s face. It was awkward enough trying to tell her about the dream while merely hearing the derision in her voice without having to witness it in her eyes too.
‘I warned you not to have that cheap Spanish brandy just before going to bed. It’s enough to give anyone nightmares.’
‘It wasn’t a nightmare and anyhow, I didn’t have any brandy. That was last night.’
‘It’s even stronger than I thought then!’ She said, only half joking.
‘It wasn’t a nightmare but it was very…very…it was dreadful. Yes, actually dread-full.’
She sighed; ‘Then lets cuddle up and go back to sleep. Nothing like a nice cuddle to make the dread go away and you can tell mummy all about it in the morning…’
‘It was a very short dream. Actually, you couldn’t really describe it as a dream. Not in the usual sense. There was nothing visual…just a ‘voice’ in my ear…a very fleeting voice.’
Dido sighed again, rolled away from me and pulled the duvet up so that it covered most of her head. Realising that this was intended to signal the end of proceedings I sank back down under the duvet and snuggled up against her warm naked back.
Our bodily contact must have mellowed Dido’s mood.
I heard her say; ‘Go on then Joseph. Pharaoh’s all ears. What didst the Lord have to sayeth for himself.’
‘Actually, you’re technically incorrect. It was the baker and the butler who told their dreams to Joseph and then Joseph interp…’
‘Oh Adam! For goodness sake. Just get on with it.’
‘I can’t.’ I replied. ‘It’s too silly.’ Now that she actually wanted to hear what God had said, I was truly embarrassed.
‘Silly and dreadful? Or just dreadfully silly?’ she then paused before adding; ‘Sorry, I wasn’t making fun, it just came out.’
‘I know. It’s bonkers.’
‘Bonkers or not, I’m waiting! You’ve got me all agog now. Or should I say all a-God?’
‘It’s daft, and anyway, it won’t mean anything to you.’
‘But it meant something to you?’
‘When your subconscious tries to tell you things it generally has some kind of resonance.’
‘So it wasn’t really God?’ She said sarcastically.
‘Of course it wasn’t really God!’
‘Well, thank goodness for that. I was getting a bit worried there.’
‘Worried about what? That God was taking time out from the cares of the Universe to whisper sweet nothings into your fiancé’s ear?’
‘No. Worried that my fiancé had suddenly reverted into a believer.’ She then rolled over to face me and I could sense her large grey-blue eyes staring at me through the murk as she said; ‘I’m asking you for the last time, before I go back to sleep, what did Go…what did your subconscious say to you?’
I took a moment to remember exactly what I had heard then I replied; ‘The voice said to me―You, Son of Kohath―My Holy Ark―The synagogue in Toledo.’
AN ILLUSTRATED STORY OF OUR SPANISH “ADVENTURE”