In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. 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.
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.
Regular readers of these posts will be aware of how prominently our 1991 trip to Chile has featured, and of its main purpose; for Dido to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. Thus far however, I’ve only ever touched upon that key element of the trip, focusing more on our impressions as first-time travellers to an incredible country (and-then reborn democracy).
While it would be lying to say that whenever I hear a mention of Chile, my instant mental vision is not of mind-blowing epic scenery, it is also true, that this is always quickly followed by a starkly contrasting melancholy caused by memories of the faces shown here.
The plain truth is, and one of the main reasons I’ve avoided the subject as far as possible, despite the fact this happened nearly 30 years ago, there are issues of confidentiality which severely compromise my scope for description.
Suffice to say here, that with the cache of her Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship behind her, Dido was able to convince the relevant government authorities in Santiago to grant us access to a group of nine children (all boys in this case) with whom she could work. Nothing however could have prepared us for the circumstances in which the work would take place, for instead of a regular school, or, as we had naively expected, a special needs school, we found ourselves that first morning being driven through the security gates of a home for young male offenders – a borstal.
More shocking still, was that none of the nine boys – all of whom had either been orphaned or abandoned as babies and who all suffered from various forms of mental and/or physical disability – were themselves offenders or delinquents of any sort. Their only crime was to be born into a Chilean society, then-ill-equipped to properly care for them. Hopefully, during the years since, as Chile has developed into a more stable (the current, popular ructions notwithstanding) and socially sophisticated democracy, children born into similar circumstances enjoy a less bleak prospect.
Nevertheless, from the start of the week we spent with them, we were struck by most of the boy’s cheerfulness and sense of optimism, and their enthusiasm and excitement for Dido’s program of dance-based therapy. Despite some shyness and reluctance from a couple of the lads to begin with, by the end of the week all nine boys had become thoroughly engaged and were already showing significant progress with regards to their levels of creative social engagement.
The idea had been for one or two carers and/or teachers working in the home to at least observe, and hopefully participate in the activities, and thereby learn to continue the therapy once we had left. Sadly though, despite their repeated assurances to the contrary, neither the government department who facilitated the project, nor anyone employed at the home showed the slightest curiosity or interest in what Dido was doing until the very last day, by which time, it was too late.
Thus, we left the boys for the last time with as much frustration as satisfaction, and saddened in the realisation that this week had probably been the highlight of their young lives rather than merely the beginning of a brighter future.
Following our return to England, and during the months which followed Dido often wrote to her Chilean contacts in an attempt to secure some kind of followup to her work – at least for the nine boys. Unfortunately, all her appeals went unanswered. The painting here was meant as both an expression of our frustration and also intended to insure that at least we would never forget those nine remarkable young individuals.
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 one of the highlights of our entire 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, knowing 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 ks 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…
From Iquique we made our way to Chile’s northernmost major city of Arica. The picture below is an exaggeration of what at the time, we feared might really happen when, during the drive north we passed a military airbase of some kind. One can imagine our fright when a light aircraft flew just a few feet over the roof of the bus before landing on the road in front of us causing our driver to make an emergency break. For some reason unbeknownst to us and our driver too, judging by his outburst of expletives – and presumably something to do with financial expedience – it turned out that this particular section of road doubled as a runway. Whatever, it certainly livened up what up until that point had been a particularly dull, desert drive…
One of the few things that disappointed – not to mention surprised – us during our first weeks in Chile was the fact that wherever we went, and wherever we stayed (smart or shabby) we could only seem to get instant coffee. To make matters worse, this wasn’t even granulated coffee, but old fashioned, cheap and nasty powder coffee. But then, in Arica, we befriended a likable and knowledgeable young English couple taking their gap year in South America – let’s call them Susan and Bob – who explained to us where we had been going wrong. It turned out that if one wanted real coffee in Chile one had to ask for it twice. In other words, instead of asking for a “cafe” one asked for a “cafe, cafe”. When they told us this we thought that our new friends were teasing us, but when we went to dinner with them for the first time, at the end of the meal Bob asked for “Cafe, Cafe”. And hey presto! As if by magic, four cups of exceptionally good real coffee were delivered to our table…
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…
On our second night in Santiago we were taken out to supper by one of Dido’s contacts at Sename (Chile’s National Youth Service – responsible for the protection of the legal rights of children and adolescents, among other things). He had helped Dido plan her trip from the UK and would be her main facilitator while we were in Chile. A warm and exuberant young man as I recall and, accompanied by his equally charming fiancee, he gave us a lovely night out on the town. This was to be the first of many enjoyable dining experiences throughout our long trip, highlighted by our host’s impromptu collaboration – on vocals and percussion – with a passing guitar-playing serenader. What the performance lacked in fine harmonies and tunefulness it more than made up for with sheer gusto and enthusiasm…
The next day we went to the Sename HQ in Santiago for a meeting with our host of the previous evening. The two things to bear in mind at this point in the proceedings are that Dido’s Spanish was still embryonic and we were a young European couple entering a complex devoted to issues related to parent-less children. However, neither of these two key factors prepared us for what was about to happen when we found ourselves sitting in an office opposite a smiling, affable woman who we assumed was our friend’s secretary. We must have been sitting with this kindly lady for about five minutes exchanging what we thought were pleasantries – her in pigeon English and Dido in pigeon Spanish – when the office door finally opened. But, instead of seeing our friend, a grinning nurse (at least she was wearing a nurse-type uniform) walked in holding a bonny baby boy in her outstretched arms. Before we knew or understood the mix-up in progress, Dido found herself with said bonny baby boy sitting on her lap smiling expectantly into her eyes. Then, after a moment or two we realised that we had been misdirected to the adoptions section of the building instead of our contact’s admin’ office. Eventually, our friend appeared and cleared up the confusion. But, as we left her office, the lady, asked us if we wouldn’t like the baby in any case, even suggesting that we could pick him up at the end of our stay in Chile. She was serious…
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…
In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. 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 with the kids to be recorded and as I had some experience with cameras she appointed me her video cameraman.
When we arrived in the country, 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 after nearly a quarter of century, I think that Dido and I agree that it remains one of the two or three most remarkable experiences of our time together.
We had 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 those thirty-three pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is no breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries.
These pictures are a humorous and very 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 suit cases. 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…The first thing you noticed upon arrival in Santiago back in 1991 (I’m sure it’s improved by now) is an all pervading smell from the heavy smog, trapped over the city by the surrounding mountains. The smell was distinct and highly reminiscent of burnt cooking oil. The only way to be outside and escape the smog was to climb the famous Cerro San Cristobal hill that rises some 300 meters above the city. However, the problem with this was that the climb was steep and until one emerged from the polluted air very painful on the lungs. Still, the rewards were both clean air, and once at the top, beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary, stunning views of the Andes rising above the city like a sheer and mighty snow-capped parapet.
There must have been many culprits responsible for Santiago’s poor air quality back then, but I guess the greatest contribution were the hundreds (if not thousands) of small buses speeding about all over town, belching great gobs of black sooty exhaust from their tin chimneys. More daunting than their exhaust though, at least to the newly arrived foreign traveler was negotiating how to use the things. Each minibus had its own peculiar route scrawled on its side in barely legible graffiti-like writing. Then, once one had decided to gamble on a particular vehicle, and waved it down – there didn’t seem to be any official bus-stops – one had to literally leap on before the impatient driver lurched off almost immediately. On several occasions either I or Dido were too slow and ended up being dragged along the curb, holding onto the door rail for dear life.