Sunday, July 12, 2015

Copper country charm

Looking back, I realise that as the plane hovered and then started its descent into Iquique, I must have been gawking like a fool. All I could see were low desert hills. The landscape was stark and lavishly beautiful, and I was unprepared for such a sight.
As we drove into the town, my host laughed at my expression and told me about a young man he knew who had been transferred to work Iquique. When the plane landed, he had refused to get off, insisting loudly to the airline staff that there had been an awful mistake and there was no way they were going to get him into this godforsaken desert.
Iquique airport: desert hills and a parking lot filled
with pick-up vans used in the local mining industry.
Many of these are Mahindras.
Our taxi took a turn and once more my head spun in delight. The wide Pacific Ocean stretched placidly out on our left, while on the right, low buildings, shacks, containers and the occasional statue were all that obscured the view of the barren grey hills rolling down to meet us as we drove.
Patches of red sand reminded us that this was copper country: Chile is the largest exporter in the world.
As we approached the town, low palm trees began to appear, stacks of containers, low houses and then taller, more formal buildings. Even when the midrange high-rises of Iquique made an appearance, the stunning sandy grey hills continued to form an exquisite backdrop.
Next morning, walking along the curving beach, we passed long stretches of well-maintained playground and gymnasium equipment. Despite the ubiquitous sandy mountains, the lawns, hedges and trees lining the beach indicate that water is abundant. We saw joggers, and families lounging on the beach, though the water was icy cold. A zumba group danced energetically to music which included a Punjabi number. Iquique has a free zone, and many of the trading companies belong to Indians. Amidst ancient and modern churches of the town nestle a mosque and a Hindu temple.
Pelicans and Patagonia sea lions in the very commercial town of Iquique
Driving along the coast, there are prominent reminders that this is one of Chile’s most important ports: navy buildings, customs houses, and, right up to the horizon, container and cargo ships, navy and sailing vessels. Spotting a tall wall with a row of pelicans perched on it, I got off to take photos. Another surprise awaited: in this intensely commercial town, as the fishermen sold their morning catch of fish and shell fish, a crowd of pelicans and Patagonian sea lions jostled for their share of the waste being thrown back into the sea.

Next day, we drove out into the hills towards Humberstone, a saltpetre mining town that had been abandoned in 1960 when chemical fertilisers reduced the demand for saltpetre. Our taxi driver, Raoul, proved to be an excellent tour guide, giving us interesting information about this mining area and pointing out a high-security prison, dog cemeteries, sand art and sand graffiti. Wayside shrines, in memory of loved ones who died on the spot, proliferate. Rain is rare in this area. When it comes, it causes havoc in the town, ruining homes and goods stocked in the warehouses. However, it transforms the desert into a different kind of wonderland with a carpet of colourful flowers and tourists rush to catch the sight.

One reason why Iquique delighted me so profoundly was because I had found Santiago disconcertingly un-exotic. On my first morning in Chile, I looked out of the windows lining the breakfast buffet into the hotel courtyard at pale colours, sparse and elegant design, tall buildings, and slim trees daintily shedding autumn leaves. It reminded me of Sweden. I felt overcome by dismay that I had travelled half way around the world and landed up in place that, though lovely, looked too familiar. When I told my host, he laughed, but added that Chile is generally considered less noisy and vibrant than the stereotype of Latin America.
It was only when I returned to Santiago after the Iquique experience and took a one-day city tour that I began to perceive its individuality. The city is set in a valley and surrounded by a ring of picturesque snow-capped mountains. Unfortunately, this makes it highly polluted, especially in winter when smog keeps getting denser until rain brings relief. Santiago has tall residential buildings, flyovers, an abundance of parks with a lot of greenery, grand statues of Chilean heroes, majestic European architecture, orderly traffic, a 7km tunnel under the river – to say nothing of large shopping malls.
The upmarket feria in Las Condes, Santiago.
However, it is also a city with plenty of stray dogs. Labour is not expensive. Some districts have smaller and more modest houses and, for someone coming from a country of notoriously corrupt and inefficient municipal corporations, the absence of garbage and chaos was soothing. Even the local street feria, the market, was a treat: clean, organized and beautiful with quite a bit of the fruit, vegetables and legumes unfamiliar or not easily available in India.

With Nehru, Gandhi and Tagore in a tranquil Santiago square
Santiago has an Indian population, but not enough to sustain its Indian restaurants. We ate at two: Saffron and Majestic. Both served high-quality, flavoursome Indian food with minor concessions to local taste buds. Chilean food centres around meat, but we did eat at one of Chile’s popular downtown restaurants, El Naturista, which is vegetarian.
When I saw districts with long streets of houses decorated with colourful and striking graffiti, I realised that public art is central to the Chilean persona. I saw this again in ViƱa del Mar, where the rocks that line the lavish seafront occasionally sport attractive doodles. And nearby Valparaiso, once one of the major ports of South America and today a UNESCO heritage site, is itself a magnificent work of street art. Built on a hillside, the lower part of the town has a number of large, French-looking buildings. As you go up the hill, the scene changes completely. The houses are smaller and crowded together but adorned with flamboyant graphic illustrations.
Bordered by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Atacama Desert to the north and the Andes Mountains on the east, a narrow ribbon on a map, Chile is a country of diversity, natural resources and beauty. Its great geographical sentinels make Chile’s eco-diversity unique and carefully preserved. When you enter, do not risk ticking ‘no’ in the customs form inquiring about plant, dairy, animal import. That little twist of chikki or chocolate lying forgotten in a corner of your bag might get you in trouble. One more friendly piece of advice: not many in this wonderful country speak English so you might want to prepare by learning a few words of greeting, the numbers, phrases like “Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?” and so on.
Chile has many more unique and outstandingly beautiful places than I was able to visit. However, I was fortunate enough to spend a weekend in a third major port, the town of Punta Arenas close to the southern tip of South America. Before the Panama Canal was built, ships ferrying goods and passengers from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast, or carrying supplies out to the Spanish Empire, had a choice of crossing from the Atlantic to the Pacific either through the Straits of Magellan or around Cabo de Hornos (Cape Horn). Both were hazardous voyages with strong winds, large waves and the occasional Antarctic iceberg, and often took months. Punta Arenas was an important resting and restocking point.
We stayed at Cabo de Hornos, a hotel with sitting rooms and public areas that have a distinct regional character rather than the impersonal feel of most hotel chains. The view from my room window extended from the thickly wooded central square with its monuments, street lamps and benches, over the colourful houses of the town, to low hills capped and streaked with snow. It was not a view that was easy to detach from, but by the lift another treat awaited. Beyond large windows, beyond low roofs, the majestic Pacific displayed its vessels implacably.
We drove past sculpted hedges, an exceptionally beautiful cemetery, more sculptures – traditional, contemporary and aboriginal – enjoying the coastal view on one side and the Antarctic scenery on the other. It was a weekend during which the weather turned from pleasantly warm to stormy rain followed by gentle, beautiful snow.
Punta Arenas has museums and historic walking tours which preserve memories from early whalers and maritime navigation to the heroes of early Antarctic expeditions, Amundsen, Scott, Shackleton and Byrd. We saw none of these; neither did we tour by boat to Isla Magdalena y Marta to gape at the penguins and Patagonian sea lions. Instead, our high point in Punta Arenas was Sunday satsang in the Hindu temple. There were sermons and bhajans, followed by an enchanting arti. Then, because it was International Yoga Day, a Chilean yoga teacher had been invited and we practiced simple asanas for the next half an hour.
Pablo and me: On a bench outside the house of Pablo Neruda in Valparaiso
first appeared in Pune Mirror on 12 Jul 2015

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