0069: Chile - Mortars and the Brick

I sat in a small roadside Truckstop near Calama, mentally ready to bat away the standard "Do you want Coffee?" question that has been asked more or less along the entire journey. "Would you like Tea?" asked the waitress... ...Brain fade...

0069: Chile - Mortars and the Brick

I thought the English were famous for drinking a lot of tea.
They are famous for it.
I thought my Sister was famous for drinking more tea than the English.
She is famous for it!
I sat in a small roadside Truckstop near Calama, mentally ready to bat away the standard "Do you want Coffee?" question that has been asked more or less along the entire journey.

"Would you like Tea?" asked the waitress...

...Brain fade...

"No, quiero.......Si, Erm........ Perdon?!"

She looked at me oddly as I spat out meaningless words.
"Tea... or coffee? " she asked again with an 'it isn't a difficult question' expression on her face.

"Si, un té por favor" I eventually responded.
Then she asked me what type of tea?! Assam, Ceylon, or one of several infusions. Wow!

Looking around everyone was drinking tea. It was a surprise to say the least.
Dirty, burly truck drivers and mine workers all poring over steaming cups of strong black tea, asking each other to pass the lemon, the mint or the milk!

My bland Paila con jamon arrived. A shallow pan with scrambled eggs and ham served with some stale bread, that I struggled to chew.
Not enough food for breakfast but there were not many options. Huevos con Jamon, con Atún, con Chorizo, con Queso or just huevos.
The printed menu list was quite extensive, but nothing on it was available.

I stirred my tea, added some sugar, stirred again then thought about the route I had already followed and ahead through the Atacama desert....

Ollagüe is the frontier town between Bolivia and Chile.
A stamp exit from Bolivia, 4 kilometres of no man's land and Chile gave me a full bag and pocket search.
"We are looking for fresh food" the Inspecting officer said.

A poster in the no man's land had advertised the "Don't bring fresh foods into Chile" disease prevention campaign, so it wasn't unexpected, and I was unsure as to whether a sliced tomato in a chicken sandwich I was carrying would count?
A glance by the officer and nothing said, meant enjoy your meal. Everything else I had was dehydrated. And not appetising in this high, dry climate.

Ollagüe is mostly dust and derelict warehouses surrounding a rusty railway terminal.
Pickup trucks drive in circles as drivers look for the offices of various mine or shipping companies that base here.
The rotting wooden buildings look like those I have seen in black and white cowboy films and I expected John Wayne to come ambling into the street to battle a chaps wearing rival in a high noon gunfight.
But the ubiquitous Reggaeton music coming from the brand new community centre indicated something different.
I rode past looking for a hostel after the police told me I could not camp anywhere. Curious faces pressed against the glass grinning first, then waved me in.

The centre was newly opened and they had been celebrating all day. Though I arrived too late for the party.
"Would you like some food? We have plenty left"
I was served some salad, Quinoa and the best, most tender roast beef I have had since leaving Mexico.
It was certainly a good start if this was the food I would be eating in Chile from here on in.
As I ate, The ladies washed plates and organised cutlery and put extra food into Tupperware dishes. A few men removed flags and bunting from the walls.
A teen lad kept staring at me as he swept the floor and another young boy entertained 3 toddlers with a game of balloon football.
A man came back in from carrying out some boxes and waved at me and pointing to my bike.
I walked out and checked it, to find my 3 litre water pouch had burst and my bike was sitting in ever growing puddle of water. Annoying but there was nothing I could do, I turned and return to my meal.

Dessert was a simple bowl of tinned fruit. Pears, apples, grapes and cherries with the stones still in and which I skilfully navigated around and peach pieces in a sugar syrup.
The last mouthful of peach cubes went in and as I chewed, a loud crunch as I bit into a left over piece of the peach stone. I picked out the pieces and noticed a large ceramic white piece too. My tooth!

Running my tongue around my mouth I soon found a rear right molar with a sharp edge as the tooth had collapsed.
Oh dear!
I suspect there isn't a dentist in this little town.
I haven't even seen a store yet. Fortunately it didn't hurt.
I finished the meal and thanked them for the food and the directions to a cheap hostel on the other side of the Plaza.

The old lady here looked a bit perplexed and seemed to wonder how I knew about the hostel as it has not opened officially.
The building looked just as derelict as the others.
I told her I didn't have any Chilean Pesos.
She looked at me blankly.
I asked her about a shop to buy some food.
And she looked at me blankly.
Then I asked about a cash machine.
And she looked at me blankly.
I wondered if she spoke an indigenous language instead? But most people I've met have been at least, bilingual.
I asked her about the cost of the room again explaining again I had no Chile money.
Suddenly something clicked and she went into an angry rant about not accepting Bolivian money.
Her accent was powerful and I only caught a few words.
But for all her muttering, scowling and complaining she took the Bolivian money from my hand and pointed to the room on the far left of the compound.
I settled into the small room with a plastic sheet for a wall and a bent nail for the door lock and a surprisingly comfortable mattress.

Later, I asked her again about a shop and she looked at me blankly.
Then I asked about a cash machine....
By now, I wasn't expecting a reply.
Walking round the village, I saw the sun faded sign of a store but it was closed. I needed to change my Bolivian Soles and buy food for the 2 day journey to Calama. The next and first major town. But nothing was open. This is an industrial town and it is the weekend.

This town was more or less a huge industrial yard with small signs that people actually lived in between the storage equipment, Train bogeys, crane equipment and mounds of dirt blowing dust into the breeze.

Overlooking all this is the huge stratovolcano Ollagüe.
Which occasionally coughed and spat more dust and steam over the rooftops. Warning signs on several buildings advertised the evacuation route.
Given this 5800+ metre volcano towers almost 1700 metres above the town, I wondered how much difference an evacuation would make? Looking around again, it would probably be doing the town a favour by covering it and levelling the place and starting again.

Leaving the town the road was rough, old Asphalt. A long faded black stripe leading through hay coloured ash fields and low volcanoes with ominous looking black rocks near their summits.
I had no local money, no breakfast, not enough water or food and a road with potholes that swallowed my wheels. It would be a tough day...
The asphalt was patchy for the first few kilometres then at the base of another volcano turned to dust as a recent eruption had covered the road with dust and debris.

A few kilometres further saw a repair crew clearing volcanic ash from another eruption in an attempt to repair the damaged road. All they seemed to be doing though was launching the fine dust into the air and in my direction.
They stopped when they saw me and I slid and skidded my bike on the loose powder as I pedalled slowly past the work site.
I only fell off once, so it wasn't all embarrassing.

I could see no populations on my map until I arrived in Calama, a further 2 days away.
I had dehydrated food, but only 3 litres of water.
Sitting on the safety barrier on the side of the road eating the second half of a dried chicken sandwich with a once fresh slice of tomato and sipping on the water I salvaged from my burst bottle, I knew I would not be able to last 2 days in the desert without additional water.
I pedalled into the desert and 20 kilometres later I managed to stop a bus who gave me a ride to Calama.

The Atacama is a high altitude desert and the driest in the world.
Odd, considering it literally borders the largest expanse of water on the planet.
Some locations only receive 1-3 mm of rain per year. But global warming seems to be changing that.
Statistics going back almost 400 years seem to show an increase albeit slight, in the average amount of rainfall in the region.
The higher plateaus bordering Bolivia and probably Peru too, are arid. There are no plants, no obvious wildlife.
Even the mountains, many over 6000+metres don't have permanent snow cover or glaciers that I have seen on some of the Andes other high peaks.

Several stray dogs wander the flat plains and sniff at something between the rocks and salt crystals. They don't look too starved, and are happy to chase me so they must be getting food from somewhere. But there appears to be nothing for miles around.
A few Vicuña or Llama trails lead off into the nothing.

And as I cycle through this bleak terrain, I begin to spot why this region has been populated on and off over hundreds of years.
The multicoloured volcanic rocks are rich in minerals, ores and oxides that have been mined for decades and are a substantial part of Chile's economic wealth and success.
Cracks in the rocks reveal shocking greens, yellow, orange or light pinks.
The sun glints off salt crystals and sparkling sands as I ride over the dusty white terrain
Primarily Copper is mined but in smaller quantities, Gold, silver and tin are also extracted.

The desert is not hot like the Sonora or Nazca. Until the wind stops, that is. But the cool wind is ever present.
The wide rolling plateaus do nothing to slow the wind.
No trees, plants, walls or shelter of any kind. Apart from a few abandoned mining towns and miners huts.
Built of mud bricks, the arid climate makes them look as though the owners left last week, but these buildings have been abandoned for over 80 years in some cases.

Even stopping at the roadside I expected to see the dried remains of some small plants in between the rounded rocks, pebbles and fine glassy sand, but there was almost nothing.
Dust devils and mini tornadoes sweep across the land picking up and depositing the fine volcanic dust ejected by the many volcanoes in this bleak northern region. Like the land was born yesterday out of the belly of a Volcano and is waiting for plants and animals to populate it.

Calama was the first real civilisation since I left Uyuni or even Ovalle in Bolivia.

It was nice to relax and have a hot shower, clean up and assess the past couple of weeks. Have a decent meal, pay too much to have my filthy dusty, smelly clothes washed and plan the next stage.

Chile. Country number 15.

Back into the desert, the road was now new, smooth Asphalt with a wide shoulder.
A red pickup truck passed and another soon followed. Then a third. All the vehicles were either red or white pickups working in one of the many copper mines in this region. Company logos, ID numbers and security flags flash as they drive by.
The rocks on the ground are often stained bright green or golden yellow as they contain high levels of the valuable Copper sulphates or oxides that the miners look for.
Many valuable minerals are extracted from this region but in various quantities. Even in this barren, high and dry desert, it's clear to see this country has a lot of wealth and it made me wonder what motivates one country to organise itself for the better while another seems to be content with plastic bags and bottles blowing in the wind.

As I continued along the black road, trucks passed by loaded with heavy industrial machinery and some with what seemed to be sheets of cardboard or plywood. Perfectly mounted, metre squared in frames and securely strapped to the trailers.
It was only when one slowly overtook me on a hill that I realised it was not paper or wood, but sheets of pure copper being transported for further processing. I had wondered why the trucks were struggling carrying such a light papery load, but in fact, the copper shipment must have totalled several thousand kilograms.

A tailwind helped as I travelled to Antofagasta. Way off the road, curious digging machines worked in the distance in clouds of fine dust. Like strange monsters feeding on a diet of rocks and mountains.

Antofagasta is a seaside town and it was nice to see the Pacific ocean again.
The city is the headquarters for many of the big mining corporations and the whole place has a very industrial feel to it.

There are all the usual resources here. Supermarkets, health centres, Cinemas, schools and burger bars. Just like any other city. But listening to the conversations on the street, People talk about engineering and yields and stock prices on the international market.
More than other places, I passed through.
The men wear smart tailored shirts, expensive sunglasses and drive big European 4x4's or the even bigger American Pickup 4x4's. The women browse the brand name boutique stores. Sip coffee in the sun outside Starbucks or usher their children from the gates of an expensive looking international language school and into a badly parked car.

300 kilometres north in Bolivia, people live in relative poverty and their children walk home from school on litter strewn streets and kick up dust as they knock a football along.

It's the same land, the same climate, the same desert. The only difference is an imaginary line on the ground saying this bit is ours and this bit is yours.

Grace, my couchsurfing host worked for an NGO helping new businesses start up. I stayed 3 nights in the huge spare room in her centrally located flat and spent my days wandering round the city.

I also took time to read a little more about this thin strip of a country which dominates south American economies.

Most people would probably immediately think of the horrors of the Pinochet dictatorship which dominated the country for 16 years.
Chile, like many countries in South America has it's roots in Spanish and Catholic colonialism. The Spanish conquered the Inca dominated north and took over all lands, apart from the indigenous Mapuche strongholds in the mountainous south of the country. These were held by the local peoples until the late 19th century when through more violence, they were brought into the folds of a rapidly developing new country.
Chile's rapid growth has been in no small part due to a strong economic plan.
This was implemented by a group of economists who studied at the University of Chicago and when they returned to their home countries managed to seat themselves in positions of influence in the government. Allegedly also aided by the American CIA.

The 'Chicago boys' presented the plan to the failing government at the time.
Called the "El Ladrillo" or 'the brick', it was a document presenting a series of economic growth policies for Chile.
The plans were implemented, and even through successive failed governments and eventual coup d'état, social uprising, dictatorship by Augusto Pinochet and his vicious human rights abuses, the plan remained in place.

The Chicago boys continued to influence and manipulate the policies of the government.
Even though these terrible times are now in the past, the evidence of the success of El Ladrillo is evident when you pass through even small towns to see an well established modern infrastructure that I would be very familiar with and in some cases, better than some places in the UK or western Europe.
Good roads, clean drinking water. High levels of education and advanced health services.

This is without doubt the most advanced country in South America so far.
And that reflects in the cost of living.
Converting the currency, prices reflect those in the UK. So while I am familiar with the costs, it makes trying to live on a budget difficult.

I am fortunate though that I had good hosts in Tal Tal, a seaside town south of Antofagasta
Here, I stayed with Diego who had some friends visiting the same weekend.

What was originally planned as a single overnight stop became a fiesta weekend and it was nice to get off the bike and meet some new people.
Fernanda was very chatty and curious about my adventures. She had spent several months living near Cambridge in the UK to improve her English.
Asking about my intended route she kindly arranged for me to stay with her family in Viña del Mar.

In Copiapó I stayed two nights with Toly and her sister Alejandra. One evening, I was invited to watch a documentary film about the economic history of the country.

I arrived in Viña del Mar after passing through the flowering desert....

Camping in lemon groves.....

...and struggling through headwinds.
I also spent time watching Snakes, Seagulls eating crabs, Dolphins lazily fishing while Sealions battled for a tiny ledge on a rocky outcrop in the blue ocean.

On my eventual arrival Javiera, Fernanda's niece met me and guided me home after some initial confusion that I could not get my bike on a bus!

I pedalled the few kilometres up the steep hillside to their house and was introduced to Fernanda's mother and her partner Rene.

"You do know we are both blind, don't you?"
Well, it had been mentioned, but I didn't realise the full extent of their abilities.
Though my nephew has Down's syndrome, I don't have much 'hands on' experience with people with disabilities and this couple rapidly demonstrated that though their eyes may not work, they do not really have a disability.

Over the next few days, I watched in awe as two people lived perfectly normal lives. They cooked, they cleaned, they did everything I would expect a family to do and were the perfect hosts. I was served some excellent meals and spent time helping with the weekly grocery shop.

A couple of days later, Javiera invited me to spend an afternoon on the beach with her boyfriend and friends.
I even managed to meet up with Christopher as he was visiting family on the coast.

All in all I had a good few days rest before heading to the capital, Santiago.

The road was not difficult but huge signs on the main road warning cyclists were not allowed on the highway. And having ridden several hundred kilometres of the number 5 from the north at Antofagasta with the same warning signs I didn't want to risk it this close to the city.
As before, I doubt the police would have been interested. Several passed me as I travelled south on the main motorway. Some even waved and sounded their horn. But this was probably due to the fact they knew there was no other road south. Heading to the capital, Santiago there were a few other options even if they were not direct.

The day was windy hilly and long. I arrived very late at my hosts house.
Rafael didn't seem to mind my past 11 p.m. arrival and after greetings, we walked a couple of blocks to a Chinese restaurant, followed by a good takeaway meal, more conversation and my head finally hit the pillow at around 1 a.m.
175 kilometres and around 15 hours on the bike. I was exhausted. I even forgot to have a shower!

I spent a week overall, exploring Santiago.
Rafael invited me to a bike maintenance evening that he and a couple of his friends organise occasionally.
It was held inside the national water company building as part of the companies social initiative.
We rode there and it was nice to see the city had a pretty good infrastructure for cyclists.
And therefore a high number of people using the system.
The city is flat for the most part.

Max and Devora had skipped Chile and entered directly into Argentina. Their plan to cycle to Patagonia had been rudely interrupted by a messed up credit card transaction while trying to organise a return flight ticket home. The company took their money for reasons I didn't fully understand, but basically it dried up the last of their savings. And they were not able to get a refund.
They managed to take a bus to see the beginning of Patagonia, but having travelled such a fantastic distance by bike were both disheartened to be finishing their journey on a sad note.
They were flying from Santiago, so we met up and climbed the Costanera tower. The tallest building in South America then shared a final meal, followed by sad goodbye.

Their return home was planned as a surprise to their families too.
However, I inadvertently spoiled their plans by posting photos and a tribute to their adventures on my Facebook page. which is also followed by several of their family members.

My departure from Santiago was by bus.
My long day arriving in the city was not helped by a pulled muscle, and several days rest didn't heal it.
Cycling slowly to the bus station I must not have tightened my seat correctly as it slipped and reclined back.
How unusual?.
I didn't stop to adjust it, as I was in busy traffic and close to my destination.
The bus journey was uneventful apart from a 2 hour wait at the border crossing with Argentina. The scenery was stunning and I wished I was riding but every time I moved my leg in the cramped seats reminded me of why I was on the bus in the first place.
Arriving in the late evening, in Mendoza I collected my bike from under the bus. I had taken the seat off to make room, and refitting it was more difficult than usual.
Why,I wondered?
Looking closer in the dim light, my worst fear was realised.

My frame was terminally cracked!