Why was I travelling?
As I made my way north across Chile, my definition of travel (here is a post I wrote much later on the trip), my purpose here in South America, and the bigger picture behind it all: how it would affect the person I would turn out to be – all of these things kept changing shapes, giving me ideas, but no clear answers.
Every place seemed to offer something different, and all places seemed to offer the same things. Travel was like that river in the proverb, ever-changing, and constantly changing me.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
I’m sitting a table with nine other people. Conversation is all in English and is about any imaginable topic. Politics, refugees, music, plans for tomorrow. A young man joins us, and I ask him where he’s from. “Egypt”, he says. He goes around the table, asking everyone where they’re from. When everyone’s done introducing themselves, someone exclaims, “There’s at least one person from every continent on this table.”
I later learnt that Abdullah has visited more than a hundred countries already. He was 23. He spent the night telling us stories from his travels: how he almost starved to death somewhere, hitchhiked somewhere else, and made awesome amazing friends somewhere totally different. I couldn’t help but admire his style of travel, while also judging it for the peace I felt it lacked. He was spending two weeks in Chile, and I kept thinking of his life as a list of countries that he has to cross off one by one. Even the thought of doing something similar was exhausting.
He was in La Serena only for a day, and had already been to the beach, to Coquimbo, and eaten in the best place. I spent a week there and did only one of those things, and that one only because the beach was a five-minute walk from the hostel.
La Serena is a beach town in the central region of Chile, about four hours north of Santiago. The town is quiet and peaceful, laid back, its beachgoers lazing on the sand, eating the ice-creams and empanadas that the vendors walk by advertising with their loud and cheerful voices.
Given Chile’s fortunate geographic location on the west coast of South America, if you’re on a beach, you probably can see a spectacular sunset, and La Serena is no exception. Close by is the much more popular Coquimbo, with its lighthouses and museums and attractions.
On the other end of the spectrum from Abdullah were Katha and Tom. Katha was a 19-year old from Germany, with the face of an enlightened soul. “You could start an ashram and I would join,” I told her, to her great amusement. She never looked bored, but never looked too interested in anything either, exactly like a true enlightened soul would be.
Tom was much closer to my age and was bicycling through South America on a 15000 km route that he had planned out carefully. His calves were like stone pillars, obviously. Along with bicycling, he was the only one among us to make it all the way across the slackline in the hostel. His stories inspired me to plan a bicycling trip in India, which I later chickened out of, and converted to a motorcycling trip.
David and I reunited with Travis in La Serena, and here, we met Jes, who joined us three musketeers when we went to Pisco Elqui. She was from South Africa, Canada, and Australia. She was spiritually inclined, was an experienced yogi (she talked about finding her kundalini down in the South of Chile), had gone far into Osho’s teachings, and she was writing a movie script now – phew! Basically, she was cool.
Somewhere between them was me, unsure of what I was doing in this place, but no longer worried about it. I spent most of my time there talking to people, reading, cooking, and sleeping. It was a wonderful time.
La Serena is also the gateway town to the Elqui valley, which is famous, among other things, for its Pisco distilleries and clear night skies. Day trips are the preferred mode of travel to the Elqui valley, but we decided to stay for a few days in the small town of Pisco Elqui.
Located in the Elqui valley region of Chile, the surroundings of Pisco Elqui are where most of Chile’s Pisco is produced. In fact (according to the Wikipedia article for the town), the name derives from Chile’s desire to claim themselves as the original source of the popular liquor. However, all the locals I met in the town except at the distillery (where I didn’t understand anything anyone was saying) said that Peruvian Pisco is much better.
The hostel we stayed at had a pool, and an outdoor kitchen, so a lot of time was spent just cooking, eating, swimming, and talking to the other travellers at the hostel. David made his Spanish Tortilla, which as it turned out, had nothing to do with tortillas. It’s Spain’s version of a filled omelette, made with potatoes, sometimes onions, and lots of passion and drama.
At one point, David covered the pan with a plate, then inverted the pan on the plate, and told me before looking under the pan, that this is what separates a good tortilla from a bad one: whether it inverts cleanly onto the plate, or leaves a mess behind. It’s funny that I remember him telling me this, but I don’t remember whether he succeeded or not.
Such is travel.
Pisco Elqui is the starting point for many hikes, most of which require a guide unless you want to break the law. We went on a hike in a random direction one afternoon. In four hours, there was: a section where a rope was required, some sketchy scrambling, some dangerous walking on slippery slopes, and the top of a waterfall. We reached no destination and turned back where the picture below was taken. I loved every moment of being there in that barren landscape, sitting on the mud, and laughing at our failed attempts to scramble gracefully.
Even though the mountains are so barren, and the region receives almost no rainfall, the region is home to almost all of Chile’s Pisco farms, because the weather is otherwise very suitable to the grapes. But they are a very thirsty fruit, and the owner of our hostel told me that Chile is diverting huge amounts of water to irrigate this region, just because the liquor is such a big industry.
We visited a distillery in the town (Pisco Mistral), where there was a tour for some reasonable amount of money. I walked on the tour but didn’t understand any of the Spanish. I did understand when I was told to drink, though. Pisco is a smooth liquor, sweet like wine, and bitter like tequila. I guess I’m not that good at describing alcohol.
Another traveller in our hostel tricked us into going with her to an astronomical observatory tour. The observatories in the Elqui valley are located mostly in the town of Vicuña, accessible by road both from La Serena and Pisco Elqui. The telescopes are small and reasonably powerful, but the locals say the light pollution from the main town is increasing, and so the attraction of the night sky is slowly fading away.
We saw Jupiter, a few constellations and some nebulas. But more than the time we spent huddled in the telescope, looking through the viewfinder, the moment that I remember is laying on my back outside the telescope and looking up at the sky; no narration, no telescope, only wonder.
The wave makes its way
Slowly to the shore
As a whirlpool of memories
Disappears into the sand
Punta Ochoros is a town famous for the nature preserve next to it, where you can see Humboldt Penguins, the kind of penguins that live in warmer climates along a certain latitude. After we took the unimpressive boat tour and missed the strangely on-time return bus, we decided to take a walk along the shore.
Making my way across the sand and the cliffs, the ocean always audible, my mind started on its own journey in my past, stopping where it liked, for how long it liked.
I lay back on a rock, closed my eyes, and focused on the sound of the water, lapping at the edge of my perception, giving rhythm to my thoughts. Memories came and went, painful and happy, sad and peaceful.
Everything became more vivid as we walked back home. The sand-swept roads of the town, the colourful shacks selling bad ceviche, the assortment of hippies in the campsites, the noise of the town, the silence of the town, the cracks in the building walls, and the music that seemed to be carried by cigarette smoke wherever there were people.
A group of kids playing soccer asked me to join them, and I said no, as I sat down and watched them play for a few minutes. They kicked up dust as they ran and passed and shouted at each other.
“I had so many native artefacts,” the owner of our guest house said, “but the government came and took it all away to put in their museums.”
His voice was low-pitched, yet cheerful. Firmly built, his face showed signs of a difficult and well-lived life. He told us about how he had started the town (“I am the founder of this town. My friends and me, we settled first here.”), but now had nothing to show for it except a few arrowheads that he had successfully hidden from the government. “Tourists are good, but I hope not many come.”
The next day, we had some trouble locating the bus stand because different people kept pointing us to different locations. Eventually, we just sat on the main road and stopped the bus as it came.
Returning to La Serena by bus, we met Jimmy. He spent half his time in the US, and half in the desert here close to Punta Ochoros. He had taught himself English so that he could trade up north with businessmen.
“It is a difficult life here, but I love it,” he said. Homes were spread out sparsely, very occasionally less than a mile apart. “You see that river bed, there?”, he asked, pointing into the middle of the desert. Squinting at it, I could barely make out that a river used to flow there, maybe a million years ago? It was completely dry now, and the only thing pointing to the status of a former river were patches of grass.
“A few years ago, that river flooded. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?”, he laughed and continued talking, “All our houses suffered a lot of damage. We had to struggle to rebuild. I could have just left and gone to Santiago, but I stayed because I love this place. This silence, it forces you to accept who you are, because otherwise, you go mad.”