Excuses for the earlier, pre-mature publishing of the post, now this post is ready and brimming with photo’s. While I am cycling in the snow, this post goes back to Januari 2017 when it was very warm. And if you still think a desert is boring, think again after seeing this!
A poor man who has built his hut at the sand dunes just outside of Iquique smiles his rotten teeth at me when I sail past, he waves at me enthusiastically. Young people covered in white sunblock and outfitted with a worn backpack walk along the highway trying to hitchhike. It seems quite a few young people have chosen for a different kind of living. The many jugglers one sees at the stoplight are from Argentina, I am told. They sleep at the beach and live a homeless life, they seem to be part of a large community of flower children. They make adornments from threads, beads and shells. Hippies of modern age, without much money, covered in dirt and tattoos, and accompanied by a dog. I look unclean after 10 days without shower but not yet as bedraggled as they appear.
Some lay in the grass, bare feet, their head resting on their backpack. There is little difference between us. And then I feel so enormous prosperous to be invited by someone as Claudio. Walking in Iquique people ask for money, to contribute to their travels. I see homeless sleeping in the shade of buildings, against their bales of properties. Some are old, bony and covered in rags, dark spots of old age cracking through the plaque of dirt on their skin. Some are insane, with a beaming grin they’re taking a splash in the municipality fountain, breast covered by arms when a kid comes closer.
I can feel as happy as an insane person appears, but know how to act in society.
The stretch from Iquique to Antofagasta is 413 kilometer. A 101 kilometer shorter than the stretch from Arica to Iquique. The coastal road has more tiny settlements and slightly more places to buy water and small items, it is relatively easy. The nearest town to find all sort of groceries is 222 kilometer. And that is where I unexpected make a turn Eastwards.
The nice thing about the ocean is that there is more life to be seen. Unknown, prickly, spiky slimy sea-life that when I come closer, makes me not want to take a bath in the ocean.
The mornings are the loveliest part of the day. All is quiet, the wind hasn’t make its noisy appearance yet. It is cool and often a thick cloud coverage protects me from the sun. The only sound is the ocean, and the waves makes me wonder at night, as they grow and lessen in sound. With only a thin air mattress between me and the earth I can hear sounds coming from the ground too. The urge to check whether a tsunami is in the making isn’t particular restful, and each time I pop my head out the tent and see a normal ocean, I decide to stuff my ears with earplugs.
How luxurious is it to cycle along deserted pearl white beaches and decide at the end of the days ride that the ocean is too loud to get an undisturbed night sleep. I choose the mountainside, complete with cracks where the earth has moved a bit.
When I am lucky I have real milk and prepare a milky Nescafe, a treat. I embroider some, then photograph the beauty around me. Sometimes I get lost in more than just thoughts. It’s like I transform. Until a driver parks his truck way below my camp spot and the magic is abruptly gone.
Other days I choose the ocean as my camp, so I can have a refreshing bath, together with pelicans and curious little birds who come close to check out their new environmental specimen. Some birds are neither small nor curious, and I chase after them for a photo.
Sometimes I hear sounds never heard before. I think it are sea lions, who jump and move in groups, happy pushing their glistering snouts above the oceans surface. Maybe it are dolphins? A sea lion about 10 meters away from camp is rather alarming, the screaming is similar of a tiger, or so I imagine.
Sometimes I have lizards in my panniers at night, they prefer my home made bread over the dry bread collected from a posada meal. They jump against the slippery fabric of the tent, sliding down, trying to escape when I usher them to move out of the pannier.
Chileans do like to camp as well. They are stationary on the beach, preferable in groups. They’re seeking shade underneath party shelters, shabby dome-tents, caravans or motor-homes. They have a toilet and a generator. Some even drive their truck on the beach, with a water tank for a 6 months supply.
I prefer my camps with no one in view. So I can take off those sticky, stretchy, tight cycle gear as soon as I arrive.
Places I pass and sleep at are extremely exclusive. A tourist, even a thoroughly traveler, won’t come here.
I search for treasures at lonesome beaches, sea stars, washed up branches from deep down below. Birds must catch crabs and take them to rocky outcrops to eat them, as I find many dried up, bright red crab bodies.
I watch birds, jellyfish, lizards and unknown sea creatures, am attacked by a crab and befriended by two lizards. Each time I set up camp two vultures welcome me, flying over low and let me enjoy the sound of their feathers.
Just before I arrive in Tocopilla I eat my homemade bread with peanut-butter, prepare a powdered milky coffee and make sure I am entering town without an appetite. Chile is pricey, a meal costs about 4 to 6 euro and I should not take each and every opportunity to eat at a restaurant, even though I am in the desert.
Once in town I see a poor woman, she is dressed in clothing that shows her body in it’s most natural state. Small breasts in a black bikini top, a slim body in a light cotton, very short skirt and a white vest to protect herself from the harsh sunlight, zipped open. From behind the window in a gas-station, where I charge my phone, I watch her belly movements. She draws it in, she puffs it out, she covers it with the elastic rim of her skirt and she strokes both her hands over her belly and decided that when a trucker passes to suck in seriously so it seems starvation is near. She is hitchhiking. Meanwhile I eat ice-creams higher the value of a cheap meal. She is taking on weird poses as if she’s a prostitute? Her leg moves in a most unnatural pose, her body bending forward while she tries to get her belly tucked in. I eat my third ice-cream. It is 45 degrees on the bicycle, with wind. My belly is fuller than hers, she is actually good looking, except from her washed out face and wild hairdo. She tries it on with men in fancy cars, their wife into the gas station to buy refreshments. She ‘hitchhikes’ at taxi’s with clientele. I would like to tell her that her ways are not most beneficial, but I don’t speak Spanish that well, besides, I am really enjoying my 4th ice-cream…
I make a turn East, and for the first time since months I have the wind in my back. Not that this is a huge help since I have a climb of a 1000 meters ahead of me. I am dragging myself up the plateau through steep and winding turns. Once there, the airport where I was counting on getting water is no more. Luckily there is a posada, run by a couple from Santiago who loves the desert as much as I do. I see the inauguration of president Trump and his remarkable, pretty plastic wife on television, run by generator.
Then I am on the locally called Electricity Highway. Three rows of electricity poles and many old non functioning are lining the road towards Calama. It’s a hideous sight in the otherwise empty desert. Heavy mining trucks with solid trailers pass me regularly, and all traffic does so safely, even when there is no shoulder.
To me it seems traffic is mostly about the copper mine in Chuquicamata, one of the biggest in the world. The electricity lines from Tocopilla are providing power and once passed the Highway 5 I am terrified for the view ahead of me. The poles seem to go in a vertical line up the mountain? I know no road is built vertically and I know builders of roads do so in the most beneficial road-wise way, but what I see is frightening.
Deserts have that strong deceptive character. Where things seem close, they are real far and where road seems inhumanly steep, they are mild once closer. The wind changes all the time as well, once in the back, next day full frontal.
Oncoming traffic watch me in disbelief, or with a bright smile on their face. Some hand me water, coming to a halt on the highway. I find unopened water bottles along the road and bottles with lots of left over, but I must select carefully as most bottles are filled with pee. I come across a fully outfitted chapel of a guy who had a road accident, there is a huge water-tank to feed the plants around his chapel. I take some, and finally have another semi wash in the evening.
I find places in the desert which are slightly depressed, thus out of view.
Or I place myself at a lonely concrete structure, so I have shade.
One evening my Svea 123 decide to have the flame from underneath its burner head and it disrupts me: I am in the desert, and totally depended on my stove. I bend and move things a bit and all is fine again.
The numbers on the road annoy me, they appear every 100 meter and are so obvious. Now I see exactly how slow I am and I can’t ignore them. The next day it is no issue at all, and I happily cycle on, imagining the person who painted the numbers. A good night rest changes everything.
Again, when I was here the very first time, coming from Salta, Argentina by bus towards Lima, Peru, people warned me to watch out for thieves. I could not lay my phone on the desk and now I should not park my bicycle outside. Not at a restaurant, not at a supermarket. People usher me to have it parked inside.
Yet, I feel a person who stands between the well-off who get their groceries at the expensive German owned Jumbo supermarket and the guys washing car-windows at the stop light. I ask the latter where to find a public shower, while the first beckon me to be careful. I sleep in the desert 2 kilometer out of town, only to avoid the steep prices of a mining town with inflated prices.
Before camping in the desert around Calama, upon cycling into this big town, my eyes are suddenly attracted to an electronic signboard higher up in the air. It says ‘camping’ and it leads me to the office for the Chuquicamata copper mining tour. The ladies of the office are helpful, as all Chilean people are, and soon I am on my way to a proper camping, a novelty in the north of Chile. I highly enjoy the shower, after 10 days of having none. I don’t enjoy the stray fogs who crawl under the tent fly in search for food.
Two nights at the campground and I return to the desert, sleeping there is for free. I change camps every two nights when I need to refuel on food and water. Staying in a desert without moving forward, bivouacking to avoid expensive lodging is a whole other story. It is not easy being a homeless while having money.
I stay a week in the desert to await my dad’s arrival. Because the town stops abrupt, and no one enters the desert, I feel very safe.
Each day the desert shows a similar scenario: up to 10 o’clock it is quiet, cool and calm. Until 12 o’clock the heat and wind starts to built up. Around half past one the wind is forceful, the temperature is hot out in the sun but almost cold in the shade, as I have built a shady palace from my fleece inner liner. By now all kind of rubble and plastic bags fly over the food I prepared with great difficulty, infused with sand, as the wind blows everything from the town into the vastness of the desert. All which is not secured, placed a stone upon, not hold by my hands or tightened with a needle, blows away. Sand blows in my eyes, through the zippers of the tent.
Remarkable there are tracks everywhere. From Arica to Calama, jeeps and trucks seem to drive through the openness of the empty desert. Sometimes people on motorbikes and bicycle pass my camp spot. They usually don’t pay attention to me, is it because I look like a homeless, and might be insane, so better be avoided? Whatever it is, I feel safe.
Like a homeless I do nothing. What is there to do? Writing on my computer is not an option: the tent is too hot, outside it’s sandy. I embroider and listen to music. I sing out loud with Simrit. Damn do I look like an insane lady! Sitting under my makeshift dwelling, forced to do nothing. Not being tired but simply getting through the day, with doing not much. It is interesting.
Of course, the wind knocks down my bicycle, to where I tied my makeshift hut. The lid blows off my pan. The tent needs to be taken down. And there I sit: in the full sun. It is insane. All I need to do now is keep calm, practice patience until the hour of 20.00 arrives. I am glad I am alone, would I be with a lover it would undoubtedly turned out in a huge inferno of irritations. On top of it, my Svea stove breaks down and the zipper of the Hilleberg tent splits. Perfect.
Miraculously I know one camp spot with bushes -the only one in the whole of Atacama so far- and I am able to cook a meal, boil tea and eat well. Then, dad arrives…
Januari 2017. Info about Chile is to be found here