Without Further Pondering: Booked!
Dad wants to escape the gloom Dutch winter. I think he should come to me. My sister agrees. She books a flight. And then I start to stress: can dad handle the altitude of nearly 4000 meters, he has a lung capacity of 50 percent and he’s got a cardiac arrhythmia? Chile is expensive, how I am able to set up a low-budget travel for the two of us? And then the horrendous travel for dad, he doesn’t speak real English?! My sister booked dad onto a flight to Calama, but perhaps there is more than one Calama?
Just as there is more than one Santiago. When in Madrid, looking at the departures board, dad chews over the Santiago’s a bit and doesn’t board the Spanish one.
The next bout of stress comes when I arrive at the hostel I booked and my sister informs me to go to the airport better quick: dad arrives in 15 minutes! In my smokey desert outfit, well over a week of an unwashed body odor, I race to the airport. I do so in the wrong direction, circling around Calama and arriving just in time. But no dad.
I was sure timings are always mentioned in local clock time, but my sister was not so sure. 3.5 hours later I am back. And clean.
Dad spots me earlier than I do him, because in my following round of stress I suspect he missed the connection in Santiago and I am calling back home. I am proud like a mom when I see dad has made it to Calama! Its like I’d seen him yesterday…
Calama has only one fascinating feature, besides providing shade from aromatic pepper-trees, the Chuquicamata copper mine. I booked us a free tour a week in advance and off we are, the first day of dad’s holiday. The tour is interesting, the one and a half hour walk back at an altitude of 2400 meter is a bit too enthusiastic. Dad needs a day rest after the tour.
Once we are in the most beautiful part of the Atacama desert, in San Pedro de Atacama, we decide to do none more than walk to the Plaza del Arma each day. Since I am no fan of tour groups, not even to incredible beautiful occurrences such as Piedras Rojas or Valle del Luna, I don’t mind my dad is not in for anything but strolling around. The altitude has his going slower than ever, I’m prone to push him through the street which has a slight grade.
Plaza del Arma is a wonderful place to be. It is bathing in shade and overrun by stray dogs who wants nothing but love, since the trash-bins have easy access. Many tourists sit alongside with locals, some deliciously alternative, punk or arty. There is an array of street artists, one which draws portraits in a Frida Khalo manner, there is a guy who walks over a strap tightened between the antique trees of the plaza. A girl who is very artful with a hula hoop. Jugglers. Guitars. Dancers. Singers. An awful rapper, a sound we both can’t stand. All the rest, we highly enjoy, and I even take my embroidery out and start contributing to the free and relaxed art-scene, unseen that is. We like it, until the Chileans at our compound start an overnight Saturday night party.
Unimaginable these people have no sense other than self, and are so incredible loud that the next day I walk over and turn their radio off, and no one comes to check on my antisocial act. Yes, I am highly sensitive, and have stayed half a year in Nature with sounds of insects, waves, wind and absolute quietness. I hate screams of children and blasting deformed Latino sounds, and ‘parents’ who do not raise up. Dad and I are more than relieved when they leave.
Lately Dad is used to organized tours where everything is done for him, the only thing he has to do is show up. Now I am the tour-guide, I have to arrange coaches and hotels, without speaking the language well and without a full understanding of Spanish. I have him a window seat with a huge sticker on it.
Finding decent food is a hassle. Bread is awful white. After 5 o’clock we learned to depend on fruit and limp fries.
I don’t know anything better than go to Iquique, since dad doesn’t want to go to higher altitudes.
Dad and I end up in the port area, in a tiny room made of pressed wood, where the whole city seems to be made off. Being in Iquique for the second time is being surprised on a daily base how the city seems to be in development, in a poor way’s manner. Except for the high-rise buildings, the houses are made of plywood, a seemingly cheap collection of whatever substance is to be found, and not one neighbor finds it necessary to adjust to the house next door. A feeling of being in a huge thrift store for building-materials overcomes. Iron pins stick out of concrete, holes in the ground, uneven walkways. Sure, nothing like India but still a poor way of building. But then again, we’re in a desert.
A desert where no one seems to cycle. The son-in-law of the homely hostel we stay tells me which route I should take and that the desert has nothing, not anything of interest, no water, no food. He says that when I want to see something pristine I should go South. I tell the man I love deserts and am here for openness and nothingness. ‘Well, as soon as you are in Puerto Monte you will see more people cycling and more roads too’. I reply: ‘I think I veer off far before the Carretera Austral.’ ‘Why? That’s where every cyclist go to’. Exactly. He tells me I can’t cycle the desert, that it is like the Sahara. I know by now that men driving cars know nothing about the circumstances for cycling. I don’t even want to tell him I cycled through the Sahara desert too, as well as about 5 others. He’s a man who knows best. It makes me super annoyed.
Dad thinks the man is friendly, but dad doesn’t understand English that well. I am exactly the same as dad; when someone tells him that it is impossible or boring or whatever the other thinks, let him think. We will find out for ourselves.
I have taken dad to the homely hostel where I stayed before, on Claudio’s expenses. A more quiet place near Playa Brava, where no sparrow sit on the light poles but vultures. A homeless schizophrenic man unloads the container in front of the house and is barely able to walk away with all his newly found treasures. Quite a few people live on the beach, in the poorest of conditions. Many seem alcoholic, addicted, mentally unstable. On the beach, dad and I sit next to homeless who made a shelter out of blankets and tents. It is quite a show to see how they get through their days while others almost seems like me, resting from a hard day battling the wind. But when you look closer, you notice they have nothing to do really.
Although our new room is quiet, not if they start a party on Friday evening, right above our room. I can’t help but longing for the desert. It seems a few months of being in very silent nature has strengthened my sensibility for sounds. I start to wear earplugs on a daily base and the more I am bathing in sounds the stronger my senses are going to react. Once in Peru I wonder why people don’t go crazy with speeding cars, countless sources of music, screaming kids, mechanic bells, ringing sounds, drills, horns, television and flickering lights. I watch a woman among all the clatter I am surrounded with and I see her face comfortably set, while my mind’s only trying for one thing: escape.
I have come to the conclusion that traveling by bus -6 hours where I take 7 days on a bicycle- is more tiresome. I am exhausted when we’ve crossed the Peruvian border. Perhaps the absence of self-powered dynamical activity feeds the body and mind? Needless to say, dad collapses on to the bed too.
Peru is at once much more lively and people are obviously enjoying life. Peru is more of a party. We suddenly sleep in a hotel made of concrete and hard walls instead of plywood. It feels so luxury, even though there’s no soap, WiFi and plug for our electrical stuff. Who cares?
Dad finds the desert boring. And I must admit, it is: viewing it from a bus. The desert is only enrapturing when truly in it. So we make a drastic turn inland. Puno it will be.
For dad, who suffers a lung disease and has only 50% capacity, it is not easy suddenly be at an altitude of 3800 meter. For me neither, and we both collapse once more on to a plasticized bed in a never finished, dirty hostel way overpriced.
We change hostels, where dad truly thinks he is going to die. Thinking doing so, he doesn’t wake me up but silently swallows a paracetamol. And magically, his dying experience stops, because paracetamol is good against altitude sickness.
It is hard for me to travel in buses, sit still many hours on end, arriving late at night, finding a place to sleep and trying to get quiet time out for contemplation. Needless to say it is hard for dad too.
The Atacama desert is warm, physical easy but there’s not much to see. The Andes is wonderful but our lungs don’t like it. Dad walks the streets of Puno slower than a turtle with four limp legs. Mom always used to say: ‘He’s so slow’, and now I know whom I inherited this from.
We make a plan: dad does not want to go through the desert again. Only one option remains and that is the high road through the Andes, through the whole of Bolivia. Uyuni it will be.
I am quite a lousy tour-operator. My understanding of Spanish is such that I make up my own stories by the little part I do understand. Our travels are full of surprises and we are more occupied with finding bus tickets than seeing the surroundings, if only we had the energy to walk around more.
This part of the world is vast, not like the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan where is plenty to explore on a small piece of wonderland. The three of us loved North Pakistan! We are not in for tours and the towns in South America are worthless without a tour visiting the far surroundings.
After another tiresome bus travel we end up in La Paz. Seeing this city is a sad evidence of life being pointless. An incredible heap of stones where humans spend their life working on earning food and lodging only to be able to work more. Sad.
By now I wonder the meaning of travel altogether. Dad and I don’t think this way of traveling is fun. It is tiresome and meaningless to go from point A to B. Many tourists look irritable and angry and what is the point of arriving somewhere to see something?
To give ourselves an answer to this question we decide dad will appreciate everything so much more back home, not that he didn’t, but we need to maintain our travel-spirit. He will so enjoy the bread and the simple things. His bed and the toilet. The easiness of everything.
The good thing about traveling for dad and me is that we are 24/7 together and getting to learn each other into depth. Dad tells me fantastic anecdotes about his early adulthood. We are patient with each other, I walk dad’s turtle pace and he tries to pose, only once a day and only one click, for my photo requests.
I discover so much more similarities, that I don’t like those so-called hip hostels, often with people looking like addicts. Taking little butter cups with us and wanting to live low-budget. We don’t care about luxury and comfort. And I can only smile when dad hates authority too, but best of all: a dad doesn’t try to be better! He does not want to look more experienced nor feels the need to overrule in having been to higher altitudes, lonelier deserts, emptier stretches, more unsafe countries, hotter places or whatever to decree the woman.
Although we miss mom clearly, this is our chance to connect. We do miss the fun factor, though we have great fun with farting, which goes easy after eating empanadas. Another factor which has crawled in is that I want to protect the flesh and blood which has created me. When we cross the street I notice how I try to shield him with my own tiny body, just to make sure no one rides into him. Because in Peru, this is easily done by car drivers.
Dad and I stay in a hip travelers hostel where they Brew Adventures, nothing compared to my own. We leave as soon as possible. Another 8 hour trip in a bus without toilet. Without tangible food. With headache and uneasiness. Though, we arrive in a much better state than when we first arrived at high altitude. So we are cheerful after all.
And end up in Uyuni. To come all this far I usher my dad to do a tour. We do a one day tour to the salt flats. Needless to say it is magical, including the Nordic girl in our jeep with surgical inflated lips, rebuilt nose and oxygen bottle. I either try not mentally criticize the Irish girl next to me who applies red lipstick on her cheeks but I do praise my dad for walking half way up the Incahuasi island. He stops the Sorojchi altitude medicines he’d takes, ‘only fake, to make extra money out of tourists,’ he decides.
Nearly at the end of the Salar tour we stop a last time to admire the sunset. No one, except dad and me, is interested. All the rest wants to go back to Uyuni, as they have seen enough but rather they want to make sure not to miss the night bus which brings them to the next attraction.
‘Feeling worse is not possible, except perhaps when you die’, is my dad next optimistic comment. The altitude makes climbing stairs a drag and even going to the toilet is a tedious undertaking. Since we have a room without toilet, we have a 6 liter water bottle with cutoff top as improvisation.
The hostel we stay in is loud, expensive and looks like a prison. Prices in Uyuni and all elsewhere where tourist gather, are triple of those where I come with a bicycle. ‘I don’t even want to stay in such hotels,’ says a young Dutch guy who is in a terrible haste to travel to South America. ‘I can’t do a 4-day Salar tour because I have no time’, continues the Dutch guy. Dad and I don’t have such time-issue, we stay in Uyuni rather long, because in my inexperience I forgot international bus tickets are best bought a few days in advance.
Uyuni is not nice. It is a shitty place with shitty restaurants where they either serve no milk in the cafe con leche because they simply lack the energy to buy milk a few shops further on. It’s that typical South American lack of invention again. Or they think tourists like loud music so they play George Micheal on his loudest volume. I try to find a restaurant where they play Abba done by flute, very popular in Bolivia, but the downside is they don’t serve milk. They all boost having WiFi but none really works. Sometimes incredible long black hairs accompanies my food and having tourists quite egoistic, doors will not be closed once gotten through, so we’ll end up in a cold drought. Though it rains every day…
Uyuni has hundreds of tourists. Often remarkable young people who seems self-involved, highly conscious about their appearance and in their mind alone on Earth. They chatter on top of their voices, well through the night. They lock the shared shower door, so no one else can enter the shared toilet door. They seem not aware of general conduct and greeting one and another is for fools.
The Bolivian people, as often with typical mountain folk, seem rigid, glumly non-smiling people. They seem to have little sense for humor, are without sparkle in their eyes and seem all utterly unhappy with their lives. Maybe tourism is to be blamed? The barren streets are filled with stray dogs, we see an emotionless female dog sucked vacuum to a male penis while another male is having sexual intercourse on her flank with such expression it all made us laugh, including a Bolivian. Thick beautiful formed clouds gather each day and rain falls with force, our days consist of finding a restaurant and trying to get a good night sleep.
Earplugs have become my best companions. Dad keeps a set on his drawer, you never really know in touristic lands. I keep them in non-stop, as all sounds become too loud for me. Especially screaming kids in dreadful buses.
With returning to San Pedro de Atacama dad and I have made a loop through the Andes. Back at lower altitude and with much nicer Chilean people, we make ourselves once more at home in a little, overpriced family hostel. Without terrible loud music and with knowledge where to find food we’re much better off this time.
Dad, being a carpenter and architect, even more laughs at the style of houses. The skills are often invisible. ‘When I was 6 I built like that’, and it is true, houses are built by anyone who in his mind thinks he can build. Scrap, pressed wood, corrugated iron and whatever sheets available will do. Very few parts fits, very few components work accordingly. Yet it is such an expensive country.
‘I’m sure something is amiss, as there’s always something going wrong in Chile’
Dad and I attempt a little cycling tour to Valle del Luna. We both get a bicycle with a chain dry as the Chilean cake and bread, yet they carry us through the damp desert, over tracks we invent ourselves. Oncoming people warn us that Valle del Luna is closed. Dad and I raise our eyebrows, for how can a natural surrounding be closed? Without much discussion we decide to bypass the closed entrance and skirt on the road via a detour through the desert.
When we manage to get on the road, far away from the entrance, we are waved to by people in excavator machines. Then, a lady in a pick-up truck waves friendly too, asking us kindly to return, as the road is closed. Dad and I, we look so alike, don’t return. Dad suggests we cycle on and hide behind a little hill when the lady returns. I suggest we cycle towards the mountains and climb over.
Both plans are intercepted by the lady returning, less friendly now. She escort us towards the closed entrance, where I read that the entrance, would it be open, cost us €4.5, given we wear a helmet and a fluorescent vest.
Next day we try to make a walk, and this too is intercepted by the huge rainfall last couple of days. The river has swollen and we walk as far as we can on the side which has no path, until we can’t go further. ‘Now, this I find truly adventurous,’ says dad with a big smile, and we keep on walking. Until I opt to go back. I am tired.
‘Buenos dios’ is what dad says in the morning, sometimes it is ‘Arrivedecia’. The rest is spoken in Dutch, though he receives a French lesson at our hostel. It takes the 7-year-old fellow out of his boredom, as well as it does to dad: ‘This is a boy I really like, there are not many of such extraordinary kids!’
Having made a loop, we end in Calama where we stay as short as possible. When I bring dad to the airport we take a bus and walk the final part. Taxi’s are just insanely expensive, we think. When we get off the bus and have walked 5 meters, a car stops, the driver says: ‘You cannot walk to the airport.’ ‘But I see the airport, over there, it is not far.’ ‘No, it is closed,’ he continues. What he meant is that there are guard rails, which dad and I would tackle easily, even with a suitcase. But the man, a lawyer, offers us a lift. We gladly accept.
We eat a last pizza together in Chile. I can see dad has difficulties leaving, not only because of the horrendous travel but also to miss me, his shepherd daughter. We have a deep connected sparkle of the eyes and I wave him goodbye. Mom watching over him with a smile which says ‘see him, all alone, he’s doing it, and well!’ And I can’t help thinking that this man, my father, my blood ancestor, will one day be gone too. Then, I have no one anymore…