Chapter 7: Chile for Easter
Monday, March 29
It was still dark when I woke up at 7. I bagged three croissants for a long day on the road. The presence of my new lightweight guitar also added a lightness to my mood.
The Australians were going up to Salta. There was no way I’d be following them, despite their teasing remonstrations! Their energies were channelled into hardcore drinking. The hostel boys Coco and Gabriel expressed concern about me travelling over to Chile. The country was still reeling after the recent massive earthquake in Concepcion, but I set my heart on travelling out west.
The walk in the hot morning sunshine frazzled my senses. I was exhausted by the time I reached the bus station. A mild hangover compounded my condition and I guzzled down a Coca Cola. The beautiful women of Mendoza were everywhere in the busy station.
I took another Andesmar bus on the seven hour journey to Santiago. The bus took the same route as Saturday’s High Andes tour. At the high border crossing the lined-up passengers were wobbling with the altitude and statutory nervousness when encountering officialdom. The bus driver, a mini version of my former Chronicle newspaper editor Kevin Hughes, guided us through the formalities. Rules prohibited bringing fruit and vegetables into Chile. The immigration desk official looked me over sternly and slammed her stamp on my passport.
Descending into Santiago the passengers were treated to a real tearjerker, featuring Richard Gere in Hachiko-A Dogs Story. The Santiago smog invited an indifferent emotion as did the predictable chaos of a big city. A terminal attendant called Paulo welcomed me to Chile. I thanked him and jokingly asked for an escape route. He laughed and guided me to the next Valparaiso-bound bus. The journey to the dusky, sunset west took just two hours. The driver comically informed us the bus had a toilet at the back but it refused to take number twos! A lovely Scandinavian girl in dark glasses, sitting opposite me, exchanged a little chuckle after hearing this useful information.
When we reached the Pacific coast, Valparaiso’s edgy port atmosphere immediately registered. I had to be careful, especially with the guitar. To make matters decidedly worse, the three hostels I’d marked out from my Lonely Planet were all closed and boarded up. My three-year-old Lonely Planet really was outdated. The dark, derelict looking streets were so empty and brooding. It was almost 9pm and I had to think quickly, so I took a registered taxi up to the Residencia en el Cerro guest house. The grand old building was perched snugly within the civilised, higher part of town. I quickly warmed to the hosts and the old-fashioned interior. The atmosphere was a relaxing reward for a busy day on the move. I was asleep soon after settling into my spacious room.
Tuesday, March 30
An incredible (anhygoel) encounter took place over breakfast. It certainly shook me out of a stupor. It followed an equally strange night where I’m sure I woke up with a shout and remained awake listening to the loud, dripping water onto the kitchen lean-to.
Anyway, in the dining room I was sure I could hear someone speaking in Welsh. Like in Patagonia a month earlier the home connection returned. With a closer look across the room, I noticed a familiar face. The Welsh folk singer Gwyneth Glyn and her husband, radio broadcaster, Dafydd Emyr, were in town. I gladly accepted their offer to sit with them. Gwyneth and Dafydd were travelling in South America until the end of April and they were staying in Valparaiso for one more night.
Dafydd decided to a radio interview with me. We talked in Welsh and I recounted my travelling stories thus far. The interview was to be broadcast on BBC Radio Cymru later in the year. This Celtic alliance humoured the other guests and Alicia the proprietor. As Gwyneth predicted, the sun appeared at 1.30pm, burning through the misty air of this gutsy Latin American equivalent of San Francisco with its hint of a Liverpool aspect.
I loved the old house and decided it would be a smashing place to stay for Easter. Its family feel would be enhanced when Alicia’s sons and daughters arrived from Santiago later in the week. Before venturing out I met a couple of Australian women who were sharing the dormitory. They were very friendly and talkative. I wondered if they heard me shouting the night just gone.
After a walk to a recommended laundry nearby I enjoyed an almuerzo completo (set lunch) for 3,400 pesos ($7). I also enjoyed my first sweet taste of pisco sour. The national aperitif is a pisco wine, egg white, lemon juice and syrup concoction.
Valparaiso is a Unesco World Heritage site. Some of the architecture, like the Palacio Baburizza on Paseo Yugoslavo, is breathtaking. There are also 19th Century ascensores (elevators) to manage the port’s steep gradient. The various viewpoints and elevations offered ideal busking spots but Alicia warned me the authorities took a dim view of busking for money. My hunger returned by 6pm and I indulged in a greasy chicken and chips. About to ascend the steep steps to the hostel I spotted three surly looking characters loitering a bit further up. I felt unsure after hearing the scare stories of daylight muggings and violent assaults, so I took the safer option of the Ascensor Concepcion lift. I needed to be vigilant in Valparaiso.
Back in the guest house I was talking to a Parisian called Valentino when the whole building started shaking. Alicia’s husband confirmed later that there had been a slight tremor. He showed me large cracks in a wall from the Concepcion earthquake. I started reading Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which I’d picked up in Mendoza. I hadn’t rung Mam for a while. I would call her in time for Easter and let her know I was feeling lots better since leaving El Bolson. I was also feeling happier to be on the move and meeting more people along the way.
Wednesday, March 31
I slept poorly and felt bloated. A mix of mental strain and lack of sleep hindered my alertness. Thoughts of earthquakes were not so comforting. I emailed my music festival friend from South Wales Neil Jones. People back home were getting on with their lives in their worlds.
After breakfast I ventured out into the coastal fog and drizzle. I took a 2.30pm bus from the centre of busy Valparaiso for a 20 km trip down the coast to Quintay. Rave reviews in various guide books implored a must-see visit to this small fishing town. The journey took us high into the headlands and back down into Quintay, stopping eventually in a little plaza where I checked on the bus times back. A gentle serenity and stillness soothed the warm air as I walked down the steps to the marina. An English-speaking chap acknowledged me from his back gate and we got talking.
Roberto Contreraz had been a London-based cameraman working on Ridley Scott-directed movies for the last 25 years. He invited me into his little shack perched high above the shore and nestled in among numerous plush properties. Over coffee Roberto pointed out the damage to his home from the recent earthquake. A glaring crack on a side wall illustrated how precarious it was. It had coincided with his plans to completely restructure the building however.
Roberto expressed his frustration with Britain and the hindrances he’d encountered, especially in the last few years which he equated with a new negativity taking hold of Dear Old Blighty. And different issues were bugging Roberto back in his home country. He acknowledged the big steps Chile was taking to rid itself of a recent murky past and the brutish era of General Pinochet. However, Roberto reckoned corruption and nepotism were affecting the fabric and equilibrium of magical places like Quintay, with new properties springing up and smothering a diminishing beauty and space. Roberto enquired about my journeys and recommended I stay in Valparaiso for a year. He reckoned work and creative space were aplenty in the town and promised to send me a few links for places to stay with people he knew. It was an interesting and generous offer.
Later, as I headed down to the beach and the disused whaling station the cloud dissipated. The golden sunshine blessed the coastline and transformed Quintay’s appearance. I took many photographs in this far out place. Artistry and monuments to an industrious past made the whaling museum a thoroughly thought-provoking place. It seemed a little expensive in Quintay though. After buying some snacks at the town’s main store I waited just a short time for the virtually empty bus back to Valparaiso.
Back in the big port I bought some food at the supermarket and nearly left behind my latest phrasebook, only for a vigilant and caring shopper to tap me on the back and remind me of it. I was still getting used to the exchange rate. I’d also lost my pin sentry card, later remembering the badly assembled lockers in Mendoza and reckoning some of my things had slipped down the gap at the back of mine. I emailed my bank. I had £2,500 for the remaining six months. A little job or busking were positive options.
Apart from the hosts, myself, and a French couple staying in an adjacent room the guesthouse was largely empty. Going out to the nearby shops in the evenings I noticed there were many cats loitering about and leaving lots of poo on the alleyway to the main street. In fact, Valparaiso’s streets were rather mucky with many stray dogs out and about. You just had to watch where you were stepping in this rough and ready town.
Thursday, April 1
It was an ideal day for sightseeing but the hot sun made walking up the steep streets of Valparaiso just that little bit more challenging. I reached the open-air Museo a Cielo Abierto, with its abstract murals situated on the high vantage point of Cerro Bellavista. After admiring the stunning views of the big cargo ships out on the bay, I walked further up the narrower, hidden streets and was sweating profusely when I reached the top. Nobel Prize winning poet Pablo Neruda had a few pads in these parts, one of them being La Sebastiana. It was well worth the small entrance fee to check out its light and humorous interior touches.
I later skirted the higher, circling Avenida Alemania, taking photographs and then headed down Cumming for lunch on Avenida Almirante Montt, enjoying another pisco sour. The wind was picking up and cooling down the hot city. I remained out and about, walking in the lower old town, returning to admire the Palacio Baburizza, Plaza Sotomayor and the Los Heroes de Iquique monument.
Jerome, a new arrival from France, was later keen to go out. I gladly joined him and enjoyed three large Schop ales in a grand live music venue, the Bar Poseia on Almirante Montt. From the rear of the old ballroom venue we had a great view of the live band performing on an interior balcony, lifting up riffs and raising the tempo with Neil Young-type crescendos. It seemed a suitable soundtrack to this dark, bohemian town. Jerome was up for a prolonged night out. I spotted a couple of Danish girls who had stayed in the Mendoza Inn and we chatted. The night was still young but I felt older and creaking like an old bed. I returned to the guest house feeling slightly drunk. Drink occasionally left me feeling melancholic.
Good Friday, April 2
A Romanian party of five arrived the night before. They added a lot of life and colour to the place. Lots of sweet tea did little to soothe my thick head. My alcohol tolerance level was lowering considerably to an economical state.
A friendly young woman at the bus station’s information kiosk later tried to explain to me the choices of travel to La Serena. She understood that I little understood the generally growling sound of Chilean Spanish but pleasantly stuck with me. I decided a Pullman La Serena bus would take me to my destination on Saturday.
Lunchtime was fast approaching and many buses were heading along the coastal highway to Vina del Mar. I hopped on one and disembarked close to the centre where others were getting off. I was immediately struck by this starkly different town to Valparaiso. The well-heeled ended up in Vina del Mar, a modern, shiny resort. Wealth was in abundance wherever I looked. Dining seemed an expensive affair but my hunger steered me away from the fast-food joints to the nice looking La Dolce Vita. I ordered a lasagne and mineral water. It cost 8,000 (about £10). The meal was decent enough and I left a small tip.
On the lovely, sandy beach I couldn’t even contemplate a dip in the roaring ocean waves. The cold Humboldt current, originating in Antarctica, laps up along a wide stretch of Pacific coastline from Chile to Peru. I could vouch with my little toes how cold it was, even on a hot day with the temperature reaching 32 Celsius. I walked back along the six miles coastline walkway to Valparaiso feeling slightly parched. I thought about the arrival of Easter and how things were back home. Back in the guesthouse my mood began to lift during the evening while I enjoyed listening to Alicia’s radio playing classical music.
Saturday, April 3
I thanked Alicia and her husband for such a lovely stay. They had a refined and well-mannered nature. I often think you can tell, no matter how wealthy or lofty in their social status someone is, if they have a twinkle in their eyes they’re still alive, compassionate and interested in the lives of others.
I walked down the steep descent to the station through streets not so busy in the early morning. The bus ticket to La Serena cost 7,000 pesos. We entered a new time zone on the Panamericana route up the Pacific coastline to Peru. It was a lonely journey, as far away from home as I could feel, despite two English ladies sat in the seats in front of me exchanging just a little small talk.
The barren coastline underneath the white blanket cloud looked very desolate. Apart from the odd cactus the landscape felt eerily abandoned. The bright interior of the bus, particularly the yellow headrests, completely clashed with the outside world. The Pacific Ocean later appeared in view but the early evening first impressions of La Serena put me off staying there. It was dirty looking from the first station stop to the central terminal. The two English ladies nearly got off at the first stop before I checked for our correct disembarking point and alerted them.
Perhaps I didn’t give La Serena a chance when quickly judging its urban look. It may have masked a far more attractive old town. Terminals and ports don’t always offer the best attractions! However, impulse led me to check the times for Caldera, a smaller town further up the coast, and I willingly snapped up a 7.45pm departure ticket. Momentum could carry my mood to different levels and this quick transfer felt good. I only had an hour to wait so I bought a sandwich and drink and enjoyed listening to an old guitarist busking at the station’s entrance. The short experience relaxed my mood for night-time travel.
The bus arrived in Caldera at just before 2am. Where could I go at this time of the night? The place seemed deserted apart from a few Saturday night revellers slumbering along the dusty streets in their beery, cheery spirits. I walked the short distance to the centre and knocked on a hotel door. An old gentleman answered.
Hector was a steadfast negotiator. He refused to budge on a 9,000 pesos full night charge despite it almost being a new day. I suppose I had woken him up though. Sleeping out the remaining early hours on the small promenade was a dangerous option according to Hector. He didn’t speak English and illustrated a slitting throat sign. I gulped and concurred that it was better to be safe rather than sorry. I paid for a little chalet room all to myself and the promise of a late morning breakfast. There were moments to be sensible as well as being impulsive.
Easter Sunday, April 4
My single room in the clattered old Residencia Millaray overlooked a concrete back yard. Overcast skies gripped a subdued atmosphere and blessed a barren look over Caldera’s white sandy beach.
Before taking a taxi to the recommended Bahia Inglesa I visited Caldera’s main church. Easter Mass service was about to begin and I joined the standing attendees at the back. The celebratory atmosphere promised a brighter day ahead.
Bahia Inglesa reminded me of a dried out Abersoch. It was out of season and there were vacancies. After a steak lunch at a friendly beach front restaurant, I found an attractive place called Timbre Hostel. There was no one home so I called at the nearby bar and restaurant Punto de Referencia. The guy behind the bar rang Ana the owner. She appeared within minutes and gladly showed me a lovely apartment plus a shared space downstairs. We agreed on 100,000 pesos, about £120, for an eight-night stay from Tuesday. I was on my holidays at the seaside.
Many visitors to Bahia Inglesa were wearing English-slogan t-shirts. Sitting down on the beach wall I was quietly humming Monday, Monday by the Mamas and the Papas. I began writing some notes in my diary when a slimy dollop of seagull crap slapped right bang in the middle of my little blue book. I tried to wash the mess with a gentle soak of the book in the sea. This only succeeded in weakening the book’s spine. I explained what happened to the taxi driver taking me back to Caldera. He laughed loudly and ventured to say it could be a good luck omen.
Well, the sun came out soon after we arrived back in Caldera. Then a cold wind came in off the sea and scattered the remaining bathers. I settled back in the hostel for a fine evening sat in the back yard with Jeremy, Daisy, Nils and Gabrielle, a friendly French gang. They were enjoying a hearty meal and enjoying glasses of wine as I played some guitar and polished off a cheap bottle of red. I took some photos of the happy group together around their small table and we chatted for hours.
Easter Monday, April 5
A big pile of dog mess on the courtyard floor greeted me when I opened my door. I grumbled as my thick head moaned. The guilty culprit was stretched out at the farthest end of the yard. The black Labrador was very poorly however. Alicia the cleaner explained while she cleared up the mess. The owner was clearly concerned and rang the local veterinary surgeon. He prepared to take the dog for an examination. I felt so sorry for the dog watching him being collected and placed inside a waiting taxi.
By late afternoon the cloud still hadn’t shifted. It felt like a summer’s day in Porthmadog where the Irish Sea mists lingered along on the Cardigan coastline as inland Wales sweltered under a hot sun. The dramatic gloom closed in around a desolate looking Caldera. I started humming Monday, Monday again for some reason. The Parroquia San Cicente De Pau church lured me back. Its hollow white interior displayed graphic images of the crucifixion.
Tuesday, April 6
The precision bombing by the seagull certainly made its mark on my little, damp diary. It was salvageable but I was still trying to work out the lucky omen factor of a large dollop of poo landing on one’s belongings!
I was still getting used to Chile being an hour behind Argentina. I needed my mind and body to change back in time. Ana wasn’t expecting me until midday. I struggled to carry my heavy load. Ana allowed me to leave my belongings in her place while she cleaned the ground floor accommodation. The stubborn cloud hovered overhead as I walked onto the largely deserted beach. Would my seaside week turn into an overcast gloom?
I returned to Ana’s. It seemed a nice, clean place with plenty of space and an added extra room. The little gas boiler flame hardly warmed up the water as I took a cold shower, but it didn’t matter. I was really relaxing in this quieter atmosphere. There were people in the ground floor apartment next to mine, so at least I wasn’t too isolated. A friendly looking woman popped her head by the door to say hola as I indulged in the luxuries of Direct cable TV and lots of futbol.
Later, back on the beach, the sun made a late afternoon appearance and the same lady appeared again. This time she had sunglasses on and waved at me with a big smile. She was with her family. The beach scene was so refreshing as the Humboldt breeze and sea current whipped up huge waves which came crashing down on the shore. Fresher air and a lively sea signalled a frontal system passing through and clearing the sky to a beautiful blue colour. I continued reading my phrasebook, page by page and slowly picking up the basics.
I later returned to the hostel, stopping at the Supermercado Jana along the way where the same lady and her two companions were also shopping for provisions. As I settled back in my kitchen with the guitar, the younger woman called by and introduced herself. Maria Eugania, a beautiful lady in a striking red top invited me for conversation and tea with her, her mother Eugania and Maria’s three-year-old daughter Alina. I took my guitar along and we shared tea and cheese and tomato sandwiches. I sang some Beatles songs in a nice, happy atmosphere. I felt there was a gentle sadness about the ladies though, as Maria would later explain.
Later that evening she called around to my place again and we shared a bottle of red wine at the table outside my backdoor. The conversation struggled a little but I found her angst to be quite interesting. She’d split from her long-term boyfriend, who was also Alina’s father. The recent earthquake had damaged their home in Santiago and the men, including her father, sent the women away for a week’s holiday whilst they repaired the damage. In broken English Maria asked me about my life and seemed astounded by my age and quite concerned that I was still single. “What was the matter? Why aren’t you married with children?” she asked, and occasionally took out a fresh cigarette, smoked and breathed out her thoughts and expressions about matters closer to home.
I surrendered my thoughts. Maria was gorgeous, a voluptuous dark-haired stunner, only 23-years-old and just starting out in the nursing profession. She had a strong personality. After checking to see if her daughter and mum were asleep she came back and we walked down to the beach. We found some boulders to sit on. The stars were out and we continued talking about lots of sweet stuff, and I kissed her. She quickly turned her face away and laughed a friendly laugh, saying her father was only three years older than I, and she touched my arm and told me she had lots to think about without more complications. I quickly apologised but Maria insisted she wasn’t offended and teasingly pointed to her cheek when we finally kissed goodnight. It was a beautiful evening in such fine company.
Wednesday, April 7
I slept so deeply right through to 8am. There were some mosquitoes in the room. They were emanating from the back yard boat with all its shrubbery constantly watered by the perforated water pipe from the upstairs shower. After breakfast I tightened up my guitar’s low tuning. Ana came downstairs and commented about my playing. I called by next door, greeted by big smiles all around.
I later walked with Maria Eugania and her daughter along the beach. Maria seemed subdued as the cloud laid its gloomy shroud over us. Her mobile rang. It was her partner, or ex-partner. I didn’t interfere and knew she wanted some space but we stuck together that morning, picking up shells and inspecting the beach. The mood was lightened as I built sandcastles with Alina. Maria raised a smile as she took some pictures and two perros (dogs) followed us everywhere we went. Maria’s melancholy looks were captivating but it wasn’t right to complicate matters.
I took a lunch of sardines and vegetables on my own. The sun came out mid-afternoon and I went down to the beach to join Maria and Alina. I experienced my first dip into the Pacific. The Humboldt Current certainly made it a cold one. I didn’t stay in for long and my lack of a towel made it a slow, shivering dry out. Maria brewed me my first ever mate tea and added lots of sugar to sweeten the very sharp taste. My taste buds quickly adapted and I enjoyed the experience. Maria chuckled and wondered whether there was a Factor 100 sun cream on the market for my pale skin. Eugania arrived and I stayed with the family on their huge rug, trying out some Spanish phrases to many laughs.
I later slunk back on the kitchen settee watching World Cup look back programmes on Fox Sports. The night whittled away and I popped over to the store to pick up a bottle of red wine, Missioneres De Rango Carmenere, as recommended in my Lonely Planet. I practised some guitar but felt deeply damp and dippy. After two cold showers and swimming in a cold sea, was there any wonder?
Thursday, April 8
While playing my guitar during the morning, Maria Eugania called by. She was leaving for a couple more days up the coast before going home to face the music back in Santiago. We promised to keep in touch. Maria wanted me to return to Santiago later in my journey to show me where she lived. A place empties rather quickly when so much life and beauty sails close by. I took a walk reflecting on this and following the path we’d taken the day before. Sometimes a song can be inspired by such times. The stars the night before certainly evoked a romanticism and isolation.
The store served up some freshly baked bread, ham, cheese and tomato. I enjoyed making and devouring a couple of large sandwiches for my lunch. They brought me back to the here and now. I wasn’t drinking much milk anymore and preferred yoghurts in the morning. I was certainly eating better in Bahia Inglesa.
As I returned to the apartment, reggae beats were emanating from the Punto de Referencia. They warmed the atmosphere and my spirits. I had sardines and vegetables, followed by ice cream, for tea. Another bottle of wine during the evening and I began practising the new song about Maria and the stars. I continued playing a blues riff and sank into a tipsy state. Suddenly, my empty bottle toppled over and smashed the wine glass. I cleared up and retired to bed as the pounding music continued in Punto de Referencia. My mind was elsewhere but I was happy.
Friday, April 9
I woke up during the early hours. A rogue mosquito disturbed my slumber and disappeared after feeding on my arms. I slept in on a dreary day. It wasn’t cold, but just so expressionless on this arid, desert coast. Some cable television music got me going. Ana came by for the rent. She kindly offered me the use of her computer in her apartment while she went out to visit her father in Caldera. I searched for Ruthin acquaintances on Facebook. There were so many friends out there. Yet I remained all alone in Chile. It was childhood friend Shane Lewis’s birthday and I sent him my best wishes.
In the solitude I quickly composed four new songs helped by a lovely sounding guitar. The Fonseca was light and its tone felt magical. I was quickly getting used to it. I was improving my style and technique thanks to studying my old tutor John Rogers’ tuition notes.
I later went for a walk past a fishing factory. Some of the workers passing by in a big van gave friendly waves. There were some grand, modern looking hotels in Bahia Inglesa, all largely vacant during the closed season. The sun promised to make an appearance but as the day aged the cloud stubbornly remained.
A family wanting somewhere to stay later called by at the hostel. Ana was still out so I took their number. Ana returned and I called over as she came through the back entrance with a friend who looked more than a handful. My information only served to confuse her and prompted a snappy response. Ana’s Yoko Ono-like mannerisms added an unpredictable nature to her character which left me feeling uneasy on this occasion.
I took another cold shower, had a shave and put on some fresh clothes. Ana later came downstairs to ask what I was trying to explain. I told her a family was looking for a place to stay so I was eager for her to know. She apologised and didn’t seem bothered about the lost custom. She was preoccupied with an old friend who had drunk too much. Ana then asked whether I’d like to go out for a drink as she didn’t like to see me alone. We enjoyed a nice evening sat outside the Punto de Referencia where Ana ate some food and we drank some wine. She asked whether I had a childhood rooted speech impediment. I didn’t think so. I just feel nervous in new company sometimes which makes me appear quite reticent.
As the wine loosened me up Ana’s eyes lit up and she winked her approval as I talked happily about home and life in general. She said she felt confident and comfortable in my company and wondered whether I’d like to bring out my guitar.
A small party livened up as I played some tunes and shared some barbecue meats. Punto de Referencia was a central point for the small community that remained in Bahia Inglesa during the closed season. Ana described it as a life saver where a handful of locals could socialise, smoke and drink together. She certainly had an infectious personality and told me a bit about herself.
Ana was in her late forties. She had never married but had a regular partner who lived opposite the hostel. Her father, a former marine, had Alzheimer’s which demanded her attention for most of the time. She came from a wealthy background. Her mother had passed away some years ago. Ana was also a big dog lover. She no longer had a pet after her Labrador called Hunter passed away. I mentioned the headstone memorial to Hunter in the back yard. Ana explained how the town had a tradition of looking out for its stray dogs. However, quite recently there had been a dispute when a newcomer to town wanted rid of them all. It sparked a furious community dispute but the dogs remained and the outsider subsequently left.
Saturday, April 10
The warm welcome at Punto de Referencia kept me out way past 2am. Ana and I walked back together. She was delighted at how well my impromptu guitar session had been received. I really enjoyed it. An audience, and a relaxed one at that, certainly helped me to unwind and loosen up. We’d have to do it again, Ana remarked.
I woke up at 9.30am feeling groggy. I craved some focus to ease through a slight hangover so I set about tweaking my new songs, writing out the lyrics and chord progressions. It left me contented to a point but the cloud over the town hadn’t shift in three days. However, the gloom lifted when I returned to the Supermercado Jana to buy a little packet of washing powder. I enjoyed a friendly chat there with the shopkeeper and his daughter. They were lovely people who seemed to enjoy my visits with my phrasebook.
Bahia Inglesa was a breaking the ice holiday experience. The small seaside town may be surrounded by nothing but a barren desert. It certainly appears to be disconnected from the outside world, but I was reconnecting in its close community. I liked its space and opportunity to recharge after so many miles on the road. I was eating quite well and particularly enjoying the ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches. Ana allowed me to use her washing machine and I later hung my washing out to dry on her balcony line. I took my phrasebook with me to the beach and raced through 20 pages, murmuring the words and sentences. Some were sticking.
During the evening I polished off a bottle and a half of Misiones and listened to some classic rock on the television radio channel. Later on I watched Psycho, a scary film admittedly if I intended on a restful night. Nevertheless, I slept well initially but was awoken again by a persistent mosquito buzzing about my head. I cautiously crawled over to switch on the light. The offending pest was soon no longer and a tiny splattering of red blood was left on the wall.
Sunday, April 11
What could be more relaxing than a Sunday morning lie-in? The back yard gated timbre (bell) kept ringing at regular intervals though. There was no response from upstairs but Ana and her partner were in. The madcap football commentary on Fox Sports contrasted greatly with the British approach. When Manchester City’s Argentine striker Carlos Tevez scored the expected gooooaaaallll ensued but then the co-commentator launched into Hey Jude! Why?!
There were glimpses of blue sky at long last to encourage a venture outside. The happy music at Punto de Referencia went up a notch or two as the sun finally appeared. Ana was enjoying her lunch there and I joined her, Emma, Michelle and Carla for a few drinks. They urged me to persevere with my Spanish as I struggled to grasp what they were talking about. I enjoyed their company which reflected on the warm hospitality of Bahia Inglesa. Ana was heading for Caldera on Monday. She kindly offered to enquire at the Tur Bus office for tickets to San Pedro de Atacama, my next destination.
I later took my guitar onto the beach, sitting at the spot where I’d chatted with Maria Eugania a few nights previously. More people began to appear and enjoy the finest of evenings. I played for a while as a beautiful sunset and gorgeous young couples happily splashed and lightened the seashore. After sunset I tried to follow a couple of films but the afternoon beer left me feeling tired. I cracked open another bottle of Brahma but drifted off to sleep soon after.
Monday, April 12
The sun was shining from mid-morning so I headed out to make a day of it. I took an eastwards direction around the bay as far as the eye could see. The sun made a massive difference. Its reflection on the ripping tide glinted on my sunglasses. I saw lots as I strolled along the beach for an hour and a half. A lizard slid through some gaps in a rock before I could take a photograph. The decomposing body of a dead seal left a terrible stench as I walked by. I reached a processing factory then returned to Bahia Inglesa.
Supermercado Jana had been shut all morning as the liberating sun encouraged outdoor time. Everyone seemed to be taking their tops off including the crew at Punto de Referencia. Back onto the beach for some late afternoon sun, I practiced Spanish verbs when a group of Americans arrived and soon raised an almighty din. They attracted the attention of a couple of stray dogs whose barking prompted the noisiest American to ironically shout ‘shut up dog!’
There were good photographic opportunities with the setting sun hitting Bahia Inglesa. The dome structure of the closed Domo Chango Chile against the blue-sky backdrop was a particularly striking image. I played my guitar for a while as evening peace settled on the beach. A cyclist called Alfonso stopped to talk and asked me where I was from. I played a couple of tunes and we chatted about where I would be travelling next. According to Alfonso the Humboldt current and residual clouds affected the coastline all the way up to Lima in Peru.
As darkness fell I visited Supermercado Jana just before closing time. I chose a different wine and returned to the hostel. Ana appeared after a stressful day with her father. She’d somehow found the time to purchase a special discount Tur Bus ticket for 14,500 pesos, saving me the equivalent of £10. I couldn’t help but smile at her kind gestures which she’d shown me all week. I thanked her very much as she bobbed her head from side to side in her beret cap.
It was a bright, starlit night, the like of which I’ve rarely seen before. More mosquitoes played games with me all night, disappearing as soon as I put the light on. And then a rogue flea started biting me. I’m sure there was enough wine in my blood by now to make them all giddy!
Tuesday, April 13
I eventually sank into a light sleep and another strange dream about being sent to Southern Texas to work in a mining complex. Recent seismic activity and the promise of more tremors terrified me. It all became mixed up and I woke up totally confused.
Stars were still visible at 4am but the cloud returned at daybreak. I took another cold shower. A healthy regime was in full swing as I marked 40 days since I last smoked. I’d also lived a relatively frugal existence all week. And the wine, well it loosened me up and oiled my spirits! I took a short stroll and checked with a taxi driver for a lift to Caldera for my evening bus journey. Ana then went out and left me with her computer. Spring had sprung back at home. It had been a long, cold winter as wintry winds kept nagging Britain following a very snowy January.
The sun appeared over Bahia Inglesa and it became a very warm day. I left the computer and locked up behind me to take a similar walk to the previous day. On my way back a friendly old chap stopped to ask me in Spanish how far I’d walked.
After another sunset guitar interval on the beach I called at the Punto de Referencia for one last time. I said my goodbyes to the happy team, reflecting on how I could do a lot more sing for yer dinner stuff. I relaxed in the hostel. Ana was upstairs with some family friends and told me to alert her if my taxi didn’t arrive.
Sitting on the low beach wall close to the centre, the minimal street lighting and lack of activity instilled some anxiety. I was just eager to get to Caldera on time and catch my bus. I’d asked if the taxi could pick me up at 9pm. At 8.55 it still hadn’t arrived and I stood there feeling quite vulnerable with my luggage. A taxi then appeared. However, it was a different driver to the one I’d earlier spoken to. When I tried to converse and explain I’d booked a taxi he signalled to his empty car and I took the plunge.
The bus would depart at 10pm and I arrived with just 30 minutes to wait. I got into a really nice conversation with a local lady called Nilda. My Spanish efforts were paying dividends and encouraging a positive response when the taxi driver from earlier in the day appeared. I wasn’t sure at first when this tall, crouching grey haired figure made a beeline towards me. Then it suddenly registered as he began finger wagging and putting on an expression of General Pinochet proportions. I protested that I needed to be in Caldera to catch the bus. He took offence insisting that he’d arrived in Bahia Inglesa at 9pm.
I’d presumed an informal nature of booking taxis, not knowing whether the drivers shared their duties or substituted drivers. There was some confusion, but I also suspected it could have been a con trick. I offered a 2,000 note. He furiously shook his head, demanding 5,000 which I had no alternative but to hand over. I felt a mixture of being duped and foolishness. I sat back on the terminal bench feeling jolted and a little embarrassed. A young lad sitting nearby grinned at me when the old man eagerly rushed off to carry on with his duties. This episode taught me about the importance of learning more Spanish.