Monday, December 28, 2009

Chile - The Final Days: La Serena

The foam washed around my bare feet, and even though I had been walking for nearly eleven hours straight, it was only the sting of a sure-fire sunburn that dampened my spirits. Otherwise, I felt worlds away from everything, and that was exactly what I sought.

Alejandro met me at the station. I did not know him, so our meeting was unplanned. He knew I needed a place to stay, though. His trained eye had spotted me as soon as I stepped off the bus. In fact, even though he might not have known what I looked like, he knew I was going to be there just as he knew everyone else before me was going to be there. If I had been in the US then I would have been skeptical. We don't offer our homes to strangers as they do in Chile, but I knew this was a common practice so, despite the fact it was my first time, I knew what to do.

My jeans were rolled up to my knees and my shoes were tied together and looped around my bag's shoulder strap. The sun beat down from the east while I walked south toward Coquimbo. Alejandro said it was too far to walk, but I had nothing but time on my side and nothing to do but walk and walk and walk.

- Alejandro: Seven thousand per night. You have your own bedroom, alone.
- Me: OK.
- Alejandro: It this way, half hours walk. You want to take bus?
- Me: I'm out of cash. I need a cambio to exchange my money.
- Alejandro: OK, we walk then. Come, this way.

The beach was empty, but there were enough there for me to feel different. I'm as gringo as a fire truck is red, so I get plenty of stares - and Chileans like to stare, sleepily with their thoughts rolling across their brown pupils. Yet if I tried to read their thoughts they awoke suddenly and glared at me as if it was nobody's business to stare into their soul. Maybe it's my camera they're looking at. No. That's racist, even though I was warned by Jose Luis, that Chilean back in Santiago who let me stay in his house for a few nights (and let me come and go as I wished with a spare key), that Chileans are thieves and wouldn't be afraid to take a knife and rip open the pack strapped to a person's back just to steal whatever fell out first. Since then, on his advice, whenever I've worn my pack on both shoulders, I've walked sideways with an eye peering at random moments over whichever shoulder I felt like looking over. Is it so racist to wonder why they're staring at you when they don't like to be stared at and I've been warned by a Chilean to beware? Why am I so special? It must be that I'm gringo and not because of the camera. There's no other reason why. Simply put, after living in a country that can be home to nearly every race on earth, it feels strange to be different. I feel perfectly safe, but I feel even safer alone.

- Me: I don't have cash right now. I can't pay you tonight.
- Alejandro: You need cash?
- Me: I need a cambio, to change my Argentine pesos.
- Alejandro: You have cash.
- Me: Yes, but not Chilean. I can't pay you until tomorrow.
- Alejandro: Is OK. Tomorrow you go to cambio and pay me then. Is OK. No worries, no worries at all.

A surfer plays in the riptides and the 10-foot waves just off the shoreline. A lone fisherman slowly cruises south just beyond the surfer and beyond where the waves begin to crash. Four Chilean Navy ships zigzag their way into Coquimbo. The metal cross, ugly and dramatic, standing tall above a neighborhood I won't visit on a peninsula across the bay and a landmark to everyone who can see the hill it stands upon and over, shines when the clouds move from under the sun. My ankles get wet at the edge of where the waves recede back into the sea. At times, the waves are bigger and my pants get wet, too.

- Alejandro: Where you from?
- Me: I live in Boston. In the US.
- Alejandro: Boston? Yes, that is a rich part of the country.
- Me: Not for everyone. I'm moving because I can't afford to live there (I lie).
- Alejandro: Yes, it is expensive. Yes, yes. I learn English from My Fair Lady. You understand what I say?
- Me: Yes, I understand perfectly.

The beaches are one long stretch of sand from the lighthouse in La Serena to the broken dock where the pelicans lay in Coquimbo. High rise towers line one side of the beach while water lines the other. I'm heading south so that the rising sun is to my left and the glimmering sea is to my right. The Pacific is warm here, warmer than I expected it to be. Alejandro told me it would be cold. I guess for him it would be. It's only spring, and if I had 80-degree water in the middle of the summer then I would consider 60-degree water to be cold in the spring, too. Thankfully I come from the land of 40-degree water that never gets warmer than 55F in the summer and has occasionally frozen so solid that one can walk off the town pier to the islands that are about a mile away. If I wasn't so sketched out by losing my cameras and books I'd strip down into my boxers and jump in. I wish I was with someone, and I wish she was as crazy as me.

We reached Alejandro's house after a half hour walk from the bus station. He lived right downtown, and the path we took was good for me because I got a nice tour of the town along the way. La Serena has about 20 churches all within a few blocks of one another. They're old, too. I'm not sure why there are so many, but there they are on every corner standing guard over the cobble-stone walkways that are lined with every kind of shop desired by the high-class middle-class shopper. Or does that make them rich here? I can't tell.

The downtown is pretty, too. I mentioned the cobblestone streets and churches, but what I can't describe, and what photos can't illuminate is the atmosphere of calm sauntering from one street to the next. There's an easy feel to simply walking around. And while the shopping district isn't strictly closed for walking only, it feels as if it is; it is so much so that I found myself wandering out into the street with my head up high, gazing at the sites, and frequently honked at by on-coming cars.

Lunch was supposed to peaceful at the only restaurant on the beach that was open this early in the year. There was no one inside when I walked in, but no sooner did I sit down than a group of American birthday revelers clamored at a long table just a few feet from me. My fish was good (some Peruvian whitefish with rice and beer), but while my legs were tired I preferred walking to the noise. It's funny, too, because by this time I was emotionally fatigued by having to communicate in a language I didn't know. English was good for me to hear and speak, but there were also times when I felt perfectly comfortable not knowing what was being said around me. I think most people want to know what is being said, just in case it is about them. When bad things are said about me I become driven. I feel uneasy when good things are said. Sometimes, when I need to relax and not think or try too hard, it is best to not know.

The sun was hot and high in the sky by this point in the day. I was about three-quarters of the way to Coquimbo, which is the rough-and-tumble port town at the other end of the sand from the pretty La Serena. My head was getting warm and I didn't have a hat with me. Was it a mistake to continue? Maybe, but what was there to lose except for peeling skin?

The room was plain, and the bed sagged, and the covers on the bed were old and seemed dirty, but the pillowcases felt clean and I didn't see any dust on the floor or on the one table near the door. Overall the house could have been quite nice inside with its long, one-floor hallway with rooms to the left and large windows revealing the quiet courtyard outside to the right. The plain exterior house was shaped like the letter "U" with the rooms on the left of the house, the bathroom, living room, dining room, and front entryway rounding the bottom, with the kitchen on the right. The courtyard sat in between the rooms and the kitchen with the dining room at the base, and it extended away from the street toward a muddy garden with unkempt trees in the back. His sister and cousin, both in their 50s at least, lived in one room together and barely spoke to him. The dogs were the friendliest Boxers I had ever met. No one would have known what was inside by the look of the outside. The key worked fine when I came and went on my own.

He lived across from the grocery store, and since I knew it would take credit cards I found it easy to find dinner (pre-made spaghetti with vegetables and some bread). I sat in the courtyard to rest from my body after 26-hours of travelling and read about the surrounding area. Alejandro brought me a map. Maybe I'd go for a walk in the evening just to get my bearings settled.

Coquimbo really was rough and tumble. If I were comfortable in my own surly ways then I would have felt right at home here, but I was vulnerable and I knew it. I did one loop through the British Quarter and headed back to the beach. My surliness is an asset at times, but I can only get it going when I'm comfortable and confident that it is true and honest. If I had to defend myself here I'd have to really fake it. Considering the fact that I was tired, I wasn't sure I could.
The walk back was interesting because I was less weary from walking and more worried about the sting on my head and arms. I sat on a set of steps and watched a bunch of people play an organized beach soccer game (which was apparently going to be followed by beach volleyball - it must have been a club of some sort where two teams - red and blue - compete against each other in various sports. They weren't athletes, just people playing games). An old homeless man approached me and asked me something in Spanish. I was a bit worried, but I had to tell him that I neither understood him nor Spanish. He could have taken advantage of me then, and that was what I expected (I expected to have to get up and run off and away from his advancements that were probably for money, cigarettes, or booze), but when I told him he just looked at me, thought for a moment, and seemed to nod his head and shrug his shoulders before he walked off without incident. It was satisfying to see a man so down on his luck simply walk away as if he knew there was nothing he could do, despite the fact there was so much he could have done. It didn't matter anyway; I had no cash on me. Or maybe he didn't ask me for that at all. Maybe I just assumed. Not everyone who is haggard is asking for money. I know that. I should have done a better job of remembering it. After that, the soccer game was less interesting.

The night felt dirty. I didn't want to sleep in the bed, but I had no other place to go for the night. I could have gone around to the various hostels, but why when the price was right and I had a room to myself. Yes, a hostel would probably be cleaner and kept better, but at least I was alone, it was quiet, and I was in the center of town. I had a big day ahead of me, so I didn't worry too much and soon I was asleep.

There were two American girls staying at Alejandro's. They were in the room next to me and I learned a lot about the area from them. One of them had been living and teaching English in Santiago. She was a wealth of information. I bought them some good cheese and bread for their dinner in exchange for a taste of their meal and knowledge.

On the way to Coquimbo I avoided the streams that fed from the streets out into the ocean. They looked dirty, dirtier than what brown water should look like if it is simply being run off the land. This made for a lot of extra walking and some jumping. I walked through them on the way back. "Fuck it," I said. I had seen enough people doing the same thing. This place isn't so poor and uneducated that people don't know about raw sewage. La Serena isn't a slum where kids play in places one typically only sees in help-the-poor TV commercials. If the locals, wearing expensive jeans or shorts, are walking through the streams then they must be OK. Lots of people walked through them. It made me a bit queasy to stroll along and have this dirty water plow up against the tops of my ankles, but I was certain that I wouldn't lose my feet as a result. "It's only fucking water," I told myself. "I'm not so high and mighty that I can't walk through it."

My evening stroll through town was quick and easy. I wanted an ice cream and when I had eaten it my walk was nearly over. The town was quiet when I first arrived, but that was likely because it was Sunday and off-season. The night, however, was busier. People were out and about running to the store, the market, from the restaurants to the bars. I was lost in between and happy about it.

The next day I went looking for new places to stay, but all the hostels were full. I was stuck staying at Alejandro's with the two girls again. That was OK. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough. Dinner was fish and rice. I had some homemade ice cream for dessert.

My second night there was an easy night to fall asleep. Alejandro was amazed that I had walked all the way from La Serena to Coquimbo and back. "Is over twenty miles," he said after doing the math in his head. We looked it up on Google and it came up to be a little less than 25 miles round-trip. "That's not a problem," I lied. "I walk that distance all the time." He then showed me that when he was young he and some friends had walked from the other side of the peninsula in Coquimbo to La Serena. "We were drunk and had girls with us," he said. "They didn't want to walk but there were no taxis. It took us many hours. Many, many hours. You know My Fair Lady? I learn English from that, and my brother. He was teacher of English. My English is good?" I told him it was.

There were good bus schedules on the way back to Santiago. I was down to my last 5000 pesos, and I knew I'd need 400 for the subway in Santiago and another 1400 pesos for the bus from the subway to the airport. That left me with about 3000 pesos. I bought the girls some bread and cheese my last night, and later I bought an ice cream. I had 2000 pesos left.

The bus stopped at the pit stop again, but I saved my cash. I didn't even run next door to the Esso station as I did on the way up. Instead I napped as much as I could and took in the scenery, too. In a few hours I'd be on a plane back to Boston. I had learned so much and yet not enough during this two-week trip. Chile wasn't what I expected it to be, but it was enough, and that was what I needed. No, unlike what some have said, this is not an adventure. Going to Chile is not the end-goal. The goal is to write, and if I went anywhere that peaked my curiosity then I likely wouldn't write. I'd explore instead, and that is an adventure. I don't care what I learn down south. Sure, I'd like to learn some things. I'd love to climb as much as I can, and to learn a little Spanish would be helpful, but I don't care so much about that. I just want to write, so what I learned was enough. I'm going to plop my butt down and write, and then go home, and then maybe someday, when I've done what I want to do and my curiosity has peaked and I know what to look for then maybe, just maybe, I'll come back and learn and see more. But in the meantime, all I want to do is write.

Click here for all 2009 Chile and Argentina pictures.

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