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Take the long view: Chile revisited

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Take the long view: Chile revisited


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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Take the long view: Chile revisited” was written by Sara Wheeler, for The Observer on Sunday 6th January 2019 07.00 UTC

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When I first went to Chile 30 years ago, I interviewed a television weatherman. Every evening after the six o’clock news, this fellow had to say : “Tomorrow it will be very hot in the north, pleasantly warm in the middle, and perishing at the bottom.”

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What a shape. That was what attracted me to this long, thin country. Could a Chilean woman at the top possibly have anything in common with a man born 4,270 kilometres (2,653 miles) below her? How can a country function when it is 25 times longer than it is wide? I went to find out. This is the story of a love affair with a land where I spent six months travelling from the Peruvian border to Cape Horn; it is also a story of return; and of the ever-changing past. The working title of the book that resulted from that first journey was Keep the Mountains on the Left. If I did that, I couldn’t get lost.

The Juan Fernández archipelago, 650km out in the Pacific off the coast of Chile, was, at the time my first visit, occupied by 550 people and two cars. The largest island was called Robinson Crusoe, as for four years it had been the home of the man on whom Daniel Defoe based his character, in real life the mercurial Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk. Most of the men, when I pitched up, were called Robinson or Alejandro, and they fished, collectively, for langosta de Juan Fernández – large red crustaceans resembling pincerless lobsters which fetch high prices in the fancy restaurants of Santiago. I went out fishing for langosta with a Robinson and an Alejandro across the bay where the captain of the fabled German cruiser Dresden blew up his magazine in 1915 after the British warships Kent and Glasgow cornered his vessel. We ate langosta for lunch cooked over a fire in the boat, and I managed 13 hours without a bathroom to use.

I stayed at the tip of Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost police station in the world, with three policemen who were on the lookout for Argentinian invaders from Ushuaia, the lights of which town we could see twinkling opposite. When I asked my new friends what we would do in the event of an invasion, they didn’t have an answer. But they often put the generator on to watch Argentinian soaps. Prevailing south-westerlies had twisted the beech trees into alphabet configurations alongside the cold Beagle Channel where Yaghan people once paddled their canoes. The Yaghan – long gone – lived off shellfish, and had a monosyllabic verb meaning “to unexpectedly come across something hard when eating something soft”, like a pearl in an oyster.

Fisherman’s cottage near the coast in Tierra del FuegoRed fisherman’s cottage near the coast in the small village Cameron. Tierra del Fuego, Chile
Solitary confinement: a fisherman’s cottage near the coast in Tierra del Fuego. Photograph: Getty Images

To reach Cape Horn I accompanied a coffin on a 100ft supply boat heading for a north American cruise ship on which a passenger had expired, a round trip of 16 hours. The black curve of a finback whale broke the surface of the grey water, and uninhabited islands dripped from the end of the continent like water from a leaky tap. In the Roaring Forties (westerly winds) we had a hell of a time getting the coffin off our deck, into a Zodiac and on to the cruise ship.

The book I wrote about that journey flourished, and this month is its silver anniversary.

On my second visit to Chile, 13 years after the first, there were no vats of pisco sour, no strange men and, disappointingly, no bad behaviour of any kind. I took my eight-year-old son, Wilf, with me. I had caught my first fish in Chile, and I wanted him to do the same. We made a three-day horse trek from Cochamó to La Junta in the region of Los Lagos – the lakes – following an 18th-century trading route over the Andes. (It was there that I realised I was too old to travel on small horses up steep slopes.)

How had Chile changed? In the south the salmon industry had ushered in prosperity. You could get decent coffee almost everywhere, and people didn’t hate the Argentinians as much as they had on my first visit because of the spectacular collapse of that neighbour’s economy. Bolivia seemed to have taken up the baton of public enemy number one. While my son and I were there, Chileans returned their first female president.

And then there was Pinochet. On my first trip he was no longer at the helm, but I sensed him everywhere, stalking the national imagination and permeating life itself. Memories were fresh, and the wily monster was still crouching in his lair. In the intervening years the world had witnessed the bizarre sequence of events surrounding Pinochet’s detention in London and Surrey from winter 1998 to early spring 2000. I had gone down to London’s Devonshire Street to stand with protesting Chilean refugees, holding candles to the white curtains of the private hospital where the old man was being treated for a spinal hernia.

Tourists, Pia Glacier, Beagle Channel (northwest branch), PN Alberto de Agostini, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, ChileMB2J92 Tourists, Pia Glacier, Beagle Channel (northwest branch), PN Alberto de Agostini, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia, Chile
The icing on the cake: the Pia Glacier, in the Beagle Channel. Photograph: Lucas Vallecillos/Alamy Stock Photo

He was finally spirited home and, back on Chilean tarmac, rose from his wheelchair, Lazarus style (perhaps Ernest Saunders is a better example than Lazzers). History will judge both Pinochet and his UK supporters.

I saw Wilf learning to love Chile as I had done. It was deeply gratifying. I was one step away from Chile that second time: you don’t have the same sense of the open road when you travel as a parent. Responsibility is a roadblock.

Wilf and his brother were adults when I made my third visit a few months ago. I was free again. To prepare for a Patagonian road trip I fished out my old notebooks and, re-reading them, met myself coming back.

I said I’d travelled to Cape Horn, but on my original journey I had spotted something like a slice of cake suspended from the bottom of every map, even those on boy scouts’ arms. This turned out to be Chilean Antarctica – for Chile is one of the seven claimants of Antarctic territory (claims not recognised by anyone). It was actually illegal to publish a map without this triangle of ice. It made me realise what territory means to a young country. So I had hitched a lift south from Punta Arenas on a Chilean air force plane. At the first iceberg, I saw my next book in front of me – the first ever travelogue about the Antarctic. What happened next is another story.

Image of the settlement on Robinson Crusoe Island, formerly known as Juan Fernandez, in Chile.HY21WM Image of the settlement on Robinson Crusoe Island, formerly known as Juan Fernandez, in Chile.
New horizons: a settlement on Robinson Crusoe island. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Travels in a Thin Country is a young woman’s book. Re-reading it now from the misty vantage point of middle age, I hardly recognise the solitary figure who shouldered a carpetbag for 4,185km. But she was me once. And now the past is all there is for a writer like me: the present isn’t around for long enough. Would I do it differently? Yes. There would be fewer passive tenses in the book and way fewer adjectives.

As for the weatherman, he told me that the real difference in his country is east to west, from the Camanchaca sea mists that creep across a narrow band in the north to the mountains joining the Andes and the coastal Cordillera like rungs on a ladder. I saw for myself that people got shorter and darker as one climbed inland. The country surprised me at every turn. Let’s give the last word to the Chilean Nobel laureate in literature, Pablo Neruda: “He who does not know the Chilean forests, does not know the planet.”

Sara Wheeler’s book, Chile: Travels in a Thin Country, is published in paperback (Abacus, £9.99). On Monday 7 January she is giving a talk about her return to Chile, at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 (rgs.org)

Three more books to transport you to another world

In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (published in 1977)
Still viewed as one of the most influential modern travel books, In Patagonia combines personal anecdote (Chatwin’s childhood fascination with his grandma’s giant sloth skin inspired his journey) with a vivid interest in everything from Darwin and the Welsh to a log cabin built by Butch Cassidy.

Venice by Jan Morris (published in 1993)
Widely acclaimed as the classic evocation of Venice and the best book every written about the city, or any city. Not quite a history book or a guide, it’s more an immersion into every aspect of Venetian living.

Siberia by Colin Thubron (published in 1999)
Thubron charts his 15,000-mile journey into Siberia after the fall of communism. He depicts a land of strange, often bleak physical extremes, from the ice-bound graves of ancient Scythians to the world’s deepest lake, Baikal, which reaches depths of a mile.

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