A Travellerspoint blog

From Calamity To Calama

Entering Is Easy, Leaving Is Harder

SOMETIMES you decide to take a trip somewhere and sometimes the trip decides to take you somewhere else.
The Chilean border control officer looked at my Chilean ID card and eyeballed me.
"It's out of date," he said.
True, I replied, but I was in the process of getting a new one in Santiago, then lost my job, global economic crisis you understand, and so I'll just be leaving your beautiful county now, if you don't mind stamping the exit forms, thanks very much.
The man was having none of it, even when I nipped back to the bus and produced three detailed forms showing I was in the process of getting a new ID card and that I could freely leave and enter the country.
In a way only cops can do, he dutifully studied each form, stared at me for too long and calmly said "And?"
And nothing. That was that. I had not paid a small administrative fee six months beforehand and so was not allowed leave the country. I would now have to go to the international department of the gobernacion in the nearest city.
Back on the bus and the two Japanese girls who chatted and giggled all the way to the border were suddenly silent, pretending not to look at me as the bagpack was hurled off the bus, a note of panic in their eyes.
"Not every Irishman is a terrorist," I said to them, making them clutch their handbags tighter. Couldn't resist that one.
And so an unscheduled trip was made from the border outside San Pedro de Atacama to the mining city of Calama, apt really as "boring" is a word that definitely springs to mind.
Luckily the paperwork only took two days, getting up at 6am to be the first in line for 8.30am - unluckily the next bus out of Calama to Bolivia was three days later.
For a populaton of some 240,000, Calama has surprisingly little to do apart from a visit to the local copper mine, the largest of its kind in the world.
I did find a park on the outskirts, an amazing site, being the only park I've ever seen without a blade of grass or a flower in it. It resembled a carpark.
Still, I found a large tyre which was filled with gravel next to a stream.
One local man in his 30s told me what I suspected, that there was very little to do.
He said that while the mine is the largest employer in town and workers there enjoy a relatively high wage with many benefits, not everyone works for them.
Life is expensive in Calama, he said, high rents, expensive food (it is a desert after all), and a huge immigrant population from Peru and Bolivia struggling to survive, means that the gap between haves and have nots is striking.
He added that the influx of cheap drugs, mainly cocaine from Bolivia, was another problem in Calama although the number one addiction was the drink.
"Have you noticed how many bars there are in the centre?" he enquired.
"Yes, yes I have" I replied. Kind of remined me of home.

Posted by donncha 18:08 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Rapa Nui - Meeting The Locals (Bring a Six Pack)

A Willingness To Dig Deep and Listen Helps

MEETING locals on Rapa Nui is relatively easy but comes at a price, mainly beer, cigarettes and food. And at that price don’t expect much in the way of a conversation, rather you should expect a well rehearsed monologue.
Take Pamela, the native doctor who uses tradicional medicines to cure just about everything and seems to have treated half the population.
I met her and was invited back to her cottage for lunch. Very friendly in showing me where to buy the best local produce, but no attempt on her behalf to contribute financially. Lunch for three I enquired. Make it for six, she replied, you never know who we will meet on the way.
She normally walks home but decided on a taxi that day, apparently for my benefit. Picked up that tab too.
Or Moa and his extended family, who live on the far side of the island where the beer costs twice as much as it does in the main town, which itself is twice as much as on the mainland.
What about the three local men who started chatting with me at their front gate and invited me to sit on their porch to drink. After they shared a few sips of a local sweet liquor and I shared all my cigarettes I bid them farewell. But they still asked the price of a six pack as a parting gift.
But that’s how it is on Rapa Nui.
The other aspect is that once you are talking to them you realise that actually they are only interested in talking to you.
They will tell you how they are proud of their heritage (and right they should be) how they are warriors (in and out of the bed) and how they hate Chile and Chileans. But don’t expect any enquiries about your own culture or views – they just don’t care.
This is because they are so isolated. Living thousands of kilometres from the next country and being a small population – less than 4,000, many of them related – has led to an isolated, beseiged outlook on the world.
Another reason is that every day, hundreds of new tourists are arriving, who all appear the same to them.
Tourists are like the friends of friends who turn up to your party. Obviously you are polite to them and maybe even engage in a bit of chit chat.but really you are thinking “Who the f**k invited them?” But then again, if they bring a few drinks to share around....
This all sounds a bit harsh on the natives, but it’s just the way it is.
If you can factor the above in, without feeling you are the latest tourist fodder to be used, then it really is a small price to pay to meet real locals outside of the organised tours. With patience you will get a feel of how this tiny island ticks.
And if you have the money and like to drink excessively you’ll be in your element. Just remember to claim you are from a country which was brutally oppressed, offer a round in solidarity and you will have friends for life. Or at least until your plane leaves later that week.

Posted by donncha 16:13 Archived in Chile Tagged tips_and_tricks Comments (7)

Rapa Nui: The Locals Are Revolting!


WELL I'M BACK. Back in Chile from Rapa Nui or Isla de Pascua after ten days of paradise in a subtropical climate.

As well as seeing most of the moais and exploring some caves I ate raw fish with an interesting traditional island doctor; met a woman who had 16 children and joined a sit down protest on the airport runway demanding island independence from the tyranny of Chilean occupation.

A little background first. The island is part of Chile’s national territory belonging to the Valparaiso region which is over 3,500km away.

Chile annexed the Polenesian island in 1888 by way of some treaty at a time when a newly independent Chile joined the fashion of having its own overseas colony.

At this stage there were very few Rapa Nui natives left, only a little over 100 as between 1862 and 1871 some 97 per cent were either killed through smallpox, TB and slavery or were moved off the island by Christian missionaries.

Just as well because that meant more room for sheep and so the remaining survivors were herded into Hanga Roa, the only town on the island while the Williamson-Balfour sheep company ran the show until 1953. (The Chileans graciously allowed the natives walk their own island in the 1960s.)

According to Pamela Hucke, a native doctor, as late as the 1950s the Chilean authorities actively discouraged contact with the outside world by claiming the island was a leper colony, making this claim credible by injecting some natives with the disease.

This has never been reported in the Chilean press as far as she knows.

Locals also point out that the airport was built by the US government while it was a Japanese firm which resurrected the moais on the island which had been toppled.

While I was there things had reached a boiling point. Perhaps as a result of the general economic downturn or some other reasons, more Chileans are coming to live on the island which is now only 60 percent native.

Islanders point to the increase in crime such as burglaries which never happened before and the increase in hard drugs being smuggled on to the island.

Locals place full blame on the Chilean immigrants and they want this regulated.

Of course they stress that they have nothing against tourists, Chilean or otherwise, who are welcome to stay temporarily and enjoy the “open air museum” that the island is.

Tired of not being listened to, they occupied the airport runway to grab the attention of Santiago, causing all flights between the mainland and Tahiti to be postponed for two days.

During the protest there were many red and white Rapa Nui flags visible, symbolising their desire of independence for the island.

Whether the island could actually survive full independence with a population of under 4,000 is open to debate.

Listening to the locals’ concerns but also seeing the standard of life on the island I was, however, reminded of the Monty Python satirical comedy Life of Brian where the character Reg, urging resistance against the Roman occupation, admits: “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

For a start the Rapa Nuis don’t pay tax – so don’t expect a receipt for anything you buy. They also get generous grants to study on the mainland at any university of their choosing.

The island also does not know poverty and the gap between rich and poor is minimal. In part this is because almost all of them own land (Chileans are not allowed buy land here), while the state provides a large number of administrative jobs and wages are high.

For example a Chilean teacher I met told me that she could make almost three times as much on the island as in Santiago.

But on the cultural front, they probably do have to worry a little more. From what I could hear their own language Rapa Nui is spoken about 50 50 alongside Spanish and while most can speak the native tongue there are some younger people who can not. Many of these people too prefer the sights and sound of the mainland and prefer the new to the old.

The island is also not immune to the effect of globalisation which may be more of a threat than the Chilean State in the long run. Plastered all along the main street is Coca Cola's image of the moais as part of its marketing strategy for the island or the sight of Jennifer Tuku, a cultural ambassador for the island sporting two mobile phones around her neck.

Agriculture and fishing remain strong on the island, although tourism provides some 80 percent of the local economy and the sheer numbers of tourists arriving every day has ensured that the modern world is firmly entrenched in Rapa Nui.

Posted by donncha 16:27 Archived in Chile Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

What To Pack Or Not To Pack - That Is The Question

And The Answer Is Anyone's Guess

MY PACKING list has been shot down to size considerably since the decision to travel was made but even with the sawn-off list I still have a residual guilt that I'm packing too much heat.
Originally the adventure was envisioned as a camping experience (cheaper, enables more independent treks) but of course once you utter the word tent, your next thoughts are occupied with gas stoves, cooking utensils, food, sleeping bags, how much beer can be feasibly carried and other such essential items.
After checking some useful internet sites I gave up on the tent idea for South American - they can be rented, purchased, maybe even borrowed, or indeed shared. And in many countries I will be visiting, cheap accommodation is not much much more than the price of campsites. Add throw couchsurfing.com in to the mix and the tent idea has definitely flapped off in the wind.
The next item on the agenda was the backpack and I choose a Doite Sendero 60 litre. Meanwhile, against my advice, my girlfriend and travelling partner Lucia (my Peruvian Princess) opted for a similar but larger 75 litre pack. This may look slightly odd in macho America as she is a lot smaller and weaker than I am (only in the physical sense), but sexist I am not, so more power to you love! lol

As for the contents, it is shaping up something like this:
1 woolly Alpaca hat
1 sun hat
1 pair of sunglasses
1 plastic poncho
1 medium heavy fleece
1 long sleeved collared shirt
2 t-shirts
1 long sleeved thermal top and long johns
1 pair of gloves
2 pairs of long trousers (non-denim)
3 pairs of underpants
5 pairs of socks
1 pair of boots
1 pair of sandals
1 sleeping bag
1 tent (for Chile's Easter Island and the Atacama desert - expensive places and at the beginning of trip)

Plus essential hygiene items with thinking along the lines that a small bottle of shampoo is good for hair, body and clothes (although the Princess purchased large bottles of shampoo and hair conditioner the other day...well it is a work in progress).
Other items include first aid kit, a clothes line, a sewing kit, playing cards, strong tape, sunblock, factor 15 lip balm, toilet roll, bin liners, ziplock bags, spare bootlaces, batteries, LCD headlamp, camera, MP4 and a few other bits and pieces.

I'm fairly confident I am not too far wrong, and hell, we can buy more stuff en route or discard as needs be.
Roll on Easter Island.

Posted by donncha 05:08 Tagged packing Comments (4)

Packing Light Takes Might

Why Going Light Is Easier Said Than Done

PACK WHAT you need and then take out half - surely the first and best nugget of wisdom that every new traveller hears and ultimately ignores.
I've never met a first-time backpacker who has actually followed this simple travel-as-light-as-possible advice before leaving and I will be dammed if I am to be the exception.
The problem with this travel light mantra is that it is similar to saying to a smoker "Don't smoke - it's bad for your health" - it's blindingly obvious but they just can not help themselves.
Or imagine as a non-swimmer being asked to jump in the deep end of a pool with no floating devices attached and told - just relax, thousands have done it before, you will float.
The reasons for overpacking are psychological, of course, because people have a fear of moving out of their comfort zone, of being put in unfamiliar surroundings without their belongings they "require" to swim and not sink.
The first thing to realise is is that what we require is for the most part conditioned by the surroundings we find ourselves in. Obviously working in an office you may be inclined to change your clothes every day but on the road this will not be as important. Or watching your favourite soap on TV can seem as useless as smoking to those who have managed to kick the habit.
Another factor in overpacking lies in the difference in what we really need and what we think we need.
In our normal lives we are continually being sold to, be it fashions, cosmetics, gadgets and the like through a complex mix of marketing and social/peer conformity.
The combination of these factors explains a lot.
Even if you do not run in to a salesman in your local camping store who tries to flog you everything going, you will probably shop in the "buy it just in case" mode anyway.
This is the cycle I've been trying to break lately, but it is difficult. Bloody difficult. Already I have bought a Swiss Army knife, albeit the basic model, when I could have just brought a lighter kitchen knife for free (I can open beer bottles with a lighter...and who needs a screwdriver anyway?).
Also dumped my 10 degree sleeping bag for a 1 degree heavier mummy-style one for the Bolivian altitude, although I will not be camping and could probably just wear the long johns and ask for an extra blanket or two. And buying that new pair of trousers even though I have six pairs to choose from at home was just plain stupid....
Old habits are hard to break.

Posted by donncha 04:32 Tagged packing Comments (0)

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