“Welcome to Chile, Nia!” I said as the cross-border taxi dropped us at the bus station in the northern border town of Arica. "I've wanted to bring you here for a long time."
This was Nia’s first trip to Chile. For me, it was the first time since Puerto Rico that my feet had touched familiar ground. An ardent Chile-o-phile, I began coming twenty years ago. Over the decades I’d traveled up and down this stunning linear country. However this was the first time I’d arrived in Arica from the north; I’d come up a couple times from the south.
“Feels like home!” I exclaimed, looking at the familiar sloped roof of the bus station (why a sloped roof in a rainless place is beyond me). The city looked good coming in, like it had developed quite a bit along with the rest of the country while I’d been away. But it was unmistakably Arica, Atacama Desert city of surf and sun, a place that gets 3.0 inches of rain per century.
Soon I’d get to see my friend Luisa! It had been six years. She was expecting us; we’d been sending e-mails back and forth during the previous weeks. “My home is also your home; you are my brother,” she had reminded me. I couldn’t wait to see her.
There was a catch: I was going to have to wait a little, because her home was 2,041 kilometers farther south.
“How much longer to get to Luisa’s?” asked Nia.
“Um it’s a (mumble-mumble-mumble)-hour ride,” I said, coughing through my hand-covered mouth.
But she’d heard me. “WHAT?! Thirty-two hours?
Yes, I’d saved the epic South American bus trip for the very end. I’d figured we’d manage it better, knowing we were on home stretch.
I tried to sound nonchalant. “Aw but we’re not doing it today
, Nia. And we’ll break the journey in La Serena, after twenty-four hours. Then we’ll only have eight more hours to go, and pretty much be done!”
This did not help Nia’s facial expression.
“For now, let’s go check into Sunny Days,” I said. “You’re going to like this place.”
“Are we taking a taxi?”
“We could, but there is really no point. It’s just a few blocks away, if I remember correctly.”
We hoisted our bags and proceeded to not find Sunny Days. After all, it had been six years. Finally I knocked on somebody’s front gate to ask where it was. The dude grinned and told us to hop in his car, and he took us there.
We dragged our bags inside just as a genteel couple were sitting down to lunch.
“Well, hello there Ross!” I exclaimed. “Hello, Beatriz!”
They looked at me like I was crazy, yet like they were used to this sort of thing. I’d never forgotten Ross from last time; he’d chased me up at the bus station with a sweater I’d forgotten, which turned out to be pretty important since we were headed to Bolivia.
Ross got up from his lunch and led us to a cozy room in the back where sun splashed through the curtains. “You’re little one is half price, you know,” he said in his New Zealand lilt. “What you want, one night?”
I looked at Nia, then back at Ross. I smiled.
“Better make it two,” I said.
Nia reclined on a bed with her tablet as I began to unpack.
A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door. It was Beatriz, grinning with a tray of cookies and mango juice.
The Clock of the South
Two days later at noon, Nia and I boarded the bus
, and headed south through the endless rolling desert. Within an hour, Nia had put herself into what would prove to be hibernation.
We hit the city of Iquique in dramatic late afternoon light, arriving just 119 days after an 8.2-magnitude earthquake and tsunami, and just 9 days before a 5.7-magnitude sismo, the epicenter-to-be of which we rolled right over.
This whole region is a ticking time bomb for mega upthrust earthquakes. Just off the coast, the Nazca Plate dives under South America at a rate of about 2.75 inches a year. The April 1st shake likely did not relieve all of the stress that has been building up since the last biggee 140 years ago. There is still a lot of stored strain.
The April 1st quake was big, but its impact was modest compared to the 2010 earthquake and tsunami that hit farther south. This was the sixth largest ever recorded by seismograph, and it killed more than five hundred people and damaged 370,000 homes. This past April 1st, only six people died, four of them from heart attacks. Also, 293 women escaped from an Iquique prison when a wall collapsed. But most of them returned voluntarily after things settled down.
Into the night, our bus continued south through Chile’s Antofagasta province, reaching the city of the same name in the wee hours.
Chile siezed this economically important region from Bolivia during the War of the Pacific of 1879-1883, and Bolivia remains keen on getting it back. A bit of a fracas occurred two months ago, at a meeting of the Group of 77 Countries held in Santa Cruz, Bolivia (The G-77 is a loose coalition of developing nations, whose membership now tops 133 countries). During this meeting, the Chilean Foreign Ministry issued a formal complaint when the Bolivian delegation placed gift clocks on everyone’s desks which were in the shape of a map of Bolivia that included the old province of Antofagasta.
Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca justified the “Clock of the South,” saying, “We have to remember that our sea is indispensable. We have to remember that every day, every hour, every minute.”
This followed on the heels of Bolivian President Evo Morales personally handing over, last April, to the International Court of Justice in the Hague, a legal dossier containing Bolivia’s lawsuit to regain its access to the sea. The UN Court's ruling will take years to decide, but it will be binding.
“Bolivia is very confident and hopeful…” Morales said in reference to the lawsuit. “We trust that Bolivia will soon have sovereignty again in the Pacific.”
Chile begs to differ, and prefers to keep all of its territory. For one thing, giving Antofagasta back to Bolivia would mean breaking Chile into two pieces; the two Chilean regions farther north were seized from Peru in the same war. Chile has spent more than 100 years “Chile-ifying” these regions. Furthermore, there is that little detail that the Antofagasta region contains the world’s largest copper mine. Despite gallant efforts to diversify, Chile’s economy is still about 55% copper.
Newly-elected-for-the-second-time Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was characteristically diplomatic in her response to Bolivia’s lawsuit.
“We are very clear that we respect international treaties…” she told Chilean Cooperativa TV. “But we are going to first analyze the Bolivian case in order to decide how we proceed.”
Ha! As if there is anything Bolivia could say that would make Chile willingly give up a square centimeter.
It was Bolivia’s turn to lodge a formal complaint last February when, at the annual Festival of Viña del Mar in Chile, a troupe of comedians known as “Los Locos de Humor” presented their recommendation for how Chile should proceed to address Bolivia’s maritime goals. After joking, “We must give them ocean so they can know what a tsunami is,” the troupe went on to suggest handing Bolivia over a slice of deeply southern Patagonia, perhaps something near Punta Arenas. “If they want ocean, they can walk!” the group proclaimed.
The Bolivian government was not amused.
Back to those clocks given out at the G-77 meeting: The shape wasn’t the only thing curious about them. Like the clock installed earlier this year on the Bolivian Congress building in La Paz, the hands revolved counterclockwise with the numbers reversed. Why was this? The initiative has been explained by officials as designed to encourage Bolivians to question norms and think creatively.
“Who says that the clock has to turn that way always? Why do we always have to obey, why can’t we be creative?” asked Mr. Choquehuanca.
And heck, creativity aside, if the toilets flush anticlockwise in South America, why shouldn't the clocks turn anticlockwise?
I don’t see why we should stop with clocks. Heck, why not flip the map? I’ve often wondered why north must always be up. Perhaps we've got the whole universe upside down anyway.
Whenever I turn the world map over and look at it that way, I get dizzy, lost, and confused. It's a good exercise in looking at things differently, I think!