Andrew M.H. Alexander

Arica, Chile, and Tacna, Peru
11 September 2008

Evan asks, “What are you doing in Peru???”

In Peru I was being led around by a nice man named Mario, who introduced himself to my father while I was off trying to buy another Inca Kola. He was a tour guide, he said, and showed us pictures of all these wonderful places he could take us. “Great!,” my dad said. “Let’s go!” So he took us to his car, conveniently parked nearby, and took a decal reading “TAXI” off the front windshield.

Before this my father and I had just been wandering aimlessly around Tacna. We tried to change money but neither of the two banks we walked past in the course of an hour would change Chilean pesos. “Only US dollars,” they said. Finally we found an ATM that would accept my dad’s Visa—also the only ATM we saw in the entire city—if I ever write a memoir I will title it “My Father’s Credit Card”—anyway, this ATM accepted the Tompkins Trust Visa, but we had no idea what the exchange rate was, so when the menu of frequently-withdrawn amounts came up, we just picked a number in the middle. 500 nuevo soles should be enough, right? We found a market, full of tiny food stands with the proprietors all yelling at the gringos to come and sit down, and got something to drink. I had an Inka Kola and my dad had prepared-in-front-of-you mango/orange juice. (Inca Kola, despite the awesome name, tastes nothing like cola and everything like liquid carbonated bubble gum.) We tried to pay, and I thought that the lady said that it cost 150 soles, so I gave her two 100 sol bills. But it actually only cost 7.50 sol (“siete cincuenta” instead of “cinco cincuenta”) and she sure as hell didn’t have change for such a large demonination. The guys sitting next to us tried to change it, but they only had 50’s, so the lady had to run off and get change. Meanwhile the guys asked us where we were from, told us about Peru, and told us that we could take a train to Cusco for only 10 sol… however much that was.

We walked around some more. A teenager walking down the street with a bag of candy offered some to us. There were cops everywhere, far more than in Chile, but here they were all wearing different uniforms. Tacna—the city just across the border from Arica in Northern Chile—is visibly poorer than the equivalent-sized cities in Chile. Chilean cities have ATMs and McDonalds everywhere. There were none in Tacna. Chile has a sort of post-third-world feel—modern, but with enough street vendors and open-air markets to make it exotic. But Tacna had nothing /but/ street vendors and tiny shops in stalls selling imported Chinese knockoffs. There were, it seemed, no stores with more than two employees. Santiago has replaced all its microbuses with double-length hybrids; Tacna has not only smelly microbuses but shared vans that people crowd into. My dad left his hat in our car in Arica, and since he’s almost completely bald, he bought a new one in some shop in Tacna. “The guy tried to sell me a New York Yankees hat, but I told him I was from New York and already had plenty.” So instead my dad bought a hat with a giant Toyota logo on it.

We wandered around and there was really nothing to do but wander around and I began to worry that my big “Let’s go to Peru!” plan would backfire into boredom. Using a map we ended up on the main boulevard in front of a cathedral, whose architecture looked almost Islamic. But we didn’t get to go inside, since my dad decided to sit down on a bench in the plaza in front of the church—nice place, lots of people, lots of trees; evidently old age is turning him on to that grandmotherly hobby of people-watching—and I went off to buy another Inca Cola from a street vendor. When I came back I saw that my dad was being harassed by some guy, and, hating to have to interact with local hustlers, I kept walking. A block or so beyond the church there was a miniature replica of the St. Louis Arch, except it was 30 feet high, the mortar between the bricks was visible, and it was dedicated to the heroes of Tacna or something. My dad was still talking to this guy. I finished my Inca Kola, returned the empty bottle to the street vendress, and then saw my dad waving me over from the other side of the plaza.

“This is Mr. Ramirez,” my dad said. “He’s a tour guide.” Mr. Ramirez showed me what appeared to be a postcard glued to the pages of a datebook. “He’s offered to take us on a three-hour tour of this Inca site up in the mountains. It sounds great! And he speaks Spanish very slowly and clearly. What do you say?”

I was horrified, and unable to do anything other than smile and nod. Mr. Ramirez extended his hand. “Mario,” he said. I shook it. He led us off toward his car, a crappy Honda hatchback with the safety instructions on the visor written in Japanese. “Jesus Christ,” I thought. “My father grew up in Indonesia, has lived in four countries, and yet here he is walking around Peru wearing an idiotic baseball hat and talking loudly in English and holding maps like he’s trying to show them off to passers-by. And now we’re going to get robbed by some murderer whose car we’ve just happily jumped into.”

Of course, Mr. Ramirez looked perfectly nice—somewhat overweight, somewhere in his 60s—and he was speaking Spanish very slowly and comprehensibly. (¨Tacna has 290,400 people,” he said.) This reassured me not the slightest. (“290,400,” he repeated, as I frantically jotted down my name and next-of-kin in my notebook.) We drove out of the city and entered the desert, and I tried as discreetly as possible to remove the memory card from my camera and stick it into one of the inner pockets of my pants. (“Why don’t you sit in the front?,” my dad had said, making such discretion all the more difficult.) Then I took a 100 sol bill out of my pocket and stuffed it into my shoe. “I can make my dad buy me a new camera,” I thought. “It’d be too bad to lose my passport, since I really liked that Iranian visa, but at least I have a copy of it. I have a lot of sentimental value attached to this backpack, but I’ve had it for eight years and it was time for a new one.”

We kept driving up into the desert, and Mr. Ramirez stopped twice, first for gas and then for a snack. He told us about Tacna and Peru, and I could understand (to my surprise) most of what he said. And the scenery was incredible. Up here in northern Chile and southern Peru, everything is desert. And by desert, I don’t mean cactuses and tumbleweeds—there is nothing living. Nothing. There are plains and mountains of nothing but dirt, sand, and rock, as far as you can see. It is incredible. Earlier this week we were driving through even more oppressive parts of the Atacama, which are completely flat. You’re driving on the Panamerican Highway, except the Panamerican is nothing but a two-lane road with an unpaved shoulder that stretches all the way to the horizon. The road runs perfectly straight for 20, 30 miles at a time, because there is nothing in the way. All the way to the horizon there is nothing but sand, dirt, and rocks. There is nothing living, nothing dead, simply NOTHING but this strip of asphalt surrounded by hundreds of square miles of a landscape too barren even for Star Wars. You drive four hours without seeing a single gas station, a single house, or a single human thing other than the road. Every few hours the pampas are cut by gorges, which are equally inhuman in scale: they are two miles wide, three thousand feet deep, and the road takes a single switchback down to the bottom that lasts for five miles. You wonder how much longer you can keep descending, and you start thinking about Dante. There are no towns. You can get a tiny, detail-free map of Chile, blow it up, and you’d have a detailed map of the North—that’s all there is, one road connecting three or four big cities. Nothing else.

Things brighten up somewhat near the coast, though, and there are hills and stuff. (And the Pacific Ocean!) Still no life, but at least the world has a z-axis.

After driving 20 minutes up from Tacna, we came to what I guess is this Inca site. It basically looked like the same slanted rubble field we had been in the whole time, but with rocks arranged to form the outline of trails. The attraction is petroglyphs, which the Incas ostensibly carved onto various rocks in the area. The petroglyphs are quite cool-looking—guys shooting arrows at llamas and stuff like that. Señor Mario told us that he would meet is in an hour at the visitors’ center and showed us the map of the site. We walked around, looked at the petroglyphs, and talked about it how looked like we were walking in one of those Martian landscapes that Nicky Squyres’ dad’s robots take pictures of. For me the coolest thing was not the petroglyphs but these two reconstructed Incan bridges across a gully. The bridges were built with steel cables sunk into concrete, but the cables were wrapped in rope to make it look like an Incan bridge (or at least like something out of Indiana Jones). The main support, as far as I could tell, was the handrails—the bridge deck was just slats of wood hanging from the handrails (with just rope, no cable) and with small support cables on either side. This creates the interesting phenomenon that when you walk on it, the deck swings wildly from side to side and the handrails stay more or less in the same place. Very different from the suspension bridges I’m used to—which, 1) swing up and down, and 2) have closer correlation between railing and deck movement.

We met up with our sunburned guide and his funny hat at the visitors’ center, which was really just a roofless building (who needs a roof when it doesn’t rain?) with some relocated petroglyph stones and an attendant listening to the radio. Mario showed us the stones and explained the various interpretations of the petroglyphs. He also taught us how to say “como se llama” in Quechua, which I promptly forgot, and which gave my father the opportunity to share that Cornell teaches Quechua. (Later I got to brag that, while Cornell might teach the ancient Inca language, /my/ university had Barack Obama as a professor.)

From the petroglyphs we headed downhill to some thermal baths, and then on to a restaurant, where we ate various Peruvian foods, drank Peruvian drinks, and talked more about Peru. All in all, Mario was extremely nice, spoke Spanish very carefully so that we could understand, and showed us some cool places. I’m glad he accosted my dad. Quite serendipitous, since the only other tourists in Tacna seemed to be the half-dozen camera-waving, safari-vested Chileans who rode the train with us.

Señor Mario drove us back to the train station just in time to make the (only) train back to Arica, we thanked him profusely, and my dad gave him 50% over his suggested price.

The train this morning from Arica (Chile) to Tacna (Peru) was much cheaper. 1200 Chilean Pesos = 7 Peruvian Nuevo Soles = USD $2.50. It wasn’t a train, really, as it was a single subway car riding on a track—they called it an “autovagon”; apparently it’s self-propelled and doesn’t need an engine. The train was perfect in the sense of “look I’m in a third-world country and need stories of squalor to bring home.” The only source of light were these tiny, tiny windows next to every third bench, the entire cabin was wooden and rickety, and there was so little space between the benches that you had to sort of scissor your legs with the legs of the guy across from you—one leg in his crotch, the other leg inviting his leg into your crotch. Did I mention that the train went through a minefield? It’s on the Chilean side of the border and surrounded by huge “PELIGRO” signs. Again, the kind of thing that’s not remotely dangerous from the cabin of a train, but will still give me plenty of anecdotes to casually drop in conversations throughout the coming year.

When we got to Peru, at maybe 10 AM, the border control consisted of a guy wearing a t-shirt sitting in a wooden booth. He had a stamp, a pile of tourist cards, and a piece of paper on the wall that said “LIST OF COUNTRIES WHOSE CITIZENS NEED A VISA TO ENTER PERU.” One of the countries had been crossed out with the annotation “OK to enter.” The US wasn’t on the list, and so the inspector stamped out passports and waved us through. I don’t know if “stamped” is the right word, though, since the desert had dehydrated the stamp beyond any sort of legibility. The “PERU” part didn’t show up at all, and the rest is just a shadow on my passport. The Chilean stamps, by contrast, were fresh and wet, so anyone who looks at my passport will see me leave and re-enter Chile but never arrive in (or leave) Peru. It’s as if a tear in the fabric of nation-states had somehow opened in the Atacama Desert, swallowed me up around 9:33 AM, and then spit me out at 6:20 PM. Maybe this is what Philip Pullman is really writing about in His Dark Materials—the danger of extraterritorial regions. Poor border-control procedures will create stateless people who suddenly appear to create bureaucratic havoc!

It seemed an appropriate way to spend the 35th anniversary of Pinochet’s bloody coup d’etat—across the border in Peru. I have many more stories, including those of how my father brought to Chile enough food for fourteen people-days of hiking (clearly Chile has neither supermarkets nor food/agriculture importation laws) and also how he thought a $25 sleeping bag from Target would be sufficient for camping at 14,000 feet. Those stories will wait, but needless to say, I am writing this from the business center of an expensive hotel and not by satellite hookup from the desert.


PS—Peruvian coins are AMAZING. I’m bringing back a bunch to show you and Rob. They are… almost modernist in design. Like, the obverse is printed with a sans-serif font and has this crazy minimalist appearance and icon doodad. The reverse is more traditional, with intricate lines and serif fonts and whatnot, but man! I spent most of the train ride back thinking about currency design.