Visiting the past.
Light streaks in through the holes in the rusted, corrugated roofs and lands in bright, coiny spots on the floor. The sky, such a brilliant, bursting blue that it almost hurts to look at it, peeks through the rough, orange edges. I push my finger through the silky dust on a dessicated window ledge and watch as the fine motes burble in the dry air. In each house, the desert light fills the rooms with beautiful, pale, washed out colours and splashes the walls with ragged sunshine. The old paint peels away and drops in piles to the floor.
Humberstone was once a busy saltpetre mining town in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Today, bleached and crumbling, it is empty but for the tourists who creep about the place taking photos. It was opened in 1872 and was once home to a bustling community of miners and their families but closed its doors in 1960 after the mining companies went bust. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site but if you are thinking the city of Bath or the Taj Mahal, forget it. This is nothing like any heritage site I have ever been to and if I ever get the chance to return, I am not totally sure it will still be standing.
The whole town is falling away piece by piece. It is as wonderfully hazardous place as I have ever been allowed to explore without someone shouting at me to come away and stop being silly. We poke our heads through empty window frames and gaze upon piles of rubble, once walls, where now we can see through to the next room which is littered with rust fragments and banked with sand. At one point, I put my hand to a wooden roof support to find the wood disassembling between my fingers and blowing away in the breeze.
The first few buildings house beautiful displays of household items found at the site. We wander in and out of the old buildings, the hospital, the school house . We stare up the walls where thirty wire pistols are arranged in rows, lines of home made sling shots, crude dolls house items fashioned from left overs. These are the remnants of the ever prevailing parental desire to keep their children busy and out from under their feet. Next door, cream coloured enamel jugs line the shelves, bashed and battered like skulls though instead of gore, rust has seeped through the broken enamel. Lines of bent spoons hang beneath them and knives and forks rank together in cockeyed, tine wonky glory. Enamel teapots, tins of molasses, biscuit boxes. The company and many inhabitants of this place were English and sometimes, it shows.
As we make our way down the high street buildings, the artifacts gradually give way to decrepitude until eventually we are just clambering over piles of concrete and pushing aside sun pitted slabs of fallen iron. As we walk in the dust, it shudders and rolls away from under our feet exactly like moon dust. Every building is covered in chalked graffiti from hundreds of visitors. The pale, rosy pink of the ballroom walls is etched with the words of the many. One even reads
I danced here in….
The date is lost.
I danced in here in a lost time when there was much. Today I leave a tear of nostalgia that it was so beautiful.
Is it a tourist? A nostalgic tourist prone to impromptu jigs or a former member of the community remembering a night years ago beneath the famous Atacama starscape to the sound of the piano?
I take a photo of the words and a few more of the different things people have had to say on the matter and then go on to find Jamie. I find him leaning on the old bar under stripes of fallen sunshine maybe trying to imagine himself ordering a pint or two when the floor wasn’t swathes of sand and the roof wasn’t collecting in piles in the corners. I take another photo, this time of him. Blue t-shirt almost luminous in the pink air. Face lit with bands of sunshine. Then he follows me out and we head past the scrubby, twisted trees still standing in the main square, towards the edge of town where the saltpetre processing buildings still stand.
As a serial snooper of abandoned buildings, I am totally entranced by everything we pass. The best thing about it is that it’s not the boring kind of ruins on which Health and Safety have had their mitts . Here, like in much of Latin America, you can fall through the shonky looking roof you were climbing on and that is completely your decision. If you want to venture in to a post apocalyptic scene of stoved in walls and dodgy looking floorboards, on your head be it. No one is going to try and stop you. The saltpetre works are perhaps the finest example of this.
The little, low buildings which form the town drop away and the ground in front of us fills with huge pieces of abandoned, oxidised machinery. A gigantic heating element from a prehistoric boiler begs to be bounced on. Great rusted boxes, their sides flayed open, dot the surrounding area, massive engine blocks tipped on their sides, sprays of machine parts. We pick past discarded workshop benches covered in parts that leave perfect, rusty outlines when you pick them up, boxes of spilled metal cut outs I can’t name all just lying in proliferation in the desert sand. Huge, corroded buildings rise up beyond the clutter, roofs leaking away in orange streaks in to the dust. The wind blows through the holes in the walls, whistling a lament and scattering a fine layer of dirt about the place. Inside, more gigantic machinery rots away; a lathe so huge that Jamie, who knows about such things, can’t think what it could possibly have been used for, forges, electrical boards, crank shafts lying in the shadows. An old child’s shoe rests inexplicably on top of the lathe. Delicately stitched in white leather, it is incongruous in here amongst these crouched, monstrous pieces of machinery. There is no doubt it is old to enough to have belonged to a young Humberstone resident but how it got here, amongst the nitty gritty of it is a mystery. The shoe lace has rotted in two and the little, lost tangle of it lies a few inches away covered in dirt. I wonder who it belonged to and if they are still alive.
I leave the shoe reluctantly where it is and climb a gloomy staircase to an abandoned room in which the shelves are still stocked with fiddly parts, cartons full of screws, nails, shapes I have no name for. Three small cylinders are lined up on one shelf filled with a black, bristly looking material I don’t understand. What is it? I poke it with my finger to find it is sticky like crude oil left on a sponge.
I say, wiping my finger on my bike trousers.
It’s a silencer….
Says Jamie, who has made his way upstairs and stands at my side. He picks up one of the cylinders and turns in his hands.
From an exhaust.
He puts the silencer back down carefully and brushes his hands free of dirt. We creep back down the stairs, wondering when someone will come to tell us off for poking about in this stuff, but no one comes. The place is silent and empty but for the sighing wind and occasional, far off voices of another visitor.
I realise as we descend another perilous, age softened staircase round the back of a huge shed parked steam engines, that the shadows are getting long across the desert floor. It is almost 6.30. We have been here, wandering totally mesmerised, for two and a half hours. Time flies when you are in a hazardous Chilean ghost town. We begin to reluctantly walk slowly back towards the entrance peering in to windows from which ragged curtains billow, listening to the lonely clang of the overhead lamps in the wind. The last building we go in has a peeling sign outside it telling us it is an example of a middle class house.
Expecting copies of the Guardian drifting about in the corners and empty organic quinoa boxes on the shelves, we go in. Inside we are met, instead, with a huge, rotten hole in the wooden floorboards and bright, spearmint green walls etched in chalk with thousands more names of past visitors. We wander through to the back, edging around the hole and feeling the remaining floor sagging underfoot. A pale, sunlight yellow bedroom with two brass beds, darkened with a ruddy tarnish, meets us. The beds are neatly made up with crocheted covers, a small doll, a bedside table. The silence settles on us as we look at the lovely room, choosing what we would take if we could; little brass bed on the right. The kitchen next door has a lovely old, duck egg coloured dresser by the wall, an enamel teapot on the table, an old fruit bowl. It feels like the house is waiting for someone to come home and put the kettle on but passing through the back door, the desert has started to reclaim the back of the house. The stove is duned with dust, the enamel pots rusting through and the walls and ceiling bowed and rotten. The back yard is nothing more than fallen corrugated iron and sand. The Atacama is slowly swallowing the house year on year . No one will be back here to make us a cup of tea, that much is suddenly very clear.
We leave the ravaged house behind and return to the main entrance, pausing to pick up our bike jackets from the office.
I wonder how much of this place will still be here if we came back in thirty years?
I ask Jamie as we latch the gate close behind us and walk back to Robin. Fifty five years have had their pockmarked, tumbledown way with the place and it is disintegrating beneath our fingertips. Perhaps there would be nothing more than a huge lathe in the desert which no one knows what to do with? I can see Jamie itching for the day he can come back with a lorry and drag the lathe away and hide it in a shed somewhere.
In the carpark, a shy but curious dogs approaches nervously to be given some attention. I stroke her, she won’t look me in the eye but enjoys the fuss. I pat my leg encouragingly and she finally looks up and rears up. She puts her front paws on my leg and gazes at me. I stroke her some more and look up. The slightly flyaway looking man who looks after the carpark is sneaking a look. Perhaps it is his dog.
Says Jamie, anxious to get to our destination, Iquique, another thirty miles away through the desert. I briefly picture the dog in pilot’s goggles lying over the tank then gently lower her big paws to the ground and climb on to Robin.
I say and she looks at me like I just broke up with her.
I say and wave at the parking attendant who does a strange nodding salute and then we are away.
The time difference between Chile and Peru is two hours so we are a little ruffled by the still bright skies at 7.30 in the evening. Months have gone by where it gets dark swiftly by six and stays that way for the next eleven or twelve hours. The sun has softened by this time and blurs the edges of the great dunes around us leaving them soft and comfortable looking. The city appears suddenly as we reach the edge of the desert and the sand plunges down some 200 feet to the sea. The sight of this vast stretch of water, bowed slightly with the curvature of the earth and ringing with the bright glow of the evening sunshine takes me by surprise. Hours and hours in the driest place on earth has left me unprepared for it. Beside it, toy sized, far below us, Iquique rises from the sand. The windows of the high rises glint in the sunshine and despite its relative unattractiveness, it looks beautiful from up here at 8pm after a day in the flat glare of the desert sunshine.
Beside us, I notice footprints in the sand. One set follows the road for a while then ascends the hillside. Then I see a wonky looking shelter built from an old tent supplemented with cardboard, pieces of plastic, wood. Someone is living out here, high above the city, all on their own. There are no houses or shops here but I suppose they must be left alone here to live as they wish. Then I spot another one, a slightly different design this time minus the tent. I wonder who these people are and imagine barefooted homeless men with dirty dreadlocks matted together like so many broken people we have seen throughout this journey. Another cobbled together shelter appears, then another. Quite a community. I think. Then I see movement, a piece of plastic sheeting is pushed aside and out comes a woman. She is well dressed, hair clean and brushed. She swings her handbag over her shoulder and fastens the door behind her as though she is leaving for work. This is not the grimey faced man of my imagination and I don’t really know what to make of it.
As we pull in to town, the tents increase in size. They become more like big gazebos with three sides rolled down and they are all striped in yellow, green or red like circus tents. Inside we can see fridges, rolled up futons, ovens. Two women sit on the floor, chatting over a low table drinking tea. And there are lots of these tents. Indeed, outside every Chilean city we will come in to, these tents will appear on a piece of grass or sand at the city limits, families getting ready inside them, chatting, opening the fridge, eating dinner. It’s very puzzling. They look nice inside, cosy and welcoming and they have clearly been there sometime. This isn’t a fair rolled in to town or a bizarre camping holiday, this is where normal families live in relative comfort.
The question of who they are and how they have ended up living in these comfortable circus tents on the edge of Iquique is never answered though. We arrive at our hostel and are swept up in the usual routine of paying and methodically unpacking before we find a bar on the seafront and join the bright, happy looking Chileans for cold beers. Here, people look relaxed and happy, they laugh, they drink. It’s a very different atmosphere from the often reserved, quieter and less intoxicated Peruvians. We order machada sandwiches which come in chewy, delicious white bread quite unlike anything you can get in the more northern countries. They are filled with grilled meat, big slippery slabs of tomato and enormous amounts of uncontrollable avocado, desperately trying to escape its bready confines.
The beer is cold as ice, we have avocado on our elbows and we are amongst cheerful people consuming piles of steak and chips. We feel almost at home here and the feeling is so welcome after a long, dry day in the Atacama that we make a toast.
Our glasses clink and we grin at each other in the din. Chile have just won some football match and great, swaying Jeeploads of joyful men sing and hoot on the far side of the road. They light firecrackers and fireworks and cause a sort of pleasant mayhem which has the manager of the local petrol station lock the doors and stand outside shaking his head. A woman of fifty or so glides past us and we turn to look at her. She is smiling broadly and attracting the laughter of the other people in the bar. She has tied a skateboard to the back of her elderly father’s electric buggy and he is towing her back home. A man in the corner orders a steak and quietly consumes four bread rolls with ketchup whilst waiting and then cannot finish his chips. He steals a guilty look at me as he squirts the tomato sauce on. Yes, his look says, I am forty years old and I am going to ruin my appetite with ketchup sandwiches because no one is here to stop me. The whole scene is celebratory, a little bit ridiculous, quite lovely. I smile at Jamie. I think this might be one of those strange evenings in a random city, in a random restaurant that we will remember for a long time to come. Jamie drinks his beer and smiles back and nods.
I eat the last bit of my sandwich and wipe avocado out of my hair, sigh and lean my tired vertebra back against the chair. It seems hard to believe that Santiago is only a weeks drive away from us. From there the bike will be carefully strapped on to a pallet, wrapped obsessively in cling film and popped in to a crate. Then she will take the first flight home to Heathrow and we will continue on without her. Eight months of riding, eight months of aching knees, of six o’clock starts, of hot, sweaty rides through deserts and over mountains. Eight months of dead butterflies festooning the front grills, of wasps exploding messily on our visors, dogs chasing us, birds swooping in to our front wheel in a puff of feathers. Eight months of sniffing the chlorophyll heavy air, gazing up at the enormous skies, squinting at the bright glittering of the Pacific, Atlantic and Caribbean seas, the lakes, the rivers. Two hundred and twenty days under the gaze of a thousand curious eyes, of puzzlement and confusion, of inexplicably large numbers of men in wellies, of eating jelly on strange street corners, of adopting cats. And now it’s nearly over and we will be Robinless.
I can’t believe it!
Says Jamie and I shake my head.
Of course, this is all speculation. We still haven’t found anyone to ship the bike. Of the four people we have emailed, only one has replied and we can find no information about his reliability anywhere on the internet, not a thing. We will have to wait, driving, narrowing the distance between us and Santiago and hoping that someone will send us a message. A nice, simple email that just says yes, we can do that. We can take your motorbike in the busiest exportation season of the year, with six days notice, just before Christmas and it won’t even cost you that much.
Here’s to that.