photo credit: studebaker2008 on Flickr

By Isabella 

I have just enjoyed a virtual trip on the Pacific Ocean to Chanaral and Copiapo and back to Antofagasta. I am staying with my friends Alphonse and Maria, who are lecturers at the University; they have lived in Antofagasta for a long time and have a very large and eclectic group of friends.

Francisco has been my companion for the trip and as we arrive at the port in his boat we are met by Alphonse and Maria with their usual friendly greetings. Francisco hands his gift of freshly caught seafood over, with a glint in his eye and a question in his smile. Alphonse and Maria know immediately that they need to organise a dinner party or fish supper for their friends. The fish is fresh and cooked to perfection and the company is good. The volume of the conversation becomes louder as the evening wears on and the wine flows, there seems to be so much to talk about. At the end of the week a group of friends are going to Santiago and invite me to join them, but before that there are many other invitations offered to me.

One of the topics of conversation at the dinner table was the journey that Ernesto (Che) Guevara and Alberto Granado made in 1952 on the Norton 500cc motorbike affectionately known as La Poderosa. Some people said that the impoverished duo were at Chuquicamata and others said that it was Baquedano, but it makes no difference to me because I feel so sorry for all the impoverished and badly treated people that I have heard about, so I will accept that Juan has got the right place.

When Alberto and Che arrived at Baquedano they met a couple by the roadside, who despite their suffering were only too happy to share what they had with these two men who had become penniless tramps through choice. The story that they told on that freezing night in the desert was heart breaking. The man had spent some time in prison, as a result of being in the outlawed Chilean Communist Party. It was also illegal to employ Communists; so on leaving prison the man couldn’t find work to feed his wife and family. He had also lost some of his friends, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances. In his desperate search for wages he and his wife travelled to Baquedano to seek work in the sulphur mine on the active volcano called Ollague. This was the end of the road for him as he was unemployable, no permit was needed here and no questions asked, because it was so hard to get anyone to work here. The weather and working conditions were terrible and the only respite to be had was through alcohol. Most of the houses in this small and miserable place sold alcohol to the miners and railway workers to assuage their terrible existence.

These two young medical students by the names of Che and Alberto who had chosen this difficult journey through South America, on holiday from university, were appalled by the poverty and injustice that they found. They chose to travel simply and after the final collapse of their motorbike, became tramps; they met the exploited and dispossessed as equals in suffering. They were distressed at the living conditions of the poor and indigenous people. I am being taken to Baquedano the very next day by Juan, to see for myself the place where Alberto and Che experienced their conviction that something had to be done to improve social conditions and try to eliminate poverty. It is a gloomy place as it stands in the desert, and I can easily imagine it as it was fifty years ago, but I am really pleased to see that the sulphur mine is now closed down; I can’t think of a worse place to live and work. Men worked for a mere pittance, which enabled them to survive, but only just. Sadly not much has changed in this respect for many in South America.

My new friend can see how I have been affected by the sight before my eyes today, where I can imagine in context; the scene of the tramps, an indigenous couple and two very caring medical students. Of course this is why he has brought me here, so that I fully understand. These medical students had a conviction that something had to be done to alleviate suffering and it had to be done by them. But both had a different idea of what to do and how to make a difference. Ernesto felt that violently overthrowing governments was the way to improve poor social conditions that were due to capitalism and inequalities. Alberto saw his role in life was to cure the sick as a medical doctor. Alberto and Che met in Cordoba in Argentina when Che’s family moved there in the hope that the mountain air would help his asthma. He suffered all his life with this problem but valiantly kept going under very difficult circumstances. They met when Che was fourteen and Alberto in his early twenties and became close friends and shared a similar view when discussing politics, disease and social injustice. They shared a romantic enthusiasm for foreign travel and a restive desire to explore their continent. In the words of Alberto “I needed to see the world, but first I wanted to see Latin America, my own long suffering continent. Not through the eyes of a tourist interested only in landscapes, comforts and fleeting pleasures, but with the eyes and spirit of one of the people”.

Alberto Granado had a special interest in leprosy and studied the disease because of his desire to give practical help in the Amazon Basin. At the end of their trip they spent time working as doctors at a leper colony in Peru and tried to get to the colony on Easter Island, but unfortunately missed the boat; the next one being in a year’s time. They had both lived a comfortable middle class life in Argentina and had little idea of the gulf between rich and poor and the terrible exploitation of the indigenous people until they embarked on this journey.

The poverty and injustice that they witnessed affected them greatly and motivated Guevara to join Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution some time later. He wanted to change the world and Alberto re-affirmed to himself that his future was in medicine. He had seen workers suffering from silicosis in Chuquicamata and diseases of poverty throughout the journey; including leprosy, that terrible disease that makes people shun the sufferer through fear. I need to say a prayer to Lazarus, Patron Saint of Lepers, asking for more compassion and enlightenment. Long after the occasion that the two friends spent a freezing night in the open with two poor indigenous people Che became a minister in Castro’s government. Eventually he invited his friend of many years to come to Cuba, which he did, spending the rest of his life there. Sadly Che was captured and in Bolivia at the hands of the Bolivian Army and the CIA, and summarily executed.   

On our way back to Antofagasta, Juan educates me on the properties of sulphur and explains that sulphur occurs in a pure state in volcanic regions, so there is no surprise that it can be used for making matches and gunpowder. It is essential to plants and animals as it aids the development of bones, helps blood to clot and muscle cells to change food into energy and also makes new tissue. Commercial uses include the production of medicines that are used to fight bacteria by preventing it from multiplying and also the production of insecticides and plant medicines. So now that I know the importance of sulphur, I will put my mind to the question of the methods of mining it in a better way for the miner’s health and well being. Does anyone out there know how sulphur is mined at the present time?

After such a harrowing insight into the lives of the workers in the sulphur mine on the Ollague, all those years ago, we need some fun. Today a group of us are setting off to see a football match at the local stadium. It is a great occasion, these Chileans love football and there is a lot of excitement in our party and indeed all around us. The teams are well matched and as each team seems to be coming out on top, their supporters jump for joy, calling loudly to the players and hugging each other in delight. The players are talented and boosted by the excitement of the crowd, they seem to excel themselves, each team determined to win. In the end, it is the team that we are supporting that wins and the stadium erupts with cheering voices and stamping feet. After the match we go off to celebrate the win and everyone is feeling elated, including myself.

The next trip that I am being included in is a night bus trip into Santiago, this is a new way of travelling for me and I find it very comfortable. As the six of us wait in the bus station, with our overnight bags, we are happy to see that we have made the right choice of bus, it is brightly painted and looks clean with curtains at the windows, hopefully this is an indication that the mechanics are in good working order. During the journey a meal is served, after which we are able to watch a video or read in the comfort of our air-conditioned bus. When we have finished chattering and considering our options for our stay in Santiago, we settle down. I recline my seat fully into a flat bed and reach for the pillow and blanket and happily drift off to sleep watching the firmament aglow with myriad stars, shining brightly in the desert sky.

Our plan is to spend our time in the vicinity of Plaza de Armas, which we have heard is the heart of Santiago and because there is so much to see here it makes sense to stay on the Plaza in an apartment building. We choose to stay in a dormitory and are pleased to learn that there is a kitchen and BBQ area, also lockers and a laundry; all of which spell freedom for us and low expenditure. We can come and go as we please and leave our belongings in the lockers as we visit the buildings on this plaza and eat at a time that suits us best.

Plaza De Armas was established in 1541 by Pedro de Valdivia and all the buildings of importance were here, but there have been changes over the years due to earthquakes and fires. It is still an interesting and lively place and is the social hub of the area; as we walk around we come upon people meeting their friends, and watching the street entertainers and artists as they pass through the square. Some of us are quite keen to see the Metropolitan Cathedral and are not disappointed as we enter the Neo Classical building through the imposing hand carved cedar doors. We find ourselves in a large, light building with an arched ceiling and three naves. Beyond the wooden pews and the organ, imported from London in 1850, we see the impressive altar behind which is the crypt, where Chile’s past Cardinals and Archbishops are buried.

In one of the three naves, there is an urn holding the hearts of war heroes who fought in the war of the Pacific. Here is the altar of St Teresa de Los Andes, Chile’s first saint. She became a Carmalite nun at the age of nineteen and died of typhus the following year. She was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Santiago and then Canonised by him in 1993. That was so very sad, and what a short life, I wish that I knew the reason for her canonisation. This cathedral was designed by Bavarian Jesuits and as I look around I find a beautiful chapel, covered in silverwork. The Jesuits also produced religious imagery and artwork that we found in the museum of Sacred art, within the church building. The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order founded by Saint Ignatius Loyola in 1534 in Paris; they are especially noted for their work in education. After the training period, they take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience; do they still make these vows today? I think they would be very difficult vows to obey.  

On leaving the cathedral, we look at the paintings by local artists, displayed on the Plaza; some of them are very good. We are hungry now so it’s time to eat and rest our tired feet and some of us have journals to write. The girls that I am travelling with are members of the university choir in Antofagasta and want to attend a concert in the cathedral this evening. The choir of the University of Santiago are performing and I am assured that it will be an evening to remember. As we cross the square, we see the chandeliers through the open doorway, welcoming us to what will prove to be a very uplifting evening.

After such a feast of music and singing, we promise each other that we will save up for tickets to attend a concert or ballet at the Municipal Theatre later on. The following day, we decide on a visit to the history museum, which is housed in the Royal Palace, which was previously used as government offices of Chile’s first president, Bernado O’Higgins. We pass a very grand statue of the Spanish Conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia on his noble horse. It was he that established this area as the civic and commercial nucleus of Santiago in 1541. Standing outside the Royal Palace for a while, we look up to see the beauty of this cream coloured building, hemmed in by some very modern buildings. We see the clock tower, weather vane and flag post, with the flag fluttering gently against the warm blue sky, as the sun catches the wrought ironwork decorating the front of the building. We had been told that this museum is packed with interesting things and that is so true. The exhibit rooms are arranged around a central courtyard and we separate and wander off to enjoy the paintings, furniture, reproductions of home interiors and clothing and much more. There are so many items of interest that we feel the need to jot down a few notes, so that we can discuss them this evening after we have eaten. Because we have been so involved with all the exhibits and have had no time to shop for food, we decide to eat out.

After some discussion, we all decide on a Peruvian Restaurant that we had noticed earlier and it is a good choice and we all enjoy aji de gallina, a spicy dish of chicken strips in a creamy walnut sauce with potatoes and olives. A couple of bottles of Chilean Sauvignon complement the meal very well and we all go to bed happy and relaxed. Today we get up a little later and after having coffee together, we all separate and go our different ways. I choose to go to the Central Post-Office; this beautiful building is built on the site of the residence of Pedro de Valdivia. It has had many renovations, additions and uses over the years. Today I look around the building with interest and find a small postal museum and stamp collection on the first floor. As I come out and take a last look back at the building, I get talking to a friendly passer by. She tells me the legend of Pedro de Valdivia, travelling from Peru with a carved image of the Virgin of Socorro sharing his saddle, to protect him from harm. On his safe arrival, he gave it to the Franciscans, who placed it on the High Altar of the Church of San Francisco. The story continues that this church was protected, as others in the city were razed to the ground by earthquakes. Wow! She plants an idea in my head as she tells me of her recent trip to Valparaiso, where she has been visiting her family.

Valparaiso (Valley of Paradise) sounds very appealing to me. It is the port of Santiago and not very far away, I need to be near the Ocean again and discover the delights of this beautiful place. I will go by executive bus and spend a few days there while my friends carry on with their cultural visit to Plaza de Armas and their plans to meet up with their friends that study at Santiago University. My intention is to return to Santiago soon, but who knows- anything may happen!

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