Published: August 19th 2011August 23rd 2011
Vicuna--Smiles and Tears
Leaving coastal La Serena, the little local bus was crammed to the aisles as we headed up the Elqui Valley. We passed fertile farmlands, then hills covered with saguaro-like cactus, tiny adobe pueblos, a dam that created a lake submerging vineyards on its edges and finally regal views of the snow-capped Andes. After an hour, we arrived at Vicuna, the largest town in the valley.
Still, Vicuna is a relatively small town of 25,000; as in most such places, people are initially wary of out-of-towners--those who stay a day or two and pronounce the town boring. I am clearly a foreigner, for one just doesn't see middle-aged Chilean women with hiking boots and a pony tail. However, whenever I smiled and said, "Hola, buenos dias" to residents, their faces broke into the most radiant smiles as they greeted me back. I love this about small towns!
After a couple of weeks there, I had a number of people I often chatted with and dogs I took as my own as I headed out for my daily hikes into the many surrounding hills. I became close with others, like Rosa, who sold me yummy veggies (I'll always
remember her sweet cucumbers and stories of her childhood in an even smaller town), Teresa of the fresh rounds of goat cheese, and Arturo in the tourist office.
In my nice, cheap pension, Residencial Gabriela Mistral, where I had a room to myself and views over the town and mountains, there were friendly, kind workers though I had a bit of a problem with their accents. A special treat was having a cat, Nina, sleep on my bed as I wrote and slept--how great to have a fur friend again. The daily smiles I'd enjoyed turned to tears as I spent my last day bidding everyone a goodby. Yet how wonderful to feel so close that we felt the sweet sadness of our parting.
Vicuna was a perfect-sized town to pass a couple of weeks organizing my photos and writing a few blogs; it was big enough for shops yet small enough for nearby dirt roads and trails heading into the mountains. While I love the cultural offerings of cities, I always long to put my feet on Mother Earth. The town was not bereft of culture for there were three excellent, small museums, a pisco distillery to
tour and a plaza with occasional bands, craft markets and loud rock music that blared into the wee hours on weekend nights.
The town's most prominent museum was that of its most famous native, Gabriela Mistral, the first woman and the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. She is revered in all of Chile, and her statues are found in many plazas. Since she was initially a rural school teacher, schools and education museums are named for her all around the country.
La Gabriela, as she is often known, was also important for me personally for I had lived in her home. With the Nobel Prize money, she bought a gorgeous, rambling, 1920s, Spanish colonial revival home in my hometown of Santa Barbara, California (she knew of the town because she was the Chilean consul in Los Angeles at the time).
Gabriela lived in the SB house when I was born down the coast on Coronado Island; twenty-five years later, after she had died, I lived for three years in that house in what was surely her second-floor bedroom (windows all around on three sides, a view of the ocean and
a private bathroom).
Gabriela Mistral was also the first ghost I ever saw. When I had moved into the "Big House" (as it was then known), my three house-mates told me that she had lived there. In a book of her poems in the public library, I found odes to children and nature, declared them boring and forgot about them and her.
Three years later, I was about to join an archaeological expedition to Mayan Tikal in Guatemala, organized by my neighbor, Anabel Ford, an archaeologist at the university. One night, I was awakened by the presence of someone in my room. After giving up the pretense that I was a wrinkle in the covers, I realized it was La Gabriela.
I could hear and see her, but it was with my inner, not my outer senses, as with all the ghosts I've encountered. She told me to read her poems, which felt embarrassing because, as a ghost, she must have known I thought them rather banal. None-the-less, I did as she said.
This time, I found another collection, full of more profound, meaningful poems on love, life and death. Plus, the book had English on
one side and Spanish on the other. I hadn't known that these bilingual books existed, and I soon purchased one that helped me in my first steps in learning Spanish--what a gift!
All those years, we had written our very reasonable monthly checks to Doris Dana, Gabriela's ex-secretary in New York. In the museum, I finally had images of Doris to put with her name. However, I learned that Doris really hadn't been her secretary, but was a writer and intellectual, and Gabriela's companion for the last 10 years of Gabriela's life. Doris came from an aristocratic family and had a home on Long Island that she shared with Gabriela, who really had little money.
Though thirty years apart in age, it was clear that these women who lived and traveled together were intimate and had a sweet, close relationship. It was so satisfying to feel closure on this relationship and these women who had beckoned me to Chile so long ago.
Another exciting aspect of Vicuna and the Elqui Valley was the plethora of international astronomical observatories, located here because of the clear desert/mountain skies far from city light pollution. Long a fan of
the stars, I was looking forward to visiting the Mamalluca Observatory, set aside for us amateurs.
However, I'd arrived in Vicuna on the full moon; I knew that the star observations would be better when the moon was not reflecting so much light. Thus, I knew I'd have to stay for two weeks until the moon was new and giving the stars their chance to shine.
Finally, the night of the new moon, I boarded a van to climb up the cactus-studded hills to the observatory. While all the native Spanish-speakers were herded into groups, I waited for the few other English speakers, bused in from larger La Serena. For a tour of the Capel Pisco Distillery, I was willing to be clueless in Spanish. However, I care a lot more about stars than grape brandy and didn't want to miss any of the juicy details here.
After using a telescope to view a couple of Jupiter's moon, Saturn's rings a couple of galaxies and such, we went outside where our knowledgeable guide, Javier, showed us the Southern Cross (thrilling as always), several constellations in the ecliptic I'd never seen, and through another telescope, several nebula each
containing millions of stars in our Milky Way. I bought a star chart of the sky from the Vicuna latitude, knowing that only parts of it would be relevant for my further travels up this long continent.
One bright Saturday, I took a bus about an hour further up the Elqui Valley to Pisco Elqui. As we traveled up the narrow valley, it seemed that Christo had applied his art there--2-meter-high ribbons of plastic windbreaks waved through the valley, surrounding and weaving through the continuous fields of winter-bare grape vines that blanketed every spot of the valley and inched their way up the mountain sides.
The Elqui Valley is a major center of grape growing for the grape brandy, pisco, which is distilled and bottled at a couple of sites here. Rivals Chile and Peru both claim pisco and pisco sours as their national drinks, and the town of Pisco Elqui had its named changed to anchor the claim that the drink originated here.
The town was small and charming, and its plaza filled with weekend tourists and townfolk. After exploring awhile, I walked back down the mountain highway about an hour to Montegrande
with beautiful views along the way. There, where La Gabriela had grown up and first taught, was a museum in the school she attended and taught in. Unfortunately, my camera was once again in the repair shop, so I've no photos of the very picturesque higher Elqui Valley--but really, it was quite beautiful.
As my 90-day Chilean visa was about to expire, and with one day to spare, I once again hopped on an uncomfortable, overnight bus--this time to Santiago where I hoped to cross into Argentina the next morning. However, snow storms in the Andes had closed this picturesque pass, and I had to overstay my visa a couple of days while the roads were cleared.
Fortunately, the first time this happens, the government is understanding if you spend lots of time in immigration offices to take care of the paperwork. The second time, you have to pay $100, so I'll have to plan farther ahead in the future--yikes! A new me will emerge.
There are more photos below