I have to tell the truth. Over the last four days in Santiago, I've felt like the wheels were finally coming off our little wagon. Sleep deprivation can play merry hell with your sense of wellbeing. The loneliness of insomnia dulls your daytime senses, and barbs your mood. It's hard to like a city such as Santiago in this state of mind, and so I fully accept that my memories of it are coloured darkly, unfairly.
When I think of our four days there, I think of crowded fast-moving streets that tolerate strolling visitors only with impatience. I think of feeling hunger but being surrounded only by junkfood, both local and imported. I think of high historical buildings whose elegance is studded with haphazard ground-floor commerce. I think of air that I can taste as I breathe.
But there are brighter memories too. An hour spent in the company of Iain Ballesty, Darragh's brother, over lunch. He gave us good advice for our northward trip through Chile, and made Nina and Sara laugh by telling them "I hate your guts" when they described their trips to Fox Glacier and whale-watching in Kaikoura. Our visit to the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art was well worth the time - the girls were quite engaged by it and I particularly liked the many complex tapestries and weaving styles displayed. The staff of our hotel were very kind to us, and that can make a big difference to any stay. "Nonna Carla" from the travel agency was a terrific find.
The biggest problem though was the gray pessimism that settled over us, and that I personally struggled to see past. The long road North to Cusco didn't invite us quite so much anymore. The task of organizing and then executing a plan that involved many thousands of kilometres, and bus trips of 15 hours or more, with the sure reward of being laid low for days with altitude sickness...well it led me for the very first time to look forward to going back home. I am not a person easily disposed to worry. I am irritatingly positive and boringly even keeled (Mam, Dad - you must have done something right when I was growing up). But on those occasions when my spirits dampen, the effect tends to seep to the bone. The fact that both Letizia and I have been feeling down, and that Santiago doesn't hold much interest for children, has meant that the last few days have been hard for Nina and Sara. They are patient, but I've realised that some places bring them out of themselves, while others make them sink back into their warm jackets like a tortoise into its shell. This has been Tortoise-Town.
They are simple creatures however, like their father. It doesn't take too much to find our feet again. As I write this, I am on a very comfortable Tur-Bus heading North to La Serena. The Pacific is on my left, rolling hills of low scrub to my right. The sun is shining. The girls are playing in the seats behind me, and Letizia is napping next to me. I actually slept OK last night, and I can feel the difference already. Tomorrow night we will visit one of the many observatories for which these famously cloud-free parts are known for.
She'll be right.