Friday, July 25, 2008

I Lique Iquique

"I like Iquique". I don't know how many times I made this pronouncement over the last 2 days. Mostly because I'm surprised. This was supposed to be a place to sleep and eat for the last few days in Chile before flying on to Peru. I was expecting a place that smelled of fishmeal, and looked aged and delapidated (smelly and crumbling - just like me!).

Iquique (Ee-key-kay) used to be one of the wealthiest places on the planet. They dug their wealth out of the ground around here. More salt. Saltpetre to be precise. The nitrates that were exported to Europe from here at the turn of the 19th century were used for the complementary purposes of blowing people up, and disinfecting their wounds. The nitrate boom (npi) lasted until the end of World War I, and then the town went into decline. Valparaiso started its decline when the Suez canal was completed, and still looks ragged today. But Iquique found a replacement industry. That's why I was expecting the place to smell of fish.

What we found on arrival (which by the way was at five in the morning after sleeping on the bus for 7 hours from San Pedro) was a beautifully preserved town centre and a moderately built-up beach area about 2km out of town. Our hotel is on the waterfront and looks out over a little flotilla of red fishing boats - so red that you can even make out their colour by night - as well as an even smaller flotilla of pelicans and a lone visiting seal. From our balcony we can see the beach stretching away, the city behind it, and towering above everything, an 800m mountain range that surges up behind the city.

The most interesting road in the city is Baquedano, which is made up of the mostly restored mansions of the nitrate era. Given that the Internet in our hotel isn't working properly, we spent both of our afternoons here sitting in the sun outside Ronny Tequila's, enjoying a good lunch and using their free WIFI to upload photos and bore the hell out of you.

Because Chile is long and thin, and because there don't seem to be that many gringos on the tourist trail here, it's natural to bump into the same people time and again as you travel through the country. On the trip to the observatory I met a girl from Reunion called Nicoletta, and next encountered her on top of sand dune in the Valley of the Moon outside San Pedro. At that time she was talking to an English girl, who we briefly chatted to. Today, outside our favourite WIFI spot we bumped into the English girl again, this time with her boyfriend. From...Dublin! They are in their final three weeks of a one year journey. I asked him if he was the chap I had seen with the Dublin colours in San Pedro - apparently not. No shortage of Paddies in these here parts, it appears. (Hi Peter and Roxanne, if you get around to tuning in.)

Were looking forward to, or dreading, their return to normal life? I inquired. I had a particular reason for asking. Because our trip has always had a shape - a beginning a middle and an end - as the clock has ticked on I've found my attitude towards it changing. I remember telling my dad a few months back that if I had the money I'd happily stay out for another year, work- and school-life notwithstanding. Back in Oz, the only consolation on leaving one beautiful place was the knowledge that I was moving on to somewhere new. Well things have changed. South America was always going to be the last lap, and because that has always been its assigned role, I find that my attitude towards returning home is changing, dutifully following the curve of take off and landing that has been programmed years in advance. I hereby publically admit that I'm beginning to look forward to coming home. Funnily enough, that's what Roxanne and Peter reported as well.

Don't get me wrong. Once we recovered from our jet lag and moved on from Santiago, we've had a terrific time here in Chile. It has the flavour of real adventure that New Zealand, unmissible and rewarding though it is, didn't have simply because of its cultural familiarity. I expect even more of the same from Peru. But this time next month we´ll have spent one night in our own bed in Cork. And strangely, I'm very OK with that.

Perhaps I'm just getting old.

Same mierda, different day?

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