PHOTO ESSAY: Chile and My Return to Civilization


Included in the price of my tour of Bolivia’s “Salar de Uyini” was a transfer to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town located just over the Chilean border. As our jeep approached the frontier, I was more than ready to get out of Bolivia, not so much because I hadn’t enjoyed myself, but rather because most of my time there had been spent in the fucking sticks.

Unfortunately, I’d never been given the ticket that was apparently necessary for me to board the bus to Chile, which resulted in a dramatic confrontation that almost left me stranded into the middle of nowhere. Thanks to the kindness of a driver without passengers, however, I was able to enter Chile shortly thereafter.

From the moment I crossed over the border, Chile showed itself to be exceedingly modern and civilized. My new surroundings seemed almost alien to me when compared to the rougher ones I encountered Peru and Bolivia — and re-introduced me to once-familiar experiences and situations that seemed suddenly foreign to me.

Located approximately 35 miles from the Bolivian frontier, San Pedro de Atacama is a tiny — and decidedly gringo — town that serves as a base for ecotourists who want to enjoy the natural wonders of the desert. The otherworldly Valle de la Luna (literally, “Valley of the Moon”) is perhaps the most popular of these. Fresh off two weeks in Bolivia’s own vast wilderness, I had little interest in seeing more nature, however beautiful it might have been. Conversely, the signs along the roads — and the lines painted on them — were more than welcome.

Literally five minutes after I arrived in San Pedro’s tiny town center, I ran into Aeriel and Amanda, two American girls I’d previously met in Cusco, Peru. I ended up spending most my time in San Pedro hanging out with them. Although the surrounding desert — the world’s highest and driest — is a hotspot for stargazing due to its thin atmosphere, its ground-level air was nonetheless dusty and parched. This proved inhospitable to my lips, skin and hair, all of which became dry and flaky after only three days.

Without a second thought, I purchased a ticket on bus to the Chilean capital of Santiago, located 24 hours to the south. When I arrived, I took the Santiago Metro to the “Universidad de Chile” stop, where I met up with Matias, a local guy I met on a social networking site — hot showers and paved roads weren’t all I missed when I was in Bolivia. Don’t laugh: the chemistry between the two of us was almost overwhelming. Indeed, within the first few moments of stepping foot into his 17th-floor, corner apartment, we were literally inseparable. I managed to snap this photo of the sun setting over central Santiago while he was in the bathroom.

Kept busy both by a full-time job and full-time studies, Matias had to drop me off at my hostel pretty straightaway the next morning. Located in the city’s artsy Bellavista district, home to several universities and many of the students who attend them, it provided me a glimpse into the life of real Chileans — and a welcome distraction from how crazily lovesick I became the moment Matias dropped me off in front of my hostel. President Obama was scheduled to visit Santiago a couple days after I arrived in the capital. As you can see here (“Obama Go Home”), not all the city’s students were looking forward to it.

Of course, not everything I saw kept my mind off the affairs of my heart. As is the case in the most of the rest of Latin America, public displays of affection aren’t a big deal in Chile — for heterosexual couples, anyway. Since he took me on his motorbike, I had little choice but to keep my arms around Matias as we sped through the city, but even that garnered concerned looks from other motorists and pedestrians.

Santiago has probably the prettiest and most thought-provoking graffiti I’ve ever seen, evidenced both by the sad onlooker above and the textual mantra above. The latter, in particular, mirrors how I was feeling when I saw it. Kept away from Matias by his busy schedule — and, I’d later found out, the fact that he was trying to hide our tryst from the boyfriend I didn’t know he had — I understood the anarchy-peace dichotomy inherent in romantic relationships all too well.

I did manage to convince Matias to meet one last time before I left the city. Before heading back to his place for dinner and alone time, he took me to the summit of Cerro San Cristobal, a massive mountain that overlooks the whole of Santiago. As had been the case in several other South American cities I’d visited up to that point, a massive virgen sits at its peak. I had a difficult time enjoying the view, however, sure this would be the last encounter I had with Matias for the foreseeable future. I was right: we didn’t have the chance to meet again before I headed back over the Andes, this time to Mendoza, Argentina, the following Tuesday.



Robert Schrader
Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who's been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as "CNNGo" and "Shanghaiist" along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.
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