Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 38, December 11, 2002
Clock that's a crock, Pisco Heads, Sexspresso, I'M IN THE EXECUTIVE LOUNGE



Totally Deserted

Unsurprisingly, like Uyuni at the north end of the Bolivian deserts, San Pedro de Atacma in the south exists mainly to serve tourists. As a town, it's OK and everything and, had I not seen nothing but desert for the last six weeks, I don't doubt we would have hung around for a day or two. As it was, we spent a couple of sweltering hours there and left.

Before we leave the high desert though, it's worth mentioning a few things about the transition from Bolivia to Chile. About 100 metres over the Chilean border, and the road turns from a rutted cart track into a silky bitumen strip. San Pedro itself is a dusty little mud brick town, but Willem, the Dutch guy, suddenly bcame very animated. 'Look, you can get diet coke here' he exclaimed in the tones of a man who has been subsisting on meat, rice and local colas for a month. Moreover, not only is Diet Coke available, but it's served in passable restaurants by foxy waitresses, not out of holes in the wall by terrifying matriarchs. The other notable thing about San Pedro is that the Atacarma is the driest desert in the world. It has over 350 clear days a year and it never rains. In fact, apparently, some of San Pedro's more sedentary residents have never, ever seen rain fall from the sky.

Big Ben, Big Deal

Still, we were heading for Antofogasta, one of the largest (and, as it transpired, one of the dullest) cities in northern Chile. We thought Jane's granddad had been born there, so this was something of a pilgrimage. After miles of baking desert, we finally descended through the last of Andes and, to our acclimatised bodies, the air became as thick as treacle. Then we saw the sea: when you've spent over a month in the deserts, this really is almost as exciting as when you are a child. Actually the auguries for Jane's ancestors' old stamping ground were not good. Antofogasta is the world's largest copper export port and not much else. Really, unless copper is your hobby, it's difficult to spend more than a couple of minutes marveling at big piles of copper, awaiting shipment.

When we arrived at the bus terminal, I bumped into one other bloke who wasn't Chilean. He was a French student. I asked him if he could recommend somewhere to stay. He replied in measured tones: 'Yes...but you do realise that there is absolutely nothing to see here.' In fact, he was wrong - there is one thing to see in Antofogasta and this is a scale model replica of Big Ben. It was built to commemorate 100 years of Chilean - British friendship, a relationship which has included high points such as getting together to nick Bolivia's coastline and, more latterly, the steamy politico-erotic Thatcher - Pinochet love in.

Still, what a rubbish replica it is. I mean, as an art deco civic clock it's very nice and all that, but it looks absolutely nothing like Pugin's gothic masterpiece. Nothing at all: it's not even the right colour. This is doubly shit as the stupid clock was in fact a present from the people of Britain who, unlike the Chileans, really have no excuse for not knowing what Big Ben looks like. So we left, but not eating some lousy food and reading an email from Jane's mum, telling her that her grandfather was in fact born in Vena del Mar, a swanky resort some 1300 km down the coast.

One expects (if one is ignorant like me) the Chilean seaside to be lush and thick with great beaches. But it is neither. Although the weather is often cloudy, it rarely rains and the coast is a drier, bleaker version of California - mostly a stony desert, its vast distances punctuated by functional towns like Antofogasta. Moreover, the Andes come right down to the sea, just like they do on a map, leaving a littoral which, in places, is barely wide enough to accommodate the pan American highway. It really does feel like the edge of a continent.

Something to Beach About

But eventually things brightened up and we got down to Serena del Mar, Chile's self styled premier beach resort. Serena is a nice enough place in itself, although it's rather hard to believe that its beaches share the same ocean with those in, say, Malaysia or Australia. They're big, rough windswept ocean playas and the sea is none too warm. As an English person, it's perfectly possible to splash around in these waters, but it's no Pacific paradise: one local guy told me that Europeans usually bitch like hell when they come all this way to find the Pacific is ten degrees colder than the Med.

Appositely enough, Serena is very, well, serene. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly there are almost no travellers there. The reason? Well, Chile is kind of expensive. Not, you understand, expensive like France or England or the US, but nor is it the kind of place for those who like to tease a fiver out over a fortnight. But not only is it overlooked by the pikier travellers (i.e. most of them) it's core constituency have also deserted it. Serena used to be a major resort for wealthy Argies. That is, it was until the World Bank discovered that Argentina's government was using its MasterCard to pay off its Visa bill and the currency collapsed. Now Argentina is a cheap getaway for Chileans: plus ca change.

Getting Piscoed

So it's a little quiet. But it's still a nice place and has great seafood. Also, it was here that I managed to solve the mystery of why three Pisco sours leave you completely babooned. That is because PSs are not like G 'n' Ts. As a bartender explained to me, a normal Pisco sour contains some 80 mls (or three pub measures) of Pisco, which usually runs at about 50% anyway. In South America, this is a handy fact to know. Even if, in this case, it was something of a post hoc discovery; viz, I was already truly plastered. And I know I was very very drunk because in Chile you know that everyone's very drunk when someone at your table starts telling you what a good bloke Pinochet was.

It's chilly beach aside, La Serena's other big draw is its observatories. High up in the mountains above town, these shell-like white domes are all over the place. Astronomers like northern Chile because a) it never rains and b) there aren't all that many military coups to threaten their expensive toys. Anyway observatory tours are OK - all very school trippish, and, in our case doubly so as there was a rowdy school trip up there with us. As it was, there weren't any planets out. This was a bummer because even the most powerful telescope in the world will not resolve another (i.e. non-sun) star into a disc. So while you can see many more stars, unless you're pretty keen, they all look the same; planets, on the other hand, are much cooler to look at as you can actually see stuff. Still the evening was leant some unexpected levity by an American pair who kept banging on about the wonder of it all and man's place in the cosmos and generally going 'Wow' a lot. The calibre of their comments made me wonder if they actually understood the difference between astronomy and astrology and if they'd come up here hoping to see what happened when Uranus went into their love sign or whatever.

Sexpresso Bars

La Serena duly finished we headed down to Santiago which, rather worryingly, is starting to feel a little bit like home. As I've been there before, I don't really have that much to add about the place, except that I wouldn't mind living there. And that it has the finest espresso bars anywhere in the world. For not only do these make great coffee, but they have clearly been designed by someone who was heavily involved in Bond films in the 70s. They have these terrific retro interiors, seriously chic, with curvy bars that snake all over the shop. But best of all are the people who serve you. These are all unfeasibly tall women clad in unfeasibly short, clingy dresses, very porntastic. And they serve from a platform a foot off the floor, allowing punters a perv's eye view of their cleavage. Naturally, I asked for a stiff one.


Sadly, however, I could not linger for as long as I might have liked in these PG-13 Starbucks - we had a flight to catch to Easter Island, in order to cop some big head action. So it was back to Santiago Airport's remarkably swish exec lounge, courtesy of Jane's Silver Card. I like Executive Lounges and not just because they serve 12 different kinds of finger sandwiches. This is just as well, as we had a three-hour wait, at the end of which, our flight was unceremoniously cancelled. Anyway, the reason these places are fun is because they always contain a fair number of people behaving how they think rich, classy people ought to behave. The result is rather like a Harry Enfield sketch. In our lounge this demographic was represented by a group of Americans whose every gesture and remark appeared designed to draw attention to themselves. This worked in that it made me notice that the alpha male, a beefy bumptious jock type was wearing black socks with deck shoes.

But just as I was pondering this twit and his sartorial Chernobyl, an Australian stole Jeff or Biff or whatever his name was's thunder. The Aussie was, you see, MAKING A DEAL over the phone and doing so so loudly that you could hear him in the gents, 30 metres and several walls away. I must say, if I ever found out that one of my employees was broadcasting company information at such volume, I would have them sacked on the spot. Still, I guess he got his wish. After he had entertained his fellow passengers to the most earsplitting transaction I have ever encountered, no one was in any doubt that he was a) terribly, terribly important and b) a complete prick.