Cover image for Travels in a thin country : a journey through Chile
Title:
Travels in a thin country : a journey through Chile
Author:
Wheeler, Sara.
Personal Author:
Edition:
Modern Library paperback edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Modern Library, 1999.

©1994
Physical Description:
xxii, 304 pages : maps ; 21 cm
Language:
English
Personal Subject:
ISBN:
9780375753657
Format :
Book

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F3065 .W44 1994 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

Squeezed between a vast ocean and the longest mountain range on earth, Chile is 2,600 miles long and never more than 110 miles wide--not a country that lends itself to maps, as Sara Wheeler discovered when she traveled alone from the top to the bottom, from the driest desert in the world to the sepulchral wastes of Antarctica. Eloquent, astute, nimble with history and deftly amusing, Travels in a Thin Country established Sara Wheeler as one of the very best travel writers in the world.


Author Notes

Sara Wheeler is the author of many books of biography and travel, including Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2011 and Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile . Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica was an international bestseller that The New York Times described as "gripping, emotional" and "compelling," and The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle was chosen as Book of the Year by Michael Palin and Will Self, among others. Wheeler lives in London.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One   Noche, nieve y arena hacen la forma de mi delgada patria, todo el silencio está en su larga línea Night, snow, and sand make up the form of my thin country all silence lies in its long line Pablo Neruda, from 'Descubridores de Chile' ('Discoverers of Chile'), 1950   I was sitting on the cracked flagstones of our lido and squinting at the Hockney blue water, a novel with an uncreased spine at my side. It was an ordinary August afternoon in north London. A man with dark curly hair, toasted skin and only one front tooth laid his towel next to mine, and after a few minutes he asked me if the water was as cold as usual. Later, the novel still unopened, I learnt that he was Chilean, and that he had left not in the political upheavals of the 1970s when everyone else had left, but in 1990; he had felt compelled to stay during the dictatorship, to do what he could, but once it was over he wanted space to breathe. He came from the Azapa valley, one of the hottest places on earth, yet he said he felt a bond as strong as iron with every Chilean he had ever met, even those from the brutally cold settlements around the Beagle Channel over 2500 miles to the south.   I told him that I had just finished writing a book about a Greek island - I had posted the typescript off two days previously. I explained that I had lived in Greece, that I had studied ancient and modern Greek, and all that.   The next day, at the lido, Salvador said:   'Why don't you write a book about my country now?"   I had wanted to go back to South America ever since I paddled a canoe up the Amazon in 1985. The shape of the emaciated strip of land west of the Andes in particular had caught my imagination, and I often found myself looking at it on the globe on my desk, tracing my finger (it was thinner and longer than my finger) from an inch above the red line marking the Tropic of Capricorn down almost to the cold steel rod at the bottom axis. Chile took in the driest desert in the world, a glaciated archipelago of a thousand islands and most of the things you can imagine in between.   After Salvador had planted his idea, I sought out people who knew about the thin country.   'In Chile,' a Bolivian doctor told me, 'they used to have a saying, "En Chile no pasa nada" - nothing happens in Chile.'   He paused, and bit a fingernail.   'But I haven't heard it for a few years.'   "I went to the Chilean Embassy in Devonshire Street and looked at thousands of transparencies through a light box. The Andes were in every picture, from the brittle landscape of the Atacama desert to the sepulchral wastes of Tierra del Fuego. I took a slow train to Cambridge and watched footage of Chilean Antarctica in the offices of the British Antarctic Survey; the pilots, who came home during austral winters, told me stories about leave in what they described as 'the Patagonian Wild West'.   I was utterly beguiled by the shape of Chile (Jung would have said it was because I wanted to be long and thin myself). I wondered how a country twenty-five times longer than it is wide could possibly function. When I conducted a survey among friends and acquaintances I discovered that hardly anyone knew anything about Chile. Pinochet always came up first ('Is he gone, or what?'), then they usually groped around their memories and alighted on Costa-Gavras' film Missing. The third thing they thought of was wine; they all liked the wine. Most people knew it was a Spanish-speaking country. That was about it. Our collective ignorance appealed to my curiosity.   I told Salvador that my Spanish had gone rusty, and that anyway it was the Spanish spoken in Spain.   'Well, you must learn a new Spanish! Do you want everything to be easy?'   Duly chastened, I persuaded Linguaphone to sponsor the project by donating a Latin American Spanish course and shut myself away with it for three hours a day for the first month. One afternoon, at the lido, I surprised Salvador with it.   "You have to go and see for yourself now,' he said.   I left three months later, to the day. I was anxious that the trip should be a natural progression from one end of the country to the other, but I was obliged to fly to Santiago, the capital, which was unhelpfully situated in the middle.   'Make it your base camp!' said an enthusiastic adviser, so I did.   I had been invited, via a mutual friend in London, to stay with Simon Milner and Rowena Brown of the British Council. They met me at the airport, she sitting on the barrier and smiling, holding a sign with my name on, and as we walked together through the harshly lit hall and the automatic glass doors and into the soft, warm air, fragrant with bougainvillea, she put her arm around my shoulder and her face close to mine and she said:   "Your Chile begins here. Welcome.'   Simon and Rowena were about my age, and had been in Santiago for a year, living in a penthouse on the thirteenth floor of a well-kept block of flats set among manicured lawns and acacia trees in the north of the city. It wasn't really their style - I had the idea that they thought it was quite a joke - but it was clear that they loved their Chilean posting, and their enthusiasm steadied my wobbling courage. I nurtured a sense of arrival for a day or two, contemplating the Andes on one side and the urban maw on the other from their spacious and safe balconies. When I did venture out I found a city discharging the usual international urban effluents - exhaust fumes to McDonald's hamburgers - though it had a delightful insouciance about it which was quintessentially South American, and it was impossible to imagine I was in Rome or Amsterdam or Chicago. I badly wanted to explore, but I was too impatient for the journey to begin; the city would wait.   I was going to save Santiago until its proper place, half-way down the country, so after two indolent days I bought a bus ticket to the far north. The plan was to travel up to the Peruvian border straightaway, in one leap, and then work my way south, leaving the continent right at the bottom and crossing over to the slice of Antarctica claimed by Chile - though I had no idea how I was going to do that. I was also determined to visit the small Chilean archipelago called Juan Fernández, half-way down, four hundred miles out in the Pacific and the prison-home of the original Robinson Crusoe. I had two arrangements to meet up with people from London, one in the north, which would coincide with Christmas, and one in the south, and these I saw as punctuation marks on the journey.   The only big decision I had made - to leave Santiago immediately - was almost instantly overturned. A South African photographer called Rhonda telephoned to say that she was working on a feature about a sex hotel for a London magazine and had been let down by the journalist doing the words: could I step in? The subject was irresistible, though a bizarre introduction to the complex and apparently paradoxical Catholic moral code, so I changed my ticket and stayed an extra day.   Alongside the shifting sands of Santiago's public and private lives stands an institution of such permanence that it is difficult to imagine the city without it. Inscrutable and silent, its patrons anonymous but its services widely appreciated, the Hotel Valdivia is the example par excellence of what is inaccurately known as a love hotel, a concept inured in Japan but perfected west of the Andes. Rhonda had made an appointment with the manager of the Valdivia at ten the next morning, and she told me that I would have to pose as her assistant, as the man had specified photographs only; he didn't want anybody writing anything. She had only wheedled her way that far round him by promising she would never sell the pictures to any paper or magazine within Chile.   The hotel was disguised as a discreet private mansion, and I was obliged to ask a man in a kiosk for directions. He winked at me, and leered a spooky leer. I met Rhonda in the street outside the hotel. She was about my age, was wearing army fatigues, and she gave me an affectionate slap on the back. At ten o'clock exactly a young woman scuttled out of the hotel, sideways, like a cockroach, and hustled us in.   'We don't like people waiting in the street,' she said. 'It attracts attention.'   She showed us into a small, windowless office where a man in his mid-thirties wearing a dark suit and a herbaceous tie stood up to shake our hands and introduce himself as Señor Flores. He didn't look like a sleazebag at all; I was disappointed. His hair was neatly parted, and he had frilled the edge of a silk hanky half an inch above the lip of his breast pocket. He reminded me of an insurance salesman who used to live next door to us in Bristol. There were two photographs of brightly dressed children and a smiling wife on his desk, and four enthusiastically executed oil paintings of rural scenes hanging behind him which I feared were his own work. A VDU stood on one side of the desk, and neatly stacked piles of paper on the other.   Excerpted from Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile by Sara Wheeler All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.