Take the long view: Chile revisited

In three trips over 25 years, writer Sara Wheeler has discovered as much about this South American country as she has about herself

When I first went to Chile 30 years ago, I interviewed a television weatherman. Every evening after the six o’clock news, this fellow had to say : “Tomorrow it will be very hot in the north, pleasantly warm in the middle, and perishing at the bottom.”

What a shape. That was what attracted me to this long, thin country. Could a Chilean woman at the top possibly have anything in common with a man born 4,270 kilometres (2,653 miles) below her? How can a country function when it is 25 times longer than it is wide? I went to find out. This is the story of a love affair with a land where I spent six months travelling from the Peruvian border to Cape Horn; it is also a story of return; and of the ever-changing past. The working title of the book that resulted from that first journey was Keep the Mountains on the Left. If I did that, I couldn’t get lost.

The Juan Fernández archipelago, 650km out in the Pacific off the coast of Chile, was, at the time my first visit, occupied by 550 people and two cars. The largest island was called Robinson Crusoe, as for four years it had been the home of the man on whom Daniel Defoe based his character, in real life the mercurial Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk. Most of the men, when I pitched up, were called Robinson or Alejandro, and they fished, collectively, for langosta de Juan Fernández – large red crustaceans resembling pincerless lobsters which fetch high prices in the fancy restaurants of Santiago. I went out fishing for langosta with a Robinson and an Alejandro across the bay where the captain of the fabled German cruiser Dresden blew up his magazine in 1915 after the British warships Kent and Glasgow cornered his vessel. We ate langosta for lunch cooked over a fire in the boat, and I managed 13 hours without a bathroom to use.

I stayed at the tip of Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost police station in the world, with three policemen who were on the lookout for Argentinian invaders from Ushuaia, the lights of which town we could see twinkling opposite. When I asked my new friends what we would do in the event of an invasion, they didn’t have an answer. But they often put the generator on to watch Argentinian soaps. Prevailing south-westerlies had twisted the beech trees into alphabet configurations alongside the cold Beagle Channel where Yaghan people once paddled their canoes. The Yaghan – long gone – lived off shellfish, and had a monosyllabic verb meaning “to unexpectedly come across something hard when eating something soft”, like a pearl in an oyster.

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