Weather-beaten and pretty tired I headed to the borders. I had approximately 10 days in and around the Bolivian salt flats. I was over exposed to rain and sun, my eyes were not completely healed, I was eating bread and bananas for the last 3 or 4 days and the bike was in a proper mess. I had drunk all the water I had left and now I needed 5 or 6 hours to the borders. I said to myself “when you enter Chile, you will drink a beer! You deserve it!“
Some hours later I was in Ollagüe, the first village of Chile. In the borders I asked for ATM and the guys there almost laughed.. “ATM you ‘ll find in Calama…” they told me, “…some 200 km from here!” – Damn! I had no Chilean money, I used my last SOS dollars to pay the hospital just before exiting Bolivia, and I had only a bag of 5 little breads left that a truck driver had offered to me.
Almost desperate and with no plan I started cycling through the little village alongside the rail tracks. 2 minutes later a mini market came into my field of view, and there, totally unexpectedly, I saw this little sticker on its window. Yes right, the sticker with the 4 letters that reminded me of the other 4-letter word that I had forgotten: VISA -> BEER.
Hahahah! Almost unbelievable, but utterly true. After the scarce, without fridges, and even without bread mini markets of rural Bolivia, I found a place where I could pay by card and eat properly! I was very happy and the first beer was followed by a second, and at that very second I saw the first guys in Chile that would invite me at their place. More beers and a football match and some facts about Chile, that I had no idea. Chile is the most developed country in all Latin America. Now I call it the North America of South America. This country is more advanced than Greece. The streets are in almost excellent condition, the cities are relatively clean and in general, there is something here that’s missing from all the countries I have visited for the last year: order.
The following day I woke up and I was determined to make 200 km and reach Calama. It was downhill (from 4300m to 2700m), so I was optimist.. But! I didn’t know about the wind.. From 13:00 the wind started to blow furiously and it was just heart breaking to realize that I was facing only headwinds. I was in downhill slopes and the bike was not moving an inch on its own. I had to pedal every bit and at some point I said “no more, I will lie down by the road and sleep. At 1800 I will continue”. I didn’t want to waste my energy because (again) I didn’t have a lot of water. I knew that when the sun goes down the wind goes… I don’t know, somewhere else!
To that point I had done approximately 100 km in the Atacama desert, as it is called – and it’s the driest place on planet earth. For 7 hours I had seen just one village and less than 10 cars, but I was extremely lucky once more. I lied down right by the road and after 10 minutes a car passes, a door opens and I am listening someone shouting “que taaaaaal Griegoooo” = How are you, Greek maaaaan??! One of the guys that I met the previous night in the borders was going to Calama and he offered to take me there! Hell yeah, I am coming!
That’s how I found myself in Calama.
The ugliest place of Chile, as they told me later, but for me it was Paradise transformed in a city at a high altitude, surrounded by lots of mines. People from all Chile and Latin America go to Calama to make money. One guy I was talking with told me he works at a mine. I responded that I already knew that, because I own it; it’s mine. He didn’t seem to understand my humor and continued his story: he gets a 1000 euros per month for 6 consecutive days of work and then 6 consecutive days of rest. He lives on the camp site near the mine, which means he has free bed and food so he is able to save almost 100% of his wage. And I say almost because the city, owning to the mines, had lots, and I mean loooots of prostitutes and strip-bars that were open and almost full from midday. I asked the prices to sleep with a woman (just by pure curiosity, hehe) and it was 16 euros for a quarter and 27 for an hour.
I stayed there for 3 weeks and had the time of my life. I liked it a lot because I did the things with the right order. I bought the best saddle for bicycle touring, new pedals, fixed my rack, charged my batteries. Then I wrote the post about Bolivia. And then I focused on some stuff I had written in Greek (and that was the most beautiful part).
After so much time of physical harshness and no-food-variety, I couldn’t stop eating sweets and junk food. It’s one of the contradictions of my trip that I like a lot: some days I focus on my body, some days I focus on my mind.
I spent 10 days sleeping and this was because I spent 10 nights awake. Right next to the hostel there was an unfinished building and at its terrace I would spend countless hours watching the stars, writing stuff on my phone, reciting, listening to poems online and contemplating about (my) life.
Did you know that the north of Chile is the best place in the WORLD to watch the stars? Stars stars stars stars!
The most interesting part of my time in Calama though, was right at the beginning of this writing-relaxing period (and it wasn’t actually in Calama). I uploaded the blog post and then I had an idea to go to San Pedro de Atacama (a very touristic city that was close), in order to get some inspiration and focus on writing. It’s a totally crazy story how I got to San Pedro hitch hiking, but I want to focus on something else now. I left everything in the hostel, and went to San Pedro only with my tent because it felt stupid to pay 2 hostels for 1 night. I decided to take no phones, no cameras, not even cash cards. Some money and pen and paper. Haha! I am free, I was thinking on my way there.
I reached San Pedro and I was instantly inspired. This place had something mystical and spiritual all over (apart from tourists). I walked around, got a beer and wanted to focus on writing a poem or two, because I had lots of ideas from my time in the salt flats, but I didn’t have the time back then. I went to a small park and from 2100 to 0100 I started thinking and writing and reciting, and walking here and there. At 01:00 something awkward happen.
A 64-year-old Colombian guy, 1 and a half head taller than me and plump, approached me and kind of scared me cause he came without me taking notice and his figure was simply imposing. He came and asked my name, and then my surname and my place of origin and then asked to see… my passport! I was like “man, are you a cop?” He wasn’t and to prove his word he invited me at his cousin’s house. I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing but I followed him just to see in what this could evolve. We got into the house and he locked the door. No cousin at home. At that moment I was a bit scared, and very cautious. He offered beer, which I accepted and stayed there talking with him for 4 hours.
After some intro stuff about our lives the tension rapidly escalated (in a good sense) because my new friend was in a confession mood and I was in a listening mode. At some point, while he was preparing a drink – I remember clearly that he wasn’t facing me – he said:
And while I was left speechless, he was keeping it coming. He told me how police found out, how he was accused for stuff that other members of the gang did, how the police came with helicopters and everything. He finished saying “almost from one day to another I was charged 37 years in prison!!!”
“Of course I wasn’t going to stay in prison for so long so I tried to escape a number of times.” He told me everything, and also lots of other stories relative to his occupation and how he used his knowledge to get stuff done in prison. He told me all sorts of horrible things about the prison and damn I was a super-excited question machine. He spent 5 years in isolation, in a purely cement room, less than 2×3, without a bed or something. There was a hole on the floor (his WC) and the food was coming without cutlery below the door. There was just a little bit of artificial light coming into this room and he had 2 hours on Sundays to do what the word implies – see the sun on the yard. 2 hours of relative -of course- freedom per week… He was very touched throughout our conversation which did last a long time.
At some point he started crying. He was describing to me that some days the food was extremely little and at times they had one chicken for 25 persons in the prison cell. At this phrase he couldn’t hold it in and tears came out of his eyes. He showed me how 25 people can sleep in 4 mattresses. He had numerous stories of how they managed to find alcohol and we were laughing a lot, or he was telling me that when he had days out of the prison he would bring fruits to everyone (fruits are generally not allowed, because they make alcoholic stuff out of them). He was also telling me that you have to be tough in prison otherwise other prisoners will exploit you hard or they will kill you.
Despite all of the above, to my eyes this person was incapable of stealing or killing or even harming someone. He was like a huge angel; a bit reddish by the rum, round face, reciting the bible all the time, and very polite. I was extremely curious to learn how he got into this in the first place. I kept asking him and at the end he confessed that all started some 40 years ago, when his nephew had cancer. They couldn’t find the money for the chemotherapy so he had no other option. He thought “nobody is gonna miss that money and if I don’t do it my sister’s son will die”. He convinced a friend and finally it was extremely easy, he told me. It was that easy that he couldn’t stop doing it. He told me so many things. I will remember him.
It was a gift of great symbolic value for me. A chain from someone who was in prison to remind me of my extreme freedom as a traveler.
I lost it and I felt horrible.
Ι got back to Calama from San Pedro with a very awkward semi-truck driver that said 4 or 5 words throughout the trip. I thanked him, nonetheless.
3 weeks flew over Calama and I felt it inside like 3 days. I started seeing “Semana Santa” in the streets and I realised the Easter is very close. I had to get a bus to go to Santiago, the capital of Chile, to celebrate the Holy Week. I tried to ride till there but the wind and the continuous uphills and downhills (despite cycling by the coast) made it impossible. I did 200 km and reached the coast in a route that I had 3 or 4 flats because my tires were completely worn off. The thing was that the salt from the salt flat had made the valve adaptor impossible to remove, so I had to cut the valve from the inside in order to got it out and change the tube.
I took a bus, and then I said “no no, I will ride to Santiago”. I got off… I tried once more. No way. Two days later, I took the bus again and after countless hours I found myself in Santiago.
“And yet it moves” – Galileo Galilei | it