Thursday, August 25, 2011

da North

I spent my third week in Chile/second week of English camp in Calama, a town that my Lonely Planet introduces thusly: "How do we put this delicately? Hmm, there's just no way. Calama's a shithole."

After having lived there for a week, I'd say that the description is a bit harsh.

But only a bit.

The North of Chile is defined by two things: the Atacama desert, said to be the driest in the world, and mining. Calama is smack-dab in the middle of both.

The Atacama is beautiful in a stark sort of way, and it boasts the town of San Pedro, a mere 45 minutes from Calama, which is a famous backpacking launchpad for visits to nearby geysers, the valley of the moon, salt flats, and flamingo-filled oases.

Unfortunately, Calama's share of the Atacama is only flat, endless expanses of nothingness, the dry climate, the freezing night temperatures, the araña del rincón (chilean recluse spider, one of the most deadly in the world) and earthquakes that happen once every few weeks (or "tremors" as they're called here--in a zone with such frequent seismic activity, it takes a lot to qualify as a quake).

As for the miner half: well, the town is old, predominately male, and way more expensive than it should be considering its size and location (Bumfuck, nowhere--the high mining salaries inflate the local prices). English Opens Doors volunteers in the region said that teaching is pretty bleak. After all, no one cares about learning English in a town where the boys will never finish high school because mining pays more than any doors English can open, and the girls get pregnant when they're 16 and shack up with a miner sugar-daddy (who likely has several such "families" going at one time). (Seriously, it's a often-referenced Chilean stereotype, proven true by the trapped Chilean miners last year, many of whom had several women awaiting them by the time they were finally freed from the earth). Calama's also full of mangy, malnourished dogs, who you would feel sorry for if you weren't so terrified every time a pack of them burst through traffic, yelping and snapping after a cyclist, or after a bleeding, teeth-mark marred compatriot, or crazed by a female in heat. As far as I could see, the one "benefit" of the mining is that it contributes about the only beauty Calama can claim--copper everything, including a spire on the local church, and various shrines to miners scattered through the town, such as the one above (photo complete with street dog!)

All in all, it was an extremely depressing place. The whole time I was there, I saw hardly anyone my age, as far as I could tell, your choice for weekend entertainment is between super smoky, overpriced, holes that qualify as "bars" and the local mall, which is a 20 minute (apparently dangerous) walk away from center town. On my first night I opted the first, only to wind up making my cold worse with the smoke, so I then switched to the latter. I think I was one of a total of 10 people in the cinema for the once daily showing of Harry Potter in its original English.

Calama's other points of interest: monuments to llamas, the town mascot:

On our field trip day of camp, we drove 45 minutes away to an oasis, where I encountered the real deal:
After a week in Calama, the oasis was gorgeous:
And a good place for livestock...

...and abandoned vehicles?

A church in the middle of nowhere (Chui Chui), said to be the oldest in Chile:
In conclusion: The last Harry Potter movie was awesome, and the highlight of an otherwise forgettable town. The week I spent left me feeling apprehensive about my placement town, which is also a mining capital and a mere 2.5 hrs away, but happily, Antofagasta beats the pants off this place. Pictures and details to come, stay tuned.

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