Idle Days in the Atacama

On the fourth day, I switched to Blundstones and socks. It was the ever-present layer of moondust sand that covered my feet; it was the lubricious sweaty profile of my toes and feet on my filthy flip-flops; I could no longer tolerate it. And so after a shout and a shower I separated my blessed clean tootsies from the Atacama Desert using layers of leather, rubber and merino wool. I would later realize that my feet were just switching adjectives, dirty to stinky. The desert would win this round. I squinted up at the sun. It was blank and pitiless. But hey, at least boots and hiking socks looked great with my jean cut-offs: an acceptable look for a wayward van-dwelling twenty-something who has chosen to pause a short professional career and gas his small life-savings in order to surf, climb, and hike his way down to the bottom of South America, Patagonia.

So here I am idly waiting in northern Chile, padding back and forth on my feet, adjective to adjective. I’ve got two of my best pals, got the surfboard, the camping gear, and most importantly, the look. I’ve been sleeping in a pristinely beat up 1997 Toyota Hiace van for the last week. There’s only one issue. We don’t actually own the van, and at present, we cannot purchase it.

Back in Canada, I had this great Dodge Ram camper van, which took me all around the Pacific Northwest and down to Los Angeles and back. Purchased it quite easily I might add. I also had a fantastic job working for an advisory firm to indigenous groups and I lived on the Squamish First Nation reserve on Vancouver's North Shore. That chapter flew by, in the best of senses. Together, the job and the van taught me that the world is big, people are diverse, and time only speeds up with each passing year. So the choice to sell the rig, quit the job, and start volunteering with a startup social enterprise in Lima, Peru, was, though not without real and difficult compromises, very much the right decision. I left Canada in early 2016 and after 8 months of in-your-face cultural orientation in the 10 million-person Peruvian metropolis, my travel companions Kevin and Sam arrived.

From my rented house in Lima, we put a deposit (sight unseen) on the Chilean-registered, former airport-transport van. Its owners were a Canadian couple who were forced, regrettably, to cut short their overland journey from Patagonia to Toronto due to a medical emergency. Only reaching Arequipa, Peru, they fled the continent in a whirlwind, leaving in their wake a hastily written power-of-attorney note authorizing a Chilean named Emilio— who they’d not met in person— to drive the van back across the Chilean border where the van could be stored then sold with relative ease. Or so thought all parties involved.

Two months later on October 15, after having travelled sans-van most of the Peruvian coast and interior, three wearied gringos spilled off a 22 hour bus-ride and stumbled their way through the gates of a military-owned campground, where the van was stored and Emilio was caretaker, outside the dusty Chilean border town of Arica. A guitar, a skateboard, surfboards, camping gear hung from us like the loads of pack mules. Emilio, a short-ish, round-faced, but handsome guy in his mid thirties, greeted us under a single bulb. He lead us around the corner of the darkened garage we’d seen in email-attachment photos.

The van. It was so close. We’d talked about it daily while in Peru. Suddenly it was Christmas morning and we were kids bounding downstairs into the still-dark living room. Emilio flicked on the fluorescent tubes. Our bags all dropped to the sand. We made various utterances ranging from “ohhhhhh baby” to  “god dammit she’s actually real!” And real she was. Beneath the cold, hard hum of the tube lights she looked especially ugly, as did we, roadworn and bleary-eyed. The mottled discolouration of the cracking paint job; the exquisite shade of tastefully faded red. The metal below the tail light looked like the furrowed skin between the eyebrows of an old man who’s spent a life squinting at sea, like the crinkled wrapping paper of our Christmas morning. It was perfect. Emilio threw the keys into the ignition and she stared up perfectly, idling happily. I wished we could take it for a test drive right then and there, but that would be foolish, wouldn’t it?

I asked Emilio if there was anywhere nearby we could buy food and beer. Emilio said absolutely, and that we could follow him there in his car. Wait, did I understand his Spanish correctly? He clarified that yes he meant we should drive; there were no cops out and that we should give ‘er a whirl! Gingerly, I backed out of the garage. I feathered the clutch and listened to the engine engage for the first time. She breathed a little heat into the cockpit. She was as anxious as we were. We bumped up over the lip of the paved shoulder and edged onto the open road. We moved through the gears, listening to her sing. We were flying through the open Atacama, first time behind the wheel in South America, without any of the proper paperwork; baptism by fire.

Kevin yelled over the wind-roar of the open window and the cool desert night, “it’s like being sixteen again and getting your license for the first time.” He was right. I wasn’t a 25 year old any more. My age has been malleable since I arrived in South America nearly a year ago. At first I was a toddler just learning to speak. Each week seemed to bring a new experience, a new success, a new roadblock. Many of us share that memory of the first months behind the wheel of your parents’ car. How an errand as mundane as running to the corner store brought butterflies and a grin. When we returned from that first drive, we opened a bottle of wine, poured a libation over the nose of the van, and then just sat there staring at her under the lights, sipping and not really saying much. It was real.

Without hesitation, we cast off into the ocean of bureaucracy that is the vehicle-acquisition process for foreigners in Chile. We’d done our research and knew exactly what course to chart. For the first few days, the winds were steady and the seas were calm. I obtained my temporary Chilean citizenship that allows me to sign legal documents here; the next day we renewed the van’s government mandated technical and emissions certifications. We kept commenting on our good luck. But on the third day, the wind died and we found ourselves in the doldrums, where we have been now nearly two weeks.  

In their haste to get back to Canada, the previous owners authorized Emilio to drive the van across the border to Chile, but had forgotten to mention anything about actually selling it once he got here. The clerk at the notary explained this to us blank-faced. I didn’t process what she said at first as I was distracted by her purple lipstick and very tasteful oval-shaped cleavage hole in her blouse. I curtly thanked her. We turned from the counter and walked crestfallen through the crowded notary waiting room. Emilio, normally a very genteel and calm guy, exclaimed,“Idiota!” It was the most animated I had seen him. He was talking about the van’s current and forgetful owner, but I know at least a little of his anger was directed at himself, for not having spotted the gaping omission, which was now blatant as a hole ripped in the centre of the page.

That was the third day. We had been expecting to leave for Bolivia on the fourth. It has now been ten days and we are still here, camped in Emilio’s carport. He’s been remarkably patient throughout the whole ordeal. The owner, using a Spanish-speaking lawyer back in Canada, wrote a new letter, an emailed copy of which we tried to use at the notary. Lipstick and cleavage again denied us, so as we wait for the original documents to arrive by mail, I continue switching from dirty to stinky feet.

The time here in our desert campground has had a dream-like quality to it. While we are very much trapped here and itching to hit the road, I will always remember fondly the idle days outside Arica. On the first day Emilio gave us an electric kettle because we don’t have a stove. On the second day Kevin made me try powdered milk, a trick he picked up while living in his station wagon on Australia’s Victorian coast. It’s not bad. On the fourth day we gave up ramen and oatmeal with the discovery that we could barbecue nightly using wood found along the beach, where we also surf. We drive into town without the proper paperwork for supplies. We consume a lot of delicious and unbelievably inexpensive Chilean wine in the evenings.  On the fifth day we finished building the wooden interior of the camper using borrowed power tools, and on the eighth, its laboriously hand-sewn sectional mattress was completed. On the ninth day, after we were barred from buying the van the second time, we got raucously day-drunk off bad tasting Chilean beer, and had a long and philosophical game of “would you rather” that served as a platform for comparing and contrasting everything from the emotive capacities of different forms of art, to the nature of time and memory, but also included propositions like “your sweat is cheese wiz” or “you have lego hands.”

We’ve made fast friends with Emilio and his nephews. We have more or less become fixtures of the campground, holding our own key to the gate, watching other groups come and go, making pleasant conversation with them. A late-middle aged German couple passed through for a few nights. Their names were Klaus and Gertrude (obviously) and they have been traveling South America by motorcycle for the past year on a 1988 BMW (obviously) dual sport that was gifted to Klaus by his friend who passed away suddenly ten years back. I can’t imagine his friend could be any more proudand perhaps a little jealous looking down and seeing where that bike has gone. When we asked, assuming the answer was yes, if they were retired, Gertrude replied, almost wistfully, “oh God, no.” Exhaling smoke from her fourth after-dinner cigarette, she continued, “you can’t do this when you’re old, it’s already a little much for my back.”

Klaus marked up the Patagonian sections of our maps as the sausage links sizzled and popped beside roasting bulbs of garlic on the grill over the fire. The internet is a wealth of knowledge to fuel one’s travels, but it lacks the tangibility, the hutspa, of having a thick-necked, twinkle-eyed german drawing lines on a very blank section of coastline on your map and saying “oh yes, zees ees where you can see zee pingueens; your map doesn’t show eet, but zer ees a road here.” Right on Klaus, right on.

Assuming that the documents from Canada arrive in the mail before Friday, and assuming that Purple Lips will approve the sale at last, then our time in this dreamy, dusty microcosm is coming to a close. We may be living in a garage, but it is comfortable. We may be unemployed, but we are gaining things we’ll keep with us for years and years and years. I’ll miss Lucas, the big-dumb-lovable golden retriever who chases the shadows of pigeons and I’ll miss the tinkling of the Latin Soft Rock radio station that drifts across the grounds at all hours of the day and night. I’ll miss that teenage feeling of getting your wheels for the fist time. I’ll even miss the question I ask myself each morning after I throw on my jean cut-offs, “today would I prefer stinky feet or dirty feet?”


Note (November 18):

The papers did arrive that Thursday, but the next day were again denied because they were not made in Chile. The Bolivian border was as far east as we ever made it, and we would eventually drive the van, without actually owning it, over 2000 km south from Arica to the capital Santiago, where the Ministry of External Relations could approve foreign documents and render them legal for use here. And so, on day 28 we finally walked out of a Santiago notary public holding the signed and stamped “compraventa” or “buy-sell” paperwork. Buying a vehicle in Latin America and then road-tripping to the end of the continent, it’s no walk in the park. But with patience, ambition, humility, luck, and the right company, I’ve been surprised at what we’ve been able to achieve.