Exotic Cities, Part Fifteen: Pisagua, Chile
October 5, 2009
Do you mind if I take you to the driest desert in the world? Don’t worry. I won’t let you die (unless you’re an anti-capitalist protester). I’m one of the world’s experts on desert survival. Just read my article “How To Survive In The Sahara Desert” at www.pointsincase.com.
But we’re not going to the Sahara. We’re going to a secret place — hidden, remote, mysterious — a place where time stands still, as if in a dream. It has been compared (inaccurately) with Michael Jackson’s Neverland. Exotic animals roam freely, and men lost in deep thought step in their shit. It is situated on the fabled Coast of Pirates, near the northern tip of Chile. It is the “Miracle of the Atacama” — the exotic city of Pisagua, Chile.
No one knows how old this city really is, for it is built on ancient Inca ruins that have never been accurately dated. The descendants of the Incas lived here in the Golden Age of Pirates. They traded with all the legendary pirates, including Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Henry Morgan, Captain Kidd, and Bill Mazeroski. The inhabitants of Pisagua traded borax, which they mined in the desert. The pirates used it for their laundry. In return, the pirates traded colored beads of little value, because the local people were not good in business. This may offer a clue as to why the Inca empire collapsed.
All along the coast north and south of Pisagua, the pirates are reputed to have buried caches of treasure. They have never been found. But adventurers still try their luck, walking the beaches with their metal detectors. Rogues have sold numerous maps over the years purporting to show the location of treasure, but all have been denounced as fakes. Does this mean there is no treasure? No. The coast is still largely unexplored.
Fly to Arica, Chile, and leave that crowd of tourists behind and take the bus south to Pisagua — a place usually bypassed. There is one good hotel — the Waldorf Astoria Pisagua, which is moderately priced. Its General Manager is Dirk De Cuyper, to whom the Atacama Desert is like heaven. “For years I worked in Shanghai,” he says, “but I got sick and tired of being surrounded by slitty-eyed Chinese bastards. You’re from Toronto, so you know exactly what I mean. My soul longed for the desert — but not one with any Muslim bastards either. The Atacama beckoned to me in my dreams. I don’t know why, but I just had to come here. It’s the driest desert in the world, you know. Dead bodies that are left exposed don’t decompose. They just dry up like mummies. The landscape on the other side of the highway is as bleak as the moon. What hotel manager wouldn’t love a place like this?” Enough said. Rent me a suite long-term!
The Waldorf Astoria Pisagua used to be a prison. When Pinochet overthrew Allende, he banished thousands of Commie bastards to the north of Chile, and most of them died there. The prison at Pisagua was eventually closed, and Waldorf Astoria bought it and turned it into a hotel. (Big secret: Waldorf Astoria is going to buy Alcatraz and turn it into a luxury resort! You heard it here first!) Renovating it would be a challenge, so the company gave the job to the famous Mexican designer Carlos Raul Gil Barragan, whose TV show, Prison Makeover, is distributed internationally on satellite by Televisa Networks. The basic boxy layout was left as is, but the interior spaces are cleverly broken up with mirrors, partitions, and windows, along with avant-garde furniture and unusual wall paint. So the eye fails to see the right angles and sort of slides over things instead. It’s a bit like the stealth profiles of modern warships, which scatter radar and are almost invisible. I’m going to buy one and get close to a Greenpeace ship and blast it out of the water.
The hotel is known for its excellent spa, which makes use of natural deposits of borax, iodine, and nitrates. These minerals dissolved in the hot water rejuvenate the skin and cure arthritis. They also cure eating disorders. Kelly Ripa, Victoria Beckham, and Tori Spelling have all been to the spa and have benefited from it.
The Waldorf Astoria Pisagua also has quite a good restaurant. Dirk De Cuyper gives all the credit to his Head Chef, Roberto Aguayo Briseno. “He just showed up out of the blue and said he wanted to cook. I didn’t know anything about him, but I decided to give him a chance. He’s brilliant. He could be working in Paris or Rome or London, but I’ve got him here in Pisagua, Chile.” Chef Roberto’s specialty is llama stew. Here’s the recipe:
Remove head from llama and send it to PETA, along with a note telling them to shove it up their ass. Clean carcass and carve out large rump portion. Also save blood and liver. Cut rump into two-inch pieces and put in large pot and cover with equal parts of water and white wine. Add sliced carrots, coarsely-chopped onions, a bouquet garni with plenty of thyme in it, a tablespoon of salt, and two tablespoons of peppercorns. Let stand for 48 hours, then drain and remove meat to a platter. In a large frying pan place one-half pound butter and a half cup of flour, and stir over medium heat. Add pieces of llama and simmer for ten minutes; then add the juice from the original pot and a glass of water or bouillon, bring to a boil, cover, and simmer slowly. Separately, parboil and fry in olive oil two cups of pearl onions, and a half-pound of salt pork in half-inch squares. After 1 1/2 hours of simmering the meat, add the onions, pork, and a cup of mushrooms, and continue simmering for another 1/2 hour. Chop the liver fine, mix with the blood, and stir into the stew just before removing from the stove. Don’t let the liver boil. Season to taste and serve with a sprinkle of chopped parsley.
Of course, llama is probably not available where you live, so you’ll just have to come down to Pisagua to enjoy this dish.
Llamas roam freely in this part of Chile, and they’re seen all the time by the writers and artists in the “colony” outside of town. This is what I was referring to in the introduction when I mentioned men lost in thought stepping in animal shit. These artists and writers rent little cabins for next to nothing, and they have a quiet place to be creative. There are about two dozen cabins scattered in the desert between the town and the Pan American Highway.
But according to Dirk De Cuyper, the current lot of writers and artists is rather suspicious. “These guys don’t look or act like writers and artists. When they come into town, they don’t want to talk to anyone. What are they writing? What are they painting? They’re evasive. They could be wanted criminals, for all I know.”
I got curious, so I went over to the Elbow Room, the town’s main drinking place, to try to meet some of these people. The bartender pointed out two of them for me. “That one’s a poet, and the other one’s a painter,” he said, indicating two scruffy, sullen-looking guys with hats pulled down over their faces. So I went over to them, I said I was a Canadian writer, and I asked to see some of their work. One fellow gave me a suspicious look, then reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a piece of paper that was soiled and yellow with age. It was a photocopy of a poem:
Dialogue of Deaf Persons
–Are you an American?
–No, I am another.
–Are you a tourist?
–No, I am two ones,
for I’m not alone but with me.
–What o’clock is it?
–It is seven o’clock ben.
–Yes, it’s seven o’clock at my sock.
I knew the poem was a plagiarism, and I knew who the poet was. “Very interesting,” I said. “What have you got?” I asked the other one.
The “artist” gave me a twisted grin and pulled a much-traveled paper out of his pocket. “I’m still working on it,” he said, his rotten teeth showing. It was obviously a tracing of an illustration from a magazine ad for a mail order art school.
“That’s very good,” I said politely.
“Thank you,” he said.
Later, I took a long walk out to the area of the colony and discovered a bank of mailboxes by the road where these people picked up their mail. I wrote down some names for the benefit of the morbidly curious: Gabriel Tapia-Lemus, Ramiro Hernandez Lucatero, Alberto Molina Infante, Martin Moreno Oseguera,Galindo Nunez Melgoza, and Ismael Rios-Gallardo. Those are certainly great names for artists and writers. Maybe my suspicions and Dirk De Cuyper’s are all wrong.
I spent a lot of time at the Elbow Room, which is mainly a fishermen’s hangout. The fishermen go out for tuna, skate, pollock, and herring. Sea lions can also be seen from the window of the tavern, cavorting in the surf, but they are protected by law. The fishermen drink a local liquor called cara de cona. I asked what it was made from, and they laughed and said, “You don’t need to know. Just drink it.” This is the sort of place where you’re apt to get beaten up for ordering a banana daiquiri. (Just ask Adam Lambert. He’ll never come back.)
Because Pisagua is not yet well known to tourists, visitors can enjoy a relatively uncrowded beach. A few boats will take tourists out for a day of fishing. Otherwise, there are no special attractions. Main drawback: no hot babes anywhere in sight. This beach needs help.
The only day tour you can go on is a bus ride out to the salt flats, where you can watch flocks of flamingos and puffins next to each other. This is the only place in the world where these species are found together. On the way back, you will stop at an abandoned borax mine, where hundreds of dead bodies of prisoners are stacked on pallets. They’re absolutely dry. Now, that is the sort of tourist attraction you’re not going to find anywhere else!
The night sky is brilliant with stars (northern Chile has the best viewing conditions in the world), and the local astronomy club likes to set up their telescopes and let tourists have a look (remember to give the boys a tip). It was here in Pisagua, in fact, that Comet Pelotudo 2005 was first identified. This comet is now believed to be correlated to the appearance of the 17-year locust, a discovery which, if confirmed, would be “of immense importance to mankind,” according to David Suzuki’s housekeeper. The comet is also unique for its violet color and approximately rectangular orbit.
You know by now that I try to find “sister cities” for my Exotic Cities. In searching for a sister city for Pisagua, I looked for a place in or near a desert, and one that I felt deserved the same sort of tourist boost as Pisagua. And I found it: Halls Creek, Western Australia, on the northern edge of the Great Sandy Desert. I was unable to reach Council President Jim Craig of the Shire of Halls Creek, but I was able to reach Warren Olsen, the CEO of the Council. “I’m the guy who gets things done around here!” he shouted over the phone. “The Members of Council are a bunch of useless, do-nothing slackers! I’m the one who keeps Halls Creek from sinking straight down to the earth’s core!” Olsen never heard of Pisagua, but the deal was done in less than five minutes. “That’s how I do things! Just do it! Bang! If you were dealing with the Councillors, it would never get done! So you tell those Pisagua people, if they need something done here in Halls Creek, talk to me! And another thing. Who do you think got the toilets fixed around here? I did! And who gets the payroll done? I do! And who sends out the tax bills? I do!…” I love this guy. He has a hostile, authoritarian personality, just like me. Give guys like us some real power, and then step out of the way! Nuke the homeless!
Before I left Pisagua, Dirk De Cuyper told me about the town’s biggest mystery — a series of little signs that suddenly appeared by the side of the road about fifteen years ago, long before he came to Pisagua. “They apparently were put up overnight, but nobody knows who did it or why, and the locals have never understood them. You’ll see them on your way out, on the right side of the road, just before you get to the Pan American. They’re spaced about a hundred feet apart. They’re easy to miss if you’re not paying attention, and the lettering has gotten bleached by the sun and is pretty faint. But you can still read them.” De Cuyper refused to tell me any more, but from his smile I inferred that he fathomed this mystery that the locals couldn’t. So, on my departure by bus, I made sure to get a window seat on the right side. And, sure enough, I saw the signs:
When morning sun…
Shines on your head…
Forget your job…
Go back to bed…
Recommended vaccinations: parvovirus, nemaline myopathy, Eales Disease.
Copyright@ 2009 by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: email@example.com