The Only Little Gringa en el Norte

by Sanjena Sathian

When team Glo reunited a few days ago back in Santiago, I stuck around in the Atacama desert. The other six northern adventurers had a flight out of Calama that morning, but my bus to the Valle del Elqui wasn’t leaving till late that night, and so I found myself alone in Calama.

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Miners’ homes in Calama (Sathian/TYG)

Calama is an industrial, grungy mining town. We’d gotten more than a few raised eyebrows when we told people in the north we were heading there, but that only made us more curious. In my wanderings, I came across a “tourist information office” that we’d missed in our group walk-about-town the day before (it was boarded up; apparently they weren’t expecting anyone). There are no shortage of pollo stands (think low-grade KFC fried chicken) and or bars. Karaoke seemed popular — but we’d figured that out the night before when our restaurant at dinner turned into an impromptu singalong with workers from the local mines, featuring “Piano Man” and “Heaven,” among others. And I ran into a lot of angry graffiti and protest posters.

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Protest signs outside a union headquarters in Calama (Sathian/TYG)

Remaining alone in the city was a gift for me — I managed a lot of impromptu reporting and even ended up in a roomful of angry miners airing their grievances about their employers on their way to the night shift at Chuquicamata — all just before rushing to catch my bus out of town.

A few days later, I found myself in exactly the opposite environment of Calama: as I went running through la Valle del Elqui, a quiet, quaint valley where Chilean pisco is grown, I realized, after having been surrounded by Globalistas for the better part of two weeks, that I was quite suddenly alone.  Hear-your-own-footsteps-alone. The kind of alone where you don’t hear your own voice for a couple of hours or even a day. No longer “at work” as a reporter, I was suddenly a lone traveler.  It felt strange, but it also felt like a little embrace from the country.

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the valley is abandoned this time of year; hardly any tourists come through in the winter (Sathian/TYG)

I never lose the thrill of being alone in a foreign place. I crave the little nods of approval from the travel gods when I master local transport, and the feeling of “getting it” that comes after having had the same conversations about politics with every local you meet. It’s a little bit of triumph, certainly, but more than that, it’s a feeling of being welcomed by the country. Chile, with its many faces — its deserts and oceans and snow capped mountains and salt flats — embraces us, whether we’re alone or in a group of 18 loud Americans, with our many faces — students, travelers, reporters, tourists, wine/pisco/honey beer connossieurs …. We came with the hopes of unraveling a country, forming an intellectual relationship with it, understanding it, and then reproducing it in the form of readable journalism for all of you. Just as we take our bits of newly understood identidad chilena home with us, I hope we’re leaving a little bit of identidad Globalista in our wake.

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