Vicuna is a village about one hour inland from La Serena. It is the gateway to a region called the Valle del Elqui.. I sit on the bus, watching the arid landscape shift and shimmer it’s way along sparkling silver streams flowing through gentle brushstrokes of green. Past vineyards and rustic farmhouses, this magical quality starts to manifest about half an hour out of La Serena. I can feel it permeating the windows of the bus, making a direct line for my senses. I wish I could leave my body and fly through this valley, dipping into those icy cold streams, then soaring high on the breeze seeking warmth from the sun. My guidebook tells me that Vicuna is a place where I can visit a museum dedicated to Gabriela Mistral (she is from a town nearby called Montegrande), climb a cerro, and explore the Valley. Besides walking, I feel like relaxing in a nice place. After sharing a dorm room in La Serena, I am also looking forward to solitude….
I get off the bus and make my way to the place where I will stay for the next few days, a lovely house owned by a German woman called Rita. This is a very small town with a very large tourist business, which is immediately evidenced by the markets that circle the plaza de armas as well as restaurants with street menus in three languages. I begin walking around the market and as I browse stalls with natural soaps, crystals and copper, I notice the presence of disgruntled hippies. People who are annoyed at having to spend their time making money by selling their art to tourists. They must get tired of the flows of tourists, the never ending stream of faces. I am not surprised at the attitude, really. It would annoy me too, which is why I don’t work at a market stall selling jewellery. One vendor refuses to answer my question about where a piece of crystal was sourced, telling me instead to stop asking questions and just buy something (?!). I get out of there. As I walk around the market stalls, I see an old church and an old theatre building. There are traffic jams around the plaza, out-of-towners coming through as they tour the valley.
I wind my way around the market and strike out into the “suburbs”, which extend about 2 km’s in each direction. I come across the Gabriela Mistral museum and spend a couple of hours there, slowly walking around. It is a very hot day but as soon as I set foot in the compound where the museum is situated, large trees provide relief in the form of shadowy spaces where the breeze runs. I sit under one for a while, accompanied by the relaxing sounds of branches swaying. Actually, the whole place seems to be an homage to the four elements, as there is a fountain, cool stone walls everywhere, heat blazing down from the sun and a garden that one can walk in. All these elements work together to transport me into a kind of wistful, peaceful state. The museum is lovely. As I walk through I am taken on a guided tour through key moments in her life, a degustation of her poetry, old photos, books, and samples of her writing. When I get to the part of the exhibition where there are pictures of her with a young boy, Yin Yin, who apparently committed suicide when he was 17, I am left with the question of who he was. Later, in the bathroom, I get into a fleeting conversation with a woman, and I ask her about it. She says that there is some debate about whether Yin Yin was actually her son….she mentions questions of Gabriela Mistral’s sexual orientation….I am not really interested in whether or not she was gay, but the tragedy of a young man committing suicide piques my interest. What I understand about her from the exhibition was her passion for education and young children. Her poetry is simple, not florid, implying a deep love of nature, hardly surprising now that I can see the land that she comes from…..
One day I decide to walk to the cerro de la virgin. Rita (the lady who runs the hostel) tells me that it is about one hour north. I set off, again it is a hot, dusty day. I am told of the many caminos but am advised to take one in particular, as it is the one that cars use and I won’t be so “sola” (alone). The word “alone” carries with it many feelings, many emotions. Dining alone, travelling alone, staying alone- the action of being alone leads a double life, provoking reactions from those you meet along the solitary journey. Arguably, the word “sola” ~in Spanish~ bears the semantic burden of loneliness. But one thing that being alone teaches you is that there is a difference between being alone and feeling alone. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have at least one person who loves them in the world. Love is the antidote to loneliness. My departure memory kit is rich and varied, and ensures that I never feel alone. So, when I am enjoying solitude, it is always with the feeling of my people, somewhere in the world but just not with me at this moment. It sits somewhere beneath, an invisible safety net of love… Sometimes we need to have people around us to fill in the empty spaces so we don’t hear our own thoughts. They become a distraction from our pain. I have learned over the years that when this need arises it is more important than ever to be alone with one’s pain, one’s need for distraction through company. It is necessary to look it in the face and try to understand its’ nature~ to become its’ friend. When Rita warns me about being “sola” I baulk. Actually I want to be alone with the path in front of me. Nevertheless, a tiny shard of her warning breaks off and lodges somewhere inside… I am resentful of this because as well meaning as it is, it is introducing fear into the mix.
As I wander out of town I am fascinated by the textures of the adobe houses and their rusty doorways and window frames. A small roadside altar, dedicated to Mary also diverts my attention, giving me time to sit in the shade of a tree and seek brief solace from the brutal sun. I eventually hit a dirt road and start heading upwards. It is at this moment that the delight of solitude washes over me, bringing tears of happiness to my eyes simply to be walking along a dusty road, listening to my own footsteps. Up and up I go…..I encounter a couple of horses grazing, some nice vistas of vineyards and a large number of cacti creeping up the hillside.
Coiling the cerro with the lines of my footsteps, I am almost at the highest point when I notice two men atop some sort of tower, doing work. I keep walking and suddenly, coming towards me in the opposite direction, heading down the hill is another walker, a man, his face obscured by a hat and sunglasses. He walks past, and as he does, the shard of Rita’s warning comes loose and short circuits my senses, stabbing me, jump starting my heart rate, shifting my harmonious state into a state of alertness. He appears to be walking down so I walk past him and keep heading up until I reach the top, where there is a virgin, an altar and the usual array of “thank you” plaques. I no longer feel comfortable. I stop there for a few minutes taking photos but not too long as the sun is hitting hard. As I turn around to leave, there is the man, coming back up the hill to where I am. Heart rate pumping, I remember the two men working and that I should get myself somewhere where they can hear me or see me if something happens. The dodgy man is loitering, watching me. I am experiencing deep annoyance mixed with fear. I turn in the direction back down the hill to where the men are working. I am walking fast now, looking behind to see if he is following me. Nothing. I keep walking fast, down the cerro. I am so pissed off with myself for being afraid, for not being defiant. When I find myself alone once again, I wonder ~was I imagining it? Was that a past trauma rearing up, colouring my perception? Is my fear irrational?
As I continue my descent, it takes a few minutes to realise that perhaps that guy is local and he knows some of the other caminos and that any second now I could round a corner and find myself face to face with him. That would be bad because I now feel alone- the safety net of love cannot help me here. What was, only one hour ago, an almost euphoric sense of delicious solitude, has now transmuted into something ugly and dense. My heart is pounding, so I bend down and pick up a large rock to use as defense. And sure enough, as I come around a corner, there he is, sitting on a rock, waiting for me…….. He appears to be lighting a pipe that looks/smells like it is packed with weed. He says “quieres follar?” (do you want to fuck?). In Spanish, “follar” is very harsh and said in this way, his proposition is anything but respectful. He is smiling at me and I want to take the rock and smash his face so I can remove the creepy smile. I clench the rock harder and without thinking I say “no gracias”. “No, thank you”(?!?). As if , from the goodness of his heart, he were offering me something so desirable, something that I need? Sex is sex, but….he is utterly repulsive. More than his repulsiveness, it is my response that gets under my skin. I don’t want to antagonise him because I am afraid. I feel weak- that I cannot take care of myself. I do not have ownership of my body. I walk through the world with my head bowed, grateful to not be raped in solitary places, even though being in solitary places is one my great pleasures (and my right). Why did I not just stay silent, allowing the question to hang there like a rotting piece of carrion for him to see and smell? He has no doubt seen the large rock in my hand. He mutters something as I move away from him, but I don’t stop to ask for clarification. I am freaking out. He doesn’t follow me. I am so angry with myself. Now, all I want is to see people, to not be alone.
As I walk away, I transform into a lioness. Crouched low to the ground, I turn back and I begin to stalk him. He can’t see me coming, but I can see how he shifts nervously from a slowly prickling unconscious fear. He looks around anxiously, jumping at the shadows. It gives me great pleasure to see little beads of sweat forming on his forehead. Eventually, I get close enough and I pounce, pinning him down, watching his pupils dilate from the fear. I could rip his throat out if I wanted to… but I don’t… I play cat and mouse with him instead, letting him go then catching him again. I make that fucker sweat.
This experience unsettles me for most of the afternoon~the harsh reality of my situation has hit home. Is it always going to be like this? Fear? In nature, fear is a beacon, attracting the predator. I grieve the loss of the beautiful feeling I had earlier, I feel he stole it from me. The bitter pill I must swallow though, is that I allowed him to take it from me……My reactions are my responsibility, they are my only sphere of control.
Another day I take a bus to Pisco Elqui, which is beautiful. I am still dragging the cold with me. I think the reason why it is hanging on for so long is the dry air. I am now having coughing attacks, that are worse in the evenings and they are affecting my sleep. As I get into Pisco Elqui, my energy is quite low. I wander through the town and find solace in a place that is open for breakfast. The owner invites me to walk into the garden and wait as he makes me a juice. There is a lawn of soft grass, I take off my shoes and the moment my feet make contact with the grass I moan…aaaaaahhhh… my poor feet….. I look to them and they are looking a bit ragged against the lush green grass. I remember what someone said to me about the camino in Spain. I must take extra special care of my feet because they are what will carry me….