1950s Archive

South American Journey


Originally Published August 1956

Chile is a narrow strip of country, 2,600 miles long and about 250 miles across at its widest, between the lofty Andes and the blue, blue Pacific Uncle Willie and our valet, butler, and banker of exchange, Rollo Lobengula Firbank, entered Chile by bus at Laguna Fria, because the airline had decided not to fly that day after a brush with a condor who died gallantly trying to bring down his first plane. We rolled along steep roads between ice-cold lakes and dry, windy landscape. Uncle Willie slept, I watched our hand baggage, and Rollo, who claimed to be a black Zulu chief in exile, worked out the current rate of exchange for us.

“You set, Chappie,” he said as we faced death on a sudden turn in the road, “they tell you how many pesos to the buck, but a knowing lad can always do better.”

Rollo claimed he had been to Oxford, and I was getting used to the “chappie,” but his illegal dealings with money-changers worried me; the food in South American prisons isn't bad, but the fleas are very lively.

Uncle Willie stirred and wriggled his dark brown mustache, but didn't open his eyes. “Food?”

“And wine,” Rollo said.

“What kind?”

“Santa Carolina, not bad white wine, and Tarapaca, a pretty good Burgundy. But what I can really recommend is a native Riesling. Dry, tart.”

“Pour me a glass,” said Uncle Willie.

“We are on a bus, Captain Longstreet. We shall stop for a bit of food soon, I hope.”

“Damn.” Uncle Willie settled back again in his seat.

The bus driver turned around, taking his eyes off the dangerous mountain road. “Don't worry. We stop for the lunch soon. Try the fish soup, caldillo do congrio.”

“Friendly people,” said Uncle Willie, opening one eye.

Rollo shook his head. “He shouldn't take his eyes off the road.”

Uncle Willie looked out the window. The Andes rushing by hung over us menacingly, chilly and blue. Uncle Willie yawned. “Once you've seen one rock, you've seen them all.” And he closed his eyes and went back to dozing.

In about half an hour the bus stopped, and we all went into a solid stone inn and sat around a table covered with a bright cloth, while half-caste Indian girls, barefoot, served us the fish soup and the Chilean shrimp, camarónes, jaibas, crab, and a big cut of a large side of beef that was spurting and turning in the big fireplace. Uncle Willie cheered up. He unfolded his napkin like a battle flag and saluted with his fork as if it were a sword. We ate and talked to the other passengers, most of them natives of Chile. They didn't seem to me to look South American. I asked a delightful fat little lady with red hair, “You are a native?”

“Oh, yes. But this amazes you? We don't look very Latin, do we?”

Uncle Willie told her, “You look like a crowd of rooters at a Long Island polo game.”

“The first settlers here,” the little lady explained, “were English, Irish, and German.”

“And Indians?” asked Uncle Willie.

“Always the Indians,” said the little lady cheerfully, as we were served the native white wine.

Rollo came in just then, looking worried, his big shiny black face etched with some kind of spreading horror. “Someone has stolen something of ours.”

Uncle Willie said unconcernedly, “Buy another one.”

Rollo looked around and said significantly, “It's your tin medical kit, Captain.”

Uncle Willie sipped and thought. “Oh, well, nothing in it but some shaving cream, and some pills without labels, and—and—”

“And—” said Rollo, nodding mysteriously.

And?” asked Uncle Willie.

“Yes, it was packed on the bottom.”

Uncle Willie shook his head worriedly. “The traveler is at the mercy of the natives. The wise man stays in his castle and pours hot boiling oil on tourists. Double damn —pardon me, madame.”

“Miss, not madame,” said the little lady. “What have you lost?”

Uncle Willie shrugged and said uneasily, “Oh, well, it wasn't important.”

Rollo nodded and that was the best we could get out of them, for just then the bus driver stood up, brushed corn-bread crumbs from his lap, and said, “We must go on at once if we are to be in Santiago before dark.”

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