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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.”

Rollo said hopefully, “Maybe we could replace it there, Captain?”

“I doubt it, Rollo, old man,” Uncle Willie told him.

“What shall we do, sir?” asked Rollo.

“Face reality,” said Uncle Willie.

I didn't take part in all this talk. I don't like mystery. Furthermore, Rollo was paid by both of us, but he seemed to consider himself personal valet to Uncle Willie.

In the bus the two of them were gloomy, so I talked to my little fat lady.

“There is much love in Hollywood?” she asked me.

“There is much love every place,” I said in my college Spanish.

“No—I mean of the grand passion.”

“They try.”

“When I was a young one, the grand passion was nicer.”

“In what way do you mean?” I asked.

“There was time and leisure.”

“I have heard,” I said.

“The grand passion, it consumes time, you have so little time now for dressmakers, beauty parlors, cooking. It is difficult to carry off the grand passion.”

She opened a little straw Indian basket “I must eat often for my strength. Join me?”

She had cheese flavored with cayenne and hot pepper; the native bumitas, corn tamales with beans; a huge empanada, a pie filled with shrimp, rice, and wonderful beef. We offered some to Rollo and Uncle Willie, but they shook their heads; they were still mourning their loss, whatever it was.

So the little fat lady and myself sat and ate and talked of the grand passions of celebrated lovers, and swapped items about Catherine the Great, French queens, English kings, and the wild girl who drove a great motion picture star back to his wife and six children.

By the time the Indian basket was empty, the lights of Santiago, the fourth largest city in South America, blinked ahead of us. Santiago, on the Mapocho River, is larger than Baltimore. It has a population of close to two million people, most of whom seemed to be in the streets when our bus pulled in.

Rollo went to gather our baggage, and the little fat lady said it was a pleasure to meet us, and that the Carrera Hotel was the only hotel to stay at. “It has the garden and swimming pool on the roof. The Crillon is too French, the Capri too German, and the Savoy and the City too gay.”

We thanked her and took a taxi to the Carrera and went up to our suite, where Rollo unpacked and Uncle Willie brooded. I read the local newspaper. I was happy to see there was a National City Bank of New York in Santiago, that the Museum of Fine Arts was exhibiting Indian stone work and Picasso, that the ballet at the Teatro Municipal was performing “Swan Lake” and “Filling Station U.S.A..” and that an Englishman had been caught cheating at cards in the exclusive Club Hípico and had tried to drown himself in an ornamental fountain.

I said. “How about seeing the town?”

“Why don't you go along now? I'll join you later,” Uncle Willie told me.

I picked out one of my uncle's canes and went down into the streets. The city was beautiful, interesting, and some-what chilly at night. I bought a pack of local cigarettes. Libertys, went over to the Club de la Union (where we had a guest card), shook hands with an Irishman from Texas who had read a novel of mine—and then had dinner all by myself at EI Sarao. a pleasant inn right outside the city. I dined on a delicious avocado and shrimp salad, a chicken asado—roast chicken—and a Santa Rita wine. I then went to the Atelier and saw a play based on a French story written by an Italian; it was a fine show. Later I went to the Violín Gitano where the singer, a soiled but beautiful girl, was singing:

Amor como el que bay en mí No tiene el mundo memoria.

She stood over me and sang, and I bought her a drink. And she sang again. The words translate roughly as:

Love such as I feel, baby, Has never existed in the world.

I went out to the Mandarin. I.e Toucan. and the Waldorf. They all had good music, good drink, and someone to sing the same song at you. Then I tried the Boite, and there it was a large blonde with a gold tooth.

If you loved me thus,

The angels upstairs

Would sure be jealous of me.

Love such as I feel, baby,

Has never existed in the world.

By that time I had heard the song six times, so I just bowed to the blonde and went home. Rollo was mixing something messy in a dish, and I could hear Uncle Willie banging around in the bathroom,

“What is going on here?” I asked,

Rollo just rolled his eyes and stirred the mess in the dish. The bathroom door opened and Uncle Willie came out, preceded by a blast of heavy steam. He was in a bathrobe, his head wrapped in a turban made of a large towel. He saw me and shook his head sadly. “You might as well see it.”

He pulled off the turban. His hair and mustache were a bright green. I stepped back and looked at the two madmen; Rollo looked into his dish and said. “This batch is no better. sir.”

“What is this, an Easter-egg-dyeing party?”

Uncle Willie shrugged his thin shoulders. “When my medicine chest was stolen on the bus. it included some touching-up liquid that I use on my hair and mustache. I'm nor gray, you understand, but I do have to help nature a bit now and then”.

Rollo nodded. “And this city has no proper hair dye at all.” He pointed to Uncle Willie. “You see what they sell for dark brown?”

“You can't travel like that,” I said.

“Any suggestions, smart boy?” Uncle Willie asked.

“Shave it all off?” said Rollo.

Uncle Willie shook his head, “I'd be drummed out of the Guards. You know the mustache is a tradition. I could dress as an Arab, just expose my eyes.”

“I've been having fun in the night clubs,” I said.

“Youth,” said Uncle Willie, relying his turban. “What docs it know of the problems of age? We'll go hide in the Lake Country; Lake Villarrica, Pucon, How's that sound, Rollo?”

“Might do. Fun there, sir—and no one would pay much attention to the green hair. Lots of crazy sports lovers up there. We could stay there till the dye wears off or the hair grows out.”

“Back to the mountains?” I said.

Uncle Willie seemed relieved. “Rollo, Order us all a round of anis and soda from the bar, and then pack. We leave at dawn.”

I must say Uncle Willie carried it off very well; yon won't find many men with bright green hair and guardsman mustaches of the same hue going boldly at dawn into a cab and off to a hired-car garage, Uncle Willie picked out a beat-up English Bentley. Rollo drove us up to the lakes, the great fiords, some of the best forest in the world; a sports world of skiing, sledding, and a heaven of just drinking and eating. We stayed at the Hotel Pucon, over which looms the Villarrica Volcano. This hotel is run by the Chilean State Railroad.

Uncle Willie, wrapped in a heavy burberry coat, sat under the Cocteles y Aperitinos sign and sipped vaina, the local eggnog, and told the guests that many British soldiers turned green from the break bone fever that recurred in all who had fought at Khyber Pass “in the old days in Injah.”

Rollo said to me, “Let's you and me sec the hill country.”

“Camp out?” I asked,

“Jolly boy scout sort of thing,” Rollo said.

We hired a man called Pelon, who knew the hill country very well, so he said. We started out with two horses and a mule to carry our gear. A thicket of rabbit brush and tamarisk hid the hotel from view. The horses began to climb.

All morning we rode among crinkled growths, and then we came to the high plain. The soil was hard sand and gravel studded with great stones. A few vineyards tried to exist here, and there were herds of goats and a few cud-chewing cattle, but nothing else much. Prickly trees and weed fought for the few arid yards of hard soil between the weathered stones. By noon we had passed these sterile levels and were moving toward a watershed. Here we saw avocados. Higher still we saw larkspur and balsam and, over our heads, pitch pines, very tall and very even, like arrow marks on the mountainside. Rollo sang Zulu love and war songs.

We saw some birds that looked like buzzards, but they made no attempt to come near us. We camped for lunch by a stream and ate bacon and beans and sweet humitas fried together in a skillet, and the horses cropped the grass and ran out as far as their picket ropes would let them. Pelon's hound had caught an interesting smell in an old log and spent much of his time guarding it. We sat on cut branches, and the scent of pine pitch and brook moss and wind in a wild meadow was restful.

The mountain trails seemed as narrow as platinum watch chains. Riding trails here is an art, but not the art of the show ring or the bridle path in Central Park. This is the art of going with the horse, leaning forward in the Spanish saddle, nodding in time to the twist of the path and guiding your horse, almost without pressure, across rocky paths and stream bottoms, until the horse is sure of himself and sure of you.

Rollo said, “I wonder how fast hair grows?”

“Half an inch a month,” I told him.

The hound dog—his name was Señor Hamburger—did three miles to our one. He would advance up the trail, come tewing back, detour into the density of the bush, race around a tree, bounce across an old log. and go off again cross country. He would disappear into the tall grass and white thorn to meet us a mile up the trail, his nose dirty and burrs clinging to his ears.

We ate our sandwiches in the saddle and rode on until four. Then we found a place for a camp.

“When we get back, we could shave the captain as he sleeps,” Rollo suggested.

Pelon put up the discolored canvas tent with its canvas floor and piled heavy live-oak branches, topped with bare poles, around the tent. A ridge of red rock at our hack made fine shelter from the wind. He put down a floor of pine boughs, picking only those with thick pine needles almost like feathers. Pelon built a fireplace with red stones that reflected most of the heat toward the tent opening. The horses had ten acres of grass that the sun heated every day, and there was a stuttering spring creeping from under old logs almost at our elbows, lt was so pleasant there that I didn't give a damn about anything, not even a green Uncle Willie.

To our right was a huge blue platter of sky, and to our left the land fell away so that we could make out a thin line that Pelon said was the coastline. Maybe it was. There was heavy undergrowth up here and blueberries and maybe even a mountain lion now and then. and the deer droppings and tracks showed we would have trouble keeping the dog in camp.

Rollo said. “Maybe fasting would change the hair color?” Uncle Willie likes his food.

After dinner was over and Pelon had scoured the last pot clean with wood ashes, the late sun fell very good through my flannel shirr. We had eaten charquican, a jerked beef stew; carbonada, a kind of pancake; and brook trout fried with bacon strips, the bacon drippings wiped up with corn cakes made by Pelon's secret recipe. By that time the fire was just a bed of embers and we turned in. The hound lay warmly across our feet and sometimes he howled in his sleep, perhaps frightened by the ghosts of baby birds he saw in his dreams.

Outside, the night noises went about their business and something, maybe mountain lions, snuftled around the big tree where we kept all our supplies. We had put them on a platform built on its first big branch from the ground. Something clawed at that tree but never climbed it, which caused Rollo to discard the lion theory and speak knowingly of a wolf.

We came down slowly the next day, back to the town. Uncle Willie was not at the hotel.

He showed up at dinner with flaming red hair and a crimson mustache. He smiled and said, “A local witch doctor. She did it with a secret herb and stale beer. Delightful, isn't it? Well, what's on for tonight? I'm ready to howl —and tango!”

Rollo said, “Very becoming, Captain. I'll lay out the dancing shoes!”