Month: December 2015

How I got lost in the jungle

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Terror paralyses you. You can’t move. You can’t think straight. Your body goes into a state of hysterical paralysis. It’s like someone has turned up the music to an impossible volume and you’ll never be able to find the control. It drives you crazy.

I’ve never experienced it before. I’ve been afraid before, or anxious, but never terrified. But then I’ve never been lost in the jungle before.  As it happened, the phrase kept on repeating in my head over and over again, like an emergency alarm. ‘Lost in the jungle’ seemed a monumental sentence. Unlike the problems you’d usually face, this could realistically end with death. Admittedly, I’m not sure it was technically a jungle. I have no idea what the technical definition of jungle is. But for me, it is a place that is covered in trees and fucking terrifying to get lost in.

I’d looked in every direction and I couldn’t find the trail. I had no plan and no idea where I was. No one knew I was there. I was well and truly screwed.

The expedition was ill-prepared from the start. I’d taken to walking up mountains recently. Nothing really masculine – no ropes or climbing or the like – just arduous strolls really. They beat off a hangover like nothing else in the world and there’s something really satisfying about spending the evening drinking, then climbing a mountain and starting to drink again with people who’ve been at their job all day. You get all the accomplishment and none of the work.

So I woke up hungover on Saturday morning and thought I’d try to reach the summit at El Cani, a 1,500 acre private nature reserve about 20km east of Pucon, where I was staying in south Chile. You could tell from the few other people I saw in the park that the trek, which goes up 1,500 metres on treacherous, winding pathways, was demanding. They all had large backpacks, were loaded up with water, and carried those weird skiing poles you see hikers with sometimes. I had shoes from Zara with literally no grip at all, a Ted Baker manbag, 750ml of water and an empanada. Basically, I was an idiot. I’d avoided all the tours and tourist excursions available Puco and headed on my own on a local bus to the reserve.

The woman at the entrance office seemed a bit perturbed by how I as dressed. Are you sure you don’t have any questions? she asked as I set off. I told her it was fine.

The map and the trail were clear enough, but it was hard going – much harder than I thought. At 600 metres elevation I could feel my brain beating in my head and I was covered in sweat. My clothes were sticking to me. I was constantly fighting the temptation to just down the water. My shoes were slipping and sliding all over the place.

There was a lodge marked in the trail, about halfway up. Leading off from the lodge seemed to be two light trails. It didn’t occur to me that I could open the gate, pass through the lodge and follow the trail on the other side. Instead, I spent my time irritably trying to figure out which of the two light trails to take.

This is a common error in the way I think. I can’t even count the times I’ve spent an hour lost in a video game, exploring unpromising corridors, then returned to where I originally was and seen a big open door there. It’s also why I’m shit at chess. I’ll spend ten minutes working out my strategy five moves ahead only to watch my opponent move their bishops two spaces and take my queen. I have a tendency to get lost in the reasoning without first having established the basic parameters of the question.

I tried the trail which looked more inviting, but it was going downhill too much for my liking, so after a few minutes I retraced it back to the lodge and tried the other one. It was here that my judgement became seriously impaired. After a while there plainly was no trail at all but I started imposing one on the landscape. Surely this fallen tree trunk meant I should stick to the left, I thought. Surely this expanse of grass was inviting enough to stand in for the road. Each time I made a decision like that I kept on trying to photocopy the image of the route I was taking into my brain so I would remember which way I’d come if I had to double back.

If you had told me that what I was looking at was a trail at the start of the trek, I’d have laughed at you. It’s true that the route had started as a wide road and gotten progressively smaller, but there are no excuses: my reasoning was extremely poor. It had been degraded, partly through exhaustion and lack of water, partly through bloody-mindedness.

I started trudging through a dark, soggy canopy, where the muddy ground, mixed with old fallen trees, crackled beneath my feet and vividly coloured, almost cartoonish mushrooms burst out from the bark. Large and silent black insects, like flying ink dots, kept flying around my face. And still I pressed on.

After about five minutes I got to a large fallen tree and started to clamber over it. At the top something stopped me. Surely this was too much, I thought. Lots of people wouldn’t be able to climb this thing. I hesitated and then remembered where I was and decided to turn back. But even then there was a voice in my head poking at me for being cowardly.

Once I was off the tree, some degree of sense returned and I quickly became nervous about my predicament. None of the photocopies I’d tried to take with my mind’s eye had worked. Any two directions back looked the same as each other. I could feel the panic rising in the back of my throat. Earlier I’d told myself that if I got lost I could just walk downhill, but that does no good at all. The area is crowded with ravines and valleys and mazes of trees.

And then I did something very stupid: I kept making decisions. I switched into militarised public school mode.

I hated public school and I don’t believe in it. It was an unpleasant, unkind experience. But there’s one good thing about it: the constant leadership message they hammer into you does take over in times of emergency. When things get serious, I feel a burning need to take charge, to make a decision and implement it, never to fall into uncertainty and fear. It’s served me pretty well through the years. I’ve always been reassured by that part of myself taking over in times of crisis.

I started walking and simultaneously scanning the environment and concluding very quickly which of the sights would have looked more like a path to me a few minutes earlier. But I was fooling myself. I wasn’t really making decisions. I was barely evaluating the environment at all. It had become far more reassuring to me to be doing something, to be walking in a given direction, than it was to stop and accept the gravity of what was happening.

I have a tendency when there is a problem – whether it is mine or someone else’s, whether it’s romantic or social or professional or whatever – to want to break it down into manageable goals and work out what actions it would take to secure those goals. I only really get depressed about something when there’s wallowing. I need to act, to be doing something about it, and no matter how bad things are I start feeling better about them as soon as I do. Now that tendency was betraying me. I was afraid of standing still and accepting that I was lost, so I kept making decisions, I kept moving, even though it was plainly making the situation worse.

It wasn’t a practical strategy. It was an emotional one. Arguably during this period I had become functionally insane. I was committing counter-productive actions because of how they made me feel rather then their consequence in the real world. After five minutes of this, I finally realised I had no idea where I was. I was lost in the jungle.

That’s when the terror struck. It was exactly like they describe it in books: icy fingers closing around my heart. It expressed itself in the form of claustrophobia. Being lost didn’t feel like a state. It felt like a place. And wherever I went – whether I walked five steps left or right – I was in the same place, the place called lost. Lost was like a thick wooden coffin closing in on me, like something I could feel my breath against.

The moments of terror, when I became inactive with panic, lasted a minute or so at a time. Then I’d get a wave of reason again. I started to think about rationing what I had. I’d about 400ml of water left and half an empanada, as well as some mints, which I was hoping might give me a sugar boost if necessary. I couldn’t sleep on the ground – there were reptiles and massive spiders everywhere and I’d read on the internet there were pumas too. I’d have to climb a tree and sleep there.

I wondered when people would realise I was missing. The woman at the entrance wouldn’t. People camp up here all the time. And anyway, I hadn’t left a phone number with her. I was meeting my friend Zita in Santiago the next day, but she was a new friend who communicated with me, like everyone here, on WhatsApp. She was unlikely to call for a rescue because I didn’t turn up, and anyway she didn’t know where I was. I didn’t tell my family I was staying in Pucon. My only hope was that I’d mentioned the park I was in on Twitter earlier. If hadn’t contacted them in a couple of days, when my flight was due to take me to them for Christmas, my family would inevitably have searched Twitter for what I had been doing, given that I’m always on there babbling away. But two days obviously seemed a very long time.

There was no reception. I checked my phone anyway and the no-reception icon made me feel terribly alone. It’s ridiculous of course. Google maps was hardly going to show a path which anyway did not exist. But I’m so used to this object guiding me that its sudden uselessness sent a shiver through my heart.

All told, I was lost for about half an hour. Half an hour of pant-wetting, bona-fide fucking terror. Eventually I saw a line of mud amid the grass and followed it. I think it was the downhill trail I’d half-heartedly followed for a bit earlier. It led me back to that camp site.

I sat down and let the panic subsume, which took a while. Then I had a choice to make. Finish the climb or head back down. I decided to finish it. I didn’t want the last proper day of travelling to be a memory of failure. So I started climbing again. At the time, it felt like the bravest thing I’d ever done. The route got tougher. My boots were slipping and sliding all over the place, next to canyons and crevices.

The Mapuche Pewenche people ask the Pewenche trees permission to enter as they near the summit, at about 1,400 metres. I did the same. I wasn’t being flippant or superstitious. Embarrassingly enough, I actually meant it. My nerves were shredded and I figured that, atheist or not, I could use all the help I could get.

The view at the top – with five snow topped volcanoes in a 360 degree view – was spectacular but it only brought on another wave of anxiety. Now that I could see for miles in the distance, I realised how far away from anything I was. The trail, no matter how vertiginous or slippery, was mentally easier. It meant ‘go forward’ and that’s about as much as I could handle. Seeing it all from the peak brought back that feeling of claustrophobia.

But just down from it there was a wooden symbol signifying that you had reached the peak. This meant much more to me. It was a sign that I’d swallowed down the fear I’d felt, kept climbing and accomplished what I’d set out to do. I didn’t take a photo of the five volcanoes, but I took a selfie of me by the wooden symbol. By this point, it was more about me than it was about the view.

The way down was just an exercise in pain really. My feet, ankles, knees, calfs and lower back were killing me. At any moment, my shoes would slide downwards and I’d have to frantically try to rebalance. I was by this point completely out of water, drenched in sweat and emotionally and physically exhausted. But I made it, with half an hour to spare for the last bus into town.

Was I really in that much danger? Probably not. No matter how bad my reasoning in those crucial ten minutes, it was still only ten minutes. There were 36 people in the park that day, all following the same trail. If I’d stood where I was and shouted for help for long enough, someone would have heard, as unseemly and embarrassing as it would have been.

And the crevices and dramatic slopes which blocked my way, crevices which put the fear in me when I was lost, would actually have been helpful in limiting my options, if I’d stopped long enough and thought in a structured way about how to get back. Eventually I would have started to do that.

So why the fear? Well for a start you take a Londoner and make him lost in the jungle and he’ll likely shit himself, because it’s so far outside his spectrum of experience. But it was more than that. Being lost represented the ultimate loss of control. I couldn’t make my problem submit to my way of coming to a solution. The method I use to impose order upon the situation had actually made it more chaotic. And the endless maze of trees and slopes resembled the inner panic in my head in a way which exacerbated both of them.

It felt like a mental earthquake: the terror of something solid and reliable shifting under your feet.

When I got back to town I had a pint of cold beer. Then I found the best restaurant around and bought a steak. I ordered the most expensive Chilean red on the menu and followed it up with a pisco sour. I thought about the jungle, now cloaked in darkness. I’m not sure I can ever remember anything tasting so good.

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Don’t let a camera spoil your holiday

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There’s no joy in just looking at things. We’ve all got Google. We know what things look like. Travelling half way around the world just to look at a thing is a completely bizarre and unsatisfying way to spend your time.

But most tourism is spent just looking. The countries people visit do it by blocking off sites. And the people who visit them do it by closing themselves off from the place they’re in.

Stonehenge is a case in point. It has none of its mystery when you stare at it from a distance, with the A303 straining beside it. You get nothing from that experience you wouldn’t get from a Stonehenge calendar in one of those dreadful shops full of incense and dream catchers.

But spend the evening at Stonehenge on summer solstice and it’s another matter entirely. You approach in the dark, late at night. Groups of nasty teenagers sit on the pathway, slightly dangerous. People try to sell you drugs. Families there for the sunrise stare out from their locked cars with unconcealed dismay.

Then the stones suddenly loom up at you from the path – supremely eerie. Suddenly they are not remotely new-agey, but ominous and unknowable. Being able to touch them, being among them, means everything.

This is the case for ruins everywhere, from Tikal to Ankor Wat. Where one can clamber on something, one can connect with it. Where one can only see it, it means little more than watching it on TV. There are obviously concerns about degradation. The best sites, like Tikal, block off some areas but allow interaction with others. I’m not an expert and of course we need them to last for another generation. But if all the next generation can do is stare at it, there is little point in having done so. Let them look at photos and be done with it.

What goes for ruins goes for natural beauty too. I finally arrived at the Atacama desert last weekend and it was a disappointing experience.

I’ve managed to avoid the backpacker trail all trip, mostly by using Air BnB and socialising just with Chileans. It hasn’t been difficult. There have hardly been any backpackers to see. But once you get to San Pedro, the town everything in Atacama is based from, you’re suddenly plugged into a key hub of a backpacker trail you never knew existed. You can’t avoid it. You have to stay in a hostel and arrange tours from there.

The backpackers crowd is the same as it was when I was spending all my time in hostels. The Israelis stick to themselves, the Chinese mostly sit in corners engrossed in technology, French travellers are disliked by almost everyone, Kiwis cling to other Kiwis with a bit too much desperation, Brits and Australians want to be more interesting than they really are. All of them, I think possibly to a man, were either about to take the three day organised trip into Bolivia or had just finished it. They were all doing the exact same route. No one was really in Chile in any meaningful sense. They were just looking at it, as if looking at Stonehenge with the A303 in the distance.

They’re not boring people. I met several I really liked. It was a profound relief to speak English and there were a few drunken nights outside which I enjoyed, because drunken nights outside are one of life’s great pleasures. But there’s something terribly conservative about young people, miles from home, all clinging religiously to a designated, well established course.

Then the tours started and I slumped into a temporary period of catatonic despair. It’s uniquely dispiriting, after a couple of weeks of independent travel, to have to stump up cash, get on a tour bus and be corralled from one place to the next. No matter what you’re seeing – whether it’s wonderful or disappointing – being given a parent in the form of a tour guide makes it impossible to enjoy.

As it happens, the Atacama desert is wonderful. It’s an exercise in God-like watercolours: white volcano tops, blue lagoons, white salt flats and red earth. But at each spot you are simply dropped off and pointed at the pathway. You cannot deviate from the pathway. So your group and a herd of similar ones from other hostels, all brought to the same places at the same times, traipse along, take a photo at the designated spots, and move on. There is no touching or interaction. You are only there to look.

Many people barely seem present at all. They approach something, photograph it, and walk away, without even spending a second to take it in. One imagines they will put these photos on Facebook or, worse, punish their friends with them in person. In either case, they are seeing these things for others’ eyes, eyes which happen not to care.

But even they are not as bad as the selfie takers. There are selfie sticks everywhere and they are getting increasingly long. Many people seemed to only taking selfies.

I’m a bit wary of the bourgeois back-patting involved in criticising selfies. It reminds me a little of people who seem so pleased with themselves for not watching TV. But honestly, it takes an extraordinary degree of self-regard to go to one of the most beautiful places on earth and take a picture of your own face.

There are moments when you can find travelling nirvana, but they are few and far between. We were actually able to clamber over rocks at one salt flat and I managed to get away from the others. When alone, you properly realise what an alien landscape it is. It’s weird enough that everything is salt. But this isn’t even sea salt. It’s volcanic salt. It looks like nothing you’ve ever seen, like a landscape of witches’ teeth. When the wind clatters one piece against another it makes a sound like crystal. Your head pounds from the altitude and sand has filled up your nose, making it constantly feel bunged. The sun is punishing. Standing on a sand crystal promenade, gazing out on a blue lake, with a volcano in front of you, desert around you, and a cruel, relentless wind filling your ears, it’s easy to imagine you’re on an alien planet.

And then there are the tiny moments of chaos you cannot avoid, no matter how regimented your schedule. I came back from a tour one night with a couple of friends and we suddenly found ourselves engulfed in some sort of Virgin Mary procession. At the front, men in costumes danced insanely. At the back a small glass-encased statue of the Virgin was carried aloft. And in front of it, three men holding a bar with ornamental bulls’ heads on it rushed up to observers – including me – and suggestively thrust it at their groin.

Afterwards, we had to make the half hour walk back to the hostel through the desert in perfect darkness and, for a moment, it was all rather startling and ancient. But then we got back and it returned to normal.

I’m trying to get out the desert now. Tonight, I get a flight from Calama, a copper mining town on the outskirts of Atacama, to Santiago, from where I’ll head south.

It’s a horrible place which I can’t wait to leave. I’ve seen two dead cats in less than 24 hours – not a good sign. The people mostly seem half asleep, except for the groups of men who gather on street corners so they can wolf-whistle at women. It’s the only town in Chile I’ve actively disliked. The dust keeps getting behind my ears, the floor of the place I ate at yesterday had a massive spider crawling on it, and I had to keep my eyes out as I walked home at night because half the guys here are sketchy as fuck. It’s not pleasant. But I’m at least forced to be part of it. I can’t just look at it. And anyway, there’s nothing here to take pictures of.

Chileans create order where none should exist

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Chileans are the only people I know of who have formalised the process of starting a romantic relationship. They call it ‘pedir pololeo’. It’s basically a proposal to become boyfriend and girlfriend. Of course, they’ve usually kissed or slept together by this point – they’re not freaks – but you’re not technically going out until this event has taken place. Like marriage proposals they can be either simple or elaborate. And like marriage proposals, it’s usually the man who does it.

One one level, this is pure genius. I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with people who are unclear as to whether they’re going out yet. How many coffees or beers have we all had with friends as they ponder whether they’re technically in a relationship with the person they’re dating?

My usual advice takes the form of asking whether it’s OK for them to sleep with someone else. If the answer is no, they’re in a relationship. Sexual exclusivity is the best functioning definition of it. (Unless you’re in an open relationship blah blah blah. I find people in open relationships the most tedious to talk to about this subject. They love telling you about the rules, they all have a tremor of emotional catastrophe going on just behind the eyes and none of them are half as interesting as they think they are.)

The proposal also clears up that old question pre-married couples love asking each other: Which day shall we pick as our anniversary? Our first kiss, our first shag or something else? Under this system, the day you pidiste polelelo is the official starting date. Job done.

It clears up many things and makes perfect sense. And it’s typical of the way Chileans seems intent on imposing order in the midst of total chaos.

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Chileans love comparing themselves favourably to other Latinos, especially now that Argentina’s empty box economy is falling apart in plain sight. Their sense of nationhood seems partly to be defined by an (entirely valid) perception that they are a bastion of order in a continent of chaos. They proudly tell you they work like Europeans, by which they mean hard. Even the Germans are impressed. A German logistics officer told me admiringly that they are very good military shoppers. “They buy their warships from the British and their infantry equipment from the Germans,” he said with a wry smile. It’s all very well organised.

But amidst this order, the landscape is borderline uninhabitable. The northern part of Chile, which I’m passing through now, is gradually turning into desert. There are cacti everywhere. The ground is dry and majestic, with big sweeping mountains waving up on every horizon. A strange red plant – it looks like the kind of thing which would give someone super powers in a Marvel film – covers huge patches of earth. Every mile you go it becomes more and more like Tatooine. And it’ll only become more severe as I approach the Atacama desert, which Nasa uses to trail equipment for use on Mars. It’s as close to an alien landscape as you’ll find on earth.

Nearly all of it is empty. Almost ninety per cent of Chile’s population lives in the greater Santiago area, so there’s hardly anyone left to live here. The journeys between towns are severe affairs, taking days. After all, this is a sliver of continent masquerading as a country. It is just taking the piss with how long it is.

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There are hardly any cars on the road or settlements. You look out the window for hours on end without seeing any signs of life, except for the occasional flapping white flags of sweet bun sellers, who board the coaches to sell their wares to the passengers.

But even in this landscape, Chilean order endures. The sweet bun sellers are picked up in one location, then dropped off at the next, where they wait for a coach in the other direction to start the process again. Before I knew how this system operated I asked the conductor whether we would be stopping for food. He looked at me as if I were mad. Nothing is allowed to slow the progress of the vehicle.

The sleepy, dusty towns are full of polite, reserved workers. The buses ferrying us between them are extremely comfortable, even luxurious. They arrive on time, leave on the dot and never take longer than five minutes to disembark passengers, pick up new ones, and set off again. Once you’re aboard, a ticket operator comes on and checks your papers, including your passport or national ID number.

I obviously wasn’t very impressed by the demand for identification on a bus, but then it’s to this country’s great credit that you have to remind yourself how recently they were a military dictatorship. That Chilean sense of order isn’t just a defensive barricade against the landscape, or a bulwark against Latino poverty and chaos. It’s also an underlying current of fascism and fear of fascism.

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Take the police, who summarise many of the tensions in Chilean society. On the one hand, they are the only police force I know of in Latin America who don’t take bribes. The people here, who almost all instinctively distrust them, are rightly very proud of this. Women also tell me they can be trusted and that they would seek help from them if they were attacked. Again, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in many other Latin countries. In Guatemala, for instance, many of them are just heavily armed children – often given shotguns, with their spray of pellets, as a substitute for teaching them how to shoot.

But Chilean police are also brutal. They have a reputation for being incredibly violent during the frequent student demonstrations here.

A couple of days ago I saw two of them take down an aggressive drunk by the beach. At first, all I could see were flying fists, but then I spotted the signature brown uniform. I’ve seen police take people down brutally in England before. But even then their actions are clearly deliberate and trained – pressure points, or responses to orders, or specifics blows to the solar plexus to temporarily incapacitate someone. This was different. It was a brawl. Punches to the face, headlocks, a couple of kicks to the ribs: a pub fight.

Technically the police are called ‘carabineros’. But every Chilean I’ve met refers to them by the vaguely disparaging term ‘pacos’. I’m told there are efforts to make it illegal to call them that. It gives some indication of the undercurrents of authoritarianism which Chilean orderliness can contain.

Chileans create order where none should exist

image

Chileans are the only people I know of who have formalised the process of starting a romantic relationship. They call it ‘pedis polelelo’. It’s basically a proposal to become boyfriend and girlfriend. Of course, they’ve usually kissed or slept together by this point – they’re not freaks – but you’re not technically going out until this event has taken place. Like marriage proposals they can be either simple or elaborate. And like marriage proposals, it’s usually the man who does it.

One one level, this is pure genius. I’ve lost count of the conversations I’ve had with people who are unclear as to whether they’re going out yet. How many coffees or beers have we all had with friends as they ponder whether they’re technically in a relationship with the person they’re dating?

My usual advice takes the form of asking whether it’s OK for them to sleep with someone else. If the answer is no, they’re in a relationship. Sexual exclusivity is the best functioning definition of it. (Unless you’re in an open relationship blah blah blah. I find people in open relationships the most tedious people to talk to about this subject. They love telling you about the rules, they all have a tremor of emotional catastrophe going on just behind the eyes and none of them are half as interesting as they think they are.)

The proposal also clears up that old question pre-married couples love asking each other: Which day shall we pick as our anniversary? Our first kiss, our first shag or something else? Under this system, the day you pidiste polelelo is the official starting date. Job done.

It clears up many things and makes perfect sense. And it’s typical of the way Chileans seems intent on imposing order in the midst of total chaos.

image

Chileans love comparing themselves favourably to other Latinos, especially now that Argentina’s empty box economy is falling apart in plain sight. Their sense of nationhood seems partly to be defined by an (entirely valid) perception that they are a bastion of order in a continent of chaos. They proudly tell you they work like Europeans, by which they mean hard. Even the Germans are impressed. A German logistics officer told me admiringly that they are very good military shoppers. “They buy their warships from the British and their infantry equipment from the Germans,” he said with a wry smile. It’s all very well organised.

But amidst this order, the landscape is borderline uninhabitable. The northern part of Chile, which I’m passing through now, is gradually turning into desert. There are cacti everywhere. The ground is dry and majestic, with big sweeping mountains waving up on every horizon. A strange red plant – it looks like the kind of thing which would give someone super powers in a Marvel film – covers huge patches of earth. Every mile you go it becomes more and more like Tatooine. And it’ll only become more severe as I approach the Atacama desert, which Nasa uses to trail equipment for use on Mars. It’s as close to an alien landscape as you’ll find on earth.

Nearly all of it is empty. Almost ninety per cent of Chile’s population lives in the greater Santiago area, so there’s hardly anyone left to live here. The journeys between towns are severe affairs, taking days. After all, this is a sliver of continent masquerading as a country. It is just taking the piss with how long it is.

image

There are hardly any cars on the road or settlements. You look out the window for hours on end without seeing any signs of life, except for the occasional flapping white flags of sweet bun sellers, who board the coaches to sell their wares to the passengers.

But even in this landscape, Chilean order endures. The sweet bun sellers are picked up in one location, then dropped off at the next, where they wait for a coach in the other direction to start the process again. Before I knew how this system operated I asked the conductor whether we would be stopping for food. He looked at me as if I were mad. Nothing is allowed to slow the progress of the vehicle.

The sleepy, dusty towns are full of polite, reserved workers. The buses ferrying us between them are extremely comfortable, even luxurious. They arrive on time, leave on the dot and never take longer than five minutes to disembark passengers, pick up new ones, and set off again. Once you’re aboard, a ticket operator comes on and checks your papers, including your passport or national ID number.

I obviously wasn’t very impressed by the demand for identification on a bus, but then it’s to this country’s great credit that you have to remind yourself how recently they were a military dictatorship. That Chilean sense of order isn’t just a defensive barricade against the landscape, or a bulwark against Latino poverty and chaos. It’s also an underlying current of fascism and fear of fascism.

image

Take the police, who summarise many of the tensions in Chilean society. On the one hand, they are the only police force I know of in Latin America who don’t take bribes. The people here, who almost all instinctively distrust them, are rightly very proud of this. Women also tell me they can be trusted and that they would seek help from them if they were attacked. Again, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in many other Latin countries. In Guatemala, for instance, many of them are just heavily armed children – often given shotguns, with their spray of pellets, as a substitute for teaching them how to shoot.

But Chilean police are also brutal. They have a reputation for being incredibly violent during the frequent student demonstrations here.

A couple of days ago I saw two of them take down an aggressive drunk by the beach. At first, all I could see were flying fists, but then I spotted the signature brown uniform. I’ve seen police take people down brutally in England before. But even then their actions are clearly deliberate and trained – pressure points, or responses to orders, or specifics blows to the solar plexus to temporarily incapacitate someone. This was different. It was a brawl. Punches to the face, headlocks, a couple of kicks to the ribs: a pub fight.

Technically the police are called ‘carabineros’. But every Chilean I’ve met refers to them by the vaguely disparaging term ‘pacos’. I’m told there are efforts to make it illegal to call them that. It gives some indication of the undercurrents of authoritarianism which Chilean orderliness can contain.

A quick reminder that the smartphone is one of the greatest inventions of your lifetime

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Santiago at night

A little while back, a series of photos showing couples playing with their smartphones went viral. The artist had removed the smartphone from the image, instantly making them look ghostly and empty. It was all terribly clever and it dominated Facebook and Twitter for a week or so.

Of course, you could remove books from images of couples reading them and that too would look ghostly and empty. But no matter. The image clearly spoke to people and was shared widely. Much of this sharing would have taken place on smartphones, but it’s not worth getting bogged down in such obvious cynicism. It’s perfectly valid to be wary of something you partake in. That’s pretty much how I get through Grand Theft Auto.

Look around at any public scene, anywhere in the world, and you will likely see a lot of people with their faces buried in their smartphones. The growing consensus is that we are not as present as we used to be, that we are ignoring real relationships for virtual ones with vague acquaintances on screen.

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Valparaiso. An extraordinary city in which almost every inch of wall space is covered in graffiti.

It can look weird. It’s always strange when technology introduces a major change in the way people behave, especially physically. And indeed a lot of online interactions are odd. Relationships which used to be fleeting – someone you had a fling with ten years ago, or that you played with when you were ten – are now often silent satellites of your current social interactions, connected to you well past the point when it should have ended.

And all this comes as social media and bespoke information feeds divide us into political ghettos – tiny self-sufficient echo chambers of thought which are making us ever more intolerant of our differences.

So it’s worth remembering every so often that these tiny devices in our pockets are actually marvellous bits of magic, which generally help develop connections between people rather than rupture them.

This is first time I’ve done proper travelling since I’ve had a smart phone and it is a completely different experience. Back in the day, it was a struggle to meet people from the country you were staying in. It was like a movie. You drifted through these places, watching people but not really interacting with them. You rarely spoke to them, you rarely entered their homes. If you did it was often as some sort of vaguely unethical ‘experience life in the slums’ tourism package, or even a volunteering mission which gap year students paid absurd amounts of money for. Most of your time socialising was with other people roughly your age, from countries roughly like your own, in a hostel patio.

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Valparaiso, Valpa to the locals, is like a mix of Rio de Janeiro, Montreal and Portsmouth

Air BnB changed all that. There’s no reason to a hostel anymore. For less money you can stay with people themselves in their spare rooms. It might not be an exact replica of life in the country you’re visiting. They’re more likely to be young and internationally-minded than the rest of the population, for instance. But it is a chance to socialise with the people who you would otherwise just have looked at from a café. You get to ask them questions about their lives  and learn about them beyond the crude generalisations you had before. And you actually end up with a pretty workable idea of what life in the country you’re travelling in is like.

It also means, in this case, that I’m speaking Spanish all the time. It’s exhausting. Every conversation is an intellectual exercise of fitting my meaning into the limited words I know. It’s particular odd for me, because I never really learned those words as a foreign language. Spanish was my first language, but I lost it all when I went to live in the UK at the age of four and learned English (off Andy Peters and Phillip Schofield on CBBC – cheers lads). So I’m constantly surprised to discover that certain words have been dug up and are now available to me again, or, more commonly, that they’re not. Alarmingly, it sometimes feels like I’m in a protracted negotiation with the filing cabinet of my own brain.

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Valparaiso at night

There’s a kind of social exasperation to being plunged into using a language you have not mastered. I’ve noticed that when I break off from unsuccessfully trying to formulate a Spanish sentence and mutter something irritably in English, people look visibly happy and relieved, as if it’s proof that I’m not simple. We know that people who are struggling with language are not idiots, but sometimes we forget.

There is a definite loneliness to not being able to make yourself properly understood, as if you walk around in a membrane through which only half the information gets in. Bar situations are particularly difficult. Large groups are basically incomprehensible, as is any conversation where there’s loud music. In both cases I pretty much have to check out.

So WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook are a life saver. It allows you to dip into conversations with friends where you can make yourself perfectly well understood, or political arguments where you are no longer suspected of being simple-minded (stop laughing at the back). It’s like lots of mini holidays from the stresses and strains of struggling in a foreign language.

It’s also terribly nice, when you are constantly starting relationships large and small on the road, to be able to chat to people who’ve known you for a long time, and know you well, without having to go to an internet café or pour coins into a pay phone.

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More Valpa, reflecting Chile’s commitment to colour.

At any moment that I’m on my phone doing these things I am disconnected from my immediate environment. While I organise the place I’m staying next, or having a much needed chat with an old friend, I am that ghoul staring blankly at the smart phone. But it’s not disconnection that’s taking place, it’s simply a temporarily non-visible connection. To look at this device – which is creating face-to-face and virtual relationships where previously none existed – and conclude that it is separating us off from one another is superficial.

Once the shock of the iPhone came out, the changes smart phones introduced mostly came through apps. That slow pace of change has arguably made us complacent about how positively this device is changing the world around us. But take a step back and it’s a plainly a supremely human bit of technology. We hardly use the phone function of these devices anymore. But the fact this revolutionary bit of technology developed through a phone handset tells you everything you need to know about its positive implications. It brings people together more than it isolates them.

And anyway, think back to before smart phones were invented. Were you constantly starting up conversations with people on the street? Were you fuck.

The world would be more reassuring if we could feel evil

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In Pinochet’s Londres 38 detention centre, an estimated two thousand people – mostly leftists in their twenties – were detained and tortured. They were blindfolded the entire time they were there, apart from when they used the toilet. They were burned and disfigured, mutilated. Ninety eight of them, including two pregnant women, were never heard of again.

I walked around Londres 38 the other day and felt nothing. It’s not the first time it’s happened. When I was in school, we went on a trip to Rome. I remember my history teacher at the time saying that you could feel the evil emanating off the Colosseum, but when I got there I didn’t feel anything.

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I didn’t feel anything in the S21 centre in Cambodia, where 20,000 people were tortured and killed in the Kyhmer Rouge’s wave of insanity and terror. I didn’t feel it in My Lai, the Vietnamese village preserved as it was when American soldiers gang-raped and mutilated the women who lived there and killed up to 504 unarmed civilians.

And I didn’t feel it in Auschwitz either. I visited the concentration camp on a blisteringly warm day, alongside hundreds of tourists and school groups. Certain sights shocked me – the piles of hair and glasses, for instance – but I stood in the ruins of the gas chambers and I just couldn’t access the emotional place the location demanded of me.

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I really liked our tour guide that day. When one visitor suggested that this is what happens when extremism goes unchecked, she replied: “This wasn’t about extremism. Only conformity can explain what happened here.” I thought it was very beautiful and true. But later, just before we broke up, she said that visiting the camp shouldn’t be about feeling sad, that it should instead reconfirm our love of life. She advised us to go out that night, eat well, drink wine, and savour it. I spend much of my life doing precisely those things, so I thought honestly that it might be more appropriate to allow the sadness and horror of that place to sink in, to try to give it some of the recognition it deserved. But honestly I didn’t feel that horror or even that sadness. My feelings about the holocaust, like everyone else’s, were well developed by the time I visited. Being in one of the places where it happened to take place did not add or subtract from them.

This is not some protracted admission that I’m dead inside (I’ll write that later). Show me a film about the holocaust and I’ll start crying pretty much the exact second the director intends me to. But locations themselves don’t seem to have any impact on me.

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Our culture presumes that some things are so terrible they soak into the walls of the places where they happen. It is what almost all horror films are based on. And why not? Rooms take on all sorts of aspects for us, positive as well as negative. They are bigger than the sum of their part. My teenage bedroom, where so many of my formative experiences took place, has an almost mystical presence in mind.

A few months ago I watched workers demolish the house next door. One man with a hammer took about an hour to completely destroy a room, breaking down the walls with each swing. And I thought: is that all it takes to destroy a room? For someone, that room he just ended has the same significance as my teenage bedroom. Rooms take on this grand meaning for us, but they are no more resilient than anything made of material. They are as meaningful as school chairs or drain pipes. They are like god: Everything we imagine they contain is in fact an expression of ourselves.

So I walked around Londres 38, in the pebble-stoned, sun-kissed heart of Santiago, and I felt nothing. The rooms could quite easily be converted into a normal house and someone would sit and watch telly in them and eat popcorn and they would be none the wiser that this was a place of despair and injustice and death.

There’s something even more disturbing about that. Evil of that sort is not this great spiritual darkness which taints the physical world in which it is expressed. It is more chaotic and meaningless. It happens and no-one is any the wiser. The place is not haunted. The darkness does not lurk in corridors. It is as if it never happened. I kept on thinking of a Grant Morrison quote, which ran something along the lines of: “Every room can be the worst room in the world.”

It’s that banal. I wish Londres 38 was more upsetting. It would ultimately be reassuring if it was.

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Why Chile has such fat stray dogs

The stray dogs say a lot about Santiago. Just like everywhere in Latin america, they have stray dogs here. But unlike anywhere else in Latin america, they are fat.

They’re fat because the people feed them. This makes them behave quite unusually. They’re basically like free citizens of the city.

They seem to recognise and use zebra crossings. This morning one walked confidently into the road, only for the driver of an oncoming car to dutifully stop and let him pass. He had right of way, after all. And Chileans, unlike any other Latin people I’ve ever encountered, respect the rules of the road.

At the pedestrian crossings, the stray dogs stop and wait with the people, then cross like everyone else when it turns green. It is incredibly odd.

The stray dogs are like everything else in Santiago: Latin, but not. In most Latin countries they’re skeletal, traumatised things, clawing a life out of the scraps of food on the street. Only in Chile would this bit of Latin chaos exist, but be smoothed out and made palatable.

They say the Chileans, like the Argentinians, consider themselves europeans in Latin America. If anything, that may be an understatement. In so many ways they seem completely misplaced. Chileans proudly tell you that, as a nation, they can’t dance. “We’re like you guys,” my dinner companion told me last night, rather cheekily. I wanted to argue back, but I knew they were speaking the truth. They also hate spicy food. On this point at least I suffered no national comparison. “Actually, in our Indian restaurants, English people order the spiciest thing on the menu,” I said proudly. She looked at me like I was an idiot.

The young professionals here are worried about the exact same things young professionals worry about in London. They don’t earn enough, wages aren’t keeping up with prices, they’re going to have move further out from the centre. They consider this evidence of Chile’s continued economic hardships. To my ears, it sounded like the comparative privilege of Western economic hardship.

None of them would even look out of place in Europe, either ethnically or in their clothing. Most of them look like characters in a Pedro Almodovar film: beautiful, well groomed, tucked in.

Someone was explaining why there was so much Chilean slang yesterday, especially around sex (their slang for masturbation, rather wonderfully, is ‘five against one’). “The thing is, as Chileans, we find it very hard to say what we really mean. So we have to find our around it.” I mean, they might as well just go ahead and call themselves Brits.

The men in particular are fascinating. The machista culture which poisons the rest of Latin America doesn’t seem to be present here. Or if it is, it is less demonstrative and more surreptitious. Men are less aggressive, women are more confident. A woman could even walk home alone at night here without it being considered suicide.

One Chilena told me about her troubles living with a Colombian flat mate. Everything was a drama, she said – who was friends with who, who was paying for what, even when you chose to go to bed. She had to throw her out in the end. “I couldn’t handle the drama.”

I found this phrase baffling. My only experience of Latin life is drama – endless arguments, over subjects as small as groceries and large as revolution – followed by genuine and theatrical declarations of love and friendship. Saying ‘I couldn’t handle the drama’ in Latin America is like saying I no longer wish to speak to Latin Americans. But not in Chile.

But amid all the European habits, little sparks of Latin life break out. Yesterday I watched workmen put up scaffolding in La Plaza de Armas while singing a song and clambering and sliding their way down the steel bars they’d just erected. Groups of men will walk by with one man singing loudly and his other friends ignoring him in a way you would never see in Europe.

It is undoubtably a much nicer place to live than anywhere else I’ve seen in this continent. You could, for instance, own a car or a TV here without spending every minute of the day wondering when it will be stolen. There is none of the background hum of suspicion you get in Mexico or Guatemala, say, where crime and violence have become so common that they pollute the way peaceful people treat each other.

But Chile also lacks some of the exuberance of Latin countries. It is calmer, but less powerfully, viscerally alive. Sometimes it feels almost docile, much like Madrid, the city it so clearly models itself on.

For me, it brings up strange, contradictory emotions. I’m half Guatemalan, and that part of me sort of resents them. It looks at Chileans and instinctively feels they are not Latin. They’re too calm, too restrained, too professional, too… white, both physically and emotionally. As a white Latino, that’s laughably hypocritical, but there it is.

I suppose there is a sense of inferiority. I never saw this side of Latin America before. All these Almodovar characters walking around in suits and chequered shirts and expensive glasses. If Latin America was a country, they would be the boss class and Guatemalans would be the proles.

But the Brit in me views them from the other direction, like some mad transplant: as fellow Europeans somehow placed at the bottom of a foreign continent, well away from… well from anywhere really.

Or perhaps, as a half-European half-Latino, Chile is just a bit too close to comfort. Sometimes it feels like I’m walking around in my own background.