Riches behind the walls

Tocopilla town, view from the beach

I’ve decided that the inital blogs will be about Tocopilla, the small town caught on a narrow ledge between the Pacific shores of northern Chile and the towering Andes. This is home to my Chilean family and it’s the inspiration for so many more stories, told and yet to be told. To understand the people, you need to know the place. So I’ll describe that. And I’ll pass on snippets of gossip, bits of news, local myths, and some stories people tell, most of which then grow a life of their own, and it’s your guess as well as mine about how much is really true.

This little town is very familiar to me. I’ve spent months at a time here. At first glance – and for those of us who don’t live here – it’s poor, it’s barren, bereft, lacking. Not much grows on this patch of earth. Anything that does is covered in years of dust that blows up from the black volcanic sand at the beach. It’s amazing how family roots have stubbornly tunnelled into the rock and after generations, are now eminently united with it. It’s amazing because this place is, at first glance, entirely inhospitable and seems to challenge anything taking root at all. Maybe it’s the tenacity of its people, which quite possibly stems from their Inca renegade ancestors called ‘Los Changos’. (More on that in a future post.)

The town that I know has apparently changed a lot. They say that decades ago, before the Coup of ’73, Tocopilla had a reputation as the cleanest town in Chile. It was home to many American mine executives and their families. They set up golf courses in the sand, they installed heaters for hot water showers, they set up television antennae, they even printed their news in English. Most importantly, they taught Tocopillanos to play baseball. Today the Tocopilla team is the unbeaten national baseball champion for decades running.

Tocopilla’s days start slowly. But by about 11am, tropical music beats into the air along the streets. It blasts from one window after another along cinderblock walls that are sometimes not recognizable as houses. Their narrow façades, many of which are unpainted concrete with corrugated metal fencing at various stages of corrosion, huddle along the streets from the sea up the the foot of the mountains.

Packs of stray and diseased dogs roam uneven sidewalks that are littered with garbage, which has been tossed aside without a second thought. Discarded car parts, unrecognizable chunks of metal and piles of dog droppings litter corners of gravel parks, the rusted out swingsets mostly abandoned. Cats thunder along the edges of corrugated metal rooftops to peer down at you. The wind tuggs at oil-stained lace curtains that are hung inside small window frames and you hear children laughing and pots and pans banging inside.

 A foreigner finds all of this novel, nonsensical even. We breeze by, taking in the sights and sounds, forming our foreign opinions, making mental notes of what we’ll relay to our foreign friends.

But what we don’t see, and therefore, can’t relay, are the intricate, familial webs and carefully nurtured relationships. The surprising richness behind the plain cement façades is parellelled only by the wealth that’s found just under the surface of the arid surface of the Atacama Desert on which this town is built.

 I feel fortunate to have been adopted as one of the ‘integrantes’ of a Tocopillano family. I am known affectionately as ‘la gringa.‘