The Abandoned Mines of the Atacama Desert

Photos By Karla and Ivan

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Text by Ivan Kashinsky

While driving through the driest desert in the world, our tired and thirsty red jeep began to complain, and we halted to a stop just outside the ghost town of Chacabuco.   The colorful walls decaying into the dusty streets held the secrets of the thousands of people who once called this eerie place their home.   As night crept over us, shadows from the past began to emerge from broken doorways and laughter as well as cries of terror began to manifest themselves in the wicked wind. 

The abandoned towns scattered across the Atacama owe their existence to the nitrate that was extracted from the mineral rich desert and sold to Europe to be used as gunpowder and fertilizer.   This part of northern Chile belonged to Bolivia until Chile took it as a result of the Pacific War in 1884.  Bolivia illegally raised the tax on this white gold, which sparked the war resulting in their loss of ocean access, control over the nitrate, and the endless amounts of copper, which drive Chile’s economy today.  It is most definitely a move that Bolivia regrets.

In the late 19th century thousands of workers began to come to the Atacama from the south to make some money off the nitrate boom.  Exploited by the owners they lived like slaves.  Instead of money they were paid with plastic chips, which could only be used in the local stores.  The workers were trapped in a system in which they could never leave.   In December of 1907 they marched to Iquique to confront the owners and protest in hopes of gaining some basic rights.  Blood flowed through the streets as the military ruthlessly gunned down thousands of men and their families in what is known as the “Matanza of Iquique”, one of many shadows which hang over Chile’s dark past. 

A decade or so later the workers began to see some changes improving their human rights.  But the boom was close to an end.   The Germans invented a synthetic nitrate and by 1938 towns like Chacabuco were left completely abandoned.   

Once again in 1973 the small cells in which the miners suffered were filled by a new group of people.  This time they were filled with prisoners.   Pinochet used Chacabuco as a concentration camp.   Ordinary people suspected of being a danger to the dictator were sent to the middle of the Atacama.  Here they suffered psychological torture and were forced to live surrounded by landmines, barbed wire, and armed guards.  Ironically, as Maria, the current caretaker of Chacabuco pointed out, the prisoners brought life back to the ghost town.  They created workshops that taught the people about theater, music, and art.  In 1974 the camp was closed down and Chacabuco remained empty once again.

The cells of Chacabuco are covered with the thoughts of these prisoners who scribbled all over the dark walls.  Unfortunately the military came and scratched out all these feelings in an attempt to erase any evidence that this ex-nitrate mine was ever a concentration camp. 

On the final days of our stay in the Atacama we visited another nearby mine called Puelma.  Walking through the cemetery, I saw coffins that had been dug up.  Bodies that had been perfectly preserved in the dry climate were uncovered.  People had come to steal the skulls and jewelry or just to dig up the ancient miners for kicks.   As I stood next to the skeleton of a baby, exposed, baking in the desert sun, I felt a deep sense of sorrow.  The people who came here suffered and now their bodies are being ripped from the ground and scattered across the desert. 

With some help from our desert friends, we fixed our jeep and headed north towards Peru, passing abandoned mines all the way to the border.   Every ex-nitrate mine we saw was a reminder of the strange past that we stumbled upon in the middle of the Atacama.

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La Vega Central, Santiago de Chile

Photos by Karla and Ivan

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Text by Ivan Kashinsky

At four in the morning the unbearable cold of the Santiago winter begins to eat through your skin and penetrate your bones.  The cargadores, who haul gigantic carts filled with produce, huddle around a trash can, their arms outstretched.  They take in the heat from a seven foot high fire.  To battle the cold and their throbbing muscular pain the workers light up joints, spike their coffee with moonshine, or drink Navegado, a sweet mixture of wine, orange juice, lemon and sugar.  Soon, the mood becomes lighter, jokes fly through the air with ease, and one can see that the market La Vega Central is one big family.

Ricky is a 68 year old man who has been working in La Vega since the age of five, when he used to help his pops sell rabbits and chickens. When his father passed he took over, and when he dies his children will continue the family biz. With a husky voice he shouts at people passing by, advertising his low prices.  In between shouts he mutters, “There are good times and bad times here at La Vega, but you can always survive”.  Even though his spot has burned down three times, the only shadow from the past that looms over him is Pinochet.  His wrinkled face changes, and his eyes widen, when he begins to talk about the dictator.  “It was a very dark time”, he tells me.  “You couldn’t say anything bad about the government.  There were people walking around listening, and if they heard you, the military would come and take you away.”

The people of the market love Allende and the Socialist movement.  Jorge Ahumada has been selling parsley for 40 years.   He remembers when Castro came to visit.  “I shook his hand”, he boasts. “He was like a big bear.  Now he’s skinny and old”.  Every morning of his life Jorge wakes up at 1 am to make the hour drive to La Vega and be one of the first ones to arrive.  “Sometimes we take Wednesdays off”, he admits. 

Immigrants from Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador work side by side with Chileans.  Although La Vega is family-like, competition exists, and racist comments slip out with ease.  One man refers to Peruvians as a plague that has taken over the market.    

The Ecuadorians sell plantains and in their free-time organize games of ecua-volley.  A large Brazilian man with an over-sized curly mullet befriends me.  He makes 40 lukas in one day, equivalent to 80 dollars, which is good money.  He is eager to tell me about his five beautiful children.  Then he begins to brag about the five women he has on the side. 

Cats are sprawled out over mile-high piles of garlic or hidden in the shadows of the rooftops above the fish salesmen.  They play an integral part in La Vega life.  At night the cats slip into the storage rooms and sink their teeth into the juicy rats hidden in the bowels of the market place.  But the felines of La Vega play a part well beyond their practical function.  For lonely souls like Rafael Merchant, the cats are all he has to hold on to.  In the dark passage ways of the market, where the only light shoots through holes in the tin roof, he nurses sick cats back to life.  He cleans their shaking legs and creates warm places where the cats curl up for the night.  The furry creatures do more for Rafael than he does for them.  They give him a place to project his gentle love, a reason to get up each morning and come to the marketplace. 

There is a dark side to the market.  Conveniently located on the fringes of La Vega you can find little bars where every dollar earned is quickly spent on remedies for pain. I sit in one of these joints, called “La Chica Patti,” with a cargador who is nicknamed Chuck Norris, because he is a perfect double for the actor.   As Chuck lights his tenth cigarette and pours another glass of dark brew, I say, “Smoking kills you know.” He quickly responds, “But women are more dangerous.”  It is only eleven in the morning on Tuesday and the workers slowly but surely drink themselves into oblivion.  The man at the table next to us passes out cold.  Chuck looks over at me.  “Nothing will happen to him.  We are all looking out for him.  We are all a big family. He is safe”, Chuck assures me.  “In a little while, he’ll wake up and walk out of here.”

 And he does.

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The Chilotes of Teuquelín, Chiloe

Photos by Karla and Ivan

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Text by Karla Gachet

The island of Chiloe is in the region of Los Lagos off the southern coast of Chile. The first people who inhabited the island were the Chonos, Cuncos, and Huilliches. These people adopted Catholicism brought by the Spanish conquerors, but they didn’t forget their own beliefs and the uses of plants for medicine or as poisonous weapons. In 1880, in Ancud, there was a trial of the witches of Chiloe, in which dozens of people were declared to be a part of a secret society called the “Straight Providence”. The initiation consisted in erasing baptism by washing the head of the newcomers with the blood of a recently born baby. Then he or she would wear a vest, the Macuñ, made with the flesh of a dead virgin, and this would help the person to fly. The feast at the initiation ceremony included a special plate of fried baby flesh.

“Excuse me, how can we get to the Island of Teuquelin?” The man looked at us and mumbled, “Witches live in that island.” Boats only come to Teuquelin, an islet off the Chiloe island, once a week or when there is an emergency.  The only people who live in Teuquelin are of the Peranchiguay family, who arrived about 200 years ago. Nowadays, there are only elderly people, women, and four kids. The youth left, and only eight families survive off the land, the sea, and luga, an algae that is harvested and sold to make shampoo and daipers.  Under the moonlight we crossed fields and dark forests until we reached uncle Lucho’s house, he had died a few months ago. Ceci and Misha welcomed us and treated us like family.  That night the witches visited us in our dreams.

The Peranchiguay family tree is so intricate it’s hard to decode all of its ramifications. Uncle David is 86, great-great-grandson of Basilio, who was one of the first ones in the island. David was married to his cousin Maria Orfelinda for 50 years. She died three years ago. Every day he lights up a candle for his wife and still asks for her permission when he goes somewhere. Lucila, his daughter, was married for 20 years but her husband was in love with alcohol and couldn’t have kids. At fourty, she had a kid on her own, and built herself a home from the money she made selling luga.

Abdon’s mother, Olivia, David’s aunt, was born in a boat that came from Punta Arena to Chiloe.  The anniversary of her death was celebrated with rosary prayers, apple beer, prieta, milcao and a lot of cow, pig and chicken meat.  All the family living on and outside the island was invited to come and pray. Uncle Abdon married his cousin Edna at an older age and they adopted a kid, Brian, to whom they gave everything they could. Brian never came to the celebrations. Abdon made his fortune renting rooms to the workers of the salmon farms that inhabited the island for a period of time. A few years back a desease killed all the salmon and also Abdon’s business.

El Varguita, another cousin, lives alone. They say a long time ago he fell in love with a girl and promised to marry her but didn’t. She left to live in the mountains and never came back.  Because of this he drank a lot.  He had two kids with another woman but never took care of them. No one visits him. A few days back he fell while he was drunk, and hasn’t been able to fish ever since. The other loner is Nolo, a second cousin. He works for everyone on the Island in exchange for food and shelter. No one asks why he lives on the island or what he is running from, he doesn’t speak much and his stare gets lost on the horizon.

Grandmother Dorila married the now deaseased Augusto Peranchiguay.  She is 85 and enjoys her hot herbal mate drink in the mornings and evenings. She reacalls this costume came in the 60’s after an earthquake hit the islands. Part of the donations for the victims where sacks of herbal mate that came from Argentina. Her grandaughter, Doris, has a neighbor Andrea. They both have boys who share the same age and the same father. Andrea lives with the baby’s dad and her mother in law, Celmira.  After running away from an abusive husband, Celmira got together with Manuel.  At 95, Manuel is the oldest Peranchiguay.  Manuel has a cronic cough and spends his days sitting next to the wooden stove that heats up his home.

Uncle Nano rows his canoe to another island to pick up his nine-year-old-daughter, Claudia, from her boarding school. On the way back, a whale swam along with them.  The mom, Norma, waited by the shore with her hand on her chest praying that they would make it back safe.  Aunt Norma used to work as a maid in the Island Desertores where some of the Peranchiguay kids went to school. Many years later, destiny brought her back to Nano with whom she had a girl, after doctors had told her she couldn’t because of her age. They make a living off harvesting potatoes and enjoy their girl’s love in the house by the lighthouse. 

The brothers Fauri and Cito live far away from everyone else and we only met them in our dreams. They almost never come out to the light. It is said they love apple beer and they drown in its sweetness. When one crosses their property, two black devilish dogs run out to show their canines. Once in a while, you can see smoke coming out of their kitchen, as if all of the sudden they realize it’s freazing cold. Their lives and secrets, as well as everyone else’s, float in the islands of the south. Each character’s unique story is also universal to all the enchanted families of Latin America.

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On the Road Argentina

Photos by Karla and Ivan

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Text by Ivan Kashinsky

After near starvation in the Altiplano of Southern Bolivia, the thick juicy steaks slid down my throat with ease.  It’s not easy to find a vegetarian restaurant in the Land of the Gauchos.   Gauchos, Argentinean Cowboys, have all but disappeared except for a very special one named Gaucho Gil.   Apparently, Gil stole from the rich and gave to the poor.  This Gaucho went from Robin Hood to Sainthood.   For the folks of the argentinean countryside he is more popular than Jesus Christ himself. 

 About every five miles we came across shrines dedicated to the belated Gaucho.  Amongst dozens of red flags people left everything from human hair to glasses of wine to soccer shoes, all in hope that the Gaucho would protect them.  They also left small figures representing him.   One day we found an old figure, his face worn out by time and decaying in the harsh desert sun.  We decided to be mischievous and robbed him from his rightful place by the shrine.  BAD THINGS BEGAN TO HAPPEN.  We pulled over at the next sacred spot and left our little Gaucho with his red flags and piles of offerings.  The universe began to re-align itself and things went back to normal.  Don’t fuck with the Gaucho.

 They don’t call it “The Paris of South America” for nothing.  In the late 1800’s when Buenos Aires was rolling in dough, from all the beef they were exporting, the city was torn down and rebuilt to look like Paris.  But I wasn’t sure where I was when I was wondering down the streets of the city. It could have been New York.  In San Telmo, a famous bohemian barrio, I had the feeling I was in Havana.  It was as though a place that was once incredibly wealthy was now slowly decaying into the sidewalks.  Old men with thick glasses studied their newspapers as well dressed waiters brought them cappuccinos and the morning light poured through the old glass windows and bathed the checkered floors in light. 

 To kill the boredom that crept over our souls as we drove day after day through the cold monotonous landscapes of eastern Patagonia, we sipped on mate.   Screw coffee.   Mate had become more than a ritual.   It was a way of life.  Without it we simply could not be.  For those who don’t know, mate is an herbal mix that you pour into a small dried out squash.  You add hot water, which you then suck out with a metal straw, called a pajilla. Sounds weird, but it’s awesome.  The warm traditional drink accompanied us all the way to the Strait of Magellan, where we boarded a ferry and crossed over to the land of fire.

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The Three Amigos in Argentina

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Tierra del Fuego: Poetry at the End of the World

Photos by Karla and Ivan

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Text by Karla Gachet

There are no McDonalds at the End of the World.

The expectation to get to the island of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire) started building up somewhere  along the Argentinian Patagonia. The landscape for the past five days had been eternal washed-out-yellow plains on both sides of the road. Once in a while, a flock of hundreds of sheep would cheer up the scene. The land of the “fueguinos” (the people who live in the island) is separated from the continent by the Strait of Magellan, where the two oceans that bathe the Americas meet up and make love.

The Great Island, once inhabited by the native tribes, is now shared by Chile and Argentina. The bullets and diseases brought by the “white man” ended four thousand years of native existence in less than a hundred years. What the white man hasn’t been able to destroy yet is the back drop to this place. We pushed south, still surrounded by plains, and all of a sudden the Andes got in our way.  Only these Andes go from East to West. Without knowing, we were about to witness the most amazing show of our lives. The protagonist: Mother Earth.

At the south of the south the trees talk all day and sometimes they dress in pastel colors.

If I would describe the landscape strictly from the point of view of my senses, it would be: red-orange colors, cold-dry air, clean smell, icy taste.  And it all happened in silence, although if you payed attention you could hear the whispers. Coincidentially, we had gotten there in the fall, the best time of the year to visit the southern tip of the continent. Ironically, the trees, in their agony, dress up in colors saturated with life.

We also had no clue that winter was just around the corner.

For the first time in my life I truly understood Ansel Adams.

I had never been too interested in nature photography. It simply wasn’t my thing. Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world, was the climax of our trip.  After walking for a few hours, nothing had caught our attention. It was low season and the streets were deserted.  All you could hear was the breathing of the massive snow-cap mountains surrounding the city. In front of them, was a deep blue ocean were Darwin had crossed in the Beagle a couple hundred years back, also looking for clues.

In the tourist office, we were given a map of the city.  We realized the entrance to the National Park was only a few blocks from our hotel. We went for a visit and ended up staying the rest of the day. We played with our cameras in a paradise of surreal colors and forms that were both quietly simple and loudly complex. With each step we took nature gave us a new gift. The compositional possibilities were infinite, the beauty entered our retinas and spread like a cancer throughout our bodies.  That night it rained and the temperature fell to an extreme low. We stayed four more days.

It all became clear… maybe ‘cause it snowed.

Nature had tricked us. We were completely addicted to the park, its sensations, moods, contrasts and negative spaces. We made the riskiest decission of our whole trip and took the mental leap. Our story was about her, we knew it all along, we were just scared of doing something different and unknown to us.

Being in that park changed who I am. So much beauty and perfection can not just be a series of fortunate coincidences. Thinking that we, as a species, are destroying this sublime live being is mind boggling. At the tip of the Earth you can still find magic and animals wear hooded coats. There is no blackberry connection , only germination, life, death and resurrection. That simple.

And then,  the earth desaturated itself. It woke up in black and white.

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Ceci and Meme: Tango in “El Caminito”

Photos by Karla and Ivan

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Text by Ivan Kashinsky

It wasn’t clear if they were lovers or just friends.  I don’t think they even knew.  They had a chemistry that radiated from their intertwined bodies and spread over the crowd in tangible waves.   Ceci and Meme were like the Ying and the Yang.  Ceci was a storm of uncontrollable violent passion.  Meme was the anchor that grounded her and kept her from flying off the stage into the crowd.  Dancing the Tango was their life.  They danced all day for tourist and then all night in milongas, or tango clubs, scattered throughout the sleepless city of Buenos Aires.  “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”, Meme told me. 

Ceci felt at home in the milongas.  Her grandparents began to bring her to the clubs since the age of fourteen, a bit too young she admitted.  Older dancers had taken her under their wing and showed her the ropes.  The soothing rhythm of the dancers calmed her nervous energy and she lived for the magical feeling of dancing the Tango.  Meme used to go to discos, but dropped that lifestyle for the Tango clubs.  There you didn’t have to push your way to get a drink, bouncers were not necessary, and the night never ended in a fight.  Ceci loved to improvise, and Meme was the perfect partner, allowing her to express her inner-self through her movements and begin a dialogue between their bodies.      

The tango was supposedly born in the brothels of the port area on the Rio de La Plata in the late 19th century.  It was practiced in the cabarets of “El Caminito”, the small street where Ceci and Meme now dance for tourists. The people of “Good Airs” looked down on the tango, until it boomed in the 40’s.  Then, the need for rock n’ roll completely smothered the traditional dance until it became cool again in the 80’s.  So it skipped a generation. Meme was taught by his grandparents.  Now the milongas are full of people of all ages passionately moving across the dance floor under dim colored lights.  

I clutched onto Meme’s back as we sped through freeway traffic.  “Have you ever crashed?” I screamed nervously in his ear.  

“Only four times”, he replied, “but none of them were my fault.”  We were on our way to the gym, where he liked to clear his mind in between work and the dance clubs.  In Argentina, men are expected to kiss other men on the cheek when introduced.  So I spent the next half an hour kissing sweaty men. 

Back at Meme’s Dad’s house he helped his little sister, Rocío, with her dance steps. Meme’s dad, Manuel, cooked potato pancakes and steak and complained about tough economic times.  I wandered into Meme’s room and realized he was just leaving the adolescent phase.  Life-size posters of the Simpsons were pinned up on the walls along with Bob Marley.  He later explained to me that he was a mix between a “Rollinga” and a “Rasta” when he was a teenager.   That means he liked the Rolling Stones and reggae music. 

We found our way back to a milonga, where we met with Ceci and the rest of the dancers from “El Caminito”.  Meme began making out with another dancer from their group and Ceci pretended not to be jealous.  At 2 am, a famous dance couple showed up to perform.  They mysteriously tiptoed across the dance floor like vampires from another time. The show ended and the night was just getting started.  We walked the vacant streets of Buenos Aires, singing, dancing and laughing with Meme’s dance friends. The whole group of dancers was extremely sexual and the lines between gay, straight, and bi were blurry, if they existed at all.  

The next day Ceci and Meme danced with mad passion.  Tourists stuffed themselves with over priced food as the couple floated above the sounds of the guitar and accordion.  Afterwards, they counted their tips on the floor in a back room of the restaurant. We then headed to Ceci’s house with the crew.  Jumping from bus to train to taxi, we finally made it to Ceci’s parents’ house in a wealthy neighborhood in the outskirts of Buenos Aires.  

There we sat eating sausages and drinking wine in a beautiful outdoor patio. Ceci, her friends, her parents, her fourteen-year-old bro, his friends and the two of us, were arguing about everything from politics to music piracy until 4 am.  In the morning, I saw Ceci wrapped up in Meme’s arms.  The morning sun slipped through the blinds bathing their beautiful young faces in a golden tone.  It brought me back to what Ceci told me.  “Naturally I’m impulsive, disorganized and too sensitive.  Meme is more relaxed.  When the two of us mold together to make a whole, we are much stronger than we are on our own.” 

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