Desert Grapes

Jojo had everything going for her. With a teaching career back home and a mortgage down on a house in “Freo”, what Westralians call Fremantle, the funky port town appendage to Perth, what could hold her back?

“There’s something wrong with my throat,” she said, clutching at her neck, her voice raspy.

Jojo and her backpack rocked in from somewhere south of Santiago while I’d grabbed a bus down from up north. Chile is an endless Pacific sliver of a land: it can only increase the chances of a north-going, south-going running-into-each-other. There’s hardly room to step to the side in a country as thin as Chile. A step to the west, shoes will be ocean wet; a stride to the east, footprints will be Argentine.

Besides, it was only natural I should stop somewhere en-route from Iquique to Santiago, to avoid being entombed in a metallic express coach mega-journey for what would’ve felt like days. Jojo wanted to see La Serena. I wanted a bit of non-AC oxygen on the way.

It was the taxi driver in from the bus station who dropped me at the guest house door: he said he knew a place and I didn’t argue. It was a handful of rooms along an enclosed courtyard in an old grey house, colonial and quaint, run by an old grey woman, short and jolly. She dropped by my room, in turn, to tempt me with a tour for the following day. She had a brochure of the Elqui Valley, a winding sliver of green running off into the mountainous hinterland towards Argentina. It came with a price list and coffee presented as a cup of hot water with small packets of Nescafe, sweetener and powdered milk lined up on the saucer. With all the on-selling going on, Chileans had no deficit of entrepreneurial skill.

In the wealthiest country in South America, where the poor could be seen living in flimsy shanties along the vast stretches of otherwise empty rocky-sandy coastline, for the tourist all was ready.

Jojo wasn’t only a teacher. She’d had the experience of running a school in a remote aboriginal community in Western Australia, far enough into the desert that non-aboriginals needed a formal invitation from the tribal elders to drop by. She used to pack up the kids and take them into the bush in the school’s government supplied four-wheel drive for classes, as she could. They were at home in the outdoors. They learnt better there.

But Jojo didn’t get in until after dinner. I’d wandered, found La Serena historical, colonial, quiet and clean. The food was good, the servings judiciously small, as it is in Chile. Nick, the guy at the next table, struck up a conversation on the basis that because I put my chips in the bread and ate it like a sandwich I must be, as he was, British.

But like Jojo and the Chileans I was of colonial stock and not a European. It didn’t mean I couldn’t eat chips on bread.

It was Nick’s first time outside Europe but as a tour guide he’d visited all the countries of Europe apart from Russia, except for three. He asked me to guess. I chose at first Armenia and Georgia, which are technically Europe, but Nick didn’t consider them so. “Okay, it’d be Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus.” He was shocked. I was right. “People always choose Albania,” he said, “but I’ve been to Albania.”

Nick enjoyed being a guide, especially for the Americans who were so nervous and naïve while on the wrong side of the Atlantic. He wanted to demonstrate they didn’t need to be fearful of France.

Jojo turned up as words, after that, from an old grey woman’s mouth. “There’s another tourist,” she said elatedly, “who is interested in the tour. You could split the cost?” Her on-selling had found new merit.

Jojo dropped by my room and we chatted. I heard how she was returning to Chile after a decade, that she’d once spent a year there as an exchange student. She kept touching her throat.

“What are Chileans really like?”

In her slightly rattly voice she narrated how she felt. “Maybe I didn’t notice before,” she said. She’d been shocked by how many Chileans seemed to blame poverty on the poor and how proud they’d been in her Chilean town of the wondrous new mega mall, of the sort that had multiplied across the country.

It seemed a shame if it were true, a country trading its soul for a mega mall.

Jojo said there were exceptions: not everyone was such.

“Did you catch a cold?” She looked nervous, stressed.

“I’m sure I have throat cancer,” she said, her words making her more worried.

“How do you know?”

“I feel it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s tonsillitis at worst!”

I agreed to the tour. At worst, it would be agreeable to spend a day with Jojo.

It might be that a tour guide should look intellectual, maybe with glasses. But there’s no exact model and when Jose arrived with his minivan, he certainly wasn’t it. He was muscular, moustached and about seven feet tall. His voice was so deep I wouldn’t want to take him up a mountain for fear its rumble might set off an avalanche. He could have been a member of the Chilean military’s elite whatever special something forces.

As we got into the minivan, one old grey woman waving us off, Jojo was busy fondling her throat.

“Stop it! It’s not cancer!”

The landscape of the Elqui Valley was unique. Some might marvel at the engineering in the irrigation that let the grape vines grow; for me it was enough to enjoy the contrast of the vineyard green with the dusty, barren hills.

But the Elqui was a distraction, like a suave French film going on in the background of a dinner party. It was the conversation with Jojo at valley centre: it filled the several Elqui hours, interrupted by the occasional rumbling fact supplied by Jose, delivered at the very lowest end of the human hearing scale.

The aboriginal kids saw a flock of birds, Jojo said. It was a particular type of bird that shot up from the sandy ground. It meant nothing to her, but the kids in unison excitedly shouted the word in their language for “water”. Those birds meant water: what the elders taught them, and in the desert water-finding is more important that mathematics.

Meanwhile there was Jose explaining about the pisco, the vodka-like drink allegedly invented in the Elqui Valley, although Peruvians claim it too. We dropped by a distillery and tried a sample.

The aboriginal kids used to tell Jojo where she’d been on the previous evening, the exact houses she’d visited and when. Expertly they read her tracks in the sand.

“The community was like one family. Things go wrong when the kids get older and have to move to Perth for opportunity. The city is a society they don’t understand.”

Jose took us to Vicuña for lunch: the main Elqui town.

Another non-aboriginal worker in the desert once captured a baby camel, Jojo said. He named it after the then Indonesian President, Megawati Sukarnoputri. He liked that name. And Megawati the camel lived in his backyard, everybody knew.

By evening we were back at the old grey house in La Serena. Luckily Jose’s voice had caused no avalanche.

Jojo decided to head down to Santiago with me. I think she liked my non-medical medical opinion concerning her sore throat. As it turned out, after a few days the throat cancer cleared up. 

I should mention: the rest of the world calls her Jo. It’s in my mind that it’s always been doubled: two letters never seemed enough of a name for Jojo.






This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: Desert Grapes

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