11
Jun
10

The Sound of Silence

On April 2nd, Malika and I returned from northern Chile and our sightseeing vacation.  In planning, the highlight was to be our time in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town in the Atacama desert sustained by subterranean waters fed by the nearby Andes mountains.  In recent years, it’s become a tourist magnet whose number of visitors per capita could likely put many European hot spots to shame (so much so that legal limits had to be put on the schedule of alcohol sales and on alcohol-related public disturbance).

Overrun by tour agencies, restaurants, hostels, inns, hotels, shops and cafes set up to serve the transient tourist, one can laugh about the amount of North Americans and Europeans on every street.  At the same time, one must also feel for the local Atacameño people whose fortune it’s not clear has worked out for the better as a result of the infusion of tourists pesos.

The sound that struck me in San Pedro (which you may have guessed from the conspicuous post title) was silence, or rather the sound of tourism done the wrong way.  Yes, the relative quiet of the peaceful village emerging in late March from the cacophony of high season was also striking, but it was my own inability to interact with the people of the village that produced the silence that disturbed me most.

In truth, it was not sheer ignorance, a language barrier or lack of desire, but a case of altitude sickness that made me not myself in San Pedro.  An acute bout of vomiting and consistent light-headedness unfortunately changed my approach.  Only in the final hours in San Pedro did I come to realize what I should have been doing all along: talking to the local people.  Of course, this wasn’t as simple as it sounds.

a desert fox sits between dirt and shrubs

A desert fox in the altiplano (high plains), the only native Atacameño I managed to connect with.

Most of the restaurant, hostel, and business owners in the town were not locals.  They were Santiaguinos or Chileans from other parts of the country who had the capital or could get the credit or subsidies to profit from the tourist rush.  The Atacameños in town manned stalls in the small market and some worked in shops that sold crafts, art work and handmade clothing.  The centre of town is built up with old adobe houses, most painted white to protect from the heat of the sun.  On second glance, though, one sees that almost none of these pretty buildings serves to house the people of the village.

On an opportune trip around town to drop off our tour guide’s kids at school, we finally got a glimpse of where people from San Pedro live.  Some houses looked like those from the centre, but many were metal shacks grouped together on parcels of dirt, which betrayed to a curious onlooker that the rush of tourists pesos might not be trickling down to all the people in town.

Unfortunately, my uncharacteristic silence kept me from truly finding out what the real concerns of the Atacameños are:  does everyone have adequate access to water (because tourists certainly do); are they concerned about the waste associated with so many temporary stays (bottled water without end, restaurant food waste, garbage left behind); do they see the wave of tourism as a sustainable venture (the native people manage all the tourist destinations, mainly natural and sensitive features of the fantastical landscape, and charge entrance fees); are they really benefiting from the influx of fascinated visitors; and what do they really think of us, the ever-present outsiders.

A conversation here and there could have revealed more than their dark complexion, smiles, and tranquil expressions did.  It might also have offered some insight into Atacameño tradition and history, which may indeed mirror the economic hierarchy of the town and the relationship of native peoples and the dominant race in Chile and around the world.

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