I will always remember the Christmas night we spent inside the — an adobe circle with a fire in its center. We gathered beneath the stars to listen to Mauricio explain Andean cosmology.
Mauricio told us that indigenous Andean peoples, though diverse, understood the world around them using some common tropes. Generally, they saw the universe as tripartite. There was the Ukhu Patcha, or underworld, the Kay Patcha, this world; and the Hanan Patcha, the world above (heaven). We sat in the Sitial and ate indigenous food and drank Chilean wine that symbolized each. Ideas passed around this circle as we learned from Mauricio and each other.
In a sense, every journey is a circle. You return again to the beginning, carrying something new. As , we “arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” So I am thinking about our journey in terms of what I learned inside the Sitial, our adobe circle.
Mauricio told us that the underworld is something we have access to as mortals. It is ruled by Supay, the Incan god of the Ukhu Patcha. This realm is often symbolized by a snake.
On this trip, we had our own minor bites of the snake. We caught colds, got lost, got sunburned, got too ambitious with the 4x4 at times. Once Jessica dropped a bottle of wine on the floor. I constantly misplaced my sunglasses. I fell flat on the floor getting out of bed one day.
The real glimpses of the Ukhu Patcha, though, were much less trivial. We saw it in the glint of the Carabineros’ mirrored sunglasses, and in between the words of their (‘Un Amigo Siempre’ over the logo of crossed rifles). We felt it in the absence of Pablo Neruda inside his beautiful home on Isla Negra, the home he fled just days after Pinochet took power and to which he would never return alive. We heard it in the calls of panhandlers in Santiago and Valparaíso. We tasted it in the sterile bottled water that we drank in San Pedro because contamination from decades of mining made the tap water undrinkable. We laughed grimly along with our tour guide when he explained that the rows of storefront funeral homes in Viña Del Mar were built outside the public hospital because it was ‘good for business.’
Other times the Ukhu Patcha was barely visible, unspoken. It was the absence of Chilean families from many of the beautiful places we visited. It was in the exhaustion in the eyes of tourism workers as they politely answered (en Ingles) the clueless or rude questions of foreigners. It was the motivation pushing the Chilean entrepreneurs we met to hustle harder, work longer, promote themselves and their premium services— to show the way to the baños. This market anxiety did not rest. It pushed them to figure out what the tourists want and never let on how hard they were working.
The Main Street of San Pedro de Atacama is the physical manifestation of the Ukhu Patcha to me. Time seems caught in a loop there, with an enormous density of foreigners always milling about looking for a meal, an adventure tour, a souvenir, a six pack to take back to their hotel. You can hear every language, exchange almost any currency. There is a North Face outlet store. A good proportion of the crowd look like models in an outdoor clothing ad campaign. Next to them are still others decked out in couture as if the hard packed dirt street were a casino floor.
One local we met told us that after living in San Pedro for decades she no longer recognizes the town or feels safe there. She sold the restaurant she used to own in town once she discovered the extent of the cocaine problem among staff, who often work long hours in the high season.
Walking in San Pedro you feel the falseness of the place. it implicates you, too, as part of the problem. By being there you are helping to keep it the way it is, day after day; a small desert town reduced to a machine for generating money.
Yet it is important to note that for Andean peoples, the Ukhu Patcha is not only negative, but also the realm of rebirth. It is generative. This was true of my experience of it. The force of the Ukhu Patcha as I felt it seemed to keep commerce going, keep places changing, keep Chilenos hustling. It also spurred us on to look closer at our experiences, appreciate and learn more.
Though the Ukhu Patcha was always with us, we spent our journey living in the Kay Patcha. Mauricio told us the Kay Patcha represents our earthly realm, including all of nature and society. It surrounds us and we participate in it. It is also caught in the struggle between Ukhu Patcha and Hanan Patcha.
Our new marriage and our love is in the Kay Patcha. We discovered that, between my comprehension and Jessica’s speaking, we formed one half-functional Spanish speaker. We cared for each other when we felt ill, helped each other find the best things— like roadside empanadas, foamy iced coffee, onions grilled over a wood fire. We embraced our cultural flubs as we both fumbled toward participation in Latin American commerce and communication.
The Kay Patcha was all the majesty of the nature we took in: towering volcanoes, the wild expanse of the desert, impossibly green scrub brush and orange desert minerals; rolling vineyards and the cold, salty Pacifico. Burros, vicuñas, rheas, foxes, llamas, alpacas, wild and free dogs, flamingoes and the occasional stray cat. It was the thrill of driving foreign cars in a foreign place, discovering hidden vistas on a hike, getting our butts scalded in thermal baths.
Most importantly, the Kay Patcha was all the meaning we made together and with the Chilenos we met. We exchanged chocolates with off-beat Maria on our flight to Santiago. People like Francisca and Alfonso shared their real thoughts and feelings with us— not those that would most please the whims of the market. We found common ground when Alfonso told us about his development projects; employing people with disabilities to service his cabins and starting a cooperative to produce Chilean marmalade. We disagreed when some Chilenos seemed willing to justify disappearances, authoritarianism and torture based on the prosperity that came with mass privatization.
We felt Francisca’s dismay with increases in lithium mining that threatened the precious trees about which she was an expert, and joined her in wondering where the solution was to the joint problems of economic scarcity in Chile and a world market hungry for precious minerals to power modern machines.
Later we learned about wine and ecology from Justin and Rocio, joining them in appreciating the miracles of Chilean terroir and the bold genius of the master vintner and his craft.
We snuggled and pet Efraím, the lovable mutt on Alfonso’s farm. We accepted his simple, trusting nature— giving us so much and never asking for anything from us but a belly rub.
During this trip, we were free to live in the present and appreciate each other and all that surrounded us.
It is said that living humans can never have access to the Hanan Patcha— the world above. It is beyond us, save for the hints that we get in sacred places like the peaks of volcanoes.
So too was much of Chile beyond us.
Try as we might, we will never know what it is to fully understand the language and culture of its people. We are motivated now to climb further up the mountain— learning more language and history to be good citizens of our hemisphere and useful neighbors to those around us.
We will never drive like Francisca, ride a horse like Alfonso, run like Waldo, roll cigarettes like Mauricio, taste wine like Rocio, make coffee like Solier or risotto like Isabella (Alfonso’s ). We will certainly never play Feliz Navidad on the pan flute, guitar and tambourine at the same time like the performer from our Christmas dinner in San Pedro.
And as much as I would like to say I could, I wonder too: Could I strike out on my own and build a business sharing what I love? Could I stand up to the water cannon and the baton for what I believe in? Would I survive torture, poverty, the loss of loved ones? Would I give up all my earthly belongings? Could I risk my life?
I cannot say. This journey has given me such questions to ponder, along with the memories and lessons I have learned. I return with them, and Jessica and I will unpack them together. This voyage has ended, the circle is coming to a close. But our fire is burning brightly, and we will have many more chances to ascend the mountain or dive into the rushing river.
Postscript: The Chañar tree
One last thing that we learned in the Sitial from Mauricio and francisca was about the miraculous Chañar tree. This sacred tree had a special relationship with the Atacamanian people. It provided precious shade and fresh air in the desert. Its fruits were made into food and medicine.
Chañar trees rarely grow alone. They are almost impossible to grow from a seed, preferring to take root from the stock of an existing Chañar. Their roots are shallow and searching, and they seek out other Chañar trees, with which they share nutrients and water. They have also been known to cooperate in this way with Algorrobo trees, whose roots are deeper but less searching. It is their nature to thrive together, photosynthesizing with both their leaves and their bright green bark. In a harsh climate, they stand defiant in their flourishing.
This is my dream for our marriage and the family we will create— that we can be better together than alone, that we seek out others and stay connected for life, that we can bear fruit to nourish and heal the world.