Someone I once had to work alongside casually inquired where I took my main summer holiday one year. After outlining a fortnight’s touring the north west coast of Scotland on two wheels: with a bunch of male biking friends, living out of two panniers and a roll bag, wild camping most nights and covering around 3,000 miles, they informed me with a startling assertion as to how utterly horrendous that must have been. I couldn’t have related less to a person at that moment. I surmised one person’s version of horrific is another’s idea of heaven but could only wonder what they’d be thinking of someone doing this full time? I suspect it’d be uncomprehendingly challenging for them or worse still, trigger an irrecoverable meltdown from shock. I do hope that hasn’t happened.
Taking deep lungfuls of unburdened air in descending El Tatio’s dizzying heights back to a more sane 2,300 metres at San Pedro de Atacama was well, a breath of fresh if not fuller air. No sooner did my argument with altitude recede when Pearl lost her ability to provide a functioning front brake. Mayhaps she needed more attention than I was giving her. Despite our return journey requiring us to come down 2,000 metres with only a back brake and gears for control, it didn’t render panic waves on the radar. Truth to be told, I was too happy to be back astride the saddle bearing witness to deep yellow grassy plains curving in from the left and red rock rearing up from the right against a blindingly blue sky. Landscape of this simple but immense magnitude in a three part colour scheme set to ‘vibrant’ was a tonic to the system. Having only 50 per cent brake power was a triviality that wasn’t going to forestall my day. Pearl was performing to the best of her two wheeled ability, which left me grateful to the point of not gloating. Getting Pearl fixed would be a routine matter of mechanics; a bit of brake fluid and a tot of oil to once again bring her up to par.
We left sunny San Pedro de Atacama in the early twenties, our 190 mile ride to Antofagasta peaked preposterously in the mid thirties and cooled down into the mid-teens by a blowy sea breeze on arrival. The temperatures were starting to twist my melon, albeit in a bemused way. Hit by punishing gusts into Antofagasta, the wind became a lash as cruel as any bullwhip. Our first impressions of the port capital comprised an anti-climax of ghastly industrial sprawl amid retail park utopia, a haven for huge container ships all tantamount to a refuse site riddled with rubbish. What’s more, we soon determined a grim lack of affordable lodgings amid the shabby spread.
Within the hour, our attention was caught by a snug inlet of sandy beach, kids splashing their dads in the sea and mums content in their ten minutes off duty. A gregarious flock of pelicans were perched quizzically high atop streetlights, another basking in perfect harmony soaking up the sun’s last offerings. A little man who’d established himself a cozy residence on the beach within a tunnel in the wall, gestured to wrangle the amenable waterbirds like they were his own livestock. The birds seemed happy to oblige this quirky guy waddling on banded legs towards them, anticipating they’d be thrown a morsel or two from his bucket. I named him the pelican man.
Back in his stone wall side shelter, out popped a middle-aged lady clutching a month old puppy. Quivering in terror this poor little pup shone in the sunlight, its black glossy coat shimmering. I couldn’t remember last seeing anything so dinky, defenseless and ‘dunk in my coffee, could eat ya right up’ lovable. The lady was keen to let me have a hold, offered her up like The Lion King’s Simba to which I couldn’t resist the woman’s harmless intentions, sweet nature and sunny smile. As I petted the helpless creature with one hand in the vain hope of calming her in the palm of my other, the lady propositioned me, “You want it, have it! You want it, you want it!” With a sympathetic smile, I motioned towards the moto and apologised that it would be impossible. Although Pearl would trump over puppies any day, I thanked her all the same. I handed the babe back in her vulnerable state but looked longingly at the wide-eyed pup, where was her mum and what’d happened to her?
A few layers away from the coastline into Antofagasta’s centre, a man strode towards us with a visibly keen interest in making contact. We’d just made our fourth acquaintance in the space of forty minutes; this hodgepodge of a place wasn’t so unpleasant on second thoughts. Eager to marry us up with affordable accommodation, we raced to keep pace behind his Yamaha Tenere through a quaint, colonial and intimate part of the capital. The place came alive with moving colour; cheerful people pootling along, children hopping and skipping on their way home from school among people from all walks of port town life catching sight of us – wondering from where we’d originated while occasionally waving in our direction. There was much and more to this messy metropolis than initially met my eye. Blinkered, I guess I’d failed to lift the visor and look beyond the end of my nose.
Ashamed that I’d initially formed such a negative opinion of Antofagasta, I will know better next time. Jason expressed joint gratitude for our temporary guide’s troubles and although the guy’s choices of hostels were too pricey or fully occupied, we’d been given an interesting tour of his town we would’ve altogether missed. Back to the seafront just metres shy from the water’s edge, we pitched the tent and bedded down for the night to the soothing sound of the sea. The pair of us had forgotten how much we’d missed the sight of the ocean and of course what lies beneath. The day vouched to be a value-added one and as first impressions go, I relish when I’m so royally proved wrong.
Turning Pearl’s back on the Pacific, I loaded her like a pack mule and made a sharp exit as we sped onto the Pan-American highway without delay. We rode on route 5 through a haze of sand being blown by the mining in full operation. It was time to go and high five that hand projecting from the ground in the desert. Although plastered in artless graffiti from feet to over head-height, Mano del Desierto was still a sight to behold at 11 metres high. It looked like a last vestige of a lost civilization. The entity as a whole put back an artful finesse into the striking sculpture that the mindless scribblings had tried to take away. Sure enough, it was still deplorable to see such disrespect on display; this sight was easy prey for some reason – garbage infested and graffitied galore.
I put blinkers on my peripheral senses too, which composed a noisy racket of road train after relentless road train coming and going. A booming arterial highway running through a vast expanse of desert wasn’t really what I’d imagined; naïvely an absence of: buildings, conveyor belt of vehicles and civilization at the very least. Ugly mining excavation sites and cars in their truck load were however in abundance. Distraction deliciously took over when late afternoon light began to dance with the hand, drawing out pointed shadows from its elegant fingers and adding lustre to the location. We took our leave from the clamorous traffic and saw the sunset at the bottom of the hilly plateau, retaining a twilight view of the hand. No one knew of our whereabouts in the world, which more oft than not is just how I liked it.
Deeper into the dead of night, neither of us failed to notice the comings and goings of unexpected visitors. The hand became a magnet in attracting those that fancied a few drinks, a soirée with substances a lot stronger than Pisco Sours, some in-car frolicking and a smoke. We felt like brazen imposters trying to slink into the shadows of the place, go unnoticed and stay inconspicuous.
Dawn broke, all traces of delinquency had disappeared even if its vandalism and the party remnants remained. We woke up to the sun playfully flickering between the hand’s fingers. Jason got chatting to the hand’s newest guest, a Chilean ex-copper called Carlos. He now worked on one of the nearby mines and informally inquired whether Jason was alone. After learning I was tucked up inside the tent, he asked if I was sick. I had to laugh, may be I was sick to forego the first light; it was 7.15am and sadly I was still slumbering pushing up zzZs.
Carlos expressed a deep fondness for his country but was sickened by some of his own people that continued to show zero respect for what they have; namely go out of their way to deliberately deface sights such as the hand, protruding so profoundly on an isolated desert plateau. Irarrázabal the sculptor, symbolised the enigmatic sculpture as a sorrowful sentinel intended to evoke the tragic reality of the human condition. If emotions such as injustice, loneliness, human vulnerability and helplessness were being embodied, I couldn’t help wonder about the state of mind of those that had so visibly trashed something so striking and unique. Like the stains and imbecilic marks blotted over the the hand, it left a blemish on the experience.