WHAT I DIDN'T SAY
TRAVELS IN A THIN COUNTRY
BY SARA WHEELER
A quarter of a century ago I made a six-month journey from the top of Chile to the bottom. I fell in love with the thin country, but what I didn’t say is that I also fell in love with a Chilean.
I did write about José in the book about that adventure—changing his name to Pepe—describing, for example, how we met. (I was lying under a truck, switching a tire, and he stopped to offer help.) I described some of the journeys we subsequently made together as I moved southwards. We visited the Fray Jorge rainforest on the north coast, and walked among tiny purple and yellow flowers and clammy creepers which clung around our ankles. We put up his ancient tent on an uninhabited island and cooked up illegally caught locos, a Chilean mollusk with no name in English. The island was full of cactus fruit, black lizards, whale skulls, and boobies nesting in the cliffs. As for José—he had black curly hair, blue eyes, and a slow smile. He was a bit of a tantric guru, but that’s enough about that.
I was 30, he was 32. I was making my way as a writer, he was an unreconstructed hippie working on an environmental project. Pinochet was no longer in charge of the country, but he was still head of the army, adored by pocket demagogues on both sides of the Andes. José and I had many talks about his country and its recent history.
Although an astute reader can deduce from the pages of Travels in a Thin Country that José and I were lovers on the road, I wrote nothing about that side of our friendship. I felt it was nobody’s business, and that inference can be best in travel literature.
When we got to Santiago, I smuggled him on a private tour of the Moneda Palace, where Pinochet’s Hawker Hunters had murdered the democratically elected president Salvador Allende in 1973. José was annoyed that the authorities allowed foreigners in, but kept Chileans out, so I got him accredited as my photographer. I remember he turned up with a Brownie camera, circa 1970.
We both knew I had to leave Chile at a certain point, and that there was no realistic prospect of either of us moving continents in the future. Little was said on the topic. Once I finally got back to London, there were some letters (this was before the Internet)—his were always funny and engaging, embroidered with little drawings of birds and animals we had seen on our travels together. I’d love to know what happened to him, now that we are both marooned in quite different lives, in our 50s, facing the downhill catwalk of old age. I learned a lot from him—about Chile, and about love affairs. Sometimes they unfurl in a perfect bubble, which pops, when the clock stops ticking, without any anguish at all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Wheeler’s books include the best-selling Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, Access All Areas: Selected Writings, 1990-2010, and most recently O My America!: Second Acts in a New World. Her works have been translated into many languages and she is a regular contributor to broadsheet newspapers in the UK and US and occasionally broadcasts on BBC Radio. She lives in London. She would not recommend visiting Venice in the summer.
Photo by Dick Culbert