Si Somos Americanos

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Si somos americanos*      

                                         By Rolando Alarcón

Si somos americanos,

somos hermanos señores,

tenemos las mismas flores,

tenemos las mismas manos.


Si somos americanos,

seremos buenos vecinos,

compartiremos el trigo,

seremos buenos hermanos.


Bailaremos marinera,

resbalosa, huayno y son.

Si somos americanos,

seremos una canción.


Si somos americanos,

no miraremos fronteras,

cuidaremos las semillas,

tiraremos las banderas.


Si somos americanos,

seremos todos iguales,

el blanco, el mestizo, el indio

y el negro son como tales             

* in Spanish, capitalization is often different than in English.




If We Are Americans

If we are Americans

We’re family my friends,

We’ve the same flowers,

and the same hands.


We dance the marinera,

resbalosa, huayano and son,

When we are Americans

We are a song.


If we are Americans

there are no borders

we care for seeds,

not a nation’s flags.


If we are Americans

we are all the same,

White, indigenous, mixed,

and black are one.




 I have taken some  little translation liberties like introducing gender neutrality because I feel these are essential and inevitable to t translation appropriate to the times.  Just as when we read we interpret and and translate and recreate and modify word symbols in our mind. What, for example, is a cow?  Whch one, what color, breed, something else entirely? The reader decides.  Among the folk songs of the Americas there are many that express the feeling of discrimination and isolation from the dominant culture… like Angelitos Negros, where the poet asks why there are no black cherubs or angels.


 Alarcón became a music teacher in the 70s,  and was a communist, revolutionary, homosexual, and widely acclaimed poet folk singer associated with wold famous folk groups. His songs are often accompanied by altiplano flute and charango, a small guitar often  built on an armadillo shell. The huayano is an altiplano ONE- two- three step dance. The son is  a generic word for Mexican folk dance.

 Chileans are notorious as poets, miners, and engineers who must build to withstand recurring earthquakes.  The first American woman Nobel laureate was  Gabriela Mistral  Mistral lived in Valle del Elqui, a long  remote Andes valley where the  high air is so clear it has attracted the world’s biggest collection of international observatories. Neruda is another Nobel laureate poet. Rolando  Alarcón was born in Sewell, Chile, an old High Andes company owned mining town, at El Teniente Mine; it is still the largest underground mine in the world ; It operates within one mountain on multiple levels; the rock crusher,  mill, flotation process,  kitchen and restaurant are interconnected by 2500 km of two lane highways in  huge air washed tunnels, with traffic lights; miners enter and leave by train on the lower level. 

The Americas are home to lots of deep or fascinating cultural stuff; like some of my mother in law’s  Gajardo family that includes the first woman engineer in the Americas,   Justicia Espada… Justice Sword  — her parents refused to give their children family names. The  link includes the names of her siblings.  Perhaps those wierd names made them eccentric; see  Gajardo’s Moon   post on this blog.

I think this old song is timely because it enunciates  some current attitudes of many  pan-american and pan-african indigenous peoples; and  those of many of the world’s transnational millennials, who want to live like one-world citizens.  Further, perhaps there is some sort of connection between  the sentiments expressed in the folk  poem, and those of  that stunning political pyromaniac, The Bern,  and  with those of  Moisés Naím, in   The End of Power) also reviewed on this blog.



Letter Seven- Osorno, Chile Lake District

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Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile

 Note: These letters are Creative Nonfiction, but accurately coincide with real events. Personal names are invented. 

Mar 19, 2015. During 40 years we have visited family in Chile for a month or two at a time; altogether that adds up to about five years. In the first month there, during their Dec- Feb summer– school vacation– I have usually organized a back-pack; or, some say worse- taking along from 4-6 relatives and their friends. These adventures have become epic lore and in retelling become ever more confabulated. I love these kids who are now grown; some I call hijos postisos… artificial children, as in artificial legs.   Alex is one. He lived with us in Sacramento for a year, during a difficult time in his young life.

Alex has a real dad who owns a ranch near a lake. They both love mountains, horses, cattle; he visits the ranch often, working on various projects, mainly distillates of dreams.

We meet for lunch only a week before I must leave for Sacramento. While he can’t get away for at least several days, he insists I go on ahead to see what has been done since I was last there 10 years ago; he will join me when he can. He suggests I leave immediately, that evening, by Sleeper Bus which he finds is more practical, more easily booked, and more economical than air travel.

Argentina and Chile are sometimes called the Southern Cone. Bus travel there, as in Brazil, is the predominate form of transportation for the vast majority of people. In Chile there are many competing bus companies, serving virtually every part of the country. Almost every town has a central bus station that, while hardly elegant, is functional and dependable. The buses generally leave and arrive exactly on time. Long haul buses to larger towns often go direct; and there are many several thousand km routes in a so long, North and South.  The most comfortable are Leitos or ‘premium sleeper’ buses, the ones Alex suggests. I had heard of them for years but never used one.

 Premium Long Distance Night Buses Rock!

Tonight, a  Thursday, I take the 10:45 PM  sleeper. It’s  a two story Brazilian Marco Polo with two seat-beds on one side, and one on the other, separated by a narrow aisle. After the elegant monster is underway, the steward brings snacks, earplugs, stereo ear buds,  a sleep mask, booties, and bottle of cold water; a short while later he makes up the beds, called ‘180s’ because they fold flat,  180 degrees. He lays on a blanket, and a pillow… all that is missing is a mother’s good night kiss.

The bus moves at about 100 km/hour- 60 MPH-, rocking the sleeper gently; it is surprisingly quiet by comparison to a jet plane. I am reminded  of the adult size cribs Shakers use for old folk; children are put to work rocking the adult cribs. I was rocked and slept more than 10 hours, until the attendant woke me to say “Osorno: Terminal; for all I know it is the first stop. The night was at least as enjoyable as in a good air-conditioned hotel, at U$75 round trip for two nights.

I don’t see the person who is to meet me in Osorno, but it is early; the place is just wakening to a new day. Restaurants are shuttered, in part because the traditional Chilean breakfast is only sweet coffee or tea, and rolls, available from bus station street vendors. I pick up some more substantial breakfast makings at a grocery; my ride appears. It is about a 70 km to the ranch, so on the way I call to thank Alex and his dad for the lesson on long distance Chilean night-bus travel, and the coming visit to the ranch.

The entrance  to the farm has been transformed. On the right is a long monitored and gated gravel road is bordered with moss-covered split rail fencing and blooming pink and blue hydrangea.


The farmhouse has been rebuilt completely, but retains its original distribution. The day-to-day entrance is to the rear adjacent to a big kitchen and a space for gear and cleaning up. The ground floor and basement are devoted to laundry, storage, and utilities.  Two upper floors still look out spacious windows from every room because a farmer wants not only to enjoy the view but to always be able to look out at the farm and and animals.   I take a short afternoon nap, but only because it seems the proper thing to do. I’m not sleepy. I abandon my iPad and break out a real camera.


A small stream has become a series of teacup lakes. Gently down-sloping green pastured and fenced grounds feature an assortment of birds and animals: geese, ducks, turkeys, peacocks, deer, some deer, and Ñandú a small ostrich, or South American rhea, bandurria ibis, and the noisy queltehue.

South American rhea, or nandu
bandurria (black-faced ibis (Theristicus melanopis ibis

Feb 24, 2015. Tomorrow I begin the long journey back to The Sacramento  my own Sacred Valley: by car to Osorno; by sleeper bus to Santiago; by plane to Houston and then on to Sacramento. Alex has already returned to work. Thinking of the long journey,  I lie down for a short afternoon nap but I’m restless. At 2300, I’m alone in the quiet wi-fied, air conditioned, radiant heated farmhouse. Outside only few faint distant lights are visible.

I turn off all the lights and step out into a rare clear moonless Southern Summer night, stumbling about up and down beneath the Milky Way. Orion-the hunter, Gemini-the twins, and the bright dog Sirius are visible overhead. Southward are the Magellanic Clouds, and the Southern Cross. Four light years away is the triple-star Alpha Centauria, Sun’s closest neighbors. There is no pole star visible where due South sleeps in a dark void; yet there must be one there, somewhere, so far away that we are both blinded by so many light years of Time.

The Magellanic Clouds are the closest galaxies to the milky way and may orbit it.  Warning: The photo is enhanced; one can’t see them this well with the naked eye.


Letter Six- To Santiago, Chile

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Feb 6 – Mar 25 2015 Brazil and Chile

 Note: These letters are Creative Nonfiction, but accurately coincide with real events.

I was afraid of getting to Guarulhos airport late because of São Paulo flooding or the trucker strikes, so took a cab just after mid-day even though my flight was to leave 8 hours later. Yet the roads were clear of flooding and of striking truckers; traffic was light. Not only is the terminal a comfortable place, but there are a quiet recesses where one can lie down and take a nap on three seats. I did. My flight- on Gol Airlines- as in Goooooooool! was easy, in a very new big Boeing.

Can foreign airlines be safe, new, and competitive–like foreign made cars or off-shore medical care? My daughter’s flight was on Air Canada: San Francisco, Toronto, São Paulo, then a 10 day layover, then Santiago, another 10 day layover, and back to Toronto and San Francisco. Cost: About $1200. She found her journey, by comparison, superior. I found the same thing with Gol. My fare on Delta, not including an extra flight, and change, was $1700.

Thinking Santiago airport transportation would be difficult arriving at 0155, I had checked with a world-class  transport provider; the most reasonable transportation was US$ 85. When I arrived, not only were immigration and customs a breeze at that hour, but a local ‘Transfer’ van cost less than 10 U$D, taking me right to my Rent-A-Home door in the Las Condes sector of Santiago. So much for fear of flood, strikes and 1 AM arrivals in Santiago.

The most striking thing about Santiago, and Chile in general, is its total transformation.  40 years ago the country was among the poorest and stagnant in the Americas; it is now the most successful by any standard measure. Because of the explosive economic and civic growth, the whole North and Western half of Santiago is an awesome expanse of tree-lined streets and parks, with elegant high-rise apartment, residence, and business buildings, surrounded by glitzy suburbs in the Andean foothills

If São Paulo is an earthy, wealthy and crusty old lady, Santiago is the great great granddaughter of a dead magnate who lost everything after WW I –when the nitrate mining industry collapsed  (fertilizer and gunpowder); this decendent rebuilt the family fortune and transformed the family business, taking it to a new level and direction.

As one result Chile became relatively expensive for US travelers during the last few decades. But for Dollar holders 2015 is a relatively favorable time to visit, like much of the world; the Chilean Peso has fallen about 1/5 against the $US.

Even though this is a small country—less than 18 Million people—it has not escaped the world-wide changes addressed in Moises Naim’s book The End Of Power. He claims that historically powerful entities, people, governments, industries, and institutions can neither exercise nor hold on to power, which now belongs to obscure individuals, small business, small countries, informal coalitions, and upstart of all sorts.

As I write, local TV channels are doing live broadcasts of a huge investigation of tax fraud here called Pentagate: the exchange of political advantage (money!)  by holding companies in order to evade taxes. The case has been building for months and is being adjudicated by the Supreme Court: One sees politicians and wealthy fraudsters in handcuffs, being denied bail, and led off to prison.The supreme court proceedings are in the hands of an eloquent elderly judge, who speaks clearly and deliberately, reminding me of our Watergate or McCarthy hearings. The electronic and print worlds are on fire.  See and this blog:

The blogger, in particular, speaks not only to Chile but to the USA, and arguably, the world.

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office building and shopping center
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It is common in Santiago for high rise apartments and buildings to feature balcony gardens, often with hanging decorative vines.

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Ahumada pedestrian walkway in old downtown center of Santiago
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Plaza de Armas, Downtown, Central Santiago
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Small farmer’s and food market, central Santiago

For almost a month we’ve lived in a nicely located Apart-Hotel, in Las Condes. It is on the metro line, and at the crossroads of upscale NW Santiago, the home of fine restaurants, dress shirts, ties, and business suits—-in the young, suits and backpacks–, glitzy shopping, and spiffed high-heeled women with ironed hair who roam this high-rise glass and steel world. These folk lunch in hundreds of sidewalk restaurants, and supper in style. New and expensive hotels are the rule. The picturesque old downtown financial district, a bohemian sector, and the student dominated barrio of small universities in between… are all a short metro or cab ride away.

As in much of the developed world, everyone here complains: approval of government is at less than 30%, of the president less than 20%. No one trusts corrupt and ineffective institutions, abusive businesses, failed efforts to control pollution and degradation of the planet; or our world in chaos: Sound familiar?

But objectively the fast growing middle class here lives well; and the poor live poor, but far less than half a century ago though complaints are almost universal.   Over those decades, by every standard measure Chile is a better and better place for more and more people. Santiago restaurants and hotels are full. The skyline sprouts construction cranes. Roads and freeways are generally new. A tunnel running 15 miles E and W under the main river is a toll road which, when exited, makes automatic charges based on distance; no toll booth, but cameras. How can things be so bad all over the world and look so good?  Yet that is the same all over our planet, if one simply compares life today with 50 , 100, or 500 years ago.There is another great metropolis built almost every month, and that is where most people apparently want to be. Maybe we need to stop listening to the News, and tend our own garden, as Voltaire suggested.

The normal generational change continues but moves faster than ever.Older Chileans are often rather formal,and intense,  preferring never to seem different from one another, reserved, focused, not easily given to unrestrained  pleasures  like dance or song by contrast to the same generations of Peruvians Panamanians, Argentines, Colombians, or Brazilians. Perhaps older Chileans remember the political crises of the 50’s 60’s 70’s, and more easily find solace in the oldest and finest wine industry in South America, and the birth of their new country.

The young educated middle class of  millennials here more closely reflect a developing worldwide norm: active, outward looking, rejecting and objecting to borders, and limits of other kinds. While there is a drug culture  found in millennials here it is, like alcohol, most damaging to the poor and uneducated, or those who lose hope for one reason or another. This crowd of new world young is worth listening to; more accurately, they will speak up whether we listen or not.

Chileans are miners, master builders and engineers of necessity. They work on and under a thin wedge of the earth’s unstable crust between the Andes and the sea. A well-built high-rise building may suffer earthquake cracks, but they are only skin deep. The structures can bend, like willows rather than Oaks; so the best place to be in a major quake is inside a well built building. Outside, deadly stuff can fall on you, you can be swallowed up by a big crack, or swept away by a river whose course is altered… that happened in a small town during the most violent earthquake ever recorded en vivo, near Valdivia, a southern coastal city.

Volcanic eruptions, like small quakes,  can  often occur without significant earth movement. They can  be very spectacular with huge plumes of smoke,  ash, and volcanic lightning.  Pictures below are from  three eruptions in places I have visited often: (ongoing!) near Ensenada, a friend’s house, and a unique old hotel full of antiques;   Villarica, earlier this year, near one of the  most elegant  and unique international resorts in the world; and Chaitén near Pumalín, a famous 2.5 million acre eco-park founded by Douglas Tompkins. As spectacular as  eruptions are, they are seldom deadly. They can cause much disruption of life however. This site offers a good idea of how ash affected the small town of Chaitén  .

calbuco 2015
Calbuco erutption 2015, is dumping much ash onto nearby towns. Much of the ash falls from the volcanic plume across the border in Argentina.
villarica 2015
Villarica erutpion 2015, beautiful but brief.
At night the electrical storms associated with eruptions are spectacular. This photo is from the 2009 eruption of Chaiten.  The town of that name was, covered in several feet of ash, and is just now only beginning to recover.
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Lake Puyehue, near two of the volcanic eruptions pictured.But for us, and many expatriates,  Chile is about extended family: We have 27 cousins for example. Most live in the Metropolitan area between Valparaiso and Santiago. When there we have little rest with visits book-ended between s (welcome celebrations) and (goodbye celebrations); in between are daily get-togethers. We eat, and talk, gossip, and eat. There is rarely a lunch or evening free. We begin to yearn for home, for rest, for our Sacramento humdrum existence!

But for us, and many expatriates,  Chile is about extended family: We have 27 cousins for example. Most live in the Metropolitan area between Valparaiso and Santiago. When there we have little rest with visits book-ended between bienvenidas (welcome celebrations) and despedidas (goodbye celebrations); in between are daily get-togethers. We eat, and talk, gossip, and eat. There is rarely a lunch or evening free. We begin to yearn for home, for rest, for our Sacramento humdrum existence!

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In much of South America, restaurants offer a Menu each day, a low cost full meal. Here are main choices in blue, side dishes yellow, desert and drink below. This is lunch Menu in a business district restaurant. Just over 7 U$D
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Oceanfront apartment in Vina Del Mar. Beaches are generally public, with no building between roads and ocean.
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Chile stock exchange. Anyone who invested  in the 80’s – and never sold-  would be very pleased with the market and the peso.
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Pedestrian mall, central Santiago

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Gajardo’s Moon

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Proprietor of the Moon,  B 1918, D 1998*

In 1951 Jenaro Gajardo first arrived in Talca, Chile.  He was 33, single, a sometime poet, a painter, and newly licensed lawyer- which bears on the events that would make him most memorable to history.  He arrived with aspirations, and expectations for his life, as one from an educated and once privileged family might; he fully expected to be welcomed into the most respected local gentlemen’s organization, Club Talca, where he was recommended for membership by friends.  Furthermore, he arrived in Talca with some inherited notoriety; his family background made him of interest to local society, because his hyper-intellectual great grandparents had refused to pass on the family name to their own children. (Seven in number; apparently they weren’t too intellectual for at least one popular activity.)

It was their children’s given or proper names that are memorable. One was named Arquímedes (Archimedes) Capitán; another Australia Tonel (winecask); another Chile Mapocho (the main river flowing through Santiago); another Sanson (Samson) Radical;   and so on. Most of these name-challenged children became quite accomplished adults in various fields, perhaps in part, goaded to excel by their bizarre names. For example, Jenaro’s aunt Justicia Espada (Justice Sword) became the first woman engineer in the Americas.

As to the Club Talca, while Gajardo was generally welcomed, he lacked a single, but essential, requirement: All members had  to be propertied, to own property- which seemed to Jenaro a distant possibility- and one he rejected for his own eccentric egalitarian  reasons. And indeed his pursuits attracted attention in this rural  south central Chilean town.
Shortly after his arrival, Jenaro had started an astronomical society – Sociedad Telescópica Interplanetaria.  (Interplanetary Telescopic Society).  Whether the formation of the society was part of an obscure long term plan to qualify for the Club Talca is unknown; but the Society attracted important members of the community, like local Bishop Manuel Larrain, whose active participation and aristocratic name gave pause to people who might have derided the main objective of the Society:  “To establish a reception committee for the arrival of extraterrestrials.“

It is September 1954. Jenaro is only very occasionally a guest at the meeting of the Club Talca. Yet he resents not being a full member of the Talcan elite; he is personally offended by the requirement that only property owners can be members. He remains at a loss to see how can he qualify without actually owning ‘property’ , and at the same time make clear to his colleagues the uncivil and prejudiced nature of that bar to membership.  Tonight he has been a guest at the Club but is required to leave when the business portion of the program starts.  He departs the privileged address at 1 Oriente,  walks  alone down past the nearly deserted Plaza Central; the system that places so much importance on material possessions festers like a thorn in his foot as he moves dejectedly on.  A brilliant full moon is overhead. He looks at it pensively, and suddenly realizes:

“No one owns the moon. Yet! It is a natural satellite of Earth, held in the gravitational grasp of the planet, exactly like the continents that float on the molten magma below!” That night he pores over his law books. The next morning, 25 Sept 1954, he appears at the office of Talcan  Notary Public César Jiménez Fuenzalida to make his claim:

“I am here to inscribe my ownership, dating from 1857, of the moon, a satellite of Earth.” (That 1857 reference was a formal requirement for such property claim declarations at the time). Without comment he pushes forward his formal claim:

“Jenaro Gajardo Vera,  es dueño, desde antes del año 1857, uniendo su posesión a la de sus antecesores, del astro, satélite único de la Tierra, de un diámetro de 3.475.00 kilómetros, denominada LUNA, y cuyos deslindes por ser esferoidal son: Norte, Sur, Oriente y Poniente, espacio sideral.

(Jenaro Gajardo Vera is owner, since before 1857, assuming the Rights of his forebears, to the only satellite of Earth, with a diameter of  3,475 km, called MOON, whose spheroidal limits are North, South, East, and West, in sideral space. ( The 1857 reference is a legalistic detail required by the statute for such claims.)

On studying the application the Notary comments:  “Look here sir. Technically, your document meets the requirements; it will suffice to start the process. The moon is in the gravitational control of the Earth, or belongs to Earth. It has borders, and dimensions, limits; But you are going to be labeld a lunatic. Or worse”.  To which Gajardo responds  acidly, characteristically:

“You are too kind, sir.” The notary is not amused, or too literally oriented to respond in the same vein, and continues:

“ Before it can be inscribed as your property you must publish your Claim in the Official Newspaper three times in accord with the law. That’ll run you about forty two thousand pesos.”  And nervously, in an atypical attempt at humor adds, “Reasonable, considering the millions of hectares.”

A month later, title in hand, Gajardo is accepted as a full member of the Club Talca. Shortly thereafter the news appears world wide: “Chilean lawyer is owner of the Moon.”  Suddenly the obscure eccentric is the focus of much attention. When the newly propertied lawyer appears on a national (now international)  TV show “Sabados Gigantes” ,  host  Don Francisco ( Mario Kreutzerger) comments in his characteristic direct fashion: “People think you’re  nuts.” Gajardo replies:

“I’ll tell you why I claimed the moon. I don’t like people who live on this Earth. I don’t like that we haven’t been able to eliminate hatred, envy, accusations, rancor…”

Impuestos Internos (Chilean equivalent to the IRS) sends inspectors to impose taxes on his property.  Gajardo responds:  “I have no objection to the tax due. However, I insist that, in accord with the law, you first send an assessor to my property to make the required measurements. That is what assessors must do to meet the legal requirements.  After, we’ll talk further.”   Apparently there is  no subsequent site visit by the Chilean tax assessors.

A minister of the Supreme Court, Rubén Galecio Gómez, asks Gajardo: “Well, if you claimed the moon, I could do the same for the planet Mars.”  Gajardo replies: “No you could not, because the law prevents anyone from claiming property that does not belong to Earth, such as Mars. “

The Club members have a good laugh, appreciate the astuteness of Jenaro’s  maneuver, and understand his objection to the property requirement- but don’t change their bylaws. The matter fades into the stacks of dry, dusty yellowing archives of old newspapers.

But in 1969 the USA prepares to send astronauts to the moon.  An open letter from Gajardo appears in USA News and other news papers here, as well as in Chile; it asks he be allowed to meet the moon visitors on their return.  There is no public response from the US.  Jenaro retains Chilean legal counsel Enrique Monti Forno to assert his ownership. Monti finds that in 1967 international agreements limited any ownership of private property to 80 km above the earth; but Gajardo’s claim had been made based on ownership by his forebears long prior to that agreement.  Gajardo claims that that President Nixon made a request for permission to land on the moon, and that he gave his consent with provisions that the moon not be claimed by the US, remain unexploited, and accessible to all terrestrials on similar terms. A landing fee  paid is reported as $1, US.  While certainly these requirements are consistent with Gajardo’s philosophy, no written documentation is available.

Gajardo dies in 1998; a woman in France claims she has inherited the moon; yet there the matter also dies.  The face looking sideways  at us out from the photo above, however,  lives on today in a nephew, who looks identical:  not only that, but he is an eccentric elderly man of letters,  devoted to global Quijotesque exploits that  are entertaining to readers of newspapers, but have little other significance for most  terrestrials. He lives so marginally, alone in an old run- down inherited house, that recently a thief who broke in found nothing worth taking: an old typewriter, many hundreds of books  on shelves or tables, or in stacks, and thousands of old newspapers and magazines, the objects of the author’s work;  saucers and cups filled with butts smoked to the bitter end, and filters that had been defiantly torn off before lighting up;  but no food worth eating, and no TV.  In a moment of compassion, comprehension, or confusion the miscreant leaves a small radio behind.  What are the intruder’s thoughts, what the details of his life?  One wants to know, because every life is a mythic song unsung until someone listens.  I like to think he heard Jenaro’s song, echoing down the musty hallways of time.


*This is creative non fiction.  It is all factual; I did not create Jenaro Gajardo.  His outrageous and endearing eccentricity with regard Club Talca and his moon are entirely his own creation.  Entering his name in a browser will confirm that. the same is true of Justicia Espada Acuña De Gajardo, and the Talca Interplanetary Telescopic Society.  On the other hand, factual material extraneous to Mr. Gajardo occasionally is included in order to create an informative, readable narrative, and most quoted conversation is imagined.   jl

Health Care and The Atacama Salitreras

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 The names of far places can magnetize the human  mind, inducing a lifelong attraction.  The  Atacama Desert &  Antofagasta are found at the North  end of Chile, the country with the farthest north-south range of any on   earth,  a   very narrow slip of volcanic land  clinging to  the western edge of south America and the Andes mountain range. It is a land of chaotic climatic and topographic contrast, from the arid North to the glaciated South;  in an East-West direction it   rises from sea level to the Andean heights like Ojos del Salado, a few meters lower than the  highest in the western hemisphere, Aconcagua. It is  of necessity a nation of engineers who  design  earthquake tolerant roads and buildings, and operate many mines, including the largest underground and open pit mines on earth.   The people are defined by the sea, the mountains, and small fertile valleys-In the words of an epic Chiean poet- una loca geografía – a crazy geography.

Sodium nitrate (Calicihe, or saltpeter)  is abundant  in the desert North, once  the world’s best  source of raw material for  both guns and butter-fertilizer and gunpowder. But that changed overnight after WWI when Germany found that nitrogen could be harvested  from the air as ammonia. During the following half century of severe economic and  social decay, the nitrate mines were confiscated and operated at great cost to the government, even though the situation of hard bitten and proud miners remained dismal.

By the 1970s two government saltpeter mines remained, some  distance  inland from Antofogasta, each home to about 10,000  people: miner families. The State, goaded by very strong  and aggressive  left wing Unions,  tried very hard to comply with demands. A  hospital was built to provide OB and basic surgical care.  To  partially repay for free training, medical school graduates without any prior experience were assigned to the hospital- essentially alone – for two year terms- sentences, in the view of some. One can imagine the outcomes.

 Low numbers of patients made  even marginal care very costly.  Conditions for miners remained deadly, as the average miner had to be ‘retired’ before age 35 due to silicosis. The ambient dust was so bad they had to be moved away. Elsewhere in the Atacama  only ghost towns  remained where  empty opera halls and  neglected elegant mansions  told  of a long gone opulence.

During the 1970’s   privatization of most state owned industry  began, including the two Salitreras of the Atacama.    The new owners consisted of  a curious amalgam of  investors and  union organized mine workers. The disparate groups of owners had a designed-in  mutual interest, however:  a concern for costs, survival, and  profit;  they needed to agree on a way forward because they were prohibited from selling their shares  for seven years.  The question of what to do with an inefficient and  prohibitively expensive hospital came up.

A friend of ours  had visited here during his  illness, co incidentally hearing of the Kaiser- Permaente health system. So when he called about assessing the hospital situation at Pedro de Atacama,  I immediately agreed.  My old  mental magnetization for  Antofagasta was operational. What follows is a very abbreviated outline of what we came up with. It is outdated to a degree, and has, I expect, inaccuracies. Yet I offer it for consideration in view of our situation today in the U S.  Perhaps, if the  reader prefers, it can be considered creative non fiction, like the daily news and media mouthing.

In the Chile of those times the social security system was  changed. A person could elect either  to continue the existing national  system,  or to switch to  managed investments among 12 competing brokerages, operating something like restricted IRAs; the contributions to this plan remains the property of contributor and hiers. With that as an example we discussed an option for health care  to be made available to larger employee  groups, like the salitrera miners; they would elect, by majority vote, to retain their government mandated health care contribution themselves, and manage their own health care for their own group care (in this case about 20,000 including the other nearby sister mine.); they would define benefits, elect co-pays if required (at the outset this would be rather easy  because benefits were scant and marginal at best.);  they could  elect to contract with health providers or employ them; at the end of each year they would  review and revise  their plan for the next year; as they gained experience and resources, they could invest  more in health diagnosis or treatment; they could acquire, lease, and  operate clinics or hospitals; they could  contract  to provide defined benefit health care to people who were  ineligible for a large group plan; last, the most significant and important feature of the proposal, I think,  was that if a surplus were available at the end of any year, it could  be either used to  expand services, or to  distribute a dividend to members.

Obviously this proposal was influenced by the Kaiser-Permanente model. It was not fully accepted or implemented, but many aspects of the plan were adopted. The hospital at the Salitrera was abandoned in favor of a clinic, with the loss partly assuaged by free daily bus travel  to Antofagasta and  the proffered group  health care  there.

It would be interesting if something similar could be considered here;  and yet, that seems unlikely. Would it work? Would it be possible given our republicrat/media/industrial complex? I leave those questions to the reader to consider.  ¡Salud!

Homar and the Alluvial Cirque

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Hic Sunt Dracones

A tire flattened by the resentful rutted rock strewn road delayed us, but we arrived on a cloudless late summer Sunday afternoon, accompanied by Cristián’s father, who carried part of our gear.   I knocked on the door of the caretaker’s cabin where the tin roof was lashed down against future winter weather by a long 7/8 inch thick plastic rope. It stood near a long trail that wound its way about 100 meters up past a series of seven hot spring pools, each overflowing into the one below. The narrow flat valley floor was populated by several small tents to shelter visitors from the searing high altitude sun. I tried to imagine Winter when the valley would be deserted, reclaimed by white wind and  drifted snow.  But wind and weather are concerns even at the height of summer; an afternoon updraft arose as we set up camp about 50 meters away, so that  raising our bulky tent  required a great deal of  struggle and raucous banter.

The day visitors left before sunset and we found ourselves alone on the flat narrow valley floor. I considered supper, thinking to make hot soup, but found that there were no cooking pots.

“Where are the pots? Did anyone get them out of the trunk”?

“Marmota emptied the trunk.” Felipe’s nickname is ‘marmota’ (marmot); Chileans don’t fear being politically incorrect, and are never shy about nicknames.

“Marmota! “said Sebastián, you left the pots in the trunk!” Ricardo who is devoted to foul language , piled on.

“Huebón!” said Ricardo, who tries never speak without a foul word. In this case he chose a variant of ‘big egg(s)’, that I leave to the reader to interpret. “I told you to check the trunk before the car went!”  And so on to infinity; any parent knows the routine.

So I went back Homar’s cabin to ask for the loan of a pot. He was a local from the town of San José del Maipo, named after the volcano that dominates the Northeast quarter of the valley where an extensive watershed begins at the Andean crest between Chile and Argentina. Mountain people are mountain kin, and without hesitation he rummaged about and pulled out a large cast iron pot, saying, “¿Algo mas?”

“ No, ¡ gracias Homar!”

“ Bueno, avisenme, cualquier cosa. Su casa.”, an abbreviated old saying  ‘My house is your house.’


In the mountains twilight is long and luxurious. A clear moonless night sky slowly rolled down from the surrounding peaks. The wind abated.  As the darkness thickened a myriad stars appeared and to the west, the faint outlines of two galactic clusters, the Magellanic Clouds. The Southern Cross began to tick off the hours as it rotated about the void that is celestial South.   From the east, we began to see intermittent flashes of light.

“¿Que es eso, Tío?”

“Maybe lightening. An electrical storm over the pampas of Argentina.” But there was no distant thunder, and I soon realized: We were seeing light from eruptions of the earth dragon who heated the hot springs; the caldera of San José del Maipo volcano.

A person can get a reputation, may try to live up to it, or live it down, instead of quietly outliving it. Most every year, during more than 30 years, I have taken two or three teenagers, usually relatives, backpacking in the Chilean Andes. These adventures have become greatly exaggerated in the telling and re –telling, morphing into beautiful lies, or rites of passage. New volunteers hope to be tested, and to be accepted into the Order of Tío Jhon.

In the ‘70s most of my Chilean relatives were scandalized by the idea of anyone going into the mountains, let alone their own children.

“What for? And no horse! There’s  the  puna,  and wind that burns, and smugglers. The whole place should be off limits, like the unknown oceans of 15th century maps: Hic Sunt Dracones’”.   But Chile was a different country then, among the poorest in the hemisphere by almost every standard measure.  It has changed radically, even in regard to the way people think of mountains. Now Patagonia and the Andes are encrusted with foreign and native backpackers, as well as Chilean teens. Seeping bags, and back packs, like blue jeans, are part of many active youngster’s standard gear. Now those who want to be introduced to the mountain are no longer only nephews, but nieces. None of them will believe that Tío Jhon is no longer young or strong, even though objectively the packing involves less back and more internal combustion engine.


This year I went again, partly to keep the faith, but also because my own spiritual home is still somewhere in the dry high air under a black cobalt sky. There were ten volunteers, among them my two youngest daughters. Yet I have always limited the group to three, because the Andes can be treacherous; how could I keep more than two or three safe from the mountain and from themselves?  I asked my youngest daughter, Sandi, and her three cousins to wait for another time. She felt terribly abused.

“You took Rodrigo and Álvaro when they were 11 and 12;  and 13 and 14!”

“Yes, but…” No explanation was sufficient. I would be a condemned father. At least until next year. That left five, still too many for a real backpack.  I decided to take them to this  remote natural hot spring, accessible by car. Though there were still six, Pablo, son of a Santiago psychiatrist, and my daughter Lilí were both 18, and reliably mature. That left Cristián, 13, Ricardo and Felipe, 15, and Sebastián, 14. I could almost  meet the standard of three adolescents. Pablo’s parent’s contributed the large Brazilian canvas tent, a  3×4 meter old style external aluminum tube frame affair with three 1×2 meter ‘rooms’ at one end for privacy, and sturdy enough to withstand the high valley summer updrafts.


The hot springs are at about 11,000 ft elevation in the Cajon Del Maipo, to the Southeast of Santiago in a narrow mountain valley on sparsely vegetated private land otherwise occupied in summer mainly by the occasional goatherd family. Translation: Possibly For Sale: day-fresh hot bread, goat cheese and milk, some simple staples, wine,  or  sometimes barbecued kid.


If you have ever organized a camping trip for a group like this, you know the problems: Do they have appropriate clothes, shoes, socks, sleeping bags, rain gear, hats, and personal items for hygiene and protection from the elements? Is the food and equipment adequate? Does any one have health or related limitations? But by the time we left things were triple checked and I was confident we would establish a comfortable and well provisioned base camp from which to explore the surrounding area.  I would be better acclimated to the altitude than my charges, giving  felt the altitude giving me an advantage, at least until  they adapted.

Chile is a several thousand long volcanic land, with the longest north-south length  of any country in the world, yet one of the narrowest.  People live at the battle line in an eon’s long war between continental plates. Off the Chilean coast lies an abyss which is deeper than the Andean Heights. The entire country lies  between the Andes and the Abyss, clinging to an unstable piece of continental shelf.  The Maipo is just one of many fast rivers intent on moving the Andes back down into the Abyss, its icy waters made mud brown by eroded material during spring and early summer snow melts.


The termas, thermal baths, are five open air oval 5×4 meter palisade pools, each cooler than the one above. In the daylight they are milky blue unless muddied by bathers; in the cold night air they are steaming India ink black. The rims of the pools are merely accreted mineral salts, where water has long flowed over a man made rim, gradually building up walls of salt. There is so much mineral in the hot water that after bathing, one must wash off in fresh water, otherwise the skin remains slightly plastered, and swim suits crust so as to almost stand alone.


As dark invaded the valley, much to our surprise, a generator kicked in at the caretaker cabin, and the trail leading to the uppermost hot pool was low voltage lighted.  We labored, short of breath, up to the pools, joining  about six locals, including Homar.

¡Bienvenidos! This is the best time. No tourists. La copucha.” -, tall tales, gossip, lies and news.- “ The early morning is good  too.  Big contrast, cold, hot, steam subrightening  air. Try it. ”

“What time, about?”

“ Oh. Early. 5 AM or so.”

“Liar!  Nice try! You won’t catch me up here all alone at five!”

Despite a prolonged soaking under the cold stars we remained unwrinkled because of  hot spring’s high mineral content,


The next afternoon was devoted to light walking and adapting to the thin air.  After a light snack we headed for a ridge of black where Homar said there were fossils.  In hiking with children I insist that we stay together and that I lead. It was a stunningly perfect afternoon, with light cool updrafts. The area was rocky, dry, and relatively barren, populated only by sedges, chartreuse colonies of woody plants called llareta, low thick leaved alpine shrubs, and low clusters of  flowers.  There was occasionally some light  puna (altitude sickness sometimes called soroche) relieved by rest. We  found some flat shell fossils in black slate, explored a limestone cave, and  a gypsum mine where the entrances were still partly filled with last winter’s snow. In the distance were occasional condors and a lone guanaco, a small camelid like a delicate llama. Though guanacos are herd animals, there is only one male to a herd, and the young live alone until they can whip some dominant male or steal some females.  Late in the afternoon summer cumulus darkened the sky, threatening rain, so we returned to camp, ready for supper and another hot soak.


The third day I pushed our acclimation to the altitude and exercise a bit further. The geologically young Andes are very porous in this area so snowmelt disappears into the ground immediately. Yet I believed there should be stream or a lake or a meadow beneath a large south facing cirque. We were rewarded by a long narrow meadow with five small lakes, a perfect string of crystal blue aquatic pearls threaded on a  tiny silver stream. Arriving back at the tent, I was aware that I was quite tired while my charges were still full of energy.  When youth is physically stressed it quickly becomes stronger while when age is stressed it doesn’t; this third day at altitude had made them guanacos though I was still just an old man.

Six teens in a tent is an unforgettable experience, not limited to mere continuous crudity and farting. You may imagine what the tent looked like on the third day: Cosmic disorder wrapped in 90 to 100 decibels of undecipherable debate punctuated by bouts of uncontrollable mirth. In my adult ignorance I perceived that as noise. I thought of calling for order, but desisted. Wha?  In the end I’d have to make order myself.   After supper and spa, they were sent off into the weeds to brush their teeth, possibly with toothpaste, though soap would have been quite appropriate.


I like to sleep in the open whenever I can, and set up about 20 meters away; but Homar called out  “Vengan a jugar Pimpó”. (Pingpong!)

¡Tío! ¡ Vamos con el Homar! I declined, preferring the peaceful sleep of the innocent under quiet curious southern stars, while the dragon in the caldera, unseen and unheard, spit occasional defiant flashes at the night.


The fourth morning my charges slept late, thanks to the ping pong fest; we breakfasted, went to a late morning hot bath, and lunched in the shade of the big tent until 2 PM.

The summer sunset would be nine or ten hours away, offering plenty of time for an exploration of a nearby waterfall and whitewater stream spilling from the Argentine border.  With a light pack of food, some drinking water, and fruit, we set off. All my teens were enthusiastic, frisky, and competitive. We crossed the steam, and headed toward the sound of the falls.  After only 20 minutes it became necessary to climb a 40 meter rock-fall, consisting chiefly of head sized boulders cascading toward the streambed at the steep angle of repose.  The stream now had more fury, angered by the nearby falls.  Concerned that people might scramble up the rock slide too closely and dislodge a boulder on one another, I decided to send Pablo up first, to wait at the top, while I released each hiker one at a time. This took about 15 minutes.


Arriving at the top of the rock-fall, I found we were at the base of a very large fan-shaped cirque: a 200 meter high seashell like face of fine dirt and small rocks, originating from the eroded earth above,  gradually becoming steepest at the top. The surface, having been punished and polished by wind and rain, was almost like cement. The only safe ascent was to avoid it, and move laterally to find topsoil and brush. Yet all except Pablo had, immediately on arriving, started a race for the top, directly up the cirque.

“¡Bájense imbéciles! Bájenseeeee! ” I gestured frantically and called repeatedly, to no avail because of their intense focus on the race and the noise.


Every mountain lover learns that, as in life itself, the going up is almost always easier than the coming down. My charges had reached a place  of instability and  fear where they could neither safely move farther upward, nor descend without losing control.  Felipe was flattened face to face with the cirque, clutching the mountain. Lilí was perched on a big rock, secure but stuck. Ricardo and Felipe were stranded in between them, in a in a five point attachment to the packed earth, if one includes the butt.   Sebastián was frantic, clinging to a steeper area to my right. Pablo had waited for me. It was about 4 PM with 4 or 5 hours of light left.


¡Oiga  Pablo! Go on up to left,  climb up where there’s topsoil and bush. Take your time.  I have to do something about Sebastián. The rest are ok.”

“When I get to the top, what?”

“I don’t know. Go get Homar. And a rope.”  I climbed up  a way to speak with the children, to prepare them for a few hours there.  As I approached they all responded quite calmly and rationally, excepting Sebastián, who was simply panicked. I felt he could not hold on the way he was; though a fall would not be fatal,  he’d likely be hurt on the rocks below, and I very much feared explaining  how that happened.  Like, Why I was still alive and unhurt.  So felt compelled to try and reach him and inch him to a safer spot.


In short order I was close enough to speak with him.  “Put your whole body belly first,  close to the mountain!  Like you can stick to it. Kick your toes into the dirt until you make  a little niche!”

“¡No, no puedo, tío!”

“Yes, you can!  Take your time. Go slow. ” And he did just that, calming down nicely. But I realized that I myself couldn’t descend safely either.  My only recourse was to reach the top of the fan shaped cirque. “You’re good now. Try to relax as much as you can because… Sorry, you will be there for a couple of hours. But there’s no rain, no snow.”

“What if I have to take a crap?”

“Enjoy! Who gives a shit?!” At least his sense of humor was back.


Slowly, laboriously kicking footholds in the stubborn earth, I made my way upward, and at last reached the overhanging layer of topsoil at the upper lip of the cirque. Dry mouthed, trembling, and exhausted, I pulled myself up over the root bound lip onto level ground, amazed that my life was still mostly my own. Pablo arrived, and I sent him to the caretaker cabin to get a rope, and help, while I stayed with the stranded climbers.


There were still four children trapped on the fan.  They had remained where they were, as instructed. Gradually accepting the absurdity and inevitability of their situation, they began to joke back and forth, to sing songs and tell tall tales under the burning alpine sun. a hot wind, one architect of the cirque, began to blow harder.    In about 40 minutes, Pablo, and a ping pong player arrived with a rawhide lariat about 10 yards long; it was not nearly long enough to reach even the nearest child.  But  they said Homar would bring a better rope, and in another hour Homar and a second man appeared with the long thick rope from the caretaker house roof. Ricardo, the most obstreperous of the teens, shouted up to the rescuers;

¡Si me sacai’[1] primero te chupo el pico!’ promising an explicit sexual favor to  be rescued first.  The newcomer called down to Sebastián.

Chucha Sebastián,¡que te imagináis!” But Sebastián couldn’t hear him.

“You know him? I asked.

Si. I came to visit just for today. He was my brother’s best friend.”

“They quarreled?”

“No. My brother was killed in an auto accident 6 months ago. I wanted to check on Sebastián, I don’t know why, just felt I should. Besides, Felipe’s mom said she’d bring lunch day after tomorrow.”

“Well. I’m glad you are here. He will be too when he realizes it. He’s the one way down to the left.”


Four of us held the rope fast, and four times Homar was let down to rescue each child one by one until they were all safely on top. They had been on the fan clutching the planet desperately for almost four hours. Ricardo was first to be rescued so he will never live down his bribe.

That evening I walked to a nearby goatherd shelter, and arranged for delivery next day of a cabrito asado, (barbecued kid) with all the trimmings. We gathered in honor of Homar, Pablo, and my remarkably cool and collected ‘teens. We were joined by locals, spa employees, the spa owners who provided red wine, and a sixty year old  great grandmother named Ximena claiming first name friendship with every radical leftist in the region. One owner tried to convince my daughter that he was some sort of movie mogul, and another hoped I’d invest in the Spa. (Actually, not a bad idea if I lived there.)  The ping pong tourney started up again at the insistence of Homar and Felipe, who both avoided alcohol in favor of the sport. I didn’t see anyone else make that sacrifice.


When I finally herded my charges to bed, it was early morning. Our hosts continued to celebrate life, the volcano, and perhaps, the numinous. I found myself again under the starry pantheon, listening to the wired children in the tent, and sounds of the party in the distance. The Earth Dragon again spit volcanic flashes intermittently at the dark. I was happy to have followed to my own rule: never take more than three children to the mountains. There are too many dragons lurking there in the earth’s crust.




[1] Language traits in neighboring countries are often comingled. For example, Chilean slang has adapted the preference for honorific grammar (Vos)  from Argentina, as  here in ‘sacai’, suppressing the terminal s ; and in  using an article before a name as in Brazilian  Portuguese.  (El Homar rather than simply  the grammatically correct Homar.)