The forest in the desert

Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

Cactuses, or cacti, grow in deserts, not trees

Or at least that’s what I thought. And thinking about cactuses, or cacti, I wondered whether even they would survive in the driest desert in the world. And whether, if they did, they would be green. The cactuses I’d seen in La Serena on the side of Cerro Grande facing the sea were green, thanks to the daily wrapping of mist, but the side facing the mountains were brown or grey, not at all like the green cartoon cactuses which decorate my llama mug, or my father’s knitted cactus which sits on the windowsill in the lounge.

Ariel Dorfman, in his book Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North, made the desert sound empty – a landscape of space dotted with abandoned nitrate towns. Sad towns whose existence was the result of fickle economic greed.

The desert is spacious, but it is hardly empty

Early one evening, when the sun had dropped low enough that his rays no longer scorched my skin, in that magic hour, before the chill of the desert night descended, I asked for a mini adventure, got into the car and, with a friend, drove into the desert. Off the main road, we passed paddocks of solar panels and I wondered if they were self-cleaning, or rather, if they were designed so that dirt wouldn’t cling to them. Dust coasts everything in the desert. It sweeps across the road, swirls, thickens and becomes mini sand tornadoes which waltz across the empty land, unaware that they’re the last at the party and everyone else has gone home.

Sometimes man’s power astounds me – fat, blue grapes grow in neat, tended rows at the side of the track, their roots bedded in imported soil, irrigated with water that’s pumped up like oil from the depths.

Grapes growing in the Atacama, Chile. January 2022.

Human magic defies the desert

Driving slowly, with me gripping my seatbelt as the car laboured forward, off the main road, we came to the abandoned village of Cumiñalla, the sort of settlement Dorfman had described – a single street of roofless houses, doorless doorways and crumbling walls which reminded me of those quiet corners of Pompei.

It’s difficult to tell how big this place ever was, as now it has crumbled into ruins akin to some ancient town, you could have told me that these ruins had been here hundreds of years, although I’m told people were still living her forty years ago. Akin to the living town of Pozo Almonte which had reminded me of images of the Wild West, barren Cumiñalla seems to have existed despite the odds, and as its cards changed, had disintegrated into dust.

Built in the desperation to harvest the rich nitrates from the abundant desert, Pozo Almonte had survived, probably because it sits on Ruta Cinco, the same tarmac road that I crossed many times in La Serena, which runs from the Peruvian border, down through the desert, straight through Santiago and continues all the way to Chiloe. Pozo Almonte offers a point of respite. Migrants cluster in the square where I’d drank a mango juice. Juice drunk, I slide back into the car seat and switch up the air conditioning. The migrants get to their feet and walk south.

People are astounding.

Tins, abandoned. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. Jaunary 2022.

The desert is rich in nitrate deposits

In his book, Dorfman describes how once upon a time, in 1910, Chile supplied 65% of the world’s nitrogen-based fertilizers, twenty years later, he states, only 10%. Neither the First World War nor the depression of the 30s helped demand, and competition outpaced production once some scientists in a German laboratory came up with a synthetic alternative. These tiny settlements were built for the nitrate industry, and without it, they all but disappeared.

Camera in hand, I set out to explore. You intuitively know that this is a place where to survive depends on preparation. For me, clambering through the ruins reminded me of exploring empty castles with my grandparents. It was an adventure. But out here, far from the coast and far from the mountains, surrounded by sand, you cannot rely on your phone to have signal. You don’t expect to stumble across water. Here, tinned food had been an essential and my exploration found scatterings of empty tins, to which the desert was entirely apathetic.

A wooden cart, Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And as if in a children’s novel, I stepped through a doorway and stumbled upon a forest

Cactuses, I’ve learnt, survive by piercing the morning fog, making it bleed onto the dry ground, drip into their thirsty, shallow roots. Even so, I hadn’t expected to encounter a forest in the Atacama. I’d felt similarly perplexed when I had been in San Pedro – surprised by the green. Trees, it seems, grow here because of the incredible depth of their roots. I’m told the water lays twenty or thirty metres below us. What I wonder is how the saplings survive. How does a tree grow to have twenty-metre-long roots without water? After all, here it never rains. But there were trees.

And amid the trees was a gate, which was unlocked especially for me. And, invited in, I wandered into the terrain of an abandoned house, skipping though swirls of dust, leaving my footprints in the sand. The breeze pulled on my skirt and tangled it between my legs. There had been a great fire, and the house here, built of parched wood, lit up in flames and was gone. The kitchen garden had been reclaimed by the desert, but the rabbit hutches and chicken coops remained, as did a wooden cart, which had once been used to deliver fruit and vegetables. It stood padlocked to a tree.

The blue teapot. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And lodged on a sideboard, an unwanted blue teapot

Abandoning a town when there is no work left is understandable as is abandoning a house when it burns down, or a city when it is no longer safe, but to abandon a teapot? This I could not understand.

And it was easier to ponder the existence of this teapot than imagine the horror faced by all those migrants walking through the world’s driest desert, unwilling to abandon the hope of a better life.

Slowing the pace

Humedal, La Serena, December 2021

For once, I don’t feel overstretched. By which I mean, I actually made the bed, I have food in the fridge, I’ve swept the kitchen floor, I’ve no deadlines haunting me, and I am reading almost every day. It’s like I’ve put down a huge rucksack which I’ve been carrying for months. I’m living in front of the Pacific Ocean; I can watch the sunset each evening from my balcony.

There’s a man, a small man with slim limbs, shorter in stature than me, with a dark wrinkled face which makes him look quite old, but perhaps it’s only the sun and he’s not as old as I imagine. He spends many hours each day working outdoors, his horse is never far away, and he sits on the sand dunes and watches over the river basin where his animals graze. I see him with a piece of straw in his mouth and if I’m alone he’ll look away from his animals for a moment and he’ll speak to me, comment on the weather or the beauty of the beach. He has few teeth and a strong accent. One day when I had to apologise that I didn’t understand he replied with genuine surprise, “How?”

It took him some time considering me before he asked if perhaps, I was not Chilean. I switched the sounds around in my mind and concluded that the animal he’d lost sight of was a goat. Although I’m not ruling out the possibility that his dialect has a word half-like the Spanish for ‘goat’ but which means some other animal entirely. I assured him that I hadn’t seen any animals the size of a goat, I’d come straight from the main road, and he looked disappointed.

When more people are around, walking along the path, heading to the beach, he doesn’t turn and pay them any attention and they seem not to see him either. He sits and he watches the animals, and he must do this for hours each day. It’s a wild space, areas of which are roped off to protect the nesting birds. He appears incredibly peaceful.

My peaceful contentment won’t last. Inevitably the world around me will spin back out of my control, it’s so full of exciting opportunities, things to develop, projects to undertake and obligations to attend to, it can hardly do anything else. I’m habitually addicted to our societies call for more.

But right now, there is peace.

Part of this is the light. The room where I work is painted a yellow shade of white and the almost-summer sunshine fills the room. It’s lit up like the inside of the fridge, but with such a clear, fresh light I am awakened in my core. Even mornings are no longer so difficult. The light fills my bedroom well before my alarm sounds and it’s such a warm, friendly, natural light that I can’t despise it.

My father has always said that I have a tendency to commit to too much, burn the candle at both ends and eventually burn out. This is my natural pull, the way I grew up working. It’s learnt from my father who does many, many things, burns the candle at both ends and then fizzles wildly. Luckily my mother’s around to balance things out, but in doing so, she too runs around wildly and exhausts herself. We’re a family of too much at once living in a society of more, more, more.

When I’ve got too much on, I think my brain works against me to slow me down. Like trying to drive with the handbrake on. The more I worry about all the things I should have done, the more my own body resists me. It hides that feeling of calm, cool-headed thought and instead swings between panicked adrenaline and dispiriting lethargy.

When I’ve got less on, when I’ve chosen to have less on, I’m calmer, my thoughts form with less agitation and getting stuff done doesn’t seem like such an ordeal. This is a preferable way to be. But it’s the result of many choices, it does not come effortlessly. To find it, I think you have to learn to value the man’s time, simply sitting there, watching his animals with the sun on his back. You have to learn to value the patience it takes to wait without wishing the time to pass faster. You have to be really clear about what it is you want.

Do you need a mechanic?

El Faro, La Serena, December 2021

Today, as I went hunting for a corner shop to get a packet of pasta and a bottle of orange juice, I found myself walking down a familiar street. A wide, tranquil dual carriageway with freshly trimmed palms, reluctant patches of frequently watered grass and persistently sandy walkways. Two workmen were busy grinding the paintwork off the grey metal fence which surrounds one of the condominiums so that they could paint it a cheery yellow, but otherwise the street was pretty much empty. One of those cars with a large speaker attached on the roof, held down with heavy-duty ropes passed by, calling out to the seagulls, blaring out an advert for a garage where mechanics can tend to your needs any day of the week, located where Cuatro Esquinas meets Ruta 5.

  There are many things which are surprising about this observation, although from the perspective of the street, nothing special happened. The first observation is that I was there, in La Serena, at the edge of the desert, a quarter of the way around the world from home. It feels like yesterday that I left, and yet it’s been eighteen months. To say I am elated is an understatement. Being here is my teenage rebellion, although I stopped being a teenage over a decade ago. It’s something I selfishly want, for me, without rationalised explanation, probably to prove something to myself. The second observation, and the one which I had never expected, was that I understood the advert.

When I was first in La Serena, doing anything was difficult. My Spanish was a complete mess, childlike and limited to a narrow vocabulary which I’d studiously learned with a heap of flashcards. I was learning the language fast, out of necessity, but you cannot learn a language overnight, it takes time and effort and a lot of discomfort. My lack of fluency meant that even simple transactions led to a shot of adrenaline. After going to the bank – which I always find stressful in Spanish – I would treat myself to a slice of cake in the café opposite. I learnt a hell of a lot of Spanish in those months I spend in La Serena, words like toque de queda (curfew) and cuarentena (quarantine) and a lot of Chilean words (wea, bacán, cuático) which I don’t know how to translate appropriately. Yet it remained a fight.

Within weeks of returning to England at the beginning of the pandemic, my pronunciation had nosedived, and my recall of words felt sluggish. Occasionally, I took out my grammar book and studied for a little while, but I had other things on my mind. I did continue speaking in Spanish, using it to talk to friends and occasionally, when appropriate, with students. But I have no explanation as to why when I returned to Santiago and I spoke Spanish in an imperfect yet easy-going manner, without exhausting myself. I’m not sure entirely how it happened. The language perhaps had settled into a part of my mind where it could be chewed, processed and consolidated into something which, then regurgitated, came out as my own voice.

And although the seagulls didn’t understand the advert, I, for the first time, did.

At the end of the world

The biggest market I’ve ever seen.
Santiago, November 2021.

Chile, my dear Chile. Fancy seeing you again. I’d forgotten, for a moment, how arid your hills are.

It took me a little while to get over here. In Madrid, in that never-ending hall, the one that rolls out to infinity with gates enough for the entire world to visit, I helped a guy who was trying to go to Mexico find his flight. He was confused because the letters and numbers were repeating themselves, the terminal, the subterminal, the gate, the same icons on a loop, like knowing a place by its GPS coordinates but not its name. I was confused because my gate number changed as I was leaping between moving walkways. I was confused because I was tired, and I had a headache and I was clutching a thousand forms: vaccine passes, pcr test results, declarations of the absence of symptoms, the location in which I would stay, all those numbers and words used to identify which country, gender and age group I belong, boarding passes, taxi reservations, evidence that someone will pay if I get sick. But I heard someone say, “Cachai” as we waited at the gate, and suddenly the number of documents seemed irrelevant. Do you get what I’m saying? A blink and I was in Madrid, another blink, gone again. But the Chilean words stuck around, with a reassuring presence.

We came backwards through Santiago airport, coming in through what must be newly built gates, walking through doors designed for the flow to be in the other direction, passing ‘no entry’ signs. I wandered through this labyrinth, following the guy in front. Chileans can queue. Without thinking (and therefore without worrying), I allowed myself to be herded through. I wondered how the Chileans were going to test us all and process all our documents and I imagined that I might be awhile in the airport, but they attacked the problem with many hands, applying parallel processing: countless people siting at countless desks collecting the countless documents in a building constructed like a maze. Fodder for Borges, I thought.

I was given a sticker to identify me as in isolation and sent down the escalator for my pcr test. I keyed my passport number into the machine and then moved into the next queue for testing. My first test, in Berlin, had been a gentle affair and I had wondered afterwards why people made such fuss about it. In England, my pcr test had been less comfortable but in hindsight not so bad. In Chile, I was reminded of those hooks which the ancient Egyptians used to remove a dead person’s brain through their nostrils.

I went up another escalator and followed people through another corridor. We’d made it to arrivals, and I recognized the room where we waited in our lines to pass through immigration. Slow lines, because the open desks could be counted on one hand, discarding the thumb and most of the fingers, and the staff kept wandering off to do other things. I didn’t feel rushed. I’d seen the sunshine through the floor to ceiling airport windows. Peace had settled upon me. In line, I helped a Spaniard connect to the free airport wifi so that he could call his children and tell them he’d arrived. He offered me chewing gum. The lady at the immigration counter stamped my passport with the pretty multicoloured Chilean stamp, and I was in.

Wheeling my jenga tower of suitcases out through the building, I found a bottled water dispenser, inserted my pesos and the machine refused to dispense the water. I tried another machine: it didn’t work either. I wasn’t the only one wanting water, and I shared consolations with a stranger – at least the machine refunded our pesos. We met up again a few minutes later, buying water from a little shop. A woman served me, handing me a bottle of water which was cheaper than those sold in the machine. Perhaps the gods were helping out.

Thankfully, I knew what I was doing because I had clear instructions from Chilean friends. I found my driver, a professional chap who squirted my hands with sanitizer and did all that moving my luggage around, and he drove me to a friend’s flat. The receptionist appeared and these two men transferred my three suitcases into a shopping trolley. I just stood there, while all this happened, with an expression halfway between a sunshine smile and goldfish thinking. I was led into a lift, and left there with the trolley, the receptionist pressed the button, sent me up and phoned my friend to notify her of the guest on her doorstep.

I had arrived.

Life is the result of living

Piggies, Italy, October 2021

When I was a teenager, when we were told to begin thinking about our careers, when some large chap with a grinning face mistook his job in careers advice for that of a motivational coach and mistook me for someone without an imagination, when all that happened and the computer spewed out that my ambition in life should be to teach design and technology, I already knew what I liked: I liked sunshine, books and people who were nice to me.

The careers advisor, I believe, saw the design and technology teacher suggestion as a bit of a disappointment; he was on a mission to make me aim higher. The process involved typing personality traits into the computer, hitting enter and then receiving a list dictating what one should want to be… Personally, I think the computer was doing the best it could within the limited selection of jobs available within its database. The algorithm lacked imagination, but that wasn’t its fault. The careers advisor also lacked imagination. He wanted something more exciting for the centre piece of his motivational coach routine, so, because I seemed good at studying, he thought I ought to become an academic.

I have never responded well to a pep talk. I would make a bad academic.


And as I write this, the pandemic is coming to its close. I still keep a mask in my handbag, but as long as I give my cents directly to the waiter or waitress in the café where I have my breakfast, I normally don’t need to use it. It’s sunny here in the south of Italy, where I have escaped, like a bird, free from the cage, landing on a familiar branch to reorientate itself in the world again. Today I have immersed myself in books, seated in the sunshine. I’ve scribbled in my diary whilst drinking a cappuccino. Today’s waiter, a cheerful lad with the lowest voice I have ever heard, guessed my order, knowing me to be mightily predictable, and I replied in first Spanish and then Italian, which is one language fewer than the other day. His trousers were rather short, apparently showing off one’s ankles is the fashion for Italian young men. Ankle socks no more.

“Having a nice holiday?”

No, because I am not on holiday. This is my life. It’s an uncluttered life, one where I live out of a suitcase. It’s easily mistaken for a holiday as many people have holidays with characteristics similar to my life, holidays that involve sunshine and ice cream and smiling at the sheer wonder of existence, but I’ve no tour guide leading me around and I cook more often than I eat out. I might be found staring at the ceiling of the basilica, but I’m also found buying toilet rolls in the supermarket. I have classes to teach this afternoon.

And all this that I have is something that with his good-natured expression and his insistence that I aim higher, the career’s advisor couldn’t conceive. The computer couldn’t get it either, although it recognised that I’m inclined to teach. Both created a gap, work, and then endeavoured to correctly fill it. Yet, as a curious and social human being I’m possessed of an inner determination to give to my community and to partake in it. Work gives life meaning but being told what to do tends to take that meaning away.

I’m teaching the locals to count in English with use of the game ‘piggies’. People who were at my sibling’s wedding reception will know exactly what I mean. How I ended up filling up my piggies score sheets with Italian pensioners…. I am not quite sure. They have never tossed pigs whilst drinking their morning espressini before and are delighted.

Show don’t tell – simple writerly advice. The things that are really worthwhile never require pep talks.


The pandemic has, in many ways, been good for me. The antagonist forces the protagonist to grow. A friend recently said that my stubbornness ought to be studied. I feel like this time, this fight, I have fought with dignity and finesse. I have been patient, incredibly patient, and yet I have kept a narrow focus on what is important to me. There has been relatively little tantrum throwing, few toys shoved out the pram, and I’ve only occasionally stamped my foot. Any doubts I had about what I wanted to do with my life have been eroded away. My plans, while always moving, have had a long-term focus.

The fact that my life doesn’t exist in an algorithm, or in the imagination of any careers advisor, doesn’t really matter. Life isn’t about doing what you’re told to do. It’s not about jumping through societies golden hoops (or iron hoops for some). Life is the result of living.

Settled down

Sunrise somewhere between England and Italy, September, 2021

Many people have ideas about what I might want or what would be good for me. My grandmother believes I would be happier if I settled down. I agree, I just have a different definition of settled down. My settled down does not involve owning a property. It does not involve being stationary, it involves being comfortable in knowing who I am so that when I make a decision I do so with a sense that my feet are grounded on the Earth. It involves having a firm understanding of my roots, knowing where I come from and how I fit within the bigger picture of our globalized society. It involves knowing where my privilege originated, recognizing that even being able to type these words is a gift. It means recognizing my responsibilities. It means putting effort into continuing my loving relationships within my family and long-term friends. It involves not being manipulated by fears of the past, or illusions of the future, but being comfortable in who I am, here, now, today.

Settled down also refers to kitchens and the domestic world, the world where women have historically found themselves spending rather a lot of time. Being itinerant doesn’t mean I’m not domesticated. I might not own a kitchen, but I’m a reasonable cook, I can sew a button on, turn up a hem, sew masks or create a skirt and I can even darn. The Mother has performed her duties to society admirably: my training is complete.* If they certified domestic skills, I’d have a shiny piece of paper to frame. I’m so domesticated that I keep stain remover and a muslin cloth in my suitcase. I am capable of running a household. But does any of this exclude me running my household of one from a variety of kitchens all over the world. Do I really need to own my own saucepans?

But settled down has another meaning. My sister is teaching her new puppy to settle himself down quickly. He has to be able to travel, to go in the car, to be taken on holiday, into cafés and pubs, into strange environments, and in all of these he has to be able to settle himself, be calm and behave. Sobrino, my name for my sibling’s puppy, needs to be able to generate a sense of security and safety from within. He will always be more watchful when away from his familiar surroundings, but he’ll be in contact with humans who love him, and he’ll have learnt to trust in the world on which he depends. His security does not come from his cuddly dragon toy or any other of his possessions, but from the relationships and faith he is developing in the people who care for him.

Familiarity is reassuring, but we shouldn’t mistake familiar for good. There are many things we are familiar with which will be good for us, and there are many familiar things which we don’t spend much time questioning, and which unfortunately are harmful. Familiar can make us feel settled because it’s predictable.

Sobrino will have to accept that sometimes his life is restricted and sometimes that he can’t have what he wants, and the structure itself will help create a non-stressful home, yet to make this a good home, a happy and healthy home, my siblings are putting in a lot of work to critically consider Sobrino’s well-being. They are not merely leaving things up to habit. There is a plan, there are strategies and sometimes hard work. Sobrino is an adorable puppy, but he mustn’t be cuddled all the time. He must also learn his independence. He has to learn to settle himself down regardless of his environment. I’m sure it’s sometimes hard for my siblings to ignore his big, soulful eyes asking for adoration.

My family possess many habits among them which are the way that they do things, and these habitual actions (or moments of inaction) are also how they most frequently hurt one another. I think this is the same in all families. Sometimes patterns of behaviour might serve one generation in one circumstance, but then they are taught to the next, and the next, and the next without being assessed for their actual value. I recall a conversation with the mother about my tendency to have unhelpful emotional outbursts (I use unhelpful here in the most British of understatements). Being wise, the Mother suggested that my outbursts had a resemblance to some of her own, which, luckily for us all, were tamer than my Nonna’s, whom she believed had been tame compared to my great-grandmother. Having travelled, it occurs to me that in another culture, such a display of emotion might be looked on much more favourably than the dangerous silence on the topic of emotions inherent in other parts of my family (which I have also managed to inherit). Circumstances change, and sometimes our habits stop serving us. We grow, and habits stop serving us.

Being settled into our relationships, our environments and our habits reduces the chance that we will critically review how we behave. Doing things just because that’s the way that things are done leads to complacency and a blindness towards each other’s needs. Personally, I think there are times that we are all too settled, too complacent, too used to a hiccup-free life. It’s easy for me to say though, I have fewer responsibilities and hence more freedom to change up the rhythm of my routines. I think that evaluating your habits is much easier away from your own culture because you run into people who point out your habits and ask, “Why?”

To move away from a place we call ours allows us a better sense of our true identity but at the same time distracts us from self-reflection; to sit at a steadfast point helps us unveil that identity in communion with the numinous but also renders the task impossible by blinding us to what defines us in the surrounding, tangible world. We must move to meet those others who provide the shifting mirrors by means of which we piece together our self-portrait.

Alberto Manguel, The Library of the Wandering Jew, A Reader on Reading

My theory is this: To see, we need to engage in critical analysis, we need comparison points and diverse role models that demonstrate alternative options. We benefit from advice from a variety of sources. Books help; teachers help; coming into conflict with the results of our mistakes helps too. But, to be, we also need stability, the arms of those who love us, the trust that what we feel is true and that we belong somewhere, to some tribe, to some people, some community. It’s only with both insight into ourselves and a sense of cohesion through our stable relationships that we learn who we are.

And then we need to be brave enough to make decisions as to how we want to grow.

Which leads me to consider how my freedom to be selfish, to choose to do things in a manner which fits with my individual taste is rather unusual. Historically, decisions were more collaborative. Society worked with the family as the building block. Maybe the man might make some decisions and the woman other decisions, but the overall choice of what any individual could do was much more limited. Generations lived, if not in the same house, in the same street. Your many siblings surrounded you and would saddle you with their children for a while. Children were not a decision, but a consequence of us being human. Survival took up a lot of time and energy. Options were fewer. Whereas my family and friends generally do not try to interfere in my decisions. People hesitate to give any advice further than linking me documentation for border controls and visa applications and stressing that I ought to take care.

My parents erroneously believe that if they tell me not to do something, I will be compelled to do it. I don’t actually have much of a compulsion for high-risk activities. I’m not particularly drawn towards an adrenaline rush. I like being calm, settled with an easy-going existence. I like my routines and my steady rhythm. I love hiking, as long as the most special equipment I’ll need is a pair of sturdy boots. I’m not drawn to danger for the sake of danger. I hate horror films and think jumping out of a plane is absurd. And yet, people fascinate me, most especially when they’re at ease, acting naturally, within their own communities. People of all ages, with their different backgrounds, with their different religions, different assumptions, different conversations. Hence whilst my life is, in some respects, incredibly settled, it thrives on movement and change. For me, these aren’t opposites. Right now, writing from Italy and wearing the jumper my sister knitted me, my life feels pretty settled.

* After receiving feedback, I would like to clarify that I am not stating that the Mother taught me to sew. Merely, in her traditional social role of mother, that she assured it happened. The Father also taught me domestic skills. The Mother definitely taught me to darn. The Grandmother taught me to use a sewing machine.