In my trip to the Bolivian desert last year, I had stayed up late one freezing, sub-zero night, conversing in broken Spanish to Aritz—a Spaniard who had spent many months working in Chile, and above all, loved it obsessively for its mountains. One of the last things he told me, over our parting lunch with a new Brazilian friend, was that it was crucial I visit Valle de Elqui in Chile; the area was "supermístico."
Me being the chaser of light that I am, my ears were perked instantly... especially because Aritz did not strike me as one who would be particularly entranced by the metaphysical. Quiero conocerla, I thought, putting Valle de Elqui on the mental backburner for when the timing might be right.
Thus, the second I learned that the 2019 total solar eclipse happened to pass from the coastal cities of Coquimbo and La Serena—where Mihae and I witnessed it on the rocky shores near a former fortress—exactly through Vicuña and Pisco Elqui in said supermystical valley, I knew that this Chilean solar eclipse would be the one that I would be chasing.
Sunrays emerging from the total solar eclipse at Coquimbo, Chile, as filtered through eclipse glasses.
After three days in Pisco Elqui—where me and one of my best friends, Mihae, had just spent nearly three days intentionally doing nearly nothing—we take a one-hour bus ride to Vicuña, the largest city in the middle of the Valle de Elqui.
At Hostal Las Delicias, we are immediately taken by the space's open floor plan and lived-in charm. What is it about this place, full of old trinkets and outdoor patios, which feels so specifically delicious for the soul? Which makes it feel like a "home that wasn't your home"?
We discover soon that Jaime, the owner, had been born in this seven-bedroom house, which he turned into a hostal a mere seven years ago. It feels like home because it IS his home. He lives on-site with his 96-year-old grandmother and two adorable elderly dogs—and what to say is minimal compared to what to feel. What to feel is that being allowed so intimately into one's home as though one's home were your own is absolutely humbling.
The evening seems as though it might peter out with Mihae and I each doing whatever mellow wind-down activity that we have become accustomed to. This has been one of the most tranquilo trips ever; more internal than external, somehow. But just as I am thinking that sleep might be near, into the living room barrels three Chilean dudes. They ask us if we mind—and of course we don't; it's Jaime's home, not ours—and then crash down on the couches opposite us with their Monster energy drinks and bottles of whiskey. The horrifying elixir they immediately concoct makes us wrinkle our noses but makes them testify that it makes the whiskey "más fuerte." Well, if stronger whiskey is the look you are going for, then so be it!
They are an unlikely bunch. One is a kind, young, and attentive 26-year-old Benz semi-truck driver named Boris.
"Boris es como un nombre ruso," I say. "Boris is like a Russian name."
Exactly, he responds. His grandpa had named him Boris because a distant relative—maybe seven generations past—had been of Russian descent. He was the only one in his family to live this fate. Meanwhile, the joker of the bunch, Mario, pulls up cartoon images of the main male character from Frozen and compares his animated face side-by-side with Boris' real-life face. Don't they look alike? he asks, while all of us giggle. It's the Russian in him.
A novel could probably be más o menos written about Mario, but tonight, the broad strokes would be: you don't really know what to believe when it comes to this guy. He is constantly either taking the piss or asking us questions about qualities we are looking for in the men we date, as though he might have a chance this evening. Yes, it could all come off as intolerably obnoxious, but somehow... his heart seems fine.
And lastly, there's Rodrigo, who is older, seemingly wiser, and absolutely more cognizant of his actions. It is his birthday that they are celebrating tonight. Right in the sign of Cancer. Right after the new moon solar eclipse in Cancer.
Through Rodrigo, I learn why these three men from Santiago, who might seem like unlikely weekend tourists to Vicuña, are here with us. They are in search of water.
These men work for a company that is subcontracted by the government to drill through the earth's surface in search of underground aquifers. They travel throughout the country in pursuit—10 days on and five days off—because it rains so little in Chile that they are in dire need of any and all water sources.
I tell Rodrigo that California, too, is full of drought, and he is initially surprised, though ultimately perhaps not. Eventually he and I agree: the next wars will be about water. "Es superobvio," he says, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Yet these drilling projects, I realize right now as I am writing this, are the source for many murals I have seen throughout the Valle de Elqui. So many murals of protest, which feature illustrations of desperate men and women, working with animals and one another, to stop giant yellow bulldozers and circular metal drills from entering the ground in search of "agua negra." These images had left Mihae and I scratching our heads ever-so-slightly (was it something like fracking? I had wondered)—only to unexpectedly be here now, face-to-face with these very regular men.
Mihae, force-fed hot dog, Mario, dubbed Neil deGrasse Tyson, Boris, Rodrigo, hot dog!
These men are the faceless fabric of the companies which people protest—but they are just living their lives, just like anyone else. They are on the road twelve months out of the year, missing holidays and birthdays; missing their families and important milestones... all in the name of this work. These are men who have a kid (Boris), a wife (Mario), and a separated wife (Rodrigo). For Rodrigo, who has been doing this work for 14 years, the sadness is palpable. And not knowing what else to offer as consolation, I ask if it pays well. Rodrigo's response is not immediate —but eventually, he offers that it isn't bad... but laments, still, that money isn't worth trading family.
So it is that I ask myself quietly why he would continue... but I decide to sit upon my question. Perhaps it is a privilege to live life in the pursuit of work that requires less sacrifice. Perhaps it is misplaced to protest the drilling of water when the drillers of water see it as a greater good and absolute necessity.
I have no answers. But as we stay up deep into the night and do a music exchange—one part Kendrick Lamar for one part Chilean rap; one part traditional cueca for one part Jimmy Edgar—the other distances between our understandings feel like formalities. If you need to pound Monster energy drinks mixed with whiskey at one in the morning just to help you get through it, who are we to judge? The greater common thread is that we are all here, busy enough just trying to live.
"Somos jovenes; hay mucho tiempo por descansar," declares Mario. "We're young; there's much time to rest yet."
VICUÑA, CHILE. JULY 6, 2019.