Category Archives: Desert Inspiration for Cultural Fiction

Really, the inspiration comes from the people of the desert. What life springs from the dust!

Checking in at Hard Bed Hotel

trolleys parked at the entrance of the Catholic Cemetery, Santiago, Chile

Like waiting taxis the trolleys are lined up and ready to be sent on their next mission.

The trolleys, parked in the foyer of the Catholic Cemetery in Santiago, Chile are waiting patiently for their next assignment – that of carrying a coffin and its contents to its final resting place.  This image appears on the front cover of Hard Bed Hotel because it says it all. Hard Bed Hotel – the title of the book – is a Chilean slang for ‘cemetery.’

A conversation might go something like this:
“Where did Jaime disappear to? I haven’t seen him for weeks.”
“Oh, didn’t they tell you? He’s staying at Hard Bed Hotel.”
“No! When did he check in? And how did it happen?”

The similarities between signing into a hotel and checking into the cemetery are many – trolleys at your service, prepared to carry your load, the administrator arranging details of the stay and caretakers with hands out for a tip.

But this time there’s no question of how many days you’d like to reserve. It’s an eternal stay and the question is simply which room? Will you rent a niche for 25 years? Or do you own your own mausoleum? It will be the current administrator’s successor who will renew the lease after 25 years and if necessary, arrange the move to a new niche. This is all very long-term, you understand. No short term options at Hard Bed Hotel.

And it’s the family who will be tipping the porter after the cargo is safely in place.

These trolleys have made hundreds, if not thousands of trips down the main streets of the cemetery, rolling along as stoic participants at the edge of somber ceremonies and then returning to their place in the hall to await the next resident.

Look at them. They’re tired but satisfied.

Less Than Royal But Rich in Colourful Treasure

Personalities abound in limited space. Because everyone is identified by his or her idiosyncrasies and since the personality of the deceased is reflected by what’s on their niche shelf, the importance of paraphernalia cannot be understated. Thus kind strangers often take pity on a barren shelf, donating flowers and small ornaments to help lift it out of its loneliness. And eager to provide amusement in the afterlife, families regularly add to their child’s afterlife toy collection, smothering the narrow shelf space to the point where the child’s nameplate is hidden from sight.

Child's niche full of toys and gifts.

Child’s toys crowd the space as though the family just can’t give enough. Deflated balloon are evidence of a recent birthday celebration.

When visitors drop by, it’s the tomb decoration that provides conversational starting points. For instance a football pennant would get things off the ground – “You’re looking good today, Señor. Once a fan of Universidad de Chile, always a fan, I see. You’re lucky the sun hasn’t faded the pennant. God must be doing you some favours. You know they won the championship again this year. Maybe you interceded on their behalf?” The visitor might chuckle and a cordial – often transforming into bawdy – dialogue might ensue. The live visitor will kindly leave space in the conversation should the deceased desire to respond from the tomb. Thus as you wander the paths between the walls, you often see visitors looking up in long, silent pauses at a photo in the niche.

The grave of a Colo Colo football fan

Tomb of a die-hard football fan, who no doubt made it known he wanted to be buried with the team insignia.

In death as in life, one’s home is one’s home, to be appreciated for its distinct character and charm, to be welcoming and hospitable, and above all to provoke pleasant memories that will leave all parties satisfied. The visitor is meant to return home full, as though having consumed a hearty meal, one that he can digest until it’s time to return for the next visit.
(excerpt from Hard Bed Hotel)

The Most Colourful Place in Town

The town of Tocopilla on Chile’s northern coast is trapped on a narrow strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the towering Andes. Its possibilities for growth are limited and its economy has been depressed since Pinochet revoked its status as a major port in punishment for it being fiercely left wing.

Tocopilla from the sea

Tocopilla forever! Trapped, shaken and downtrodden but alive with valiant spirit.

Tocopilla's local saint, Malvinita

The alcove erected in the name of Malvinita a locally-appointed saint , is decorated for Christmas. Visitors regularly pray here, asking for favours and giving thanks for those granted.

Tocopilla cemetery after the earthquake of 2007

The cemetery takes shape once more after the earthquake.

Decorative niches in cemetery walls, Tocopilla

Visitors stand under the shade of tarps to chat with loved ones during the Christmas season. These walls were erected outside of the cemetery gates as a temporary resting place while the earthquake repairs were underway in the cemetery proper.

Although the town has recovered somewhat, it doesn’t hold a candle to its glory days. It has decayed – its unpainted walls and rusty roofs have blended into the brown and grey of the mountains and it has become an unwitting desert camouflage. But it doesn’t take much paint to brighten up a small mausoleum and it doesn’t take many small ornaments, lively plastic flowers and photos set into niches to create a speckled sea of colour over the sand. And that’s what Tocopilla’s cemetery has become – an oasis of colour in the midst of a bone-dry town.

Even the 7.8 earthquake of 2007 couldn’t keep the cemetery from coming to life again. After the walls and tombs were violently disturbed and their contents offered up to the blue November sky, swift action was taken to repair the cemetery; certainly for health and sanitation but mostly for the dignity of the families and their departed loved ones.

New walls were erected and the temporary quarters in niches were quickly filled. In true South American form, the niches, short-term as they were meant to be, were brought to life again with care and attention of family members who couldn’t bear to leave departed loved ones feeling desolate or misplaced. The decorations came out, the musical Christmas cards went in and visitors flocked to the space. Not even an earthquake prevents a quality family visit with the departed, who will rest in the most dignified style that little money can buy.

The Eternal Relevance of Syndicates

Italian Mausoleum, door to entrance

Beautifully carved door at the entrance to the grand mausoleum of the Italian Mutual Aid Society

One of the grand society mausoleums in El Cementerio General de Santiago de Chile, The Spanish Mutual Aid Society

One of the grand society mausoleums in El Cementerio General de Santiago de Chile, The Spanish Mutual Aid Society

Interior of French Society Mausoleum

Renovations in the interior of the mausoleum of the French Society, Santiago de Chile

If you’re a union supporter, you’ll love this because it extends the relevance of unions to life beyond. And if you’re not, you’ll find it of interest because it’s a cultural predisposition that emphasises the care and memory of departed loved ones.

In addition to traditional family mausoleums, South American cemeteries are populated with large and small mausoleums in the name of worker syndicates and social clubs.

As you wander the paths of cemeteries in small towns you’ll inevitably come across sections of a wall painted a bright colour to stand out from the rest with large letters that might read, for instance, “Illustrious Syndicate of Northern Miners” or “Central Fishermen’s Union” or “National Union of Railway Workers.” And there you’ll find the tombs of individual members who very likely died on the job but also those lucky ones who grew old and died in retirement.

In bigger cities you’ll find more obscure industry unions such as, “The National Union of Newspaper Typesetters”.  My speculation is that because individual funerals and tombs are too expensive for surviving families to afford, someone, way back when, realised that they needed to plan ahead and they allotted a percentage of the union fees towards these necessities. In addition, many workers are fiercely loyal to their trade and as proud members of a group, they choose to be buried with their ‘compadres’. The point is that the maintenance of resting places and pride in the memories of people who have passed on is a priority – enough that unions in a poor country allocate a portion of their precious budget for it.

Unions are not the only organised groups to provide eternal resting places. Social clubs also build mausoleums, and often they’re grand ones. In Santiago’s General Cemetery the Italian Society, Spanish Society and French Society have immense structures with space for hundreds, if not thousands of members. The “Italian Humanitarian Society of Mutual Help” is especially amazing; you enter through a copper door that is an elaborate work of art in itself before walking up several stories via a ramp that winds around like a snail. The French one is round with a huge high dome, niches built into the walls from floor to ceiling.

The mausolems bring honour to both the departed workers and society members as well as to the organisations themselves; money buys only the best architecture and the structures are well-maintained.

A Writer from the Desert

One day I just happened to see Hernan Rivera Letelier being interviewed on Chilean TV. There was something about him, something about the way he spoke, soft but confident, not pretentious, just another guy from the desert although he had gained international recognition as a writer. The book he was talking about that afternoon was called ” Santa María de las Flores Negras,” about a very well-known and shamefully dark event in Chilean history. He brought it to life with fictional characters.

The book wasn’t available in English so I was determined to read it in Spanish because I wanted to know how he told the story, to meet his characters and to experience his craft. I think I read the first three pages over and over at least twenty times and was so disappointed that I couldn’t understand it that I broke down and cried. But I persisted. A decent dictionary didn’t cover all of the northern Chilean slang but my husband helped me past some of that. Finally I finished the book. And I wanted more!

My favourite of all of his books is called “My Name is Malarrosa”, a simple story with rare types who find themselves falling into the most unusual situations. It’s the kind of story that tickles you inside, that bubbles with innocence at the same time that it amazes you with its dark turns. To say it was inspiring is an understatement. I felt it gave me permission to write the way I want to write and about what I want to write. His style is narrative, short on conversation, big on humour and overflowing with small details that make all the difference. This is where I want to take my readers – to an English version of stories packed with weird and wonderful Latin American concepts.

For a Start – Ghost Stories from the Desert

Chilean altiplano | Atacama Desert

Travelling along the altiplano, between Tocopilla and Calama

The desert is not at all what I imagined; it’s much more. Myths and superstitions that help shape the lives of its people materialise to explain the unforgiving nature and often unexpected blessings of the arid landscape.

Once while in Tocopilla, after I expressed an interest in local folklore a friend showed up with a folder full of loose pages. She said they were ghost stories – all true – told by people of ‘la pampa.’

One was an account of a young mother who had fallen ill and died, leaving three small children to fend for themselves while their father laboured in the mine. Although the children struggled to maintain the house and prepare meals, their grief and inability to cope got the better of them and the humble little house began to fall into ruin. But one morning, they awoke to find the kitchen clean and their clothes washed and hanging on the line. The next morning they found tea and fresh bread on the table and their mother’s apron hanging on the nail by the door. All of the neighbours swore they had nothing to do with it and were as surprised as the children. The account ended there.

I found that with these stories, you have to draw the obvious conclusion.

Another tells of a barmaid who had been dragged some distance into the desert, beaten, raped, and murdered. Not long after this tragic incident, a young woman could be seen sitting on a rock at the outskirts of the town each night, waving down trucks. Later a deserted truck would be discovered and its driver would be found several kilometres away, lying dead, dehydrated with a look of terror on his cold, dead face.

Who knows how many other loose pages are floating around in the wind or buried beneath the sand? But I’m not the only one to be inspired by the desert of northern Chile. Foreigners and local inhabitants all find their own reasons –sometimes wrapped in climate or politics or just survival.