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.