As we in Southern California swelter through a seemingly endless series of hot, humid weather, my mind turns to the Norte Grande of Chile, where the Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. At one time, I desperately wanted to take the Ferrocarril Antofagasta a Bolivia (FCAB), which ran passenger trains between Antofagasta, Chile and Oruro, Bolivia, from which it was possible to change trains to La Paz.
Years ago, I saw a television documentary about one such trip: I was instantly sold. Unfortunately, although trains still run along the FCAB route, they are all freights.
In My Invented Country, Isabel Allende describes fleeing Chile by this train in 1973 after her cousin Salvador was killed with the participation of the CIA. She remembers an endless, hot, dry expanse.
Another refugee from Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship was writer Ariel Dorfman, who has this to say about the Atacama in Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North:
Less rain falls on these sands than on any other similarly blighted expanse on Earth. I talked to men born in Arica, a woman brought up in Pisagua, men and women who had never ventured forth from the nitrate town of María Elena or who have never left the oasis of Pica, which produces the most fragrant oranges your tongue has ever rolled over, and none of them had felt one drop of rain on their bodies in their lives….
Oh yes, it rained once, some years ago, in Antofagasta. Two millimeters. And several residents died in the ensuing mudslide…. That semi-sprinkle had not reached Antofagasta itself, though there was an unusual front of turbulence sweeping in from the sea, so the reporter on the local radio was already trying to calm down a populace that had begun to panic, a woman had called in to say—much to our cruel mirth—that she thought she had felt a drop of rain on her cheek, and what should she do, should she evacuate her children?
We might smirk a bit at that, though with our California drought, we ought to be prepared for anything. With luck, we might see some appreciable rain this winter … or else!