Thursday, 12 February 2015

Moments in Atacama Time: The Street.

The PanAmericana, the street that passes the Calgary Stampede, the street that skirts the Nasca Lines, the street that has incorporated the entire U.S. Interstate system into a labyrinthine web. The street that navigates Buenos Aires' nue de Julio, the world's widest road on the world's longest street. The street that's not quite whole, the gap that has such an integral part to play in Scottish history. The street that starts away down in Ushuaia and terminates up in Dead Horse, Prudhoe Bay. The street that, were it stretched, would easily circumnavigate the globe. The street so labyrinthine, incomprehensible, it is more a concept than a reality. The street that's outside our door tonight.

An iconic route that has an image of wide multi-lane highways flowing through grand vistas of fag advertising posters. Down long canyons of pine forest, crossing girder works spanning bloated rivers. Macadamed tracts dissolving into infinity's vanishing point.The endless rolling highway. The great road journey.

Over the years we've played on it at various moments along it's journey, happy to meet it, happy to leave it. Like a long term friend, pleased at it's return, the chance to catch up.

We've stopped in Atico/ CamanĂ / Chala, take your pick , the story won't change. Places that don't fit into an easy characterisation. Like most Peruvian coastal communities, they started as native fishing caletas; they still have the boats, the market sheds and the general ambience of fish. They then acquired a few hospidajes, a clutch of spade and bucket stalls and entered the resort era. Yet this is a Sunday, towards the end of high season, only the holiday aura feels half-hearted.

If these places have a genuine reason d'ĂȘtre, it is the stalls that sprout out of the pavement, arising as new every morning. There, to service a passing clientele of people on the move. Truckers and tourists, motorbikers and overlanders, peripatetic migrant workers and two minuscule cyclists. Collectivos hauling comatose people. Lorries hauling red onions. Low loaders hauling 'iron fairies'. Tankers hauling liquid milk. Dumpsters hauling rusted scrap. Tippers hauling quarry rock. Armoured wagons hauling money. Curtain-sides hauling Their anonymous cargo. Buses hauling populations. Multi-axles hauling the dismantled gargantuan elements of a single mine-haul lorry. And when two meet, in the narrows of hawker stands, the street stalls.

Mid-morning, and there's only six eateries open...per block, which guarantees that there will be seven differing forms of music blasting out from under their umbrellas' awnings. The cargo-trikes, their cargo beds loaded with tropical fruit and a toddler child, others will have a rank of bucket jugs filled with morada and quinoa juices that have an ominous foamy froth on top. Still more will have iron cauldrons swaddled in blankets, with contents of ' caldo de gallena ', hen soup. There for that long collection of cargo that has pulled up all along the street, their drivers perched on curbside stools, outside their chosen eatery, their backs mere moments from the grinding traffic.

Not much will change throughout the day, but with that early nightfall, the street's emotions alter. Still the transports will be crawling down the street, churning up a cloud of gritted sand, their headlights picking out an air infused with dust motes. Only now, there's a piquancy of mystery, a sense of concealment in the corner shadows, for much of the megre light comes from the hawker's booths. A solitary naked light bulb that's plugged into a trip hazard of meandering extension leads that services a successive series of stands. Ponds of brilliance that only serve to emphasis the dark in between.

The record books list this street as the world's longest 'motorable road', then qualifies the assertion by pointing out the missing link at Darien. The malaria-infested swamp that a 17th. century Scotland invested in, not just the shirt off its back, but the majority of its hard currency, on an abortive, ill conceived Americas colonising project. Which leads you on a timeline of consequences, directly from a 18th. century parliamentary Union, to a 21st. century divisive independence debate. That 'line' now bridged by the pledged political promise, that 'Gap' now crossed by a ferry service.

Back out on the street, we're on the metronomic countdown of kilometre posts that leads all the way to Lima. Yet there are no suggestions as to anywhere else. This dearth of intervening distances is amply compensated for by a collection of 'admonitory' nagging boards. 'Don't drop litter'. 'Wear a seatbelt'. 'Don't burn tyres'. 'Don't leave rocks on the road'. 'Respect life; it's important'. And my favourite of the moment: 'Do not proceed, if in doubt'. 'Duda' ~ 'doubt', so phonetically close to 'deep doodoo'. We do proceed, even when one of those anonymous steel containers passes. We're treated to a miasma of 'eau de pesca'. A deep doodoo of fishy water that envelops our immediate world, our minuscule paragraph from our passage down The Street.