Mr. Alarcon is traveling in South America. Below you'll find the last note he sent to people recently. His story collection, War by Candlelight, comes out soon. An archive of links to previous notes is below.
February 14, 2005
I want to explain what it felt like to cross the border from Chile to Peru. To do this, itís necessary to talk about what makes Chile (as far as I can tell) a total anomaly in Latin America: people are optimistic.
Itís true that Iíve never been to Brazil, where samba surely acts as a vaccine against hunger, and if youíre Colombian and can claim both Garcia Marquez and Shakira, why would you be unhappy, etc., but really, Chile is just something else. I talked to a lot of people while I was there: economists, aquaculturists, farm workers, writers, waiters, subsistence drug dealers, actors, bus drivers, military recruits, journalists, small business owners Ė and everyone seemed to share this optimism: that last year was pretty good, that this year things would get even better.
I would guess that theyíre right: I saw signs of progress everywhere. In Chile, in the smallest most out of the way town, you buy anything, a soda, and you get a receipt. Can you imagine? People pay taxes here! They donít view the government as hopelessly corrupt! There are free clinics in mountain villages: a grape picker told me about getting an X-ray, and what an experience that was. The torturers are going to jail. Parents feel comfortable sending their children off to hitchhike around the country at age 16 or even younger Ė itís a rite of passage there. And generalized optimism makes everything seem better: people are easier to talk to, more trusting, the breeze is more pleasant, the sun brighter, the soccer team wins, etc. It just feels different, nicer; I donít really know how else to describe it.
Crossing the border was a return to what Iíve come to know as Latin American normalcy, where the prognosis you hear most often when the future is mentioned is some variation on, ďweíre totally fucked.Ē This is everywhere, not just Peru, and some of it must be chalked up to fatalism, but still . . . I saw a border guard being bribed. There was general confusion, which line to wait in for what. Little things, but they add up, and after being in Chile, which might as well be Switzerland compared to Peru, it was jarring. There was a fenced in lot of clothing confiscated at customs, and when I asked about it, my fellow passengers unleashed bitter accusations against corrupt officials who were surely going to steal the best clothes before sending the rest to the poor regions of the country. In Tacna, an illiterate woman asked me for help reading the schedule of buses to Lima. The newspaper I bought to read while I waited for my bus told of a pitched battle between armed gangs at a prison in Lima. It was shown on television: the battle had been fought between prisoners with guns and most shockingly, with grenades. As if to drive the point home, southern Peru was covered in clouds, when I could have sworn it had been sunny that morning in Arica, Chile.
I took the bus from Tacna to Mollendo, and sat next to a woman who was smuggling clothes from Chileís duty free zone. I would say 75% of the people on the bus were smuggling something. The system was simple: take a big bag of stuff (clothes, shoes, handbags, cds, cologne, razors, hats, small electronics, more clothes) and separate it into a dozen small bags. Ask everyone to help you pass something. Four or five people asked me for help: just put this in your bag, come on, man, no seas malito, pues . . . por favorcito
Then, at the SUNAT (tax man) checkpoints, the agents come on and pick a bag at random: who´s is this? And no one answers. It was so strange. Everyone looks guilty, (truth be told, most are), and the agent is holding a bag that I know belongs to the woman sitting next to me, but she is looking directly at the seat in front of her, as if afraid to move. The agent is like a middle school teacher asking who threw the spitball. The woman next to me has a case of 20 cds shoved down her pants, and is angry at me because I wouldnít hide a leaking bottle of cologne in my bag, and doesnít say a word as the SUNAT guy takes one of her bags and empties it into his truck where he will keep what he wants and throw away the rest. At least thatís what everyone assumes. Maybe he is only doing his job, maybe heís honest, but the corruption is such that no one trusts anyoneís intentions. It would be naive to. Then, the folks Iíve talked to here, well, letís just say this ainít Chile. Everyone has a story to tell, something shocking thatís happened since I was here last: a clinic in Arequipa robbed at gunpoint, a nurse taken hostage. Neighborhoods are now fenced in to keep out criminals. And even nature isnít cooperating: the rains havenít come and everyone fears a drought has begun. Iíve been looking everywhere since I arrived in Peru for hopeful signs. Iím sure Iíll find one soon. In the meantime, should I feel hopeful or despondent that a government office has a sign that reads, ďAll transactions here are without costĒ? Is this a way to combat corruption, or a frank admission of its pervasiveness?
Previous notes, from first to last:
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