The town is called Calama, but they may as well have named it Calamity. Or at least that’s the impression inhabitants have given in the short time I’ve been here.
In less than a week in this dusty mining town in northern Chile, I’ve been warned to be careful about packs of street dogs that behave more like wolves on the attack; tricky gypsy women out to relieve the unsuspecting of cash and credit; roving band of drug-addicted robbers looking violently take possession of other people’s valuables; of contaminated tap water with high levels of stuff that can kill you; on and on. Who would think a decision to come to Calama to teach English would be potentially hazardous to my health? Well, living life is a big hazard in of itself, isn’t it? I’ll just continue to hope my Guardian Angels have not abandoned me, thinking “kid, no way we are spending a minute in this Podunk town!” 🙂
For those of you who aren’t keeping up – and God only knows why you are not! – Calama kind of just happened. I was in Peru on my way to Bolivia. I had La Paz on my mind, its mountains, the salt flats of Uyuni, and the landscape and people I had heard so much about. Ready for Bolivia I was. Then the good people at the International Center contacted me to ask if I would be interested in joining their team of English teachers for at least the next six months. My task would be to teach English to executives at one of the local copper mines. After some thought, and with South America in the throes of winter, I accepted the offer. The idea is to wait out winter here and continue travel in nicer summer weather.
A word about the region’s copper mines: Chile is the world’s largest copper producer and boasts the world’s largest copper mine. The mines are in the northern part of the country and Calama is a town that sprung from that mining production. The mines date back to pre-Inca times. In other words, the indigenous people that lived in the region pulled copper from the area long before the Incas and the Spaniards came to the area. The mines were the source of wars between Chile, Peru and Bolivia with archrival Argentina threatening to also attack Chile. Argentina has a longstanding beef with Chile over some southern islands. Not to mention their rivalry over futbol 🙂 Chile managed to kick serious butt and in the process took land from Peru and Bolivia. To the victor go the spoil, right?
In that so-called War of the Pacific, Chile kept several cities and towns from Bolivia and Peru. One of those towns it took from Bolivia was Calama. The Chileans had marched all the way to Peru’s capital, Lima, and contend they could have kept even more territory. The Peruvians and Bolivians still hold a grudge with Chile over the lost territories, especially Bolivia which lost its access to the Pacific Ocean. Chile maintains a very strong army just in case its neighbors try anything foolish. Most military experts note that Chile would handily beat back any aggression. They are probably right. Chile maintains a military contingency in the north and I saw them marching through the streets and they looked like a fierce force.
Anyway, there’s no soft way to put it: Calama is an ugly city. Some say it’s not even a city, that it’s an encampment of miners and mining-related industries. A Chilean colleague at the International Center told me that I picked the ugliest city in Chile to visit first. She said the reason the city is so ugly is because it grew out of a collection of substandard houses and buildings to house and provide services to the miners. Nobody was thinking aesthetics.
One of the first questions I’m asked by residents of Calama is what I think of their city. That question is usually followed with a statement from them that it’s okay to say it’s ugly because it is. Clearly some of them don’t think much of the place. I for one think I can survive here six months. I don’t mind that the place is ugly. I care more about the people and how they treat me, and so far, people have been very friendly.
Now, if only those rabid dogs, those street thugs, those tricky-dickey gypsies and the carcinogenic water would leave me be. 🙂