Postcard: Peru/Chile Border

Posted by on September 11th, 2012

It’s dry here. Drier than almost any other place on earth. You would have to go to some of the alien landscapes in the interior of Antarctica to find a place with less rainfall. On the bus ride from Arequipa to Tacna — a Peruvian outpost on the border with Chile — I couldn’t help but think the closest thing I had ever seen to the Atacama Desert were the photos sent back from Mars rovers. Sometimes the bus would travel for an hour without passing a single blade of grass or scrubby bush. The hills and mountains looked like barren and unmovable sand dunes of shale. Where we encountered life, it clung tightly to the sides of small rivers; desperate for water and shade.

In Tacna, like all Peruvian towns, there is a church and a plaza with the obligatory statues and fountains. The city isn’t known for its food, culture, architecture, or really anything other than its proximity to Chile. Tacna is sometimes called Peru’s most patriotic city because in 1929 it rejoined Peru after nearly half a century as a Chilean city following the War of the Pacific in 1883. More than 140 years have passed since that war ended, but while traveling near the border I sometimes got the feeling that the scars were still fresh.

Even this year, the tensions between the countries claimed a life and damaged infrastructure. It wasn’t exactly what you would call “open war” but when a big rainstorm caused a landslide, it washed anti-tank mines down toward the main road and train tracks that cross the border. Most of the mines were cleared away but one unfortunate taxi driver who strayed from the asphalt ran over an explosive and lost his life.

It isn’t just aging explosives that remind you of the tensions between the two countries. As you approach the border with Chile, the monuments to the war and to Peru’s heroes become more numerous. Peru — and it’s ally Bolivia — were defeated by Chile and lost considerable territory rich in nitrate reserves used for making gun powder (And by nitrate reserves I mean bird poop; yes, people really died fighting over poop). Without victories to celebrate or treaties to memorialize, most of the statues and street names are in honor of the glorious dead like Peru’s national hero Miguel Grau Seminario.

Grau captained a swift ironclad ship in swashbuckling raids against the Chilean navy and earned the nickname “Knight of the Sea” for being an old fashioned gentleman even at war. When he sunk a Chilean ship he would rescue the crew; and when a Chilean officer died trying to board his ship, he sent the widow a letter of condolence along with the officer’s personal effects.

Eventually, Grau was blown to bits by an armor-piercing shell and most of his body was never recovered. Even though he didn’t win the war for Peru, he is often credited with single-handedly holding off the Chilean land invasion for six full months and keeping their fleet occupied, protecting the otherwise helpless Peruvian navy. To this day, Grau’s seat is preserved in congress and he was named the Peruvian of the Millennium in 2000.

That devotion to (some would call it unwillingness to let go of) the past is sometimes manifested on the streets of Peru in a strong anti-Chilean sentiment. Of course not all Peruvian’s are anti-Chilean and not everyone holds onto the scars of war but many of the people I talked to in Peru about Chileans had a negative view of them — some held this view in the extreme.

On one of my last nights in Cusco, I was photographing a fountain in one of the city squares. From across the square I saw a man lock eyes with me and then begin walking towards me as fast as his inebriated legs would carry him. I braced myself for what I thought would be a verbal tirade about gringos. But what I got had nothing to do with gringos and everything to do with Chileans. The man politely told me that he would like me to forget all about Chile, that the Chileans were jealous of Peru, and that all Chileans’ mothers were women of ill-repute (okay, it wasn’t that polite).

Peruvians will tell you that Chileans are rude, jealous, can’t speak Spanish and are stuck up. Peruvian newspapers frequently run headlines about an “invasion” in which rich Chileans are buying up all the business in Peru. This last one I found fascinating because as soon as you cross the border into Chile, people start talking about how the Peruvians are coming into the country and taking all the jobs by working for low wages. They complain that the Peruvians live five families to one home, that they don’t assimilate into Chilean culture, and that they are sometimes criminals. On the other hand, they like Peruvian food which made this whole thing seem like some kind of strange parallel to Mexican immigrants in the States.

The Peruvian accusation that Chileans can’t speak Spanish is one I’m trying really hard not to agree with. But the fact is, the Chilean accent is brutally difficult to understand and I feel like I have had at least one migraine a day since I arrived here. Their inclination to put the emphasis on the first vowel in a word rather than the consonant turns phrases like “buenos dias” into “uenos ias” or numbers like “dos” into “oths.”

The economic differences between the two countries are also significant. While Peru hovers on the cusp of becoming a developed country, Chile clearly is. In my first few days in the country I saw places where you could drop someone and easily convince them they were in California.

The first city we visited in Chile was a beach town called Arica. A former Peruvian town that wasn’t returned after the war. Here, you see the same memorials to long-dead heroes, but they bear the names of Chilean men instead. A large rocky outcropping dominates the city skyline. It was here that Chilean soldiers set up their artillery and pounded Arica into submission. On the top of this hill you can still see the cannons and trenches that Chile used to route Peru’s forces.

On top of the hill there is also a war museum and a large Chilean flag flying above yet more antique armaments pointed over the harbor. Further up there is a statue of Christ looking away from the city and over the sea. In the statue’s pedestal there is a small chapel whose front wall bears both the Chilean and Peruvian coat of arms. Below these symbols is a quote from Christ: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

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