Tsunami Warnings and a Little History

With earthquakes, and our proximity to the beach, there is a possibility of tsunamis in Iquique. Hence, the warning signs on the streets. My hostel even has instructions (in English) for where to go, what to do, in the (unlikely) event of a tsunami. Never having been in a tsunami zone before, I felt compelled to share a picture. What’s the first rule on the hostel’s list? STAY CALM. (Yes, all in capital letters) Oh my, I think I’m glad I’m heading inland tomorrow! 😉 


The friend you see me with in the above picture is from my hostel (Cosette). We happened to be on different tours to the same place, and ran into each other. She saw me, and came over to say hello. We met in the hostel’s kitchen over quinoa (it’s proven to be a real conversation starter!). She’s from Concepcion (south of Santiago) and we managed to get along really well with Spanglish. 🙂 

That’s happened a few times since I’ve been in Iquique. The Chilenos (as usual) have been very friendly and welcoming, especially when they discover I can speak a little Spanish. It’s the first country I’ve traveled where I have not felt that being a US citizen was an automatic strike against me. Time and again, people have related positive experiences about the US, seem happy to meet me and are very patient in helping me with my Spanish. I was the only foreigner on this particular tour, so I got lots of practice listening and talking. Very fun. 

There is so much history in Chile. It’s embarrassing really that I knew nothing of Chilean history, but not unexpected. We are lucky if we know our own history in the US, never mind the rest of the world. Even more sadly, South America is last on that international list. David had impressed me with his knowledge of (and obvious pride in) Chilean history, so I felt compelled to do what I always do when I feel sufficiently uneducated about something. I bought a book. 😉

“The Chile Reader” has introduced me to the natural resources (copper, nitrate) which has made Chile economically successful. It has talked about the different governments, Paleolithic origins and the desolation of parts of Chile’s environment and its turn to tourism in recent years. Yesterday, I got to visit one of the nitrate processing facilities here in northern Chile. The nitrate found in this region was processed into a fertilizer in high demand globally from the 1860s through the 1920s.  The Humberto and Santa Laura facilities were active from the 1870s through the 1950s, closing down in 1961. 

This area began as part of both Peru and Bolivia, but Chile took control of the territory (and the natural resources) after the War of the Pacific – which  began in 1878 and lasted 5 years. I won’t say anything more on that right now – need to learn more. (And a great naval story in my next post!) I’m having so much fun learning new history. 🙂

Suffice it to say, the nitrate processing facilities were a boom to Chile’s economy at the end of the nineteenth, and into the twentieth century. Creation of synthetic fertilizers caused the industry to decline in the 1920s and 1930s, with these facilities shutting down completely by 1961.

Of course, the work was arduous, the hours long and conditions dangerous. And as with so many industries where the work existed far from any established town, the company created a “town”, which provided lodging, food, healthcare, etc. for the workers. This included the use of “chips” in place of actual money, which the workers used to buy things they needed. They would need to go to a cashier if they wanted to exchange their chips for money, whether to send money home, to go into town, or whatever. I kept expecting to hear a story of worker exploitation and harsh working conditions. But it never came. 

Instead, the story was wholly positive. My (sometimes English-speaking) tour guide talked about how the workers received lodging, education (for them and their children) for free, that healthcare was free. There was a market and a theater and a swimming pool (seriously – pictures below). He (and the exhibits) portrayed this story as one in which men (always, only men) could come to better themselves, to make money and to improve their living conditions in Chile. There was even a story of how former workers (and their families) would return to the company “town” once a year to celebrate their time there. It was a festival.

What they almost completely ignored was the fact that so many of these positive aspects occurred only with the renovation of the town in 1935 (when the industry was in decline and the plant had already been open for 60 years). Public schools (for both workers’ and managers’ children) were only available beginning in 1920 (with Chilean law mandating schools be present with a certain number of children). At one point, the town had more than 250 children. 

We learned nothing of the time before the 1935 renovation, except of the British managers who lived in separate (and much grander) lodgings, with a tennis court and nice furniture. Why? Why this focus on the good and the ignorance of the not/less good? And why this apparent national memory of a glorious past (or forgetting)? In many other respects, Chile seems so proud of its can-do attitude, its refusal to give up or quit in the face of so many natural and man-made disasters. Whether earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, drought, exploitation from foreign companies or challenging governments, Chile always seems to be overcoming something. Maybe this is a blip, maybe not. I don’t know. But I will keep asking the questions, and I am very grateful to Sharon and Joe (from GMU) who taught me to ask these questions automatically. It makes the experience much more interesting! 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s