Chilean Chronicles, Part 99: On Alejandro Arellano, San Pedro de Atacama and Freedom

Alejandro Arellano guided us around many sights like this.  Photo by Dunreith Kelly Lowenstein

Alejandro Arellano guided us around many sights like this in and around San Pedro de Atacama. Photo by Dunreith Kelly Lowenstein

There are many types of freedom.

Freedom of speech.

Freedom of assembly.

Freedom of movement.

And, for me, one of the most basic types is the freedom to live life as you see fit, based on passion, responding to each moment, secure in yourself, and able at different moments to laugh and love and sing and learn and share.

Alejandro Arellano is one such free man.

Dunreith Aidan and I met him in San Pedro de Atacama, the desert in Northern Chile that stretches hundreds of miles and is the world’s driest.

Alejandro was our guide during two of our three days we participated in tours with Cosmo Andino, one of the many companies that operate in the town whose population has exploded about fivefold in the past decade.

With him we covered varied terrain-we went to the rocky Valley of the Moon and saw the sun set over Death Valley, traveled the next day to salt flats and lagoons, and saw a traditional village to boot-and even more varied conversation topics.

Alejandro’s sturdy, with strong arms and a bit of a stomach. He’s got indigenous, Chilean and Irish blood-the latter is reflected, he said, in his reddish that is just beginning to be flecked with grey. (It adds to the package for the women, he told me, leaning in as if he was sharing a secret.) He speaks Spanish fluently, English more than comfortably and apparently can handle himself in Swedish due to having lived there for several months.

Sitting to the right of the driver in the front seat of the 18-person bus, he leaned forward to point out and give explanations for what we are seeing, like how there are three different types of flamingos in the area and why the old ones are the only ones that are visible.

During the course of the two days, in cheerful, upbeat tones he told us at different points about the surname he shares with Sergei Arellano, a high-ranking, “half-sociopathic” Pinochet general, and the gods and demigods and sacred beings of the Atacamian people.

He told us about the optic colors and how the astronomy sites in Chile are helping us understand about the other galaxies that exist and the 29 dimensions that exist, rather than just the 4 that we know about.

He mentioned several 10- and 20-day hikes he had taken recently, describing with relish squeezing cacti to extract every last ounce of fluid.

He also shared about how he came to San Pedro a dozen years ago from the Elqui Valley. The musicologist soon realized that the Kunza masters were aging and their music was in danger of being extinguished if no one recorded it.

During the past decade, he’s sought them out and employed the traditional knowledge he had learned from his grandmother, a shaman, to earn their trust. He’s recorded and documented their art, played the instruments, and taught young people how to play them, too.

Alejandro recently finished a major publication that documents and summarizes what he’s learned.

He’s done it all for free, using the money he’s earned from guiding to support this passion.

Alejandro does a lot more than talk and record his own and others’ music.

He insisted on helping the women descend from the bus-“My mother taught me to be a caballero,” he explained-and, when Dunreith struggled with the altitude, he waved me aside and told me to take his seat in the front of the bus.

“Don’t be jealous,” he said with a smile before applying pressure to her temples.

It helped relieve her pain.

The guiding schedule is determined daily, so Alejandro often doesn’t know what he’ll be doing the next day until the evening before.

But that doesn’t bother him. At all.

He offered us a ride back to our hotel, which was near his home and about six kilometers outside of town.

We walked behind him on the dusty main street.

Alejandro didn’t just walk, though.
He strode drown the middle, greeting and shaking hands with those people he knew along the way, sauntering with a swagger that was not aggressive, but based in a firm conviction that he belonged.

We arrived at his car, a dark 1992 Chevrolet jeep that was caked in dust.

Before the three of us got in, Alejandro moved the extra tomatoes, bread, water and other supplies from the back seats to what my brothers and I used to call the way back.

The seats weren’t real comfortable, but the car got us to where we needed to be.

We stopped at a grocery store around the corner from the truck.

Alejandro ran in and surfaced a minute later, toting a many-gallon jug over his right shoulder like a trophy.

I don’t have water at home, he told us. There were a lot of people, but they let me pay tomorrow.

I’m a regular customer, he said.

He told us later that he didn’t want to wait in because he knew Dunreith still wasn’t feeling well.

We drove to the cabana where we were staying.

Along the way, Alejandro tarted talking about the interrelationship between indigenous cultures and music, how the Incans read music in spirals, and how you can hear the contributions each group made when you listen closely.

He believes that textiles reveals the same web of relationships, but they’re a mystery that no one understands yet.

We arrived at our cabin and dismounted from the jeep.

I enjoyed the conversation, Alejandro told me.

So did I, I answered.

I tried to give him some money for the ride, but he wouldn’t take it.

I do this for amistad, he said.

For friendship.

We exchanged a man hug, and then Alejandro Arellano rumbled off down the road and into the distance, 12 years into his time in San Pedro, new adventures ahead, free as anyone I’ve ever known.

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