Sin Palabras: Speechless in the Chilean Desert

Sin Palabras: Speechless in the Chilean Desert

Photo by Jens Johnsson

Camping in the Atacama Desert with a group of Chilean hippies was always going to present something of a communication challenge. With my bare-bones Spanish, I had needed help just to translate the invitation. It offered a position volunteering at a weekend gathering of ceremony and traditional medicine called Vive Piuke Mapu, 150 kilometres north of the city of La Serena.

At the bus terminal, I was found by Paula, a wonderful woman in a floral-and-silk-banded cowboy hat. Despite barely speaking a word of English, she would end up looking after me all weekend, and by the end, I was calling her tia (auntie). But before all that, she bundled me into the back of a waiting lorry with a few others to take the final leg of our journey in complete darkness.

After a bumpy two-hour ride, the doors finally opened and we emerged squinting into a shrubby desert plain. Small, conical shells were scattered in the sand, vestiges of the ocean that had receded a few kilometres west who-knew-how-long ago. To the east, the foothills of the Andes were perennially shrouded in low cloud. The organiser of the gathering, Felipe, was waiting for us and, with a warm hug, greeted me in stuttering English: “Welcome to my home.”

He had built a few ramshackle structures there with his father over the years. It was in one of these that the bulk of the weekend’s activities were to occur. Yoga, talks on biodiversity and ecosystems, workshops on ceramics and wool-spinning. All your hippie staples. Even a lecture on the sexuality of plants.

All this might have gone over my head in English. In Spanish, it seemed a lost cause. From the first afternoon, it was clear this was going to be a weekend language learning intensive. A short conversation in broken English once or twice a day was to be the only exception to an otherwise full schedule of focussed listening for the recognisable snatches that might give me a clue to what was being said. Nobody likes to look stupid, and when I got tired of asking people to repeat themselves I would lapse into restfully ignorant silence. And at times, I must confess, I would nod along, uttering si and claro, just to keep a conversation moving, even though things were definitely no claro.


In the absence of complex conversation, I fell into a routine of work. There was much that needed to be done around the site: chores and errands that required little verbal instructions to complete. Preparing meals, cleaning and washing up were all ways of interacting that built goodwill despite the language gap.

And there was another language that was spoken there, as well. One that I understood instinctively: the language of ritual. From that first afternoon, in which we commenced the gathering by consecrating a sacred fire with a declaration of our intentions, the weekend was full of rituals. Ceremonies conducted from dawn til midnight around shrines carefully adorned with shells, feathers, little artefacts and precious stones, and offerings of fruit and water. To participate in such things, you did not need to know much. It was enough to hear words like amor and tierra. The rest could be understood through gesture, symbol, and the feelings of reverence and connection that were created.

At times, it was enough merely to see the looks on people’s faces. All sat in rapt attention as Señora Maria spoke of her indigenous Mapuche heritage, the struggles her people faced in Chile, and the spiritual quest which had taken her all over the world, learning from masters in South America, Europe and India. In thanking her, Felipe became lost for words, and could only make a sign of prayer from his heart to hers. Others broke down in tears, gripped the Señora’s hands, and received blessings in return.

They were not the only tears I witnessed. At a Men’s Circle held in the dead of night, at a lone fire in the sand far outside the campsite, the business of the Sacred Masculine was discussed. One by one and, at times, with trembling voices, the men reflected on the most intimate aspects of their lives, examining past traumas, parental relationships and sexual attitudes. You did not need to understand the specifics of each story to comprehend the profound significance of what we men were doing.

At all of these ceremonies the message was the same and understandable with even the most basic of language capacity: honour the ancestors, safeguard the earth, open your heart to love. In some ways, I think, more words would have only obscured things. Things that are meant to be felt, not analysed into abstraction. What does a definition of love compare to an embrace?

It was something I was always being reminded of through countless hugs and kisses. A community was created not by words, but by music and laughter. So much laughter. It was enough to sit around the campfire at night and let it wash over me, understanding nothing of the Chileans’ rapid-fire joking – save the moments when they all paused and grinned at me, and I knew the joke was directed at the hapless Australian listening to the guitar and smiling into the fire. Understanding nothing, yet missing nothing either, for all was contained in their beaming faces.

Because you don’t need to understand the words to sing along to a song – which is probably why hippies love to sing so much. Its universal power can bring anyone together into one family, and having sung, danced and prayed my way through a beautiful weekend, I found just that in Chile.

What’s that? No, it’s not a tear. Just the smoke from the fire in my eyes, I swear.

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