When my uncle landed in Santiago, Chile in 1973 he was filled with the optimism of a young man on his first international adventure. Twenty years old, over-packed and under-supervised, he stepped off the plane with his whole life on his shoulders and breathed in the excitement he was sure this sparklingly exotic city would bring.
My uncle reveled in his new-found freedom. The academic success and favourite child of his family back in Perth, it must have been liberating for him to not have to worry about keeping up appearances – or grades. For the first time he could be himself and do as he pleased. He drank-in the city and its inhabitants. He stayed out late and got up early, only pausing to sleep in the late afternoon heat. He attempted local delicacies and cooking techniques, an attempt that was to spark a life-long love affair with cooking and, in particular, cooking meat, making it an eventual disappointment to him that his only niece chose to be a vegetarian. He tasted his first glass of Carmenère, an act which sparked another life-long love affair with wine and luckily bridged the gap of his niece’s culinary choices.
Santiago was good to my uncle. It welcomed him as both a comparatively rich westerner and as a shy young man attempting to construct an identity for himself away from his high grades and adoring mother. The old men who invited him to drink a late-morning coffee, the local girls who flirted with him – a first, no doubt for this bookworm – and the other backpackers who happily included him and invited him to the pub with no expectation for him to drink, and no judgment when he chose not to. I imagine my uncle at twenty, excited to have friends and to have attracted the interest of women for the first time. It fills me with a desperately sad sense of joy.
My uncle – still training to be the engineering academic with a penchant for deliciously difficult examination questions he would one day become – had a profound love of both trains and ancient architecture, meaning South America intrigued him from a very young age, and should have held him close. Although a situation of political unrest prevented him from visiting the magnificent train graveyard in Bolivia, he found himself in the now-enviable position of being able to trek to Machu Picchu on his own; sans both guide and complaining tour group.
His delight to see this mystical city in the clouds prompted him to leave Santiago rather early and to fly and then bus to Cusco, Peru from where he would begin his three day trek across lush valleys punctured with ruins.
My uncle is by no means a foolish person, but I do imagine him at that age to be slightly naïve and I imagine his excitement to soon see the ancient city would cloud his judgment, making him an obvious target for thieves. He ambled through the streets of Cusco looking for the same joy he found in Santiago, not realising that Cusco – more magnet for tourists and schemesters than Peruvian city – was not the happy, fun-loving place he had come to expect from the continent after experiencing only one of its nations. Standing in the city square he noticed the magnificent bank building. Built in the Spanish style, it still stands today; jutting out onto the pavement, allowing year-round shelter to the city’s homeless contingent. As he raised his camera to eye level a young local boy came running past and grabbed it from out his hands, dragging my uncle by the neck until the leather strap broke. My uncle called out, but the boy kept running, the onlookers seeming to not care to help. My uncle ran after the boy, yelling at him and the passersby, both angry and pleading, desperate to retrieve his memories of his time in Santiago. The boy continued running down a side street: my uncle made to follow him and then stopped. He took in his surroundings. He realised he was no longer in a well-populated part of town and the people in the alleyway stared at him with hostility. It was too dangerous to follow now.
With his photographs and memories of Santiago now lost to him forever, my uncle had no choice but to admit defeat, to turn away and return to his hotel room filled with both a crushing despair at having lost that which it had taken him so long to gain and a crushing sense of guilt that the loss had somehow been his fault.
My uncle has never returned to South America and today he remains hostile in his memories of the place. Having managed to find another camera – one which I’ve no doubt he paid through the nose for – he was still able to capture his trip to Machu Picchu. But his loss of the positive memories from the start of his trip meant that he somehow began to measure his vacation from the theft of the camera, rather than from the landing in Santiago. At the slightest mention of South America he recites to me the story of the theft, and clamps up when I try to push for more information of the continent beyond its capacity for crime. His overwhelming memories of the place now seem to be rooted in the violence he both experienced and saw, and the overwhelming levels of poverty and inequality which he witnessed.
As I look through his photo album, I am struck by how melancholy his pictures appear – a characteristic which has nothing to do with their monochromic nature.
‘This is an alpaca roaming the farming land a day’s walk from Machu Picchu,’ he tells me. I stare at that alpaca, solitary and cold on a misty mountain, tied to a stake in the earth, staring off into the horizon, and it makes me want to cry.