Children are in the dustbins

The dinosaur park: where parents take their children to see the dinosaurs.
Pica, Región de Tarapaca, Chile, January 2022

Children are in the dustbins across the street from the café where I am drinking my coffee. The sun is warm, it’s summer, so the kids presumably don’t have school. I’m conscious of how easy it would be for my skin to burn, but the avenues are shaded by big old trees, trees whose roots have pushed up the pavements, crumpled the paths. I feel someone planned this city, planned streets wide enough for cars to park, planned broad pavements to place café chairs and heavy green dustbins. I like this corner, where I return to drink coffee most mornings and quite frequently indulge in a croissant. Today I planned to come, to sit here at the crossroads, drink my coffee and read. Yet I am distracted from my reading by the children in the dustbins.


I’m supposed to be reading Tim Park’s book The Novel, A Survival Skill. This is part of my chosen reading for my master’s degree. But it’s not my first book by Tim Parks, a long time ago I read Italian Neighbours, an account of his life in Verona. An account which probably mentioned dustbins. I can imagine Parks writing about waste disposal. I’ve never read his novels, but I’ve been delighted by The Novel, which isn’t about how to write a book, but why people write the books they do. And, it explains why I don’t get on with Borges.

Or that’s not fair. It’s not that I don’t get on with Borges, I feel a polite acquaintance with him and a lack of curiosity in his work, yet despite this, a vexation, a sense that I ought to see something which I can’t, that I ought to be impressed when I’m not, and that it ought to generate meaning for me, it doesn’t. I’m bemused as to why his oh-so-clever labyrinths are so adored.

Tim Parks talks about how writers, whether they intend it or not, write, and rewrite, what feel to them to be the essential conflicts of their lives, particularly those initial childhood family conflicts, which I think fundamentally comes down to self-identity. The same goes for readers. Readers read, reread and recommend those books which have touched on these inner conflicts. Hence, Tim Parks likes to read books with tense moral dilemmas because of his intensely religious and somewhat whacky family. Similarly, he writes novels where morality is played with, tossed around and torn apart. He’s trying to resolve his own unease about being good and being bad through the words he puts on the page.

As for me, your literary likes and dislikes are part of the wider pattern of your relationships, and not unconnected with the kind of family you have, the kind of life you lead.

The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks

I think a certain intellectual swaggering turns me off. What I want in a book is a glimpse into humanity, I want to see the human condition from a fresh perspective, but I want to see up close. I read from my heart, not my over-trained brain.

While I want to like clever books, at the end of the day, my favourites are those that made me cry, like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Carla Guelfenbein’s The Rest is Silence. Books which use language in a clever way, but do not swagger.


But I’m not reading, I’m too busy watching the children in the dustbins. They are scavenging for sheets of cardboard and plastic bottles. I am alarmed by this. One of them wears a baseball cap, the other has had his hair highlighted, maybe imitating some footballer? One wears pumps on his feet, the other plastic flip-flops. I imagine this boy’s feet, there in the bin, coming into contact with… No, I don’t want to think about it. Yet, despite my worries, these teenage boys look healthy. They’re nimble, lithe, coordinated and industrious.

When I later mention this to Latin American friends, they accept my astounded account without alarm. A kind of ‘so what?’. I can see their point. It is a fact that children climb into these dustbins – I later see adults doing the same – and this is part of life. I’m unsettled by the discomfort this brings. Even as a young child, I was aware that I was better off than my peers. Yet I also know that there is nothing I am going to do about it, unless we count my various conversations on the matter or this small piece of writing. To these boys, I too am irrelevant. Just another tourist.

Climate change. Recycling. Children in dustbins.

The boys toss the bottles from the bins, the bottles bounce and scatter across the pavement. Like children in a playground, the boys vault over the lip of the bin, out, back onto the street. One grabs a plastic bag and pops the bottles in, while his friend folds the cardboard flat. Beside them, on the road, beside the bins, is a docile pony and cart. The cardboard is laid in the cart and the bottles are put in a huge green bag tied on the back, the size of a small tent. Maybe there are hundreds of bottles already inside.

The younger generation cleaning up after the old.

My fear for these boys is joined by admiration.


Would Tim Parks be analysing the moral conundrum of this situation? If he were in this coffee shop with me, would he be criticizing this world for having children scavenging in dustbins. Would he be, like me, panicking about the health consequences? Would his thoughts be broken glass and disused needles? Would he notice that these boys are children, barely old enough for a paper-round? Might he shrug it off as just part of how things are here. Would he note that their skin is darker than most of the people who walk past, people who pay no attention to these children, as if children climbing in dustbins were normal? Would he link this to Spanish conquest, ancient caste systems, political dysfunction and the consequent immigration?

And would Parks, like a friend of mine, ask whether the children looked fed? Fundamental survival question. They looked fed, I explained, and showered, and their clothes looked like they’ve been washed. Would the contradiction sit as uneasily with him as it does with me? We might think of such boys as the victims of the system, but they hardly appear like victims. Would it reassure him that this is the school holiday and so maybe they do this for pocket money? Perhaps, when the new semester begins, they’ll be holding pens and writing.

I find myself thinking how if they study with the same attitude as they collect bottles, they’ll deserve to go to good universities.

For the novelist the text is absolutely integrated in his life and circumstances; what he writes comes out and rebounds back on his mental life, his private life, his professional life.

The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks

Am I admiring them for the display of self-sufficiency and independence? Inevitably, since I am reading Parks’ book, I find myself wondering at my own intrigue. Am I drawn to the situation because it reflects an internal conflict of my own? Do I admire them for their independence, self-sufficiency and hard work because these were values drilled into me as a child?

Is this why am I compelled to write about them?

The forest in the desert

Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

Cactuses, or cacti, grow in deserts, not trees

Or at least that’s what I thought. And thinking about cactuses, or cacti, I wondered whether even they would survive in the driest desert in the world. And whether, if they did, they would be green. The cactuses I’d seen in La Serena on the side of Cerro Grande facing the sea were green, thanks to the daily wrapping of mist, but the side facing the mountains were brown or grey, not at all like the green cartoon cactuses which decorate my llama mug, or my father’s knitted cactus which sits on the windowsill in the lounge.

Ariel Dorfman, in his book Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North, made the desert sound empty – a landscape of space dotted with abandoned nitrate towns. Sad towns whose existence was the result of fickle economic greed.

The desert is spacious, but it is hardly empty

Early one evening, when the sun had dropped low enough that his rays no longer scorched my skin, in that magic hour, before the chill of the desert night descended, I asked for a mini adventure, got into the car and, with a friend, drove into the desert. Off the main road, we passed paddocks of solar panels and I wondered if they were self-cleaning, or rather, if they were designed so that dirt wouldn’t cling to them. Dust coasts everything in the desert. It sweeps across the road, swirls, thickens and becomes mini sand tornadoes which waltz across the empty land, unaware that they’re the last at the party and everyone else has gone home.

Sometimes man’s power astounds me – fat, blue grapes grow in neat, tended rows at the side of the track, their roots bedded in imported soil, irrigated with water that’s pumped up like oil from the depths.

Grapes growing in the Atacama, Chile. January 2022.

Human magic defies the desert

Driving slowly, with me gripping my seatbelt as the car laboured forward, off the main road, we came to the abandoned village of Cumiñalla, the sort of settlement Dorfman had described – a single street of roofless houses, doorless doorways and crumbling walls which reminded me of those quiet corners of Pompei.

It’s difficult to tell how big this place ever was, as now it has crumbled into ruins akin to some ancient town, you could have told me that these ruins had been here hundreds of years, although I’m told people were still living her forty years ago. Akin to the living town of Pozo Almonte which had reminded me of images of the Wild West, barren Cumiñalla seems to have existed despite the odds, and as its cards changed, had disintegrated into dust.

Built in the desperation to harvest the rich nitrates from the abundant desert, Pozo Almonte had survived, probably because it sits on Ruta Cinco, the same tarmac road that I crossed many times in La Serena, which runs from the Peruvian border, down through the desert, straight through Santiago and continues all the way to Chiloe. Pozo Almonte offers a point of respite. Migrants cluster in the square where I’d drank a mango juice. Juice drunk, I slide back into the car seat and switch up the air conditioning. The migrants get to their feet and walk south.

People are astounding.

Tins, abandoned. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. Jaunary 2022.

The desert is rich in nitrate deposits

In his book, Dorfman describes how once upon a time, in 1910, Chile supplied 65% of the world’s nitrogen-based fertilizers, twenty years later, he states, only 10%. Neither the First World War nor the depression of the 30s helped demand, and competition outpaced production once some scientists in a German laboratory came up with a synthetic alternative. These tiny settlements were built for the nitrate industry, and without it, they all but disappeared.

Camera in hand, I set out to explore. You intuitively know that this is a place where to survive depends on preparation. For me, clambering through the ruins reminded me of exploring empty castles with my grandparents. It was an adventure. But out here, far from the coast and far from the mountains, surrounded by sand, you cannot rely on your phone to have signal. You don’t expect to stumble across water. Here, tinned food had been an essential and my exploration found scatterings of empty tins, to which the desert was entirely apathetic.

A wooden cart, Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And as if in a children’s novel, I stepped through a doorway and stumbled upon a forest

Cactuses, I’ve learnt, survive by piercing the morning fog, making it bleed onto the dry ground, drip into their thirsty, shallow roots. Even so, I hadn’t expected to encounter a forest in the Atacama. I’d felt similarly perplexed when I had been in San Pedro – surprised by the green. Trees, it seems, grow here because of the incredible depth of their roots. I’m told the water lays twenty or thirty metres below us. What I wonder is how the saplings survive. How does a tree grow to have twenty-metre-long roots without water? After all, here it never rains. But there were trees.

And amid the trees was a gate, which was unlocked especially for me. And, invited in, I wandered into the terrain of an abandoned house, skipping though swirls of dust, leaving my footprints in the sand. The breeze pulled on my skirt and tangled it between my legs. There had been a great fire, and the house here, built of parched wood, lit up in flames and was gone. The kitchen garden had been reclaimed by the desert, but the rabbit hutches and chicken coops remained, as did a wooden cart, which had once been used to deliver fruit and vegetables. It stood padlocked to a tree.

The blue teapot. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And lodged on a sideboard, an unwanted blue teapot

Abandoning a town when there is no work left is understandable as is abandoning a house when it burns down, or a city when it is no longer safe, but to abandon a teapot? This I could not understand.

And it was easier to ponder the existence of this teapot than imagine the horror faced by all those migrants walking through the world’s driest desert, unwilling to abandon the hope of a better life.

Slowing the pace

Humedal, La Serena, December 2021

For once, I don’t feel overstretched. By which I mean, I actually made the bed, I have food in the fridge, I’ve swept the kitchen floor, I’ve no deadlines haunting me, and I am reading almost every day. It’s like I’ve put down a huge rucksack which I’ve been carrying for months. I’m living in front of the Pacific Ocean; I can watch the sunset each evening from my balcony.

There’s a man, a small man with slim limbs, shorter in stature than me, with a dark wrinkled face which makes him look quite old, but perhaps it’s only the sun and he’s not as old as I imagine. He spends many hours each day working outdoors, his horse is never far away, and he sits on the sand dunes and watches over the river basin where his animals graze. I see him with a piece of straw in his mouth and if I’m alone he’ll look away from his animals for a moment and he’ll speak to me, comment on the weather or the beauty of the beach. He has few teeth and a strong accent. One day when I had to apologise that I didn’t understand he replied with genuine surprise, “How?”

It took him some time considering me before he asked if perhaps, I was not Chilean. I switched the sounds around in my mind and concluded that the animal he’d lost sight of was a goat. Although I’m not ruling out the possibility that his dialect has a word half-like the Spanish for ‘goat’ but which means some other animal entirely. I assured him that I hadn’t seen any animals the size of a goat, I’d come straight from the main road, and he looked disappointed.

When more people are around, walking along the path, heading to the beach, he doesn’t turn and pay them any attention and they seem not to see him either. He sits and he watches the animals, and he must do this for hours each day. It’s a wild space, areas of which are roped off to protect the nesting birds. He appears incredibly peaceful.

My peaceful contentment won’t last. Inevitably the world around me will spin back out of my control, it’s so full of exciting opportunities, things to develop, projects to undertake and obligations to attend to, it can hardly do anything else. I’m habitually addicted to our societies call for more.

But right now, there is peace.

Part of this is the light. The room where I work is painted a yellow shade of white and the almost-summer sunshine fills the room. It’s lit up like the inside of the fridge, but with such a clear, fresh light I am awakened in my core. Even mornings are no longer so difficult. The light fills my bedroom well before my alarm sounds and it’s such a warm, friendly, natural light that I can’t despise it.

My father has always said that I have a tendency to commit to too much, burn the candle at both ends and eventually burn out. This is my natural pull, the way I grew up working. It’s learnt from my father who does many, many things, burns the candle at both ends and then fizzles wildly. Luckily my mother’s around to balance things out, but in doing so, she too runs around wildly and exhausts herself. We’re a family of too much at once living in a society of more, more, more.

When I’ve got too much on, I think my brain works against me to slow me down. Like trying to drive with the handbrake on. The more I worry about all the things I should have done, the more my own body resists me. It hides that feeling of calm, cool-headed thought and instead swings between panicked adrenaline and dispiriting lethargy.

When I’ve got less on, when I’ve chosen to have less on, I’m calmer, my thoughts form with less agitation and getting stuff done doesn’t seem like such an ordeal. This is a preferable way to be. But it’s the result of many choices, it does not come effortlessly. To find it, I think you have to learn to value the man’s time, simply sitting there, watching his animals with the sun on his back. You have to learn to value the patience it takes to wait without wishing the time to pass faster. You have to be really clear about what it is you want.

Do you need a mechanic?

El Faro, La Serena, December 2021

Today, as I went hunting for a corner shop to get a packet of pasta and a bottle of orange juice, I found myself walking down a familiar street. A wide, tranquil dual carriageway with freshly trimmed palms, reluctant patches of frequently watered grass and persistently sandy walkways. Two workmen were busy grinding the paintwork off the grey metal fence which surrounds one of the condominiums so that they could paint it a cheery yellow, but otherwise the street was pretty much empty. One of those cars with a large speaker attached on the roof, held down with heavy-duty ropes passed by, calling out to the seagulls, blaring out an advert for a garage where mechanics can tend to your needs any day of the week, located where Cuatro Esquinas meets Ruta 5.

  There are many things which are surprising about this observation, although from the perspective of the street, nothing special happened. The first observation is that I was there, in La Serena, at the edge of the desert, a quarter of the way around the world from home. It feels like yesterday that I left, and yet it’s been eighteen months. To say I am elated is an understatement. Being here is my teenage rebellion, although I stopped being a teenage over a decade ago. It’s something I selfishly want, for me, without rationalised explanation, probably to prove something to myself. The second observation, and the one which I had never expected, was that I understood the advert.

When I was first in La Serena, doing anything was difficult. My Spanish was a complete mess, childlike and limited to a narrow vocabulary which I’d studiously learned with a heap of flashcards. I was learning the language fast, out of necessity, but you cannot learn a language overnight, it takes time and effort and a lot of discomfort. My lack of fluency meant that even simple transactions led to a shot of adrenaline. After going to the bank – which I always find stressful in Spanish – I would treat myself to a slice of cake in the café opposite. I learnt a hell of a lot of Spanish in those months I spend in La Serena, words like toque de queda (curfew) and cuarentena (quarantine) and a lot of Chilean words (wea, bacán, cuático) which I don’t know how to translate appropriately. Yet it remained a fight.

Within weeks of returning to England at the beginning of the pandemic, my pronunciation had nosedived, and my recall of words felt sluggish. Occasionally, I took out my grammar book and studied for a little while, but I had other things on my mind. I did continue speaking in Spanish, using it to talk to friends and occasionally, when appropriate, with students. But I have no explanation as to why when I returned to Santiago and I spoke Spanish in an imperfect yet easy-going manner, without exhausting myself. I’m not sure entirely how it happened. The language perhaps had settled into a part of my mind where it could be chewed, processed and consolidated into something which, then regurgitated, came out as my own voice.

And although the seagulls didn’t understand the advert, I, for the first time, did.

At the end of the world

The biggest market I’ve ever seen.
Santiago, November 2021.

Chile, my dear Chile. Fancy seeing you again. I’d forgotten, for a moment, how arid your hills are.

It took me a little while to get over here. In Madrid, in that never-ending hall, the one that rolls out to infinity with gates enough for the entire world to visit, I helped a guy who was trying to go to Mexico find his flight. He was confused because the letters and numbers were repeating themselves, the terminal, the subterminal, the gate, the same icons on a loop, like knowing a place by its GPS coordinates but not its name. I was confused because my gate number changed as I was leaping between moving walkways. I was confused because I was tired, and I had a headache and I was clutching a thousand forms: vaccine passes, pcr test results, declarations of the absence of symptoms, the location in which I would stay, all those numbers and words used to identify which country, gender and age group I belong, boarding passes, taxi reservations, evidence that someone will pay if I get sick. But I heard someone say, “Cachai” as we waited at the gate, and suddenly the number of documents seemed irrelevant. Do you get what I’m saying? A blink and I was in Madrid, another blink, gone again. But the Chilean words stuck around, with a reassuring presence.

We came backwards through Santiago airport, coming in through what must be newly built gates, walking through doors designed for the flow to be in the other direction, passing ‘no entry’ signs. I wandered through this labyrinth, following the guy in front. Chileans can queue. Without thinking (and therefore without worrying), I allowed myself to be herded through. I wondered how the Chileans were going to test us all and process all our documents and I imagined that I might be awhile in the airport, but they attacked the problem with many hands, applying parallel processing: countless people siting at countless desks collecting the countless documents in a building constructed like a maze. Fodder for Borges, I thought.

I was given a sticker to identify me as in isolation and sent down the escalator for my pcr test. I keyed my passport number into the machine and then moved into the next queue for testing. My first test, in Berlin, had been a gentle affair and I had wondered afterwards why people made such fuss about it. In England, my pcr test had been less comfortable but in hindsight not so bad. In Chile, I was reminded of those hooks which the ancient Egyptians used to remove a dead person’s brain through their nostrils.

I went up another escalator and followed people through another corridor. We’d made it to arrivals, and I recognized the room where we waited in our lines to pass through immigration. Slow lines, because the open desks could be counted on one hand, discarding the thumb and most of the fingers, and the staff kept wandering off to do other things. I didn’t feel rushed. I’d seen the sunshine through the floor to ceiling airport windows. Peace had settled upon me. In line, I helped a Spaniard connect to the free airport wifi so that he could call his children and tell them he’d arrived. He offered me chewing gum. The lady at the immigration counter stamped my passport with the pretty multicoloured Chilean stamp, and I was in.

Wheeling my jenga tower of suitcases out through the building, I found a bottled water dispenser, inserted my pesos and the machine refused to dispense the water. I tried another machine: it didn’t work either. I wasn’t the only one wanting water, and I shared consolations with a stranger – at least the machine refunded our pesos. We met up again a few minutes later, buying water from a little shop. A woman served me, handing me a bottle of water which was cheaper than those sold in the machine. Perhaps the gods were helping out.

Thankfully, I knew what I was doing because I had clear instructions from Chilean friends. I found my driver, a professional chap who squirted my hands with sanitizer and did all that moving my luggage around, and he drove me to a friend’s flat. The receptionist appeared and these two men transferred my three suitcases into a shopping trolley. I just stood there, while all this happened, with an expression halfway between a sunshine smile and goldfish thinking. I was led into a lift, and left there with the trolley, the receptionist pressed the button, sent me up and phoned my friend to notify her of the guest on her doorstep.

I had arrived.

Life is the result of living

Piggies, Italy, October 2021

When I was a teenager, when we were told to begin thinking about our careers, when some large chap with a grinning face mistook his job in careers advice for that of a motivational coach and mistook me for someone without an imagination, when all that happened and the computer spewed out that my ambition in life should be to teach design and technology, I already knew what I liked: I liked sunshine, books and people who were nice to me.

The careers advisor, I believe, saw the design and technology teacher suggestion as a bit of a disappointment; he was on a mission to make me aim higher. The process involved typing personality traits into the computer, hitting enter and then receiving a list dictating what one should want to be… Personally, I think the computer was doing the best it could within the limited selection of jobs available within its database. The algorithm lacked imagination, but that wasn’t its fault. The careers advisor also lacked imagination. He wanted something more exciting for the centre piece of his motivational coach routine, so, because I seemed good at studying, he thought I ought to become an academic.

I have never responded well to a pep talk. I would make a bad academic.


And as I write this, the pandemic is coming to its close. I still keep a mask in my handbag, but as long as I give my cents directly to the waiter or waitress in the café where I have my breakfast, I normally don’t need to use it. It’s sunny here in the south of Italy, where I have escaped, like a bird, free from the cage, landing on a familiar branch to reorientate itself in the world again. Today I have immersed myself in books, seated in the sunshine. I’ve scribbled in my diary whilst drinking a cappuccino. Today’s waiter, a cheerful lad with the lowest voice I have ever heard, guessed my order, knowing me to be mightily predictable, and I replied in first Spanish and then Italian, which is one language fewer than the other day. His trousers were rather short, apparently showing off one’s ankles is the fashion for Italian young men. Ankle socks no more.

“Having a nice holiday?”

No, because I am not on holiday. This is my life. It’s an uncluttered life, one where I live out of a suitcase. It’s easily mistaken for a holiday as many people have holidays with characteristics similar to my life, holidays that involve sunshine and ice cream and smiling at the sheer wonder of existence, but I’ve no tour guide leading me around and I cook more often than I eat out. I might be found staring at the ceiling of the basilica, but I’m also found buying toilet rolls in the supermarket. I have classes to teach this afternoon.

And all this that I have is something that with his good-natured expression and his insistence that I aim higher, the career’s advisor couldn’t conceive. The computer couldn’t get it either, although it recognised that I’m inclined to teach. Both created a gap, work, and then endeavoured to correctly fill it. Yet, as a curious and social human being I’m possessed of an inner determination to give to my community and to partake in it. Work gives life meaning but being told what to do tends to take that meaning away.

I’m teaching the locals to count in English with use of the game ‘piggies’. People who were at my sibling’s wedding reception will know exactly what I mean. How I ended up filling up my piggies score sheets with Italian pensioners…. I am not quite sure. They have never tossed pigs whilst drinking their morning espressini before and are delighted.

Show don’t tell – simple writerly advice. The things that are really worthwhile never require pep talks.


The pandemic has, in many ways, been good for me. The antagonist forces the protagonist to grow. A friend recently said that my stubbornness ought to be studied. I feel like this time, this fight, I have fought with dignity and finesse. I have been patient, incredibly patient, and yet I have kept a narrow focus on what is important to me. There has been relatively little tantrum throwing, few toys shoved out the pram, and I’ve only occasionally stamped my foot. Any doubts I had about what I wanted to do with my life have been eroded away. My plans, while always moving, have had a long-term focus.

The fact that my life doesn’t exist in an algorithm, or in the imagination of any careers advisor, doesn’t really matter. Life isn’t about doing what you’re told to do. It’s not about jumping through societies golden hoops (or iron hoops for some). Life is the result of living.