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To Coroico by Carl Cleves

"From the Valley of the Moon to Coroico
Through the mighty magic jungle
The Altiplano in the snow
The crack of dawn the truck will go."

(from "To Coroico", words and music by Carl Cleves)


Shanti and I did the classic hippy thing: we had a baby and moved back to the land. On the banks of Mumford's creek, a mountain stream tucked away in the eucalypt forests of northern New South Wales, Australia, Shanti and I struggled to make a home out of 500 acres of wild bush land. Tashi was born within a month of our arrival and for most of two and a half years we lived in a small caravan, cooking in the open, defending our food from marauding possums, through the rains, lightning storms and bushfires, the emergencies and the wonderful times. Our modest home was a paradise with an abundant wildlife: wallabies and possums in the forest, eels and platypus in the river, giant primeval goannas, bush turkeys, echidnas, dingoes and snakes, a universe of insects and birds of all colours and sizes. We laid out gardens and planted fruit trees, constructed fences and sheds, built a dam and cleared tracks through the forest. I cut hardwood trees on the ridge tops and dragged them down with an ancient Landrover to build a house. Tashi was my constant companion, bashing nails into timber off-cuts. "I Help Daddy" was his favourite book.


But it was a hard life and all was not well. Shanti and I did the classic hippy thing: once the house was completed we separated. I should have seen it coming but I didn't. Shanti moved first to Sydney, then to London. One day I was a farmer, the next day I had become a single parent of a three year old boy. I leased the farm, bade goodbye to friends, gathered our toys and instruments and left Australia to embark on a journey eastwards across the Pacific Ocean, alternating periods of working as a musician in bars and clubs in major cities with quiet times in villages in the Fiji islands, Polynesia, Easter Island, South America and Africa.


Tashi and I had been living for three months in the port of Valparaiso on the Chilean coast. Valparaiso is the birthplace of the poet Pablo Neruda, a fine city renowned for its excellent seafood, a historical port, in the past much coveted by pirates, but in the early months of 1980 it languished joylessly, almost sedate under the dictatorship of General Pinochet. A stone's throw away from Valparaiso lies its younger sister city, Vina del Mar, a tourist resort town that attracts wealthy Chileans, Uruguayans, Argentinians and Brazilians to its beaches and nightclubs. Vina del Mar is a town of restaurants, outdoor cafes, discos, hotels and boulevards, the accepted face of gaiety.


We were lodged in an old hotel in the red light district of Valparaiso. The hotel "Cecil" stood like an island of respectability amidst the many small haunts and brothels where bar girls awaited the arrival of ships manned with sailors from the USA, Singapore, Taiwan or Germany. There were few boarders beside us and the large hotel was almost empty. Maria and Olivia, the two venerable ladies who ran the establishment treated it as their family home and us as their welcome guests. We congregated in the spacious dining room which, with its high ceilings and wide wooden staircase leading to the upper floor, was so roomy that it absorbed the rumpus of the kids playing hide and seek, pirates and indians, the chatter from the kitchen, whirring of Maria's sewing machine and my guitar arpeggios, whilst managing to leave the hotel with an aura of calm.


During the late afternoons Tashi and I would explore the harbour in search of a delicious fish soup and to play in the neighbourhood park. Valparaiso comes to life after the siesta and many of the bar girls, single mothers themselves, would sit there on the park benches, minding their children, before the nighttime craziness of the district set in. We held company. They taught me Spanish and wanted to hear our story. I listened to theirs - tales of bad luck, unwanted pregnancies, poverty, drug addiction, abandonment - and they revealed their names. Madonna at night was Maria by day. Star on a bar stool became Juanita on the park bench. Lucky's real name was Angela and there was an unspoken - and unresolved - attraction between us. Like parents everywhere, we watched the children climb the trapeze and push the swings. For them the children were a source of sanity and focus in an uncertain world. My life too was uncertain. I too had a child. I was on a quest, but though I did not know what exactly I was looking for, I was enjoying being the daddy of this three-year-old growing bundle of boundless energy, bubbling with questions and loving cuddles. He gave a purpose to my life too.

At night the senoras of the hotel kept an eye on Tashi while I went to work with my guitar in the clubs of Vina del Mar. The season had been good to me. I had started my career in the town busking at midday on the main boulevard. A man had approached me and handed me his card saying, "Don't waste your time, come and see me in my club." Since then my daily schedule had grown to half a dozen regular cafes at lunchtime and half hour guest spots in as many clubs at night. Because of Chile's long siesta, dinner is served late and clubs often only open after midnight. My last gig of the night started at 3 am at the Amazonas Club where I sang in between striptease acts to cool down the house. The taste of the upper middle class is safe and bland. By popular demand I learned to sing "Country Roads" and did a rousing version of "Jambalaya" with the club band. "Blowing in the wind" was another Chilean favourite. This was in the country that recently had chopped off the hands of its beloved singer, Victor Jara, before executing him. His songs were banned. The 'secret' police, in Humphrey Bogart hats and private detective raincoats, followed the proceedings from a shady corner in the club. They were instantly recognisable. The girls wore golden tassels on each nipple and helicopter-ed them in opposite direction at your table. It was B-grade movie material. One night I watched Julio Iglesias on a television in the tiny dressing room while the strippers prepared for their next spot. Julio was doing a pope cameo, kissing the airport tarmac, and wiping a tear with a white handkerchief while being welcomed by a military man. Chile was a repressed country. Each night on the bus to and from the hotel, at a police-checkpoint between the two cities, my guitar case was searched for weapons. Each morning the police whitewashed the slogans that had been painted on factory walls overnight. I could hear the sirens of the dawn arrests as I drifted into sleep. It took three months before I made enough money to last a while and I decided it was time to travel north.

(To be continued)