That time I ended up gazing at a Chilean valley from the back of a pickup truck had begun earlier that day with a pessimistic political discussion with an artist. He asked me why I was in Chile and I explained that I was studying political and economic issues in Santiago, comparing them to Beijing, China. He chuckled and asked me what I had found. I assured him the Chilean politics were not as bad as he might think. That sustainable agriculture seemed a distinct possibility. That changes in the Constitution would lead to more freedom of expression. That the Internet can bring people together to solve problems in labor rights. That the energy cuts due to lack of resources is helping save the planet. He shook his head and asked me if I was drunk.
I hadn't been drinking. I woke up early, used all the hot water in our eight-person hostel room, lingered with my friends over breakfast, and walked to the bus station. This artist was the first inhabitant I met in Pisco Elqui, a town nestled in the Elqui Valley where the production of the grape brandy pisco takes place. We heard that even in the winter, the valley had exquisite views. No one informed us that what we thought was a nuisance in travel, two hours sitting in a small bus from La Serena to Pisco Elqui, was a cheap tour of natural wonders. We saw the sights we came to see before we had even arrived.
"I'm not drunk...yet," I clarified. "Where can I try pisco?"
The artist directed me up the hill and to the left to a distillery. I bought a copper bracelet from him in gratitude. Gathering my friends from watching a fire juggler and his circus troupe practicing in the plaza, we started the climb.
After turning the corner we encountered the same views as from the bus ride: evidence of Chile's agricultural economy. The shadows from low hanging clouds moved quickly over the swatches of vineyards, potato farms, and guava orchards. Patches of green and orange persevered despite the cold and windy winter. The mountain ahead had a snowy cap. The road we walked cut through a crumbly brown mountain dotted with cacti.
We waved our thumb at any passing car, hoping to speed up our journey so we could catch the bus back in time. A pickup truck with two men and a cactus slowed down. We shoved the cactus in a corner and hopped on, giggling at our success. They stopped in front of Los Niscos Distillery ten minutes later, wishing us well and scolding us for trampling their cactus. They were going to plant it and now they couldn't. But quickly they shrugged and slammed the truck door closed.
"Buy cherry liqueur instead of pisco," they recommended. "And good luck finding a way back."
After passing the entrance to the distillery, a teenager warned us of pisco's sting, inviting us to go to the rodeo with her and her father instead.
"What about cherry liqueur?" I asked. She dismissed the drink with a swish of her hand, beckoning us to follow her.
We stayed with the family all afternoon, meeting the teenager's grandmother after the rodeo at an artisanal market, where of course I ate my fill of the free homemade chocolate and warm bread offered. When night fell, the driver brought us blankets as we shivered on the journey back. They were not interested in our stories nor did they want to tell us theirs. They seemed surprised by how surprised we felt by their generosity, shaking their heads whenever we offered to repay them. Reciprocal relationships seem integral to any society--my perplexity prevented me from fully enjoying rest of the ride. Instead of analyzing, perhaps I should have had some of Pisco's pisco.