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The Driest Place on Earth

by Jace Fri Feb 25th, 2011 at 02:30:27 PM EST

In the middle of the Atacama Desert in Chile stands the remains of Chacabuco. A one time mining town, Chacabuco was dusted off in 1973 to become one of a number of General Pinochet's prison camps. He picked a good place.


It's a rainy day here in the Empire State with the last of the crusty snow/road salt bergs finally washing away. The CMA-CGM Utrillo is well on her way to Tahiti by now. In her place is the Nord Leader. Japanese owned, flying a Panamanian flag and chartered to a Danish company, this ship is somewhat unusual in these parts. She's a dry bulker, capable of carrying about 50,000 tons of coal, grain, scrap or just about anything else not a liquid. That she's unloading her cargo at a container terminal may seem a bit odd but the terminal operators have to hustle for whatever freight they can find. They run one of the few remaining marine freight terminals left within the city itself. Its main advantaqe is that it has deep water. Its main disadvantage is that it's next to a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The port's days are seemingly numbered.

On Willow Street, about a kilometer or two away, stands what looks like just another brownstone. A remnant from the old port of New York in the now wealthy enclave of Brooklyn Heights, the Danish Seaman's Church is the only church with Sunday services in Danish in all of the Americas, North and South. I doubt there are any Danes working on the Nord Leader, but if there were, they'd surely take a much welcomed break from the sea and pay a visit.

Up to about 100 years ago, brownstone was a popular building material in the city. Like the once common slate sidewalks, it came from quarries that were within a few hundred kilometers of the city. At that time, there were quite a few materials mined or quarried in this region: coal, limestone, sand, salt and stone. Some mines still remain but they don't have much to do with the city anymore.

Like the infamous New York taxi driver with a carload of tourists, ships and railroads try to take you for as long a ride as possible. Railroads do it to cover their fixed costs, ships to take as long as they can to deliver a load. The more they carry, the further they want to go. The railroads that serve the anthracite mines in Pennsylvania or the big underground salt mines in upstate NY would rather send those loads to Chicago or better yet, the gulf coast than to NYC. Too bad they don't need much of either of that stuff in New Orleans.

The prison camp in Chacabuco was only used for about 18 months. In that time over 1,000 political prisoners were held in a land more like Mars than Earth. It is a place of stark beauty.

The desert is largely devoid of all forms of life, us included, but there are minerals. Caliche, its nitrates used in the production of both fertilizer and explosives, was mined heavily through the 1930's. Then the Germans came up with a method to make it synthetically. They had to. With mines named Victoria and Humberstone, it was clear who controlled the Chilean nitrates. After the war, most of the mines shut down. The remains of about 170 of them litter the desert along with other, more curious signs of man.

In 2006 the Germans finally arrived in Atacama but they weren't after the Caliche. That year, the K+S Group bought the Chilean company SPL. With a large open pit mine capable of producing 6,000,000 tons per year, K+S acquired a major salt supplier. Growth, as they proudly state, means extracting (more) raw materials.

Last month, from the nearby company owned dock in Caleta Patillos, the Nord Leader was loaded up with some thousands of tons of rock salt. Lots of highly valued shipdays and 7,500 kilometers later, here she is in NY. The pile of salt already unloaded onto the pier will soon be covered with tarps to protect it from the rain. It's still only February; more snow will likely come. When that happens, the tarps will be taken off so the loaders can start eating into this mountain of 'white gold'. The hundreds of trucks they load will then rumble out the terminal's gate, past the new cafes and coffee shops and start spreading this salt all over the city's streets.

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That ship's crew are true salty dogs.
by Jace on Fri Feb 25th, 2011 at 02:40:29 PM EST
This diary, salty dog or not, is damn good writing.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Ana´s Nin
by Crazy Horse on Fri Feb 25th, 2011 at 05:41:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
yup, nice one Jace.

pleasantly elliptical, leaves you curious

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Fri Feb 25th, 2011 at 07:28:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks. I'm just fascinated by what I find out when each of these ships comes in.
by Jace on Fri Feb 25th, 2011 at 10:31:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
If you've already done this, I apologize, but--what do you do that enables you to find out about these ships?

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Tue Mar 1st, 2011 at 03:04:14 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I just start with the ship's name and go from there. It's amazing what you find on-line!
by Jace on Tue Mar 1st, 2011 at 09:39:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Interesting. Thanks.

You can't be me, I'm taken
by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Feb 25th, 2011 at 03:10:39 PM EST
The dream of sailing away has haunted my life from my earliest memories. I finally did it.
I've never regretted it.
If you have any ideas or links to freighter travel that you could send my way, I'd sure appreciate it. My family is actively planning and saving for that freighter trip, but the biggest problem will be "the chair"-

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Tue Mar 1st, 2011 at 03:19:45 AM EST
Deserts are fascinating.. always everywhere... unless you live there forever.. in which case is just antoher environment.. I guess.

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Tue Mar 1st, 2011 at 04:44:23 AM EST


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