Click. Flash. I was momentarily blinded as the stranger clicked the shutter. I don’t remember the expression I made—did I smile? I must have tried … Was it a look of shock? Or was it anger? Regardless, the Man from Iquique (the only name I knew him by at the time) has a snapshot of me, a physical reminder that I existed, in my curly-haired, wool-capped glory, even if just for one night. All I have of him is a memory, one that I sometimes doubt is real.
When my vision returned after the flash, I could see the vague outline of my companion. Still shrouded in darkness, his features were mostly obscured. Bearded and about my age, he wore a knitted hat over his long hair, which fell in knotted curls down the side of his face. His eyelids were half-shut and drowsy, and I still hadn’t ruled out the possibility that he was on drugs. He looked up from his camera lens and smiled wide. The shutter went off again, and, dazed, I thought back to our initial meeting a few hours earlier.
He had wandered from out of nowhere into my beachside camp on a remote Chilean island. I looked up with surprise to find a helmet-wearing, mud-splattered visitor, interrupting my meal of over-salted ramen noodles with a crude request. “Agua,” he said sluggishly, gesturing to the military-issued canteen hanging from his waist belt. He stood alongside a beat-up bike he had somehow managed to maneuver down a cliff and onto the beach.
Though shaken by the sudden break in solitude, on some level I was pleased to be freed from the condition of being alone. By the look on his face, I couldn’t tell if he was frowning or simply determined. He exuded confidence, although it was unclear if it was the type born of knowledge or ignorance. With barely enough water to make it through the night myself, I was at a loss. Not knowing what else to say, I asked how he was doing—“¿Cómo estai?”—mimicking (with little success) the strange Chilean way of slurring the ends of words. The Man stared on. I asked his name and where he was from. After a couple tries, I finally got an answer: “Soy de Iquique. No sé mi nombre.” (I am from Iquique. I don’t know my name.)
I started to laugh, but stopped when I realized the Man was serious.
It was late April, and fall had come quickly. I was halfway through a semester exchange program in Chile, but so far I had spent more time getting lost than studying. I hadn’t been to class in more than a month. Most days felt like empty space, split up by street food, sleep, and periodic trips to the beach. Underneath my carefree exterior, my life was falling apart.
In a desperate attempt to at least make it seem like I was having fun, I decided to take advantage of a rare window of sun and travel 22 hours to the desolate western coast of Chiloé. A southern island in the Los Lagos region just north of Patagonia, Chiloé is primarily known for quaint, wooden churches and the local propensity for superstition. I got off the bus at the main city of Castro. It was raining and I realized I had nothing to do there, so I got on a bus to the next town, where I ate at an expensive seafood restaurant and ordered a glass of wine to try to make the night feel special. But I missed the sunset while waiting for my phone to buzz with the latest news from home.
The night bled into early morning as I sat in bed at the hostel, mostly naked and somehow still wet from the rain, working on a report due months prior that felt as hard as a jagged kidney stone. When daylight broke, I followed the road to a little-known beach and hiking spot called Cole-Cole. That’s where the Man from Iquique found me.
After a couple hours of walking, the gravel gave way to sand and an abrupt turn left me facing the Pacific Ocean. I took off my hiking boots and wandered through the surf. I must have been trying to outrun something—I was further from home than I had ever been before. But the looming sun gave me hope and, for once, I believed myself when I told myself everything would be OK.
I crossed a bridge over an inlet when, out of nowhere, a pack of small dogs started to chase me from the other side. Light shined off of their fully-bared teeth as they aggressively lunged in my direction. It was clear they were not here to give me a friendly greeting. Not knowing what else to do, I ran in the opposite direction, toward the ocean, until I was suddenly waist deep in the water. Miscellaneous contents from my pockets floated to the surface. I held my breath and bit my tongue as the dogs paced along the edge of the water, menacing as ever. It was a few minutes until they left, and a few more until I deemed it safe enough to exit the water. Although I was once again back on land, I was sinking, and this time it felt like there was nowhere to go but down.
As I made my trek across rising and falling cliffs, the lingering feeling that I was being assaulted from all sides added to the strangeness and mystery of the place. The sun was already in the lower third of the sky as I made my final descent to the beach where I would make my camp. Approaching what felt like the edge of the world, I was alone. In a ritual gesture I stripped off my clothes and ran along the beach, feeling the cold water against my scarred body. I washed myself clean and made camp in a clandestine alcove. The campgrounds, though busy during the summer season, were empty with the approach of winter. Both the refugio (shelter) and ranger station were boarded up. Even so, I was prepared. I set up my tent quickly and started boiling water. I ate my lazy dinner as the sun slipped below the horizon. Diverting my attention from the shoreline, I found myself suddenly staring into the eyes of a stranger.
Struggling to grasp the situation (especially following the strangeness of the Man’s arrival), I stopped what I was doing and stared straight ahead, almost believing that he would just go away if I concentrated hard enough. After I realized that wasn’t going to work, I went back to his initial question—“Agua?”—and gave him directions to a small creek not too far away, warning him that the water was murky and likely contaminated.
Dismissing my suggestion, he turned his attention elsewhere and started asking about the cost and durability of my tent and campsite materials. I fumbled for the words to respond in Spanish, but nothing I said seemed to get through. The Man walked away, supposedly in search of the aforementioned water. Dusk would fall shortly. I let out all the air that had become trapped in my chest. I felt safe again, in the stranger’s absence, though I knew he would be back. His small satchel indicated he was ill-prepared to spend the night, yet here he was on this remote beach—my inopportune companion. It was a full 20 kilometers to the nearest road—where else was he supposed to go?
Three hours passed. Putting my anxiety aside, I started reading “Ms. Caliban” off of my Barnes & Noble e-reader. The 1984 novella takes its title from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in reference to Caliban, an “uncivilized” brute who is toyed with, dehumanized, and cast out by society. I made it to the scene where the amphibious monsterman (later bequeathed “Larry”) enters the main character Dorothy’s home for the first time. Panicked at first, Dorothy reaches for a kitchen knife, but, in a last-minute decision, grabs a cucumber instead. Handing the long, green vegetable to her soon-to-be-lover in an unexpected sign of friendship, Dorothy becomes inexplicably aroused. It was at this moment that the Man from Iquique—my own allegorical Caliban—made his return. Without saying anything, he sat down next to me.
I asked for his name again, receiving the same response. He pointed to his head and told me he had fallen (presumably indicating a severe concussion). During the entire conversation, he was trading glances between me, my camp, and his phone, on which he was clearly checking Facebook. It was then I stopped believing the stranger. He knew exactly who he was (his name was right on the screen, after all). His intentions, however, became even more of a mystery.
The Man picked up a clump of mushrooms surrounding a nearby tree and started eating them. He offered me some, telling me he learned they were good to eat at a mycology conference he had attended a few weeks earlier, “durante la primera de mayo” (mind you, it was still April). The darkness made it impossible to discern the mushrooms’ features, so, somewhat out of character, I turned them down. Whatever reason I had for feeling apprehensive towards the stranger suddenly felt validated, and suddenly, I began to perceive him as a real threat.
When I was 13, my grandfather signed me up for boxing lessons. He said that this way I could stand up for myself when I got picked on at school. The assertion made me uncomfortable. Sure, I was awkward, confused, and tried to avoid gym like the plague, but I wasn’t being singled out. Whenever I tried to convince my grandfather that I was not, in fact, the punching bag of the seventh grade, he would look off to the side in mild disbelief and tell me I needed to be tough. I sucked it up, and for the next year I spent two hours a week learning how to throw a weak punch.
At 22, for the first time in my life, I thought back to those lessons and what it would mean to have to defend myself. In silence, I calculated the angle of the Man’s potential attack, and how I would roll to my side and grab a nearby fallen tree limb, regretting that I had forgotten to pack a knife. I concocted this fantasy in just a few minutes. In the end, I decided a preemptive strike was a pretty silly idea considering I was never a great fighter anyway. I had a better shot playing friendly. Better to be a sympathetic target than a stick-wielding asshole, I reasoned. Taking out my dry bag, I offered the Man a variety of items: peanuts, dried fruit, carrots, and an apple. I even managed to get rid of some chorizo that my inner vegetarian felt guilty about buying in the first place. With a look of surprise that was a departure from his more familiar shades of scorn, the Man took the offering and, in return, handed me a smashed-up sleeve of chocolate chip cookies. Out of courtesy, I accepted. The obnoxious sounds of the two of us chewing together balanced out the silence that, in a way, I found strangely comforting.
Moments passed and the Man started asking a few questions, little things at first. “De dónde eres?” he said, asking where I was from. “Soy de Colorado,” I answered. “Ahh,” he said, “Cómo es California?” I tried to correct him, but to no avail. Eventually, I just started telling him about California. Soon the light of his eyes became focused on my brightly-colored, sweat-encrusted scarf. He asked me where I got it. From my ex-girlfriend, I told him. He told me it was pretty. I told him he was right. He asked if I think we will get back together. I said probably not. He bowed his head in a surprising sign of solidarity. I appreciated the sympathy.
Sleep drew heavy on my brow. My body started to relax and I felt my arms and legs go limp. As if trying to contradict everything I wanted, the Man from Iquique stood tall, as if pulled by a string in spite of gravity. Out of nowhere, he grabbed an expensive-looking camera from his backpack, kneeled down and started taking pictures: first of the ocean, then of the sky, and finally of me. He took a while playing with the exposure before he got the composition right. He slid out a tripod from who-knows-where, set a timer, and ran to my side. We smiled in unison as the flash went off. He was still smiling even when the glare of the flash wore off. It was the first time I’d seen his teeth. They were slightly off-white and reasonably straight.
Distracted, I didn’t see the cows until they were already in front of us. There were 20 of them, maybe more, standing mostly still. How they arrived so quickly is still a mystery to me. Did they come from over the cliff? Was there a passage in the trees through which the cows surreptitiously traveled? The moon must have brought them out, I thought.
Upon recognizing our new company, my misbegotten friend flipped around and started photographing the cows as they milled about the beach. He moved out further on the sand and his head, turning like a gyroscope, swiveled up and down, the emanating light of the full moon suddenly breaking free from behind the trees. It dawned on me, then, that I was on the literal opposite end of the world from home, under foreign stars, and besieged by real-world visions crazier than what I could have conceived under any hallucinogen. The walking iteration of God would have failed to surprise me then, for fear had become irrelevant. I laughed as reality took off its mask and revealed itself as absurd. The cows were calm and had nowhere to be. Neither did I. They didn’t care who or what I was, and, for a time, I knew what it felt like to be them: I felt my third stomach groan as it funneled the nutrient-poor ramen into the fourth. I may have farted, but alas, I fail to recall.
Now I stood arm’s-length away from the Man, both of us floating in a sea of bovine. Ecstatic, I waved my arms around in the air for no apparent reason. The cows ignored us. Undisturbed by our presence, they continued to graze in the sand, an activity that, despite serving no obvious nutritional purpose, drew their attention more than me or the Man from Iquique had.
From far away, the two of us probably looked like long-time friends (maybe even lovers, judging by the austerity of the single-person tent). My heart was loose. I breathed in and felt the full weight of my body. Oxygen-rich blood buoyed my spirit and I soared, though soon my body sank in on itself and began to tire. It was nearly midnight, and I was truly exhausted. The elation of the illusion began to fade, and I was reminded of my own fragility and the precariousness of the situation.
The Man, though no longer a menace, became a nuisance. I told him I needed to go to sleep and suggested accompanying him to a nearby dilapidated shed where he could spend the night, about 200 yards away. “Three walls will keep you warmer than none,” I argued.
“No,” he said. “Hace tanto frio acá, tenemos que probar otro lugar.” (It’s too cold here, we have to try another place.) Where else were we to go? The Man suggested the refugio, back in the direction of my camp. I relented, expecting the entrance to be impassible. We tried each door, pulled at each window and, through a stroke of luck, managed to pry one loose. Crawling our way into the bathroom, we landed next to the composting toilet and, from there, gained access to the rest of the building. The night seemed close to finally being over. But the Man snubbed his nose at this option too, as though he were some kind of new-age, burly Goldilocks. There were beds, but he wanted a box spring, blankets, and a pillow.
I couldn’t articulate just how odd it was that he came all this way—without any gear—and somehow still expected dreamy hotel accommodations. As a last bet, we tried getting into the ranger station (in eyesight of my tent). Unsurprisingly, it was sealed shut. I motioned to leave and return to the refugio.
Just as I started to tell him, “We’d have to break a window, we should g-,” the glass shattered and crashed onto the floor of the hallway inside. He had kicked the window open. A few pieces stuck to newly tattered holes in the stranger’s pants, but he didn’t seem to be bleeding. We walked inside and, out of shame, I began to sweep up the pieces. With no dustpan or trash-bin in which to place them, the best I could do was leave them in a neat circle in the center of the floor. We found several disheveled mattresses, and the Man from Iquique excitedly wedged himself between two of them. This is where he decided to sleep. I said my goodbye and walked back to camp in bewilderment.
Early in the morning, I woke with a sense of foreboding, unsure if everything that had happened was real or a dream. I quickly took down my camp and prepared to leave, hoping for the latter. I found a seagull feather and put it behind my ear, thinking it would make me look cool. Trying to find one last moment of reflection, I nestled myself in a nook in the sand just above the breaking waves and began to meditate.
Halfway through, the Man from Iquique joined me. Shivering, he told me the night had been cold (the broken window, I’m sure, did not help). I took pains to stand up and walk away quietly, trying to leave without a trace. The Man remained a statue, eyes shut and undiscerning of his surroundings, more object than person. I left and he didn’t notice.
As I made my way along the coast for the long and soon-to-be-rainy hike, I realized I was alone. My face turned cold and I grimaced, reaching for my headphones to blot out the sound of vacuous thought. I pretended to be happier than I was. In reality, the pang of solitude cut as deep as ever.
This story would end neatly if I had never seen the Man from Iquique again, if the cliff-side beach remained a liminal space totally apart from the rest of reality. That, however, was simply not the case.
Who would I expect to find, a few hours into my hike, but the Man from Iquique, riding alongside me on his bike? He slowed down and started to walk, making jokes and plans for hanging out when he passes through San Francisco. I begrudgingly resigned myself to small talk. We passed by a small store, and he walked inside. I escaped to the nearest bus. An hour later, there was a 10-minute stop in the route. Again, the Man from Iquique rolled up, sly as ever. He offered me a bonbon candy, and proceeded to eat his meal: pre-cooked chorizo wrapped in slices of cheese, topped with a splattering of mayonnaise.
I walked away, telling him I had to get a bag from my old hostel. The Man from Iquique followed. After I received my bag, the Man remained by the desk and argued with the attendant over the location of his bag (which I can somewhat reliably say did not exist). I made a beeline to the exit and made the bus as it was taking off. Five minutes later—lo and behold—the Man from Iquique entered the bus (now without a bike) and sat in the row behind mine. Did he ditch the bike along the side of the road? Was it stolen to begin with, or did it simply disappear according to whatever magical order allowed the Man from Iquique to arrive in the first place? I lent him a portable power bank, and we listened to music in silence.
The rain beat hard on the vehicle and landscape. There was traffic getting back to Castro, so I got off several blocks before the bus stop, hoping to finally make my real escape. Six p.m. and all the buses to Santiago had already sold out. I grabbed a ticket to the nearby mainland city of Puerto Montt. Better than nothing, I said to myself. At this moment, I felt a hand on my shoulder from behind. I looked back and saw the Man from Iquique standing there—soaked with rain, mouth opened just enough to reveal his mostly-white teeth, shining in a small grin. He was less fortunate than I was, and told me he would stay the night before taking a bus to Valdivia the next morning. We stood outside as the storm turned to a drizzle. As I was about to leave, he told me to take down his number. I did what he said. He told me to send him a message. I said I would do it later. He told me to send it while he was still there. I did as I was told, and then finally walked away, thinking for the last time, Fuck this guy.
Two days later, I received a WhatsApp message:
It took me another five months and the motivation for writing this story to respond. I asked for the Man’s name and if he could send the pictures. He told me I could add him on Facebook and, using Messenger, informed me he couldn’t upload the photos onto his Linux platform computer, but would be happy to send them by Telegram. He asked me about California, again. This time I didn’t respond, and the conversation has stayed in limbo ever since.
We are, however, Facebook friends. The Man from Iquique does in fact have a name: Camilo Olivares. In his profile picture, he appears to be holding up a dried-up pile of shit with the caption “fertilizer for the earth.” He is a strange, strange man—but so am I.
As much as I painted the Man from Iquique as different, foreign, a brute and weirdo, we were the same in both our loneliness and our strangeness. It would be flat-out wrong to call myself normal, even in comparison to my unexpected accomplice. I may have called him “my Caliban,” yet was he any more of an outcast than myself? At least he spoke the local language and was from the right continent. We were strangers in a strange place, looking for connection, company, and maybe even a tiny bit of compassion.
The Man from Iquique never hurt me or gave any clear indication he was a threat, yet I decided to label him as such. I treated him as a menace and wished he would disappear. Without realizing it, I inflicted the worst violence I could on another lonely person: I tried to erase him. In trying to protect myself, I created a specter of an enemy in someone who could have been a friend. I am ashamed of how I treated the Man from Iquique.
Looking back on my friend—the stranger—I think back to “The Guest,” a short story by the French absurdist Albert Camus. The plot follows a schoolmaster living in the mountains of Algeria, who is instructed to help walk an Arab prisoner to a neighboring town to stand trial for a murder he allegedly committed. The teacher, however, doesn’t feel right about taking someone to his certain death. Instead, he tells the prisoner to go east, where he can hide with the nomads. In doing so, the teacher attempts to absolve himself of the moral dilemma. But with the path to freedom laid clear, the Arab, to the consternation of the teacher, continues en route to condemnation. Confused and feeling scattered, the teacher returns home to find a message—more of a threat—scrawled against the wall: “YOU HANDED OVER OUR BROTHER. YOU WILL PAY FOR THIS.”
I have the sense that I, too, abandoned my brother. I feel I became morally implicated in the life of the Man from Iquique: when I left thinking Fuck that guy, I “handed him over” to the pangs of loneliness, exposed to the chaos of the world. I ask myself Could I have done anything differently? And when I don’t come up with an answer, I tell myself, I did nothing wrong. But still, guilt weighs on my shoulder like the threat etched on the teacher’s living room wall. I will write him back one day, I tell myself, tomorrow or the next. I want to absolve myself, but the way is unclear—I have yet to pay the cost of my pride.
When will I become the stranger, the threat, the eerie and outlandish “Man from California”? I think back to that night on the beach, alone and confused under the light of the full moon. Perhaps I already am.