Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ruminations on Chile

      My relationship with Chile, vaguely and indirectly, goes back to early childhood.  In the late nineteen-forties and early fifties my Aunt Helen and Uncle Dave Wright and their children lived in Chile for three years while Uncle Dave worked for the U.S. government.  I have memories of seeing them off at the airport and re-uniting with them upon their return, and writing letters to my cousins, Kathy and Maren.  Upon returning they gave my parents a gift:  a beautiful plate of Chilean copper with the official coat of arms of the country cast in relief and the words 'Republica de Chile'.  For many years that plate hung on the wall of our living room.  Looking upon it as a child, I often wondered what life would be like in this country so far to the south.
      During childhood, looking at the shape of Chile on my globe caused me to be incredulous.  "How could any country be so long and so narrow?" I wondered.  I thought that it looked like a string bean.  Later, as I gained experience in surgery during my medical training, I thought of the country as being in the shape of an abnormally elongated appendix with a hook on the end.  I've seen many appendices over the years that have had that very appearance.  I can't help it and I don't mean this in any way derogatorily, but to me Chile will always be in the shape of an abnormal, inflamed appendix.

      Over the years a large number of my relatives and friends served missions in Chile, and my Aunt Helen and Uncle Dave, along with my cousins, returned for another three year assignment.  Suzanne and I also have developed friends in Utah who are Chilenos.  During medical school I had a professor of Physiology who was Chilean, Dr. Ezyguirre.

      My vague relationship with Chile included this incident:  While interning at Walter Reed I had an experience that has stuck with me.  During an all-night gig in the ER the deputy ambassador from Chile came in and I diagnosed and treated a middle ear infection in him.  I asked him, through an interpretor, if he was allergic to any medications and he said "no."  I then dispensed to him some ampicillin, and made him take the first one in front of me so as to be sure that he understood the instructions.  He got into a car and his driver started returning him to the embassy.  Within ten minutes  he developed difficulty breathing, and it went downhill from there.  The driver turned around and brought him back to the hospital, and he was in full anaphylactic shock by the time he arrived.  He would have died had he waited to get home before taking the meds.  He was admitted to the ICU, on a respirator, but he was alright by the time I visited him the next morning.  He sheepishly confessed to me that he had forgotten all about an allergic reaction he'd had to penicillin as a child.  An international incident had been averted, and I learned a valuable lesson about asking about allergies that I hope I never forget.  But I digress....

      As I became more interested in the wild, beautiful places of the world, I read about Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in the far south of Chile.  I had a desire to visit those places but I dismissed the thought of ever being able to because of their remoteness.  Now they are part of our mission area and we will see those areas as part of our assigned work.

      Here are a few facts and superlatives concerning the country that is our home for the next eighteen months:

          Average width = 100 miles
          Total length = 2,700 miles (as far as from New York City to Los Angelas.  That covers about 36 deg. of latitude north to south, but it's not as long as Russia is wide.)
          Largest producer of copper in the world, producing 38% of the total
          Largest copper mine in the world
          World's largest exporter of table grapes, @ 21%
          World's fifth largest exporter of wines
          World's dryest desert.  The Atacama Desert in the north goes for years at a time without measurable precip.
          World's oldest known mummies:  9,000 yrs., discovered in the Atacama Desert.
          World's tallest active volcano, at 22,383 ft.
          10% of the world's active volcanoes, totaling fifty
          The strongest earthquake ever recorded anywhere, 9.5 on the Richter Scale, occurred in Chile in 1960.
          The name 'Chile' is thought to derive from a Quechua (Inca) word meaning 'cold, snowy, deepest place on earth.'  The Spanish first called the country 'Nuevo Extremadura', after a province of Spain.

      So the country has everything from tropics and desert in the far north to ice fields and penguins in the south.  Common to all of it is a eastern border of mountains, the Andes, towering 18,000 to 22,000 ft above sea level.  It is these mountains, comprising the Continental Divide, that explain the unusual shape of the country.  Chilenos are proud to call their country 'fin de la tierra', or the end of the Earth, which it literally is for the the American continent.  In fact, Chile surrounds the entire Strait of Magellan and wraps around southernmost Argentina all the way to the Atlantic as the Chilean part of the island Tierra del Fuego. I was interested in learning that the country claims possession of a corresponding sector of Antarctica all the way to the South Pole
      Santiago was 306 years old when Brigham Young founded Salt Lake City.  The city is named for the patron saint of Spain, Santiago, or St. James.  (Used today as a man's name, the word is translated simply as 'James'.)  The city was named 'La Ciudad de Santiago de Nuevo Extremadura'.  Today it's known simply as 'Santiago de Chile'.  It's population is approximately six million.  The Andean peaks tower above it, at more than 20.000 ft,. and with perennial glaciers.  Although they're only ten to twenty miles away, we haven't seen them because of the smog.  We will, however.

      So, we're enjoying getting to know this country, whose government wouldn't extradite the ex-dictator Agosto Pinochet to Spain for trial for atrocities to 'disappeareds,' yet almost instantaneously extradited Peru's ex-president, Alberto Fujimora, to face trial for embezzlement and murder in Peru, after he thought he could safely live out his years in Chile.  That's their business, not ours.  We are enjoying our work here, and happy to be here, even with the stress of fully 'coming out of retirement.'



  1. Very interesting! Chiles history is chock full of very interesting politics! I'm sure you will get to know it all too well.

  2. As usual, I enjoy reading your thoughts; Dr. Limburg. I guess that you experience so far has been amazing, and that you can't way to know even more about the rest of the country and it's people. Do take care.

  3. Very interesting!

    Doesn't Chile also have some amazing ancient diagrams or hieroglyphs of sorts drawn in the sands, which can be seen from the air? And are they the country that also discovered a bunch of ancient elongated skulls of primitive peoples? I may be confusing it with Peru, however.