"I'm not sure I should have you wait here while I bring it out," she says, scanning the dark street in front of her solid four-story apartment block. We both squint suspiciously at the lone man standing alongside a nearby dumpster, apparently waiting for a late-night cab. Not for the first time I consider how colorful these Wednesday night drives can be. I also feel a twinge of guilt that after retrieving her package, I will be quickly driving away. Meanwhile she'll be carefully locking the wooden entry doors behind her before reaching her own room with its relative safety next door to Iquique's Agropecuario (fish and produce and everything in between) market.
The usual anticucho salespeople are missing from their corner as I pass by. My other passengers have commented before that they think the little metal sales cart is actually a front for other, less-healthy indulgences - after all, who buys shish kebabs on a deserted road at 11 p.m.? I'm not really sure.
I am even less sure when I realize my final companion and I have gotten so busy talking that we've missed our usual turn. Now we are passing by tight groups of grim men on dimly-lit streets who stare unsmilingly as we pass by. She shivers and says, "I don't like this road. I think there is gang activity here." I think we each silently breathe a sigh of relief when her doorway is in sight. Last week, she reminded me to go ahead and turn left at the light (despite the street sign saying not to.) The streets to the right are riskier at night, or so she says.
Making sure my doors are securely locked, I turn left. A couple of blocks away, I count the prostitutes at the intersection. Last week there was only one. Today there are four, in the tightest of short skirts and scant shirts. Every time I feel the same thing: sadness. They are immigrants, and I just can't believe this is what they came here for. Nobody dreams of this for a better life ... do they?
The downtown market is still open to late-night customers drinking fresh fruit juices and eating churrascos and completos. This is where the buses pick up passengers at this time, traveling north to Arica or crossing over to Peru and Bolivia. Occasionally one or two full-length bundles in a doorway reveal the already-sleeping homeless. Elsewhere light lingers from bars where men bunch around beer and a fuzzy tv screen for company.
Stopping at the final streetlight before exiting downtown makes me uneasy. Often the self-proclaimed window washers are already drinking and surly with one another. But just a few yards away, light floods the avenue as I turn onto the Cavancha beach tourist stretch. A huge neon screen flashes the latest events or sales pitches in town. Cars are backed up in the far right lane, turning towards the garish invitation of Iquique's casino.
It may be close to midnight, but the BMX and skate park still have a few active participants. Earlier, on the first part of my drive, students had spilled out of one particular school and it was explained to me that night classes were offered for high school equivalency there. Each week we also pass a brass band practicing on the street with only the street lamps for illumination. Nonetheless, they play with gusto!
Once my friend from downtown was at my home on the south side of Iquique. Nearing my (fairly) quiet street, I remember her words. "It's like another world here," she said. I can certainly see her point as I turn the key and slip inside the high, safe gates of my own home.
It's what I see on a Wednesday.