Diary

Stephen Sedley

In a crowded restaurant a bottle of wine arrives at our table with a note: ‘Por tratar de juzgar a Pinochet y hacer justicia en nuestro país’ – ‘For your efforts to bring Pinochet to trial and to do justice in our country.’ Wherever we go in Chile with him, people recognise Juan Guzmán as the judge who has indicted a series of high-ranking officers for the torture, murder and aggravated kidnapping of more than a hundred victims of the military terror of the 1970s and 1980s. It is still possible that General Pinochet will be indicted with them. They come up, shake Guzmán’s hand and say awkward words of thanks.

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One night during the world congress of the International Association of Constitutional Law – my excuse for being in Chile – we had dined under the orange trees in the courtyard of the Casa Velasco, the 18th-century captain-general’s house which is now the Constitutional Court’s seat. My wife, Tia, was out in the Andes on horseback with a Chilean guide who spoke a little English and a huaso, Lorenzo, who provided the horses and the mule, and whose Spanish the guide could barely understand. She made her own record of it.

I am told that Lorenzo thinks it odd that a woman would come riding alone. Since I am setting out with two men, neither of whom I have met till this morning, on a five-day ride in the Andes, his wonderment may be justified. ‘Chilean women do not ride.’ This seems unlikely. The mule, who is blind in one eye, is blindfolded and hobbled while being loaded with food and two North Face tents. I approach Lorenzo’s hobbled chestnut gelding and put my hand gently towards his head to show my familiarity with horses. He rears and hops off, showing the whites of his eyes. My horse, who appears depressed and veers to the right like a wayward supermarket trolley, is called Cochayuyo, the name of a strap-like seaweed that is harvested and sold in neat bricks by the roadside. Juan said it was good for children, boiled with potatoes.

As we set off still higher into the Andes my beautiful and pretentious sombrero de paño negro (cost £25) is blown off my head into a torrent of melting snow water. I jump off to rescue it and get left behind because Lorenzo, in the lead with the mule behind him, is setting a smart pace with his viciously spiked espuelas. I learn that Cochayuyo has reason to be depressed and to veer to the right. He has only recently returned from being lent to a man who mistreated him, and the drop on the left is about 180 feet straight down. One of the two fully laden mules that fell to their deaths two weeks before, tied together, is still visible at the bottom of the drop.

On the fourth day Lorenzo asks (via the guide) if there are wolves in London. He pulls a ‘bloody tourist’ face when I answer solemnly that there have not been wolves in England for hundreds of years. I have forgotten about An American Werewolf in London. He pulls a similar face when I say that I like riding horses ‘without a saddle’. For lunch we have chopped onions in cold oil, tomato puree, tinned mussels and hot Pot Noodles, all mixed together, and uniquely bad Chilean red wine.

The guide goes to his tent for a nap. With an air of distinct challenge, Lorenzo fetches Cochayuyo and politely stands him by a stone to assist my mounting. These horses are small, strong and sturdy and climb like mountain goats. The Chilean saddle is supportive but ungainly and uncomfortable. Cochayuyo behaves differently when ridden without a saddle, sticking his head up and refusing to do anything less than an anxious jog. Both riding bareback, we go off to fetch an errant horse. Lorenzo, who I guess is between 35 and 65, leans over, picks up the trailing rope of the escaped horse, and we gallop. Lorenzo is watching me closely. In fact we are watching each other. I have no intention of falling off.

Skirting some high mountain pasture land, bright green and treacherously boggy, we come across a wooden shed that houses a perfectly constructed toilet and I shout ‘baño’. With the door open, a gleaming white toilet seat and lid are exposed against an unforgettable and remote Andean backdrop. I indicate to Lorenzo that I am going inside. I shut the door. The well dug under the seat is dry and stony and the sound very loud. I come out triumphant. Lorenzo has turned himself and the horses away and his head is modestly bowed. I vault onto the horse. Feeling childishly smug, I gallop off with him a second time. I have since been told that the baño was erected for the use of the wife of a national newspaper proprietor who liked to ride in the mountains, though she had not been seen for several years. Chilean women do ride.

On our return I say thank you to a group of assembled men from the family for letting me ride without saddle in ‘Lorenzo’s garden’. Then I give him my penknife, which causes a stir because it is Swiss and such knives seem to be highly prized. A hunched man, possibly Lorenzo’s father, gives me a hard look through narrowed eyes when I make my speech and offer my gift. I give him a hard look back: Chilean folklore is full of wicked corrupting women. Then some horses and mules escape their corral and he slowly unhobbles a fine-looking black horse, takes it to a mounting block and having mounted sits erect and eyes me. I stand up and bow, taking off my battered hat to him. He speaks to me with, I think, dignity, but it may be indignation. Not for the first time I wonder about Chileans who are my age and older. Juan’s bodyguard, a policeman, confirms that after the coup the police were instructed to arrest women for wearing trousers in public.

‘Did he do it?’

‘What?’

‘Murder Princess Di.’

Tia Sedley