The orange light of southern Chile’s 9 p.m. sun beamed through the kitchen window. It bounced off the laminate Christmas-themed table cloth, and draped itself over the utensils, napkins and bread crumbs. I watched as the rays gleamed over the stubby hand that was strumming a guitar, the smooth skin of a scar reflecting the light like elastic. The hand made the sounds of traditional Chilean music, called cuenca. Gloria and Teresa were harmonizing in song, singing of thirsty fish and Jesus, and I sat listening. We had just finished once, or dinner, of bread, tea and vinegar-soaked onions, and now the pair were serenading the scene. The strange tune stole away time and hid it somewhere while the romantic air danced in the late sunshine. It might’ve created a trance if I had not been aware of my own fatigue.
The days in the houses of Gloria and Teresa passed swiftly. They say that that’s likely to happen with work, or pega here in Chile. I was working. Gardening kept me busy most of the time, and the days seemed to digress from their obligations to endure. We should want them to endure; the older we get the more we should want them to endure. The gas-powered motor of the grass cutter left a ringing in my ears, and my unwashed green shirt brought a stench to my nostrils daily. Otherwise, the work left me senseless and in a habitual state of meditation.
When the sky would break and loose its rain over the countryside, I’d take refuge indoors and stare out. Sometimes, the raindrops turned to granules of hail, and rang a clatter on the rooftop and wooden porch. The colors of cloud and sky, grass and tree were drastically various, like the hopeful strokes of a painter’s brush.
In the house, a small Christmas tree stood lit in the corner of the living room, just beside the wood-burning stove. It made me think about home. I also thought about unknown places, and I thought about time. Sometimes I thought about chocolaty eyes.
Gloria and Teresa finished their song and Gloria looked at me with kindness.
“It was lovely,” I told her.
“We’ve always played guitar, the both of us, since always,” Teresa said.
Teresa was the older of the two. She must be in her 60s, but I wouldn’t brave an inquiry. The two sisters are passionate. When they speak I might think that they’re constantly interrupting each other if I hadn’t remarked early on that it’s simply their way; it’s like a conversational harmony. Sometimes they repeat what the other had just said, and other times they simply speak over each other about the same thing and listeners would have to pick out the important parts. It was somehow irresistibly agreeable.
When they had finished the songs and we’d cleared the table, I retired to the big fluffy bed that was once Teresa’s daughter’s and let sleep pull shut my eyes.
Existence, being as it is, is unlikely. However, the unlikely, the improbable and the impossible often find expression in everyday encounters. That genetic carrier had to find an egg, and it had to be you of the billions that made it. The same had to occur with your relations, and with the great relations, each little swimmer penetrating the right egg at the right moment. It seems improbable. But then, you being here depends also on the chance encounters of your relations in the past, always choosing a mate that would eventually result in your birth. Imagine all the little things that could’ve gone wrong; or, differently, I should say. It’s an excruciatingly painful imagining thinking of the young dead, and all the hundreds of chance encounters their perseverance in life might have manifested. Alas, they did not, and you are not someone else. Perhaps you were fated.
Perhaps I meet some of the best people, I thought to myself, considering my new hogar here at the Solis’ homesteads. Gloria Solis, Teresa Solis and their children. Alejandro was my age, and Felipe 5 years my elder. They wore death metal black T-shirts and sported long thin chin beards. Their taste in music presented another irony that was difficult to miss. Not only were they all friendly vegetarians, but nowhere else had I experienced such hospitality on one’s own accord. Gloria and Teresa had introduced me to their children, but each of them had in turn treated me as though it were they alone that were welcoming me into their family home, that they were not a third party but a principal one; indeed, that is how it should always be. It put me at ease.
Working in Gloria’s industrial kitchen offered a measure of tranquility as well. It was bare white, and the smell of baking served an olfactory benefice. Her helper was named Ida, a plump and smiling lady from a few parcels down road. One day we went to her home to visit and see the animals; turkey, sheep, dogs, hens and roosters, pigs, piglets suckling at the teats of momma, goats, cows and horses. Ida’s daughters giggled at the gringo, I who was poking at the earth and watching the resistant sun dip below the nightline.
Meals took place in the industrial kitchen, Gloria’s house kitchen or Teresa’s kitchen. Before me were set all manner of good things, from giant roasted garlics to cilantro tomatoes glistening in olive oil. We feasted on chicharron, steaming loaves of bread, blackberry marmalade, etcetera. But a visit to the city was short in the making.
The Solises had invited me to stay for Christmas, and had I accepted with the utmost of grace that I could muster. I would soon learn that Christmas day matters little in comparison with Christmas Eve. The eve began with a visit to Puerto Montt, the “big city.”
In the morning we loaded Gloria’s small car-van with merchandise, and she and I drove into town. At the municipal market we unloaded everything and set it up inside. The place was packed filled with people making last minute sells and purchases before the big night. Gloria was selling her delicious pan de miel,or honey bread, and a large choice selection of baked goods. Over the air drifted the unmistakable scent of the sea, and I strolled through the mariscos vendors’ booths, eyeing all sorts of fish, weeds and crustaceans.
Later I would leave for a few hours’ work at the Petrobras, stealing their internet to post the last posts. On returning to the market, Gloria had packed up her things, and we loaded the van. Then it was off to the supermarket.
The Christmas Eve crowds swirled like a storm through the aisles. We were no exception to the mass of bodies clawing at the last vestiges of produce and product. Nor were we an exception to the rule of shopping and women; something that I do not and never will fully understand. You, women, have shopping in your blood. From hippies to yuppies, there are some things our natural networking cannot omit. Men crave competition in one way or another, and women crave shopping. Maybe it’s not shopping, but browsing. It doesn’t matter; the important part is that we spent three hours in Jumbo Supermarket.
Alejandro would later tell me it was a Bourgeois supermarket, and in retrospect it had Whole Foods-esque features. The ornamented displays, the low ceiling and wood framing all gave it away. Gloria kept remembering something back there. Alas, after a while of seeing the same things again and again, my mind began to wander:
- Some people are truly horrible navigators of aisles. They really ought to be concerned with leaving space enough for one cart to push by.
- Shopping law of attraction: the more women gather around a basket of products, the more women will arrive, regardless of what the product is.
- Shirt designs are shitty. Shirt writing is shitier. “Planet – Ecology Edition” one said.
- Are designers snug with that accomplishment?
- At least the market’s taste in music is pleasing: English Christmas songs. “White Christmas”, “Silent Night,” and more.
- Legos have gone to new lows: “Ninjago” ninja Legos, masters of “Spinjitsu.”
When we arrived once more at the house for the evening’s festivities, the dogs Bruno and Perla pounced on me. Perla, pearl, would jump a foot from the ground in front of me as I walked, apparently trying to land in my arms. Bruno’s eyes blazed Siberian blue, a freezing gaze if not for his warming tendencies of cuddleship.
“Chael, I’m going to rest a bit before starting to cook Christmas dinner,” Gloria told me.
Alejandro and Felipe had yet to arrive, and Teresa was working in the garden. Back in my room, I opened the computer to do a bit of work. One of my English employers had contacted me with more work while I was back in Santiago. 50 articles would come with a payout of 300 dollars. I decided that this money would pay for the 82 dollar visa pages, the Brazilian visa, and the ferries I’d have to take on the Carretera Austral. And that’s all fine by me.
Hours had passed. In the kitchen I had helped Gloria prepare Christmas dinner. As she put it, “we’re probably the only ones for miles eating seafood for Christmas!” Now we were standing before the table; Alejandro and Felipe in their black T-shirts and smiles, Gloria and I. They took the initiative and sat down, and I followed suite. On the table, white wine sat open, Crush and beer had been mixed in our cups, and clay bowls held a soup of mussels (properly cooked). Our plates were filled with fish and hot potatoes, and aceitunas (olives) were displayed temptingly in the center.
For desert we ate freshly washed cherries, in Chilean Spanish called pigeon hearts, and strawberry ice cream that Felipe had brought. The mix of orange soda and beer was quite foreign to me, but drinkable all the same. After a few cups of beer and several glasses of wine, my tongue was unstoppable. Gloria took to singing cantos and strumming her guitar, while I discussed important things with the guys. In an addition to the already ironic thing of death metal and overt vegetarian kindness, I learned that Alejandro was a Buddhist and that Felipe had been to Pucallpa to take ayahuasca.
Then came Christmas, as a good consumer ought to refer to the unwrapping of gifts. To my surprise the presents that sat neatly wrapped under the plastic twinkling Christmas tree were to be opened this night. Chilean families brave tired eyes to wait until midnight of the eve to delve into the giving and receiving of presents. A far-cry from the morning sessions I’m used to.
Felipe and Alejandro received socks and toothpaste, and Gloria a coffee machine. I felt slightly ashamed, remembering the several-hour long sessions my family uses to unwrap dozens of gifts. So it goes.
“Here you go Chael, this one’s for you,” said Alejandro as he handed me a long object wrapped tightly in candy cane paper. I was taken aback, but accepted the offering all the same.
My face must have lit up for the family, as they all looked just as happy. It was an umbrella. A new umbrella! It was longer than mine, and had a black curved handle. My other umbrella had been completely destroyed in Chiloe, and I must have complained enough about it that Gloria and Teresa decided on this gift. And it was perfect. The next day I would rip off the old umbrella fabric and tie it to over the new one.
I hugged my new best travel buddy and thanked the family. Before the night was over I had been gifted toothpaste and toothbrushes, a bar of chocolate from Ida, and hand sanitizer.
“You have to wash your hands a lot on the Carretera Austral. There was a rat virus that killed many people, so use the sanitizer!” Gloria told me.
The night unfolded with the arrival of Teresa’s son Eduardo to Gloria’s house. Teresa’s family was celebrating Christmas in her home, and Gloria’s here. There was even another sister at another of the houses with her family. I met everyone.
Gloria had retired for the night, and a long session of drinking with Felipe, Alejandro and Eduardo (also a vegetarian and death metal head, and who had brought a wine fruit punch called Borgoña) began. I think I fell asleep on the floor somewhere.
Christmas day. The sun persisted, throwing itself over everything, making things that moved leak. The dogs were happy and jumped all over me. My head did not hurt, except for the shame I felt for having not gifted anyone anything the previous night. However, I had not known the Christmas exchanging would happen then. I did, however, have a gift in mind.
Most of the day I spent hidden away in my room under the pretense of my English employer’s 50 article project. Teresa’s family had departed. Alejandro’s girlfriend Maca came over, surprising me with her kindness and the gifts she bore for the family. That she was 24 and had already purchased a grand plot of land on a teacher’s salary also struck me as brave and mature.
When the evening came I sat to a meal of fried salmon and beer with Gloria and Teresa. Alejandro and his girl had left, and Felipe was asleep. I took the opportunity to present the sisters with my gift. It wasn’t wrapped. I had bought a frame at the supermarket, and in it I placed what I’d been working on all day; a drawing of them.
Their compliments and appreciation of the gift allowed my shame to fade away. Christmas ended on a pleasing and almost transcendental note. Sleep came easy.
In the morning of the 26th we ate desayuno.They packed me a very large bag filled with three cheese sandwiches and dozens of cookies. A welcome weight in my hand.
Goodbyes. Goodbye dogs; Perla and Bruno. Goodbye Teresa and Felipe. A full week at the Solis homestead came suddenly to an end. Gloria drove me into town and past Puerto Montt, to the beginning of the Carretera Austral, that long dirt strip that would lead me to a southern border with Argentina. When I’d unloaded my bags and new umbrella, Gloria had tears. As they breached and fell, they created a sparkling trail down her cheek, and I thought; I really do meet some of the best people. We said goodbye, she called me her gringo son, and she told me I could come back.
Then I was alone once more; the Solises there, in memory.
A road lay before me, more unknown than your average road. The Carretera Austral. Hundreds of kilometers of rolling green hills, blue water and morning mists; a snaking dirt track beating its way through bush into Patagonian wild lands. It would all begin with a walk.