Tiny lapping waves of an incoming tide moved toward the house, as though some giant entity were swimming below the bay water’s surface. Through the bright window panes of the pinewood house I could see the salt water circulating in the ebb and flow of the day. Down the bay line I could see Dalcahue, a small chilote town, and across the way the island of Quinchao. Geese waded passed from one side of my window view to the other, like in a silver screen. Clouds hung low, and on the ground the green wet and dripping, the yellow retaining its luster in what few rays of light broke through.
It was the Isla Grande de Chiloe, Chile’s second largest island after Pascua (of tall stone face sculpture fame) where I observed the goings-on from a toasty house. The computer sang Bach for us, and we were pleasantly satisfied, once more busy at Scrabble or busy at important discussions. I looked across the table at Sammy and said, “yeah, ‘toa’ is a word, but I’m not sure it works in English Scrabble.”
The journey through the southlands of Chile began with the departure from the Cuartel, where I left Pame and Catalan with their lust. The protest, cheap beer, cheap living, and encounters with old friends faded into memory.
Valparaiso also faded behind as the car I was in climbed out of the city. I was with a man I’d asked at a gas station. He seemed reluctant at first. For that,rides from gas stations are interesting. You most likely get a ride with someone who would not otherwise stop for your thumb. Sometimes it’s strange. The second ride of the day, also from a gas station, had studied at Yale. Rock-hard looks that the drivers give you as you approach their personal space—which includes their car—always soften back into humanity once you begin explaining yourself.
I followed a road off the main highway so as not to have to circumnavigate the periphery roads of Santiago. I’ll get to the big city when I get to the big city, I thought. The day unfolded slowly. A few rides through San Antonio, the country’s busiest port, and onto the aptly-title Route 66. The Chilean Danny DeVito gave me a short ride to somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
I waited for a number of hours, passing the time chucking pebbles at a road sign. A passenger bus was slowing down, but my thumb was not extended. It stopped in front of me. I crossed my fingers for a chance ride or even a bikini tour like at the end of Dumb and Dumber. Instead, they asked me for directions, and I had no idea. So it goes.
The bus trudged onward, the tires rubbing the pavement, invisible squeaks piercing the silence. A pick-up truck pulled over soon afterward.
“Where are you headed?” asked Guillermo.
“Uh,well, Talca, I suppose.” Talca was the next big city south of Santiago. By heading San Antonio way, I was circumventing the capital city so as not to deal with the hassles of bustle.
Guillermo chuckled, “well, you’re in luck my friend, hop in!”
Down the road I ate my first Chilean completo, which is a hot dog. But it’s a complete hot dog, apparently. Tomatoes, avocado, onion, mayo, ketchup, mustard, etc. A coke washed it down. I thanked Guillermo.
The road went straight for a long time. Of all songs to play, I heard Adele’s Rolling in the Deep. My mind drifted back to Lima again. Eventually we came to the main highway, the Ruta 5. It is a small coincidence that the U.S. Interstate that forms part of the Panamerican Highway is Interstate 5, running from San Diego up through my college town of Eugene, all the way to Seattle and the Canadian border.
Guillermo talked about his job. He worked for an engineer building pedestrian bridges over rivers in remote Mapuche neighborhoods. Mapuche, you ask? The Mapuche boast the reputation as the one indigenous group that the Inca could not subdue. The Spanish also had a difficult time, hence the military build-up that eventually made Chile into a military powerhouse.
We cut south on the Ruta 5, through bright green vineyards, the plants distinctly tall and roof-like, unlike their American or French counterparts. We passed “Vina San Pedro” and several other fields that Guillermo insisted yielded the best wine in the world.
When we reached a small town called San Javier, Guillermo turned off the 5.
“Here’s where I get off. I’m headed to see my sweetheart.”
“Thanks for the ride, and the meal,” I said.
“Oye, I’m heading down toward Temuco tomorrow morning at 5am. I’ll pick ya up if I see ya.”
I smiled wide, “Great, I’ll look for you.”
With that he left, and I began a long walk down the 5. The sun told me it was around 3. The sun lingers in the sky for many hours, not falling below the horizon until 8 or 9. As I strolled in the heat, my mind wandered off. People prefer bad news to good. If I flick drivers off they’ll probably stop for me.
In San Javier I bought what has become my regular dollar meal in Chile; bread, tomato and pate… and banana for desert. Yum.
Fast-forward many hours and I found myself walking down the route in the pitch black of night. It must have been around 10. I was somewhere near Chillan, a large town just south of the larger city of Talca. One trucker had given me his information and invited me to Talca when I would pass through on the return journey to Santiago. But for now I was just trying to find a Copec.
Copec Gas Stations. Or Terpel, or Petrobras gas stations. These are essentially ridiculously expensive isolated service stations along the highway that offer showers, bathrooms and Wi-Fi in a fancy glass building.
Walking, I eventually came upon a broken-down rig and tow-truck. The men told me the Copec was 10 kilometers down the road. It took me another hour of walking to decide that I didn’t want to walk the entire distance, and instead pitched my tent in a field of high grass. I cannot deny that having the small laptop has changed my travel to a certain degree. I think these posts come out better, and I can continue working remotely for employers. However, as I let the sleep pull at my eyelids in the tent, I took the time to watch Batman Begins.
The unmistakable light tapping of a morning drizzle woke me around 6. Damn, I thought, I’ve missed Guillermo. Temuco was still several hours south. The sky was a gray overcast, and the mark of morning had still not convinced me I was awake.
On the highway I walked for 5 minutes before a familiar pick-up truck pulled over. Guillermo was late, as he put it. I met his sweetheart and his sweetheart’s kid. She offered me pan de Pascua, the traditional Chilean bread baked around the holiday season. Guillermo had told me he was also divorced. The more money per capita a country has, the more divorce there is, I decided.
Several relatively quiet hours later I wished them well just north of Temuco. Guillermo drove off into the hills, off to construct a blue bridge.
A smiling pair of women picked me up from the onramp. Adele was playing on the radio. They drove me to the Temuco entrance 20 minutes south. In Chile, the main highway is much like an interstate. There are pluses and minuses to this. In other countries, the road went right through the center of town. For hitchhiking, it meant more walking, but it forced you to know a place. Sometimes it’s a place that you might decide was worth the bad luck to be dropped off in the center. In Chile, the hitching is facilitated by a system of circumvention, but a part of me regrets having the choice to not enter a city. Talca, Chillan, Temuco… I know nothing but the highway entrances. So it goes.
Where am I? Look at the map. Temuco. The big cities from Santiago are as such: Santiago-Rancagua-Talca-Linares-Chillan-Los Angeles-Temuco-Valdivia-Osorno-Puerto Montt-Isla de Chiloe. What was the plan? As ever, there was very little plan. When Sammy had left El Cuartel in Valdivia, we said we’d meet up again in Chiloe, where his family friends had offered him a house to crash in, somewhere. On my part, ever since I entered Chile I’ve heard enough talk of Valdivia. Valdiva. It’s synonymous with artisanal beer. Alas, is that a plan?
Soon a man in a Scion picked me up from the road. It was early morning, and the sky was still gray. He was Jose, and heading to Puerto Montt. The road was that smooth highway, freshly built almost freshly mixed.
“It’s asphalt,” he said. “More flexible than concrete.” He looked at me for a moment and then turned his gaze back to the road. “You heard about the earthquake?”
“Yea, I was in Mexico.”
“It his close to Conception. Whole Metropolitana felt it. Bunch of buildings fell down. Whole fishing villages vanished. The roads were all shook to shit. At least, the concrete roads. These are new.”
The 2010 earthquake killed over 700 people. It was one of the largest earthquakes to date. The most interesting analysis was with the Haiti earthquake of the same year, of lesser magnitude, but which claimed over 250,000 lives. So it goes.
“Where are you headed?” he asked me with a sideways glance.
“A beautiful place, Valdivia. Great forts.”
“Forts?” my ear perked at the word. I loved old battlements.
“Yea, in Niebla and around. Most defended port in the country, and in much of South America I think,” he replied.
Later, we stopped at a lone building along the highway. Stretching out beside it was a covered area with behemoth spherical clay ovens. A man was digging plump disks of something out of the ash and tossing them into a basket.
“You hungry?” Jose asked.
Inside a team of family members worked in the kitchen. We strode over and Jose ordered tortillas. I watched a man passing a mass of dough over and over again through a roller. The scent of the place was of bread and coffee, and the powdery air made the whole scene somehow more authentic.
At a table covered in plastic to protect the already damaged table cloth I sat with Jose. The coffee fixings and sugar were placed before us. I kept stealing glances at a poster of a “mapuche” woman in “traditional clothing”, or so it said. I thought it was just a hot girl in lingerie.
The meal was the southern Chile version of whatever the word “tortilla” represents. The lumps of cinder I’d seen the man pulling out of the oven were actually pieces of bread. They knead the dough, form the bread cakes, and bury them in the ash of the oven, building a fire above them. When they’re ready, the cakes are removed from the oven, and the ash scraped off with a wire brush. They’re served fresh with meat, cheese, or any of a number of ingredients. They’re delectable, and probably travel extremely well, the warm soft insides protected from staleness by a hard toasted shell.
Jose dropped me off at the crossroads that would lead 50 kilometers away from Ruta 5 to the city of Valdivia. I wished him well and thanked him, and he left. He’d left me with a bag of extra cheese tortillas.
A man soon pulled over once I’d finished a covert squat and had returned to the road. He had a sunken eye, puss forming at the crevices. I thought how unfortunate that you don’t see more people like him. He dropped me off down the road and another man quickly picked me up. This southern hospitality thing is no joke, I thought. We didn’t talk, but he offered me a cheese tortilla. He didn’t quite understand my polite refusal, and I was forced to down the offering, grateful nonetheless.
Since Temuco the landscape had changed. It was no longer hot, but warm. The sky remained overcast, but the fields shifted drastically from bush and boney trees to lush green and towering pines. Rolling velvety fields of light green wheat looking like a fairytale, thick bushy oases of trees plopped here and there. Then eucalyptus. Despite my incorrect use of the word, I want to write that they came in droves.
I finally made it to Valdivia, and said goodbye to my ride. I walked across the city. Buildings were all constructed of wood panels. They were painted many different colors. This part of chile is famous for its German influences, and when I went to the San Sebastian University to use the Wi-Fi, a few of the old German houses that had survived earthquakes and weather lined the avenue. Besides the architecture, German influence was obvious. “Hotel Gerlach,” “Kunstmann,” etc. After some students obliged me by revealing the university’s password, and after checking the internet (which we all know what that entails), I headed to the fish market.
Valdivia is a small city that sits on a wide river. The access to the sea explains the giant sea lions which sit just behind the market, awaiting the scraps. The market was filled with all sorts of fish, mussels, clams, fruits, etc. There was also a submarine, on the fins of which lazed more sea lions. I enjoyed the town, the wood, the lack of concrete.
Across the bridge I walked, eager to find Niebla, a coastal town where forts were purported to be. The other side of the river was clearly the “nice” part of town. So it goes. Anyway, the neat lawns and straight sidewalks reminded me of home.
I bought more bread, pate and tomatoes, filled my water at the tap and asked a man for Niebla. I walked that way.
A construction contractor picked me up from the road once I’d figured out which way to go. When the clouds persist, it’s a wonderful thing to meet nice people. He spoke of his work, and I spoke of how I wanted to work in construction one day, that in fact I already have, more or less. He took me to his most recent project, a restaurant that he’d constructed on the river that takes the shape of a boat. From stern to bow, keel to bridge, the thing is a legitimate boat. Inside I found tiled floors, trimmed walls and railed stairways to the top. From the outdoor area I admired the view over the water. It minded me of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, green plots of land surrounded by water, and gentle and drastic hills alike diversifying the shore.
The contractor drove me to Niebla, past the fort, and dropped me off at a beach access. It began to drizzle. They had told me it was wet down here. I knew it was wet in the south. They said it rained 10 months out of the year. I could swear I was back in Oregon.
The dark-sand beach seemed cold. Tiny waves crashed, but the muted roar of the water through rocks betrayed the true danger of the undertow. Mist clouded the horizon, which would be blue if not for the gray. To the south, across the river mouth, was the town and old fort of Corral, to the north was a high cliff and slippery rocks. Once I’d climbed the cliff, chucked stones into the surf and done some business hidden in the bush, I mounted a staircase. I pitched my tent overlooking the Pacific Ocean, smack dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. The houses looked hippy, and the hippy I asked seemed kind.
The next morning I paid a 500 peso entrance fee to see the fort (1 dollar). I was the first one there, and immediately upon mounting the rock outcropping into which the fort itself had been carved, I found the way I might’ve snuck in. Oh well.
The clouds had not disappeared. They seemed to dangle in the air, dark and light in places just like Oregon’s sky, the same kind of sky that you do not know why, but gives you a feeling of apprehension, but the kind of sky that makes you happy the rain is slight.
The fort was built on the point. On the other side of the water I could see the Corral fort. The lighthouse seemed to glow from some unplaced light source, and formed a marked contrast against the age of the stone or the vibrancy of the grass. On a lower level, rusted canons sat facing outward between restored sandstone parapets. One can see the magazine storage house was carved directly into the cliff, a space between wall and rock protecting against wintertime humidity.
The on-site museum explained that the Bay of Corral and Valdivia were defended by a system of 15 forts and lesser batteries, all of which exist to this day. During the war of independence, the forts were captured by land, not by sea, and the commander, Lord Cochrane, rightly chose not to destroy them. In the museum, a lady approached me and told me her son was a traveler. She gave me her number and told me if ever I was in Rancagua, she would gladly offer me a bed and shower. So it goes.
From behind the museum, I stood staring out into the bay, imagining an armadas’ creaking wood and portholes fiery from blasted cannonballs that would soar overhead, perhaps cooked red-hot and meant as incendiaries. The sky was dark despite the time of day. I heard barking.
I moved forward and climbed onto the fence, peering down the cliff. 100 feet below I saw two dogs. They were barking and encircling a sea lion cub, or a seal I couldn’t tell. The barks were angry, and the cub had its head outstretched vertically into the air. One of the dogs would snap at the cub, and the cub at it. I watched with a subdued sense of horror sinking into my chest, as the dogs overcame the cub’s attempts to defend. The dogs lurched forward and clamped the cub in their powerful jaws, trying to rip the neck apart. As one dog thrashed violently at the neck, the other would take up a fin or flipper or belly. They tore and thrashed until they slipped or until the cub wiggled enough to free itself. Despite the obvious thickness of the marine mammal’s skin, I could make out the unmistakable dark red of blood.
The cub would back up toward the water, and the dogs would clamp it again, and drag it unmercifully back to up to land. The whole scene was a display of natural violence that humans are very much a part of, but that they are very much disconnected from. My insides turned in angst. The sight didn’t create in me a desire to be a vegetarian so much as a desire to eat canine. It also brought the pressure of time to the fore. So many things had to happen in a precise order, a precise timing, so that the cub would be attacked by the dogs. How much choice does anything have, after all? Living seems to convince me more and more that fate is. I watched as the cub met its fate. But if time is always continuing, then we’re constantly living our fate. And it doesn’t matter that we think we can change it, because it’s only going to happen in one way. Free will? Insomuch as you are free to think your decisions are changing the future, you have free will. Even your life-changing moments… how can anyone say that they’re
beyond fate? How appropriate that I find relevance in the book I’m currently reading:
“When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight oclock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather’s and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it’s rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father’s. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you may forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.”
–William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
I walked out of Niebla and waited at the ferry terminal for one of the cars unloading from Corral to pick me up. Heavy smokers left me off in front of an establishment I’d passed on the way to Niebla; the Kunstmann cerveceria. The brewery was a big building modeled after a German country home, with big varnished wood pillars and that iconic method of timber-framing. Walking inside was somewhat like walking into tourism, if that makes sense. I didn’t mind. I wanted beer.
I ordered the sampler for 2,400 pesos and sat to a table. The waitress came up in her dirndl dress and presented me my shots of beer: lager, torobayo, bock, miel, and others. The honey beer was esquisite. Kunstmann. The Bock had a wood taste that reminded me of my favorite beer, Black Butte Porter, from Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon. Oregon was my so-called formative period when it comes to beer. That, and my time in Belgium. Miss Golden Draak.
After using the men’s room (although the rather feminine symbol on the door did not convince me), I hit the road. Walked. Hitching beside a gated community sucks. Eventually I got a ride back to Valdivia. That night I stealth camped in a park, walking passed a “Camping Prohibited” sign, and despite a guard’s flashlight strafing several times over my tent, I was not caught. In the morning I noticed the trees were tall. The forest was beautiful.
I walked to the McDonald’s to do a bit of work and to play around online. I found Sammy was online as well.
“Yo dude,” I wrote.
“Hey, I’m in Valdivia,” he wrote back.
“No shit, I’m at the McDonald’s.”
“Alright. Be right over.”
Sammy showed up tall and wrapped I his two shoulder bags as usual. He always had on a gray hood sweatshirt, and I always asked how he could handle that in hotter weather. He smiled and sat down without a word.
“Hey, man, lucky. How is it that we’ve managed to go online at the right moment now twice,” I said.
“Yeah. I’m meeting a couchsurfer. What are you doin?”
“I was gonna hang out for a bit more and then head south tomorrow. Camped in a park last night, pretty tranquil. And chance I could…”
“Yea, come on I have to meet her soon.”
Down the Germanesque streets we walked and sat in front of a strange-looking God House. Loreto showed up and smiled at Sammy. She didn’t think he could be the one because he’d written her that he was coming alone. When she learned about me she decided it was alright for me to stay at her place as well.
She lived in a small apartment with two rooms. Sammy would crash on the bed and I on the floor. At a bar downtown we drank a myriad of artisanal beers, then the popular Escudo beer, which means “shield”, back at her place. I retired early and fell onto my mattress.
In the morning it all felt so ephemeral, and indeed it was. Sammy and I agreed we’d meet—that is, both be in Castro—in something like four days. Sammy and I shared a passion for history, and so the forts in the Bay of Corral were just right for him.
It took several hours to walk to the far edge of Valdivia to where I assumed the countryside began, the urban clinging to the southbound road like elastic molasses. The sky remained somewhat overcast despite the previous days’ short-lived sunshine. I stuck out my thumb.
A car with a family pulled over, and the driver got out. He was white, skinny and blue-eyed. I through my pack into the trunk, and his wife got out of the front seat to sit in the back with their daughter.
The man stopped and said something. When he opened the passenger door he suddenly let out a terrifying yell, “EL PISCO ES KAPUT!” And so it was that when he’d pulled over, a bottle of pisco they had bought broke against the underbelly mechanics of the driver’s seat.
It’d been a while since I’d seen an angry German, but that language seems to exaggerate the anger. I reluctantly climbed into the front seat. He was fuming, and no one said a word. Then his wife said something to me, and I didn’t understand. The German husband snapped at her in, in German. After 10 minutes I said in English, “At least it was a good pisco; that much I can tell.”
It was 50/50 whether they’d take it negatively or positively. Lucky me. We talked about the financial crisis in Europe, the Eurozone dissolving, etc etc.
“The people, they don’t understand. The debt. We need debt to survive, that’s how the system works.”
“And debt doesn’t reflect transnational organizations’ profits stream into countries,” I offered.
“Yes. But most importantly, this is big, and I just want people to understand it. I’m a professor at the University Austral. It’s very frustrating…” he paused. “That smell is going to stay in here.”
They let me off near “Cecinas Czischke,” in case you were still wondering how strong the German influence here is. In fact, during WWII, this entire area was blacklisted by the allies and trading embargoes were enforced.
Another short ride brought me toward Ruta 5. I walked for the final 2 kilometers. Yellow flower fields and red blooming trees complimented the walk. On the highway a hydro-engineer picked me up. When he let me off in Osorno, after stopping briefly at a police station, he said, “oh I forgot to ask your name. But, never mind, it’s better that way!”
Puerto Octay looked like a neat place on my map. I wouldn’t meet Sammy in Castro (which is on the island of Chiloe) for 4 days, so I decided to explore a bit more. From Osorno I walked away from Ruta 5, trying to get a ride from cars waiting to pass road construction. After asking 30 cars I decided my chances were better to head to Frutillar, another town on the map and that a few truckers had suggested to me.
A salmon farmer picked me up and told me he was headed to Castro. I opted for Frutillar still, and he was gracious enough to take me all the long way from the highway down to the “interesting part” of Frutillar. I hopped out and he sped back to Ruta 5.
I must have been mistaken. Frutillar, despite its prime location on the Lago de Llanquihue, was not for me. It was a rich man’s weekend getaway. The shoreline was built up as a pristine walkway, and perfect camping spots on the soft grass were labeled uncampable. The houses were richly ornamented and clean, each built of varnished wood and glass. I bought some bread, surprised that the inflated price wasn’t so much higher than elsewhere.
The sky looked thunderous, but it never rumbled. A view of the water was all there was to be had. Only the Teatro del Lago was interesting. A large wooden theatre built of many planks from different species, the Teatro del Lago was constructed over the water. At night it stood out brilliantly.
I strode around the walkway, admiring the architecture. Back on shore I contemplated a small islet that looked campable, if only I could swim out to it. I decided to first check elsewhere.
It was a good decision as I soon came to a large unoccupied lot, toward the back of which a small hill hosted an enclave of enormous trees. I pitched my tent on the dry ground beneath one of those trees. It had begun to rain elsewhere, and my umbrella had kept me dry up until then. I opened my computer in the tent and wrote a few articles on Paris, considering my Valdivian beer paid for. I fell asleep with music in my ears.
Allow a bit of fast-forwarding. In the morning a long walk and a few rides brought me around a large peninsula that jutted into the lake. The sky dark. The rain light. We passed the salmon industry town of Llanquihue, and took some back roads to Puerto Varas. There, I ate bread and tomatoes, topping it off with a package of cheap cookies. Normally there’s some kind of spectacular view of the Osorno Volcano towering over Llanquihue Lake from here. Alas.
No more step-by-step, I’m boring myself. Let’s just say that it was raining hard, and I’m very glad I had rain pants, a rain jacket and my umbrella. I knew there was a reason I hauled all that crap around. A whole bunch of rides saving me from the rain, little adventures here and there, and I’m south of Puerto Montt, the last big city before the famous—or infamous—Carretera Austral to the east (dirt road, south, etc.). But I went south from there, intent on arriving to the Isla Grande de Chiloe.
Stuck. Stuck at some crossroads with very little space for anyone to pull over, and of what space there is, it is mud. Water poured from the clouds, with devious intentions of dampening clothes or dampening spirits. The umbrella, rain pants, rain jacket, and backpack rain cover did their best. The boots worked too.
Suddenly there pulled over a car. I did not expect the woman. Her eyes glistened, skin pinching at the corners. She looked to be in her fifties. She was small, and she showed a quality in her eyes that I’ve seen enough times to know the goodness of it.
“Hola que haces aqui en la lluvia?” she said.
“Estoy viajando a dedo/I’m hitchhiking!” I cried happily.
“Get in get in, I’m only going down the road, but maybe you’re hungry.”
I climbed in the car, “thanks a lot! It’s not really a great place to stand, is it?” I said.
She laughed a laugh that might be described as hearty. “I saw you there and just had to get you out of the cold. Why don’t you come by the house for almuerzo?” Despite my immediate conviction that she was a good person, her rapidity in inviting me to her home surprised me, but I accepted.
“My son travels actually. He was in San Pedro and met some Swiss girls. They all came to the house—oh, it was lovely! One of the girls went home, but the other girl is coming back for Christmas after staying in Punta Arenas in the far south.”
I told her I was always glad to meet folks who know travelers. Not long down the highway she pulled off down a dirt road. There were a number of houses here, but they were country houses far from any town.
“That house is mine. That house over there is my sister’s, and the houses over there belong to my brothers. Another brother is building a house further back.”
The entire family had bought the plots of land here, and each member of the family had begun to build. There were gardens, forest and several barking dogs who greeted us as we pulled into Gloria’s place. That was her name, and it fit her perfectly, Gloria. Glory. Glorious.
“Only my sister and I live here year-round; everyone else comes on weekends and holidays. Come, come inside, make yourself at home.”
Inside her house the walls were wood planks. In the kitchen several odors floated around and caught my attention. I tried to distinguish them; laurel, burning wood and garlic I think. Gloria occupied herself with the estufa leña, the wood-burning furnace that doubled as a stove. Her daughter must be around 30 years old, Carolina. I kissed her cheek hello, as is customary, and shook her young son Benjamin’s hand, who must be around 3 or 4.
I took off some damp clothing and hung it by the stove as Carolina suggested. She was very kind, and surprisingly interested in my travels. I ate lentils, bread, salad and coke with them. Gloria’s other son Alejandro showed up then, and was equally friendly and interested in my story. Then I met Gloria’s sister Teresa, and by now I was no longer surprised at the hospitality each one of them showed me. In this sense of hospitality, I’m referring not only to accommodation but to agreeable interaction with everyone present.
Later I helped Gloria bring in her supplies from the car. She bakes sweets in her quite legitimate industrial kitchen, which is attached to the side of the house, and sells them in Puerto Montt on market days. The two dogs were large and interested, jumping on me whenever I seemed to allow it.
“You should speak English with Carolina and Alejandro,” Gloria told me back in the kitchen with everyone.
“Yeah, Chael, I studied some English a bit,” said Alejandro.
“And you?” I asked Carolina in English. She opened her mouth, closed it, and shook her head yes. Everyone laughed.
Gloria disappeared for a time and I sat chatting with Alejandro and Carolina. Carolina told me she works as a waitress in an upscale Puerto Montt restaurant, where many foreigners dine. I wrote a few useful phrases down. Alejandro was very interested in the “why” English structures are the way they are. I would tell him why, and then tell him to forget the why, that it doesn’t matter for his purposes.
Alejandro was kind. He took me into his room to play a bit of Bach on his piano, since I’d told them I’d been listening to a lot of Bach. Somehow, and probably because of his overt generosity, I was not surprised to learn that he was a member of not a death metal band, but a “violent thrash metal” band.
I ate tortillas with the two siblings when the clock struck 10 and Gloria came in.
“Chael, it looks like you might have to wait until tomorrow to continue,” she said jokingly, aware of the obviousness of the situation. “Come, we’ll put you up in my sister’s home.”
I went with Gloria and Teresa across the lawn, the dogs running wet circles around us. The rain had finally let up. Inside her house there was another wood-burning stove and an electric heater. A young kid was watching T.V., one of Teresa’s pupils. Teresa was a school teacher and offered to host the young guy, since his family lives in a remote rural area from where it would be otherwise impossible to commute. I took a burning hot shower and passed out in a tall fluffy bed.
The next morning I helped Gloria a bit in her bakery, and then ate breakfast of local honey, bread and “murta” marmalade from that area. Coffee too.
“More coffee?” she asked.
“Oh no I’m fine, thank you. Actually I never usually drink coffee. I never wanted to get the addiction, you know?”
She just laughed and tossed half a walnut into her mouth, munching away as she observed me.
“You’re going to come back?” she asked. Alejandro and Carolina came into the kitchen, overhearing.
“Hey yea, Chael you have to come back. We can go hiking up to a great lake I know. Hey I can drop you off at the beginning of the Carretera Austral too!”
“I suppose I could, it wouldn’t be until later in December though,” I replied. Everyone hesitated. “Oh heck, sure I’ll come back. I mean, I’m coming back this way anyway, why wouldn’t I come back.”
They smiled. “Great, you can speak English the whole week with my kids!” said Gloria. “You can help me in the garden and the kitchen, and eat good, family food.”
After jotting down Alejandro’s e-mail, I shouldered my pack and headed out the door and down the highway, a farewell to the family. The dogs decided to follow me.
There was construction happening on the road, meaning that very little space was available for me to walk. The dogs were almost killed more than a few times, and the honking drivers yelled hate in my direction. 2 kilometers down the road the dogs persisted, clearly trying to protect me. So, I walked all the way back to the house.
Gloria was surprised to see me again, but when I explained about the dogs she just laughed. “Ok we’ll watch them, go on ahead.”
The dogs followed me again, and this time, when I returned to the house Gloria put them in a shed. “Thanks Gloria, thanks for everything.”
Back on the road, it was a red car that stopped before me. A semi screamed by, the noise deafening as the trucker pulled his horn in protest at a near-hit against the back of the sedan. A few more rides down the road, one a repeat of the day before, and I was at a ferry terminal.
The sky was gray and drizzling, small drops making me blink. Beyond the body of water I saw the shore of Chiloe. I boarded freely and sat down on my pack. Once the ferry had pushed off I took the opportunity to find a ride. A trucker agreed to take me near to Castro, some 75 kilometers south from the Ancud ferry landing.
Like in many moments of solitude on a rare voyage, I began thinking as I stared into the wake. The wake. They’re marks; marks left behind but never really gone. Those waves are bits of energy that oceanographers and physicists say will circumnavigate the entire world unless disrupted. They say that every sound does likewise; that a drop of water, or the sound of a car crash or the rhythmic slap of skin on a passionate night, will exist as sound waves around the globe, no matter how imperceptible they are, but they are.
Chiloe is purported to be a beautiful and serene place. Unfortunately the overcast did not convince me of this. We drove south. The countryside was pleasant, and everywhere there was that invasive yellow bush called Scotch Broom. It is one more thing in common with Oregon. It’s an awfully pretty invasive species.
Soon I wished the trucker well, and ran for cover from the torrent of rain that had suddenly decided to fall. I was 10 kilometers from Castro, and the rain would soak me with or without the gear. I hopped a bus into town.
Everything was wood, and it was all wet. The parts of the city near the water were built on stilts. The wooden houses were all different colors. Castro was pretty, but I wasn’t sure to what extent it merited the adulation it received. In any case, I would compare it with northwestern fishing towns in the U.S.
More bread and tomato. A brief visit to the public library to steal internet. A walk south out of town. A long and rainy walk. A woman suggesting I sleep in a bus stop when I inquired. Me not wanting to. More walking. Until I’m out of Castro completely and into another district. There a church steeple. Me walking down the small road toward it. “Nercon,” the sign read. That’s a funny name for a town, I thought.
The old wooden church was built in the late 19th century. It looked weird. Then I remembered that Chiloe is famous for its distinct architectural style when it comes to the churches. I wonder how they decided on this design; essentially a longhouse with a multi-tiered steeple at the front. The Nercon church had a beautiful façade of arcades topped by a triple set of octagonal bell houses. The wood was worn old by constant rain. This church would surely squeak. The cemetery was ancient as well.
Alongside the God House a dirt track led down into a forested unknown. Of course, I followed this path. I had stocked up on bread and tomatoes, cookies and water. I just wanted to pitch the tent somewhere, but with the rain I was unsure. I might camp under the church’s awning if the rain doesn’t let up.
I followed the track, briefly examining several camping possibilities which caught my eye, but which I ultimately reneged. And then, as I was following the track up a long hill and feeling my pack seemingly grow heavier, there came a lull in the rain, and the sun. Its rays found promise through the clouds and burst open onto the land. I stopped and admired it, for it had been several days since I felt it on my face. The green plant life around me dripped, as though it resembled the thawing of winter at rise of spring.
I climbed to the very end of the track, and turned around to behold a magnificent sight. The brilliant yellow Scotch Broom aided to strike awe into my heart, and the pristine cow pastures rolling down to the bay as well. The sky was a patchwork of dark and light. At the bottom of the sloping hills the bay’s water sparkled blue. A few fishing trolleys idled in the tide. I knew by my map that I was looking at Chiloe’s own berth, it being a collusion of landmasses that might otherwise deceive.
I was at the top of a hill, and I felt quite paternal toward my country side view. Finding a break in the fence, I climbed out onto a field, found a spot and pitched my tent, careful to keep the view for the comfortable evening. The scene revitalized me, and so when the rains returned in the night, I could care less.
The next day I returned to draw the church. There, I met two European bicyclists who talked to me about how expensive Chile is. The Europeans have that conversation more than anyone else.
I would pass them several times throughout the day. I made my way to Chonchi, where they passed me an hour later. Then I walked for a few hours around the town until I was picked up by a man who, upon getting into his car, greeted me with an outstretched hand and a rumbling voice, “Perez Fernandez.”
“Cale. You know, you would make a great orator in ancient Rome.”
He laughed, or purred, I couldn’t tell. He told me he’d be a rich man anywhere else, but that being a doctor in Chiloe was more rewarding.
“I only started studying medicine when I was 34,” he informed me. It made me happy. Despite my want to rid myself of the cares of time, I’m always thinking about it. Perez’ late studying invigorates me because it suggests that I still have time…
2 hours later he dropped me off in the center of the most southerly city on Chiloe, Quellon.
“What you’re looking for is across the bay. Just follow this road around and you’ll get there,” he said.
He drove off and I bought some fixings to appease my stomach. Then I began the walk. What was I doing here at the very southern tip of Chiloe? I still had another couple days before I had to meet Sammy somewhere in Castro. I would’ve stayed in that city if not for someone having told me that Quellon was the end of the Panamerican highway. I had been confused about that, because there are highways that head all the way to the Tierra del Fuego in the uber-south of Argentina. Well, those highways are also the “panamerican.” I learned that the Panamerican highway is not one long entity, but its various branches count as well. Technically, for example, the Panamerican highway never touches the west coast of the U.S. Instead, it passes from Calgary into Montana or from the Great Lakes into Minnesota. In the end it’s all a bunch of bullshit, but I thought it’d be worth-while to see what kind of attraction the “end of the panamerican” has in store.
It took 3 hours to walk from Quellon, around the bay, into the municipal park and onward to the end of the highway. Once there, I met one man, and he had a camera, so he snapped a photo of me. The end of the Panamerican Highway is a giant anchor. The road simply ends, with big words written in white that read, “fin.” There’s also an altar, a crucifix, and what would be good views of mountains on a clear day.
I walked down an unnecessary “poets’ walkway”, then jumped down onto the beach. The end of the highway is called “Punta de Lapa”, or “Hito Cero.” It’s windy. On the beach purple shells litter the sand. There was no one.
I followed a dirt road up a forested hill toward a mansion, passing “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs. More security for me, I figure. On a 50 foot cliff, I found a relatively sheltered area to pitch tent. The view over the southern waters was great. There was very little life out on those scattered islands, and only the sounds of wind and motoring trawlers caught my ear.
The following day I returned to Castro. The skies were still covered in grayness. I walked around to see a bit more of town, but it had taken me much of the day to arrive. Near the library I found yet another great perch with a lookout over the quintessential bay of Castro and its houses on stilts. I knew the man I’d asked if it was alright to jump the high fence and camp on the grass on the other side was a Colombian when he’d responded, “Why here parce, the beach is way more chimba, huevon!” I jumped the fence and camped.
Back at the library in the morning, I opened my computer and found a message from Sammy the previous day: made it to Castro, will check e-mail tomorrow before 11am. I wrote back to meet at the library at 12.
Sure enough, just a few hours later, in walked the man, his red and blue bags in tow, strapped around his shoulders. We shared our more recent adventures and then got down to business.
“We’re in luck. I got a message from my family friends. I wrote down the directions. We have an empty house to ourselves,” he said.
“Right on man, I was just going to head north if it was a no-go,” I replied.
We walked out of the library and I stopped in my tracks. The sun was out and the sky was blue like in my dreams. All these days in rain, and then Sammy shows up without any raingear at all, and bam, the sun comes out. I pestered him about it. So it goes.
We bought some bread and hiked out of Castro toward the north. Eventually we got a ride a few kilometers down the road to the crossroads of Llau Llau. We were in search of a crossroads called San Jose. The walk was made hot by the powerful southern sun. We walked for a long time, eventually coming to a store where he bought Fanta and I bought chocolate.
Fast-forward a few hours and we’re on a dirt road after a crossroads called San Jose, looking for “the first white house on your left.”
“I think it was back there, man,” I said.
“No, because that house wasn’t white… it was corrugated metal.”
“Damnit corrugated metal. She said first house on the right? First white house? Is that house there white, or is it half white and half brick?”
We were quite confused, and lost. Several questionably white houses looked either empty or too locked up. We were trying to find the grounds keeper of Sammy’s family friends’ home, but we couldn’t figure it out.
After taking a piss, I said, “Alright, we gotta ask someone. What’s the keeper’s name again?”
We walked up to a random house after unlatching the front gate. A woman came to the door.
“Excuse us, do you know a Rita?”
“Rita?” she said, an older woman coming up beside her.
“Rita is a grounds keep of the house we’re trying to find,” I told them.
“I don’t think so… no, there’s no Rita here,” she replied.
“Ok, well thanks anyway.”
“Are you boys hungry? You want to have a cafecito?”
Sammy and I looked at each other, and shook our heads. The women came out of the house and led us to the house next door. Inside was a wood-burning oven, family pictures tacked on the wall, and a long table. They served us bread, real honey and coffee. We chatted about our traveling, and they talked about their family. This is the famous chilote hospitality that everyone had been talking about.
After about 20 minutes we thanked our benefactors, wished them well, and headed back onto the road with a bit of information. We had to continue down the road until the first crossroads, and then walk down the fork to the end. Something about a green fence, a shipbuilder and Dalcahue.
Now that we had an idea of where we were going, we noticed our beautiful surroundings. We were in the bright green country of Chiloe. Fences marked large plots of land, each with a house claiming sovereignty. The houses were either small humble homes like the one we’d just come from, or large intricate homes built as outsiders’ getaways. The sun was out, we were rejuvenated.
Not long after, we found the crossroads, and quickly procured a ride in the back of a pick-up truck down the dusty way (it was the only bit of traffic we’d seen in an hour). When the road ended back at the highway, we realized that there had been two crossroads called San Jose. And there on the corner sat “the first white house on the right.”
We knocked on the door and met Rita’s son, a young kid who played around for a while as we sat on our packs and waited for Rita to get back from shopping. When she did, we greeted, and Sammy spoke with her briefly about their mutual friends and owners of the house we’d be staying at. Rita grabbed the keys and we walked back up the dirt road.
Eventually we came to a green gate, beyond with was a gentle field of high grass sloping downward. We could see another bay in front of us. Dalcahue was the nearest town and it looked white in the clear day. Opposite the house was the island of Quinchao.
We passed a clean and well-constructed green house and continued down the path to yet another house, this one larger. Inside we found a wood-burning stove, a fully-stocked kitchen, plenty of comfortable furnishings and 6 or so beds organized in the back area. We thanked Rita and she handed Sammy the keys. She closed the door behind her.
“Sammy, this is awesome. Look at this view!” From the couch the window looked out over the bay, the island opposite, Dalcahue over there. The house was built on stilts, and a wooden balcony wrapped around the whole thing.
“Yea, this is sweet. Chael, look what I found,” Sammy said.
I turned around and there in his hand was Scrabble. All the memories of our time in Cusco suddenly came back; the constant Scrabble in the Pariwana bar, or at a café or in the courtyard, the free internet, our winning the bottle of rum, sneaking into Machu Picchu, drinking in Juliaca.
“Sam, this is gonna be sweet.”
And so it was. We spent four nights at the house. The first day we’d decided to walk into Dalcahue. We stocked up on potatoes, bread and beer. We hitched back and lit a fire in the stove. We spent our time with Scrabble and Rummy, walked around, I drew a bit. After the days of camping, a comfortable place like this felt surreal. We crossed the free ferry one day to Quinchao, and hitched all the way to Achao. The island was pretty, and the islets out to see were many.
Escudo and Scrabble, Scrabble and Escudo. Walking to Dalcahue, hitching back and vice versa. One day we decided on a meal of the famous Chilote dish called curanto at Dalcahue’s “La Cocineria” seafood market. Curanto is a soup packed with such delights as mussels, corn bread, smoked ham and chorizo. Being the cheap bastards that we are, we split the 5 dollar meal.
On another evening we walked out onto the sea floor once the tide had receded. Eventually we came to an enticing sight; the entire floor was covered in mussels clinging to rocks and each other.
“Sammy, are you thinking the same thing I am?”
“Yes. I’ll go get a bag.”
We collected dozens of mussels. The house looked beautiful in the light. Clouds were glowing yellow and the blue of sky shown through like splotches of heaven, all while the sunset drew in the air and released it in a remarkable show of natural prism bending colors. We stopped to watch the day fade into dusk.
Back in the house we scrubbed the mussels clean. We threw them all into a big pot of water and red wine, tomatoes, onion and garlic. We let them boil for… too long. Alas, the mussels opened, and the whole thing looked marvelous until the water turned brown and sampling the mussels left us with cringing faces. We discarded the mussels that didn’t open, Sammy informing me that that means that they’re already dead.
Later we would learn that we had to put a tiny bit of water in the pot, and cook them only until they opened. We couldn’t let the death of so many little creatures go to waste, so we ate them regardless. The experience defines the limits of edible.
On the fourth morning we left the house in order, had a short cafecito with Rita, and were off. The end of November was close, and our plan was to arrive in Santiago on the 30th to see our friends that we’d met in France 4 years before. Alas, it was an unwilling goodbye to the house, as we could have easily lost time staying there longer.
The day was clear and bright, a perfect one for hitching out. A delivery van to Dalcuhue, walking out, a ride in a fast pick-up to Ruta 5, a ride with a trucker to Ancud, a ride with a man to close to the ferry, a walk to the ferry, and a very wet crossing brought us back to the mainland.
A ride with a trucker to a crossroads south of Puerto Montt, a ride with a guy who offers us some weed to Puerto Montt, a ride with a trucker to a Terpel gas station, and a ride with another trucker to Copec highway center brought us to Temuco. The day had been so clear, that all the white peaked volcanoes were visible from the highway, including one spewing a huge ash cloud into the sky. We had some leftover bread, which we decorated with Copec’s free ketchup and mayo. That night I camped on the grass beside the building, and Sammy buried his head in his arms in the TV room. The service centers are warm, they have Wi-Fi, and they offer a perfect place to ask for rides.
The next day it was a ride with two folks in a sedan listening to Adele again (Lima), a ride to Collipulli, eating with a view of the train bridge, a ride with equestrians to Los Angeles, and a ride to Chillan with a German-Chilean that brought us our next adventure. We got a ride with a frantic man in a delivery truck by suggesting that we could help out. We drove with him into Chillan, where for a while we unloaded everything from the back of his truck and rolled it into a store.
Later on, a great long ride with trucker Carlos brought us to the San Fernando Copec. I pitched my tent, but was suddenly woken by the sprinkler system turning on and pelting my shelter with streams of water. The next dry I dried it out in the sun, and then Sammy and I got a quick ride with a couple heading into Santiago (after turning down a few that were going closer by). It was December 1st, just in time.
Santiago had some things in store for me. I needed to deal with the embassy, I needed to deal with a new umbrella (yes, my Honduran umbrella has finally completely come apart), I was going to get to see old friends, and a few surprising connections would be made with travel buddies. Santiago…