I think the one word that pops into my head now when I think of Chile is ‘mountains’. The magnificent Andes stretch the entire length of the country and where ever you are, mountains are not very far away.
For the last few days I escaped the city and headed to the mountains in the south of the country (about 2.5 hours inland from the city of Concepcion – the region worst hit by the earthquake in February). I joined a volunteer project organised by a Foundation called Sendero de Chile which tries to make Chilean people aware of and appreciative of their natural and cultural heritage through tourism. I found out about the project through Juan (a friend I met at another volunteering project in June when we built emergency houses near Santiago for people affected by the earthquake). He is part of an NGO called Travolution which focuses on sustainable tourism and community development of tourism projects. This volunteer trip was to the region of Alto Bio Bio and specifically a valley of four different Mapuche communities (the indigenous people of Chile) who are involved in local tourism projects – mainly Chilean people visit the area in the summer to camp and do lots of horse riding which is one of Chile’s favourite pastimes.
But enough of the background to the weekend…
Juan and I were part of a group of 5 volunteers who stayed in a community called Pitril (the lowest of the communities in the valley). We stayed with the president of the tourism network, Louis and his wife Claudia on their plot of land beside the freezing cold, but beautiful Rio Bio Bio. The backdrop was a stunning snow-capped peak and lush forest covered the lower slopes of the mountains. Louis’ family has not had much luck this year – in April their house burnt down due to a spark from a cooking fire and since all the houses here are made of wood, it quickly spread and they lost everything. Then his sister and her husband (Monica and Marcelo), who live ‘next door’, lost their house in the earthquake since it was close to the edge of a cliff which collapsed with the quake and everything was
washed away in the river. Our team of volunteers spent the first afternoon acting a bit like pyromaniacs since we helped Louis start a huge bonfire to burn the remaining remnants of the house, plus lots of other old wood and bits and pieces lying around. It was quite sad to pick up little pieces of tiles and metal and cutlery etc that was all that remained of their previous life. But the real work of the weekend involved painting the roof of the new cooking/eating area which in this case was a large concrete slab with a wooden and corrugated iron roof. This was not particularly hard work, but it was a very hot day when we did it and the corrugated iron also reflected the sun and added to the heat. I have done a fair amount of painting in my life, but I must say this occasion topped everything before simply because of the backdrop we had (see the photo nearby). The next day was much harder work and involved leveling the ground around Monica and Marcelo’s new house – this was done by filling in the depressions with two huge piles of sand and pebbles. The whole morning was spent shoveling the sand into wheelbarrows and dumping it around the house before leveling it out until it was even with the slightly higher ground further from the house. While it was nice to have such good weather again (especially since the two days before we arrived were freezing cold and snowing), the heat was incredible and made the work really tiring. So much so that in the afternoon we decided that it was just to hot to continue and instead Marcelo took us further up the valley to collect a local fungi (Ñengâm) to have with our ‘once’ (pronounced on-se) which is a smaller meal eaten around 6ish since the biggest meal of the day is usually at lunchtime. Ñengâm are
small white balls which grow in clumps on trees and whilst they don’t have much of a taste direct from the tree, Monica prepared them in two different ways for us back home and they were extremely tasty. It felt so great to collect a basketful of them, return to the house and then enjoy the ‘fruits’ of our labour (along with the obligatory mate) whilst sitting in the cool evening air under the backdrop of the mountains. Nature is an incredible supermarket, yet living in the city we are so far removed from this way of life which is still common for rural communities everywhere.
The weekend in general was very culinary and much of the time everything focused around enjoying long and relaxing lunches sitting in the shade of a tree or in the ‘dining area’ at Louis’ house. I got to try some new and interesting types of food and drink (which I have written about in more detail in the food and drink page), but included:
– Mulke – red wine mixed with toasted flour and sugar
– Mote – wheat cooked and then eaten cold with sugar and a little water
– A drink made of water, toasted flour and sugar which is a surprisingly refreshing and filling mid morning snack
– Ñengâm – the fungi mentioned above
– Nalka – an edible plant we ate direct from the river bank by breaking off stems, peeling off the hard outer layer and eating the juicy, sour, but very refreshing fleshy inside
Naturally we also had some very tasty asados and casuela which is a delicious Chilean soup. All in all, we were spoilt in terms of food.
A highlight of the weekend was a birthday party we attended on Saturday night. It was Claudia’s cousin’s birthday and so we joined the whole family and loads of their friends for a feast of food, local punch and much traditional Chilean dancing. The dancing consisted of couples standing in a line and dancing back and forth to eachother – this is a terrible description, but there really is no other way to describe it. The music was great though, although I do find that there is not much variety in the rhythms of music in Chile (and Argentina) and to my untrained ear a lot of the songs sound very similar (although Juan did tell me that there were three different varieties of music being played).
A bit of background about the Mapuche people – they are a small population of the indigenous people that were in Chile pre-Spanish colonization. They make up about 4% of Chile’s population and live mainly in the south/central part of the country, although many Chileans have a mixed ancestory with some Mapuche blood in their past. During Spanish rule the Mapuche were persecuted badly and even today there is gross discrimination against them. They have been in the news here a lot lately due to a hunger strike some of them were on in protest against a new terrorism law in the government. One of the saddest effects of the discrimination is the fact that many Mapuche people don’t like to speak their own language (Mapudungun) and today many kids in the schools are not even learning their own language. For me, it was very special to not only get to meet Mapuche people, but also stay with them in their home and hear their stories etc. Thank goodness for the world cup earlier this year as many people I met did not have any concept of South Africa except that it was where the football was played. But everyone I met was incredibly warm and friendly. Louis has invited me back whenever I want and I can help him with his English. I would love to take him up on the offer, so lets see how things go later in the summer…
On Tuesday in the late afternoon we returned to Concepcion and I was supposed to take a bus straight back to Santiago. But in the end I decided to stay the night with Pablo and Juan and another friend of Pablo’s, Marcello (a mountain guide from Punta Arenas). After getting back and having desperately needed showers (since the water in the mountains was straight from the streams and extremely icy, showers were rather quick), we went out for dinner and met up with four French girls, two of whom had been on the volunteer trip as well. What I thought was just going to be dinner turned into a rather long night and we only got back to Pablo’s place at about 4am. But it was really fun and especially great to chat to other travelers and be able to understand all their Spanish (it was the only common language since they spoke no English). The whole weekend was 99% in Spanish and it was great practice for me, although rather tiring. I realised that although my grammar still needs ALOT of work, my vocab is coming along and people can understand me. You may think that after 7 months I should be fluent, but it is much harder than you think! One night we were sitting around a campfire and myself and the three other volunteers had a great chat about life and why I am traveling and my experiences etc and it was a huge confidence boost for me to realise that I am actually better than I think I am. On Tuesday night I was chatting with one of the French girls who has only been in Chile for 10 days and knows very little Spanish – it felt strange to be the one helping someone else with grammar and words etc and having to speak really slowly. I could really sympathise with her and how lost she is feeling.
Getting home at 4am was rather interesting and I got to see some rather dodgy looking parts of Concepcion, or at least they felt dodgy, deserted and rather rundown so late at night. I had no concept of where we were and had to rely on Juan and Marcello who eventually found a street they recognised and we could walk home. This was good though as we were looking for a taxi which seemed to be in short supply so late on a Tuesday night or in actual fact Wednesday morning. With only three hours of sleep then, I headed to the bus station to get back to Santiago. It was probably the worst bus ride I have been on in South America so far, mainly due to the brat of a child sitting with his mother next to me. He must have been about 3 years old and whined and cried and performed for 7 hours. I wanted to kill him in the end and the newspaper headline today could have read “South African woman jailed for murder after bus rage incident”. The journey which should take about 5 hours took 7 thanks to roadworks on the way and so I had even longer with the child. Even my ipod didn’t manage to block him out entirely. But we eventually arrived back in the big city and I already miss the mountains and the peace and quite so much. At least it is just a few weeks until I go south again to explore other areas – I can’t wait!
Will keep you posted…