relaxing weekends in the Chilean countryside
10.18.2010 - 11.02.2010 85 °F
First of all, because I'm sure you've all been dying to know, I figured out the lemon mystery. Supposedly it brings good luck to the house. The problem is that you're supposed to change the water and Magaly says she never has, so it's really just as pointless as it seemed before I asked.
I remember being told in my cultural crash course on the first day here that Chileans are superstitious because of a fatalism that has developed over years of isolation, natural disasters, and political instability. Linked to all of that is their general disregard for time; I can sense the sentiment that life can't be controlled so there is no point trying. It's been interesting to see the contrast with the US, where we believe that we can manipulate everything just to our liking, and I spend a lot of time attempting to come up with explanations. What was it about the founding of the US that worked out so well? I know we've taken advantage of a lot of poorer countries as we've developed, but there had to have been something at the very beginning to put us in the position to manipulate. I know agriculture has a lot to do with it, but I think our political system has also been really influential and I have yet to come up with how those colonists just kind of had it figured out. I like having these conversations in my head because it makes me feel like my semester abroad is having that effect on my intellectual and cultural development that everyone talks about.
I learned firsthand this weekend another reason why Chileans think they are victims of fate: farming here is really hard. To get a better idea of life outside of Santiago and to recuperate from four weeks of way-too-much-work-for-a-girl-in-Chile, I signed up to volunteer on a farm for three days. I went through the program WWOOF, which sets volunteers up with organic farms around the world; the volunteers help with whatever is needed on the farm and in exchange receive free room and board. All of the farms I wanted originally had telephone numbers that were no longer in service, but I eventually got through to a family in Olmué, a town two hours north of Santiago. I didn't actually end up doing any farm work; when I say farming here is tough I am referring to the very obvious challenges anyone wanting to start a granja faces. The southern part of Chile is too rainy and cold, with too dense of forests, to make for good agriculture; the north, with the driest desert in the world, also has little to offer. So that leaves the central valley, but a good half of this part is either Andes or Andean foothills. People have set up farms in the foothills, but as I saw this weekend that requires trying to find whatever space there is between all the trees, which isn't much. The farm I was on was about 10% crops, 90% trees; it's all very pretty, but I can see how their may have been some challenges trying to develop the country.
This weekend was nothing like I expected. I was nervous heading into it because the woman on the phone gave me an address and said to show up Friday, but hung up before I could confirm a time or that I was going to receive food and a bed. I took the bus to the family's pizzeria in Olmué after an absolutely gorgeous drive through the foothills. Not helping my uncertainty, my conversation in the pizza shop went like this:
Is Mario here?
Is he going to be here today?"
No, he's up in the hills.
Oh, well I'm supposed to work for him this weekend.
Well, I don't know how that's going to happen. He's up and the wife is out with her daughter.
Turns out the worker was just being difficult. The wife showed up in about two hours to take me up to the farm. In the meantime, I helped out in the pizzeria preparing dough, assembling boxes, and washing dishes. I had forgotten how much I love working, and even when I was just folding cardboard it felt really great. The employee, Carlo, was a short old man with glasses that shuffled around the kitchen complaining about how much work he had to do. Apparently the family has had a lot of WWOOFers in the past so my presence wasn't as weird as it seemed at first. When the wife showed up, we ate a lunch that didn't taste very good but at least confirmed that I would be given nutrition the next few days.
Then we were off to the farm, which is actually 30 minutes away from Olmué in La Vega, a tiny town further up into the hills. The road to the farm had the smallest lanes I have ever seen and had about nine times more curves than it did straight stretches; luckily it was still light out and everything was dry. Gloria, the wife, dropped me off and then turned around. Her and Mario used to live in Santiago, but Mario had always dreamt of owning a farm, so they compromised and now the wife lives in Olmué and runs the pizza shop and he stays at the farm. It sounds like a pretty lonely marriage to me, but Mario seems to think it's working out. Mario showed me around the farm, which consists of a small patch of potatoes, a trail that he made through his mini forest, two huge palm trees, a patch that was going to be used to make beer but now is grazing land for the two horses, and an awesome cabin-style house built around an old mud hut. There were also eight adult dogs and three newborn pups. The momma is a basset hound but the puppies look nothing like Adam and Sheena's little guys.
Mario claimed to have built the house and to have dug at least two fairly deep caverns to change the course of the water that comes down from the mountains, but I'm not sure I believe him. He's only been here three years and he seems to move pretty slowly (he made lots of jokes about how his wife works much harder than him), so I can't imagine him completing so many major jobs. Plus he was a little off, so I wouldn't be surprised if he were the story-telling type.
I went to bed early Friday and got a full ten hours of sleep (I was really tired from a test on Thursday over a book I didn't start until the Monday before). I woke up to a delicious oatmeal breakfast, and then we set out to horseback ride. Preparations took about an hour because Mario usually has a neighbor come do the saddles for him, but by eleven we were off. My horse was not terribly happy to be carrying me and it took a while to get her under control, but it was definitely worth the effort. We spent three hours winding our way through the hills, passing lots of friendly neighbors, some horses tilling the land, the Chilean version of Jehovah's Witnesses handing out pamphlets (I left my literature for Mario), and a cute little fox. The views were gorgeous, full of lots of green trees and yellow and purple flowers. We stopped briefly at a church dedicated to the Child God; I'm not sure what that means but every religious thing I saw throughout the region was dedicated to the Niño Díos instead of the adult Díos.
I took a nap on the patio while Mario cooked a great dinner of meat and potatoes, and returned to read in the sun after eating. Mario had mentioned a birthday party, which I assumed was with one of our campesino neighbors. Turns out it was actually back in Santiago. This was where the weekend took a really weird turn. I found myself in the midst of a huge family I didn't know; they were all friendly, but it was just odd to be there with people I had just met. At 10:30, I started to get fidgety because the meat was still on the grill and we still had an hour and a half ride back to the farm. At 11, I left with the daughter to go to her aunt's house; she was only 15 and we didn't have too much in common, but I thought it might be less uncomfortable than staying with all the adults as they gradually got drunker. The aunt and uncle were a little taken aback by me, and the grandma spent about fifteen minutes asking questions about me before asking if I spoke Spanish and finally directing the questions to me. At 1:45, I could no longer resist the offers to sleep on the couch, no matter how weird the idea seemed. At 3, Mario and Gloria finally show up and I threw myself on the makeshift bed in the trailer to try and sleep on the cold ride home. I stayed awake for most of it because I couldn't stop thinking about what a strange situation I had gotten myself into.
Since I didn't get to bed until 5, I made no attempt to wake up early on Sunday. I finally pulled myself out of bed at noon and found Mario washing the horses. After that was done, I helped him give the dogs baths, which ended up taking almost two hours because 1) there were ten of them, 2) some of them put up quite the fight, and 3) we had to pull parasites from their fur. After a lunch of empanadas, lentils, and salad, I rested in my room (it was too hot on the patio) until about 7. We had to head into Olmué to make sure I had a spot on the bus (Monday was a national holiday and everyone travels so buses fill up), and since I was leaving early Monday morning we stayed in the apartment above the pizzeria that night. So I spent Sunday evening helping out in the pizzeria again. Without stores promoting the holiday, I had completely forgotten it was Halloween. We got some trick or treaters, which annoyed Gloria because they apparently don't understand the significance of the US holiday and are just trying to get candy. I was happy she didn't ask me about what the day means because I also have no idea and just want candy. I slept in the fourth new place for the weekend that night and slipped out quietly Monday morning while everyone else was still asleep. I made it home in time to shower for the first time in four days and head to my friend Allison's house for a great birthday barbeque.
I did enjoy my weekend, and it was great to have some quiet relaxation time in a beautiful part of the country. But, I had kind of wanted to learn about farming or raising animals from someone who was a little more authentically campesino, so I have mixed feelings about the experience.
Now back to a week ago. Sorry, I didn't get a chance to blog last week so this is another long one. Thursday night I left with my whole study abroad program to Temuco, in the souther Araucanía region, to spend the weekend learning about the culture of Chile's largest indigenous group, the Mapuche. After a quick introduction, we headed to dinner which ended up being very entertaining. Allison, Abby, Erica, and I sat with out two guides, who found us quite funny, even in Spanish. Due to my poor pronunciation, I accidentally made a very inappropriate but humorous comment, and at one point we had every Chilean in the restaurant on their phones trying to figure out the word for the verb "to snort" (we were comparing the noises animals make in English and in Spanish, which somehow are different). The dinner ended with a surprise mini-celebration for all of the October birthdays; CIEE is so cute.
Friday morning we made our way to the Escuela Bicultural Mapuche San Juan de Makewe, stopping first at the local market, Feria Pinto, where we bought some cheese and 6.6 pounds of strawberries (that would sadly go to waste after fermenting in my backpack). Our purpose at the school was to help paint some buildings and to have a cultural exchange with the students. After some ice breaker games, we split up to either sand and paint or dance and play with the kids. Abby, Erica, and I did some gymnastics demonstrations; Abby and Erica impressed the kids, I made them laugh. Allison and I danced some cueca, which turned into a little too much cueca because the dance is pretty simple and not very fun after the first time. I then made my way to the smores hut, with a real fire but wine cookies instead of graham crackers. We also played Capture the Flag with the kids, but I missed out because it was my turn to paint again. After a delicious charquican lunch, Abby and I took advantage of the fact that the school was located in the middle of farmland and went on a pig hunt. It turned out the search was unnecessary, as after the kids went home the pigs came and played in the school yard, but Abby and I did find the furriest, cutest pig of the day.
Back in Temuco, we stopped by the Museo Regional de la Araucanía, which was just one room full of Mapuche artifacts; I didn't pay very much attention to what our guide was saying. We had a great dinner in which I tried to avoid eating because I was still full but failed because the lasagna was too delicious. Then we called it an early night so Abby, Erica, Madeline and I would have the energy to go on a run in the morning. We tried running to the river but ran out of path, so then we turned back and followed a bike path that led behind patches of houses. Temuco is a decent-sized city, but still rural enough that we passed cows towing crops to the market and a man getting his horse some exercise. Santiago is really the only place in this country that is 100 percent urban.
After breakfast, we piled into the bus to head to the coast. Along the way, we stopped in Carahué, a town with gorgeous farms along the river that is known for its display of old locomotives. I was more excited than most in the group because my natural resources professor had used a picture of the "open air museum" in a slideshow and talked about it for about fifteen minutes.
Our main destination for the day was a very isolated Mapuche farming community on Lago Budi, close to the Pacific, called Kom Che Ñi Ruka. The area was absolutely stunning, and since it's springtime here the beautiful landscape was enhanced with adorable baby animals. We were greeted by a large crowd from the community, who gave us an introduction in both Spanish and Mapudungun, the Mapuche language, so that we could hear the sounds. There was then a demonstration of palín, a traditional game that is like hockey slowed down. The game can only be played barefoot so that the men (only men are allowed to play) can connect with the earth.
Our lunch took place in a ruka, a traditional Mapuche hut, which was only fun for the half of the room facing away from the fire because those huts don't have very good ventilation and fill up with smoke from cooking pretty quickly. Since we were in the Lake District, most of our meals were fish, but I had given advance notice that I don't eat fish. In the Mapuche community, my vegetarian option was purple potatoes and something made from spinach. It tasted really good, but the picture makes it look really unappetizing; Aimee commented that "she saw a pile of muddy leaves at school and thought of the photo."
After lunch we got some demonstrations of two key parts of the Mapuche community. We walked through a medicinal herb garden learning the effects of the various plants and then watched women spin, dye, and weave wool for clothing. Spinning was very tricky because you have to pull the wool thin, but I was so afraid of breaking it I didn't ever pull hard enough to have any effect. I was much better at dying. In order to get the color to really sink in, you have to sing to the wool while you're stirring it in the boiling pot of colored water, so I made up a song on the spot that, if not my best poetic work, at least seemed to entertain the crowd.
We were supposed to take boat and horse rides, but we somehow ended up being a couple of hours behind, so we unfortunately had to move on to the day's closing events. After listening to the Mapuche cosmo-vision, the adult males played music while the children did three traditional dances meant to encourage a good harvest. At the end, our group was invited to join in the closing of the dance, which was mainly just bouncing in place but still fun.
At some point, a drunk man wandered into the crowd and started trying to steal the show by dancing and shouting something. He was quickly (and very forcefully) removed, but he later came back after having found a horn. Everyone laughed it off, but I felt really bad because the kids were trying to perform and because the Mapuche, similar to Native Americans, are stereotyped by the rest of Chile as all alcoholics, so I'm sure that was the last image the community wanted to leave us with. All ended well though, with a big "Ya Ya Ya Ya Yo!" to close the day (they don't clap).
We spent the night in Puerto Saavedra, a small town further north between the Pacific and Lago Budi. I had a fabulous run there in the morning, starting with a beautiful sunrise and rainbow. I ran along the beach for a while, laughing at two cows enjoying the sand, and then while going to take a picture of a random grassy area realized I had been running along a hidden forest the whole time. I ran back through the trees, which was beautiful and a lot of fun because the ground was really soft and full of little hills that made running feel like a ride. I did take a pretty hard crash when I slipped on some mud on a curve, but only a few fisherman saw me so it was fine.
Before heading out, we took a short walk up to a lookout of the town. Then we headed back to Temuco, got lunch and dessert (alfajores and ice cream) in the market, and headed to our last stop of the weekend, Cerro Ñielol. The hill is a national reserve completely covered in trees where the government is working to reintroduce native species into the Chilean wildlife. The hike was beautiful, with a great view over Temuco at the end. We also passed some Mapuche wood carvings, with two children to represent fertility and two elders to represent wisdom. Their arms are crossed to show their resistance to Christianity. We watched a presentation on nature in Chile, took a break in the sun, and then all headed back to the airport.
I absolutely loved the Temuco trip! In earlier years, CIEE has taken the group to Valparaiso, but I am really glad they decided to change. Our weekend was the opposite of touristy, and we got to do things that I never would have been able to work out without the help of the program. I got to learn about some culture, interact with some people I don't usually run into on the metro, help out a little bit, and relax back in the most beautiful part of Chile. Plus, it's always fun when the whole group is together because there are quite a few people I see very rarely in Santiago.
The weeks in between these trips were filled with little more than homework, but I have now made it through the hardest part of my semester and I have a pretty easy last three weeks of classes. My host mom has a bike, so I'm hoping to use it to go exploring in the city in the afternoons, and I have a couple more short travel plans before my mom gets here. It's the perfect time to not have any work, because it just got really warm and the days are wonderfully long.