The Kind and Homey Folks of Chiloe Island, Chile
February 16, 2012 by rtwsenior
The island of Chiloe (chill-o-way) doesn´t look all that large on the map of the base of the Andean spinal column which becomes Patagonia, the southernmost region of Chile. It´s a squarish lump of land at the top of a column of broken, rocky protuberances which litter the way down the coastline to the Cape. My Chilote friends say that this is the very spot where the Andes submerge, intact, allowing only the mountain tops to peek above the water. It´s not that far above the Antarctic Circle but the water is warm enough for summer swimming by both people and penguins.
After weeks of hostel dormatories and days of highly-populated buses, I sought solitude in the treat of a private room in a hostel in Ancud, which I secured on the internet. Instead, I walked into the welcoming arms of the youthful Gigi, her boyfriend, Andress, sister, Valentina and their friend, Maria Josef. They had converted their modern family home into a hostel after the sudden death of their mother after a brief illness. Valentina´s eyes still reflect the unfathomable loss but she designs her future to include chef school and a job on a cruise ship.
If I had wanted cloistered inactivity, I should not have come on the eve of a popular island Costumbre Festival in Castro and an accordian-playing music fest in another island town. Ten minutes after my arrival, as welcomed as any family matriarch, I found myself accepting their kind invitation to come along on tomorrow´s festivities. Sure, how can I miss the chance? And I again became a tourist, though that was the very role I was hiding from. Actually, I was sort of becoming a local as I didn´t see many tourists the next day when homefolks celebrated the life of the community as they have for many years, cooking the bountiful catch of King Crabs, Salmon, fish, mussels and clams, according to special island recipes. Yum!
Julio filled in at the hostel during this one-day festival vacation and had the place full by the time we returned. He has dived in these cold waters for shellfish since he was sixteen. Because of the extreme depths, his legs were paralyzed when air was forced into the bloodstream but instead of following the doctor´s advice and getting bariatric pressure treatments, he chose the cure of generations of Chilote divers…to be dropped back into the ocean to swim to even greater depths to equalize the oxygen. It worked and today he has some pain but walks and works normally.
On the festival morning, five of us set out to drive over many kilometers in Andress´twenty-year-old Toyota Corolla. I had thought that this was a small island but the distances felt far indeed. Imagine a crazy quilt with images of farm, wheat fields, cow pastures, mountains, seasides with bays and estuaries. Fill it with weathered towns, forests, hills, rivers and bridges. Then curl many roads throughout with fully half of them rocky and unpaved. Now, take this highly-decorated blanket and crumple it up. Seriously crumple the thing so that mountainous lumps lead to concave valleys and any possible road has to wind and twist so that all cars have slow going.
Except for Andress´Toyota! It sped along, though our travel time was still considerable. Whack! Wham! went the rocks on the underbelly and I wondered what sort of an island custom Gigi was observing when she pressed her fist against the upper corner of the windshield every time an approaching car passed by. Later, I learned that she was mimicing her mother and probably every other shotgun-riding woman in a local car. Apparently, the pressure on the glass prevents shattering if a stone should be flung into the windshield.
Our first festival was an eating affair. We selected the booth of some local fishermen, snagged a table in an outdoor shelter and ordered gluttons of seafood. Grilled salmon, oh yes! Then, we roamed the artisanal crafts booths where I fell for a loose-knit, handmade wool sweater. and Gigi secretly bought me a knit doll, which she presented to me as a memento when we said goodbye at the bus station.
During all the driving, we visited quite a few of the famous, restored wooden churches of the island. They are national treasures and remind me of the lyrical wooden churches I had seen in Russia. This whole island and much of the mountainous farmland of lower Chile, was populated by Germans early in the Twentieth Century, long before the war. In a very savvy move, Chile invited German farmers to populate that geologically-similar countryside, granting them generous farm plots. Consequently, houses are sturdy and filled with lace curtains. This explains the polka dancing and accordians, as well.
It was dusk when we headed home, speeding over the stone-strewn logging road. Ka-Pow! went the tire directly beneath my derriere! Flump, flump, flump…we ground to a halt. That tire was toast. Nay, it was lace, rubber lace, worthy of an artisan. Ouch! Luckily, a farm driveway presented itself and we pulled in, hopefully enlisting the aid of a woman peering out between her curtains. For we certainly did need help, as an examination of Andress’ trunk soon revealed. He had a spare, he had a jack, but no lever to operate the jack and no lug wrench to release the tire. The woman shook her head and retired within.
We four girls took to dancing in the street, trying to stop the occasional bits of flying traffic. The trouble was that we looked suspiciously like the many backpackers trying for a lift for packs and pals, times ten. We, too, had flown right on past their desperately appealing faces. But by evening, we were just as tired, shabby and desperate as they had been. Amazingly, our crudely flapping hands did lure-in at least six cars but none had the requisite parts. These were all newer, smaller cars. Everyone was very sympathetic but couldn`t even call for help since no one`s cell phone worked in that spot.
As the sun went down, I wondered if the nearby pigpen would be my dreamed-of private room for the night. Then a red station wagon came along, only to become our last and greatest failed hope. That driver saved the day though, by backing out of the drive and blocking the road until another car simply had to stop. Voila! We suddenly had the winning combination. Not only did the new car have the right sized tool, but the farm woman`s son arrived and hauled a wooden beam from behind a fence, propped it on a rock and levered the car`s side into the air by kneeling on the beam.
Before he delivered that solution, I was sertiously trying to remember a metaphysical demonstration I`d witnessed once, where a cluster of people inserted their index fingers under the body of a large person; took a deep breath and with intense concentration, lifted him way off the ground. Possibly that would work on a car. Watching those big men get the tire off the conventional way, I was so glad I didn`t have to make a fool of myself convincing the others to stick their finger under the car and levitate. Instead, I found myself kissing the ruddy cheeks of these dear Chilote men who had finally delivered us from a night in the pig pen.
We got home at 1:00 a.m. The next day, I just hung around the hostal, getting that elusive rest I had come so far to find.