Authors: Sara Wheeler
It rained on; it never stopped raining. Woodchip volcanoes on the dock at Puerto Montt changed from pale yellow to a rich, dark rust. We settled into a café with sawdust on the floor and windows steamed up on the inside. It was just the day for a long, indulgent lunch, and the Brylcreemed waiter in the black jacket with shiny elbows facilitated the happy event. I fancied myself as something of an expert on
by now, and my friends, hardly conservatives in the matter of food themselves, raised their mutual eyebrow at the heap of unidentified tentacled, swollen or blood-red shellfish that arrived, gurgling and alcoholic. We drank a lot of cold Chilean Sauvignon blanc, and rubbed our favourite arguments threadbare.
In the morning it was raining. The streets flooded, cars sat in water up to the wheelhubs and public-spirited individuals moved benches across the deepest rivers to form footbridges. The locals appeared in bright yellow souwesters and trousers or thick woollen ponchos with a knitted bow at the neck. Everyone talked about the rain, and we returned to our waiter for lunch; he shouted with delight when he saw us.
My friends left for Santiago. They had found a bottle of pisco that was fifty per cent proof. Their holiday, they felt, had been a learning curve from thirty per cent pisco through to fifty. This was quite an astute observation, as Chileans are very conscious of the strength of a pisco, always seeking out the higher end of the scale and scorning the lower echelons, which they seem to think are produced exclusively for the faint-hearted and foreign, though these two categories are effectively synonymous.
We said goodbye at the airport, and I drove back into town alone, conscious of a familiar heavy feeling like a brick below the breastbone. It was a feeling I associated with Sunday evenings. I dropped the jeep off and walked around town, eventually following the sound of taperecorded bells to the cathedral, which was bright red and made of alerce wood in 1856, making it the oldest building in Puerto Montt. The tourist leaflet optimistically announced that it was modelled on the Parthenon. A mass was about to begin, so I went in, for comfort. There were six of us in the congregation, and one was asleep. The priest shook my hand on the way out. While we were talking, a carton of wine I had bought to nourish me during a long rainy evening alone in a dreary guesthouse room fell out of my bulky rainjacket and bounced on the flagged floor.
The island of Chiloé is celebrated for its black storms and black soil, its thickets of
and bamboo, its
churches and the golden hands of its woodcarvers.
What Am I Doing Here
In Petrohué I had run into Chris Sainsbury, an English tour guide working in Puerto Montt. I already knew of him, as several people had told me to look him up; he was a kind of gringo landmark. We had passed a very agreeable evening at the hotel bar in Petrohué. Chris had a gap coming up in his work schedule and was planning on spending a week on Chiloé, his favourite part of the country and one to which he returned even when he wasn’t guiding. He had suggested that I join him. I was pleased that he asked; I had taken to him straightaway.
Damp or actually wet clothes had become a normal part of life, as sand had in the north, and I was beginning to get the point of the. jokes told in Santiago about the residents of Puerto Montt having webbed feet. Despite heavy rain, on the morning we left a crowd gathered around a building near my hotel. Investigations revealed that the Bishop of Puerto Montt
was sprinkling holy water around a new fried-chicken-and-chips takeaway shop.
I met Chris in a café near his office. He was reading a thriller when I arrived, and almost as soon as I sat down he asked me if I had any books to swap. He was drinking beer at ten in the morning, which I thought was probably an auspicious start to our trip; there was something of the roué about him which made me feel comfortable. Chris was in his forties, with blond hair, a squint and spindly legs. He was knowledgeable on a wide range of topics, and highly imaginative. About twenty years previously he had taught English for two years at a minor public school in Oxfordshire, and when he left the school presented him with a book token for £1.50 and the local pub with a gold lighter.
The large island of Chiloé to the south of Puerto Montt occupies a special place in the Chilean imagination, one of the few locations in the country familiar to northerners and southerners alike. Unlike Easter Island and Juan Fernández, Chiloé is near the mainland and cheap to visit, and it is also in possession of a colourful and idiosyncratic mythology and vestiges of a rich traditional culture.
The roll-on, roll-off ferry took half an hour, and we leaned over the rail into the wind. To the south, in the wider body of water they call the inland sea, Humboldt penguins, southern sealions and dolphins were swimming around in little groups. Wet-suited shellfish-catchers rolled over the edge of small boats and sank, connected to their air-supply in the vessel by a simple air-compression tube. When I remarked on the primitive nature of this arrangement Chris said that he could remember when air-compression was operated by a hand-turned winch.
The bus rolled off the ferry into the green Chilote hills, the fields at their feet spotted with thatched meat-smoking cook-houses. The inlets, staked out to trap seaweed destined for
japan, were for many generations the home of the canoeing Chono, who paddled around a 300-mile strip of archipelagic Chile. They disappeared a long time ago, and not a single word of their language has been passed down. One of the very few facts known about them is that Jesuit missionaries baptized 220 Chono in 1612. The Jesuits had just arrived then, and they constituted a powerful presence until they were expelled from the continent in 1767. They left churches all over Chiloé.
The Chilotes were militant royalists and they opposed national independence until they were forced to submit in 1826. Eight years after that, Darwin toured the island extensively, and he was fascinated by it (though he was much, much more interested in animals, rocks and plants than in people). He found one house ‘which was the extreme point of South American Christendom, and a miserable hovel it was’.
Like most islanders, the Chilotes were great seamen. They built a boat called
La Goleta Ancud
, in 1843 sailed it south to the Magellan Strait, where it claimed the tail of the continent for Chile twenty-four hours ahead of a French vessel bent on the same mission. The captain of the
, however, was a Bristolian, like me.
On the pier at Ancud, the most northerly settlement on the island, fishermen were lugging baskets of sea-urchins up the steps. These urchins looked like rambutans, red balls spiked with green bristly hair. The hair covered a hard shell, and the fishermen sat down at the top of the steps and tapped them, slicing off the top like a boiled egg and cutting out the fleshy, dark yellow tongues. A small translucent crab was lurking among the tongues.
‘It’s symbiotic,’ explained a fisherman with a green hat. ‘It lives inside the sea-urchin. Very delicious. Look.’ He picked up a crab, placed it under his top lip, allowed it to crawl round
his gums till it reached the back of his mouth, then flipped it between his back molars – and crunched.
The double-spired cathedral at Castro was like a wedding cake iced in cornflower blue and salmon pink. The Franciscans built it during the first decade of this century, and although the Italian architect had meant it to be made of brick, the Chilotes executed his plan in wood clad in corrugated iron. As it turned out they knew best, as if it had been brick it would certainly have fallen down during the 1960 earthquake. The style of the interior was standard European Gothic, except that it was made entirely of wood, even the pillars and arches, and it was disorientating to see something so familiar cast in a different medium.
Castro is one of the oldest colonial settlements in the country. Some of the houses in its neat streets had monkey puzzles in the front garden. Planting a monkey puzzle is a big decision. Once you’ve got it, you aren’t allowed to chop it down. (If you chop an alerce down – the
conifer – and get caught, you go to prison for ten years.) It was not always so: as recently as 1987 Pinochet approved a decree permitting exploitation of the monkey puzzle, though Neruda had said, ‘Anyone who hasn’t been in the Chilean forest doesn’t know this planet’.
After we had checked into a boarding-house and Chris had checked into a bar I went to the small museum, where a wooden bicycle made in the 1950s was leaning against a corridor wall. Apparently lots of Chilotes owned such a thing. They only work if you go downhill. When I asked the museum attendant what you did if you wanted to go back up, she looked at me pitifully.
‘You put it over your shoulder and walk,’ adding as an afterthought, ‘Are you foreign?’
Without further encouragement she delivered a spiel about an elf called a
which lurked in the bushes after dark
and was responsible for any pregnancy which occurred on the island out of wedlock. The Chilotes enjoyed wheeling out their cast of mythological characters.
Chris was a great travelling companion. He sat happily in bars all day, reading, and whenever I wanted to talk I would find him, and he would close his book and chat until I left again. I spent the days doing whatever I pleased and the evenings in his convivial company, often listening to anecdotes culled from many years work around the globe as a photographer for Operation Raleigh, the adventure charity for young people. Chris’ greatest asset was his wit, and he made me laugh all the time. He had somehow backed himself into a waterlogged corner in Puerto Montt, and was stuck. He talked about writing a historical book about Chiloé, but I wondered if he ever would. He was like a character from a Graham Greene novel, or if he had been born a hundred and fifty years earlier he might have been a Bernardo O’Higgins, wandering the world with a bottle of wine in his hand, inadvertently conquering countries as he went.
Almost everything in Chiloé is particular to it, including the food, and the
piéce de résistance
in this last department is
. We ordered a portion between us one evening and a small mountain was placed in the middle of the table, partially obscuring Chris from my view. The dish was invented by fishermen who went off to remote spots. They took with them supplies which could last weeks, like smoked pork, smoked sausage, dried vegetables and potato dumplings, supplemented them with shellfish, wrapped it all in
leaves, a kind of giant rhubarb plant, then buried it between heated stones under a fire so the whole lot would stay warm for a day or more. This very Polynesian culinary style was probably brought to Chile in some form by the islanders who roamed the Pacific centuries ago. You have to search hard these days to find someone on the island to cook the dish
underground for you, and it has metamorphosed into
, prepared in a saucepan without the leaves and with a piece of chicken and a few boiled potatoes added, the shellfish steaming above the rest in a kind of bain marie. (Potatoes, incidentally, are indigenous to Chiloé, and Chris was convinced that they originated there, not Peru – a theory put forward by several early scientists and supported by Darwin.)
is served with a cup of rich broth. It is unimaginably delicious, but not to be tackled by the faint-hearted.
On the second day we went to Chonchi, a small sprawl of wooden houses an hour south of Castro. A few of them were on stilts. I had walked around a lot of these
in Castro. To start with, the owners avoided the irritation of having to buy land: they just paid a small concession to the state, which owns the coastline. Secondly, ‘moving house’ for these Chilotes meant pulling the stilts out of the mud and towing the house to a new site. Thirdly, why commute to work when you can park the boat under the front room? In Chonchi the municipality had even had the decency to instal a row of streetlights in the water.
Under the stilt houses in Chonchi four children were collecting minnows from the bottom of a boat in a rusty tin can. The boat was called Borman. I wondered if this was another Chilote secret.
I had found, in Santiago, a picture postcard by a photographer called Paz Errazuriz. It showed two hugely fat people hunched over what was apparently their bar in Chonchi. It was an old-fashioned zinc bar, and a row of bottles stood behind their heads. They were obviously man and wife, and they were staring straight at the camera, expressionless except for what might have been a glimmer of amusement, even contempt. It was such a beguiling image that I dragged Chris off on a pilgrimage to find this couple. The card stated that the
name of the bar was La Sirena, and although it had changed its name to Bongo, everyone in Chonchi knew it.
Plastic seats had replaced the wooden benches and melamine the shiny zinc, but I was sure it was the right place as the woman serving was an identical but younger version of the one on my postcard. When I showed this card, the old couple were produced.
‘I suppose you’ve seen a lot of changes in the village,’ I said to the old man. He thought for a while. ‘
’ – not so many.
Chris took a photo of me posing with the man; I wanted to recreate the card, with me in the wife’s place. When I got home, months later, I stuck the photo in one of my albums of Chile, underneath the postcard. When I was writing about Chilóe I got the album out to look at it again. Someone – I never discovered who – had captioned my photo, ‘He subsequently remarried’.
Shortly after this episode at the bar a hotelier ran out of his kitchen and onto the street to greet Chris, who, being a tour guide, was well-known (and well-liked) on the island. The Chilotes were keen on the idea of him getting married, and they were sorry to hear that he brought no news in that department. The hotelier remonstrated and dispensed consolatory tots of
(liquid gold), a local speciality which always appeared in unlabelled bottles. It was mild, sweet and amber, and although it was translucent, the main ingredient was cow’s milk.