Saturday, February 7, 2009

It's a Love Affair of sorts....

My relationship with Chile began in September of 2007, a three-week initial courtship taking me from Santiago to Futaleufu and back again. I sat in an outdoor cafe on the Plaza del Armas staring at the wildly eclectic crowds passing, and the magnificent architecture. This cannot possibly be Latin America, I thought. I've accidentally flown to Europe somewhere. Where are the police hustling for bribes, where are the bands of little children begging from tourists, where is the hot, relentless sun? There is, however, an old man, one leg shorter than the other, badly in need of a bath and clean clothes who bums a cigarette from me, and then will not leave me alone. He sits close and blows me kisses but is generally non-threatening. Finally, the waiter shoos him away and practices English. "How are chew?" he bows slightly.

From Santiago, where I have managed blisters the size of quarters on my heels, to an overnight bus ride to the wonderfully Bavarian-Wisconsin town of Osorno, I find people kind, slightly curious and handsome. On to Isla Chiloe, a different country almost, as if a piece of Ireland has broken off and drifted somehow to the Chilean coast and sat quietly undiscovered until I arrived. Rolling hills, leprechaun-like icons, stone stoves, sheep and mist. Quellon, harsh and rainy, with rough sea-faring men eating from plates of charred meat, washing it down with pints of beer for breakfast. My first real ferry ride, five hours on a dilapidated ship across the mar to the heart of Patagonia, disembarking at Chaiten.

Lugging our packs, my husband and I took the first cheap hostel room we could find at each stop. We had no plans along the way, only a starting point, and a departure date. We found our way onto a small clacky bus from Chaiten and made the four-hour journey through Lord of The Rings scenery to the little town of Futaleufu. On this trip I saw for the first time, Glaciers, water turquoise blue, and snow-capped mountains and freakishly giant rhubarb plants called nalca. The scenery so incredible I failed to notice the hideous gravel road and the fact that my shampoo bottle cap had come off and a dark, wet strain was spreading on my backpack.

Futa, with rose bushes every twenty feet on every street and avenue (all, eight or ten square blocks) and little wooden houses with wood shingles and an occasional sheep, or horse nibbling an unfenced yard. Futa was so quaint, so charming, and beguiling, we fell for her hard. Everything was sweet, and again, quaint, and funny. That a town whistle blew at noon and everything shut down until four in the afternoon was charming. That chickens clacked and roosters crowed just before sunrise was sweet. That they wrapped your butter in paper and tied it up with a string was interesting. And plums of red, purple and yellow fell off the trees and artichokes grew along fence lines...all of it a world beguiling, and within days of arriving we were hopelessly in love with it all.

Falling in love with Chile, Futa specifically, is a little like real falling in love. Everything, I mean everything is giddy and sweet and charming. Leaving Santiago three weeks after arriving felt like saying goodbye to a teenage boyfriend, that feeling like you will die of heartbreak and loneliness just to leave him behind (or her). Even before we left, we made plans to come back, soon, and for a much longer stay. We knew we would come back to Futa and find our perfect little plat of dirt and make a life here.

Much like that first love, leaving Futa behind was sad, knowing we would be coming back made us frantic to make firm plans, and we did so, sort of. Five months later in March of 2008, some half-assed plans for a three-month stay and plane tickets in hand, we returned. This time it would be a working, fact-finding, land-buying trip. It was, and we did. This time we got to know people, lived with them as neighbors, learned a bit about daily life as a non-tourists. And, as often happens, some of those quaint and sweet little quirks became a little less quaint and sweet.

Our three months went quickly with a mad rush towards the end to tie up loose ends with our property purchase and a crush of realizations about what it really was like to live in Patagonia. Walking down to stand in line and pay the electric bill at the electric company which might be closed because the one person who manned the office was out helping his brother round up cattle. Or going to pay the water bill only to find it closed because the gentleman manning this office is also the meter reader and everyone knows (except me) which days he walks around reading meters. Or that there is no gas station in Futa, or that the civil registry and notary office is four hours away in Chaiten, or that even though almost no one is a practicing Catholic, the town is shut down for a Catholic holiday. Or that you have to go to this tienda to buy one grocery item, and to another to buy a different grocery item, not because one tienda is out of that item, but because they simply don't carry it. Now, our new love interest has become just a tad bit annoying, but we love her still, and are sad to leave on a hard-frost morning at the end of May 2008 even though all the pipes in our rental house have frozen and there is no way to flush the toilet or run water for coffee.

We set a goal for ourselves...five months....wrap up everything in Panama, sell the little coffee farm and drag our shabby mementos to Patagonia, Chile. And we did. We had our engagement time, and now we were going to marry Futaleufu. Much like most marriages, there is an adjustment period. You know, finally spending everyday with someone whose little quirks and idiosyncrasies were once cute....the honeymoon is almost sure to end.

We've accepted those idiosyncrasies now, we've grown past the difficult times when we thought we couldn't stand another cutesy, funny thing without screaming. In fact, we almost divorced her once. It was after the volcano blew and involved a series of her wildly selfish behaviors. Damn that Futa. Now, that crises having passed, almost, we are getting to the good part of the marriage. Real love, commitment and acceptance. I'm still annoyed out of my mind when the bus station changes from one place to another with no sign telling me so, or when I go to pay a bill but the clerk is "on vacation" with no prior notice and no one filling in. Or the fact that they are always running out of propane because no one has thought to start ordering MORE to accommodate the new 500 Chaiten residents who have relocated here. I'm settling in though, and now am right up there with all the locals when the vegetable truck pulls in on Friday afternoon. I get it all then, because by Monday all that will be left are black-spotted tomatoes and dry-wilted lettuce.

Ah, my Futa, that crazy inexplicable social maze of patience and the under-humming of wood-stoves clinking with aluminum pots and sheep in the backyard. An old man trims the grass between his fence posts with a hunting knife, and people save for years to be able to pay for someone to weld a metal frame for over a loved one's grave. At Christmas time, when fresh sheep skins are thrown over the fences and saddle makers pick and choose the right skins, tapping on a door to slip the owner a couple of luca's for his selection. The mostly quiet streets with handsome Carabineros nodding to old women working in their gardens and tousling the hair of school children gathered loose meandering packs. Dogs chase cars, but not people. Fiestas and rodeos happen out of nowhere. The ash swirls, and is damped down again with sideways rains. It's 85F one day, and the next day 39F and we wake up to discover it has snowed in the surrounding mountains.

It is Futa. And I am in love, once again.