San Felipe, Chile
It seems that no matter where I go in this string bean of a country, I always end up back here. The streets of San Felipe, framed quaintly as always by the snow-covered Andes, are starting to feel like the closest thing to home that I’ve had since October.
This, of course, means it’s time to leave. The journey must go on; if for the ordinary man there is ‘no place like home,’ than for me there’s ‘no place like ten thousand miles from home.’ Every day the warm pastures and sharply scented pine forests of East Texas fall farther behind in the distant north, while the steel-grey waters of the Drake Passage and the desolate, frozen land of Antarctica loom closer and closer in the extreme south.
Before I go gallivanting off into the snow-covered forests of southern Chile, I must of course, record the events which took place over the past week since I posted last in Quinahue El Boldal, the home of my friend Jorge and his family.
Let me first introduce to you Jorge’s family, whom will be the principal characters in this post, along with Jorge and myself.
When we arrived to this microscopic town of less than 1,000 people situated roughly thirty kilometres from the ‘big city’ of Santa Cruz (urban population 8,500) it was late at night. Jorge and I had spent the afternoon hitchhiking in the freezing rain from San Felipe to downtown Santiago. I wanted to keep thumbing it from there, but Jorge (a newbie hitchhiker who has the same attitude when he’s wet that a tomcat does after you toss a bucket of water on him) was not enjoying the weather and insisted we take the bus, complaining of wet socks.
I told him this wasn’t my problem, as I had strongly suggested back in San Felipe that he wrap his socks in plastic bags like I did, but I conceded to taking the bus after I saw that they had free coffee and an in-flight movie with Russell Crowe in it. What? I like Russell Crowe.
Anyhow, we arrived to Quinahue around 2300, after spending a few hours in Santa Cruz with one of Jorge’s friends sampling the local herbal surplus. After walking down many gravel and dirt roads (and trying valiantly to avoid the mud puddles in the inky darkness) we arrived to Jorge’s family home.
During the recent earthquake the little homestead had taken quite a beating; a few walls had collapsed, and the large concrete water tower that had dominated the skyline of the little farm had toppled over, just missing the home and shattering into a thousand pieces on the dirt road.
Most of this, however, had been cleaned up; the collapsed walls had been refurbished with temporary wooden boards, and all that now remained of the water tower were four concrete stumps sticking out of the ground with bits of twisted rebar sticking rustily out the tops.
Jorge and I walked across the property and to a small temporary home exactly the same as the ones I helped build in Constitutiòn. This was where Jorge’s parents were currently sleeping, as their room had been destroyed by several tons of falling brick and mortar. There was a small, bare light bulb burning in the centre of the room, casting a dim light on a plastic dinner table, a gas stove, several cabinets filled with plates and cutlery, and a moth-eaten purple curtain which split the dwelling in two, separating the eating area from the sleeping one.
Jorge’s mother had been waiting for us. As soon as she saw our tired and unshaven faces her slightly wrinkled but almost perpetually happy one broke into a wide smile as her eyes sparkled at the sight of her son and his American friend.
‘¡Hooola mì niño hermoso! Oooo como estai hermoso, ¡te extraño muuuucho!’ Hello my beautiful child, how are you, I missed you very, very much! She kissed her son nineteen or twenty times on the cheek before performing the same ritual on me. Probably the most friendly and hospitable person I’ve met in my entire life, Jorge’s mother radiates warmth and, well, motherly-like feelings. She quickly busied herself in the kitchen, chattering away happily to Jorge and I while she twiddled with the gas knobs and soon had a pot of stew bubbling homily on the corner burner, the steam rising ghost-like up to the tin roof of the temporary home.
Fifteen minutes later Jorge and I were warming our bellies with delicious food. Then there was a knock at the door and in waltzed Jaime, Jorge’s elder brother by nearly sixteen years.
Jaime is a chronic extrovert much like me; he is usually laughing about one thing or another and his short stature combined with his ruddy face reminds one of a very young and dark-skinned Santa Clause. He grinned widely after our introduction shook my hand in the same manner that a coon dog shakes his ring-tailed prey after a long night of pursuit through the bush.
Introduction to Jorge’s father was much less physical; sticking his head behind the curtain and poking a snoring lump in the covers, Jorge tried valiantly to wake up his sleeping parent. After several prods, the lump stirred.
‘Papito! I want you to meet my friend from USA!’
The lump grunted indifferently and resumed snoring. Jorge shrugged and, grinning, stole a cigarette from his father’s pack on the nightstand. That was easy enough, I thought, as I sopped up the last of the stew with a piece of bread. Perhaps tomorrow is a better time for introductions, anyways.
After another bowl of stew and a few cups of coffee, we were ready for bed. I was shown to my room, which consisted of three walls made of plaster and one of wooden planks, as the previous building material of brick and mortar had been thrown to the ground by the magnitude 8.8 earthquake in late February.
The next day I was able to meet the rest of the family. And by ‘rest of the family,’ I mean all of his family; cousins, aunts, uncles, sister-in-laws, nieces, and even his ninety-two year old grandmother who can’t see and can only hear if you shout uncomfortably loudly and directly at her face.
Jaime’s family was also there; there was his ten-year-old daughter Mika, who seemed just tickled pink that I, someone from the fabled land of North America, was standing right here in her kitchen at this very moment. Once she got over her initial shyness she burst forth with a hundred questions every couple of seconds.
Jamie’s wife was also, like the rest of the family, impeccably hospitable. She insisted on cooking lunch for us even though she was eight months pregnant with what appeared to be a large boulder of some kind but what I was assured was a healthy baby girl.
The first day was spent relaxing and resting; I worked on my book while everybody else watched the endless loops of Chile’s goal against Honduras from the previous week’s match on the news channel, punctuated only by occasional thirty-second clips of non-World Cup related news before again returning to goal replays.
That evening Jorge and I went to visit some of his childhood friends and played a few ‘friendly’ matches of soccer, which should just be called ‘Keep The Ball Away From The Gringo And Then Randomly Pass It To Him When He’s Not Paying Attention So That It Hits Him In The Balls.’ That’s too long, though, so they just call it ‘Fùtbol.’
I really should have learned my lesson in Guatemala when a soccer ball travelling at roughly the speed of sound nearly removed my face, but I thought maybe Chile was different…No such luck, however. In Latin America, fùtbol is fùtbol, no matter what country you’re in.
Mostly, though, we just rested with the family. This quiet little place in rural central Chile isn’t the place to go for parties. It’s the place you go to rest from all the parties you went to in Santiago, in San Felipe. There were of course, exceptions, like when Chile played Switzerland, won 1-0, and made all of the sixty-year-old men in the town, fresh from ploughing their fields, drink like they were twenty (truly a sight to behold.)
Despite the fact I was only here in this town for four days, before I left I was somewhat of a local celebrity. As in all small towns, gossip spreads like a California wildfire in late August. It was similar to when I was in Loma de Flores, Mèxico. Anyplace I went, be it just down the road to buy smokes or on the bike with Jorge to go to the supermarket for avacados, I would be consistantly recognized and hailed by my Latin American nickname:
I enjoyed being in Quinahue immensely, and think Jorge’s family is probably near or at the top of my list of Favourite Families I’ve Stayed With in Latin America, along with Jorge in Mèxico, Virginia in Argentina, and Agustìn in Panamà. I have an open invitation to visit anytime, which I, of course, plan on cashing in sometime within the next month or two.
Anyhow, yesterday Jorge and I travelled by bus (at the insistence of his mother, who believes hitchhiking to be ‘terribly dangerous’) back to good old San Felipe. Unfortunately, my primal travellers’ instinct tells me it’s time to move on; the south of Chile awaits!
One more thing: I will be back to Calama, in the north of Chile, on 17JUL to accompany Lamas and Keto on a three-week foray into Bolivia, which should be quite the adventure since I can’t afford the Visa and will have to do some more border jumping like I did in Central America.
After Bolivia, it’s to the End of the World. Punta Arenas, Tierra del Fuego, Porviner, and Ushuaia.
Antarctica will be so close.
The Modern Nomad