Saturday 20 February 2010

Like home... almost

A bus drives kilometer after kilometer towards Castro: a journey that should last some eight hours, including a short ferry passage. Castro is on the island of Chiloé, the largest in an archipelago of the same name: there's no other way to reach the place, than to park your vehicle on a ferry and patiently wait for it to finish the crossing. But I don't know that yet: my bus still has its wheels on the road, slowly distancing itself from Valdivia and the surrounding lakes. In the busses belly I sit, sounds of my favorite band filling my headphone-plugged ears. Next to me, Bjarni listens to his own music, pounding something into the keyboard of his tiny laptop. Outside the window, the sun tries to penetrate dense layers of rain-filled clouds, that only occasionally part to reveal a speck of pale blue sky. The monotonous landscape makes a welcome change from what we have seen so far, reminding me of home. Green everywhere, trees covering huge stretches of land, the smell of damp earth entering the bus, dandelions glittering on meadows, wild fowl flying low over marshlands, kayaks gliding over lakes, bales of hay on fields here and there, although on most it is still not the right time for haymaking. Bjarni is reminded of home by local houses: wooden, with sloping tin roofs, corroded by rust.

It is here that I realised for the first time how much Bjarni misses Iceland: as we step back on dry land, after a short ride on a small cutter-cum-ferry, far from Valdivia, Corral seems to be a place transported in its entirety from the other hemisphere. The very same buildings, the same boats, the same wind, the same grey clouds overhead, cold air, the same smell of the ocean. The feeling of returning home is misleading though: we are soon reminded that we're in Chile, we're reminded by local plants, by hills covered densly with tall, strange trees and the remains of a fort, a hangout of locals dressed like pirates. Corral is a part of a XVII-century Spanish fortification system, as are Niebla and Isla Mancera. The latter, Isla Mancera, can be circled on foot in only forty minutes: we take bit little longer as our time is consumed by a detour to the beach. We have to turn back after a few minutes of exploring though, the stones are too slippery, the wind too strong and neither of us wants to end up in the foamy, cold waves that batter the shore harder and harder and harder. Also, we don't know the local tides, and a dense, high wall of thorny bushes wouldn't let us - if necessary - escape the shore. The boom of the wind is muted as, separated from the water by those bushes and tall trees, we head back to the ferry. Sea gulls and some birds of prey circle overhead. A rain is brewing.

In Valdivia, it rained almost constantly: it rains when we fall asleep, when we wake up, when we eat breakfast, when we make our dinner. And yet, the rains somehow always relent when we leave the house. Valdivia seems to like us, and we like her back. Three rivers cross in this place, the ocean is just around the corner, a submarine rests in the port, sea lions swimming around it. We spent a lot of time in the local market's concrete shell: we eat fried hakes and salmon, washed down with beer, in a restaurant upstairs. We buy a sweater and a hat for Bjarni, we look for something interesting for me. We go seeking more beer in a famous German brewery a few kilometers away, but as our Lonely Planet gives us misleading information, we wander aimlessly around the suburbs before we finally find the right road, walk for an hour and reach the Kunstmann brew-pub. The beer is good, but the staff can't count and, while pouring someone a meter of beer, poor at least 50 cm all over me. We complain over the bill, gaining a 10% discount, but even after this rebate, our bill is too high. I point out things we didn't even order and one of the staff apologises and takes the bill away. After a while yet another person brings the exact same bill back again, but without the discount. We complain some more - and get yet another bill, with the highest number we've seen so far. As we have had enough of this, having fought about the bill for over half an hour, we write ourselves a proper bill, give ourselves a 10% discount, leave the right amount and walk away. We cannot believe how complicated adding up a few simple numbers turned out be... back in Valdivia I laugh at Bjarni, remembering his face, so full of frustration and disbelief when we got the third, highest bill.

After a few days in Valdivia it was finally time to leave. Now, on the bus to Castro, we wait for it to take its place on the ferry...


It is festival time in Castro, so when Bjarni walks around looking for a place to stay, everyone just shakes their heads or asks for too much money. One nice old lady - as she closes the door behind him - whispers sadly: "poor gringito". The words somehow reach Bjarni's ears and his calm search becomes more paniced: we end up in a room we would probably never choose otherwise. The room itself is not that bad: it is in the centre so we're close to everything; it has wifi; it is cheap and quite spacious. It has its downsides though: it is in the centre so it smells of car exhaust and the ecstatic singing from the local church penetrates our windows late at night; it is incredibly cold (especially in the mornings, we shiver); in the next room, the owners run an internet cafe, so more than once, wearing only my pyjamas, I have to sneak past men in jackets to reach the bathroom. The bathroom is another story: apparently used not only by the owners who share their house with us, but also by the guests of the cafe and the people staying in the other rooms, is eternally occupied. When I finally fight my way there, there is no hot water. The mirror constantly murky, the washing machine either covered with dust or with drying dishes, in a dirty clothes' basket in the corner something smells bad, paint peels from the bathtub, the shower barely works and the floor sticks to my bare feet.

Somehow, it all has a charm of its own, I think later, as I enjoy delicious grilled meat and sip cheap red wine at the festival. It was supposed to be Argentina that delighted me with its food, yet instead in Chile I finally learn what a good steak is. A few hours earlier I was admiring riders at the rodeo, and even went on stage myself, which I am now incredibly proud of. A bottle of Licor de Oro, a local specialty, sits in our backpack: we hope to carry at least some of it all the way home. The festival causes a small hangover the next day, but the sun shines so brightly that we go sightseeing the archipelago and its wooden churches anyway. We travel to Dalcahue, from where another bus and another ferry take us to Curaco de Vélez and Achao, tiny towns located on Isla Quinchao. The day is amazing, the weather cooperates, we eat ice-cream, fried fish, fries, we drink white wine and watch horses being tamed on the beach.

I feel at home.

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The past!