:: SPRING 2020 TRAVEL WRITING PRIZE WINNER ::
Popes in white capes, oystercatchers and kingfishers, lahar deposits, austral summer sunshine, comiendo moscas, lacework in front windows, myrtle, garnet teeth, barbas de viejos, Cai Cai and Tren Tren, Darwin & Concepción.
The world, the very emblem of the solid, moves beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid. —Charles Darwin
There are many wonderful Spanish words that have no English equivalent. For instance:
Entrecejo: the space between the eyebrows.
Tuerto: a person with one eye, or blind in one eye.
Estadounidense: someone from the United States specifically. Not a synonym for “American.” Chileans are “Americans.”
And Cachai?: a Chilean specialty, used to accent nearly every sentence; “Do you get it?”
Often you do not. Often you are in a fog.
The Spanish name, Osorno, for the huge, active volcano that rises above the glacial Lake Llanquihue and is the backdrop for wedding photos in Puerto Varas, means “seen everywhere.” But it is not seen often. The fog sets in most days, and Osorno and even the lake do not exist. Perhaps this explains the name of the lake, a Mapuche word for “hidden place,” though it is 330 square miles in area. This is southern Chile, land of the temperate rainforests, and light rain and fog are the norm. Rainbows are so common that the locals take no notice of them.
Exhausted, carried by gravity back over the snowbank, onto the lava field, we head down along a steep, dry ravine on lahar deposits. Suddenly, a thrust of my right pole pushes through and the edge collapses, taking my right leg and half my body with it.
Fog floats over the many lagoons, making vistas vanish under a magician’s cloth. Walking in it, you feel hypnotized. Distances collapse. Shapes spin out of the mist. Fog wraps you in unknowing, but also heightens what’s close to the nose: the fungal air, the drip of water in a crack on the rock face, an earring of fuchsia dangling from it. The tall, old-forest Fitzroy cypress trees sport barba del viejo, a lacy, tangled, pale-yellow fungus. The air is moist and clean, feeding a benign mutability. Everything in transition, transmutation, slowed down to a state near suspension, as the fog roams around without direction. You want to dissolve into these vapors, become a whisper or a scent, rather than a lumpy solid trundling through the vaporous space. The bearded old men look down on you without judgment. Then, high on the trail, the magician’s cloth lifts and the wider world returns, bringing Osorno into view, not so much “seen everywhere” as all-seeing, like a pope in a white cape.
Darwin was in Chile in 1835 when Osorno erupted, “a great glare of red light”; he felt tremors of the earthquake that flattened the whole city of Concepción. He felt them under his feet and in his mind as the truth of tectonic plate theory thrust into view. “The picture so plainly drawn of the great epochs of violence…causes in the mind a most strange assemblage of ideas.”
Darwin’s footsteps are ahead of you wherever you go here, the acute observer, but not all-seeing; rather, like you, he stumbles in a fog, jots down endless notes, unsure where they will lead, now delighted, now uncomfortable, struck by insight, at times hardly believing his eyes. “One second of time,” Darwin wrote, “conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never create.” The Mapuche had their plate theory too, not at odds with Darwin’s inferences: the eternal clash of the serpent sea god Cai Cai and the lizard land god Tren Tren. When Cai Cai’s floods pushed under, Tren Tren responded by making the lands rise up.
On my first day, the weather is clear. The austral summer sunshine is making the lake sparkle like an ice rink. It is just after New Year’s and I am north of Osorno, in the Valdiva region of Chile, six thousand miles from my home in Boston, the two points about equal distance from the equator. Mount Villarica (“House of Wealth”) dominates the landscape here. The fiercely defensive Mapuche, who drove the plundering Spanish out, called the mountain Ruca Pillan, Devil’s House. No, those little swirls of smoke around the top, like coils from a home fire, are not clouds. They are coming from the volcano’s mouth. She had “shown her garnet teeth” just last year.
In Chile, things are very often not what they seem, even on sunny days. Along the forest trail I note thickets of bamboo, but no, I am told, it is not bamboo, though it looks just like it. The colihue cane is solid, not hollow like the familiar plant. They make bikes out of it. And then there’s nothofagus, which looks just like a beech tree. But notho is Latin for “false;” this tree is a “not-a-beech.”
Today I am headed with a guided group to Pichillancahue glacier, “Place of Small Green Rocks,” atop Villarica. The trail takes us through a virgin forest of araucaria, the national tree of Chile. This species is pre-Jurassic, around for more than two hundred million years. Some trees in this old-growth forest are more than fifteen hundred years old, standing fifty to eighty meters high. Their bark is fire repellent, allowing them, miraculously, to withstand repeated assaults from lava flow. It is known for its uniquely spiky, leathery tines and irregular, curving branches. “The tree would puzzle a monkey,” declared Darwin’s captain on the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, and by his decree it became the monkey puzzle tree. But there are no monkeys in Chile. Was he a bit of a tuerto, half-blind, despite his telescope and his naval education?
The mind likes to classify, but in Chile, as Darwin discovered, not everything fits. The araucaria does seem more animal than vegetable. It looks like the kind of plant life you would see in a dinosaur diorama. There is something reptilian about it, if a reptile’s scales could stand on end like the hair of a cat. Somebody has played cat’s cradle with its upper branches. The lower branches stoop down like dragon necks, as if to scoop you up, but while they don’t bite, the thorny, cactus-like growths along its trunk keep off the climbers.
But really, the monkey is me; the araucaria is unlike anything I have seen or known. If not to fend off monkeys, why does the araucaria grow in this way, with its illogical branches, quilled fruit, and not-needles, not-leaves? It’s a monument to our not-knowing.
Fog wraps you in unknowing, but also heightens what’s close to the nose: the fungal air, the drip of water in a crack on the rock face, an earring of fuchsia dangling from it.
As we make our way past this “tree island,” as volcanists call it, we come to the bald top of Villarica, where a panoramic vista reveals the Ring of Fire: Lanin, Questu Pillan, Mocho-Choshuenco all in sight. As the distances open up for us, the ground under our feet grows looser, harder to tread. The denser soil that had nurtured the araucaria and is held in place by its roots gives way above the tree line to a rough desert of volcanic gravel, sliding and sinking under our soles. It will not hold a footprint or the impression of a trail. We scramble over the lava field, trying to reach the receding snow line, where there may be more traction. From there we lunge onward, eager to tag the ancient glacier and send a photo home to impress our friends.
Here is another puzzle. At the far end of the white snowbank is not a white dome, but a black mass, a glacier veiled in ash from the last eruption. Ice melts from below, I realize, so no glacial tears have washed away the soot. I do not want to touch the ice; it would be too much like desecrating a grave.
Exhausted, carried by gravity back over the snowbank, onto the lava field, we head down along a steep, dry ravine on lahar deposits. Suddenly, a thrust of my right pole pushes through and the edge collapses, taking my right leg and half my body with it. I tip to the left and hold on with my twisted left foot and leg until a fellow hiker grabs me under the arms. With some pulling on his part and scooting on mine, I manage after a minute or two to recover from my dangling position. I urge them on their way—“I’m fine; I’ll catch up”—but I am stunned and dizzy from the adrenaline rush. My foot and ankle are throbbing.
Fortunately, in this un-firm world, there is Frances, our Chilean guide. She insists on staying behind with me until I am able to proceed. Like a bodhisattva, I fantasize, she has reached a higher place but returned, patiently showing others the way, carrying our baggage, our rescue gear (heavy ropes, first aid, a makeshift stretcher, etc.), offering round her maté gourd, full of tonic herbs. She is studying to be a high-peaks climbing instructor and is already at the 5.10 level. She is mourning her mentor, who fell to his death last year.
If not to fend off monkeys, why does the araucaria grow in this way, with its illogical branches, quilled fruit, and not-needles, not-leaves?
On the way up, Frances had answered my what’s and why’s of botany and geology. She can imitate birdcalls and carry on a conversation with the chucao. (“An odd red-breasted little bird,” Darwin said, “which inhabits the thick forest and utters very peculiar noises” and is admired by locals for “its strange and varied cries.”) All along I had been focused on getting to the top, but she had encouraged me to smell herbs and touch bark. Now, just below the summit, as the social buzz of the other hikers recedes into the forest below us, we are two tiny specks in the Infinite. But we are large to each other, filled rather than hollowed by the spaces we are taking in.
After about fifteen minutes, I recover my equilibrium. Frances is all patience, yet I am aware that the group will have to wait for me back at the van. I’m a helpless Estadounidense, messing up the schedule. She takes my hand, steers me over the shifting gravel as I hobble along. “Let’s fill our bottles. There’s a stream over there, and it’s clean; it comes right from the glacier.” I had missed it on the way up, focused on the ascent. Now I hear the stream before I see it, a mountain music. And soon I notice tiny red flowers are sprouting along the coarse banks; the earth is taking on solidity again, the shallow water is falling over the rocks, but only gently on this small plateau. Frances takes my canteen, bends over to fill it. A sweet taste of something ancient, yet fresh. “Why don’t you soak your foot in the cold water; it will stop the swelling.”
It’s a relief to remove my boot, my sock, to dip into this primal element. My gaze is out into the mountains, but I become aware of my body, too, not only the pain and the icy relief, but also the warm liquid under my skin, the relaxation of my breath and pulse. Frances, a few yards off, has closed her eyes, so I close mine in imitation. When I open them again, I see that she has removed not only backpack and shoes, but also her outer garments, down to her underwear. She is lying fully stretched out on her back, lengthwise in the middle of the stream, as if she were asleep in her own bed at home—and, in a sense, this is her home, high up in Chile’s Ring of Fire.
M y cabin is on the furious Fuy River that connects two huge lakes, Pirihueico and Panguipulli, and reaches out to the Andes and Argentina. Just beyond the cabin there is a well-marked path that follows a ledge a few meters above the rushing river, so I wander out late afternoon, leaning on my sticks, favoring my right foot and keeping my eye on the terrain: knotted with roots, but otherwise secure. Half a mile in, I see a spur on the trail and a sign, “Picnic,” which is, I deduce, Spanish for “picnic”—a nice place to spend half an hour or so propping up my foot and watching the rapids.
The path descends gradually to a wide eddy in the river and a little deserted beach area where there are indeed picnic tables, but they are almost entirely submerged now in the river’s summer swell. I sit down on a rock under a hawthorn tree at the corner of the beach and watch the water as it spins slowly out, taking its break from the foaming, mainstream current. The light-catching swirls and rippling shadows offset the melancholy of the sunken tables.
My trance breaks with the sound of footsteps and quiet Spanish chatter coming from the trail spur. I will myself invisible under the tree’s shadow as two young men and a woman approach the shore, never looking my way. One of the men taps a stick in front of his path and holds the woman’s arm. What is a blind man doing in a wilderness park, full of rough trails and perilous waters? Yet they seem utterly secure and serene in their threesome.
Would he plunge, merging with all the obscure souls treading water in the waves, maybe sinking to oblivion? Or would he soar, becoming, I fantasized, an astrophysicist steering the Atacama Desert Telescope, bringing new planets into our ken?
Observing them, it occurs to me how much I am tethered to my eyes. Yesterday, my gaze had zoomed out to the mountain panorama, and in again to the spark-like starflowers. I had glimpsed the red and blue flash of the chucao, but hadn’t really listened to it, until Frances pointed out its three distinct calls, one of which is a protective imitation of another bird. I had noted the unique design of the monkey puzzle branches, but had not touched the leathery leaves or the mosaic bark, or tested the tines for their sharpness; I had not taken in the aroma of the myrtle. Only at Frances’ urging had I tasted the mountain water or stroked the soft moss on the “small green rocks” of the place name.
Words and images: those are the ways I mediate the world. Two wonderful ways, but distant, indirect in their access. I had leaned on Frances and tapped my stick, but was blind to other ways of taking in the world.
After a while, the trio moves back toward the trail spur. Alone again on the little beach, I feel the rough pumice under my palms. I listen to the river, roaring and charging just a few yards off in its hurry to the lake. Then I listen closer in, to the quieter sounds where the driving current slows into a lazy churn. It’s a little risky, but the water is so inviting and there is plenty to hold on to. I wade in and bend my knees to let the water’s arms support me. I dig my toes into the river silt that shifts but does not give way.
At the ferry dock to the Isla de Chiloé in northern Patagonia, hundreds of brown-hooded gulls dip and pivot around the boats, waiting to hitch a ride. Chiloé is “place of gulls.” (Darwin is right, I think: “The Indian language appears singularly well adapted for attaching names to the most trivial features of the land.”) About one hundred yards to the side of the ferry landing, what looks like a wide pier, set high on pilings, extends out about a quarter mile. It’s a bridge across the channel, explains Carlos, our Safe driver, halted in 2006 when the Brazilian contractor was caught up in corruption. Many don’t want a bridge. It looks like something from de Chirico, a plank one must walk each night in dreams.
The ferry ride is a delight, like leaving the world behind. And later, as we drive into the interior of Chiloé, I sense the appeal of an island way of life, even as international logging, salmon farming and attempts at tourism have shocked the island ecosystem. It has a long history of turning its back on the mainland.
Darwin left his footprint here too, during the voyage of the Beagle. He was less than enchanted by the place, especially at first. “I do not suppose any part of the world is so rainy as the Island of Chiloé.…In winter the climate is detestable, and in summer it is only a little better.” Studying the way of life here, he concluded: “Pigs and potatoes are as plentiful as in Ireland. With the exception of this weighty advantage, Chiloé is a miserable hole.” Nevertheless, he devoted two chapters of his journal to detailing the flora, the fauna, the soil, the contours of the landscape and the habits of the island’s people with their strongly indigenous ancestry. At the end of these pages, he concedes, “Every one was glad to say farewell to Chiloé; yet if we could forget the gloom and ceaseless rain of winter, Chiloé might pass for a charming island.”
The main road is scattered with small wooden houses in a fading rainbow of colors. Woodpiles stacked to the roof. Meager farm plots—pigs and potatoes, yes, but also a few sheep, a goat, some chickens; the smell of peat harvest and manure floating in the summer air. At some of these cottages we see a woman peeking through a shutter, an old man sitting alone on an iron chair or fidgeting with a rusted pickup truck. Otherwise there are few signs of inhabitants this day. Is the island deserted? Where is everybody?
I do not want to touch the ice; it would be too much like desecrating a grave.
No vehicles pass us for over half an hour, even on the paved roads. Then, suddenly, a traffic jam and old cars and trucks lined up along the side of the road. What is going on?
“A funeral,” says Carlos. And, farther along, the same pileup: “A soccer match.” Such things measure time on the island. I want to pull over, watch the game, play ethnologist, taking notes like Darwin. Yet I have no right to trespass here.
That morning, I had visited the penguin colony at Puñihuil beach, where there is a cluster of volcanic island rookeries on the Pacific coast. You go out in little boats, eight at a time, and float near enough, without going ashore, to see the penguins as they flap and waddle around the rocks in teams, diving into the water, scurrying their young along. I had thought at the time how they looked like diminutive soccer players in black-and-white uniforms, Magellans with two stripes, Humboldts with one—egrets, gulls, pelicans and cormorants in the stands. You are not permitted contact. You might disturb the ecology. The birds are clearly aware of the boats, but indifferent. They have been roosting there forever.
Then again, people are not penguins. Perhaps more contact with the mainland, and even the modernity intruding on the island, would make it a more vital place. Coming ashore on Chiloé, I thought: I could stay here for ages, forget the world with all its noise, read and watch the seabirds as they follow the tides. But if I were a young person raised on this island, or an older person raising the young, I would not be satisfied with this penguin-colony life of soccer games on Saturday, mussel hunting, pigs and potatoes, and maybe a cueca barbeque with the old people on holidays. I would be looking for the bigger arena, in Santiago. Maybe the bridge is a good idea.
M emory is a kind of archipelago in the ocean of the mind, and I keep scraping up against the literal backwaters of my past. Small, isolated rural places, especially when they have certain common features of climate and geography, seem to press up together. Chiloé, I think, is like the rural Ohio of my 1950s childhood, with its little cottages along the river, its houses on stilts. Then I am brought back to our family trip through the Maritime Provinces in 1962, to see my father’s birthplace. Here are scattered little hamlets like the ones in Nova Scotia, and the same gray storm clouds over hundreds of miles of dirt road; dog carts, sheep crossings, mud estuaries, like the ones we passed on our way to Pouch Cove, Newfoundland. Then, driving past hilly pastures with the Andes in the distance, Chiloé is Putnam, the little Champlain ferry station in the Adirondacks where my parents had farmed at the end of their lives. Places are particular, and we travel for novelty, but the mind navigates by likeness, familiarity. Not that the life we remember ever was as we remember it. It’s our longing that we recognize, for a place in the past that is unspoiled, simple, timeless. And, of course, the fog in Chiloé enhances this effect, making the present feel like a memory.
A little day-cruiser takes me from the main island to the smaller outer islands, which have several layers of insulation from the outside world. We are accompanied by pelicans, an albatross and dolphins that chase boats the way that farm dogs chase cars. There are probably only a very few small craft crossing each day, mostly locals bringing in a catch or supplies from the big island.
As we approach the dock at Isla Quehui, I see the town commons just behind it, an acre or so of grass with four sagging, weather-beaten booths that suggest the ghost of a market or fairground. A lane borders the commons on each side, with fewer than a dozen two-room clapboard bungalows with untidy yards, and rotting sills, but some displaying lacework in front windows. The sky is the usual seabass gray, which adds to the gloom. Yet there is something romantic about the scene. My mental kayak is caught in the weeds of nostalgia again.
Memory is a kind of archipelago in the ocean of the mind, and I keep scraping up against the literal backwaters of my past.
The UNESCO World Heritage church, which I have come here to see, resembles a Bavarian barn. Brown clapboard sides, a buttercream-and-blue facade, without ornament except for a wide porch with four plain, narrow columns, topped with a tall steeple and simple cross. Jesuits had authorized these churches, bringing some European designs, but it was the locals who built them, and they made do without nails for the most part, which makes them remarkable. Simple but masterful carpentry—dovetailing, peg-in-hole joints, etc.—had withstood earthquakes and tsunamis for centuries.
The interior is just as plain as the outside, no gold or silver that distinguishes most Spanish and Portuguese colonial churches. Looking up, it becomes clear that this was the work of island people. The church is an inverted boat, the roof a hull, the steeple a kind of rudder. Made from the same cypress and larch, the same warping and sealing techniques still in practice by a generations-old family of boat builders. Seaworthy is also sky-worthy in a wet climate like this.
Another light rain has begun, but I take a little path in back of the church that leads, through neighbors’ garden plots, to a small cemetery halfway up a hill. And now it is not just the déjà vu effect, or the Russian-doll effect of this small world, but the Droste effect that strikes me, an image displaying its image in miniature, ad infinitum. The tombs here seem to be models of the wooden bungalows at the dock—the same unique shingle shapes, the window boxes with plastic flowers. The plots in front are shorter than casket length—perhaps some bones under the moss, but no prominent markers, no epitaphs and no names. Those who need to know who rests here identify them by their houses.
These little burial huts were built for visiting—a soggy Sunday picnic to chat with Dona Lucerina or Uncle Antonio. There were never more than a few hundred living inhabitants on this island where everybody is related; now, judging from the weeds, they are mostly forgotten. In addition to the tiny houses, the cemetery includes a replica of the church—perhaps the resting place of an itinerant priest? And one tomb is a diminutive fishing boat. Did the departed die at sea?
I pass out of the tilting wooden gate and ascend further up to a mirador where there is a life-size plaster statue of the Madonna. The sky has cleared now and from up here I can see quite far, across the graveyard, to the little church and commons, to the dock with our speck-like craft, waiting there, like a prince’s gondola, to take me to the sea.
Darwin saw the Pacific side of Chiloé mostly from the Beagle; from that distance, despite seasickness, he admired its contours. But when he tried to enter the dense forests, “we were more like fishes struggling in a net than any other animal.…We ultimately gave up in despair.” Up close, this world is hard to penetrate. “As for the woods…I shall never forget or forgive them: my face, hands, and shin-bones all bear witness what maltreatment I have received in simply trying to penetrate into their forbidden recesses.” Today the extensive beach area is mostly inaccessible even by boat, since the waters are rough and the coves rocky. The main way to get to the Pacific is along the Río Chepu that flows east to west.
This expedition is at once a glimpse of paradise and a journey down the River Styx. Our ferryman is a short, white-haired man named Alfonso who has navigated the Chepu waters for much of his life. Alfonso has adapted well to the new order emerging here. His modest house on a paved road is just a half-mile above the riverbank, near Chepu’s source. He has refitted his fishing dinghy as a six-seat craft for birdwatchers.
In the 1960s a major tsunami radically altered the dimensions of the river, more than tripling its width in some parts and swallowing the forest on the bank, so that now, at its source, it is a kind of eerie swamp of gray protruding treetops and sagging moss, barba del viejo again. We are the only humans. The area is Bird Heaven, with flocks of large, pure-white egrets; a busy congress of birds, fio-fios, wigeons, snipes, sandpipers, lapwings, oystercatchers, kingfishers, condors, black-necked swans, albatross—a visual marvel; astounding varieties with gorgeous markings of teal, yellow, blue, garnet, cinnamon, some swooping, some swimming along the edges, some wading in the shallows, some diving for fish, some pecking on the sandbanks, some solitary, others gliding in chevrons. Alfonso is expert at spotting them and has equipped his boat with a manual in English and a pair of binoculars.
But, unlike the birds, the tabanos do not ignore us. These are big-as-your-thumbnail comiendo moscas, flies like hurled igneous chunks with ember-red cheeks. They swarm by the thousands, looking for flesh and distracting us from this Audubon splendor. We swat our way downriver trying to maintain our enthusiasm. The dinghy is headed to the last mooring on the Rio Chepu. From there, we are promised, after a short walk in the woods (which does more or less confirm Darwin’s description), we will come to the Pacific.
It looks like something from de Chirico, a plank one must walk each night in dreams.
The idea had been for a picnic on the beach, but with the tabanos still in pursuit, no one has much of an appetite. The sun has come out for a minute, but this just emboldens the demons. As we stumble out of the boggy woods onto the blustery beach, we see a different kind of picnic underway: eight or so vultures have circled around what?—something big!—about halfway between woods and water. Chilotan vultures, like Chilotan flies, are grotesquely large. Darwin had seen these “turkey buzzards,” as he called them, loitering near herds of “loving” but “foul smelling” seals and watching “with patient but inauspicious eyes.” This “disgusting bird, with its bald scarlet head, formed to wallow in putridity, is very common on the west coast.” What are they feasting on? A león marino, Alfonso informs us.
My next sighting is an enormous beached tanker from the 1960s, now a rusted carcass of dinosaur dimensions, set like a cautionary monument to outsized ambition. A Philippine company had hoped to extract seaweed and other valuable resources from this shoreline in Chiloé, and the ship had foundered here (sabotaged by islanders, some say). We nod at the admonition against global predation, but, still preyed upon ourselves by the tabanos, we are eager to move on.
There is a shelter, Alfonso indicates, on a bluff just above this beach. We can hike up there for lunch, protected from the wind and the pests. The structure, a one-room hexagonal pavilion with wide Plexiglas windows that look out to the sea and the mountains, is, alas, locked. He shakes his head and disappears over a dip in the hilltop. Is he abandoning us? No—after a few minutes, he returns, with a willowy youth who turns out to be the caretaker, with the key.
I had noted the unique design of the monkey puzzle branches, but had not touched the leathery leaves or the mosaic bark, or tested the tines for their sharpness; I had not taken in the aroma of the myrtle.
The pavilion, and the hermit’s hut below the dip where Danilo stays and has been napping, are connected to the Muelle de la Luz, the Pier of Light, an art installation a few yards off along the rim. A private society had commissioned this environmental artwork and had hired Danilo to guard it like a lighthouse keeper. He is in his third month of a four-month stay, alone day and night. Visitors are rare. A park ranger, arriving by boat and climbing the cliff as we had just done, brings him food every two weeks.
When I first saw his smooth face and heard his voice, I was not at all sure of Danilo’s gender, and perhaps it is fluent. From his wool cap hang long, smooth locks well below his shoulders; he wears knee-high rain boots, stretch pants, a colorful flannel shirt. The opposite of the very masculine, sturdy Alfonso, the man at the helm, who looks less than pleased to have retrieved this preposterous Peter Pan. Danilo is a New Age hermit, maybe, but a voluble one. He is hungry—for conversation, foremost, but also for food. As we settle in the enclosed room and greedily open our packed sandwiches, fruit, granola bars, we feel his eyes and, embarrassed, offer to share. He is vegetarian, thank you, but otherwise graciously accepts all our offerings.
Unlike Alfonso, Danilo speaks excellent, sophisticated English and wants a full account of where we are from and what we do. He reveals that he is not Chilean, but Venezuelan, and thus, like many from his country now, homeless. But he doesn’t dwell on his difficulties. When his vigil here is over, he will head into the unwelcoming throngs in Buenos Aires, where he plans to register to study physics at the university. He speaks of the wonders of nature, and of the stars, of deep time and deep space, so strongly present in this country, which, for us, is at the bottom of the world.
Alfonso, who has been fidgeting and looking out the window, seeing that we have finished our sandwiches, slaps his thighs and rises to indicate it is time for a quick look at the Muelle de la Luz, and then the hike back to the boat. Danilo makes sure we all sign his notebook—emails, please, for when he visits our countries—and then disappears.
Eyes are everywhere, blue-black and ash-gray, some on faces, some disembodied and piled up, some enlarged to the size of cue balls or even heads, dripping with blood—no, erupting with blood.
A short stroll from the shelter and here it is, the Pier of Light, a miniature, it seems, of the absurd bridge to nowhere that I had seen on the mainland. Except that this boardwalk is finished. Not a dead end, but a path to the infinite, cantilevered out beyond the sea-cliff precipice, pilings rising, spiraling up toward the sky, toward la luz. No railings on this narrow walkway above the Pacific. I step nervously partway on the weathered slats; the height makes me queasy, but the wind keeps the tabanos away, and the great expanse of the ocean pulls me toward the edge.
Then I forget myself and think of Danilo. This pier seems a metaphor for his precarious future—a slim, exposed platform constructed of intelligence and imagination, but leading where? Would he plunge, merging with all the obscure souls treading water in the waves, maybe sinking to oblivion? Or would he soar, becoming, I fantasized, an astrophysicist steering the Atacama Desert Telescope, bringing new planets into our ken?
As we head back toward the trail that will take us to the boat, we find Danilo waiting at the boundary of this sanctuary, beyond which he is not permitted to pass for another month. He is practicing yoga, and, as we approach, he suddenly lifts himself into a nimble headstand. There was really no predicting what Danilo would do next.
I had considered cancelling. The travel advisories were scary. Chile, known to investors as the South American exception, the free-market miracle that had peacefully ousted a dictator and restored democracy, had erupted in protests (the estallido), sending a lava flow of furious, unstoppable crowds down Santiago’s streets, burning out subway stations, igniting buses and cars, shattering traffic lights, looting and leveling stores, smashing windows not only of banks and office buildings but of universities, pharmacies, groceries, even churches.
The triggering event had been a small subway fare increase; the real cause was decades of extreme inequality, extractive economics and a degraded social safety net. Twenty-nine dead, thousands in the hospital. “State of emergency,” quaked the billionaire president from his high window. “We are at war.” He called in the riot police, then the military, set curfews that stranded people trying to get home from work. Then, too late, he pulled back the fare increase and promised reforms. The crowds surged; millions called for his expulsion.
But by the end of December the aftershocks were few, the fires put out, protests trickled to a hundred in Plaza Italia shouting slogans on Friday afternoons. While I am usually bold about wandering in unfamiliar cities, I’m a bit anxious about the violence, so I engage Josefiña, a young artist and freelance guide.
From the overlook at Cerro Santa Lucia, things look grand. Darwin had been here, too: “A never failing source of pleasure was to ascend the little hillock of rock (St. Lucia) which projects in the middle of the city.” In hot, arid Santiago, the park is an oasis of shady paths winding to the top, ornamented with gunnera, the ubiquitous and gargantuan rhubarb of Chile, and the not-bamboo and not-beech I had seen in the forests. A panoramic view of the city, now free from the red and blue rivers of pixelated people seen on CNN, reveals a slow traffic flow.
We are large to each other, filled rather than hollowed by the spaces we are taking in.
Though Darwin spent a week in Santiago, he was not impressed: “Of the town I have nothing to say in detail.” What he saw was “a former inland sea.” I look out now on a bustling, growing urban landscape. The view reveals the full length of Avenue Alameda, the central artery of the city, leading to “ground zero,” as the news media had designated the occupied Plaza Italia. We take a coffee at the old palace near the base of the park, then enter the street.
Our next stop is Josefiña’s favorite neighborhood, Lastarria, an enclave of galleries, cafés, boutique hotels and elegant apartments. Craft artisans have set up tables in front of a small private museum; inside, we check out an exquisitely curated exhibition of pre-Colombian jewelry from a private collection, and new paintings by Santiago’s international star, Samy Benmayor.
But a different, urgent and anonymous approach to art has taken over this quiet corner. The belle époque buildings with their tall doorways and arched windows are smothered in graffiti, unsigned and kaleidoscopic. Mural-size images and words in various dramatic calligraphies, all in shades of black, white, gray and red. None of it is designed to please, I think. It is screaming without sound: bring down the System. I shake my head. What a sorry sight. A graceful heritage violated and defaced. I want to turn away.
Josefiña, however, is animated. She is clearly in sympathy with the protestors’ calls for social justice, though she herself is from an upper-middle-class family of lawyers and engineers, and was educated in an English immersion school in Santiago. She expresses admiration for this new artistic flowering that to me seems nihilistic. Josefiña is a glass artist; isn’t she horrified by this smash-everything rhetoric and ideology?
Seaworthy is also sky-worthy in a wet climate like this.
She translates some of the graffiti for me: “Todos gratis!” Everything free! “No a la ley!” No to the law! “Querada todo.” Let everything burn. The accusations and calls to action seem so vague: “Assesinos” (assassins); “Evade” (with reference, I deduce, to hopping subway terminals, irrelevant now since most of the subways have been trashed and are closed). “Chile desperto” is scrawled everywhere. Chile has awoken. To what, I wonder?
There is some poetry in it, or at least some rhyme and rhetorical flair. “Caera la noche y bailarenos/ Sobre sus cuerpos”: The night will fall and we will dance over their bodies. “No era paz, era silencio”: It was not peace, it was silence. Grita por aquellos a quienes el gobierno ha amordazado: Shout for those the government has gagged.
To me, this seems the unintelligible voice of a volcano. But, as I continue to look, I notice that there is a dominant motif. Eyes are everywhere, blue-black and ash-gray, some on faces, some disembodied and piled up, some enlarged to the size of cue balls or even heads, dripping with blood—no, erupting with blood. Words and images—now neither distant nor indirect—claim all my attention again, but I don’t know how to read them.
Josefiña explains: The military police had used tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot. They had blinded some protestors, while the governing elite looked away. One image shows a Monopoly figure, Mr. Moneybags, with a scale—thirty pesos on one side (the increase in the subway fare) and thirty eyeballs on the other. Some of the images have the lurid quality of martyrdom.
But the ubiquity of the eyes, their glare, seems to say something else: our eyes are open; we are not asleep to this system that holds us down. You may not see us, but we see you.
I step nervously partway on the weathered slats; the height makes me queasy, but the wind keeps the tabanos away, and the great expanse of the ocean pulls me toward the edge.
When Darwin arrived in Santiago in 1835, he asked about governance in the country. “The host, talking about the state of Chile as compared to other countries, was very humble. ‘Some see with two eyes, and some with one, but for my part I do not think that Chile sees with any.’” Presumably the host meant there was little government control in the country and thus a lot of lawlessness and corruption. Darwin had admired “the simplicity and humble politeness of the poor inhabitants” of rural Chile. What would he have thought about this many-eyed public revolt?
As we move along the Alameda to the Plaza Italia, the eyes follow us on every block. And I begin to view them differently, to look back and recognize their claims, the frustration that has placed them here. Only as we pass the guarded and barricaded Moneda Palace, the government building with its grass lawn and huge reflecting pool, now closed to pedestrians, do we briefly escape their beams. As an outsider, I have little understanding of what has occurred, but one thing is clear: the powerful are protecting themselves, whatever else may go down.
We arrive at Plaza Italia, now and perhaps forever renamed “Dignity Square.” I wonder at the choice of slogan. Not “Justice Square,” not “The People’s Park,” not “Liberation Plaza”? The statue of General Manuel Baquedano, a hero of the Republic, at the near entrance, is splattered with red paint and graffiti (“Opresor”) and festooned with protest banners. The plaza, at the bend of the avenue as it follows the muddy trench, which is the Río Mapocho, is empty except for a couple of young men who have mounted the high equestrian monument. They are waving foaming fire extinguishers like beer mugs.
The plots in front are shorter than casket length—perhaps some bones under the moss, but no prominent markers, no epitaphs and no names. Those who need to know who rests here identify them by their houses.
Dignidad. What did it mean in Spanish?
I was brought up by my English mother, for whom it was a byword, the key to survival and the value that made austerity endurable. It meant defending, not tearing down, long-held traditions and institutions. Dignity meant stoicism, meant privacy, meant containing your emotions. Dignity gave you stature; it was like the dome of Saint Paul’s in London during the Blitz. That was a different kind of war, when “dignity” shaped a unified response to an external enemy bent on annihilating you. Dignidad meant something else.
The snow-capped Osorno reflected in the calm waters of Lake Llanquehui is dignified, but what red fire is roiling underneath? “Dignidad,” at least here, is the demand to be seen, and even a call to annihilate established institutions that rendered you invisible. Looking around at the scarred and scorched city, I try to see it at least through the eyes of Josefiña, with whom I have a lot in common. It is hard for me to recognize a call for dignity amidst so much vandalism; but then again, I think, there is no dignity in blind, cowed submission either.
On the next day, Josefiña takes me to the Pre-Columbian Museum, which had been spared from the wreckage. Here, in a low-lit gallery, are about a dozen of the totemic wooden sentinels, ten-foot chemamülls, sacred to the Mapuche. I had seen them on the lonely islands, guarding the entrances to indigenous villages; they are mostly found in cemeteries, where they conduct the dead to the next world—a world of bitter potatoes for some, and Kalfumapu, the “blue land,” for others. Their faces are too roughly carved, too abstract, to invite interaction. They bear the ritualized T shape to indicate eyes and nose. No entrecejo, no space between eyebrows. And no eyeballs. They do not seem to be looking at me, but, like many holy sculptures, seem blind seers, in touch with another world, a world figured in glacial peaks and far-off islands. But the city outside the museum is urgent and palpable and demands that we return its gaze.
Bonnie Costello has published essays on travel and place in a variety of journals, including Yale Review, Gettysburg Review, World Literature Today, War, Literature & the Arts, Terrain, Solstice, Concho River Review, Southern Review (a Best American Essays notable) and Salmagundi. She is lucky to have traveled often and far and hopes to head to Italy as a Bogliasco Fellow before the end of 2021. She taught literature for many years, and her academic work includes studies of Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, W. H. Auden and other modern and contemporary poets. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Lead image: Amy Rollo