South America 2011-2012: Valdivia, Chile


So finally I'm in Valdivia, Chile, perhaps an odd place to have nagged at me for some dozen years or so. After all, it's only a university town that is most noted for how it meets the Pacific in a jumbled mash of rivers, marsh, hills... and whatever else was left after its 1960 earthquake. That just happened to be the strongest, ever, in recorded history. Pretty much anything old in the town departed after that monster, the geography even literally changing as areas sunk underwater to "never" be seen again. That's some of the marshland, actually.

The resulting town of today thus is more vibrant than traditional. That comes both from the required reconstruction AND on account of the youthful student life that is the focus beyond the stolid, German roots for which the area is otherwise known. The classic clapboard abodes of gingerbread-house-esque stylings still exist here and there, their distinct siding and roofs now shabby with "character", but now they are increasingly likely to house a micro-brewery. The remnants of this look might bring the tourists, yes, but I'd soon find that the locals more likely preferred the liquid stuff for which the area is now more increasingly known.

By luck I land myself in a good hostel, but only after my taxi driver pretends to get slightly lost. So I figure it, anyway, an ingenious extending of a trip of a mere several blocks done in hopes of disorienting me. He succeeds on account of my unfamiliarity with the place, naturally, but I also frankly don't have the heart to argue over what would likely be a reduction of $2 down to $1. Instead I smile back - he DOES seem quite humble and friendly - and pay, happy to be landed at a hostel where I can set down my overloaded pile of belongings.

By chance I find that I've chosen well, the owner of the hostel being a woman similarly devoted to the artisan, sustainable way of thinking that I glom onto wherever and whenever possible. Technically Viela (spelling unverified, nor how/why this woman from Eureka (Calif.) got the name in the first place) is involved in permaculture, she informs me. On the practical level this mostly means that there are herbs in the garden for the taking, plus a surprisingly level of recycling (that she is trying in somewhat vain to spread). This is not coincidentally topped by a breakfast more than a good cut above the hostel norm.

Oh yeah - there is also a duck, Gardel (named after the famed Argentine tango crooner). He rules the roost over some chickens who have their eggs unwittingly put up for sale to hostel occupants. I quickly decide not to challenge this web-footed pato lord of the backyard, especially not after hearing that Gardel likes guys especially. He has a habit of pecking at them with a surprising level of discernment over the ladies. In spite of his proclivities I decide that this will be home enough for a spell, what with the warm current that runs through the place.

Indeed, my first surprise is the sheer American-ness of it all - I'm talking about my fellow travelers here, by the way. This reminds me more than tacitly how preferred Chile is to the average American, or at least the ones with South America dancing in their brains like so many sugar plums. The quality of life, comfort-wise certainly, is the closest thing to back home down this way. It's not that I'm looking for Americans to hang out with - I'm not - but here they are in spades. That's mostly surprising because this town is not exactly on the obvious tourist track that Americans are so known for hewing to.

My company, then, is formed of exchange students and the odd WOOFer (Worldwide Organization of Organic Farmer participants, from the same outfit I'd found out about in Australia, where work is paid in lodging and food). A couple of Chicagoans and their one-year-old, Sojourner-now-temporarily-called-Esperanza (hope), have come over from El Bolson, Argentina, to unwittingly join me for almost the duration of my stay. For practical reasons, however, we'd be tooling about the burg in quite different ways.

Everyone, of course, dials into the seafood. The variety is large and tasty; It's not expensive, either. Capping this, a fish market sits on the waterfront. There I also find a cacophony of seagulls and sea lions, each and every one of them feasting on the flesh bits tossed aside by the fishermen. I'd happily partake in sierra, corvina, salmon - whatever - in more traditional, plate-served fashion. Shocker. Meanwhile, a dish of mussels I pick up in the market, a so-called "baile del mar" (dance of the sea) I'm told, is perfect. My stomach survives the potential assault. This luck will continue, too.

Right away, too, I find myself at one of the ground zeros for the national student protests ongoing in Chile. This comes from the conflict between the practicality of getting an education and the fervent desire of students to get it for free. Although they've now just returned to classes after a months-long unscheduled hiatus, the slogans on the walls and the marches continue to some extent. I both do and don't sympathize with them at the same time. I'm more a believer in the state helping those that are trying to help themselves, and that coming in the form of effort and grades - as opposed to giving handouts to subsidize another chunk of years after secondary school. The concept of a free college education in and of itself is breaking down all over the world for the simple reason that it costs a lot... and the vast majority of those in college aren't as much into learning as the imagery suggests. Bottom line, and to quote Mr. Clinton or Mr. Carville: "It's the economy, stupid!"

This is the backdrop, anyway, to beginning eight or so days of walkabouts under a Seattle-like climate. My thinking is basic: When the sun comes out, I do, too... That's a perfect method with which to putz about this university town with an oversized cultural stamp ensconced in interesting geography. Historically, even the riches-mad Spanish were aware of how this confluence of waters was a good place to protect. They set up an ample set of forts nearby. When they were gone, though, and replaced by the Chileans, these were eventually replaced by Germans and their traditions. The thinking was to populate the area with hard-working immigrants - who would do the dirty work of displacing the local tribes with their industriousness. The set up the necessary breweries in no time, being Germans and all.

Now their architecture is gone to ruin, of course, the saxon links mostly weakened. The result in 2011 is a motley collection of tin roofs and rotting wood, each of whose saving grace would hopefully be that anything torn down would be replaced with something including INSULATION. I couldn't stop thinking about that, anyway, not as I passed by one window after another fronting the street. They're invariably of single pane and nestled in walls of peeling paint. There the otherwise evident comparisons with Seattle (climate, geography, artisan food and drink, etc.) unquestionably end. Now Valdivia and environs is more the kind of tumbledown place that's akin to the dead logging downs in various now-practically-deserted areas of Oregon and Washington.

There's nevertheless an unquestionable charm and life about town. To this I take a leisurely walk up to the old train station. The idea is to take in some grafiti, furthering my cause by disobeying a surly railroad worker who says "No!" to my taking pictures. Bah! I do it anyway, then skirt the shore of the river to take in more impressive stuff in the form of commissioned murals. These are suggestive of the area's history. Finally I round my way around the bend to the bridge to Isla Teja, right on top of "downtown" and not far from the hostel. There I find a couple of sea lions that have apparently taken up permanent residence, much to the convenience of all tourists and tour operators in the area.

Continuing with the tourism theme is the downtown's waterfront area, one replete with its boats for excursions upriver and downriver. I guess (later confirmed as correct) that most of what I'd otherwise be seeing would be sufficiently representative of the area and its waterways, however. Foucault's Pendulum, a glass-enshrined and working piece of art also found on the same waterfront, is another thing altogether. I don't quite know what to make of it, but all art with aesthetic appeal is good art I believe. Besides, I only remember being disappointed in Umberto Eco's eponymous book. Anyway, continuing with that thread of thought of being neither here nor there, is a building near the bridge to Isla Teja. It looks like it belongs in Dubai - but on a much larger scale. Hmm. Well, there it is.

For all this wandering, all the while, I cart about various gems from my stash of books. I finish Salinger's Franny & Zooey almost upon arrival, then blaze through Wharton's short Ethan Frome and Greene's Heart Of The Matter. Each is a classic earned in its own right, on topics ranging from precocious geniuses sounding off in New England to the humble lot of the poorest of poor in rural Vermont to the inane doings of soldiers in the west of Africa during WWII.

Valdivia is also the place where I can finally again fish out my sadly ignored trumpet. Permission is granted it to come alive again following its forced hiatus. Poor thing - we've dearly missed each other. Repeated lip trills race me back to the present, an attempt to get back up to some level of competency. This contents my soul - if not every ear bent in my direction. Hey, that's why I carry a couple mutes!, I tell myself. Eventually this leads to serenading the backyard with whatever tunes come to mind, even if I'm not quite satisfied with the open sound I produce. In goes the harmon mute and balance is restored.

A couple of outings serve as highlights to get to know the area. One I do as a march out of town, over the Isla (island) Teja and back onto the mainland toward the Pacific. This I do with the Chicago couple and their child. We make it about half of the way to Niebla, our sort-of destination, both reveling in the fresh, open air, as much as the hope that no one swerves off the road to nail us. The local falcons, plovers, and ibises (garcas) line our way by turns as we stroll through generally pastoral country. Finally we get on a bus to push ourselves into Niebla directly.

Niebla is one of the points in the area which the Spanish fortified a few times over, a somewhat fjord-like entrance into the interior via the river Calle Calle. Such waters were perhaps influential with establishing breweries in the area - a trend now exploding here as much as in the U.S., if only in this area of Chile perhaps. The influence of a wave of Germans back when probably has the most to do with it. Whatever the case, we're glad to arrive on a Saturday. This means that the festival hall is properly going with live music, seafood empanadas, meat-on-a-stick, and fresh beer from the dominant local brewery, Kunstmann.

For the rest of the area's charms, the town effectively lines the river. The land quite literally pitches steeply down to it, so lining only the coast makes good sense in an area whose livelihood traditionally comes from the sea. I walk the beaches, skirt along the fort and its bluffs, then trod the road a bit to different vantage points. Each spot allows for taking in the crashing waves of the sea, a phenomenon which increases near the river's mouth and the Pacific's grasp.

Everywhere, too, are references to gnomes - duendes, another lingering Germanic sentiment that now seems far away. No one looks the least German anymore, but the gnomes are undeniably cute and make for good salesmanship. Indeed - if anything - what I've come to see as the prototypical Chilean look prevails here particularly. It's that mix of Spaniard and the indigenous without that Argentine hint of Italian, I suppose. This contrasts a bit with Santiago, where all of the English, French, and German roots seem to mix in far more, this area's celebrated German roots notwithstanding.

I take another excursion a few days later with a couple of women from California and Australia, respectively. We head to Curiñaco, a national park beyond Niebla on the Pacific Coast. A pocket-sized parcel of land, it hosts one of the last remaining chunks of temperate rain forest in this heavily-logged region. We enter after paying all of 1000CP ($2), in a nutshell probably the most obvious reason why all of the signs in the park are almost non-existent or bleached out with age. A local woman lets us in, only after graciously acceding to my request for a recharge of boiled water for my tea. It just seems the kind of place where such a request might be honored. I've often noticed that hospitality runs strong in areas with such isolation - even if we are only an hour away from Valdivia. No, this is a place where sheep cross the street at will and every house is a modest hut.

Soon our trio finds ourselves getting suitably lost in this smallest of reserves. It seems that all of the various trails seem to fade into oblivion. Regardless, when all is said and done, we probably HAVE actually made it to all of the various lookouts. We cut our way through hedges taller than we are, range through a zone of seemingly-misplaced eucalypts, even listen to the disappearing Darwin frog and its call-and-response that echoes out from the most wooded cove in the area. Eventually we complete the circuit and hang out a bit at the cove just before the park. An impressive shark's tooth of rock juts improbably from the sand as we eat, relatively alone at this seemingly one end of the planet.

Soon we catch a bus to head us back into Niebla, then continue beyond through the marshland back toward Valdivia. This time the two breweries - Salzburg and Kunstmann - earn a visit from me and mine. We sample both breweries' offerings, unanimously agreeing on the preferred quality of Kunstmann. Its greater beer selection, plus a surprising preference on my part for their dark bock - not my typical cup of tea - adds to an authentic platter of German fare. This unwittingly includes my eating a local crudo - raw beef on bread cured by lemons - that I surprise myself in liking. Spätzle and other German touches all taste right, too, as taste-testing every type of beer offered by the brewery doesn't hurt, either. One has the influence of honey, another fruit. A couple are unfiltered, but the wheat beer - drats!, one of my typical favorites - is out.

Still, this "artisan-ship" is a welcome change from being unable to find fruit juice anywhere. Already I've been finding 100% juice and "no azucar" labeled everywhere, that has nothing to do with deterring the Chilean (and South American) love affair with sugar, Sugar, SUGAR. Apparently sucralosa - the hidden ingredient - is conveniently ignored while found deep in the ingredient list. Somehow this magical stuff is not quite worth mentioning in any of the prominent advertising. Similarly is the word "fitness" used on everything from cereal to yogurt to hide the same fact. The only good news is that I'm not in the least surprised based on all of my former travels.

My guessing is that is this will somehow change over time, too. I'm finding the average Chilean to be ever more confident about their country's place in the world than before - and in positive comparison to their Latino counterparts. Such are the benefits of a prevalent middle-class, greater education, and, frankly, the internet. Or so I have a sneaking suspicion with almost everywhere in the world where that compendium of information is available. Information WILL set us all free, as the Arab Spring far away continues its bloody continuation of that realization.

Back at the hostel, a couple days with one extended group is topped by a barbeque. Fittingly, a trio of Chileans from Santiago take to the task of cooking up the hunks of flesh - which they do masterfully. This is a nice break for them, otherwise lending a hand in the basement to do some eco-stucco work on what will eventually be apartment walls down there. Gardel the duck finds his way through various legs as copious amounts of wine flow. I make a dash to the latest-open convenience store at the last minute to keep the operation on its proper keel. I have my paltry uses.

The rest of my time in Valdivia continues my cultural adjustment to being back in South America, albeit in an easy place to do so. This is especially true in this most American-seeming of Latin countries. Classic rock, for instance, still has a hold on the young here - much as it did when I bumped into my first groups of Chileans in number on my first South America trip in 1998. Almost to make the point, I hear a college student singing aloud to Pink Floyd as I walk around the local university's campus (Austral): "Vera! Vera! What h-as be-come of you?" Indeed.

Perhaps more aptly, what has become of me? I get lost multiple times as I wander around the surprisingly large campus. It's on an island, true, but I still end up in the botanical garden three times. Which is bad: I really, REALLY don't want to listen to a certain trio of women using a jacked-up amplifier to sing and croak on about Jesus and their version of God. It's as annoying here as much as anywhere else at 100 decibels and a style best described as bulldozer-earnest.

At least there are bits and pieces of interesting architecture here and there in the area, even if I can't embolden myself to step inside of any of the local museums. I prefer to stare at the sea lions like everyone else. I'm also particularly happy that cars stop at sidewalks in this country, something I don't remember experiencing in any other in Latin America - like ever.

A final excursion for me is, appropriately enough, to another brewery. This one is further up the river toward the interior, on a pond off of the Calle Calle. A bus zigzags me for something on forever through the ville in what a bird could likely do in ten minutes. But then I'm there, and again I'm happily imbibing in bock bier and spiced German sausage as I watch birds land on the pond and a couple fish for carp. The owner eventually comes into the empty room in which I sit and we talk Germany, beer, and Valdivia. How fitting.

Thus winds up my time in town. A final changing of the guard brings a few other countries to bear - Italy, Germany, France - and I drink wine with owner V, an expat Californian who came back to Valdivia after having left it previously. I concur with her points about its charms, its tourist-worthiness without the tourists. We talk alternative construction and ecology, but mostly chat about her efforts to make things happen in this uniquely comfortable, laid-back town. With her confidence, one that as equally makes me think she would be comfortable on a Harley making a trip around the world, I have no doubts. This stands in contrast to an oddly-placed American woman I'd heard at the port, scolding her children with the following: "I was hoping to have a nice time... but so far it's only been mediocre." Yeah, I think she missed the point somewhere in between giving them self-esteem issues and looking about her. Valdivia is for the Valdivians still, and thank god for that.

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