Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Puerto Montt, Chile: Alps, churches, and brawlers

In the late fall of 2004, my feet was itchin', as the saying goes.  I was winding down an 18-month, more-or-less self-imposed (unpaid) sabbatical.  Financial resources at that point were close to exhausted, and the necessity of returning to productive employment was becoming more and more imperative.  So, as my "last hurrah" before submitting to the corporate lash, I took a trip to Chile

My travel window fell in December, which worked out nicely because it allowed me to cheat Old Man Winter by flying south, over the Equator, to get a second helping of summer solstice and miss out on the darkest, shortest days of the northern hemisphere in that year.

I was especially eager to go to Chile because I had been studying Spanish at Portland State University and I wanted to put my learning to the test.  Boy, was I in for a rude awakening!  Chilenos speak with a unique accent that is very difficult for non-native Spanish speakers to understand.  Within 30 minutes of landing at Santiago International Airport I was wandering around thoroughly dazed and discouraged.

I spent nearly a month in Chile (with a quick jaunt into Argentina), traveling south from Santiago.  On Christmas Eve, 2004, I rolled into Puerto Montt, a port town surrounded by snow-capped Andean peaks to the east, temperate lowland country to the west and north, and the Seno de Reloncaví to the south.  Puerto Montt is sited in the Región de Los Lagos (Lake District) of Chile, about midway between the northernmost and southernmost points of that country.  As I suppose one might expect of a seaport, Puerto Montt had a bit of a rough edge to it.

Anti-Bush graffiti in Puerto Montt  (Junior Bush had been to Chile three weeks ahead of me on one of his diplomatic boondoggles.  Chilenos were not impressed.) 
My first day there, I stopped in for lunch at a local eatery. Two weather-worn chaps sat at the table next to me, arguing rather loudly. They were lean, whiskered men.  Each had skin the color of old leather; had cheeks covered with salt-and-pepper stubble.  One fellow, with light hair and a sharp-cornered mouth framed by vertical lines, seemed to be growing angry.  He slapped the table surface with his open hand as he spoke.  His voice grew ever-louder, his gestures ever more animated.  From across the room, the waiter frowned at him as if to say "¡Calmate!"

The recipient of the diatribe was an older, smaller man with short black curls jutting from under a white short-billed cap.  His eyelids were heavy, his eyes half-closed, as if he were drowsing.

Just as I settled into my sopa de pollo, the loud, light-haired fellow reached over and slapped the other man under the chin, and both rose to their feet, swearing. The fellow that had been slapped grabbed a beer bottle and raised it above his head, beer pouring out the bottle mouth and down his arm. They grappled for a while in a semi-drunken dance. I kept my eyes on the upraised beer bottle, waiting with dread for it to come crashing down. But before anything too serious could happen, the waiter and several other patrons intervened, separating the two combatants. More harsh words and some half-hearted shoves were exchanged as the instigator of the donnybrook was eighty-sixed.  I just kept slurping my chicken soup, since I didn't really know what else to do......sigh.

Saltos del Petrohué
The next day, Christmas Day, I went on an excursion to a nearby national park, the spectacular Saltos del Petrohué.  The falls and rapids of Petrohué were far too swift to be negotiated by any human conveyance.  They are classifed as "non-negotiable" in white-water rafting parlance.  I stood on a bridge above the roaring rapids with one of my tour companions, a Dutchmen. I said, "Man, if you were to fall in there, write it off, ´cause it´s all over." Although my companion´s command of English was far from comprehensive, he knew what I meant.  He considered, then nodded. "Yes, I think you are right," he said.

Más de los saltos
 The Christmas Day tour culminated with a visit to Lago Llanquihue, an alpine lake surrounded by the omnipresent snow-capped Andean peaks.  A warm, dry wind whipped across the lake and buffeted us as we stood on the stony shore, admiring the blue of the water set against the majestic purple and white mountains.

Lago Llanquihue
Back in Puerto Montt that night, I wandered around the town trying to call home to wish my family a Merry Christmas.  I didn't have much luck.  I spent a lonely Christmas evening in my hotel room, eating food I had purchased earlier that day at a grocery. If you've never spent Christmas alone in a foreign land, let me tell you, it is a spiritual experience. 

La Catedral de Puerto Montt
Next day, I was up early. I was to catch a ferry that would take me out to the sinking island of Chiloé, south across the Seno de Reloncaví.  I wandered down to the Plaza de Armas and viewed the Iglesia Catedral, with her wooden facade. She looked very peaceful, resting complacently in the clear, blue morning of early summer:  Catholic mother sitting benevolently among her flock.  The streets were mostly empty.  People were in their homes, celebrating the Nativity.
I spent a good leisurely while wandering around the streets of that strange, proud seaport so far from my home.  As I walked along the waterfront, my mind riffed on a single incomprehensible notion:  "Puerto Montt.  Who'd have ever imagined I'd be in Puerto Montt?"


Dan Binmore said...

My loneliest Christmas ever was spent in a foreign land by myself. Christmas 1990 in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with a foot of pristine snow upon the ground causing an unearthly hush. I walked around in a wintry silence, my first Christmas Eve alone, looking at the festive lights and knowing that no-one in the world was thinking of me at that point.

Ridwan said...

Interesting travel read. These are kinds of experiences that stick through hey.

Peace brother,

Bernardo said...

There's nothing like the feeling of being way out there really far from the land we call home.
I was born and raised in Santiago, Chile and I know the Pto Montt area and the spots you mention in your blog.   It is a beautiful area with many sort of remote and lonely places.  I always remember hitchhiking around that area of Chile as a young teenager and feeling the freedom to decide where to go next at the spare of a moment.  I've been hooked on that feeling ever since.
Perhaps that is part of the reason I now live in California and I am a Chilean-American citizen.
I spent my most miserable Christmas back in 1984 during my first year in the US.   I was in Ft. Worth, TX struggling to adjust to the US/local culture.  Not an easy task!!!  It was a cold snowy night and I was the only soul left in the building - normally inhabited by college students which were all gone for Christmas break.  I had two quarters to my name and absolutely nothing al all too eat.
The next day, I used one of my quarters to make a call and was lucky to find a friend that came to my rescue.
Life is an adventure!   
Thanks for sharing your experience!