While desperately resisting the advances of blonde-loving South Americans, Louise Randall faces ?re and earthquake, as well as local culinary delicacies, in the village of Chol-Chol
It’s okay, thin women can be sensual too”. These were the somewhat unexpected words of comfort given to us by our headmaster as he told us of the dangers of Chilean men and wished us farewell. We then set off on our travels around South America during our summer holiday from the school in Chol-Chol where we were working as teachers.
By spending the last four months living and teaching in a tiny Mapuche Indian village in Southern Chile we honestly thought we had learnt all there was to be learnt about the average Latino man. Admittedly, it was our own fault that we looked ridiculous when we squirmed backwards out of our boss’ office after he had murmured “kiss me, kiss me” with characteristic charm, which we only realised later was a mispronounced attempt at “excuse me, excuse me”. But our cautious approach to Chilean men was not completely unfounded. Chile is the only country in the world where, after exchanging pleasantries with a local, I have been kissed on the cheek with tongues. It was most off-putting and certainly put a French twist into the average South American greeting. Fortunately, such acts of friendliness were exceptional and most of the time we were merely mildly bemused by the attention given to two blonde, pale skinned gringas. Never before have I had a 30ft articulated logging truck stop on an empty dirt track road in order to let me cross (serenaded by the toothy grins of the five men within), and when now I walk along Cornmarket, there’s still a part of me that misses the applause and cries of “I love you, baby”.
Hollywood has a lot to answer for in the colourful expression of Latino ‘machismo’ and we were occasionally offended until we realised that to call someone a “motherf**ker” has been misinterpreted by Chilean youths as an American flirtation technique, guaranteed to win the heart of any passing blonde. Nor is Hollywood blameless for the foreign perception of Western women as promiscuous, although when confusing the Chilean words for boyfriend and chicken and making the unfortunate announcement that “I have six boyfriends in England; I keep them in the garden”, I myself was also a poor ambassador for Western females.
However, nothing had quite prepared us for Victor. Travelling north along the 4300km coastline of Chile we spent three days winding our way through the fjords of Patagonia on a cargo boat, which unfortunately for us came complete with a red-blooded navigator who obviously hadn’t dropped his anchor for a while.
Kate and I felt ourselves to be equal to the challenge of evading Victor on the small boat. After all, as a teacher I was used to dictatorially controlling the classes of 50 seven year olds, even getting used to the fact that the younger classes were often still learning Spanish, and spoke indigenous Mapudungun as their first language. The only things that phased me were the pigs that continually ran through the classroom.
So, during the first few days of the boat trip we did well trying to escape the pursuit of the hapless Victor. We passed through channels edged by emerald mountains and snowcapped volcanoes; the starry night skies were unsurpassable. We slept on the floor, cooked on deck and spent the days watching dolphins jump and seeing sheep slaughtered.
We were eventually lured up to the bridge by the offer of steering our very own cargo boat, and just as we were distracted trying to avoid small islands, Victor whisked out the handcuffs and cuffed himself to Kate, much to her dismay. He was obviously convinced that this masculine demonstration of dominance was the way to the heart of this elusive blue-eyed waif, yet when the waif started playing dead-weight in protest, navigation became hazardous, and he reluctantly released her. It was us, not the sailors, who needed a glass of Chilean vino when we reached port.
It was with dismay, docking at the island of Chiloe, that we discovered the tipple tipico to be none other than licor de oro – fermented cows milk. With a spirit of enterprise that any student would be proud of, the locals made spirits out of absolutely anything, including seafood, yet it struck us that while knowledge is knowing how to make alcohol out of shrimps, perhaps wisdom is choosing not to. Thus, while undoubtedly tempted by the thought of a ‘Mussel Martini’, on this particular occasion we demurred.
As we travelled thousands of kilometres further north over the Chilean border we found the Latino men to be the same, the Spanish less riddled with slang, the cuisine equally inventive. And the two gringas? A little braver, so not only did we begin to think that spending 40p on a three course meal in a Bolivian greasy spoon was a wise idea, we also tucked into the Peruvian delicacy of roasted guinea pig, complete with paws and internal organs, with (relative) relish.
At length our holiday was over and we returned to our home town of Chol-Chol. We were greeted from the bus by three lone geese tied up in a sack bag by the roadside. They had holes in place of their heads, their bus-fare next to them, and were waiting for a ride into the local city of Temuco, where presumably a cooking pot awaited them. Transport is certainly a creative concept in Chile. We ourselves had learnt while travelling that hitchhiking on a tractor never was, and never will be, a good idea. It was impossible however to get bored of seeing whole families waiting by the roadside hoping to hitch a lift on a passing oxen-cart, normally already full with fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers being taken to market by colourful Mapuche women in full traditional dress.
Indigenous culture flavours every aspect of life in Chol-Chol, the heartland of the Mapuches, the indigenous people of Southern Chile. We saw much of the countryside as at the end of each week our rickety school minibus would run its journey deep into the heart of the Mapuche countryside, over dirt track roads, past traditional grass Ruka huts, far beyond the reach of electricity or running water, to drop the 160 boarders at their homes.
Upon our return to Chol-Chol though we found that teaching offered more challenges than the usual unruly swine. On 2 April, a devastating fire started at the ‘Escuela Anglicana William Wilson’, consuming the hundred year old wooden building, and destroying the entire boys’ boarding house on the first floor: the voluntary fire service was only fifteen metres across the road, yet that day they had run out of water. Everything was lost, yet thankfully all the children were safely evacuated, many into Kate’s care. Never has ‘Heads Shoulders Knees and Toes’ been sung with such urgency as to distract children whose school is burning down behind them.
Bizarrely, we were soon relieved at the school’s dramatic destruction. In mid-May Chol-Chol was woken by a factor six earthquake, whose epicentre was only 40km from the village.
The school had been one of the few two storey buildings in the village, and the hundred year old wooden frame shook when vehicles passed along the road below. It soon became apparent that, if the building were not destroyed by fire, it would surely have collapsed in the earthquake, with unthinkable consequences for the boys who lived there.
However, through the tumultuous events of the months you could always count on the Chilean male. It is a comforting fact, whether you like their style or not, that in the face of earthquake of fire, they never lose that sense of machismo.ARCHIVE: 0th week TT 2005