I left Cartagena and its busty balconies and pretty painted streets feeling quite solid. Colombia did the trick... it freed me of my fears and gave me the confidence to take this adventure by the horns. I wish I there had been more time there; it's such a sexy country full of stray dogs roaming the streets, fires burning at night, people luxuriously swerving and sliding to the devils dance, passion fruit juice by the litre, panting in the jungle, listening to the waves crash in a hammock and escaping the rattle of the beech by diving into the deep blue ocean. As for the people... generous, passionate, warm, hustlers, healers... all very much alive in a country that sticks two fingers up to international etiquette and deals with the consequences in its own Colombian way. As I trudged from domestic arrivals to international departures a long a dirty Bogota highway there was a rainbow arching overhead. I won't forget that. Maybe I romanticise or simplify but give me a break this is a blog and these are only my clumsy fist impressions.
Chile was to be a totally different experience. In fact I'd go as far as to say that the only thing Chile and Colombia really have in common is the letter C... which in Chile could stand for composure and in Colombia... Yeah I leave that to your imagination.
At about six thirty in the morning I stepped off a very Colombian flight - complete with air hostesses who looked like characters from a Latino carry on movie - into immaculate order. Santiago airport is clean, very modern with imposing high walls and well presented people waiting patiently at the arrivals gate. Very different to arriving in Bogota where people heave and push and I was driven to my hostel by a man with a scarred face. This time I was met by a woman called Fresia and her beautiful daughter Carolina and they carried a sign saying my name.
Fresia, Luis and Violeta
Fresia and her husband Luis live in the suburbs of Santiago, in a very ordinary neighbourhood called La Florida, where, if it weren't for the Andes, the landscape would be defined by shopping malls and entertainment arcades. But their story is quite extraordinary. Seven years ago their son, aged about 21 and his then girlfriend had a little baby girl who they called Violetta. They were young but there was no reason to suggest things wouldn't work out. But when Violetta was 18 months old her mother committed suicide leaving the family in crisis and Violetta alone.
Fresia and Luis are now the main carers for Violetta. They live with their son and daughter too and as a family have had huge rivers to cross to get to where they are today. Violetta is one of the most enchanting little girls you could wish to meet. I fell in love with her instantly and felt moved by the things her family had had to overcome and I guess the knowledge of what she will have to deal with in the future. Also Fresia and Luis had themselves come from difficult backgrounds and had done everything in their power to ensure their children had it easier. It didn't work out like but I found their strength a real inspiration.
Maybe I identified with Violetta because she's a thumb sucker. And until very recently so was I. That doesn't go unnoticed with her tata (grandad) Luis who is a dentist and psychologist... yeah and both practises are in the same office... how much would that fry your brain? Luis and I had lunch in Santiago's fish market on the first day. It's a brilliant spot full of life and colour with rugged red faced fish mongers de-boning and shelling all kinds of creatures to be bought and sold by locals or served up to tourists in the central area where overpriced specialities pile high. We ate at the back of the market where it's cheaper, breaking up bread to dip in alioli as we waited for huge plates of battered fish and sea food to arrive. That's when Luis started to ask me about my background and upbringing. He'd noticed the signature thumb suckers bite. I won't go into detail but suffice as to say that talking to Luis got me thinking about quite a lot of stuff that I really hadn't thought about before. Strong from Colombia I guess I was ready for the heavy duty thinking that I've been doing in Chile.
I was told that Santiago would be a lot more chaotic when school children and workers returned from their holidays. For now though I could walk around calmly admiring the wide streets and elegant architecture; stately buildings and old mansions that house museums. Old men sit in the Plaza des Armas playing chess in the afternoon friends and lovers walk hand in hand through the parks in the centre, shaded by tall trees. Lots of snogging seems to go on in Santiago. Maybe it was because the holidays were drawing to a close or perhaps it's like that all the time but I swear I saw an inordinate number of people giving it some in the greenery.
Something else that stood out to me was the neutrality of some of the buildings. El Congresso for example used to be the debating house for Politicians but was then turned into a jail by Pinochet. Today it is well maintained and looks just like a grand building. The gates are closed and there's nothing to say what it was or what it meant or means for Chile. When I asked Luis about this he said that there are lots of buildings and places like that, sort of no comment places. Chile is still working out how to come to terms with its difficult history. There are people who adored Pinochet and wept at his death... others who hated him with good reason and as I was to learn a lot of people who simply choose not to think about it. Trotskyists came here once as did ex Nazis (is there such a thing as an 'ex' Nazi?) to help Pinochet run concentration camps. There's a long tradition of immigrants coming here from Yugoslavia, Germany, Italy, Wales... Chile is made up of a lot of people from very different backgrounds with very different ideas and they all have to live together. Perhaps that's why people seem so composed.
I felt very well looked after by Fresia, Luis and their family but already my head was elsewhere and I wanted to get down to the Lake District to do some walking. Before I left I went to the Bella Vista area of Santiago where there are great cafes and restaurants and an upmarket crafts market, El Patio. I got chatting to an adorable gay Chileno (I'd happily be his fag hag) and his beautiful clairvoyant friend. Both of them worked there. We sipped the only good coffee I've tasted in Chile and then the Clairvoyant, Andrea read my palms.
Maybe I'm glutton for punishment... hey I survived Colombia so why not totally do my own head in with a session with a dentist / psychologist and then a fortune teller. Genius. As if there wasn't enough swimming about in my head Andrea gave me more to think about. I know the cynics amongst you (you know who you are and you're probably male) will be shaking your heads in disdain but this lady was very intuitive and she gave me some good advice... even if I haven't stopped looking at my palms since (mad bint). I showed her a picture of Violetta and she said the name and the colour, symbolise overcoming the past. She said it was a good name for this little girl and a good name maybe for the girl who started me on my journey in Chile.
I sat on the beach looking out at the Orsono volcano for a long time. The sun came out and children started splashing in the water and I felt OK. Maybe that day I started to figure out some tricky stuff. That's what travelling does. It allows you to ask hard questions of yourself and think about things that have been lodged in the back of your mind for a long time. Uncomfortable at first but each time it happens you go a little deeper and get through a little more and maybe you are or I am a little stronger for it.
Though it was sunny in Puerto Varas that day the temperature as I travelled south was getting cooler and I was starting to wrap up in fleeces and even a poncho I bought in Santiago (err it's very classy actually). Lots of tourists, not least rich older tourists, come to Puerto Varas to explore the lake district or set off on hikes, horse rides or climb volcanoes. For the moment that was too energetic for me.
Later I had two glasses or red wine on the terrace of a lovely restaurant called El Mediteraneo and just when I needed it most I met my first real friend... not just a travelling friend but someone I'd like to know wherever I was in the world. Mikaela also had those coffee bean eyes, which spotted the lush in the corner because she was working. Before I knew it we were drinking pisco and Chilean beer with a dash of amaretto (it's so good) and putting the world to rights. The bar was full of Chileans mainly who worked the bars and restaurants and there were a few gringo regulars too. I spent the next couple of days walking, taking photographs of rainbows, horse riding and getting drunk with Mikaela and I met a few more lovely people along the way. Things were starting to come together but it was time to move on.
Houses on sticks
A sleepy fishing village with home crafted chocolates sweet wine and traditional knitwear, Chonchi sounded like a tranquil place to spend a couple of days. I'd booked into a hostel on the water front. When I got there I was greeted by the owner, a tall if slightly hunched Canadian with sleepy squinting eyes nestled in fatty bags. When he found out I was a journalist he did that annoying thing of sitting me down to tell me about what was wrong with the world in his eyes. He wanted to know what the government had told me to report on as a journalist... nothing I responded and he proceeded to tell me about the lies that were spun by the worlds media, starting with Piochet.
According to the Canadian Pinochet had done a lot of good for Chile and hadn't actually been responsible for the deaths and disappearance of many thousands of people. And if he was responsible, well that was just the way it worked in Latin America. The mistake Pinochet had made was to exile his political opponents. Inside I heaved a big sigh and tried to counter his arguments. I know where I stand on the issue but I also realise that in Chile the conclusions about Pinocet's regime are a long way from being a done deal. The Canadian then went on to tell me that Thatcher had been responsible for more deaths than Pinochet and Bush too... Maybe so I said but you can't measure a leader on that. What about Churchill? Ah he said Churchill, the killer of so many innocent Germans. I suppose you think six million Jews were killed by the Nazis too... but that's also a falsification... and they locked up this poor guy David Irving for simply suggesting that the figure was lower.....
At this point the bubble burst. Something inside me said you don't need to please, appease or win over this nasty idiot. And without knowing where the words came from (Grandma Gerdy perhaps) I said 'I think I had better stop you right there. I realise that the Pinochet issue is complicated in Chile but it's another thing all together to be altering facts. I find what you are saying extremely offensive. You are talking to the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. My mum didn't have grandparents because two of them were murdered in a concentration camp and the other two jumped off a train headed to Auschwitz. I am not talking as a journalist. I am here on holiday and I am talking as a human being with her own story. I do not wish to stay here any more.'
At this point you can imagine the backtracking. 'Oh if he'd have known... he got carried away... he didn't mean to cause offense'. I was boiling up and really wanted to get out of there but he had my money and guests had begun to arrive in the area where we were sat promoting him to apologise again and fob me off with a 'why don't you take a walk'. I needed to cool off so I took the prompt and tried to work out what to do. It was still light and buses would still be running back to Castro. Then again it wasn't as if I had to like all the land lords of the places where I stayed. They might all be racists for all I knew. But the deal at the hostel was that you got a cooked meal in the evening with the other guests and breakfast too and something inside me just said I don't want to sit at his table or sleep in hostel. So I went back and said I am sorry I want my money back (wish I hadn't said I am sorry). He apologised again and I said that he should be careful about reading rubbish on the Internet and pontificating about history, which may not be real to him but is very real to me.
Looking back I could have said more and I could have said it better. But I did my best. Before I came away one of the stories I worked on related to Britain's involvement in the slave trade and I remember one very inspiring academic saying that the failure to acknowledge the experience of Black Britain was a failure to value Black life. Likewise denying the Holocaust, or Pinochet's crimes against humanity is an insult to people like me and Pablo. That Canadian could have had the balls to say he sympathises with Pinochet or Hitlers motives. But how dare he try and deny my history.
I got on the bus to Castro and managed to get the last bed in Hospedaje Mirador where I slept really well before spending the next morning walking in the woods. As I made my way from Castro to Ancud and then got the boat back to the main land the sun came out for the first time since I arrived in Chiloe. It was as if a light had been turned on and suddenly I understood what was meant by Chiole's mysterious beauty. Green hills and coloured houses that instead of looking characterful and unkempt looked rustic. Children wrapped up in woolens, their grandparents smiling back with faces full of lines and full of stories. I forgave Chiole my weird Chonchi experience and wondered about how people come to terms with their own personal histories, particularly in a country which still hasn't acknowledged that history fully. And maybe we're all a bit like Chile, living with different parts of our backgrounds or lives that when brought together pose tough questions.
Peace in Puyehue
From Chiloe I took a bus to Osorno a plane almost ugly little town, but a gateway into the Puyehue National Park. I stayed up late talking to a parrot expert from Michigan - he looked like River Phoenix but had one of those weird slow slightly nervous yank accents. Liked him though. Tourists are warned off Puyehue because the hostels are supposed to be expensive and getting around is difficult without a car. But I found a wonderful place to stay, run by a single mum called Maria who beamed and smiled on meeting me, Hospedaje Panorama has a view of the lake and serves up fresh baked pies, bread and jam on the porch for breakfast. Best of all you sleep in lambs wool blankets and soft duvets.
On the first day, without planning to, I took an excursion to see Chileans on holiday. It was the last day of the Chilean summer holidays and at Aguas Calientes families were out in their droves to make the most of the end of summer. Well packed in grandmas waddled about organising food and children while the men cooked large pieces of meet on sticks or under stones in the ground. Unlike in Santiago I found people in Chilioe and the lake district to be rounder faced. Too much kuchen and not enough walking in the cold maybe? There are thermal pools along the river which by this stage looked more like mud baths with their grubby bathers sat spreading the water on their skin. I asked one family if I could take a picture of them and the group of four elderly locals turned into about nine. The picture is like something you'd leave in a time capsule and I promised to send the family a copy for their album.
From there I walked to the thermal baths at the spa hotel. You have to pay a tenner to get in but I felt like treating myself. This was quite a different set up. There were indoor pools and Jacuzzis, some warm, some freezing cold, an outdoor swimming pool and then more baths and pools of varying temperatures looking out onto the hills and the woods. Here there was less laughter, no dirty clothes or flabby bellies on show. Instead the place was full of rich Latin Americans and a few gringos either toned or portly with some of older women looking scrawny and fixed, arranging cocktails and dinners with their new found 'hiking partners'.
Later the lakeside shone with that wonderful early evening light that makes everything look golden and then the moon fell like a spell speckling the water and I sat on the porch listening to Maria and her family banter over the highlights of this year's Viña festival on TV. It's ever so nice now and then tapping into a bit of normality.
The next day I walked ten kilometres in beautiful sunshine, admiring the views of the volcanoes, the wild flowers poking out along the trail, waterfalls and butterflies, always with the sound of my magic boots crunching against the gravel road or the path. I hitched a lift back with a wealthy Chilean farmer who told me about how climate change was disturbing his water melons and and said that in Chile the regions are so distinct - desert in the north, lakes in the middle and glaciers in the south - you see first hand what's happening to the planet in agriculture and natural beuty spots like the Lake District. Were people becoming more environmental in their habits then? Only just.
Until now I had never been particularly interested in nature even though I liked being in it... for me it was like a big play ground that I didn't really understand. It was just there. But in Puyehue something strange began to happen and I started to want to know what certain plants were and why the grew the way they did. Why was the earth black in some places and red elsewhere? Not only did I feel in awe of nature but I felt inspired by it. It's a wonderful feeling aged 28 (nearly 30 really) to discover a new interest. I felt at home in Puyehue not only because I began falling in love with nature but also because I felt a peacefulness and warmth, as if people who live in the area really appreciate its beauty, excepting of course the slightly slow overgrown boys who turn their attentions to play stations and you get them everywhere.
An old man out walking with his wife told me it was the first time he'd visited Puyehue after years of living in Santiago, he said it was a crime but he was glad to see it now. Then he pinched my face and kissed me on the cheek and told me I had a gorgeous smile. If I made his day with my smile then he made mine by making me feel like a little girl again. I guess that's why I liked Puyehue. I felt like that little girl who used to paddle in the river and look for tadpoles with my mum and sister in Swale Dale. I could have stayed for longer, but sometimes that's exactly when you should go. Next stop the kingdom of Patagonia.