March 29 – April 1 2017
Our first impressions of Chaiten were not favorable. We knew that it had been affected by a volcanic eruption some time ago but weren’t sure if the abandoned look of the town was due to that, or a more ordinary and mundane torpor seen too often in the small towns of Chile.
As we rounded block after block, criss-crossing the small town from one side to the other, the sun sunk behind the adjacent bay and bordering mountains. There was, simply put, no place for us to go. All the dedicated camp sites were too small to accommodate our trailer tent, and what hospedajes we could find had shut their doors to travelers for the winter. Finally, we found a corner lot on the edge of the city, appearing abandoned at the edge of a shallow ditch and across from a shuttered garage. Before going through the trouble to set up our tent, we made a visit to the carabineros whose night staff assured us that camping there “no hay ninguna problema,” wasn’t a problem.
Twilight settled on the town as we finally pitched our tent on the corner of the abandoned lot. We were grumpy and hungry and still damp from the adventure two nights previous in Hornopiren. All I wanted was something warm to eat and a coca-cola.
We backtracked to a bar housed in a geodesic dome, called “Rincon de Mate,” that we had spotted when we first drove through town. All the lights were blazing inside and every large trestle table was packed with locals cheering and drinking to the football game (that’s soccer for you Americans), being projected on a large screen – Chile versus Venezuela. We squeezed in across from a woman and beside a man and ordered whatever was still available – a chacarero for Mark – and a lomo filet with a salad for Oli and I.
Turned out that the food was hot and delicious, the atmosphere was festive, and the company was an unexpected delight. It helped dispel the chill that had taken root in my bones since our inadvertent dip in the glacial waters outside of Hornopiren.
As the crowd dispersed after Chile’s victory (3-0), I struck up a conversation with our tablemate, a woman named Claudia. She had been friendly and chatty throughout dinner, sharing her chips with Oli while we waited for our food to be served. Oli, ever a good judge of character, was already quite taken with her.
“I have a question…Is there anyone in Chaiten that is a good chef? That can cook local specialties?” I regret to say that I am not as eloquent in Spanish as I am in English. Perhaps my language capabilities are best described as similar to a cave woman’s.
I went on to explain what we were doing – our gourmet expedition and the accompanying cookbook project. Claudia jumped right into the conversation, listing a few friends right off the bat.
“Do you think any of them would be willing to cook something for us?” I ventured.
With a smile, Claudia picked up her cellphone and made a call. After a few minutes, she ended the call and nodded to me. “My friend Maria will cook for you.”
We parted company for the night, Claudia’s number programmed into my WhatsApp and her offer for hot showers in my mind. We retreated to our damp tent and curled up for the night.
The next morning, we rose mid-morning and dressed with breakfast in mind. Not long before exiting the tent, we heard the metal shutters of the garage across the street being rolled up and the sound of setting up shop. I encouraged Mark to greet the shopkeeper and ask if we weren’t impeding his parking.
He did so and it became clear right away that the man wasn’t happy with our presence. I walked over to see what was the matter. The man, V__ H__, informed us abruptly and with a practiced air, that he had already called the police to have them tow our trailer away. In fact, he had called last night and again this morning. He went on a long diatribe about how campers dirty up the place, throwing trash on the ground and using the bathroom all over like animals. Mark was polite and restrained, informing V__H__ that we had actually asked the police for permission. But V__H__, poor soul, was caught up in his diatribe…he just kept repeating the ills of campers.
Finally, we broke away, telling him that we would indeed move our tent, but that we needed a mere hour of sunshine to help dry-out condensation before packing up. On our way to find breakfast, we stopped by the Carabineros, to make good of the situation. The way I was feeling – I would rather move than face the continued irritation of V__H__. They told us that we were fine to leave our tent another hour or so while we stopped for breakfast, but that we would have to move do to some civic event occurring there later.
We found a place that served breakfast just down the road. It was called NaturBus, and was in fact, a bus – fixed up inside with tables and stools and a kitchen, and run by a German -Chilean couple. The smell of freshly brewed coffee was beginning to ease my ill feeling over the morning, when halfway through breakfast, the carabineros came tapping at the window, asking if we could just go ahead and pack up, that Sr. V__H__ had been calling again. We paid and left to get to it.
Luckily the tent had dried during this short time. We stuffed our take-our containers full of eggs and toast on the dash, and began to pack up our tent. As we attached the trailer to our car, the carabineros drove up in their truck. It appeared that the admirable town’s man had called yet again to complain of our presence. The carabineros were kind and almost commiserating. It’s my bet that those weren’t the first nor the last times V__H__ would be calling upon the services of the Chaiten carabineros.
We drove off with a wave, knowing we had done our best to mind our manners and practice good citizenship, while at the same time grousing about Sr.V__H__and his twisted knickers. Never having felt less welcome and more like a gypsy than ever, we drove to the only gas station in town to fill-up and check the tires.
Not knowing where else to try, I messaged Claudia to see if she had any recommendations. Without hesitation, she offered her yard, her house, if we wanted.
We spent the next three nights at Claudia’s house, reveling in her warm guest beds and enjoying her endless hospitality.
Her house, perched on a hillside overlooking town, was large and comfortable. Windows fronted the entire South side and presented amazing views – whenever the clouds and fog didn’t descend to cover everything up. We shared in the meal-making and cleaning up, and Claudia, who is a journalist, spent time working in her office while we tottered around town gathering supplies or cleaning our trailer.
One morning the sky opened for a space, letting in the sun. Claudia took us down into town and gave us a tour alongside the story of the volcanic eruption. Being a writer, Claudia had originally come to Chaiten working for the government in compiling a list of residences and buildings affected by the volcano. This gave her a distinct point of view into the disaster that occurred in the early morning of May 2, 2008.
For days, the town had been experiencing clustered tremors and earthquakes that were gaining strength. In the early hours of May 2, Volcan Chaiten erupted, sending a massive cloud of ash up into the sky. The villagers awoke at the terrible sound, explosions and rumbling, and saw clearly to their horror, that half the volcano was gone, having blown its top like a pressurized and overheated can. Over the following days, the government forced an evacuation on the people as the Yelcho River, flooded with debris began to overtop its banks, carrying sediment and effluvia and finally entire chunks of the mountainside towards the town.
The town as we saw it today, was crudely split in two by an errant arm of the river, one that cut the town in two and swept away large portions of the town. Today, the remains of Chaiten are left as a memorial to the disaster. The original inhabitants were forced to leave everything behind and nothing could be reclaimed. As we peered through windows into their houses, we were chilled by the sight of shoes, tablecloths still wrapped over bent and broken tables, utensils and sagging couches. Most everything was half-buried in silt and ash; extremely toxic if stirred up, we walked gingerly.
Our tour of the destruction was solemn and explained much about the state of the town. Evidently, Chaiten had only recently – over the past four years – begun to be resettled. Rebuilding was constant and probably would be for awhile yet.
Despite the desperate air of much of the town, our warm and friendly reception by claudia and many others helped us see the town in a new light. I could begin to see just how beautiful the surrounding landscape was and how much love these strong people had for their town.
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