An important fact I neglected to mention in my previous post: two corporations possess all the water rights in Chile. Endesa, the company proposing to build dams in the Futa and elsewhere in Patagonia, is one of those two water barons.
Another significant fact I picked up in Puerto Varas while visiting Caroline Morgado with the Doug Tompkins Conservation organization: in 2012, some eighty percent of Chileans voted against hydropower development and new dams in southern Chile.
Both of these facts are testaments to power. The first to how much natural power resides in rivers, and to how much power corporations have ammassed over rivers. The second fact supports the thesis that, in the end, people are the most powerful. We just have to get organized and use our power to protect our rivers.
Besides the near monopoly on water rights, perhaps the most mind-boggling and infuriating thing about the threat of dams in Chile is the justification from corporations that the country needs more energy to mine (mostly to the north), an activity profoundly enshrined in Chile’s constitution since the country’s Pinochet days. Essentially, this amounts to exporting one region of Chile’s natural wealth (at great expense to local and global ecosystems and communities) to enable export of natural resources from another region (at great expense to local and global ecosystems and communities…) What a raw deal. If redistribution of the natural wealth of a region on this scale isn’t an environmental justice issue, I don’t know what is.
Puerto Varas is a stunningly beautiful and expensive place, surrounded by lakes, volcanoes and farmed salmon served up in every form. My first few days there I spent recharging after extreme energy expenditures in Futa (well worth every iota).
On day 4, I had made the connections necessary to get out in kayaks on Lake Todos Santos, which is slung between two volcanoes. Our guide was a local one-man show named Juan Federico with decades of experience reading air and water currents in the area. On the way to and from put- in, in his own water-bug style, he imparted history, current events and political speculation. Indigenous peoples of the area had been killed or forcibly assimilated to the point of being erased from the region’s cultural memory, he said with chagrin. National elections would happen the coming weekend, and the incumbent Michelle Bachelet was a shoo-in, considered to be the lesser of two evils by most, he said. At least she purported to be against energy infrastructure development in the South of Chile, he reported. However, politically, Chile is still very much governed from the interests of the big cities of the north, he opined. Sounds familiar, coming from the state of Jefferson, doesn’t it? Chile doesn’t even have a Department of Tourism, he bemoaned. For him, as a tour guide catering to people who love the pristine outdoors, the monumental Tompkins land purchase was a net positive, but not to all locals, JuanFe pointed out. Some people felt displaced and suspected alterior motives.
At the hostel I had recruited a woman from Germany and a woman from Israel to round out the kayak adventure numbers. From the backseat on the way to the Lake, the German woman absorbed JuanFe’s history lesson, including a chapter with many German settlers. The Israeli woman listened as JuanFe described the belief, held by some locals, that Doug Tompkins actually bought a huge swath of Southern Chile so that Israelis can scope the place out, assessing its value as a future Jewish colony.
To see Chile through the lenses of people of my generation of these two nationalities, two of the more politically and economically dominant countries in the world besides my own, was interesting. On a hike up to a vista point in Puerto Varas a few days earlier, the German woman shared an insight she’d had during her time in Chile. “If I express pride in my nationality as a German, people ask why I would want to identify myself with a country with such a shameful history. But, here in Chile, people fly flags and demonstrate national pride in many other ways, despite the horrendous things that happened here during the Pinochet era.” This lead to an engaging conversation about cultural trauma, oppressors, oppressed, justice and guilt. It got me thinking, how do we break with the destructive patterns of our past while learning what history has to teach?
Race relations also bubbled to the surface in a restaurant I walked into for lunch one day in Puerto Montt, a rough port town 20 minutes west of Puerto Varas. The place was called Abuelo’s, though when I inquired I found there wasn’t really an abuelo namesake -just an idea of what would appeal to tourists. The walls were mostly covered in glamour-shot posters of Hollywood celebrities from Marilyn Monroe to Johnny Depp. But in the darker recesses of the extensive bar, a LARGE and frighteningly familiar flag hung squarely above, a proudly displayed centerpiece in a cacaphony of pop-cultural adornments.
People in South America tend to eat lunch later than us Estado Unidenses (people from the US), so I was the only customer in the establishment at the time. As such, I asked the bored waiter to explain every item on the Spanish menu and he happily obliged. After plenty of awkward but informative discussion, I settled on chupe de mariscos (seafood), a delicious South American use of leftovers where old meat and bread are baked with milk and cheese in a ceramic bowl. I ordered a tall pisco sour to wash it down. Porqué no? Why not? The waiter approved. Besides, Pisco sours always make political discussions more interesting.
What’s it like in the US, he wanted to know, where you have a black guy for a president. The way he intoned the word black in Spanish, the descriptor was not altogether positive in his view.
We exchanged grim real politic assessments of our respective economies. Neither is as stable as we would like – “Not enough plata,” he diagnosed, which translates literally to “not enough silver,” but practically speaking means “not enough money.” Like many others I’ve encountered on this trip, the waiter had a keen interest in whether the American Dream is alive and well ( an infinitely debatable topic, I learned in Oaxaca), where he might fit into it, and how much he could get paid.
As was our experience in 1996, when the Terence family up and moved to Haiti for a year, US systems remain the measuring stick in other parts of the world, for better and worse. (A note about the term “American”: I’m trying to avoid using it, since it technically applies to almost all of us in the Western Hemisphere. One of my favorite things is watching the inevitable smile spread across the face of a Latino when they ask where I’m from, I respond with ” California” and they utter knowingly “American,” then I correct gently ” Estado Unidense, eres un Americano tambien.” It’s a kind of equalizing inside joke we all can get.)
With the overwhelming tasks of ordering food and eulogizing our self-destructive capitalist systems out of the way, I focused again on the flag, and the same unsettling feeling overtook me. “Do you know what that flag symbolizes?” I asked the waiter. Someone had given it to the owners of the restaurant, he said. He thought it might be the Norwegian flag. I took a deep breath and launched a simple explanation of who the Confederate Party is, and why the flag is so offensive. Not wanting to accidentally mislead ( as I had with Jewish burial customs once in Cuba), in case I was mistaken, I suggested he look up the Confederate flag on Google Images to be sure. He said he would, but he didn’t.
When I went to pay, one of the owners accepted my money. We had a friendly chat about my travels, which ended on a characteristic, well-intended cautionary note once it came out that I’m traveling alone. (As in the states, many people down here are admiring of my decision to put my life on hold and visit other parts of the world. Jealous even, though I’m guessing the envy would evaporate if they saw my bank account.) I explained the heavy racist significance of the flag. We Googled it on the spot to confirm. I suggested they consider removing it. The owner at least feigned concern. It was convincing enough. She said they would as they didn’t want to put off customers from the US, but confessed to be an unabashed racist in the next breath. She would never marry someone who wasn’t white, she confided.
Right outcome, wrong reason? I left wondering if I had helped (by bringing the issue to their attention and hopefully getting that godawful flag off the wall) or hurt (by giving my money to people who clearly had reservations about equal treatment of whites and people of color.) As I did paying tuition at a Jesuit University, I take a little satisfaction knowing that such conservative people and institutions forwarded the education of such a liberal as me, if only by feeding me chupe and requiring that I read the bible and Immanuel Kant.
Now that we’re way down the rabbit hole that is my brain, let’s finish the Chile circuit by traveling North to Santiago. I had the good fortune to land in the hospitable apartment of a friend of a friend there after one of the easiest bus rides I’ve had in my South American travels. I schlepped my luggage across Puerto Varas on foot, boarded the bus around 8 p.m., blinked and it was sunrise in a part of Chile that closely resembles the Central Valley of California in it’s landscape, complete with abused river channels and wacky religious billboards.
My host graciously included me in a week of birthday celebrations for her husband. At the time of my visit, she was about eight months pregnant. It was here that I started joking that she was carrying a human baby and I was growing a bread baby. Bless Southern Chileans, but the amount of bread they consume can get a bit ridiculous. I’m not sure whether the blame is more appropriately placed on the supply or demand side of the chain, or perhaps both.
The thing is that the cold, windy harsh conditions and high level of physical activity inherent in the lifestyle there amplify the little voice inside of you calling for calories. Resisting the voice is apparently futile. At least, that seems to be what they decided there long ago, so the food options are often limited to a lot of bread and meat. When you’re offered a salad, beware. It usually consists of one or two vegetables boiled beyond the point of any nutrition or taste. One dangerous thing they have in abundance, perhaps to satisfy the calorie call once and for all, is mil hojas (thousand layers) cake. It is thousands of layers of phyllo-like dough layered with rich, gooey dulce de leche (milk-based carmel). Eat it and you’ll be paying the price for months, maybe even years or lifetimes.
The bread baby experience lead me to reflect on the feast or famine approach most of us take to traveling, often dictated by what’s available. That is, you often eat either like a bird or a bear about to go into hibernation when in another country. Sometimes we even allow ourselves to be the victim of this pendulum swing at home I think. In turn, this made me think about how much we take for granted the good food we have available at home, especially in the Klamath.
In Chile, and around the world, the salmon is mostly raised in jaulas (literally jails, practically cages), and the best produce is exported so local people never get to enjoy it. Just like the water and the rocks. When will we ever learn?