The Los Conquistadores ‘super-luxury Pullman bus service’ from Santiago to Puerto Montt in the south (a distance of approx 1,100km) takes about 12.5 hours. Luckily, the ‘super-luxury VIP service’ lives up to its promise and the journey is pleasant, and most importantly, I manage to catch some sleep. The spacious chairs can be extended to allow you to lie down and sleep in a horizontal position. I don’t know about you but I struggle to sleep sitting upwards even if I have overdosed on sleeping pills! The only negative was that when we were handed our large ‘meal box’ I was expecting something more then the pathetic wafers, peanuts and carton of drink we were given. A hot meal would have been nice (stop complaining Wasim!)
As the bus pulled into Puerto Montt bus station the following morning I was expecting to meet Juan, my contact and; I imagine, my supervisor at Un Techo Para Chile. He wasn’t there so I rang him. He said he’d be down in 20 minutes. 20 minutes later I got a phone call from Juan saying he was in the terminal and he couldn’t see me. I looked around and the only man I could see on the phone was a fat guy with a scraggy beard and huge tum tum. Next minute the ‘fat guy’ is standing in front of me asking if my trip was OK! Juan’s English is pretty bad (but then so is my Spanish) but we manage to bumble our way through the usual conversational pleasantries. I find that I must use my arms more then usual when communicating with him – the arms can be used to describe small things (with your fingers in pincers), large things (by spreading your arms out wide and opening your mouth wide too (if you want to!)), money (by rubbing the fingers together), horrible things (me making a squirming face), delicious things (by me opening my eyes out wide and licking my tongue), and so forth. I am relying on sign language and so is he, and it seems to be working. I find him to be an affable and friendly man with a hearty laugh and I have the feeling that we will get on just fine.
We head off to the supermarket to grab some breakfast. Breakfast it turns out will be a round Chilean bread roll thingy, cut in half, and spread with sausage paste that tastes like DIY glue. The coffee is the instant variety – but hey, I’m not complaining! Serves me right for wanting to go on this adventure in the first place! We head up the hilly incline to the offices of Un Techo Para Chile. Now, I don’t remember what I had imagined the offices would look like. I knew they wouldn’t be a sleek shiny glass fronted office building with a pretty blond receptionist and lifts – and in that regard I wasn’t disappointed! The ‘offices’ or ‘house’ would be a better term, sits perched precariously on the edge of a hill, and below it, you can see the roofs of Puerto Montt and further into the distance the sea front and the boats moored at the port. It’s an ugly looking town but there is something ‘on the edge of the frontier’ about it. Like the last bit of civilization before the unknown. I peer into the distance and wonder what lies out there, beyond and far, and then I am pulled back from my reverie by Juan who shows me the garden of the house of which he has freshly cut the grass and removed all the weeds and trees especially for me.
“before this big jungle (he spreads his arms wide), but I cut (he makes a cutting action with his hands) for you!”
Yeah I feel special!
He then tells me whilst pointing to a particular soft patch in the garden that the earth is a little soft there because a previous French volunteer is buried there – that’s what happens to volunteers who are no good. He then shows me the flagpole and then makes an impression of a man dangling from a rope – yes, if you are a bad volunteer you get hung on the flagpole. Finally I am given a tour of the basement where; yes you guessed it, bad volunteers are locked away and where their ghosts now lurk…
The offices are actually rather cosy and nice in a rustic sort of way – exactly what I was expecting. Juan (why is everybody in South America called Juan?) tells me that there are 3 camps where we will be working. They all vary in size and population and the residents of these camps are all very poor, with hardly any education. In certain camps there is a drug and alcohol problem, and only a few weeks ago, there was a shooting incident between 2 particularly nasty rival families in one camp. It seems the closeness of the barrios, the close living conditions, fueled by alcohol and drugs, can be a recipe for incendiary violence. What will I be doing? A mixture of everything: Construction, education, helping with promotional activities, photography, healthcare, legal stuff and anything else where they require extra hands. The construction side is not particularly heavy as the homes are all prefabricated simple designs made of wood. If the ground is soft, Juan tells me, they can put a house together in under 3 hours. The guys are experienced and this helps.
The next thing to do is find me a place to stay. As I’ll be staying here for at least a month we need to find something that is not expensive and is also a convenient distance away from the office. After checking on Facebook(!) and phoning around, we end up seeing 4 places:
The first place is a huge dark house full of bedrooms and the owner is an old man with long bony fingers and lots of hair growing downwards from his nostrils. As it is so dark and the windows are all curtained I begin to wonder if he is a vampire. He shows us around the creepy place. He keeps looking at me funny. The whole thing reminds me of the movie Count Dracula and I get the feeling that the owner kills the young people that are unlucky to stay in his rooms and buries them under the floorboards…and sucks their blood from time to time, keeping them alive…so I say no.
The second is a house belonging to a family. The room they wish to let is a small affair with a bed that looks like it should be thrown out onto the rubbish heap. The women says’ that the guy living next door is a security guard so I won’t have any issues with my belongings. I still say no.
The third place is a lovely charming home slightly further afield (20 min walk from the office), there is a large flat screen TV in the living room and lots of bottles of Chilean wine littered all over the place. The rooms are lovely and the rent includes Wi-Fi internet, laundry, breakfast, lunch and dinner all inclusive. So far this is the best.
The fourth place is literally 2 mins walk from the office, it includes Wi-Fi, but no food, but it does have a huge communal kitchen with all the necessary appliances if I wish to cook, and the room is airy and spacious, there is a hot shower (but I have to switch the hot water boiler on myself every time I need to have a shower!!! – and switching it on takes some expertise!) and the family is fun. It consists of the owner, his wife, another women and their son. The boy, who is about 10 or 12 is constantly playing on his computer game but the father wants him to sit with me so he can learn some English…
Yeah, go on. Dump him on me.
So I go for number 4! Hahaha
That evening I go for a stroll in town and am disappointed to discover that it has a McDonalds….is there any place in the world that ubiquitous fast-food chain has not invaded? I am also surprised to find a large number of Chinese restaurants. The Chinese too it seems, have found niches, have built themselves a life – wherever possible. On my way back, I pop into the supermarket to buy some groceries. I am surprised to find it is very well stocked. Cheeses from around the world (including Gouda and Philadelphia), cakes, cereals, the ubiquitous sugar filled fizzy drinks, ice-creams, beers, wines – I walk around for half an hour trying to work out what everything is as its all in Espaniol! Eventually, I find the milk I was looking for. Leche it is called! I was thinking of asking someone but felt I’d look like a real proper tonto.
I head back home to cook me a delicious meal of soup, bread with cheese and coffee. The boy sits next to me. He is frowning and is in a bad mood. His father has forced him to sit next to me. I proceed to have a wonderfully enlightening and engaging conversation with him about computer games!
Will I go mad in this place?
Can a man survive on purely internal conversations with the self?
Will this blog help me to stay sane?
I think it will. Knowing that there are people out there, reading these words, my thoughts – and perhaps even living this life with me, through my descriptions – knowing that people can read this, is important, as it proves to me at least, that I exist.
This reminds me of Arthur Rimbaud. That French Poet of old who in 1870 headed off into modern day Ethiopia and lived as a white man in the city of Harar. He always said in his letters to his mother and friends that he would return home. Yet he still spent 10 years there. He complained of the disgusting food, the wretched life, the people all out to cheat him and deceive him, people that were lazy and couldn’t be trusted. He complained of the stupidity and brutishness of these people he was forced to live with and deal with on a daily basis. Yet, when reading his letters, one gets the impression or feeling that though he openly complained, he was complaining with a small leery smile on his lips, just a little smile, that suggests that despite his moaning – he was rather enjoying himself!
Leche = milk!