Thursday, November 08, 2007

Carretera Austral Part 8: Villa O'Higgins and the Fiesta Costumbrista

Originally posted to El Cantar de la Lluvia on Thursday, March 15, 2007

Days 14-15: Villa O'Higgins, Fiesta Costumbrista, Bahía Bahamóndez

Previous Chapter -  Next Chapter

I woke up pleasantly late and had breakfast in the kitchen. I was quite surprised to find that the girl that was staying in another room was a friend of Fiji's. This is a guy that I met way back in my first year of physics at the Universidad de Chile. He then went down to Temuco, found physics wasn't his thing, and has since made a name for himself as an upcoming short film director. Fancy that.

There was free internet at the public library, housed in a nice wooden building. I was asked to register as a user of the network of Chilean public libraries. The desktop interface was button-based, uncluttered. Not bad at all.

Over the mountains surrounding Villa O'Higgins there were scattered clouds, but over the valley, it was sunny! I walked around town, taking a look at the ordered and tidy streets, the separate houses, imagining myself staying here for the winter. The plaza even had roofed-in walkways. 

From, here's Villa O'Higgins from the air. That tiny blob at the foot of the hill.

Before the road reached the town, supplies were brought in from Argentina, sailing in on the bi-national O'Higgins/San Martín lake, and people flew in via the small airstrip. 

I walked to the Fiesta Costumbrista, the traditional fair.

Music, a cool breeze, people walking here and there. And on the other side of the road, horses and ponies. 

To the sound of chamamé, the chilean gauchos did their best in the competitions. 

The first one to mount the untamed horse was a certain Claudio Guzmán, quite young. He held on well, but fell off the horse, flat onto his back. People rushed over to see him, and he stood up, his hand on his back, but then lay down two metres away. A minute later, after being surrounded by a circle of concerned gauchos, he stood up again, and he even had enough left in him to twirl his leather fusta above his head. A real macho.

And the competitors came and went, one after the other. They hailed from Villa O'Higgins, they hailed from Caleta Tortel, they hailed from as far North as Coyhaique. I spent quite some time on the bleachers, visitors and families all around me. Sometimes the wind blew cold, and I put up the hood of my rain jacket; sometimes it didn't and I had to peel off layers in the hot sun.

Each competitor rode a different horse. It was trotted out from the other side of the dirt road, guided by two gauchos on horseback. It was carefully tied to a post, and more carefully still, its eyes were covered. Then came the special saddle. 

And as soon as the judge gave the signal, the horse was set free from the post, and the rider clung on for dear life. After some ten seconds a bell was rung, and a second rider would come up and help him off the bucking horse. Sometimes this was successful, sometimes not. 

In the background, Glaciar Mosco. 

One horse, upon having his eyes blindfolded, decided that it was all quite too much for a decent horse to take in this life, and collapsed to the ground, motionless. A few good kicks got him back up again. 

I wandered over to the crafts and food stalls, talked to the RV couple from Coyhaique, ate sopaipillas at 100 pesos each (delicious), and then bought the worst mote con huesillos I've ever had in my life. A good mote can save a hot summer's day, even though it looks like a pair of mummified testicles floating in submerged rice krispies. But this one wasn't good at all: the wheat had been boiled in plain water, with no sugar, and the sun-dried peaches' syrup was not enough to sweeten the whole deal. Bleargh.

I chatted to the creator of some nice hand-carved keychains he'd made out of horn. It was his daughter that was riding around on her little bike, showing off her Sunday clothes. I promised to send him the picture, so he gave me his other daughter's email. It bounced :-(

I watched this game for a while. 

This asado had being going on since the previous night, tended to by a local family. That's a whole cow, son. 

It wasn't ready yet. 

I decided to go back for the bike. Bahía Bahamóndez was calling, telling me that I wasn't there yet, that there were a few more kilometres to go. 

So I went. It was a scarce 8 km, but I did them slowly, to save fuel. There's no petrol station in Villa O'Higgins. 

And I'm there! The most southern point of the Camino Longitudinal Austral, despite the fact that it ends officially at Puerto Yungay. This little loading ramp. This is it.

This ferry moves the animals around different points on the lake shore. 

Following a narrow trail, I reached a small hydroelectric station. 

You can't see Villa O'Higgins, but you can see Cerro Santiago, the wooded hill behind it, where families go for walks and hikes on weekends. 

And here's the picture that (to me at least) sums it all up. 

I went back to the fiesta, this time on the bike. I parked it and shortly thereafter met an Englishman from Canada, riding on a grey KTM Adventure, as well as a German girl travelling with two Belgian guys, all of them nice people. As soon as I sat down on the ground, the old man in charge of the asado offered me a big hunk of meat. "Here, please, help yourself". No, I'm sorry, I don't have any money for this, I said. "No, please, help yourself". I am very picky about how I like my meat, and I was worried I'd have to chew making a happy face and supressing a gag reflex.

On the contrary: best damn piece of asado meat I've had in a long, long time. And sitting there on a log, watching the long late afternoon shadows grow even longer, eating from my hand with my swiss army knife, chatting in English, French and Spanish, I was happy. 

A while later a drunk came up to us. It all started because he wanted to take a group picture of us all with the cow over the embers. He was so drunk he couldn't work the camera. I went over to help, and it turned out that 1) The autofocus was set to macro and 2) The batteries were almost dead. 

The then proceeded to dar jugo with the German girl. This chilean phrase refers to completely pointless and non-constructive banter, most often broadcast by people who are drunk, stoned, or both. A friend once told me it originated from Chilean jails, where inmates might have the choice to do labour outdoors, or do nothing. Those that refuse to play along do nothing, and sit in the sun in the patio, sweating profusely. Hence, they give juice, they sweat. Dan jugo. Bear in mind that whenever I've mentioned this story to any other Chilean, I just get weird looks. Anyway. 

Our friendly drunk was dando jugo with the German girl, and we thought this was hilarious. One of the Belgian guys, whose job was to travel all over the world, coordinating trips for the wealthy, was a first class fire stoker. "Go on, tell her what you think of her!" he urged the drunk guy. 

So our friend gathered courage. "You... you are... zhe mosht beautifull... girl in the–" and he turns to me and says "Awwwwwww! But what can I shay to her!? Shhhe's a goddessh!"

I shrug. He turns to her again, and starts over: "Youre... you are... zhe mosht..." and so on a few times. 

"Go on, give her a kiss!" shouts the Belgian. 

Another cheers, another cup of wine for our new friend. His face changed suddenly; he stumbled over to a fence post to support himself, and we though he was going to have an out-of-stomach experience. But no, he didn't. Instead, he lowered his zipper and began peeing erratically, splashing this way and that. 

"Friends, friends" I said, invoking a closed conference. "The situation is critical. Our friend the drunk enjoys shaking our hand and hugging us. Such things are, from now on, strictly prohibited!" I said, pointing discreetly at his clumsy act of urination. 

Our friend returned, with refreshed love for us all, and something akin to an adult game of tag ensued. Poor man. He became sad, and his friend came over, slightly less intoxicated than he,  to take him away. They pottered off, one pulling the other by the arm, the other wrenching his arm away in an effort to preserve a what little dignity he had left. 

That night there was a party at the Municipal Gymnasium. I went for a while, watched how an old man and his twelve year-old apprentice played a few chamamé songs, I watched how boys danced with girls, lads with lasses, husbands with wives. 

On the gym's walls, above the bleachers, were a set of murals, each about three metres wide, all done in what I might call the hip hop graffitti style. Now you'll have to pardon my ignorance, but I can find no better way to describe the large, illegible writing and the set of silly child-ized characters, generally depicted smoking a joint. Each mural paid homage to a specific institution, among them Carabineros de Chile. If only you could have seen the portrait of the XR-mounted Carabinero! Normally the police take the image and presence of the institution extremely seriously, and I would have paid money to see the face on the invited brass at the gym's inauguration ceremony...

The next day would be a long one, so I soon went back to bed. 

As I lay in bed in the dark, I hoped for good weather. I calculated how much fuel I had left, and added up the distances in my head. It would be tight. 

There was no wind that night, and everything was perfectly still. Well, not everything.  I was kept awake for the longest time by the sound of the neighbour's horse munching grass.

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