Friday, January 27, 2012

Wine and Ghosties

On my sister and brother-in-law's (hereafter to be known as the SIL and BIL) last day with us here in Santiago, my mother-in-law planned a day trip to a local winery, with a tour, and a walk around the estate, and lunch.  My father and brother in law are rather into wines.  They adore visiting wineries - touring the cellars, looking out over the vines and spending an enjoyable hour or two propping up a bar in a tasting room, engaged in the absorbing ritual of comparing vintage and grape and, eventually, emerging with a bottle or two of the very best. 

The place sure looks good.  Assembling in the lee of an adobe wall, just inside a pair of enormous iron gates, we were led through a garden and up to the spreading classical frontage of a mansion that had belonged to the 19th Century founders of the winery  (Someone knew his Palladio).  Our guide spread his arms wide to embrace  the luverly parks that stretched off toward the horizon and invited us to take pictures.  (But Mr Tabubil was told off for putting one foot into said lovely park to take said picture at a slightly better angle than what was offered up officially.) 
            Lawn and lake and green forested groves beckoned invitingly, but we were shunted sideways and circled through a pretty little display vineyard.  We weren't allowed near the winery's working vineyards, but in this little garden there was every sort of grape and vine that was growing out in the fields, and our guide peppered it with one of those exquisite sort of half-information spiels that lets you know what sort of research you need to do later find out about what was actually going on.
            Semi-enlightened, were herded up onto a shaded terrazzo and served a 2011 chardonnay.
            We were invited to tilt the glass to examine the "wine's charrrracteristic colorrrrr."  (The guide rolled his rr's richly.)  Then, at the guide's instruction, we sniffed, and sipped, and rolled the wine about our mouths and thought deeply about the flavors  -
            I tasted citrus.  I tasted apple.  I tasted - mustiness?
            I looked around and all of us in our little party were looking at our glasses with deep distaste. 
            I passed around the breath mints.

From the terrazzo we were shepherded into a shed full of barrels and  marched down a flight of stairs into a genuine cellar.  With real brick arches and proper cold cellar-damp and everything. 
            This was where the winery's "Internationally Famous Casillero de Diablo label" ™ was aged.  "Do You know where the devil in the name comes from?"  The guide asked us, and then he scarpered out the door, turned out the lights and turned on a PA system and a rich, fruity disembodied voice in the darkness told us a ghost story so deeply, spectacularly, anemically anticlimactic, that when the lights came back on, we were all goggle eyed and prone to random manic giggles. 
            And we were marched back out of the cellar, led up another flight of stairs and the whole rigmarole with the wine was repeated with another glass of terrible plonk - but red this time and served out of a bottle that some genius in marketing had had the brass to slap a Gran Reserva label onto.
            And that was it. 
            But this time we were encouraged to keep the glass as an exciting ™ memento of our tour.  Golly.
            Our entire day-trip experience, which we had been led to believe involved a real wine-tasting and a tour of the wine-producing process - consisted of a forced march through a garden, a quick pass through a cellar, and being fed two of last years failed wines that one imagines they couldn't get away with selling in their shops.
            But what a shop! It was nothing more nor less than a temple to a brand. Every imaginable object you could imagine slapping the house label onto was being sold, from t-shirts to chefs hats to cigarette lighters to golf balls. And wine, of course.  Wine was everywhere.  But there was not one teeny little opportunity to try a single one of them before you bought.  Which rather removes the point of visiting the winery in the first place.  
            So we were sort of feeling let down.  My mother-in-law especially - she'd wanted something special for the SIL and BIL before they flew home.
            It was close enough to lunch time that we decided to play nice at the establishment's little restaurant and wine-bar.  We sat down at a nice little table in a sunny courtyard and ordered empanadas. 
            The waiter was friendly.
            "Did you hear the story of the Devil down in the cellar?"
            "Why, yes,"  we emphasized - with feeling.  "We certainly did."
            "Yeah..." The waiter picked sheepishly at his apron.  "They used to have a guy down there dressed up in a devil suit and have him jump out at the visitors when they turned the lights off, but a couple of months ago some guy panicked and had a heart attack... and died.  They changed the presentation after that..."
            And then we started laughing manically again, because any ghost story that ends (in a big booming voice) "and it was all a big hoax because there was no devil down there after all!  But when you leave this place tell all your friends that there is so that nobody stops listening when we tell them!!!" just has to be coming from some place pretty powerful.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Mr Tabubil and I, along with Mr Tabubil's parents, sister and brother-in-law, have come south to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year  at a parcela just outside the small village of Llifen on Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco), deep in Chile's southern Alpine Region.  

We left Llifen on a grey and ashy morning.  During the night Puyehue had gone bang again, and a new layer of fallen ash had made the world flat and grey.  It had clotted, soft and thick as thistledown and snow,  on decks and window ledges and pathways.  The garden was two-dimensional.  Monochrome.  Walking across the lawn to the car our feet stirred up puffs of ash that drifted and hung in the air around our legs, and cars drove through small grey whirlwinds, spun up off the road by their wheels.
            Two hundred kilometers away in Frutillar (translation: Strawberry) the air was sharp and clear.

Frutillar is a town of German extraction - built by Germans from Hamburg and other northern metropolises, who recognized in its alpine climate something reminiscent of their own homes. For the German immigrants  of the 19th Century,  Southern Chile was a paradise -the snow capped mountains, the crisp, rushing rivers,  the long, sun filled valleys and blue snow-fed lakes.  They forced out the Mapuches and built houses trimmed with cuckoo-clock fretwork and painted them in red and blue to match the water and the wildflowers. (We shall make no allusions here to the Post-WW2 German emigrants. The Chilean authorities haven't come across any suspiciously well ordered villages with barbed wire fences and arms caches buried underneath the buildings of civil government for decades now.)

Frutillar Alto (Upper Frutillar) is a bustling little Southern Chilean town - cheerful, colorful, busy, distinguished by the odd German BBQ house and painted gable, but mostly indistinguishable from other small, cheerful  towns in the South of Chile.
            Frutillar Bajo (Lower Frutillar) where the summer visitors come, is a bucolic  village dreamed up out of clockwork houses, flower gardens, wrought iron balconies, wood-frame barns and fretwork cafes that sell kuchen and bratwurst and 'artesanias' (fridge mangnets, postcards, lederhosen and ceramic butter dishes shaped like cows) -all of it strung out  along the shore of a long low bay of  Lake Llanquihue. 
            The summer visitors come for the lake - because the lake comes with an incomparable view.  Volcan Osorno , an eight thousand foot tall snow-capped active cinder cone volcano - lies directly across the lake, and the sight of it, framed squarely in the center of the bay, is extraordinary.

Nine years ago, I spent a weeks holiday in Frutillar.  We - my parents, my sister Dr Tabubil, myself and Abby Conroy- stayed at a small hotel that climbed up a hill at the  north end of the lakeshore.  We shared a small and rickety  log cabin with two bedrooms at the top of a hill, tucked into the corner of a fir wood.  It wasn't the newest of places - the cabin door warped and stuck, and when you opened it, the entire cabin slumped sideways.  Dr Tabubil and Abby and I shared a small bedroom with two deeply wobbly and suspicious bunk beds.  On the second night, their bunk bed collapsed while they were still in it.  Dr Tabubil (top bunk) rolled over in her bunk.  There was a sudden, ricocheting Crack! and a hoarse shout of "Get! Out!" and simultaneously, with one splendid athletic movement, Abby (lower bunk) rolled her legs up over her head and Dr Tabubil, a mattress and three 4x6 oak beams came crashing down onto where most of Abby had been lying.
           We dragged my mattress out into the cabins' small common room, and the two of them took over my bunk.  The living room made a lovely bedroom - small and musty and sneezy, but at my feet was a darling little pot belly stove that glowed rose-red and pumped heat into the semi-Patagonian night. That evening, I lay awake and mentally calculated everything in the cabin - starting with the collapsed bunk bed - that was past repair and could, in a pinch keep my lovely fire going.  When I fell asleep the entire place- but for the wrought iron sink and bathtub, was, hypothetically at least, in ashes.
            Every evening after that, we played poker with a mental bank of wallboards and floorboards, and burned symbolic matchsticks in the stove as our stakes rose.
            Outside our cozy little cabin, Frutillar was a garden.  A tribe of barn cats had colonized the pine-wood, meowing outside our door at breakfast time and pressed their noses politely against our trouser cuffs, and every morning in a cottage at the bottom of the hill we were fed slabs of home-made kuchen with deep buttery shortbread crusts and filled with fresh raspberries and blackberries and apricots.  After breakfast we'd jump into our rented 4x4 and ride out to  swim in mountain lakes and ride zip lines down the flanks of Volcan Osorno, and, in tiny hanging valleys blanketed with spring flowers, ancient German women with braids twisted around their heads would serve us kuchen and cookies in their own kitchens. 

Eight years later the world was still freshly painted and drenched with sun and spring flowers.   This time we ate raspberry kuchen and chestnut torte in the garden of small a kuchen-haus with painted gnomes standing on the front stoop.  We sat underneath a huge white umbrella with our backs to a wall of purple and magenta fuchsia bushes.  Fat black and yellow bumblebees tumbled in and out of the flowers.  Couples strolled up and down the lake shore, hand in hand, squinting in the sun.  Small children shrieked and splashed in the water, and the world was very good.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lago Ranco Part Two

Mr Tabubil and I, along with Mr Tabubil's parents, sister and brother-in-law, have come south to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year  at the parcela of a friend just outside the small village of Llifen on Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco), deep in Chile's southern Alpine Region.

Precipitously abandoning the Saltos de Nilahue, we drove off down the road and were menaced by an ox.  Prancing down the highway, swinging his lowered head from side to side, he was menacing oncoming cars and prepared to take on all comers.  He outweighed us three to one.  There was a tense moment of standoff  - eyeball to bumper, and we prepared for a glorious retreat, but he caught sight of an SUV more in his weight class and let us pass. Ha!
            We saw the lake in glimpses and snatches.  All the beachfront land is private here.  By law, all water-frontage must provide for free public passage, but when property owners throw up walls and hedges and rows of dense fir trees to protect their privacy, acting on your guaranteed right to public passage involves some pretty major acts of trespass.  And most people down here own shotguns.   Apart from a promenade and a pier in the town of Lago Ranco, we saw only one public beach that day - a stretch of land so benighted and unappealing that even the most optimistic-minded real-estate developer couldn't have imagined making a profit out of it.
            Through a break in the trees we saw something astonishing - a floating beach.

All of the pumice that flows down the Nilahue river into the lake is blown by the winds into this one sheltered bay.  Millions and millions of them.

A little further on, we met a herd of horses.  The horses weren't particularly impressed with a car full of gringos, and decided that we didn't have any right to the road.
            Their gauchos had to put in a fair bit of persuasive effort to change their minds.

Half-way around the lake from Llifen, the highway turned inland again and we turned off it onto a dirt road that ran down toward the lake.
            The road curved sharply upward and the shoreline turned vertical.  A sharp slash in a volcanic headland turned into a gorge - below us was a wide river of the most astonishing liquid blue.  The road dropped back down toward it and dead -ended in the water.
            Bemused, and charmed, we got out of the car and wandered along the shore.  There was no ash here and the water - the water!  It was as clear as blue glass.  Fathoms deep, moving softly, gently, taking on an icy aquamarine tint.  I had no swimsuit with me.  I had no towel.  At that moment I wanted a swim worse than I've wanted anything in my life. 
            I still regret not jumping in - fully clothed, and dripping all over my seat later.

And we found a ferry.  Painted red and hand powered.  Two men shunted it back and forth across the lake - hooking metal claws into a thick rope cable and walking the ferry across - one ferry length at a time.  It took them sixteen seconds to walk a boat length.  All day.  Every day.  Back and forth across that enchanted river.

We rode the ferry across.

The day was warm and DRINKABLE and the water was blue and cold and clear and the trees were green and dark and the sky was sharp and clear as a trumpet blast.  And we felt a little drunk.
One of those perfect moments, you know?

Next year we are going to go back there and find a cottage or a cabin or a tent on the banks of that river and we're going to spend all of every day in and on that water.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Los Saltos de Nilahue

Mr Tabubil and I, along with Mr Tabubil's parents, sister and brother-in-law, have come south to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year  at the parcela of a friend just outside the small village of Llifen on Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco), deep in Chile's southern Alpine Region.

On Day Four , Mr Tabubil and I went for a drive all the way around Lago Ranco.  It was a splendid day for it - the ash from Puyahue was thin and the air barely hazy.

Shortly after crossing an exquisite blue river whose name we never quite managed to catch, we braked to a sudden stop on a wooden bridge over another river.  Below us, on a stone precipice, three men were preparing kayaks.  We watched, and wondered.


"They can't be thinking of doing that."  We thought.  The river here was awfully low; it flowed thin  along a knife-sharp gouge in the rock, dropped swiftly through a series of hollowed out basins (churning maelstroms in high water, now merely sharp-edged and puddly) and without any particular fanfare - dropped vertically off the edge of the plateau and vanished.

But they were doing it.  They were scouting, preparing, studying the lay of the plateau, considering the drop -off , and trampling down shrubbery for the placement of a video camera (if I was going completely off the deep end, I'd want a video recording too.)

            Shaking our head sadly, we climbed back into our little car and drove across the bridge and turned into a shadowy driveway where a hand-painted sign advertised the "Saltos de Nilahue."  (Nilahue Falls.)
            We parked into a pleasantly shaded farmyard.  A man emerged from behind a house, where he was painting a swimming pool, and pointed us down a dappled path along the side of the gorge.
            It was a peasant walk.  Horseflies don't appear to like the shade very much.  The occasional horsefly that into us by mistake was slow and clumsy and an easy mark for an open handed haymaker that shot it over the tops of the trees and down into the gorge.

            At the end of the path we found a view of the saltos and a way down into the gorge.  We slithered down mulchy wooden ladders and steps cut into the rock that hadn't been  mucked out since the last ice-age, and caught our sleeves and wrists on sharp-hook-like needles of vines draped carelessly across our path, and at the bottom of the stairway, we stumbled out of the bosky murk and into the sun, and suddenly we found where all of Puyahue's debris had been going.   During the volcanic eruption, the temperature of the Rio Nilahue had reached 45 degrees Celsius.  Below us the gorge opened up into a wide valley, but around us the river leaped and roared - thick and grey and frothy -turbid as a kitchen sink, and riding high on the waves we saw hundreds of thousands of pumice stones.

The river bank crunched peculiarly under our feet - Between sharp-edged rocks  the banks were carpeted with the stuff -pebbles of pumice worn round and smooth like river stones.  Around us,  the walls of the gorge were thick with ash that dripped like limestone runoff in a cave.

And above us, in front of us, were the falls.  Thick and steamy and unequivocally vertical.  To go over that In a kayak you'd have to be purely suicidal.  Between us, Mr Tabubil and I are almost totally devoid of the mysterious urge that drives people to live on (or sail over) the edge, but if they were willing, we had all day, and we sat down on a pair of solid pumice rocks to wait.

Down on the river the horseflies were merely pestilential - downright playful, even, in a voracious and bloody-minded sort of way.
            And after the mind-trip they'd given us up at the hot springs the previous day, we reckoned that we could withstand them pretty good all right.
            But we'd reckoned without psychology, and while we sat, serene in our noble disregard, swatting occasionally and absently, they began to feel hurt and went away and came back with all their friends. Which were apparently the same flies that we'd smacked over the cliff some time previously,  and they had opinions.
            And about three minutes after that, we were running, slipping and skidding and sliding across loose rafts of pumice,  clutching our cameras to our chest and simultaneously trying to wave the same clutching hands above our heads to ward of hordes of hundreds and hundreds of enormous black and orange horseflies, as we fled back to the shelter of the cliff wall and the path back up to the top.
            Back at the top of the gorge, I knocked on the door of the farmhouse to ask if the kayak descent was really feasible.
            "Oh yes."  The man nodded proudly, surprised at my ignorance. "People come from all over the world to ride these falls!"
            He ushered me into a large, well-lighted room, where banks of empty drinks refrigerators and rows of round tables with hand-embroidered tablecloths waited for the summer hiking season.  He walked across the room to a desk piled high with books and papers and empty coffee-cups and  from underneath a stack of aging telephone books, he pulled out a 3 ring binder.
            Slapping it down on an embroidered table-cloth, he opened it proudly.  It was full of photographs of daredevil athletes riding the falls - shots taken from below, shots taken from above - all confirming that shooting the Saltos of Nilahue was indeed possible. And possibly exhilarating.   I did notice, however, that in every single photograph, the amount of water going over the lip of the falls with the kayaker was much higher than it we had seen it: own in the gorge we had seen a vertical fall - in these photographs the water level was so high that the kayaker was riding a 60 degree slope down the mountain.  A very different sort of ride.
            So as far as we're concerned, the jury is still out. But on account of the horseflies, the kayakers would have to do it without us.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Very Short Afternoon at a Hot Spring

Mr Tabubil and I, along with Mr Tabubil's parents, sister and brother-in-law, have come south to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year  at a parcela just outside the small village of Llifen on Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco), deep in Chile's southern Alpine Region.  

On our third day, we drove up the Llifen Valley into the mountains to spend an afternoon soaking at the Termas de Chilliuo (the Chilliuo Hot Springs.)

The Road up to the top of the valley and into the mountains was mostly an unpaved one-lane mountain track:  picturesque as postcards, but  hell on the suspension of our small rental cars - low suspensions and  two wheel drives on a mountain track do NOT a return-on-rental-car- deposit make.
It was terribly dusty - thick road dust mixed with a soup of volcanic ash.  Our little Toyota Yarises (Toyota Yari?) had no air-conditioning and we had to leave the windows open, and before we'd left the valley we were breathing soup and scooping it out of our noses and our ears.

Hot, dusty, tasting of ashes and increasingly car-sick, we bounced higher and higher into the mountains.  Stopping at little wooden bridges over bouncing mountain tarns we smelled fresh, cold air and pricked up our dusty noses and dreamed Mountain Hot-Spring dreams.

We bounced through tiny villages that clung to knife-sharp ridgelines, rode switchbacks and hairpin bends around hanging valleys and empty precipices, we jounced past herds of dairy cows in fields dotted with daisies, slowed to choking halts behind gauchos on tall sauntering horses and blasted through bosky, shadowed pine woods . Beyond our personal travelling dust clouds, the world was a paradise.

On a blessedly smooth stretch of road in a long valley at the top of the world we saw a sign for the Termas de Chilliuo.  Swinging our car off the gravel road, we bounced up a grassy lane and rattle gently to a stop in a grassy clearing in front of a row of simple wooden changing cabins.  

Volcanic dust-cloud incoming!

Water gurgled.  Birds chirped. White daisies nodded their heads in the grass.
Steaming gently and hooting happily, we tumbled out of our cars into the mountain silence - and heard a noise.
            Lots of noise.
            And we were bombarded by legions of biting black and orange horseflies the size of light fixed-wing aircraft.  Grabbing our bags, we threw our towels over our heads and ran like hell toward the change rooms.
            The Termas were somewhat anti-climactic, under the circumstances.  The weather had come around and the sun was high and flat and hot.  The Springs were a flat, shallow concrete pan filled with scalding water and the only way to avoid a massed aerial assault was to sit in the steaming stuff up to our necks.  I risked a sprint to an outdoor ice-water shower, and I only made it by whirling a wet-t-shirt around my head like a helicopter propeller the whole way.
            We lasted barely ten minutes.  My father-in-law cracked first.  He rose from the water like a steaming leviathan at a starting post and  made a mad dash to the changing sheds - cursing viciously and flailing away at the flies with his arms above his head.  He didn't have a wet t-shirt to extend his reach.  Poor soul.
            The rest of us badly wanted a photo of us sitting in the spring - ten minutes in that water under that sun was hero stuff, but he refused to come out, and we nearly expired.
            When he did emerge, under the weight of our pleas (and imprecations), he was fully clothed and deeply paranoid and in the three seconds that it took him to raise the camera to his eye and press the shutter, he was bomb dived by six enormous horseflies in a synchronized attack that came right out of the sun and aimed for the vulnerable patch of skin on the back of his neck.
          He broke and ran.
          Clearly, our plans for a picnic lunch on the lawn were right out, so hungry and heat struck and rather worse for wear, we bolted for the cars and tore back down the mountain until we found a meadow where the horseflies were merely an annoyance instead of the country's dominant predator.

But I still ate my sandwich from underneath a beach towel.

And on the way home my father-in-law dented his oil pan.

Friday, January 20, 2012


 Mr Tabubil and I, along with Mr Tabubil's parents, sister and brother-in-law, have come south to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year  at a parcela just outside the small village of Llifen on Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco), deep in Chile's southern Alpine Region.  

The village of Llifen is about 20 km of dairy herds and twisting mountain roads around the lake from the town of Futrono - the center of local life.  On the afternoon of our second day, we drove into town for provisions.

Ye local fruit-and-veg-ery:

Ye friendly local grocer:

The males in our party scoped out the row of amen-beard chairs in front of the supermarket and sent us ladies off to find ice-cream.  We walked for miles.  (More or less.  Distance is hard to calculate when you're suffering from a lack of ice-cream.  It might have been only blocks.)  And went into every single shop.  But the men had been exceedingly specific in their requests, and it seemed that all of Futrono was supplied by the one (and wrong) ice-cream truck and eventually we ran out of town to look in.

Potential ice-cream-eria:

Is there any?

How about in this restaurant?

Or here?

Probably not:

But the flowers were awfully big and pretty:

We walked for MILES.  It was a torment.

But there in the very last building on the road out of town, in an old and cranky freezer case three inches deep in condensed frost, we found what they had asked for.

So we walked back - miles and miles (or possibly blocks) with ice-cream melting down our forearms and when we got back to the supermarket, we saw that those solidly ungrateful men had found the same thing that we'd been seeking all over Southern Chile right  in the supermarket right behind their backs.  And were half-way finished with eating them.
And we were not very impressed with them at all.
And they were not at all repentant or remorseful.
And there was nothing to do except lick ice-cream off of our hands and go home and go swimming again.

(Aren't holidays AWFUL like that?)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Evening at Llifen

A Pale and Ashy Evening.

Ridiculously Picturesque Evening Light.
More of Same.  (Mr Tabubil's Favorite.)
My sister-in-law in the dusk, on the bank of Rio Carrulpe.

Mr Tabubil Catches the Sunset.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Lago Ranco

Mr Tabubil and I, along with Mr Tabubil's parents, sister and brother-in-law, have come south to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year  at the parcela* of a friend just outside the small village of Llifen on Lago Ranco (Lake Ranco), deep in Chile's southern Alpine Region.  

Lago Ranco is a long way south from Santiago.  To get there, we flew to Puerto Montt and drove three hours north into the foothills of Chile's Southern cordillera.  This southern area of Chile is known as the Switzerland of the Americas.  It’s a landscape carved by glaciers and volcanoes - alpine picture post-card pretty and green and pink and blue and yellow and red with growing things.  Spring arrives late in the South and the whole world seemed like one enormous flower garden. Not only in the villages; wild rambling roses and hydrangea and gladioli and bright coral colored wildflowers sprang out of every roadside cutting and the bank of every wild mountain river and stream- every space and crack that could hold soil was blooming and flourishing and exploding with life.
            Most of Chile's dairy products come from down here.  Roads spool out through valleys lined with dairy pastures dotted with slow-faced, broad-hipped dairy cows.  Horses are still a still a primary mode of transport on the roads, tall-necked short striding horses  ridden by huasos (Chiles' gauchos - or cowboys, if you will) in their flat black hats, or pulling wooden farm carts.  Oxen, too, are found here.  It's not uncommon to come over the curve of a hill and find a two-ox or four-ox wagon filled with firewood being led along the verge of the road.
            The geology is almost entirely metamorphic. Our plane stopped in Conception  (the city that got plastered by the earthquake and the succeeding tsunami last year) and as we took off again, the view from the aircraft window became a string of Mt-Fuji-esque cindercone volcanoes - all snowcapped, and most of them active.

Lago Ranco, where we were staying, is blue, and limpid and aquamarine when it is sunny.   The geology has been worked by glaciers - carved into wide, flat bottomed valleys and punctuated by knife-edged ridges - tiny islands rising sheer from the lake and great cliffs and pocket -size crags rising vertically out of  dairy pastures and river bottoms. On a misty, hazy evening, the effect is that of a Chinese ink painting - grey-green karst peaks painted as color blocks - sharp details fading into  hazy, watery oblivion in the far distance.

This misty ink-water view was the view we had for much of  every day that we were there.  The sky cleared most evening, but our little village of Llifen was only 37 kilometers from Chiles most famous active volcano - Puyehue
            When Puyehue went bang in Febuary 2011, it launched a hundred million tons of ash and debris into the atmosphere, and stopped flights clear all the way to South Africa.  Llifen and other towns nearby were forcibly evacuated by the government (forcibly in the face of independent farmers with shotguns, unwilling to leave their livestock - and noisily  in the face of the large landowners who flat out refused to let the government evacuate their hired workers) but there was little large-scale damage on our side of the border.  Sadly for Argentina, most of the debris landed on their side of the mountains. 
            Puyehue has calmed considerably since February, but it is still very active - and still smoking.  The winds still blow toward Argentina, but half of Lago Ranco remains shrouded in a soft cloud of ash - making evenings misty, the sunsets splendid, and the whole world thick and choked and dusty.

We watched this view from a wooden deck that was grey and soft with volcanic ash - ash as fine as the thin, velvety dust left behind by a burned sheet of paper.  The softest breath of wind disperses it, but it falls constantly, burring edges, blurring outlines, leaching rims of color from plants and rock ledges and houses. 
            A prosaic analogy: a whole world like the side of a dirt road in a high, rainless summer. But dust is heavy, clinging, sticking stuff.  Ash is fine, delicate as a cat's paws and magical, reversible, so that a footfall or a puff of breath sends it swirling and insubstantial back into the air and bringing color and form back into high relief.  Small, tame, magics. 
            With undertones of heavy menace. Thirty-seven kilometers, as measured on a geological scale, is closer than next door.  And periodically, Puyehue goes bang.  It's an unexpectedly domestic sound - a rattle and, quite literally, a bang, like someone slamming a door and dropping an armful of saucepans in a kitchen nearby.  And then, from over a saddle in a mountain to the south - a plume of ash and smoke rises tall and heavy into the sky and there is nothing at all domestic whatsoever about the situation.  You're sitting on a god's doorstep, and he doesn't give one small flying damn of notice that you are there.

So naturally - with a very human perspective toward the scale of geomorphic drama, we went swimming.

The Calcurrupe River is wide and fast and far too dangerous for swimming (hypothermia would be the most positive outcome if you were swept into the lake) but below the cabin a large sandbar splits off a narrow channel  only five meters wide that runs tight against the bank and ends in an eddy pool just above where the river spills into the lake. 
            The water is cold as ancient sin, and sharp and clear as sea glass, but it is heaven on a cold earth if you can nerve yourself to jump in.  And after that, nerve yourself to stay in.  Canadians aren't natural water babies, and maybe only a Papua New Guinean expatriate is mad enough - or homesick enough - for swift moving water to spend an hour in a river like half-melted ice cubes, riding the current down to the eddy pool, climbing out,  trudging up to the top of the sandbar and riding the current down again - over and over, all afternoon, until she was exhausted from battling the tumbling water and her core body temperature was hovering close to zero.
            Which takes longer than you might imagine.  When you're starved for water, it's astonishing what your brain can tell you to disregard. The first ride is a fiery demon.  You're battling water so cold you can't imagine lasting more than two minutes before you succumb, and when you emerge from the eddy pool the wind coming straight off the snowcap feels warm and enveloping and blanket-like.  But the water is clear and the feel of liquid glass is so fine and so astonishing on your skin that something in your brain launches a shut-down of your critical sensory functions and the second run is soft and warm - even as you stumble out again with your fingers and toes white and crippled,  you go back again and again and again - and the only bother in the whole ointment is the horseflies - fat buzzing monsters that chase you screaming back into the water half way up the sandbar every other run.
            And life is quite astonishingly good.  With hot showers afterward.

*Parcela:  Chilean: country cottage and associated acreage.  It's much like the Canadian dream of owning a cottage up in lake country, but Chileans want to have a decent swathe of land to go along with it.

Monday, January 16, 2012


Today was one of those YUCH days of high summer - hot and sticky, with a wind that scooped up the heat and swirled it into open windows.  Billowy sundresses were in order.  Heading out to the supermarket I threw on my billowiest.  Half way to the subway station I had a Marilyn Monroe moment - a sturdy breeze picked up my skirts and blew them half-way to Mexico.  An elderly woman walking toward me, hand in hand with a small boy watched me, smiling broadly, as I spun around in circles, snatching at handfuls of cotton fabric and flattening my skirts against my thighs - as she came abreast of me she gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up and called out "Take ADVANTAGE of it, honey!  Nobody would be interested at my age!  You GO, girl!!"

My day brightened dramatically.