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.