Saturday, June 9, 2012

On the Rio Valdivia

We are spending the long weekend of the 21st of May (the celebration of the Glorias Navales of 1879) with four Chilean friends in the small coastal city of Valdivia. 

After sharing lunch with the sea lions (our fish was as fresh as their fish, but scaled, cleaned, seared on a grill, and served up with vinegared tomatoes and a side of root vegetables.  Sea Lions have no sense of the fitness of things.) we went out on one of the excursion boats that traveled up the Rio Calle Calle.  We boarded the boat and snagged ourselves prime real-estate on the top deck (is there a nautical term for that?) at the stern - a row of seats that had been unaccountably left empty.  The boat's engine fired up and covered our prime-real estate, and we who sat upon it, in a greasy cloud of smoke and cinders, and the first mate passed out life vests for everybody.
            We passed up the Calle Calle and turned into the Valdivia. The Valdivia is fat and slow and loops its way up a long valley through reed beds that spread out a kilometer wide on each side of the river.  The reeds were yellow and rattling.  It was full autumn - almost winter here, and the light on the river was thin and white, almost sere -

Not all of the reed beds were here 50 years ago.  In 1960 Valdivia was badly damaged by  the strongest earthquake that has ever been recorded - 9.5 on the MMS.  A friend who was a child when it happened said that  he was in a car with his mother and the road moved in waves higher than a man's head. The tsunami that followed the quake funneled up the Corral Bay  into the Rio Valdivia and flattened the city.  More than 5000 people died.  The strawberry fields along the river sank and became 50 kilometers of reed beds.  

This stretch of river is a wildlife sanctuary now.  Our boat put in at a small town called Punucapa.  Onshore, it began to rain and the sere light gave way to a light that was a thick and vivid green.  We walked up a hill between fruit orchards and houses selling artesenal chocolate and marzipan and bottles of home-made chicha - a lightly fermented apple cider.  I find it delicious - thin and sweet and fizzy, with just enough alcohol to put a little extra bubble on the bubbles.  Mr Tabubil is not so fond - to him it tastes like apples that have been left in the back of the pantry until they're spoiled from the core on outward.  We bought chocolate and marzipan instead.

At the top of the road we were shown a 250 year old church. The church was notable mostly for its antiquity, but outside the sun was gold and slant and fell through the wet in rainbows.  

We all took shelter under a cypress tree that had been planted when the church was founded - it was wide around as a house.  A very small house, but venerable for a cypress tree.  When the rain stopped we walked back down the hill to the dock and motored further up the river until the sun dropped behind the mountains, and docked again for Onces (Elevenses - which Chileans eat in the late afternoon, just to confuse anglo-gringos) in an abandoned farmstead at the top of a hill.

The path to the top of the hill swung wide around the hill in a long shallow loop.  It was a slow route to the top.  The evening was cold and went and muddy, and Mr Tabubil and I, being suspicious sorts, shadowed a man from the boat who was carrying a tupperware bin full of bread rolls and followed him up a vertical cut through the shrubbery.  He took it at a run, so we took it at a run.  At the top he looked at us very disapprovingly and said that the shortcut was NOT for passengers.  We shrugged, and waited until our law-abiding Chilean shipmates had filed their long way up and around the hill, most of them still wearing their life-vests, because none of the boats crew had  issued any specific directives to take them off. (Chileans are very good at following established protocols.)
            The view from the hill was tremendous, and the sunset was deeply colorful, but it was awfully cold when it got dark.  The passengers with the life-vests on looked rather smug - they had an extra two-inches of insulation on their torsos.  Mr Tabubil and I stopped feeling quite so clever.
            We sailed back to Valdivia in the pitch dark.  It was icy-cold and river-bottom-damp and everyone, passengers and first mates and all, crowded into the little saloon under the top-deck (is there a nautical term for that?) and we worked up a good fug and warmed up a smidgen.  Just a tad.   Back in Valdivia it was raining steadily, so we walked back to the hotel and climbed into the heavenly shower again and sang Sloop John B (The Beach Boys) and Fly Me to the Moon (Bart Howard) and only came out when the onces had worn off and it was keep steaming or starve. 
            So we ventured as far as the Dream Casino Buffet, then went back upstairs and had another shower.

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