© Copyright 2019 by Helene Munson
Had it been the tangy taste of the orange-colored sea urchins with fresh lime and cilantro, sold from a wooden harbor cart by a man with long, jet black hair, wearing a coarsely knit wool sweater? Or had it been the carefree frolicking of sea lions accompanying my boat passage across the Chacao Channel, that had seduced me? Or maybe it had been the Brujo Chilote himself, the sorcerer of Chiloé who had put a spell on me? I was not sure. But I was enchanted! I had fallen in love not with a person but a place, an island to be more precise. An Island that was considered to be located at ‘El fin del mondo’, at the end of world - the last stop on the 30 000-kilometer-long Pan Americana highway. Somehow, I knew I was always meant to come here.
The ferry leaving from the southern Chilean town of Puerto Montt had dropped me off in the village of Ancun on the north side of island of Chiloé. From there I took a local bus to Castro, the island’s capital.
‘It would be a prudent precaution to put extra money on my cell phone before leaving the bus station. Who knows when I will have another chance?’, I thought not realizing that this was going to be my introduction in how things were done differently on this island.
“Por favor Senor! Where can I buy a phone card?” I asked the man next to me. “Nobody sells phone cards on this island, but the butcher can help you”. He pointed at a stall where pieces of meat were laid out on a table without any signs of refrigeration, leaving a sweet, pungent smell in the air. A woman with a large knife was cutting strips from a bleeding chunk of beef. When it was my turn, I held out my phone and some peso notes. She wiped her fingers on her bloodstained apron and took out her own small phone. After pressing a number of keys, she showed me on her phone display that she had transferred the credit to my phone. I wiped my phone off on my sleeve and pocketed it.
On this overcast, windy day, a leisurely stroll through the town, took me past the Iglesia de San Francisco. In contrast to the famous, wooden churches sprinkled all over island, that were declared UNESCO World Heritage sites, this one was of brick and mortar, painted garishly in a bright yellow with two towers topped with iron crosses piercing the moody sky. Two musicians, a man and a woman were sitting on the church steps performing folksongs in an animated a cappella style. Clad in colorful clothes which had seen better days, the woman’s parched-skinned face was visible underneath a stained, once beige hat. The burly man in a checkered shirt sported an impressively bushy mustache and a Chilote cap on his head, woven from coarse, raw wool with a pompom.
I did not understand any of the lyrics and asked a bystander for translations:
“Are those traditionally from Chiloé?”
“Si Señora”, a young man informed me. “They sing about the mythical creatures who live here, the siren Pincoya, who lures gullible men to death and the Trauco, a sorcerer who seduces innocent maidens.” Dropping a few coins in their hat and taking a photo with their permission, given by a nod of the head, I wanted to know more about this wondersome place and its mysterious creatures. Walking into a bookstore, I asked an older, grey haired woman if there was anything on the subject matter in English as my Spanish was rudimentary. First, she shook her head, but thinking for a moment, she retrieved a small booklet from the back. Its cover was of coarse, brownish cardboard. The title read:
La Recta Provincia by Hector Veliz
It was primarily in Spanish with an English translation that had so many mistakes, that it might have come from an early computer translation program, except there was a quaint quality to it which had ‘out of date dictionary’ written all over it. The penciled price on the back was 2200 pesos. I expressed my astonishment for being asked to pay so much for this flimsy publication. The woman smiled surreptitiously:” Es un tesoro” and held up two fingers. It was a treasure and this was the second to last copy she had, of the Editorial Mentanegra- Black Mint Edition pamphlet, printed in the nearby, mainland town of Osorno. The expression in her face compelled me to purchase it.
I went to my Hostal, build in the traditional style of the island’s famous Palfitos –houses on stilts, that were build overlooking the mouth of the Rio Gamboa. As I entered the homey smell of burned wood coming from a cast iron stove and the something mouthwatering baking in the oven, engulfed me. I found a comfortable place by the window, overlooking the bay where now, at low tide moored fishing boats where sitting on luscious beds of green algae, mussels and shiny pebbles. I started to read:
‘Stories related to the Warlocks in Chiloé during the time of the Pacification of Araucanía.’ It became instantly clear that I had bought more than just a pamphlet on local mythology. This was a historical, politcal manifesto on the suppression of the indigenous population, cleverly cloaked by evoking their native believes. It was written by somebody disenfranchised themselves. The writing invoked the spirits of the island to assist against the foreign oppression. There was much that I did not understand, partially due to the poor translation but mainly because I did not know enough about the local Huilliche and Cunco people who lived on the island before the Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries had arrived. But if they had shared the fate of their main land cousins, the Mapuche of the Auraucania their history must have been dismal indeed.
In the back I found a glossary of the paranormal creatures’ names and their attributes. It seemed to me that the description of the chilota siren Pincoya had a lot in common with the Rhine maiden Loreley. Both are said to have long blond hair, incomparably beautiful, cheerful and sensual, and rise from the depths of the water to lead men atray.
The Trauco was surely the local Incubus, visiting unsuspecting women at night. The Caballo Marino, the sea horse with the golden mane was the rereferred mode of transport of the thirteen witches that were residing on Chiloe. I could only congratulate them on their mode of transport. There was such a stiff wind blowing all over the island, that if they had used their brooms they would have been blown straight to the mainland. The Camahueto had the form of a bull, with a small horn on its forehead, the local version of a unicorn.
The Invunche was a male child that had been crippled and transformed into a hairy monster by the evil spell of a Brujo, a sorcerer. I pictured him looking like the hunchback of Notre Dame. The Invunche was also the entrance guard to the cave of the Recta Provincia, the headquarter of all of Chiloé’s Brujas and other ghostly inhabitants Years later I read that Charles Darwin who had visited Chiloe onboard the HMS Beagle in 1834 had heard that some of the Indians ‘hold converse with the devil in a cave', a crime which would formerly have sent them to the Inquisition in Lima. I mused:
‘An anthropologist would have a field day when he discovers that despite all our ethnographic diversity there are so mainly parallels when it come to our myths.’
But it was El Caleuche that held me spellbound, the ghost ship that haunts the misty coasts of Chiloé. The text elaborated that some believe that the Caleuche provides aid to ships in distress. The vessel is crewed by those who have drowned at sea. Only once a year, the undead crew members return to their families to help provide for them. Legend has it, that on rare occasions, when there is low tide and a thick fog, the wind carries eerie music and soft voices across the water.
The story had an extraordinary resemblance to the Flying Dutchman. My father had taken me to see the opera when I was twelve years old. In the following years while my classmates were pining for movie stars, my secret crush was the tragic captain of the ill-fated ghost ship. How often did I listen to the Wagnerian music? I had read about the ship in Heinrich Heine’s travel accounts of the North Sea. I envisioned my hero, dark, handsome and with his waterlogged clothes, emitting the salty smell of the ocean surf. He would come ashore one day, to find love and salvation though perfect kiss of a pure hearted woman. In my girlish fantasies I knew exactly who would release him from his torture and the condemnation to sail until Judgment Day.
I was deep in thought, when Rebecca, a tall good-looking, long-haired woman and the proprietress of the Hostal startled me with a tap on the shoulder. Smiling encouragingly, she held out a small plate with a white, red and black potato that she had fished out of the oven.
“Try them, our island is famous for its potatoes.’, she suggested proudly. I bit into the black one with a lovely purple texture inside. I could have sworn it was the tastiest potato I ever had. Walking over to the playpen, Rebecca picked up her baby and settled in a chair next to me, baring a breast to feed her son.
“I am reading about the Trauco and other magical creatures’, I blurted out.
An amused smile was playing around her lips when she explained:” The Trauco is very important around here. He carries a stone hatchet which he uses to strike trees in the forest to show his sexual power. When a single, unmarried woman is with child and no one is the father, people assume that it is the Trauco. This makes the woman faultless, because nobody can resist the magnetism of the Trauco.”
“What a civilized way to deal with an embarrassing situation”, I exclaimed. She caught me glancing in the direction of her baby and chuckled:
“No, no my baby has a father, Sebastián. He and his friends built this place entirely from local wood all by themselves.” She continued: “Here on the island we are quite self-sufficient. When we get sick, we consult a white Machi who cures diseases which many doctors have considered untreatable, along with incurable misfortune from certain curses inflicted by black witches. In spite of having been persecuted you can still find Machis, some call them witch doctors, or healers whom we call Curanderos.”
The next day walking through Castro’s market on the way to the Terminal Municipal Bus Station, I saw little packages market as a ‘Hierbas del Machi’. From the station, the Arroyo Bus, which left once a day took me to a road stop from where I could hike into the El Parque Nacional Chiloé. I had chosen a short route that would get me to the beach, although swimming in July, the winter season, was out of the question.
I walked through a low ancient
forest which gradually
gave way to more marshy grassland. As it was the touristic low
season, there was nobody in sight and I found myself admiring the
unusual plants all my myself. There was an eerie stillness with only
a gentle breeze, but as I took a turn, seeing the ocean in a
distance, the wind picked up. By the time I reached the beach, the
wind was howling. As I stood at water’s edge, a big white cloud
come towards me. There was some movement in the water. Was is one of
the rare blue whales? It looked to me as though out of the fog
appeared a ship with an enormous sail. Raucous laughter and loud
sailors’ music were drifting across the water. I imagined that
I saw him, the pale, melancholic captain with his tousled hair and
flowing, dark coat. A force pulled me into the water. Wading deeper
and deeper I felt the pull of El Caleuche. When my head was under
water, I closed my eyes, I felt him close to me, the hero of my
girlish dreams. I felt his lips pressed against mine. They should
have felt ice cold but I felt an all-consuming passionate burning
fire radiating from his mouth, his lips, his tongue. As we embraced,
I sank deeper surrounded by blue eternity. Suddenly I felt something
touching my leg. Opening my eyes, I saw a crab climbing over me, the
sun was shining now and the wind had died down. I had fallen asleep
on the beach.