Fraternity and Neruda at Lake Llanquihue: One Day in Chile
© Copyright 2008 by Rich Conley
Of the many men whom I am, whom we
I cannot settle on a single one.
They are lost to me under the cover of clothing
They have departed for another city.
-from We Are Many- Pablo Neruda (Chilean poet, 1904-1973)
Lake Llanquihue is like any other lake at first glance yet events occurred during one day in my life that subsequently changed or should I say, enhanced my life perspective quite dramatically. My sole reason for visiting Chile was to briefly experience the essence of a country called The Land of the Poets. Poetry and its residing beauty came late to me in life and Pablo Neruda was one of the handful of poets who accompanied me wherever I traveled. How fitting that I would start my trip in The Land of the Poets in Temuco, the northernmost town in the lake region, the site of Neruda’s childhood. I traveled with Neruda’s poems by my side every day, reciting aloud the lyrical verses of times past as I breathed in the power of the lake’s surreal essence. Neruda’s words accompany this article for I would be remiss if my memory of that day was retold without Neruda’s abiding spirit. After all, his poems formed a central part of that unforgettable day. The reader may ask why an article on only one day in Chile yet the day, with all its unpredictable moments, seemed to expand and engulf me in a broader context.
The facts do not invest Lake Llanquihue with any particularity far different than other lakes in the world. Facts often open the door to curiosity and information seekers so here are some about the lake. It has the distinction of being the country’s largest lake and has an area of 330 square miles. It is 22 miles long and 25 miles wide. Snow-peaked volcanoes with formidable names as Osorno and Calbuco, guard the edge of the Andean cordillera (Spanish for ‘mountain range’) in the distance, The lake has a neighbor, Argentina, with its bordering mountain, Mount Tronador, the lone Argentine mountain at 11,660 feet. Lake Llanquihue is not unknown, either. Well, perhaps to the average American but not to South Americans and many Europeans who relish the adventure of outdoor life. In fact, resort towns sit on its shores. So how did this obscure lake, deep in the Lake Region of Chile, become so important to me in just one day? One solitary day of ethereal highs and abysmal lows, beginning with the simplicity of nature, ending with danger and tragic implications.
Approaching the lake and the majestic volcanoes inspired awe and a visceral reaction beyond mere beauty. Sublime is a word I rarely employ when observing levels of beauty yet the approach down the tree-lined hill from Frutillar Alto to the small Germanic lakeside town of Frutillar Bajo, momentarily stunned me. The harmony of symmetrical tree bowers, calm, dark blue water, culminating in a distant snow-peaked active volcano, all set the stage.
I wander from one point to another, I absorb illusions.
The German dramatist, Schiller, once drew the distinction between beauty and the sublime. The approach towards the volcanoes, these powerful lords of nature goes beyond beauty. Schiller wrote that the sublime was an escape from the sensuous world and went beyond it, captivating us with its consuming mystery. What words could not capture, the soul savored in all its glory, a magnificent sight. Surely Neruda must have traveled this far south from his childhood town of Temuco. What would await me, an anonymous traveler, misplaced in time and space, seeking to capture some essence of Chile to accompany my memory forever?
I dream, enduring my mortal remains.
-The Dawn’s Debility-
And so it was that I made my entry into the day that changed my life in the Town of the Roses, Puerto Varas, lying sleepily on the lake. I had opted to spend the early part of the day on a four hour horseback excursion through the prairies and meadows of the lake at the foothills of Calbuco, the sister volcano of Osorno. A married couple, proprietors of a beautiful home overlooking the lake, greeted me as I arrived to meet my guide for the excursion, Dario. As I expected other tourists on the excursion, I was quite surprised to learn from the owner that I would be going alone with Dario on the trip. Thus, Dario and I (and the ubiquitous spirit of Don Pablo Neruda) began our slow trek on horseback up the narrow dirt path towards the forests and meadows.
Dario began the trip as a cariacature for me, the idealized campesino (Spanish for ‘peasant’ or ‘man of the earth’) , slender, locks of grey curls, black beret, cape, knife in sheath, and weathered black riding boots. Fortunately I spoke Spanish as Dario’s English consisted of a few words and our common destiny that awaited us necessitated that linguistical bridge, the communicative union of two human beings poised to share a moment of common existence. I followed this simple Chilean man through the low, undulating hills not saying a word but entranced by the spectacular scenery so commonplace in Chile. The landscape was so unique, like nothing I had ever seen before. The presence of fifty-five active snow-peaked volcanoes strewn throughout the Lake Region here in southern Chile, so near the Pacific Ocean, seemed almost surreal. The beauty was truly overwhelming and I breathed its essence as I slowly made my way up to the vantage point on the top of the hill. When we reached the top, Dario halted his horse, slowly turned around and pointed towards Lake Llanquihue and the volcano Osorno in the distance. The sky was blue; only a few thin clouds moved overhead, and the temperature was near 70 degrees on these first few days of summer in the southern hemisphere.
Sitting high on a grassy knoll, looking out on Lake Llanquihue and its glasslike surface with active volcanoes in the background, rendered me humble. The thought that the world of the urban and the world of the rural were both part of the same human existence seemed paradoxical. The lens afforded me in the midst of this simple, colorful, and solitary setting seemed so distant in time and space from the big city setting I grew up in.
I think, isolated in the expanse of the seasons.
Momentarily aroused from my lakeside reverie, I noticed that Dario had continued on and I followed, winding my way slowly towards the volcano Calbuco and the surrounding forests. Dario said little during our excursion, stopping occasionally to turn around and point out some minor fact about a barbed wire fence, a washed out gully, or a type of flower. After an hour of riding, Dario headed across of field of flowers towards the edge of the pine forest. He dismounted, tied up his reins around a tree, and signaled for me to do the same while he began unpacking the saddle with the picnic supplies. More ominous clouds had begun to pass overhead so Dario placed a tarp on the ground while opening up his multicolored mochila, or backpack. We dined on smoked salmon sandwiches, a commonplace food in Chile, and a dry red wine from the famed Maipo wine valley. The volcano Calbuco hovered above us in the distance with its impressive snow-peaked aura. And then the dialogue ensued, and what a dialogue it was.
Dario spoke about growing up in the cordillera, the higher mountain ranges of the Andes, in a tiny village only accessible by horseback. He had moved down to the lake years earlier with his wife and two middle school boys. Dario grew up not attending any public school but rather working the farm with his father. He was riding a horse at the age of four and helping in the fields at that age also. He drew water from the ice cold raging river and helped chop wood to heat the stove. Every month his father would travel an entire day down to the lake to buy supplies and some food for the family and Dario accompanied him as he got a little older. I felt this compelling urge to want to travel to Dario’s village immediately and live his former existence, if only for a day. Growing up in New York City, I could barely fathom such a Spartan existence yet somehow yearned for the elusiveness of such a life.
Dario related that growing up poor in a tiny Andean mountain village helped him appreciate the beauty of the land, a love ever present in his dialogue and eyes. He grew up and worked amidst the Spartan simplicity of raging rivers, towering waterfalls, rugged trails, and craggy rock formations. Life was hard work yet rewarding as he learned to become responsible and autonomous at a young age. I felt so dependent compared to him, an urbanite who grew up with so many friends and family members providing camaraderie and shelter. Yet here we were, in southern Chile, dining on salmon and drinking wine together, in fraternal communion.
As we finished the sandwiches and drank the red wine in small cups, I began to ask him about international politics and literature, wondering if these areas were even a concern for him in this heavenly yet obscure part of the earth. His responses astonished me and perhaps woke me from my existing naivete, a product of stereotyping, a foible of all human beings. After all, Dario was a campesino and lived a fairly comfortable existence on the proprietor’s ranch. He made a meager living on the ranch as a hand and guide while his wife knitted shawls and sweaters from the alpaca that roamed the land. The two middle school boys were both in school and shared a computer, connected to the Internet, so the outside world was accessible to them. But Dario, how did this campesino view the world?
Dario spoke of Pablo Neruda after I mentioned the poet and took out a book of his poetry. He totally surprised me when he started to speak about the Chilean writer, and former physicist, Nicanor Parra, and his anti-poetry, hardly knowledge I expected from a campesino. Parra was known as the founder of antipoetry, a term used to describe a genre of poetry that rejects the idea that the poet is a type of prophet. Antipoetry rejects the belief that verse retains mystical power and Dario’s knowledge of and acceptance of this notion belied his abiding sense of wonder of his surrounding landscape. The naive assumption that a man like Dario would never be aware of such expansive intellectual notions, fell apart before my very eyes. That revelatory moment, so fixed in my mind, altered all ensuing notions about falsely associating a person’s background or appearance with their level of life knowledge.
Dario went on about how he liked the American people but had reservations about the American government because of their true intentions with other cultures. He believed that the American government was only interested in what benefits the other nations could bestow on it politically and economically and that the government did not really care about the history, culture, or people. There was a discernible pause after he completed his statement as I searched in vain for an answer. I told him that I tended to agree and that sometimes governments grow too large and forget that our greatest asset among different cultures is reaching out in an effort to understand each other. He agreed and we seemed to forge a bond immediately, he, the simple campesino in love with his small family and surrounding nature, and me, with my love for the Latino culture and equal love for the land. I have been seeking for years, I examine without arrogance,
...conquered, no doubt, by the twilight.
As we were getting ready to finish our delightful picnic and get back on the horses, I asked Dario if he believed in a higher power that had created all this surrounding beauty. He said that he did not know if God existed but that all of this (he held out his right hand in a slow sweeping motion) was all he needed in his life. He went on to say that it did not matter to him whether there was a heaven or not because he had his own heaven here on earth. Wow. I followed his moving hand and looked into his dark eyes as they followed the landscape, so totally engrossed in the beauty. I didn’t want to be anywhere else on earth but with Dario at that very moment, a defining moment of my existence. I seemed to view the world so differently from that point on and I began to see into the life of things. Dario, a simple campesino from the Chilean cordillera, enabled me to do so. The embracing fraternity between us made my trip to Chile well worth all the plans, effort, and finances to get there. Something larger than life itself developed between two human beings.
Once we gathered up the tarp and supplies and loaded them onto the horses, we headed out through a fleeting rainstorm, both of us clad in blue oilskins. We entered a steep decline through the alerce forest as the footing for the horses grew more precarious. The alerces are the redwoods of Chile and have life spans of up to 4,000 years, existing in the temperate rain forests of Chile. The mud was thick and black, barely absorbing the weight of the horses as our bodies leaned forwarded and rocked back and forth. I felt that I would be thrown off the horse at any moment, waiting for the animal to lose its balance and collapse. However the horses maintained their balance for the twenty minutes it took us to navigate the muddy hillside, a feat that impressed me greatly. By the time we emerged from the forests, the clouds had passed and the sun reemerged. Dario began to gallop a few times and my horse followed while my body bounced harshly up and down. Dario barely moved in his saddle and had total control over his horse. He understood the animal, another sign of his deep experience with nature herself.
We finally found the trail back home once again and the recent dialogue at the picnic site rejuvenated me and my efforts. Here I was riding a horse through the lower parts of the Andes with a Chilean guide, a true man of the earth, so rich with life and simple but beautiful insights. The day was glorious. Once back at the proprietor’s ranch, we exchanged small talk for a few minutes and then I approached Dario to bid farewell. We embraced in a manner that displayed a heartfelt camaraderie, an intimacy developed between us on the slopes of the lake. I was the American who loved Chile, the land, the people, the food, the poetry. He was a Chilean who had made another friend in life, who shared his simple life with a foreigner, and shared his sharp insight into existence. Our fraternity was sealed forever yet the day was not over for the accident was ahead.
I hear in my heart my horseman steps.
-Sonata and Destructions-
Had I known what awaited me on the drive back along the lake that afternoon, I would have probably opted for another ending but fate lays challenges before our paths not of our own choosing. Life’s lessons follow. The sight of the Chilean man pinned under his red pick-up truck lying upside down on the road began the adrenaline surge. My jeep was the first vehicle to approach the overturned truck and the wheels were still spinning. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that the lakeside traffic was beginning to slow down behind me. The road was two lanes but the one heading back to Puerto Varas was totally blocked off by the truck. I stopped the car immediately, jumped out and ran to the man’s side. His eyes were open and he was staring ahead, at times grimacing and at other times, falling into an almost shocklike stupor. He never made a sound or said a word while I stayed with him. Exercising caution for fear of getting too far under the truck and then having it collapse, I stayed near the edge of the truck while I knelt down and held his head with my right hand, feeling a pulse on his wrist with my left hand. I didn’t notice any blood and the pulse, although accelerated, seemed regular but I knew that the man’s body below the thighs was under the steering wheel and not fully visible. It was impossible to determine what, if any serious damage was caused to the stranger’s legs. He may have had some internal injuries also so I did not make any effort to move him. I couldn’t anyway since he was pinned under the truck so I did the only thing I could do, console him in a calm voice while holding his head and hand. Yet the clear significance of my time with Dario paled somewhat before the beating heart in front of me. I breathe in the air ashes and destruction,
...the long, solitary space that surrounds me forever.
-The Widower’s Tango-
I sensed that people were starting to crowd around me and the stranger as we all waited for the ambulances and police. Notwithstanding the external commotion, the stranger and I were locked in our own world, he within his, fighting to survive, and I within mine, sure to survive but invested emotionally in another human being’s paling existence. His face was ashen and small beads of sweat fell from his forehead. My only hope was that he not fall into shock before medical help came. I put my face close to his and stroked his hand, telling him in Spanish that help was on the way and to stay calm…that everything was going to be fine. He nodded his head faintly several times in acknowledgement but still appeared so afraid. Inside, my heart was breaking but I knew I had to be strong for him. His hand was firmly within my grasp and I constantly felt his pulse while reassuring him. Finally, I heard the police arrive and an officer bent over to question me. I told him what had happened, how I arrived immediately after the accident occurred and ran to the stranger’s side to help. The officer thanked me and told me that the ambulance and Red Cross had just arrived along with a tow truck to lift the pick-up truck off the man. In one final glance into the stranger’s eyes, I held him firmly and told him that help had arrived, that he was going to be taken care of….and then I turned away, visibly shaken, slightly distraught that I would never know the ending. The idea that I had become a protagonist in another human being’s nightmare, yet got to exit the stage so easily, deeply troubled me. I took one look back at the Red Cross personnel and somehow intuitively knew that the stranger was going to live and that he was in good hands. My life was not in immediate danger that day but his was and that meant something to me. The universal link of fraternity, of love, of compassion, of caring for another’s plight followed me from that moment on and will continue to do so as long as I live. Neruda once wrote a book of verse called Canto General because he had once met a miner working in deplorable conditions and the miner asked Neruda to never forget his story. Neruda didn’t and thus Canto General was born. The seeds of that compassion swept along in my mind as I searched for the meaning of my encounter with both Dario and the anonymous Chilean under the truck.
That evening was so beautiful as I ate dinner by the spacious hotel window overlooking the lake and savored that day’s events. The moon’s light shone on the lake, placid and glasslike in its appearance. The lights of Puerto Varas twinkled from restaurants, hotels, and dwellings. The southern sky was a symphony of constellations, all perhaps representing human dreams as the German poet, Rilke, suggested. Yet, while looking out on the esthetic panorama of southern Chile, I realized that for one day in time, the fleeting appearance of human beings and their intertwining lives provided a singular chapter to this ongoing tale. The rest would serve as memory, a most loyal companion. I used to think that two widely different experiences revealed two different worlds but now realize that the worlds are created by us within our minds. What stays the same is our love for others and their human condition, that true beacon of hope.
Like an extended absence, like
a sudden bell,
the sea spreads the sound of the heart.
Rich Conley is currently a high school Spanish
teacher in northern California. He spent six years travelling around
the world in the merchant marines and speaks five languages. Rich
spent two weeks travelling to five towns in the scenic Lake Region of
southern Chile and writes about some of those experiences in his new
article. He presently lives in the Sonoma Wine Valley in northern
California. His hobbies are cooking, travelling, and reading
in the subject line of the message.)
Another Story by Rich