Everything’s built up. That’s what we noticed most as we left the palafito (cottage-on-stilts) where we’d lodged in Castro and headed for the village of Rilán. The landscape of the Chiloé Islands features many examples of architectural creativity, but today the road was lined with building projects.
For starters, we could have arrived at the two-year-old airport in Mocopulli, an overgrown intersection where the 9-km stretch of road to Dalcahue branches off the island’s main highway. We chose to do the drive-and-ferry, but who would ever have imagined the day when we didn’t have to?
And for another thing, the new asphalt pavement ran smooth and impeccable beneath the tires of our rental car. So, instead of the highway, we took the coastal drive between Castro and Dalcahue. Always our favorite from the perspective of picturesque charm, but when we lived in the area, we usually opted for the highway for the sake of saving time. You just couldn’t race the clock on the washboard of the scenic route.
“There is no need to have it all. Just make the best of what you have.” –Anonymous
An old-fashioned wheat mill works along that road. I wish we’d taken time to view the antique structure, but choices, choices. A friend who toured Chiloé recently also told me about an amazing cascade hidden away in the hinterlands north off the same road. Another bucket list item. We were on a research mission that day:
The hamlet of Rilán lies on a peninsula off the beaten track of the shore road. And I had never been there. What did it take us to drive to it? Ten minutes maybe. The name of the place always struck me as a sort of musical trill, so I renamed it and put it into the building projects of my story world.
“Trilán” became Melissa Travis’s first experience as a missionary teacher. The remodeled site of El Sacho Restaurant, watering hole for a handful of characters. The setting of a musical celebration, a naval battle, a kidnapping, a couple of weddings, and at least two unsolved murders. (See First Mate’s Log.) My story architecture’s as imaginative as the Chilotes’.
“I call architecture frozen music.” –Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
As we rumbled into the village, it was raining as it can only do in Chiloé. A steady splash and smack on the windshield, streams flowing down the windows. Most of my photos would turn out gray and dull, but on the other hand, what could be more realistic?
To my surprise, Rilán wasn’t at all like I’d thought. For some reason, I’d imagined it something like the town of Chonchi, just south of Castro. Chonchi’s enchanting architecture is built on three distinct levels, rising up from the fiord it hugs. So my Trilán is more a blend of the two settings.
“I do not understand how anyone can live without one small place of enchantment to turn to!” –Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
Road to Restoration
We followed the couple of gravel tracks out of the village. One led up to a misty hillside lookout, crowned by a lone stand of trees. The other meandered down to the shore, a muddy tidal flat piled with dingy rowboats and mounds of multi-colored fishing twine. A flock of sheep—white, black, and spotted—pranced in a glistening emerald meadow.
A tumbledown shack, weathered to the shade of driftwood, slumped above the mudflat. Once, it might have hosted a fogón, a rustic shelter for barbecues and bonfires. It begged for a restoration project.
Back in the village, we circled the plaza. Found the rural school, the firefighters’ unit, the cemetery, a handful of unusually attractive homes. And the local church, freshly painted in pristine white with a sky-blue roof and trim. A funeral service was in progress, so the doors under the beautiful arched portico were thrown wide open.
“God is in the details.” –Ludwig Mies van der Rohe
We stepped inside for a quick peek. Blinding white walls brightened the gray of the day (and perhaps the occasion). A simple altar occupied the front of the vast space. It could have held three times the population of the village under its domed blue ceiling—without crowding.
On the ferry the previous day, we’d learned of the current restoration program for Chiloé’s world-heritage churches. Curiosity piqued, we’d dropped into the Castro cathedral for the first time while waiting for check-in at the Palafito Azul.
We’d never visited any of these churches when we lived here. For one thing, we aren’t Catholics, but we also viewed them as dark, dank caverns. Huge barnlike structures that smelled of dust, damp, and smoky candles. Gothic fixer-uppers, frozen in a time centuries past.
“Architecture should speak of its time and place, but yearn for timelessness.” –Frank Gehry
This trip, we thought we’d like to see some of these building projects, at least from an architectural, historical, and cultural point of interest. With the restoration program, the iconic churches now looked like Fabergé Easter eggs: Fancy boxes decorated in turquoise, seafoam, Pacific blue, neon orange.
Unlike most of the others, which are constructed of wood, the provincial capital’s cathedral is clad in a crazy quilt of painted metals—corrugated zinc, embossed tin. This year, Castro’s colors were lemon and grape, with pomegranate accents.
The aisles of the interior were arranged like a museum with models in glass cases of the newly restored churches and chapels. A remarkable transformation had taken place throughout the island.
Representative of classic architecture and a unique cultural heritage, the church building projects are jewels in the countryside. How tragic that their traditional religious fiestas usually feature more drunkenness than devotion. More wanton revelry than worship.
We left Rilán in a meditative mood, wondering how much had changed in Chiloé. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to find renewed hearts along with restored shells? I prayed the renovated exteriors meant an inner reality of redemption rather than the same old with a skin-deep paint job.
Or were they like the concrete pylons spiking up from the channel seas, symbolic of a bridge project begun in hope but abandoned stillborn?
Were the building projects like the quintessential Chilote bushes choking the ditches and fields, just now at the height of their buttercup-yellow blooms? Oh, so impressive. But an illusion? Deceptive thorns beneath the flower show?
More novel projects awaited us all along the road to Dalcahue. Dalcahue is our hometown in Chiloé. Combining elements from the town of Achao (on the neighboring island of Quinchao), it forms the backdrop and prototype for “Mellehue,” the main town in Destiny at Dolphin Bay and my story universe in the first two series.
Dalcahue’s also, like Mellehue, the principal port to and from the outer islands of the archipelago. For this reason, we settled here and took up the reins—or sails—of ministry responsibilities in the mid ’80’s.
But it had become another place now. Blossomed, burst, burgeoned? Not yet sure if it felt good or bad, we wound the streets, wide-eyed and wowed.
No more tin-sided shacks and two- or three-room shanties like the Pérez family whacked up in Dolphin Bay after the earthquake. Just down from the soccer field and the municipal gymnasium, tsunami evacuation signs poked up at every corner. (Afterthoughts from the 2010 quake.) A warren of streets jammed the hills. “Dalcahue Heights,” it was called. High-falutin’ name for a población (in Chile, a neighborhood packed with low-cost, sardine-can homes). Talk about a population tidal wave.
Then and Now
Dalcahue’s church on the town plaza was encased stairs-to-steeple in wooden staging. Their renovation was in still process, apparently. Hard to imagine it anything but weathered black, as in Melissa’s time, but I hoped they’d decide on an appealing shade of blue. Not Dijon mustard, knock on wood.
“A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.” ―Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We turned east out of town and covered the road to San Juan, where we used to take our girls for a Friday evening run on the gray pebbled beach. Now the road connects with another and goes all the way to Tenaún. I blended those two places to make “Flamingo Beach” in my story world.
It’s every bit as built up now as in my books. You’ll see Ricardo Treviño’s new fishery, the lighthouse where (spoiler!) the characters Melissa and Nicolás fall in love, and scores of houses old—and new, like Tito’s mother’s cottage.
Well past lunch time, we hurried back to check out the food offerings on the Costanera, or waterfront street. We’d been told the old Sunday open-air market had boomed into a thriving tourist complex, but we hadn’t heard the half.
This entire street, like the town of Curaco de Vélez on Quinchao, always displayed a classic exhibition of the architectural whimsy of the islanders. At the far end, near the ferry ramp, the ancient, shingled houses are renowned and photographed for their striking oddities and quirky angles. In Curaco, they hint of “haunted houses.” Friends of ours lived in one where crocheted curtains hung like spider webs in the windows.
Closer to the dock of artisanal fishing launches, the mildewed facades sagged down to open almost directly onto the sidewalk. You wouldn’t have found any palafitos back then, except a restaurant that popped up near the end of our time there, but plenty of seedy cantinas.
Among Dalcahue’s rarest and prettiest structures, I always voted for the port captain’s office (or the harbormaster). The two-story place—if you can imagine it—resembled a ship with a white corrugated-iron “hull,” balconied “decks,” and gingerbread trim in black or navy.
I loved the port captain’s residence so much that it makes at least a cameo appearance in almost every book I’ve written. Sometimes it even makes center stage—when Nicolás becomes capitán de puerto, for instance.
Today we found the trim a snappy cherry red. A HOSTEL sign hung out front. Maybe it no longer belonged to the harbormaster. At any rate, it could have no connection with official Navy business anymore. Sigh…
But the tourist trade flourished with sandwicherías and craft shops galore. We could take our pick of the building projects.
So we ducked out of the drizzle into a palafito community kitchen with round windows like portholes and unfinished wooden shiplap walls. At a counter along one side, we devoured curanto en olla, or pulmay, clambake-in-a-pot. The Chilote version includes smoked pork, sausages, milcao (crackling-filled potato patties), and dumpling-like bread, as well as clams and mussels of all sizes. But that’s a fish tale for another day.
While we didn’t avoid it, the one spot we didn’t linger near that day was our own former backyard up Mocopulli Avenue. The Bible Center church, now boasting a smart iron fence in front, looked otherwise unchanged. But a housefire had destroyed our old home a few years previous. We would tour the replacement tomorrow.
As we headed back toward Castro, I thought: What about my building projects? The architecture of my life and dreams? Under the allure of the latest blueprints and modern techniques, am I bumping into the same hard angles? A new look so often means just the old concepts recycled.
Not all tradition’s trash, by a long shot. But some of it needs a wrecking ball instead of a reno. The fluff of wood, hay, and stubble takes up a lot of space that could be filled with the treasures of gold, silver, and precious stones. There, a little stretches a long way, I believe.
More than two centuries ago, well-meaning friends of the Father of Modern Missions begged him to stick with the tried-and-true spiritual building projects at home. His famous reply:
“I’m not afraid of failure. I’m afraid of succeeding at things that don’t matter.” –William Carey
In Dalcahue, our home burned, but the church remains. Yet…did we construct on sand or solid Rock? God help us to see past the paint to the people. To look beyond the fabulous buildings to the blessing of transformed lives.
Just out of Castro, we passed the new Enjoy Hotel. We chose not to stay at this five-star country cousin of the Ritz. Instead, we planned to spend the night at a cabin in Trilán. Oops, I mean, Chonchi. Or maybe it’s Chonchi Heights.