Day 1 on the Desert Island, February 199—
Lucky Martinet Martin didn’t order me to write about what I liked in Chile, since I could’ve listed that on one hand so far. However, the first thing I learned is that nothing is ever as good as you hope or as bad as you fear. I don’t know what I expected when my older sister called Chiloé a group of islands on the western Pacific Rim. Tahiti? You can always dream. But whatever I imagined, it wasn’t this.
A mission trip rated close to the bottom of my bucket list, and here I was warp-speeded to what looked like a re-run of a sixties sitcom—in the uttermost parts of the earth. Oh well, put a good face on bad karma, that was my philosophy.
I threw a smirk at my sister as we trudged down a pier jammed with overloaded fishing tubs. “What is this, some kind of Gilligan’s Island set? A three-hour tourrr…”
“You’re Ginger and I’m Mary Ann?” Linda pointed toward one of the grungy boats huddled along the crumbling concrete jetty. “There’s our version of the Minnow, Melissa.”
The name Última Esperanza sprawled across the launch’s peeling hull in wine-red streaks. Oh, perfect. If that boat was my Last Hope, then I was going down, for sure. A horde of sleazy fishermen jostled between the other vessels, hauling empty beer crates and baskets of bug-eyed fish and other creepy crawlers. Rough alien voices scraped across my nerves.
How would I survive a month in this Chilean backwater? I’d die if I had to hang around longer than that. Even if it did mean my last hope of temporary escape. And maybe my parents’ last hope of reforming me. Not going to happen. I’d had enough of squeezing into the family mold.
The invitation to visit my missionary sister’s family couldn’t have come at a better time, though. Just six days after old Martinet Martin suspended me from Mt. Washington Christian Academy, I caught a plane to South America. Figured I could do a lot worse than Chile in February.
Only now, doubts swamped me. My head still whirled after the long flight to the Chilean capital of Santiago, the overnight bus ride south to the final outpost of mainland civilization, and then another drive-plus-ferry to the seaside hamlet of Mellehue on Grand Chiloé Island where Linda and her husband, Cole Peterson, lived.
I’d painted the trip as a dream vacation in the South Pacific to my friends back in Baltimore, but this miserable village dock felt more like the end of the world than any top vacation destination. I scrunched my nose at the stench. Nothing idyllic about the slime underfoot or the reek of diesel fuel, rotten wood, and iodine.
At least I had my big sister. Floundering in this tidal wave of unfamiliar faces and accents, I was glad for her encouraging smile. Though why Linda chose a white cotton blouse and lime-green print skirt—I kid you not—to clamber aboard a grubby boat mystified me. Didn’t she know the 1990’s had arrived? But even in this last decade of the millenium, the Chiloé Islanders seemed to lag fifty or a hundred years behind the rest of the world.
No question, though, Linda shone a beacon of cool elegance amid the humid filth. I grinned at her. “You got it wrong. Ginger was the redhead. At least you’re not wearing high heels. Are we the ‘fearless crew’?”
“Yep, but relax, ours is the next launch down.” Linda shifted her toddler on her hip. “I saw you looking a little skeptical at the Última Esperanza.”
The wooden craft moored beside the Last Hope glared an immaculate canary yellow, trimmed in black and white. “Okay, a bit less scary, I take back the scowl,” I said. “But Ambassador? Sounds way too grand, Lin. Better go with Minnow. Except it’s bad luck to change a ship’s name, isn’t it?”
“One thing we don’t need around here is more superstitions. But ambassadors for Christ is the idea, you know.”
I rolled my eyes, heaved my bulging canvas bag onto the mold-caked dock, and tore off the fleece jacket I’d layered on. Linda had warned me that the Archipelago of Chiloé was far from tropical, that it might turn cool even in mid-summer. I hadn’t expected this heat wave.
Or a lot of other fine points, either. Like the utter shabbiness of the little town compared to— Someone plowed into me from behind and all but toppled me across the bag at my feet.
Bracing myself with my fingertips, I shot a glare after the klutz. A heavy-set man with a grizzled beard bushing from a sweaty red face, he shifted the armful of boxes he carried and barely spared me a glance, never mind an apology. He bellowed something at a dilapidated craft styled the Akina and shoved his cargo to a sailor on board.
Seriously, they were loading Christmas lights? At nearer Valentine’s Day? These people couldn’t even get their seasons right, let alone the century.
A gust of wind, carrying the tantalizing fragrance of salt and pine, scuttled off the ocean and flung out the red-white-and-blue Chilean flags from the row of masts with a synchronized snap. My eyes watered in the brisk breeze. So maybe Chiloé wasn’t Hawaii, and this was no five-star boardwalk. But it smelled, even looked, a little like the coastal area near my grandmother’s cottage in Maine, though.
Only I’d never stay there with Grandma Rose again.
Nothing could bring her back. I had to fumble along however I could…