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Only in Chile

Whatever the time period or dimension of a story, some things could happen only in Chile. Believe me, I should know.

Many writing teachers believe that setting is another character in a book’s cast. That’s certainly true in everything I write. The associations triggered by memory of a place can showcase powerful motifs. Why Chile for my stories?

To answer that, I’ll share a secret of the ex-pat community here: We frequently end conversations with the phrase “Estamos in Chile” (“We’re in Chile”), inevitably accompanied by a smile, a shrug, or a deep sigh. Well, duh, yes, we are in Chile.

But what we’re really saying is that anything can happen here.

Perhaps, that all things must be understood and interpreted in the context of Chile. Meaning that everything “different,” that defies explanation, is now our Ordinary World. The unexpected is to be expected. Only the illogical makes sense. The weird becomes wonderful—or not.

Whatever the case, some strange events could only occur in this cultural-geographical setting. For example, in a single year (2010), we experienced an 8.8 earthquake/tsunami that stretched 1000 km, a fantastic-for-us ? performance at the South Africa World Cup, our 5-day Bicentennial bash, and a world-famous mining accident and rescue.

What’s So Special about Chile?

Maria Graham, widow of a British naval captain (later Lady Callcott), provides some of the historical basis for a fictional puzzle in my series First Mate’s Log.  In her amazing 1822 travelogue, Journal of a Residence in Chile, she introduces us in “real time” to many of the country’s iconic libertadores such as San Martin, O’Higgins, Carrera, and Cochrane.

After reading her tale of Chile’s initial days as a nation, though, I wonder if much has changed in the past 200 years. However, like Graham, I intend no uncharitable criticism. As with any place you may fall in love with and call home, you learn to cherish it, warts and all.

“Men love their country not because it is great, but because it is their own.” –Seneca

For those unacquainted with Chile, it’s no small “Banana Republic.” Far from it.

To start, due to its 4300 km of north-to-south coastline, Chile possesses some of the most varied landscapes and climate zones in the world. An average of only 177 km wide, it lies nestled between Alpine-like mountains and a Mediterranean-like sea.

In the far north, Chile has the driest desert and clearest skies in the world. It’s possibly the most stellar place on earth for stargazing. In the far south, it has fiords to rival Norway and one of only seven temperate rainforests on the globe.

Chile claims a wedge of Antarctica and reigns as queen of the South Pacific. Her Chiloé Islands resemble an archetypal Middle-Earth set.

Then, too, Chile may be the one of the world’s most disaster-prone countries. In any given year, summer drought and forest fires often give way to winter floods and freak landslides. And never forget the periodic earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

What Happens Only in Chile?

In the lyrical land of Ercilla, Mistral, and Neruda, the inimitable Chilean character shines and sings. As one of the few true melting pots in South America—a genetic stew of Europeans and indigenous peoples, seasoned with Asian ginger and Pacific pepper—they own a sparkling wit and humor. And quite possibly the most slang and worst accent of any Spanish-speaking population worldwide.

Only in Chile could you…

  • buy a copper tin for $1.50. Since Chile boasts the largest open-pit copper mine in the world, the red metal’s almost as common as dirt.
  • consider anything less than 7 on the Richter “not an earthquake.” Not really…
  • celebrate your patriotic holiday for almost a week every spring, as a virtual “right” of citizenship.
  • line up to buy the world’s most delicious bread, morning and evening. In the south, home bakers purchase flour by the quintal, a 100-kilo (220-lb.) sack.
  • feel gypped eating only steak at a picnic. The big fruit- and salad-eating nation of South America also consumes several kinds of meat when barbecuing.
  • hear the current soap operas promoted on the evening news.
  • get a number to get a number to get waited on at an office!
  • belt out the national anthem at a soccer game—after the music stops. They pay players for their athletic skills, not their musical talents, but who cares? Loyal Chilean fans regularly refuse to shut up even when FIFA limited the time given to anthems at a game.

“Don’t forget—no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” –Charles de Lint

Why Write Our Stories?

Last week I introduced a story about storytelling, using an array of everyday items. Distinctly Chilean items, for the most part. The group ranged around the beachside bonfire varies in age, experience…and background.

Yet these Quarantine Tales will take on a distinctive flavor, as events that could only happen in Chile:

  • Raquel chooses the coffee mug and the paperback. Her story revolves around “The Assault on Café Cuentos” during the recent social upheaval.
  • Micaela picks the eclipse glasses and the snow globe, but can’t decide between “How I Was Abducted by Aliens” or “How I Met My Parents in a Blizzard.”
  • Estella rejects all the items and digs up a stuffed dolphin toy from the house. Her tale involves a “Double Shipwreck” twenty years apart.
  • Esteban’s choice is the mineral sampler. He tells about getting “Lost in a Ghost Town.”
  • Emilia takes the white silk scarf and slippers and sets up a takeoff on a Chilean legend, “The English Quarter Blonde.”
  • Nach gets the candle and describes “The Inferno at the Church.”
  • Lucas picks out the stack of clam shells and tells “The Mystery of the Marble Statues.”
  • Marina chooses a leftover fruit tart and a set of beach toys. She shares “Our Adventures in Maine.” Uh, how is that about Chile? Wait and see…
  • Joanna’s bunch of grapes and mate cup lead into the tragic tale of “My Great-Grandmother’s Confession.”
  • Sebastián grabs the model ship but debates between “Chasing Narco-Traffickers with Papá” or “Catching the Psychopath of Chiloé.”
  • Stasi’s box of watercolors reminds her of “The Nazi Painting” which turned up for sale in Valparaiso.
  • J. M. snatches up the soccer ball and describes winning “The Midnight Sun Championship.”
  • Ricky wishes the wooden coffer of coins were as real as his yarn about “Pirate Treasure at Horseshoe Bay.”

Why Write about Chile?

Which of the stories are true? They all are. Wink. Eye roll. Only in Chile…

For me, Chile becomes the concrete setting where a collection of tangible items—motifs—illustrates themes in the characters’ lives. Attaching meaning and design to the random helps us to discover significance.

One of the first travel memoirs written by a woman, Maria Graham’s journal of early nineteenth-century life in Chile bubbles with many of the same motifs found in my own writing: Literature and music. Seafaring life and seashore rambles. Arts and crafts. Nature, scenery, and social life (evening tertulia parties). Climate and catastrophes. Food fascination.

This is not fiction. But neither is it a dusty tome pulled from the shelves of antiquity. Though at first Maria’s diary takes only random note of outside events as she grieves her loss, eventually it becomes a record of the unfolding times. She breaks out of the box of her gender, class, and nation to weave a surprising narrative about a Chile only just escaped from colonial status and now tottering on the brink of civil war.

She introduces us to the personalities behind the conflict, shares historical sidebars and political opinions, hints of mystery and hidden motives. Even an undertone of romance—at least, of hero worship—slips in. Then disaster strikes…

Following the great earthquake of November 1822, Maria and the other survivors gather nightly around a campfire near the ruins of Lord Cochrane’s country estate (at Concón, today a surfing mecca). Daily life turns difficult, danger threatens every moment. To cheer each other up and pass the time, they tell true adventure tales, sing songs, and celebrate the holidays. A solidarity and comradeship develops that could happen only in Chile.

Only in Chile

Over the course of Maria’s travels, her heart opens to this strange wild country. Though clouds hover on its horizon, and her own, she sees the bright possibilities for the future. Her stay in Chile has revived her spirits and prepared her to move forward in her journey.  

Despite her frank assessment of the national character, Graham’s work is highly regarded as an eye-witness account. Why do the Chilean historians overlook her obvious British—and Protestant—biases? Because she was so enamored with Chile.

People call me ‘the gringa’ too. But while I didn’t grow up here, I’ve lived way more than half my life in this country. Perhaps I can say I came to maturity in Chile, after arriving during the dictatorship and surviving the return to democracy and seven elected administrations.

“Roots are not in a landscape or a country, or a people, they are inside you.” –Isabel Allende, Chilean-American author

My perspective transcends blood and birth. Because wherever I am, I’m homesick for my other home. Like María Graham, I can’t disengage now. I can no longer separate my identity from this land.

For better or worse, estamos en Chile. And when I write about it, anything could happen. Only in Chile…

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