A Peek at Mapuche Life – a 5-day Trip to Southern Chile
It seems as though the semester has finally started (yes, after about 2 months of classes… exams, essays, and lots of other important work are finally starting to make my life miserable). However, this gives me the opportunity to procrastinate on actual work and catch up a little more on what’s been happening the past month after Torres del Paine. I’m writing this blog post in the bus on the way to Santiago for the day, where we’re going to visit a museum, a graveyard, and an ex-torture centre that all bring to light the atrocities and the extensive human rights violations committed during the dictatorship under Pinochet in Chile from 1973-1990. Obviously, those years of terror have left their mark on Chile and the consciousness of the Chilean people, especially considering the huge numbers of “detenidos desaparecidos” – people who were arrested by the military regime and promptly never heard of again. I hope to learn more about what happened then, and will probably dedicate my next blog post to talking a little more about the dictatorship and its myriad consequences, but for now I’ll rewind a little bit to my second trip down south.
Only three days after I got back from Patagonia we had another trip to southern Chile (this time a little less south), to the IX region, where there are lots of indigenous, primarily Mapuche communities. The point of this trip was to gain a better understanding of Mapuche life, their vision of the world with respect to religious or spiritual beliefs, their history, their struggles against the Chilean government with the Chilean invasion of the south, and the current issues facing Mapuche communities with regard to, amongst other things, discrimination – both on an individual and an institutionalized level – and the fight to maintain their identity. We left on a Wednesday night, on a 12-hour long bus ride from Viña all the way to Temuco. After we finally got there, the entire group was pretty exhausted (turns out buses aren’t superb for getting a good night’s sleep. Who knew), but our program director had the bright idea of dragging us to a museum for a guided tour after breakfast. Though the museum itself was quite interesting and had some pretty cool artefacts related to Mapuche culture and history, it would have been better to have visited the museum at some other point. In any case, after the museum we had another bus ride (in a minibus with a very amusing driver, Carlos Bobadilla, would be our way of getting to different places during this trip) this time for about 2 hours, to a Mapuche community in Lago Budi. Around Lago Budi there are more than 100 different Mapuche communities, and it also happens to have the most-southern saltwater lake in the world. It also happens to be close the ocean and is just very pretty in general.
After eating lunch there, we were shown to our rukas (ruka is the Mapudungun (the language of the Mapuche) word for house), where we would be staying that night.
The rest of the day was spent in a rather tired haze, with some interesting talks from members of the Mapuche community regarding their vision of the world, their struggles with the Chilean government, their medicinal practices, and other interesting topics. To be honest, everyone in the group was still very tired from the rather uncomfortable night’s sleep in the bus, so none of us really engaged as much as we possibly could have, though we did all learn quite a bit. After the very engaging last chat of the day, from a criollo history teacher, married to a Mapuche lady, who told us about the current fights and issues surrounding Mapuche communities today, we went outside and realized that the night sky was full of stars (which makes sense seeing as we were pretty far out in the countryside, but still). We could see the Milky Way too. I don’t really know what it is about starry night skies, but they have something magical that makes me want to lie down and stare at them for an eternity.
In any case, the following day we had two activities planned in that community; our group first went to a small island that was about 15 minutes away rowing (or would have been had we let our Mapuche guide row the entire time; it took us quite a bit longer than that due to us trying to row for a bit and failing miserably), where we then had a talk on… wow. Something that clearly hasn’t stuck with me. I believe he was talking more about the Mapuche cosmovision, but as this all happened about a month ago all the talks have somewhat blended together and I don’t really remember them individually. Whoops… anyway. After getting back, our second activity involved us being taught how to spin wool in the traditional Mapuche way, which was also quite interesting.
After that and lunch, we headed out to a different Mapuche community, in a small village called Currarehue, only 12km from the border with Argentina.
We arrived there at about 8:30pm, which meant we ended up deciding to leave the formal introductions to the day after and instead start eating dinner, as we were staying with Mapuche host families for two nights and didn’t want to inconvenience them by showing up too late. We were split up into three groups of four, and the group I was in ended up staying with this Mapuche couple in their late sixties who owned a large farm with lots of animals (I made friends with lots of them, naturally. There were cats everywhere on this trip and, naturally, I made sure to make friends with all of them). Before going to bed, we conversed with them for quite a while and they told us, amongst other things, about the government’s plan/government-backed plan to build a hydroelectric dam nearby that would further affect the shortage of water (it hadn’t rained for more than 2 months and it showed).
The following morning, after breakfast, we headed to the main location, a restaurant/house/farm/general open space, for some formal introductions and some explanations of what the place is and what they do there (turns out that they often receive foreign exchange students and students from different parts of Chile who come there to learn more about Mapuche culture and Mapuche people in general). After that, we walked for a little bit to this waterfall nearby, which was really quite spectacular, though it didn’t photograph very well.
Our main activity that afternoon was a game of palín, which can be seen as a Mapuche version of (field) hockey, which was very fun but also made us very warm and very sweaty.
That night we helped out with preparing dinner, and we eventually got back to our host families at around 10:30pm after eating said dinner and a short musical performance from a musician who could play the guitar very well but whose singing, unfortunately wasn’t quite up to the same standard.
The following morning we spend some time talking to Chilean students studying ecotourism in Valparaíso who, coincidentally, had arrived there the night before, and we were able to share our experiences regarding Chilean perception of Mapuche culture and they told us that Chileans’ treatment of Mapuche and their culture is quite similar to American treatment of Native American history and culture; they pretty much ignore it and consider it irrelevant and not part of Chile. After lunch, which ended at about 5pm, I said goodbye to some of my furry friends, and we drove out of Currarehue for a very steep hike (which I did in flip-flops because… well… I don’t really have a good reason…) which eventually led to this very serene lake pretty high up in the mountains.
After making our way down the mountainside and cramming 11 people into a car that was really only meant to hold 5 people, we got back into the minibus and made our way to the hot springs of Palanqui, about 2 hours behind schedule. We had to leave the minibus at a certain point on the way there, as it was too large to safely navigate the rocky, dusty trail that served as a road, so we took the small pickup truck that our Mapuche guide was driving, sat in the open back, and had a very Perks of Being a Wallflower moment when, whilst driving, we stood up in the back of the truck whilst it was careening along in the middle of nowhere. Pity David Bowie wasn’t there.
When we finally got there, at about 11:15 at night, we dumped our stuff, got a short explanation of the various hot springs and their temperatures from the American owner, and then we could finally collapse into the hot springs and relax. We stayed there for about 1.5 hours, in the complete and utter darkness (when our flashlights were turned off), and it was a very relaxing end to what had been a very busy day. When we got out of the hot springs, our program directors had prepared some light food for us (seeing as we hadn’t really eaten dinner), and we ended up chatting and eating and just generally relaxing for a while before passing out in our respective beds.
Only 6 hours later, we were forced out of bed again for our last day in the south, which was rather less academic and rather more focused on having fun. We left at about 9am to go to Pucón, a small town, and when driving away from the hot springs two of the American owner’s dogs ran after us by way of saying goodbye.
Our first activity of the day was zip-lining. After receiving instructions on what (not) to do, we started on this decently long course that took our group of 13 a little over an hour to complete. It was the first time I had done zip-lining on that scale, and it was honestly really fun (at one point, when the cord from one place to the next went across the river on which we would later go rafting, the guide pushed us so that instead of zip-lining in a nice straight line we twirled and whirled and spun our way across this line suspended over the river) and I rather wanted to do another round, but they wouldn’t let us.
Our last activity of the day was rafting. Unfortunately, as it hadn’t rained for about 2.5 months, the water level of the river was quite low, which meant that not only did we have to start higher up the river, we also had to get out of the boat halfway through because it was simply too dangerous to raft in a certain place. As such, not only did we have a rafting experience, we also had a short hike in the middle along the river, which included a part where we couldn’t walk around a certain area so we had to jump from about 5 metres into the rather cold river below. Apart from that, the rafting itself was a lot of fun (for my group, at least; the other group had a sexist and very ill-mannered guide who didn’t ruin the experience but who certainly didn’t make fantastically enjoyable), and was a nice way to end our trip down south. We headed back to Pucón for dinner and, 12 hours later, arrived back in Viña and were made to resume our normal lives. It had been both an informative and fun trip, and it was a really good and really useful experience learning about the Mapuche, their history, their identity, some of their practices, and their struggle to maintain their identity and their language. Now if only the Chilean government would share some of these sentiments….