Monday, April 19, 2010

Mari Mari

Wow! What a week! Just got back a few days ago from the final excursion of my study abroad program down south. It was a great experience!

Two Fridays ago, we headed to the airport in the afternoon to catch a flight to Temuco, only this time the terminals were open! It was nice to be inside instead of on the blacktop of the runway, although we still took a bus from the terminal to the airplane. Highlights of the flight included coloring with the crayons my friend brought as well as watching an episode of The Mentalist in English, whose climatic ending was cut off as we were landing. Nothing like a cliff hanger.
Arriving at Temuco was a bit of a "we're not in Kansas anymore" moment. After being in the metropolitan haven that is Santiago, I sometimes forget what it's like to not in a bustling city. The terminal of the airport there, like Calama, was tiny - a single floor of a long skinny building, along a weedy airstrip. Soon we met our coordinator for the excursion, Manual, a friend of our director, who organized all of our activities. We piled into a van with all of our luggage and headed to downtown Temuco, the largest city in southern Chile. 677 kilometers south of Santiago, Temuco is home to a rich history of Mapuche heritage - what we had flown down to study.
After a mix-up with our accomodation (read relocation from sketchy hostel to a nice one), we headed over to a human rights organization that fights for the legal rights of the Mapuche people in the area. It was cool to what good somebody could do a law degree degree. This group of a passionate lawyers gave us a brief introduction to the struggles between the indigenous people there and the Chilean government. We discovered once again the lingering influence of the dictatorship, as under the current constitution (that was written under Pinochet's rule), it illegal in any way, shape, or form to protest the government of Chile for those with Mapuche heritage. This would be an absolute uproar in the US... it was pretty scary to think about.
Next we ventured through the somewhat abondoned streets to find a restuarant and place to buy bottled water. It was pretty empty, especially for a Friday night. I guess everywhere we go would seem quiet after living in Santiago. There was definitely a different vibe there though. The streets were a little more gritty and there was more destruction apparent from the earthquake. We were only in town for a few days though. For me the highlight of this place was visiting the large enclosed public market the next day, where butchers and Chilean knick-knack shops lined an expecially full building. We scored with some great knitwear and other little presents for the people at home.
When we were in Temuco, we also visited an organization named Chol Chol on the outskirts of town. Founded by an American priest back in the day who was passionate about Mapuche heritage, this group used to promote the preservation cultural customs and history of the Mapuche through education. However, the focus of the organization changed to a more economically-based approach, as it is now acts as a platform to promote and sell the artesenial crafts of the Mapuche women in the area. Although there is a market for fair-trade goods in North America and Europe, it is difficult for Chilean craftswomen to compete with products from other South American countries where materials are a lot cheaper. With a the help of French grauduate student in residence, they are now trying to promote the value of fair-trade goods in Chile, although it is difficult to compete against the cheap replicas of their work that are available across the country.
The rest of my stay in Temuco was somewhat diminished by my being sick, so I missed out on some other activities, but I befriended AirBourne and napped to get better. The next day though we drove about two hours out of town to in the Valle de Elicura for our much anticipated Mapuche homestay.This activity jumped off the page for me when I was deciding on study abroad programs as most curriculums did not even touch on indigenous issues in Chile. We arrived in the valley after a long drive on curvey roads that took us across thick forests and alongside mirror-like lakes. (I guess that's why they call it the lake district!) It was great to back in a forested, green environment -- something quite different from the dry land that surrounds Santiago and the arid desert in the north.
Upon arriving, I met my host mother, Maria, a caring woman who lives with her two parents and 11 year old son, Diego on a family farm. When she drove us over her home in an old white pick-up truck, I was suprised to see three separate cabanas there - 1 for the visitors to live, 1 for the family, and 1 for the kitchen - complete with electricity, water, and even a television! In my head, leading up to this excursion, I had definitely imagined this homestay to be a more rural experience - the reason why I brought my sleeping bag and flashlight - but nonetheless, the three days we spent here were definitely the highlight of this month.
After unpacking we headed back to the community center, where we drove to a ruca, a traditional Mapuche dwelling, for a lecture on Mapuche culture. We were given a traditional welcome, all spoken in Mapudungun, the Mapuche language. I found the discussion interesting , epsecially when it touched on the foresting operations that we drove by on the way there. Although the valley is filled with eukalyptus and pine, these trees are not indigneous, and they are literally changing the face of the countryside. Later, we had another lecture about Chilean history, including the Spanish conquest here, and its lingering influences on the area. This lecture got me really excited for my Comparative Latin American Politics course I am taking in the fall (dorky, I know, but we just had course pre-enroll!)
In any case, I'd have to say that the most memorable experience of this trip was living alongside Mapuche people in the homestay (although our hike up the hill next to our village was also quite the experience - the steepest inclines and most bush-whacking I have yet to encouter... ever.) Getting to know our family started the first night, when our host mom had us in the kitchen for dinner. We met her son and her mother and ate delicious food, all produced on the land we stood on. Over the course of three days we consumed the following, all grown and produced there: honey, blackberry jam, membrillo juice, tortillas, bread, avocado, tomato, mint, hot peppers, eggs, apple chincha, and butter.
The main income for this family is hosting visitors like us to the area, teaching them about Mapuche culture and feeding them the traditional food. The tourism here is so different in nature to what we enocuntered up north in San Pedro de Atacama, where the draw for foreigners was access to beautiful natural sights around the once small indigenous town. Whereas, here the focus of the visit is the culture of the indigenous people, which seems like a more sustainable approach to the preservation of the culture.
Either way though, even this off-the-grid small pueblo has seen the effects of globalization and development. My host abuelita (my little grandma) was a fascinating lady - she had lived on this land all of her life. When she was a child, there weren't any roads here. If you wanted to go to town to buy something, it was a day-long journey - you left at sunrise and came home at dusk. Education was hardly available in the area, and the little that did was only for boys, as girls were expected to live and work in the household.
Nowadays, there are roads, everyone has cars, and everyone has cell phones. My host brother Diego helped out in the kitchen listening to SlipKnot and Red Hot Chili Peppers on his mobile. If he keeps his grades up this year, he might even get a scholarship for a netbook. The people here still live off the land, but it's still a very different lifestyle than what my abuelita grew up with. We bonded with Diego as he took us fishing, but we also connected as we watched The Simpsons and Family Guy before bed and shared our favorite music.
As a group, we also helped my family with their ruca by installing a metal sheet under the fire pit to keep out the moisture. The fire pit is actually really important for my family because it is where Maria makes her tortillas - she cooks them in the hot coals and afterwards has to brush off all the ash. It was a very cool process to watch! Anyways, it was great to do some physical work and also to give back to the families that had opened their doors to us.
Minus getting sick, the trip was fun and refreshing - not sure I'll be heading back down to the Lake District soon, unless it's a stop on my dream backpacking trip down to Patagonia of course!
Then I came back to Santiago and not just one, but BOTH of my parents were in Santiago! What a surprise! More details on their visit in my next entry. Until then, thanks for reading! Become a follower!


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