Thursday, March 20, 2014

Don Andino and the Day They Set the World on Fire

Along the Baker River
March 18 2014

Don Andino was four the day they set the world on fire. “The smoke was so thick all day the sun looked like the moon. At the end everything was covered.” The year was 1948 and Don Andino lived up the valley over the Baker River as it made its ferocious, glacier driven way to the Pacific.  His father, a Policeman, bought land from the Federal Government as an investment. First 800 Hectares, then another 3,000, which he rented back to the Government, a good cyclical earning for his investment. Now his nephew runs the family farm. The Chivarria’s were Basque people before they became Chileans, and they brought their independent streak with them to the end of the world. 

The Native Americans had been cleared out by then, the Mapuchas, the indigenous tribe, lived closer to the Coast.  “They were civilized Indians, though.”

Approaching his 70th birthday in September Don Andino is the polished bronze stereotype of a life-long outdoorsman. His hair is still streaked with black, with the gray lighter than his skin, framing his face in silhouette. His skin is taught save under his chin, and age only betrays him in a bend in the spine. He sits, right leg over left, wearing a black felt beret which would easily have placed him in Paris in the 1950s. A short sleeved shirt shows arms which have worked every day of his life, strong, lean, sinew-ed.  A sheathed Brazilian steak knife is tucked into his pants, with the handle tipped towards the right. “In Chile, if you don’t have a knife you don’t eat,” they say here. To outside eyes the intent is at first more sinister than a ready-blade for a bit of lamb. 

Don Andino is the senior hired hand on this farm in the Valley of the Baker River, the man “they trust to keep the house safe and open when they are out.” He had been something of the foreman, but now he is sick and cannot work. “Bad liver,” he says.

Don Andino’s legs seem spindly thin beneath blue workpants. In between his shoes and those pants he’s sporting white, black and red argyle socks, betraying his working-man’s demeanor as a bit of a dandy, too. Between the beret and the socks its clear he takes his appearance seriously – never too old to look good.

He smokes long hand-rolled cigarettes, which he keeps between the index and middle finger even as he tips the tin kettle atop the coleman stove ( Fabrica El Yhunke – Cocina A Leña – calefaccion combustion tentat – Lauratro 855 Coyhaique, Chile)  tel : 23 3255– the source of heat in the house here in the valley – and pours another cupful of water into the Maté cup. Maté is the drink of choice. Here, and refusing it for coffee is somewhere between a lack of good manners and a lack of good taste.

Don Andino offers guests at the farm thickly-sliced white bread and guinda jam preserved on the farm. As a cook for the military in the early 1970s he was known for his baking talent. The bread, best served after a turn atop the wood-fired stove, is his, something he takes a bit of time, but an ample amount of measured pride, in telling you.

When Allende was overthrown in the ’73 coup that brought Pinochet to power they pink-slipped Don Andino and sent him on his way. Cooking apparently is as political in Chile as it is in the fine dining of Paris. No word about the quality of bread served the Chilean army in the years since.

Between sips and refilling the cup, he talks about that day he still remembers even though at four few things are available to memory. “They set fire to the forest as high as the snow-line, which was the only thing that stopped the flames.” 66 years later the land is still filled with the husks of 200 year-old cedars, many of the trunks  standing straight-tall just as they did that day in 1948 when the fire came. Cedar gives itself back to nature slowly, and the gray-white of the fired trees are everywhere, and elephant’s graveyard of ancient deciduous timber that had filled the valley since the end of the last glacial period. In some parts the forest is making a comeback, saplings and younger trees populating the plain. But for the most part it’s scrub grass now. All the better for the free roaming cattle which dot the landscape and leave enormous piles of scat everywhere, fouling the otherwise untouched air. Sheep dash about, staying just out of reach – perhaps knowing that a human caress is the first step to the dinner table. The cows, as they are wont, just stand and stare at you as you walk by, like attendees at a parade, watching from the stands.

Just then the father of the family farm comes through the door, if anything darker than Don Andino himself. Behind him trails Reneé, our host of the last three days and a gifted wrangler. Reneé is our ride back to Cochran. Before we can leave, though, he has to give some help to the farmer. One of the largest, strongest and, apparently meanest bulls on the farm has got loose and needs to be corralled and returned to a place safe both for him and for others.

Don Andino, approaching 70 and “too sick to work” tosses his knife on the table by the door and dashes out the door with the gait of a 20 year old in search of a mad bull.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Searching for the end of the world - part one

Coyhaique, Chile
March 13, 2014

The pursuit of the end of the world has begun. Not prosaically, but in a practical, increasingly exercised search for bus tickets out of town. And considering that we just got to town it should tell you something about the town.

Actually, it's a settling, easy on the spirit sort of place. Low to the ground  - like the people. The only humans over 5'6" are wearing Patagonia jackets, high slung backpacks and looking everywhere but in front of them. For my part It marks the first time I could be invited to play center. Some of the street dogs are taller. Seriously. These aren't Dickensian dogs. Think Steven Segal with fur.

After a 22 hour push ever southward, from Baltimore Washington International Airport, with a Double stop through airport security born of a determination not to lose my fedora before the journey even started and a realization steps from the gate that as I stood gate side it sat atop the Delta self-check-in. That hat has been many places, securing sand in Wadi Rum, misted mornings climbing Mach Picchu and provoked endless "are you from Texas" conversations on airplanes, boats and cafés. Often it was the sum total of the English exchanged. After that it was gestures, with a special series of thumbs up's and Indiana Jones whip-slash body English. After all that that hat wasn't going into the rubbish bin at Delta. Loyalty has to start somewhere. Besides, how many hats have a genuine Starbucks flavor to them. There's enough Pike's Peak saturated into that felt to squeeze a cup of coffee out of with a good dousing of hot water. So add caffeine addiction to loyalty. The order of priority subject to change.

The air on the road to the end of the world is in constant motion. All the stories - fables more than stories really - short cut its actual presence. It's not air so much as spirit, willful, dashing through tree and teenage waist length hair, thick Southern hair, jet black and fluid hair. Whipped about like $2,500 an hour photo shoot with wind machines hair. Who knew you could get the same 24/7 on the road to the end of the world.

The teenagers are teenagers. They entangle on the knobby park benches in the central square and nuzzle in that breathless steeped in innocence way first love allows but can never be found again once it comes crashing down. Unless it doesn't. Sometimes on a street corner, or the center aisle of some supermarket, or in a furtive noticing through a car window you catch the amber light of a first love that never faded, set in the touch of one vastly wrinkled hand to another, a glance filled with 65 years and 65 seconds; that look that says that really the world is whole in two pairs of eyes.

On my second cappuccino and first wedge of lemon merengue pie, angled forward on a slightly too high bar stool which left the step down calling to mind first lessons on riding a two-wheeler in my grandmother's Katonah lawn in Westchester, a first love candidate couple in their early 70s walked up to the floor to ceiling window of the town square site of the Red----- cafe. Wind tossing them about ever so slightly they looked inside in a way that made me feel a bit like a glass enclosed zoo animal in the Great Apes exhibit in the zoo below my house in DC. Come see the pie eating gringo - get a free mug - sort of look. Whether it was my appearance that kept them walking in I'll never know. I know I'll never look at the orangutans again in quite the same way though.

Above the other corner window the small, remarkably efficient speaker threw out a high tech re-mix of 10 years worth of Pop hits, from Justin Timberlake to John Legend, a string of English-only 20-something boys filling the Chilean cafe with that slight thump that goes when the bass on the mix is set to overload. Next to I, hung left to right we're a white polo helmet, a traditional blue and white cap that looked like it came from crown of a young Tajik woman and a slightly psychedelic-ly painted Moai. 

Francisco -- the leader of our two-man expedition - hangs up his Nokia. "Our guide can meet us at 8. We can head back to the B&B before going to see him to make our plans for tomorrow."

The search for bus tickets has come up empty. Day one yields it's first lesson - plan to re-plan. With no buses out of town Friday for Corcoran, our next point south, we set to the map, and to the B&B.

And all the while the wind dances.