Into your open hands

No puedes volver atrás,                        You can not go back
no tienes más que seguir.                    you just have to continue
Que no te aturda el engaño                 do not be bewildered by deceit
sigue, sigue hasta el final.                   onward, onward until the end
La herida que va contigo                     the wounds you take with you
quién la puede mejorar,                      who can make them better
es la sórdida pobreza                           It is sordid, the poverty
que se pretende ignorar,                     that you have to ignore
es un mar amargo y negro                  it is a bitter and black sea
que se tiene que aclarar.                     Which has to be clarified

Victor Jara

Puerto Montt, sunday the 9th march 1969, 250 heavily armed police enter a poor camp on a pre dawn raid with the intention of evicting 90 inhabitant ‘squatters’ who had been previously given permission by the government to occupy and settle the land which had been owned by an absentee landlord. During the raid police killed 10 residents including a 9 month old boy who died as a result of asphyxiation from tear gas. 

I first learned of this tragedy from a song by legendary Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who later was arrested, tortured then murdered by the Pinochet regime for his idealogy and socialist views. When I lived in my tent in the south of France I would listen to Jara passionately deliver the question to the protagonist of this attack, minister Pérez Zujovic. Lending his voice to the voiceless over this senseless deed.

So leaving Ed to rest in Puerto Varas I took a bus the final 20 kilometres to visit Puerto Montt. I’ve always felt as though I needed to see this place for myself, to bear witness to what has become of Puerto Montt in the 44 years since that fateful day in 1969.

The streets of Puerto Varas are deserted as I stand by the side of the road in the pouring rain waiting for the bus that will take me to Puerto Montt. Even the stray dogs which are normally on every street corner are nowhere to be seen. A mini bus with no signs or number on it slowly drives towards me with a boy leaning out of the window eyes squinting against the lashing of raindrops shouting out a list of destinations. Puerto Montt being the last, I hail him and climb aboard, paying my my 800 pesos for the privilege.
Its warm on the bus, the windows are fogged up on the inside. Its loaded with passengers on their way to the various markets in Puerto Montt. Teenagers play with mobile phones, old women scold restless children, the driver and his companion laugh at one another’s remarks. 
I wipe the window and stare out across the bleak countryside. The first signs that we are approaching the city is a newly built hospital still under construction followed by an enormous grey prison complex facing a corrugated slum of a great  proportion. I cant help think of the of the peasants being evicted, attacked, murdered on a simillarily bleak morning all those years ago. We eventually arrive at the bus depot after winding our way through the neighborhoods or ‘barios’ of Puerto Montt.
There are other busses and coaches delivering shoppers and tourists to what is the last town in Chile before the wilds of Patagonia. The town is dreary. It’s cold, wet, windy. No tourist Mecca, Backpackers with clean expensive hiking shoes and overpriced backpacks clambour for passage. Take me somewhere wild their posture exclaim, my facbook cover photo demands it! Aghast at sight of a working fishing town.  They are squeezing 25kilos of un-needed luxuries as well as all of Patagonia into a 2 week cannonball run, and good luck to them. None of them ‘venture through the looking glass’ of the bus station out into the town itself. I leave them to their guidebooks and designer parka’s and walk along the bay.
 The sea air is good. The first I’ve had in 6 months. I walk along the shoreline towards what appear to be fishing boats. Which they were but all have been re-fitted as tourist boats, rows of seats replacing nets and pullies. It saddens me a little, their noble trade of generations replaced by the demand for something else. fish stocks are depleted and tourist numbers are up so the natural transition has taken place. A super trawler lies in the bay. Idle. Puerto Montt and Chile had recently been the worlds largest exporter of seafood. superseding Norway for a time.
I walk as far as the navy base, then the rain gets heavier. I enter into a small seafood market to escape the deluge
. Hawkers ply their trade to passers by to come and eat in their establishments.
The attack on the senses is overpowering. The noise from crowded ‘cocinas’ and makeshift dining rooms, the aroma of cooking spiced seafood, lamb, pork, chicken. the sight of beautifully prepared dishes being portered across to hidden eating areas amongst the stalls. Everyone appears to be eating some wonderful concoction or another. But the Hobo budget doesn’t permit dining out. I stand shuddering by a small exit facing south and watch as the storm clouds envelope a distant volcano. 

By the exit I can see into the kitchen of Cocinería Rosmary . A woman, about 60 years old is frying battered fish, preparing vegetables, ladling out huge earthenware bowls of Paila Marina, a sort of Chilean bouillabaisse. It looks incredible. A young man of about 25 carries the prepared meals up a tightly winding stair to the eating room above the kitchen. the wind outside blows harder, the rain becomes a grey screen. wet shoppers emerge from the gloom into the market. The young man and old woman shout at each other what sound like terrible obscenities. “ Two more plates quickly you old goat”, “I should have smothered you when you were born, you ingrate” and on it went. The old woman was Rosmary and the young man, her son. In a loving exchange of insults that would offend anyone else, it was obvious they adored one another.
I asked Rosmary how much a paila of seafood was, she laughed and told me she didn’t have the time to waste talking. Her son barked another order at her and she pulled a bacalau from an icebox, dashed out into the rain and proceeded to scale the fish in the gutter. Running back into her minuscule galley she cut the cod into chunks and proceeded to fry them. Her son asked where I was from when I told him he smiled and said “don’t worry , we’ll take care of you”. He led me up the tightly wound staircase to a small room above the kitchen and found a chair for me amongst the other diners, all working men and women on a short lunch break. If the small kitchen below resembled a galley, the dining room above felt like a mess hall from some magical sort of caravelle. It had portholes instead of proper windows set into ramshackled walls none of which were perpendicular. we all sat cramped together on makeshift wooden stools and benches. Through the portholes I could see the ocean, white crested waves crashing on top of one another amongst the sea mist. Rain lashed the glass, and wind shook the thin walls violently. the building felt as though it swayed fore and aft, I began to pray for a safe passage.
The young man returned with the Paila and a plate of oven warm home baked bread along with a cervesa.
Everyone ate slowly, silently. Watching the national news on a small portable television with a crackly picture. The poor picture quality didn’t appear to bother anybody. After all we were at sea.
Another beer was brought without asking. I spent the next two hours there, feasting on the most amazing dish of bacalau (Cod), Machas (a type of clam) Picoroco (barnacles), Congrios (eel) cooked in a seafood stock along with the most wonderfully bizzare ingredient of Pyura - a hermaphroditic invertebrate only found off the coast of Chile. These little red sea creatures are born as males, become hermaphrodites and release spores into the surrounding waters. Failing this they can actually impregnate themselves. Or so a fellow seaman informed me. Most of the diners had left by the time I had finished. I was presented with a neatly handwritten bill for 2 Luca’s, about 3 euros. I wound my way down the staircase, thanked  my hosts and drifted out into the mist. Stepping across the gutter filled with fish scales and entrails. As I crossed the street I looked back towards Rosmary’s as it disappeared behind a lapli brume. I wandered through the streets which had a dangerous edge of life feel about them. Middle aged men congregated in doorways smoking together giving every passer by the evil eye. Junkies lay out in the rain, stalls selling illegal dvd’s crowded the pavement outside electronic stores. Everyone glared at everyone else as though it gave meaning to their day. Young men hustled, old women shuffled, sirens blarred in a continuous struggle to drown out every sentient thought.
I boarded the bus back to Puerto Varas with my curiosity slaked and hunger well sated.
As we wound  back through the barios of Puerto Montt I reflected on this bizzare town lost near the end of the world. New high rises replacing the slums, a sign of the new Chile, Passing the prison and hospital, the last thing of note I saw was, as we reached the last patch of unused waste ground before leaving Puerto Montt behind, was a middle aged homeless looking man, squatting in the rain taking a dump. Some things haven’t changed that much after all.
The following morning Ed and I were back on the road, hitching, for the first time north.

Victor Jara was a Chilean educator and folk hero.


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