“Que Es Queso?” and other Chilean Adventures

…Phew. The task of summing up my first few weeks in Chile, just like the actual days themselves, reflects my current state: tired, rattled, and full. Full in terms of food, which has certainly not been in short supply, but also in terms of sun, in terms of dirt, in terms of wine, and finally in terms of memories. This post includes Chilean Independence Day in Santiago, my first two weeks working on my cousin’s farm, a family Yom Kippur dinner, also in the capital, and a weekend trip to the beautiful port city of Valparaíso. In all, overriding themes include people new and old, difficult accents and languages, long, hard hours under the sun, unimaginable amounts of dogs, and an unending supply of surprises that never ceases to amaze.

Chronologically I’ll start with our opening weekend in Santiago, but only to quickly get it out of the way. We arrived in the capital the day after an 8.3 magnitude earthquake struck just a few hours away (but not to worry – four little roller coasters of aftershocks all over 6 on the Richter scale have been pleasant). While Santiago is a nice city and we enjoyed ourselves, two things stood out immediately: it has little charm or exceptional qualities, and that everyone leaves the city on Independence Day to apparently have fun elsewhere, a difficult thing to imagine considering a third of Chile lives in the capital. However, this was certainly the case, as we wandered around a city completely shuttered and closed, filled with Brazilians. We had good food and good walks, but museums and bars were mostly closed and the city empty. Though not to worry because we weren’t bored for long – time on the farm had finally arrived.

I am related to Ismael Gomberoff in the following manner: he is the second cousin of Jaime Bulkacz, the father of my uncle Alex, who married my mom’s sister Linda. Through Alex I was able to contact Ismael, or Ami as he is known, during my senior year of college and arrange working in exchange for room and board on his farm in Olmué, Chile, a small town of 1,100 about 45 minutes inland from Valparaíso. I arrived with Leah and my partner in crime Jackson Zeiler, one of my best friends from college, to a gate through which we saw a single dog appear when we rang the bell. After Ami came to get us and led us into the house, we met, with no exaggeration, 27 more dogs, all of whom are from the street and have been raised by Ami himself (this doesn’t count the dogs in the adjoining workers’ residences, in the fields, or at his home in the mountains – there are a lot of dogs).

This was just the introduction to a towering man who is truly unlike anyone I’ve ever met in my entire life, bursting with fun, a goblin-like grumble of a laugh, and a continuous supply of stories, philosophies, and teachings. He is almost impossible to describe with words, but carries an enormous, personable, and intoxicating presence that blows me away.

In addition to his land in Chile he owns a farm in Lynden, Washington and together with an affable Texan named Wayne has farmed kiwanos, or horned fruit, for over 40 years. Over time spent every day at meals and long games of Uno I have learned to expect surprises, from an endless supply of both ridiculous and deep quotes to impromptu parking spots in the middle of the sidewalk to (no joke) a fist-sized tarantula named Pollito (little chicken) that Ami referred to as a pet and lovingly shoed out of the house upon seeing the looks on our horrified faces. Some of the best Ami quotes also include:

“A house without animals or flowers is not a home – it has no life”

“I used to sleep with a raccoon on my pillow and a wolf at my feet”

“Dogs are like water for me – I can’t do without either”

“I eat a lot of sweets…I don’t want to be bitter”

“If you listen to what I say, you’ll be alright…if not you’ll suffer”

“I don’t watch movies, they’re too depressing. I just watch Dracula, he only sucks blood”

“Oh you’ve felt your first earthquake – wonderful”

“I don’t create my plants, they just come to me. God has blessed me with wonderful fruits, and with amazing strands of cannabis”

“Always look before you sit – you’re in the country now”

“I’m going to buy some vegetables now, because it’s important”

“With animals, it’s true love. When my raccoon died, I couldn’t bury it. I kept it in the freezer for over a year”

“When you have no stress you have no problems”

“I am always happy, and when I’m not I have things to make me happy”

“We are gentleman farmers; we plant sitting down, and we are sophisticated too, with iPhones”

“That’s a tarantula, that’s all. It’s just a pet”

“Love is love”

While I hope this list provides some glimpse into his eccentricities, it must be said that Ami is truly a man with nothing but love and kindness in his heart, from his profound love for animals of all kinds to the way he treats his family, his workers, and runs his business. He lived in Israel on a kibbutz for six years, and treated Leah and I to his family’s meal to break the fast on Yom Kippur, a great night where I got to meet my extensive, aristocratic, and previously unknown extended Chilean family.

Nevertheless, time on the farm has been full of ups and downs. Every day except one has been split up by gender, with Jackson and I working as a team and Leah working with the other volunteer of the moment, an 18 year old German girl from Bremen named Michelle. Days have been spent carrying crates and boxes, building a 500 foot fence from scratch, resuscitating a greenhouse, and picking oregano from beautiful, idyllic mountain fields.

We typically work from 9-1 and 3-7, with lunch in between. I have grown accustomed to being constantly exhausted and ravenous, and the work is certainly not easy nor particularly inspiring. However, it is good to be busy, good to be with great people, and good to be settled in for a little while (I’m planning on staying on the farm until early December).

While I’ve only been on the farm for two weeks, what has been thought-provoking are the workers themselves and what this work means large-scale. Jackson and I work primarily with the three full-time workers, Chileans named Larry, Roberto, and Rubén, as well as an awesome guy named Milko who tends to the oregano fields in the mountains. They all speak the rapid, colloquial, semi-understandable Spanish that is the norm in this country, but are all full of hilarious mannerisms and wide, genuine smiles. They all are from the area and live within 20 minutes of where they grew up. They all have also never left Chile, lead very simple lives full of physical labor, and none has any schooling past the middle school level. They are not where they are because of any inferiorities or incompetences; they are in fact more adept at many basic skills that I think most people, including myself, struggle greatly at. They were born into a life which their families belonged to, and especially in such a class-driven society such as Chile’s had few other professional options. It is humbling to know that a vast percentage of people in the world live this type of life on a daily basis, albeit without the luxuries we are provided as volunteers. Also troubling include the pervasive influence of Monsanto (which controls an agricultural monopoly in the Central Valley of Chile), other foreign companies from the U.S., Europe, China, and India, who dominate Chile’s economy, and Western political policies, which dictate life here for everyday citizens far more than the average American realizes. However, it is great to see how organic food is produced in the modern world, free of insecticides, in natural shapes and sizes, and with a lot of water, poop, dirt, and love. I’m also fascinated by how people speak to animals, both with our Quechua guides in Peru as well as here – with so much control and in varying grunts, mutters, whistles, clicks, and shouts. I have embraced my best friend Griffin’s approach to life in terms of not worrying so much about hygiene and cleanliness, and appreciate days filled with sweat, learning, and fun.

The final section of this post needs to be devoted to our weekend excursion to Valparaíso, or Valpo, a truly magical city. Having served as an important industrial port for centuries, it now explodes from the modern center near the water into a spiraling mishmash of brightly colored houses in all directions up into the hills.

It was gritty, salty, eccentric, and dynamic, a cross for me between Lisbon and my home in Spain, Granada. Valpo was easily the most photogenic city I’ve ever been to, with street art abounding everywhere, steep staircases and alleyways, and a bluebird sky framing the city against the shimmering Pacific Ocean.

We spent time with our good friend Pat whom we met on our trek to Machu Picchu, spending one night in a hostel, one night couchsurfing with an absolute goof named Ramón, a day spent exploring the city, and two nights I will never remember with people I’ll never forget (just kidding…kind of). Pablo Neruda’s house La Sebastiana was especially a highlight of mine, a quirky, gorgeous house situated at a perfect vantage point for amazing views of the entire city.

He is a very inspiring figure for me: a very intelligent man who was both a Nobel Laureate as well as a diplomat and presidential candidate, and whose poetry, especially in his native tongue, I find to be beautiful.

Neruda best sums up Valpo for me, saying, “Valparaíso, how absurd you are…you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you.” I will certainly be back.

In all, the first nearly three weeks in Chile have been quite a rush. I’m still getting my feet under me in what has been a challenging transition, but being surrounded by great people and having a never-ending supply of potential adventures for the next eight months to look forward to (Bolivia and Argentina especially) will help this time pass successfully. In the meantime, I can only wonder existentially, in the footsteps of my filet huevon Jackson…what is cheese?

As always, stay tuned for more, with much love, and go Broncos.

Max

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