Chile, Culture, Featured, Latin America, Stories from the road
Comments 22

To Chile, With Love.

chile stories

Lee en Español

(traducido usando Google Translate)

Dear Chile,

Before I landed within your borders, I had heard many people wax eloquent about the beauty of your mountains, forests, rivers and lakes. And no doubt, I was awed by their beauty too.

But I had no idea that it would be the beauty of your people that would really overwhelm me.

While quarantining in a drab hotel room in Santiago, the nurse who came for one of many precautionary Covid tests, told me that quarantine could be really isolating, gave me his card and told me to call him if I felt like I was losing my mind.

On my birthday – spent in quarantine on Robinson Crusoe Island – a passionate diver baked me the most delicious vegan chocolate cake, without ever even having met me!

A young conservationist from the island shared with me the profound responsibility she feels to protect the island’s fragile, rare, endemic ecosystem – and her dream to travel solo someday too.

Robinson crusoe island

Many, many islanders shared their life stories with me, but one let me in to a dark, personal part of his life. To bear witness to someone’s journey, on the other side of the world, in a language that isn’t my own, is perhaps the most humbling part of travel.

Creativity and art flow in many people’s blood across the island and continental Chile, but a long time resident invited me time and again into his idyllic home, poetic world, art collection and fascinating stories. Every conversation made me want to learn more Spanish, so we could have more profound discussions.

Knowing how hard it was to find lunch on the island – with most restaurants closed during the pandemic and shops usually out of basic supplies – a sweet island family often invited me to share their family meals: garbanzo (chickpea stew), lentejas (lentils cooked Chilean style), stirfried veggies with rice, vegan desserts and much more.

When a big boat arrived with much-awaited supplies on the island, I naïvely showed up at the local shop to buy a bunch of Chilean avocados – not knowing that wait times to buy produce on ‘boat days’ could be as long 4 hours, as people bought kilos of vegetables and fruits to last until the next boat! A friendly fisherman noticed my amazement, offered to get me some avocados during his turn, and wouldn’t even let me pay for them.

Artisans, guides and many associated with tourism shared with me their dream of a self-sustainable island – the seeds of which we tried to sow through the Work for Humankind project enabled by Lenovo and Island Conservation.

Most evenings on the island, I showed up at the community Basketball court on the island to play this sport I love so much, but have hardly had a chance to play since university. The local players always invited me to join them, reminding me of Basketball friendships I’ve missed all along.

Photo: Riccardo Sai @signorsai

In an intensely personal conversation, an islander laid bare his soul, speaking at length about how the massive tsunami in 2010 had impacted his family, the professional challenges he’d faced, and the deep love he felt for his island.

A skeptical fisherman told me that this “vegan thing” was all marketing, and asked me how something like chocolate could be made without milk? I recounted my time with the Bribris – Costa Rica’s cacao farmers – and pulled out a vegan chocolate for him to try. A few days later, when I ran into him again, he gifted me a dairy-free chocolate from the local health food store!

Even as someone who almost always chooses memories over souvenirs, I felt so lucky to be gifted a personalized, rare coral negro (black coral, broken by the waves), creatively shaped and polished into a stunning star – to represent The Shooting Star – by two local divers.

Many, many islanders – and those who’d made the island home – invited us over for dinner, birthdays, game nights, Pisco Sours and movies.

Of all the people who lovingly fed us on the island, one went out of his way to experiment with gourmet vegan meals for me – among them, a garbanzo curry, veggies-based ceviche, his signature hummus (which I still dream about), and even a protein-packed box of lentils-rice for an overnight trek.

A local journalist invited me to join the island’s whatsapp group – the backbone of communication on the island. Thanks to her, I’m still plugged into all that’s happening locally – from basketball games to music sessions to the archipelago’s journey to become a special territory in Chile.

A biologist involved in conservation efforts on the island gifted me a copy of his book, signed with a powerful message that has inspired me to pursue conservation storytelling seriously.

A passionate islander and diver confessed to me his fear that the arrival of high speed internet – important though it is – might destroy the island’s precious sense of community. Is there anywhere in the world that has been able to strike a balance?

Photo: Callum Thompson @adventure_cal

On my second last night, when it finally dawned on me that my time on the island was up, a father and son invited us to a rocky Pacific beach to watch the full moon rise from behind the mountains. As I lay on the rocks and watched the moon fill the sky and ocean with its magical light, I knew I’d never be the same again.

After arriving back on mainland Chile, I was eager to get away from Santiago to Patagonia as soon as possible – but the damned SKY airlines website just wouldn’t accept any of my cards to book a domestic flight. Helpless, I asked the receptionist at my hotel if there was a travel agency nearby that could help me. She found one several kilometers away, but recognizing the inconvenience, went far beyond her call of duty to book it with her personal debit card and let me pay her in cash.

After two months of not being able to thread my brows, I hopelessly walked around the backlanes of Santiago, looking for Google Maps listings that didn’t exist. Finally, at a salon I enquired, the owner left her shop and walked me to a dilapidated underground shopping centre 10 minutes away, where one woman specialized in it.

For reasons unknown, I could never get a local SIM card – neither Movistar nor Entel – to work on my phone in Santiago. But from the staff at local cafes, to passersby on the street, to co-passengers in shared transport, no one hesitated to share their personal hotspot with me.

My heart ached for Robinson Crusoe Island even when I arrived in crazy beautiful Patagonia. But it found temporary respite when I got a ride with someone who shared with me his heartwarming quest to find his soulmate and his infectious zest for life – despite all the difficult cards life had dealt him.

A few days later, I met his wife, shared much laughter over breakfast at their favorite cafe, and spotted the ostrich-like wild rhea, condors and the Chilean flamingo on a drive! We parted with a promise that I’d stay with them whenever I came back to Patagonia.

While offering recommendations for my trip to Patagonia, a ranger on Robinson Crusoe Island asked me to go to Queulat National Park – a special place on earth – and give his buddy a big hug. It sounded like an impossible ask, but I really did find his buddy and shared a conversation like we too had been friends for a long time.

queulat national park

At the only Airbnb I stayed at in Chile, my hostesses at Refugio Macales invited me to their favorite waterfall hike in an enchanted forest, for a delightful family lunch and even on a mission to rescue two abandoned pups! Spending time with them reminded me of all the wonderful souls I’ve been lucky enough to meet while travelling solo.

With no public transport in Patagonia’s Aysen region, I serendipitously ended up joining an all women’s group for a hike, and met some inspiring Chilean solo travellers and mother-daughter duos. After a day of heartwarming conversations, many gave me their whatsapp numbers and urged me to contact them if I needed anything at all while in Chile.

I went into panic mode when the only hospital that could do an RTPCR test on a Sunday in Coyhaique told me that it would involve a few hours of wait time – and upto 4 days to receive my test results. I needed it to board a domestic flight the next day, to be able to catch my (rather expensive) flight back to India the following day! The receptionist sympathized with my situation, moved me up the list for a test and convinced the lab to expedite my result. Just like that.

After a long, tiring day of hiking in the windy Patagonian terrain, I nibbled at my food at Patagonia Camp, thinking of what folks on Robinson Crusoe Island must be upto – and if I could sustain some of those precious friendships despite the growing distance and time between us. Unsure, I gazed at the starry skies a while, and slowly walked back to my yurt. On my bed lay a note, along with a stack of dark chocolate. De la familia Marenostrum, it said, as my eyes brimmed with tears. My island friends had figured my location from my Instagram stories, called the camp, and arranged this surprise. Oh my heart.

Have you been to Chile, or unexpectedly left your heart in another part of the world?

*Note: I was invited to Robinson Crusoe as part of the Work for Humankind project with Lenovo and Island Conservation. I couldn’t be more grateful.

Connect with me on InstagramFacebook, and Twitter to follow my adventures.

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Lee en Español

(traducido usando Google Translate)

22 Comments

  1. Gris T. Fiel says

    How beautiful. That is all I can say.

  2. Aadil Desai says

    Been to Chile during my trip to Argentina when visiting Antarctica on an expedition ship. We wanted to travel from one place in Argentina to another by bus but the road journey was through Chile so had to get a transit visa anyway. At the consulate in Ushuaia we asked how many hours it was valid for and they said five days so we changed our plans and travelled for five days in Chile (Punta Arenas and Santiago) instead of going directly to Mendoza, the place we wanted to visit by bus and had the most beautiful time out there. Next time we’ll be going for a well planned journey to Chile for sure!!!

    • Shivya Nath says

      What an adventure Aadil! When was this? So glad you had a chance to experience a bit of Chile – I can’t wait to go back someday too.

      • Aadil Desai says

        It was in April 2014 after we visited Antarctica on an expedition ship voyage of 11 days. Trip of a lifetime!!! Have to go back there some day soon. Especially for the enchanting night skies from the Atacama desert astronomical observatories out there.

  3. That full moon rise from behind the mountains must have been very soothing. It’s the hospitality of the people that projects a culture in the right way. Reading about Chile, Robinson Crusoe Island and about their communities made me feel like we are together like a family. Thanks for sharing their stories. Queulat National Park is a gem it seems.

    • Shivya Nath says

      I can still close my eyes and feel myself on those rocks, hearing the waves crash against them. But you’re right, ultimately it’s the people who continue to live within us even more than the place.

  4. Rajendra Nargundkar says

    Very, very interesting. Mainstream media has lost it- the likes of you and these ordinary folks are our only hope.. we should hear each other more.

    • Shivya Nath says

      I managed to wean myself off mainstream media while on the island and it was blissful living in a bubble (with its own challenges but I’d take those anyday).

    • Shivya Nath says

      I’m glad my paths crossed with such beautiful souls.

  5. Praveen says

    Beautiful.. the work and the description.. no more words!!

    Keep it up Shivya!!

  6. Loved my visit to this country 5 years ago, and been dreaming of returning again. Great story; thank you for sharing.

    • Shivya Nath says

      I hear you. Hope we’re both able to go back soonest!

  7. What an enjoyable read, its inspiring to read your adventures. This one struck a chord with me.

  8. Ranjani Subramanian says

    First I was smitten by the story of the farmer who gifted you vegan chocolates, then the one who gave you the coral stars!

    But the last story where the Islanders found you through your insta stories to gift you chocolates literally brought tears even to me as a reader.

    Often times on our travels it is indeed the people who make the place more memorable and special than the place itself. But I would also believe this depends a lot on us as a person too. How open we are to interacting or respecting the locals.

    My recent visit to Kashmir another beautiful place on its own definitely has become most special because of the people I met!

  9. Such a sweet and heartfelt experience you have shared here. Brought a tear or two to my eyes

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