“What is your favorite place in all the countries you’ve visited?” This question is asked of me frequently. Without a second’s hesitation I always answer, “Chiloé.” Then a deep longing to return there washes over me. Always.
I discovered this remote island in Patagonia by accident. The cattle boat a friend and I were traveling on from Punta Arenas in Argentina to Puerto Montt in Chile stopped there briefly.
It had been a tumultuous weeklong trip in the hold of a rusty cargo ship. The boat only ran this route during the calmer “summer” season and this was its last outing until the following spring. Winter squalls were edging in and the seas were getting rough. During that voyage I never saw a smooth horizon or a straight angle. The boat was tossed around like a bipolar cork. Throwing up was de rigueur even for the hardened crew. The predecessor of this fine vessel was pointed out to me one sleet-pounding day. A wizened man in a knit cap lifted his gnarled finger toward a dark shape rising from a misty curtain of wave froth off the stern. There she was, the sister ship, bow toward the heavens, sunken by heavy wave action just the previous season—a monument to our collective queasiness.
Due to my subsistence-level travel budget, I was in economy class along with several dozen Patagonian peasants in the bow of the boat. Sleeping with fifty others in a dank, enclosed boat hold is…intimate. Hand-loomed woolen clothes that rarely got washed perfumed our living quarters with a tangy mutton aroma. The seven-dollar fare included not only bunk bed accommodations and transport, but also meals, all of which consisted of mussel soup with nutritional seaweed clinging like old beards to the shells. No amount of soaking in the hairy broth softened the accompanying hardtack.
Most of my fellow passengers were missing half their teeth—probably from gnawing on those petrified biscuits. Not only did I not gain an ounce of weight but I had the good fortune to inherit tapeworms from my toothless companions. If you ever want to drop a lot of weight fast and eat anything and everything in sight at the same time, consign a tapeworm.
My traveling compatriot from California and I decided we needed some sort of friendship offering to breach the differences with our shipmates. What better way to melt cultural and communication barriers than with alcohol? Before we boarded, we invested in several fifty-litre jugs of Argentinean plonk—cheap red table wine. I was enamored with the quaint hand-blown green glass jugs encased in sturdy wicker baskets with hefty branch handles. We stowed the vino beside our bunk and drank it every night with the perennial briny mussel soup.
Did I mention where they got the mussels? One morning when I was, yet again, leaning over the gunwale retching while trying not to get tossed into the sea, I witnessed the galley knaves scraping mollusks off the exterior hull. Hmmm. I didn’t know they did boat cleaning at sea. I thought they did it in dry docks. I soon learned that the prep cooks were braving their lives to harvest our next meal. How convenient to be using our watercraft for transport and a sustainable food source.
Washing this questionable menu item down with vast quantities of red wine was commendable—and necessary. We shared our stash with our fifty peasant buddies. This made us extremely popular—the downside being that our two tin cups turned out to be the only cups in economy class. So we passed them around—hence the tapeworms. Share and share alike.
The other thing we had to share was music. We had brought along an old creaky tape recorder and cassette tapes (remember them?). As the dented cups passed from weathered lips to more leathered lips, we cranked up The Rolling Stones. The peasants went wild. They hadn’t grown up doing the Twist, the Monkey, the Funky Chicken, or the Frug; they danced the Cueca—a Chilean courtship dance wherein the men spun a handkerchief over their heads and stamped their feet as the women swirled coquettishly around them. Our shipmates adapted this folk dance to “Jumping Jack Flash.” We’d carry on every night. It was like a disco—dark, crowded, noisy, drunken. The festive spirit was contagious. Even the cattle in the hold next to us kicked the bulkhead in time to the music like hoofed bongo drummers.
The crew invited my friend and me to stick around and become their floor show the next season. Tempting, but…
This way of traveling north from Tierra del Fuego up the Patagonian fjords was the only way to reach Puerto Montt from the southern latitudes. Today, there are roads and tourists, seaplanes and luxury expedition boats, but in 1974 it was cattle boat or swim.
I first saw Chiloé when the boat stopped to drop off its straggly cattle herd on the dock at Quellón on the southern tip of the island. Darwin spent the summer of 1835 here on the Beagle to study the abundant marine life.
It was one of our rare times off the boat that week. Once I found my landlubber legs, I wandered into the village hoping for a meal of anything but mussels. In a dusty shop window were hand knit sweaters in subtle natural tones of berry and moss, mushroom and lichen. For three dollars I bought one with a cozy cowl collar and hand-carved bone buttons.
That durable sweater traveled all over South America with me for the next six months. It even changed my destiny.
I eventually got back to San Francisco and, while wandering around Fisherman’s Wharf looking for a job, I passed a door with a sign that read Buyer’s Entrance. Why I pushed that door open and went up the dingy stairwell is still a mystery. The stairs led me to an office and when the Cost Plus receptionist asked me why I was there I replied, “I’d like to see the sweater buyer.”
Two minutes later, I was standing in front of the desk of a very nice woman who looked at me quizzically. I modeled my sweater; yes, the one that, since Quellón, had served as a pillow on Bolivian busses and a blanket on snow-covered volcanic peaks in Ecuador. She said matter-of-factly, “I’ll take 300, 60 days, net 10, FOB, in small, medium and large.”
With not a clue as to what she meant, I wrote it down phonetically, hoping to make sense of it later.
Once I deciphered what she had ordered, I realized I had just started an import company.
With the Cost Plus purchase order in my hand, I needed funding since my bank account had maybe $100 in it. I marched right in to the newly opened Women’s Bank in the Financial District. The women executives in dark suits and moderate pumps laughed at me. Really! Here I was, a young woman starting a promising career and they turned up their surgically sculpted noses and mocked me. So what if I was wearing Birkenstocks and a flower-print skirt? It was infuriating. Fuming, I continued to stomp down the street. A flashing neon sign caught my eye, “Free cookbooks with every new savings account opened.” “Wow,” I thought, “Promising. If nothing else, I’ll get a cookbook.”
This is how I ended up returning to Chiloé a week later with a $10,000 loan from a black businessmen’s bank (go figure). The cookbook was an extra perk.
Getting to Chiloé from the north was a tad easier than from the south. It only required a flight to Santiago, Chile; a twelve-hour train ride to Puerto Montt; a long ferry ride across the choppy waters of the Chacao Strait; and a five-hour bus ride. Thank God I was twenty-two years old with the digestive tract of a mule and the flexibility of a Chinese acrobat who needed very little sleep.
I hadn’t really considered the possibility that there might not even be 300 sweaters in small, medium, and large on the entire island—or enough people to knit them. Fortunately, everybody there knitted. It was a regional pastime. Suddenly I was the messiah bringing cash for something the locals hadn’t ever considered a commodity.
That first order launched my company, Dream Weaver Imports. Soon, I was trekking back and forth to Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and the Amazon buying all manner of oddities and apparel for my wholesale and retail businesses. In less than three years I had two retail stores, eight employees and a vast wholesale business. So there, Women’s Bank!
On one of my quarterly buying trips to Chiloé, I went to the wharf in the village of Dalcahue to have a quiet meal after schlepping sweaters from outlying farmhouses into town all day by horse cart. A crisp Chilean Sauvignon Blanc accompanied chilled sea conch salad (more delicious than its cousin, abalone) and a stew redolent with sea bass and congrio (eel). I asked the cook to hold the mussels.
I was deciphering a newspaper when a shadow loomed over the newsprint. I looked up and there was a dwarf staring at me like I was some kind of freak. Tourists were still a rarity in these parts.
“Are you American?” he asked in perfect English. It was awkward speaking in my own language after so many days haltingly communicating in Tsesungún, the local dialect, so I just shook my head affirmatively.
This was the beginning of one of the oddest relationships I’ve ever had.
After a long existential philosophy debate over wine—a lot of wine—I agreed it was a grand idea for me to tag along with the dwarf on a fishing trip to the outer islands of the Chiloean Archipelago. He said he wanted to practice his English and that he was leaving immediately.
This was the moment when reality, folklore, and common sense blurred, sweeping me up on a magical mystery tour of mapless islands and fjords carved out by the Quaternary glaciers.
Without even checking his boat to make sure it could float or a concern about my tight buying trip schedule, I threw my belongings on deck and off we sailed.
The first evening as I was fending off the advances of my drunken captain (who had started being offensive as soon as we left port), a growling meow sound from behind made us pause in our verbal wrangling over why I didn’t want to sleep in his bed. A creature with four legs and opaque obsidian eyes, blanketed in shiny dark wet fur, scurried between my legs.
Oh my god, a wild sea otter! The dwarf yelled at it but it sashayed right through the open door of the cabin and burrowed into the tangle of blankets on the dwarf’s bed. It turned out the otter was a regular visitor and apparently viewed me as the intruder.
The dwarf and I came to an understanding very quickly. I would listen to his poems and the stories he wove about the mythology of Chiloé, but no no no on the hootchy-koo. And no pouting about it, either! He was a very moody little guy.
For the next several nights I lashed myself, wound in a cocoon of scratchy blankets, to the deck. And every evening the musky otter galumphed over me in order to cuddle up with the dwarf. This sleeping arrangement seemed to work for everybody.
Ostensibly, this was a fishing expedition but I never saw our captain throw a net or cast a line. The otter caught more fish than we did.
During the day as we chugged between islands, the dwarf recited poetry to his captive audience: me. His poems were swathed in angst and anger.
His father was a renowned Chilean poet who had disappeared under General Pinochet’s directive. The dwarf had also been detained within the last year by the military Junta, stuffed into a burlap sack and kicked to death. Or so the soldiers thought.
Now the dwarf was hiding out on a fishing boat in the waterways of islands, viewed as forgotten. It was not a large boat and he was a very passionate man. Deflection became my modality, yet I was attracted to and repulsed by him at the same time. His feudal behavior and primitive ways fit this strangely-lit terrain like a song.
The landscape of rolling moss green hills licked by the steel black-blue sea had the qualities of a dusty seventeenth-century Dutch master oil painting. During the day, a pallid light illuminated the mostly uninhabited sheep-strewn atolls. I loved the solitude and dreamy opaqueness of this region. It spoke to parts of me that were normally veiled behind the fast-paced international business life I led. Being with this temperamental poet inspired me to journal and photograph, attempting to capture Chiloé’s surreal, shadowy lure, and losing myself to the place in the process. It turned me inside out, bringing to the forefront of my awareness the mystical dreamscapes I inhabited as a child. I was even beginning to feel proportionally smaller. His size. Condensed down to his intense perspective.
We’d troll silently through the early morning mist that hovered over the waterways between these specks of islands. The dwarf would suddenly pause and stare with great intent toward the horizon. He would point and ask me to look in the direction he was indicating. Slowly, he’d unwind the myth about a ghost ship and how it warned seafarers to turn back toward land and away from the open seas.
As he told the tale in a barely audible whisper, I’d see fragments of a ship’s silhouette in the distance. We both knew it was a message not to travel any farther south. Obediently, we’d turn to the shores of some barren isle and moor, asking the local fishermen for sustenance.
The atmosphere inside their huts perched on the ragged rocky shore was dense with the fumes of smoky peat and stale dried conch. Some nights I’d sleep on the dirt floor of these huts just to escape the dwarf’s yearning and loneliness and the stench of the lovelorn sea otter.
Our ten-day sojourn did end, with the dwarf leaving me and my belongings back on the wharf in Dalcahue. He pulled anchor and went into hiding again. I gathered up my stock of sweaters sewn into flour sacks and traveled north.
This story is published in my book Exotic Life.