Seeing and Being Seen

While researching her thesis in rural Chile, Emily Guerin learns that her interactions and relationships with people abroad have deeper consequences than expected.

As an American woman traveling alone in rural southern Chile, I always stood out. Even in summer, the town of Panguipulli was relatively tourist-free and I was conscious of the double-takes and turned heads. I tried not to, but I knew I carried myself like a traveler. Rural Chile was like a museum for me and I walked slowly through Panguipulli, pausing to admire the exhibits. Tippy wheelbarrows full of fruit and vegetables sat in front of restaurants and grocery stores, turning the sidewalks into a haphazard open air market. Old women sat on milk crates, shucking peas into the skirts that draped between their legs. Serrated knives were stabbed into chunks of stringy pumpkin that sat alongside small plastic bags of cut celery or cabbage. I had always loved the tiny produce stores and the markets, the orderly fruit arrangements that contrasted with the chaos of the street.

I was visiting the area for my senior thesis, a history of the Chilean forestry industry. I wanted to interview smallholders about their woodlots and for that I needed to travel to Lake Neltume, a small town tucked among the densely forested foothills east of the town. The bus from Panguipulli dropped me at the fork in the road; no busses led to Lake Neltume. As walked down the dusty, empty road, I began to wish the day would end. Despite being young, female, and alone, no one had picked me up, and I was sick of walking. I wanted to be back in the pensión in Panguipulli sitting in the garden, wrapped in a blanket, eating raspberries and cream in the rich afternoon light, and writing about the day in my journal. I frequently felt this way while traveling alone: let me get through this day so that I may spend many pleasant hours later, remembering what happened.

But I was hours away from that. As I trudged along, I regretted my choice of shoes. That morning, I had been so confident that I would get picked up immediately that I wore flip flops. But nearly two hours later, I was still walking, and my feet were dirty and sore. I passed through patches of sun and shade, past second-growth native forest and sheep pasture. The forests ceded to fields bordered by homemade fences and barbed wire where alamo trees stood in rows to break the wind. When planted in a row, the alamos grow tall and narrow, their branches entangled with the tree next to them. Cows slapped their tails against their backs in the spotty shade beneath them, swatting the huge biting flies that infest the Andean foothills and forests in the summer.

Behind the fields rose the densely vegetated hills, and above the hills the sun reflected off the year-round snowpack of Volcán Choshuenco. At night, the clouds would wrap around the cone of the volcano, a gradient of pastels in the fading light. But at the moment the snow burned white in the blue sky.

Finally a pick-up truck stopped, and I got in the back seat. Three men were already inside, and they asked me how far I was going.

Al lago,” to the lake, I said, and the driver nodded.

A rosary bobbed around the rearview mirror, and the car smelled like leather. More fields flew by the window, then a small tulip plantation and the entrance to an old logging roads. I glanced in the rear view mirror to see if the driver was looking back at me, but he stared straight ahead, as did the other passengers. They seemed uninterested in me, which was a shame because I was intrigued by them. After fifteen minutes of silence, they let me out at another fork and pointed in the direction I was to continue.

I began walking again, and after a short while I came upon a small mini-market, where flags of candy companies hung limp in the dead air outside the door. Inside, two men stopped talking as I entered. One was leaning on a glass counter that contained candy bars and chips, and the other had his arms crossed. I apologized for interrupting, but did they know the Guarda Salinas family, who had been recommended to me by a man who worked for the forest service in Panguipulli. He had given me a list of all the families in Lake Neltume that had management plans for their native forest and drew a small star next to the Guardas. “Visit them,” he told me. “They are conservationists.”

The men nodded and told me the Guardas lived at the bottom of the hill, first driveway on the right. I thanked them and left, lingering as I always did on the way out for some bit of their conversation, hoping they would gossip about me if they thought I was out of earshot.

In Lake Neltume I was rarer than in Panguipulli. I was tall for Chilean standards, pale, short-haired and wore American-style clothing. As I descended the hill, I received curious stares from the people I passed. Everyone I saw was walking, mostly in the opposite direction. A man with a wrinkled face dressed entirely in black — work boots, a collared shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat — nodded at me as we crossed paths. Later, two women appeared around the bend carrying between them a basket covered with a cloth. I suspected cherries or bread, but didn’t stop them to ask. Two small girls ran in front of their young mothers, who chatted loudly. Their long dark hair was pulled back with the plastic clips I saw everywhere in stores in Panguipulli, clipped onto strings that hung from windows and door frames. Did they whisper to each other after I passed? Did they point and giggle as soon as my back was turned?

Near the bottom of the hill, the forest began to thin out and soon I could see the outline of a house through the trees. Most rural homes were short, built from corrugated metal with plastic sheeting over the windows. But the Guarda house was tall, with glass windows and clean wooden siding. Alongside the tall house sat a smaller one, the kind I expected to see in the countryside, with rooms tacked on whenever money was available to construct an addition. The small house had been their permanent residence for many years, I would learn, and the taller one was still under construction.

I approached the gate and called out to a small boy who was running along the driveway.

“Oye!” I yelled. “Does Herna Salinas live here?”

He nodded and came towards me, pulling the heavy wooden gate open so I could pass.

“I’ll take you to her,” he said. As we approached the house, he ran ahead to get his grandmother.

Hay una tía aquí,” he called out, there is an aunt here to see you.

I knew he was referring to me, since Chilean children use the word for “aunt” when addressing unknown women, something that took some getting used to. Herna emerged from the house. She was a small woman with clean, unwrinkled clothing and short white hair. I explained that I had gotten her name from a man who worked for the forest service and that I wanted to talk to her about how she managed her native forest.

“Of course, of course!” she said. “We’ll sit down.”

But the house she invited me into was the tall unfinished one, and she beat the dust from a chair before motioning for me to sit down. The table was covered with a plastic sheet, the floor half-tiled. The sun fell through the high, clean windows across the floor in wide stripes, and the air smelled like new wood. It was not until after her son Rodrigo had given me a tour of their property that I would be welcomed into their actual home. It felt like a test, invite the gringa into the larger, American-style house and see how she reacts, then, if all goes well, bring her in with the family.

Herna called for Rodrigo to help her explain the history of the property, why they hadn’t felled their forest and replaced it with pasture like the majority of the landowners in the area. From what I gathered, they had enough money not to destroy their forest. The same could not be said for other residents of Lake Neltume. I followed Rodrigo down the narrow roads cut into the hillsides over the generations the Guardas had owned the land. Herna’s grandfather had bought the land, the only non-Mapuche Indian in a completely indigenous area. The history of the property seemed to be a sensitive subject since compared to the Mapuche, who can claim ancestral roots to the land since time immemorial, the Guardas had just arrived in Lake Neltume. Herna stressed how long the family had been there, the improvements they had made to the land, that all the children had gone to the rural school.

Rodrigo led me down to the river that ran through their property, and I dipped my swollen feet in the cold water. He ran his hands through his thick black hair and looked up river. He was tall, tan, well-built, and I wondered if he was married. He didn’t wear a ring, but I knew this meant little in Chile; married men often kept their rings at home. He was by far the most attractive of the three Guarda brothers I would meet that day. I met the other two, Joel and Sebastián, while they were making charcoal on the top of a hill. They wore sun hats with bandanas draped over the backs of their necks and stood leaning on shovels. During my brief conversation with them they stared at me with the look that Chilean men reserve for pretty foreign girls. I must have seemed ephemeral to them, having appeared out of nowhere and disappearing just as quickly when Rodrigo escorted me away into a stand of native forest the family had been managing. He pointed out the different tree species and where the harvesting had taken place. The forest was spacious and free of undergrowth. Silvery lichens grew on the bark of the trees, and grass glowed neon in the sunlight. We continued down a hill and circled back around to the house, pausing in an orchard to sample cherries. I made a motion to leave, but Rodrigo insisted I come in for tea.

This time I was brought inside the kitchen of the crowded and warm house. Rodrigo sat me down at the table and retreated, leaving me with his señora, his wife or fiance (it was unclear), and a myriad of nameless children, some his and some belonging to his brothers. They sat three in a row on benches along the walls, but I was the only one seated at the table. Rodrigo’s señora sat in front of a window, backlit by the flat mid-afternoon light. She was young, probably about my age. A bowl of cherries rested on her very pregnant stomach. A small girl sat next to her quietly picking fruit from the bowl, her attention divided between me and the television, where girls in bikinis floated inside plastic bubbles in a pool in Santiago. The point of the program seemed to be to reveal as much of the girls’ bodies as possible, and when they inevitably fell over after trying to stand in the bubble their flawless backsides, barely concealed in G-strings, were upturned towards the camera.

Behind me, a metal pan clattered on the counter as Herna pulled loaves of bread from the wood-fired oven. She moved quickly and deliberately through the kitchen, glancing at the eggs popping in oil on the stove, prying open the lid of a stubborn can, stirring a pot. She didn’t look like a woman from the countryside — pearl earrings sparkled beneath her tidy, cropped hair — but she ran the kitchen like one. She had given birth to eleven children in that house, and I imagined her squatting and pushing her babies into the world. She was a tiny woman, no more than five feet tall, and if I hadn’t known that she had already given birth so many times I would have doubted her ability to do so.

“More tea?” she asked me, clasping her strong delicate hands to her chest.

I nodded.

Joel and Sebastián walked in and sat down, hanging their hats on nails above the window. They watched me eat what Herna served me: eggs with orange yolks, homemade bread and jam, and tea in a white cracked cup. After asking me where I was from and what I was doing there, a playful look overcame Joel’s face and he said, “There are not many women here. They don’t like the countryside.”

“No?” I asked, making eye contact with Rodrigo’s señora. She gave me a sly look and waved at Joel dismissively.

Joel must have been encouraged by this gesture because he pushed further, “We’re all single here. A bunch of bachelors.”

At this comment even the children laughed. I looked from face to face, unsure but smiling anyway. The señora rolled her eyes.

“He’s the only single one,” she said.

There was a pause, and then Sebastián asked me what I was going to do after college. He was seated next to Joel and a thin, tan boy peered over his shoulder.

“I’m not sure yet,” I replied, gazing between the various pairs of eyes that awaited my answer.

“You should move to southern Chile!” Joel blurted out, leaning forward in his chair.

We all laughed at this, and I almost responded, “I’ve already tried being with a Chilean, and it didn’t work out.” But instead I met Joel’s eyes and held my tongue. I had to pick carefully what they would know about me. I wanted no baggage; I wanted Joel and his family to think of me as a clean sheet, as someone who did not exist until I walked down their driveway earlier that day. But at the same time, I wanted to linger in their minds. “Do you remember that pretty American girl?” he would ask them. They would pause, then nod and think of my short hair, dirty feet, accented but fluid Spanish. “Oh Joel,” the señora would tease him.

When later that afternoon Joel offered to accompany me to the next person I wanted to interview, a man named Mario who lived down the road. I told him I would be fine alone.

“But the dogs,” he said, standing and removing his hat from the nail, “he’ll have dogs.”

So Joel walked me through the orchard and down the driveway, stopping to lower the branches of a cherry tree so I could reach the fruit. He wasn’t much taller than me, and had a patchy graying beard that I imagined would feel scratchy on soft skin. His hands were tan and hardened, the callused skin yellow and shiny. He wore a black collared shirt and work boots in a style I was coming to associate with men from the countryside, and his hat was sweat-stained and faded. He squinted at me as I slid a cherry into my mouth, and I began to sense my power over him. Yes, we were in his terrain. He could easily lead me to an abandoned farm instead of Mario’s and force himself on me, or worse.

But watching him watch me, I knew this was not the case. Instead I felt the sexual power that comes with being an American woman traveling alone in a country where young women infrequently travel alone, domestically or abroad. Choosing to make myself vulnerable by being by myself tended to project the opposite, that I was in fact confident and strong. My ambiguity — is she a strong, independent woman or a naive foreigner to be taken advantage of? — made me mysterious, inaccessible. I saw Joel in his home, had met his family and walked around his land. I knew his standing in life, but he could only believe what I told him about myself. I could be anyone.

In addition, I could tell he wanted me. The joking around in the kitchen was cute, but underneath, it was accompanied by a deep longing. It was probably true that few women visited the countryside, and even fewer presented themselves at his doorstep like I had. Spending his days making charcoal, felling trees, and holing up in the kitchen at night with his family, Joel had few opportunities to meet a potential wife. He was getting older, and all of his siblings were pairing off. So when I walked in, he suddenly was given a chance. Even though he must have known it was improbable, if not impossible, he still tried to win me over. And because of his efforts, I began to like him.

As we neared the lake, we passed another mini-market. “Do you want a drink?” he asked me.

I hesitated, not very thirsty. “If there is juice, sure.”

“Juice?” He yelled at the woman who sat on the porch of the mini-market, which was really a house that sold things out of the front room. She was rubbing white foam into her hair, which was plastered to her head.

“No,” she yelled back with busy hands.

Joel looked at me and I shrugged. We walked in anyway. The mini-market was in the center of town, but all that meant was that the houses were clustered closer together instead of tucked up steep hillsides and down rutted dirt roads. There were no true stores, only two small markets where the living rooms of the houses used to be. The residences resembled the Guarda’s old home, short and covered in sheet metal or plywood.

“Juice?” Joel asked the man who appeared from behind a curtained doorway.

“No,” he said.

Joel looked from me to the shelves that were stacked with bottles of fluorescent soft drinks, bags of lentils, and dried beans. The light was dim and filtered through the dust particles that floated in the air. The man tapped his fingers on the homemade counter.

“Soda?”

“No thank you. I don’t like soda very much,” I replied.

Joel looked flustered. “Ice cream?”

He asked the man, who shook his head.

“Yogurt?” He looked back to me.

I didn’t want anything, but I could tell he wanted to buy me something so I pointed at a box of fruit flavored candies. The man filled a small bag and Joel passed him a 100-peso coin.

“Thank you,” I said as we stepped into the sunlight. “Do you want one?”

We kept walking. I would have turned back if Joel hadn’t been with me; it was further to Mario’s house than I thought. The road was hot, and there was little shade. No vehicles passed in the hour we walked, and I began to feel desperate. I didn’t want to walk the whole way back. I asked Joel how far it was.

“Not much further,” he replied. A few minutes later he turned to me, smiling, “Do you want to stop at the lake?”

I said okay, and Joel led me down to the shore of Lake Neltume, just through the woods on the side of the road. I waded in the shallow water, looking across the lake, which was a shade of blue I had never seen in American water. The lake was small and narrow, but with a wide river outlet on the north end. On the far shore, some Australians had bought a fundo, a large farm, and started a pine plantation. The uniform green of thousands of identical pines stood out from the textured native forest on the surrounding hills. Up from the shore of the lake ran the gray ribbon of the road we had just traveled down. I turned back to Joel. He was standing in the sun, squinting at me with his hands in his pockets.

He beamed. “Want to go?”

I nodded.

Joel knew which unmarked driveway was Mario’s, and after another twenty minutes of walking, we stepped delicately over a barbed wire fence and began to climb the driveway. There were no tire tracks among the dust and pebbles, only footsteps, some of them from bare feet. The top of the hill was dotted with dingy metal shacks. A breeze ruffled the clothes hanging on the line and a pig rooted in the loose dirt. Two dogs emerged from behind softly swaying cornstalks. Joel picked up a stick and flicked it menacingly against his pants. I could see him calculating distance: two barbed wire fences, a path, a narrow patch of yellowed grass and a coiled hose separated us from the dogs. Because I didn’t know better, I went ahead, hollering through cupped hands “AH-LO? AH-LO,” a distortion of “hello” that Chileans used instead of hola.

Mario appeared from one of the metal houses and descended. We stood in the feeble shade of a small tree, and I told him that I wanted to ask him about his native forest. He was short, and his brown skin was very tan, with wrinkles that radiated out from his mouth and eyes. He stared at my sunburned feet, and I placed my bag on the ground to hide them. Mario sized me up and rested his gaze on my breasts a minute. I crossed my arms.

“You’re brave to come out here alone,” he said in the thickly accented voice of the campo, the countryside.

Rural Chileans, especially those from the south, have a singsong way of talking. Their voices rise and fall, and they use words that people from Santiago would laugh at, like galpón, a barn, or fogón, a bonfire for cooking. Chileans are known for speaking quickly, cutting off the ends of words and not enunciating, and Mario was no exception. I had to concentrate to understand him.

As we chatted, Mario told me about the history of his property. It was small and steep, and he had cut down most of the trees many years ago. Cows grazed on tough grasses and weeds, and a tiny patch of vegetables was tucked behind a metal shack. In the past, wheat, potatoes and peas had all grown in abundance in the now thin soil.

“Every year it gets worse,” Mario said, drawing a line in the dust with his leathery finger. “Almost nothing grows here anymore.”

He began to recite the stories he had heard in the news about juvenile delinquency in Santiago, the capital city over twelve hours away but very much the center of Chile, both geographically and in terms of culture, news coverage, and population. Nearly seven million people live there, in a country of only sixteen million. The city has swollen outwards and up against the Andes, which tower above the smog, skyscrapers, and shantytowns below. I didn’t know if Mario had ever visited Santiago, but he seemed well informed about the negative aspects of living there.

“In Santiago, you couldn’t walk around alone like you are now. They’d cut your throat.” He drew his finger across his neck. “Here in the campo, people are humble, good.”

I looked over at Joel, who was kicking one boot in the dust. He was standing in the sun in order to let Mario and me to occupy the shade cast by a skinny tree. His shirt was unbuttoned slightly at the neck, revealing a triangle of skin. I wondered what it felt like to press on that spot, the small hollow where his throat met his chest. In the few hours I had spent with Joel, I had developed a fondness for him, for the way he wore his loneliness and longing on his sleeve. I wanted to be able to give him what I thought he wanted, but I was afraid of abusing the power I had to give into him or to deny him.

On a previous stay in Chile, I had been accused of playing with people’s lives and then disappearing back to the United States, leaving them to deal with the consequences of my actions. I had met a young man named Gabriel while rock climbing in Valparaíso, a coastal port city in central Chile where I was studying abroad. It was my first trip to Chile, and I was consumed by the desire to meet “real” Chileans and break away from my group of Americans. I discovered that few international students went to the local bouldering area, a outcropping of black, overhanging rocks on the ocean north of the city. I met Gabriel and his friends climbing one afternoon, and shortly thereafter began going to bars and barbecues with them. After one particularly raucous evening, Gabriel walked me home in the blue light before dawn, and we kissed. I didn’t know he had just broken up with his girlfriend of three years until she began to call, text, and email me incessantly. She must have gotten my number from his phone. I ignored her for weeks, but she called so much that the sound of the phone ringing began to give me the chills. Finally I answered. Her voice was high and shrill, and she yelled loud and fast into the phone.

“Do you think this is a game?” She screamed. “You can just come here and fuck with our lives, and then leave us to clean up your mess. Is this fun for you?”

I assured her I didn’t know they had just broken up, and that I had never intended to cause trouble.

“You ought to think more about what you do, whose lives you ruin,” she spat. “You think we’re just players in your little travel game. But we’re not just here to amuse you. Are you done messing with us yet?”

As I started to reply, she hung up on me, leaving me standing alone on the patio of my host family’s house. Shaken, I put the phone away and tried to forget about the incident.

But now a year later, I could still feel the guilt that originated in my stomach and spread through my body after that conversation. I looked over at Joel and felt the same power that I had held over Gabriel and his ex-girlfriend. I could play the game, could see how intimate I could be with him in a day, then disappear. I could be a collector of colorful travel experiences with “real people” that I would savor from the safety of the United States. I could think about Joel as the subject of a good story to be recounted over drinks to friends. “Let me tell you about this man I met in Chile,” I would say. “I think he fell in love with me, the poor guy.” I didn’t want to look back on Joel with pity, and I didn’t want to string him along by indulging him. So I limited our experience together to that day, and kept myself at a distance.

Eventually Mario let us leave, and we descended the driveway. Joel walked ahead of me, looking back whenever I slid on loose pebbles. When I said goodbye to Joel, after a fortuitous car ride had returned us back to town, I would feel his beard on my cheek, his tough hand on the delicate skin of my clavicle. I placed my hand on his shoulder and felt his muscle underneath the thin cotton. The cheek kiss was a customary goodbye in Chile, but ours felt heavy with the weight of being the only physical contact we would ever share. Our eyes met briefly as his rough cheek withdrew from mine, but he was already moving away from me and into the dust that floated over the road. I don’t know if Joel thinks about the day as often as I do, but I find it ironic that it’s me who replays our encounter over and over, the memory faded and worn out from use.

Emily Guerin works as an environmental educator and newbie journalist in Maine, where she actively works to disprove the stigma that all people from Massachusetts are "Massholes." When she leaves New England, she gravitates toward Latin America or the American West.