Seeing and Being Seen: Winter in Chile

Emily Guerin struggles with the cold and isolation in Puerto Varas.

Even though it never snows, winter in southern Chile is far colder than in Maine. Every morning of the two months I spent there I awoke in the half-darkness, my breath steaming into the gray light that glowed from behind the curtain. With only my head exposed, I lay on the mattress for a few minutes, willing myself to rise. The apartment I stayed in that winter with Juan Pablo, my Chilean boyfriend from a previous trip, was hastily constructed and un-insulated. Nails were sunk along pencil lines visible through the thin paint and cracks crept across the ceiling. The outside walls and roof of the apartment were made of sheet metal that magnified the sound of the rain. From my warm cave in the bed, I could just see a thin strip of sky, a uniform and shadowless white. On the other side of the room, the bathroom door stood open, revealing a frigid linoleum floor that would sting my bare feet when I went in to brush my teeth.

Often on cold mornings, I stayed in bed for a while after Juan Pablo went to work and thought about home. I had turned down a job leading wilderness trips in New Mexico to return to Chile, and the opportunity costs of my decision played through my head while I lay alone in the darkness. I did not regret the decision, but I idealized the hot desert summer and missed being around other young, outdoorsy people. I resolved to not return to southern Chile during the winter next time, and to wait until a trip to the southern hemisphere would be an escape from the northern cold.

When I finally got up, throwing off the blankets with a sharp intake of breath, I lit the space heater and crouched in front of it. I always feared it would explode. It was just a caged metal screen soaked with gas that purred when ignited. I spread my hands in front it, my chest and stomach roasting while my backside froze. Most houses in the south were heated by a wood stove, but not this one. People took advantage of the radiant heat and constructed metal drying racks that attached to the stovepipe or the wall behind it, so that the wood stove was frequently adorned with panties, undershirts, and socks. This drying method ensured that they would carry the smell of smoke with them when they left the house.

Not having a stove meant that our clothes never fully dried; everything we owned smelled like mildew. During the morning when Juan Pablo worked, I stayed at home reading about the forestry industry — the subject of my senior thesis and the official reason I was there — but I also vacuumed the apartment, cooked lunch on the small two-burner stove, and washed our clothes. On the porch landing, Juan Pablo had knotted short pieces of cord together to make a rope, and looped it back and forth between hooks he had hammered into the studs underneath the roof. I stood in bare feet on the damp porch while I hung our clothes, wet but not soaking from the washing machine he had purchased on credit with his neighbor. The sounds of the woodshop behind the apartment floated up to the porch. The Caribbean lilt of cumbia music from a local station alternated with the flat banging of a hammer, a saw ripping into wood, and the sharp sudden laughter of men. It seemed fitting that my neighbors were wood workers, since I spent so much time reading about forestry.

I stepped back inside, rubbing my hands together and held them in front of the heater. I had dragged it into the main room before hanging the clothes so that when I came in from the porch the chill would be gone. Sitting next to the heater at the one table Juan Pablo owned, I cupped my mug of tea and opened my laptop. Juan Pablo stole wireless internet from next door, and it was hit or miss. On the mornings it did not work I felt especially isolated, and usually walked into town to use the wifi at a café. But today I was in luck, and I began writing a long email to a college friend, Anna, who always responded quickly and with equally detailed letters. We were both outsiders in someone else’s home that summer; she had moved in with her boyfriend in his hometown in upstate New York. They lived across the street from his childhood home in an apartment his family owned, and in spite of a stint at a bakery in town, she had ended up working for the family company alongside him, his parents, and his brothers.

“Everything is his,” she would write to me. “I feel like there is little here that is mine alone.”

I felt the same way in Chile. Although Juan Pablo had recently moved to Puerto Varas, compared to me, he had been there forever. He blended in on the street, understood the puns in the newspaper that went over my head, and never needed to calculate how much something cost in dollars before comprehending how much it was worth. We visited his friends at night, he gave me places to stay while researching in other cities, and he picked our weekend destinations.

“It makes me angry sometimes that he takes his belonging for granted,” I wrote to Anna. “All I want is one thing or place of my own, something to show off to him.”

My desire to have experiences independent of Juan Pablo drove me away from him for some time. I also needed to do research at a university library, so I spent weekdays in Valdivia, a coastal city three hours to the northwest, coming back to him on weekends. He had introduced me to some family friends there, Oscar and Celia, who welcomed me into a small spare bedroom tucked underneath the stairs. Oscar worked for the forest service, and even though his experience had awarded him an administrative position, he still wore flannel shirts, canvas pants, and boots to the office every day. Celia stayed at home, and through the thin walls I could hear her singing in the living room and kitchen as she prepared dinner or once, afternoon tea. The house smelled faintly of oranges because Celia set the skins to dry on top of the stove.

At night their friends came over, and often I joined them around the small kitchen table. Under the buzzing fluorescent light I tried to laugh along with them, but they talked so quickly. The jokes were the worst because not only did I have to understand what they said, but why that certain combination of words was funny. When Oscar laughed, he removed his glasses and pinched the corners of his eyes, his great belly and broad shoulders heaving. Celia would nudge or wink at me, but the best I could do was smile and nod. Sometimes they stopped to explain it to me, but this just made me feel more out of place; besides, a joke explained is never as funny as it is the first time.

But on other nights, when just Oscar, Celia and their two grown-up children were home, the conversations were warm and inviting. Often we camped out on the floor and watched the news. Celia and I knitted while the others taunted us, asking if we were ever going to finish. I sat next to the wood stove, and the kitten that always curled beneath it played with the ball of yarn.

In those moments, I didn’t miss home. When I did, though, I ached for it. I had to limit myself to an hour a day of computer time, usually after breakfast. I wrote emails to friends and checked their Facebook profiles, feeling panicked if I had no interviews or research planned for the day. My mind would wander if given too much free time, and I had to schedule myself activities to keep busy.

One particularly lonely night, I made a list of the good things that had happened that day in an effort not to be so negative. I surprised myself and wrote more than I expected. I began with “good, cheap mandarin oranges.” On a whim I had walked a different route home and stopped by a fruit stand. Wooden crates overflowed with bruised fruits that had been rejected for export — grapes, apples, and mandarin oranges. I picked myself two-dozen of the best-looking ones and took them home, eating a few along the way. As I walked, I threw the peels into vacant lots where they shone among the wet grass and trash. The oranges were delicious, sweet and not at all sour.

Another high point of that day had been “the run in the morning to Fundo Isla Teja Norte.” The fundo was a nature preserve on the far corner of the large, suburban island where Celia and Oscar lived, and I frequently ended up there on my runs. I set out from the house, jogging down the street through the mist and smoky air. I crossed the avenue, feeling tense as I anticipated the inevitable whistle from the construction workers repairing the street, and then up the hill, past the charred house that had burned down just the week before — a fact of life in a city heated by wood.

The nicest homes sat at the top of the hill overlooking the River Cruces. All the streets were named after Chilean painters, musicians, and artists. The homes themselves were expensive and interesting, with large metal prows, turrets, or curved archways. I ran past these homes, squeezed through a fence that had been cut back for such a purpose, and into the vacant lot that separated the homes from the preserve. Horses grazed in the tall grass, and occasionally I glimpsed a young couple lying together on a blanket.

On the far side of the lot, horse trails wound through the lush woods. Hanging vines wrapped around the branches and trunks of huge trees, and I leapt over puddles decorated with fallen leaves. The woods smelled fresh, a mixture of mud and the ephemeral scent released by wet leaves after a hard rain. As the trail approached the river, I could see a tugboat quietly churning down the narrow channel. A small clearing had been cut in the forest on the far corner of the preserve, and I sat here and looked out over the river. The forest grew textured and thick on the far shore before giving way to delicate waving marsh grasses and finally the steely gray of open water. The grasses bowed over when raindrops struck them, and the surface of the river seemed to vibrate. When I sat there, I could forget I was in Chile. There were no Spanish signs and no one to speak to. But as soon as I ducked back around the fence and jogged down the street, the street signs, micro buses and conversations I overheard grounded me in Valdivia.

On the way back to the house, the rain stopped for about ten minutes, a fleeting break in what had been six continuous days of rain (I would note this moment in my list that night). In New England, where I’m from, it rains but it comes and goes throughout the day. Puddles may not dry up immediately, but between the rains the pavement smells metallic and steams into the clearing air. Here, it doesn’t stop and the light is gray and even, hardly changing between morning and evening. On the third day I asked the Chileans I was staying with if this was normal, and they shrugged. But by the sixth day they were complaining along with me and poring over the weather page in the newspaper, looking for a respite. Rivers swallowed bridges and swamped roads, isolating rural communities for days after the storm ended.

During the storm, I was staying in Valdivia, which stretched along the banks of the confluence of three rivers. One day I had put on my raincoat and waterproof pants and walked down to the nature preserve to mark how high the water had risen. Roots of trees disappeared under the silty waters; a bench became no more than a submerged backrest. The day after my run, the rain let up, and I stood outside in the sunlight that glinted silver on all the puddles. If the rain was good for something, it was moments like these: my upturned face seeking the fleeting winter light, the rich smell of mud and wet leaves.

By the end of the summer, my list of the simple pleasures that brightened what were frequently dreary, long weeks of research had grown. I took a bus to the coast on a whim to find the beach deserted except for two men who were sawing up an enormous tree trunk that had washed up on shore and towing the wood uphill in an ox-cart. I had discovered a café that served tea in glass pots so that you could see the tea swirl through the darkening water. Once, when I was locked out of Oscar and Celia’s house, I had knocked on their neighbor’s door and started chatting with the woman who lived there, a Colombian veterinary student named Bibiana. She served me tea as we waited for someone to let me in, and we talked about being foreign in Chile. I assumed that as a South American, she must be having an easier time than me, but as I listened to her, I began to doubt my assumption. Her fiancé lived in Colombia, and although she called him every day, it was obviously not enough. She enjoyed her studies, but felt excluded by her Chilean classmates. She described the women as cold and the men as either too interested or not at all. Her few friends were all exchange students. Eventually I heard a car pull into the driveway, and I thanked her for the tea. We exchanged phone numbers and I and went back to Oscar and Celia’s, excited about my new friend.

When I returned to Puerto Varas the following day, Juan Pablo met me at the bus station — another one of my simple pleasures. I loved watching him step out of the car he had borrowed to pick me up and move through the small crowd that had gathered outside the bus to hug me as I descended. As I wrapped my arms around his warm, solid body, I looked around at the other passengers who were embracing relatives of their own, making impatient calls on their cellphones or waiting for someone to arrive. For once, I felt equal to them: we had all traveled alone and we were all being picked up by someone who cared about us. The sense of belonging, of having a place and a person to return to when I was so far from home, never ceased to be a novelty to me; every time he met me at the bus, I felt that simple joy.

In the car on the way back to the apartment, Juan Pablo asked me how my week of research had been. I dutifully recited the research highlights — an interview with an ex-guerrilla, and a relevant book I found — but enthusiastically told him about Bibiana in a level of detail I reserved for exciting stories I thought would impress or entertain him. She was mine to describe, and I did so with pleasure.

That weekend we visited a national park neither of us had ever been to. It was named after the slow-growing alerce, similar to the redwood, a tree native to the wettest parts of the temperate rain forests near Puerto Varas. After an hour of driving down steadily worsening roads, we parked in front of a homemade sign that indicated the one trail into the park. We opened the cattle gate and let ourselves in.

Juan Pablo hiked slowly because he was always pausing to take pictures. Frequently I turned around to find him crouching to photograph the tendril of some vine or the soft petals of tiny flowers. He noticed things I did not — a blade of light that cut through an opening in the canopy, electrifying one fern, and the pattern drawn by yellow-tinged rot on fallen leaves. But I detected odors he could not; ever since a motorcycle accident the year before, he had been unable to smell. The injury’s only visible scar was a thick white line that ran over his scalp from ear to ear. The doctors had peeled back his face and replaced the fractured bones with metal plates. When the swelling had diminished a few weeks after the motorcycle accident, two things had changed: a light touch to the space between his eyebrows could now be felt on his cheek, and he was unable to smell.

I didn’t know him before the accident, so there was nothing to say when he claimed it had changed him. But I didn’t doubt him; even simple things were different afterward, like the way he cooked. He no longer cared to add spices to his food, only doing so when I complained that it was bland. He bought cilantro for me when I visited because I liked it; to him it was just a bouquet of expensive leaves.

More infuriating to him was the way he experienced the outdoors. In between snapping pictures, he stopped me to ask, “What does it smell like here?” And I would tune in, trying to describe the ulmo flowers that made the most delicious honey, the sweetness of crushed grass or the raw smell of water beneath a cascade. Fortunately he had experienced all these odors before, so I didn’t have to describe the intricacies of each one, but merely name them as they came to me. Even though it frustrated him, I liked this game because I had access to something he did not. I had something to offer him, for once.

We returned from our hike wet and cold, as usual. We turned the space heater on high and burrowed in the bed as we waited for the apartment to warm up. Juan Pablo pressed his face into the back of my neck, whispering that he was trying to find the taste of my scent, el sabor de mi olor. He said if he sniffed hard enough he could feel certain odors as a tingle on the back of his tongue. I think that he knew he was going to lose me; I was going back to the United States after my winter of research and would not return. So he pressed his nose into my skin, inhaling, trying to find at least a trace of a taste. But taste is not like smell. We do not stumble into tastes, only to find ourselves suddenly transported to some distant place.

But I can smell, and certain odors make me remember him. I left Juan Pablo and our relationship in Chile at the end of that August, but on various occasions since then I have stepped out of my house in Maine and smelled the woodsmoke in the rain. The wood here is native to Maine and smells differently when burned than Chilean wood, but the way it hit me jolted me back to the lingering dampness and wet darkness of that winter.

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.