Avocado Republic — 13 April 2015

“The Avocado Republic of Chile, Because it’s too Cold to Grow Bananas” is Chile’s ultimate tour guide.  Laugh-out-loud funny and insightful.  American writer sick of the pollution and noise in Santiago moves to the country for peace and quiet.  What he did not know is when you move to the country, you exchange one set of problems for another. Click through the arrows to read.

The Avocado Republic of Chile Chile Independence Day Dust and Dirt in Rural Chile
Chaos at the Local School The Market Earthquakes
Love and Romance in Chile The Chilean Concept of Time My Vegetable Garden
The Compost Pile There is no Heat in Chile Drinking Burgoyne
Chilean Food is Boring and Bland Rodeo in Chile The Caretaker
The Cactus Garden Watching the Southern Skies Oscar’s Adventures
Things Fall Apart Argentina’s Dark Culture Rene, the Communist
Chewing Coca Leaves The Mapuche Conflict Cuasimodo

 by

Walker Rowe

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I am in our apartment in Providencia looking for a light bulb to screw into a lamp so I can read the newspaper. I have to unscrew one bulb from the guest bedroom and screw it in the master bedroom. Why don’t we have two light bulbs? In Chile, it seems I am always looking for a light bulb or reaching over to turn on a lamp only to find that someone has unplugged it.

The other problem is finding the light switch. You would expect when you enter a room to find the light switch on the right hand wall as you enter. Wrong. Here the lamp switch could be located anywhere. Go to the bathroom and close the door and you will find that you have to open the door again because the light switch is located outside in the hallway. Why would someone locate a light switch outside the bathroom? Someone who wants to play a prank on you could switch off the light just as you are in compromised position.

I suffered this situation again over the weekend as we went to my in-law’s house to take care of their dogs while they were on vacation. When I walk around that house stumbling around in the dark I can never find the light switch. Usually the light switch is located on the wrong wall or even in the wrong room. Then if you can find the light switch, it’s located too far down the wall, about waist high. While I hunt for it my hair gets tangled in an ornament my mother in law has hung from the ceiling. When I go outside, I bang my head on the satellite TV dish. Such things don’t bother Chileans too much as they are far shorter than the gringo.

I sat down to document my frustration over all of this and write the last chapter of this book. But I could not get my wireless modem to work. So I went down to the ground floor of the apartment building to connect to the wireless internet there. It was dark so I switched on the lamp. But the lamp did not turn on because someone had unplugged it.

The Mighty Wrath of the River

I want to end this book on an upbeat note, which I will do in a couple of pages from here. But events of the past few weeks have overrun the entire country, so I need to tell you about that first. Brace yourself. You are about to be made depressed.

First, last week there was the spectacle of the Minister of Interior telling the press, “Chile is not a corrupt country.” That’s what I thought. But in a rare case of someone from the upper class actually going to prison, executives of Penta Bank are behind bars, having created fake invoices to divert funds to members of the UDI, the right-wing political party. The former mining minister is in prison too having taken bribes to look favorably on the bank’s mining projects. In the second scandal, the President’s son sat down at a meeting with his wife and one of Chile’s richest men, Andrónico Luksic, whose family owns 1/3 of the Bank of Chile. Citibank owns the rest. After the meeting, the Bank of Chile gave the wife’s business a $12 million loan which they used to buy and then flip industrial property at a huge profit. This influence peddling gave the UDI right wing, newly embattled from their dealings with Penta Bank, the opportunity to attack the Socialist president, thus making both sides of the political spectrum sweat. The New York Times wrote about all of this on the front page, asking whether Chile is corrupt like the rest of Latin America. This caused great embarrassment for a country that says it is the least corrupt in Latin America.

The other news was we had yet another natural disaster. The Villarica volcano erupted for the first time in 40 years, shooting lava straight up 3 km. I published some eyewitness accounts of that in my ezine Southern Pacific Review. But that volcano is always smoking, so people do not live underneath it and there were no injuries.

But the people in the Copiapo region were not so lucky.

Copiapo is at the southern end of the Atacama Desert. The Copiapo River has been dry for 20 years. The region receives less than 1 mm per year of rain and relies on snowmelt for irrigation and drinking water. But just because a river is dry does not mean there is no water running under the ground. For example, here in Curacaví our river is dry too. But the water comes to the surface again 10 km outside town. So agricultural uses the dry river for water in Copiapo.

To the south of Copiapo is Vallenar and Vicuña on the Vallenar and Elqui rivers. Those rivers are not dry, but they are not deep either. Both the Copiapo and Vallenar regions are planted wall-to-wall with extra sweet grapes used to make Pisco which is distilled grapes and water. The vineyards are planted along the riverbanks, not only because there is water there. It’s also the only flat land available. The mountains on either side are so steep that you can hardly walk up them and certainly cannot farm there nor build houses. So the people live in the tiny sliver of land along the river. It is a surreal, beautiful image of the done dry, dusty mountains contrasted with the green vineyards below.

So the people there never think about rain. Some children there have never seen rain.

Two weeks ago Weather Underground in the USA tweeted that a highly unusual low pressure ridge was forming in the area. Chilean forecasters predicted rain too, but not as early and not soon enough. And the Chilean authorities did not raise the alert as to possible flooding in time. People living in the area had forgotten that rain in a region where there is no rain produces devastating flood as happened 40 years ago. So no one was prepared and no warning given. The same thing happened in the 8.8 earthquake in 2010. The American Tsunami Pacific Warning Services sent out a warning. But the Chilean authorities did not relay it to the people and 500 people drowned.

In Copiapo, the skies unleashed rain for 3 days straight. The rain driven clouds were accompanies by lightning, which is also rare here. Suddenly the rivers which had been dry or ankle deep were raging torrents of rocks and mud.

The Andes in this area have no trees, no grass or anything to hold them together. The mountainsides are just dirt and rock gingerly held aloft against the force of gravity without much support. So pour water on it and it all comes tumbling down, like a sandcastle at the beach.

All of that rain created what they call in Spanish an alud or aluvion. In English you would call it a mudslide, but it was more like a lahar which is a kilometers long river of rock and mud created when a volcanic eruption melts snow causing the hillside to give way.

All of those green vineyards simply vanished under 2 meters of mud. What had been a trellis that you could walk underneath was simply gone. Rain-propelled rock and mud spread out for hundreds of square kilometers sweeping away everything in front of it. As the flood reached the coastal town of Chañaral it fanned out across the floodplain taking 35 km of the Pan American highway with it and burying the town.

The great irony in this is that Chañaral, like other towns on the Chilean coast are under on constant alert for tsunamis. Those are a much bigger danger here than the actual earthquakes. So the town was looking seaward for the danger of a tsunami while it hit them from behind.

Fifty people disappeared under the mud. Hundreds of houses were swept away or filled with 2 meters of mud. 40,000 houses were damaged.

The TV news showed the incredible footage of the river carrying cars and tractor trailer trucks downstream, reminiscent of the footage from the Japanese tsunami of two years ago. Some of these trucks were filled with deadly sulfuric acid created as a byproduct of separating copper sulfate from rock. One fixed tank owner reported that his tanks of sulfuric acid were now empty.

The scene was like you might see in some impoverished country like Bangladesh. Video captured images of people caked in mud being swept downstream. In what hours earlier had been a street, people used ropes to try to forge the deluge as the current lifted them off their feet.

The international media reported on the event but then turned their attention elsewhere the next day. But what was left behind was the real news story. The misery of the aftermath has continued and will continue for many weeks and months. There is no drinking water after three weeks. The sewer systems are destroyed. There is the threat of tetanus and hepatitis. Lots of people living in mountain towns are now cut off as the roads in their area were simply washed away. The schools are closed because there is no water. Businesses cannot operate. The ocean is closed to fishing. The Pan American highway is the only north to south highway in this narrow country, so the country is effectively cut in two.

The worst part of this might be the environmental disaster. There are lots of copper mines located at high elevation in the Andes. They take enormous quantities of water and use that and reactive agents to crush and then separate copper-containing copper sulfate from rock containing about 1-2% copper. The crushed rock, which is now 25 to 35% copper, is shipped off to the copper smelters along the coast to be turned into pure copper. The tailings that are left over are dumped into the valleys. These tailings contain chemicals and heavy metals, although they are no where near as toxic as the sludge left behind by copper smelting.

To give you an idea of the quantity of how much material is dumped into the valleys from copper mining, recently a court ordered Antofagasta Mining (Owned by the same Luksic family mentioned above.) to remove Los Pelambres dam they built to hold back the tailings because Diagita Indians living in the region said the mine had blocked the flow of water. The earthworks is 270 meters high and 7.5 km long. Think about how enormous that is. The company says it will take 200 years to scoop out all of that and move it elsewhere.

Anyway, some of what is up there, whether from this mine of the many others in the Andes, has left green stains of mud, polluted with mercury and lead in Chañaral. This is in a region where the regional capital Antofogasta is already heavily polluted with arsenic. Huasco and Quintero are contaminated by sulfur dioxide created as coal is burned to create electricity to power the copper smelting furnaces plus by the smelting operation itself which expels sulfur dioxide; 85 to 97% of it is contained by filters and the rest leaked into the sky.  What is captured is turned into sulfuric acid, which can be sold.

So as the mud dries and turns to dust again, people in Chañaral have to wear masks lest they breath in this toxic stew. Others with small children have simply packed up and left.

Those who remain are left with the problem of what to do with 2 meters of mud in their houses and businesses. As is the case with the frequent earthquakes here, those whose houses are destroyed are living in tents set up by the military. Fortunately they can do that without a whole lot of discomfort as the rain is gone now, perhaps not to return for another 40 years, and it is not too cold at night. In day it is about 25° C.

If you are depressed now having read this account, I am too. The next narrative is worse. If you are queasy you might to skip that as it deals with the gory details of ranching and brutality of animals.

The Canine Assassin

There’s nothing funny about my dog troubles. My dog Milo, a boxer, and Oscar’s dog, part boxer, killed a sheep this week.

If you live in the city you might not understand the significance of this. People who raise livestock have the right to shoot dogs that threaten livestock in most countries. (The word in British and Australian English is “worry.”) In Canada, the law says that a dog that kills farm animals must be put down. In Chile, shooting dogs is against the law, yet plenty kill livestock. There are wild dogs and strays running everywhere because animal activists are opposed to the catch and kill laws that most developed countries have and there is no money to fund dog pounds.

Oscar, being from the city, does not appear to understand the significance of this as he has done nothing. I blame his dog Almendra for involving Milo in this crime because she taught my dog to hunt. Almendra is smaller and can sail over the fence and escape when she wants too. She is part bird dog. So she has a strong instinct to hunt the many quail and numerous rabbits here. Milo showed no interest in rabbits when we first moved here. Now both dogs kill rabbits daily. There are so many here that the holes in the ground make it difficult to walk in certain places. I tried to hunt rabbit myself. I set snares. But instead of catching rabbits I caught both dogs as the wire lassoed their feet.

Now, I had to do something about my sheep-killing dog. Everything I read on the internet and all the people I talked to around here told me that once an animal has killed a farm animal it will do it again.

I cannot fix fence to keep the dogs from escaping, as I do that every few days and Milo still gets out. I need to replace the fence, but I rent this lot and do not own it. All the neighbors with biting guard dogs—and that includes almost everyone—have erected chest high fences of heavy gauge steel. So their dogs cannot escape. But this lot has that expensive fencing on two sides only. The other sides are barbed wire with chicken wire that a dog chasing rabbits can plow through if they are so determined. Such is Milo’s fury that he regularly breeches the fence to do battle with the 2 rottweilers and 3 other dogs, whose breed I don’t know, who live on the police constable’s farm next door. Milo frequently comes home with deep cuts suffered from pushing through barbed wire. Apparently the dog is indifferent to pain.

So I desperately needed a plan to bring this raging, snorting, testosterone-driven threat to animal husbandry under control. So, on the theory that testosterone propels hostility, I sent Milo to the vet to be sterilized. Then I ran a 35 meter wire across the lot and hooked a chain to it and harnessed the dog. I chain Milo to that dog run part of the day. At night I set him free. That schedule works with the rancher who puts the sheep up at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and lets them out again at 9:00 AM. I don’t understand why someone would want to have sheep here anyway. They need grass to graze in an area with no rain and no grass. So they have to purchase expensive alfalfa hay thus making it not profitable at all. But it’s too late to think about that.

Meanwhile, as Milo is contained, Almendra is loose to run free. But she is a female and much smaller than Milo, still she fights with every dog in the area. But their instinct is to hunt in a packs. Without Milo, there can be no pack. Also I don’t think Almendra could have brought down that sheep by herself as the sheep is as large as she. But Milo is all muscle.

So there should be peace here now, but Milo is going to have to stay in the house, be chained for part of the day, until I can replace the fence. That will be difficult since that area is overgrown with bushes. It’s either that or put down the dog.

Yesterday Almendra killed 5 chickens.  Not my problem.

Cuasimodo

In times of stress, the religious turn to God. I drank a liter of wine instead.

The next day was a religious day called Cuasimodo. Hundreds of villagers gather on horseback and ride a long distance in procession almost to Santiago. This is to recall the tradition of when that was done to protect the priest, who was frequently robbed, as he made his rounds visiting the sick.

I wonder if the people know that Quasimodo is the name of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Dixon went with them. He is supposed to buy me a horse this week. He is the caretaker of the farm where Milo killed the sheep. Ori is the lady who owns the farm. It’s only 2 hectares but Dixon cares for that lot and three others all joined together. So the horse and sheep can range over perhaps 10 hectares.

In the greatest of ironies, as I drove my wife’s car down the hill to see the Cuasimodo, I picked up a lady who was walking the road. It turned out to be Ori. She said nothing about the sheep. I wonder if Dixon has told her.

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(2) Readers Comments

  1. This is probably the best reading I’ve done in over a year (and proabably the only thing that’s captured my attention for the length of time it took to finish reading)

    You’ve painted a charming picture of life there in Chile – the good with the bad.

    Over the past couple years I’ve had some heavy day dreams of moving to South or Central America (or Spain, for that matter) to do a software consultancy, an English school, or both. It is now a slow burn; it must happen. Seeing my ilk (if I may say so) writing a blog on these topics of this caliber is inspiring to say the least.

  2. Thanks Vincent. I would say pick up and go if you are not tied down by something. I think there is more opportunity here that the USA. The job market is not good in Spain but if you speak English there is work here in Chile. Uruguay is another civilized place.

    Here is something I wrote about looking for work in Chile

    If at all possible try to live somewhere else besides Santiago. Most of the people live there so it is difficult to avoid that. But Chile is so much nicer when you avoid the crowded city (polluted in winter too).

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