Deep in the creases of the Andes Mountains tiny towns take shelter from the hustle and bustle of big city life. You get the feeling that if it weren’t for the dirt roads connecting them to the network of Chilean highways, or today’s connections to the internet, that it would be fairly easy to forget that these pueblitos even exist at all.
I don’t think I can explain it to you with words, but I’ll try anyway:
On our weekend journey north to Valle de Elqui we woke up in La Serena on Sunday morning only to find the city completely covered in clouds. I was skeptical, as I thought our hopes of going to the beach had been dashed. I almost jumped on a bus back to Santiago early, but I am sure glad I didn’t.
Instead we hopped on a bus for an hour back into the heart of Valle de Elqui, where they say it’s always sunny. Valle de Elqui didn’t break it’s promise.
We had all the intentions of going windsurfing and lying on the beach in a tiny town called Gualliguaica on Sunday but Juan Carlos, the man who picked us all up while we were hitchhiking, had different plans for us. We spotted his kindness early on as he picked up 6 gringos (4 from the U.S., 1 from Britain, and 1 from Holland), allowed us to throw all of our packs into the back of his truck, and then proceeded to kick his 3 little boy grandchildren out of the cabin of the truck and into the back so us three girls wouldn’t have to sit in the bed of the truck.
We made small talk in the truck, told him we were studying in Santiago, where we were from, and that his grandchildren were “Super lindo” (super cute!) We thanked him as he dropped us in front of the only mini market (of the 2) that was open on Sunday.
As we began to make our lunch choices in the teeny tiny mini market I heard a whistle from outside and Juan Carlos was back, waving me over to his truck. “I invite you all to my house,” he said, more so a statement than a question.
“En serio, esta seguro? Somos seis. Seguro? Ok bueno!” I gave him a couple seconds to re-think his decision and back out, but he insisted.
When we arrived to his house his wife (of 39 years–they smiled at each other as they recounted this fact, saying “it works because we’re best friends”) and their daughter (age 33) were already busy cooking in the kitchen. We sat around the family room hearing bits and pieces of his life story (they had lived in the northern desert for the past 16 years where he worked as a miner, but in December they returned to the town where his wife was born because he had an operation on his back and can’t work anymore) and admiring his beer collection that lined the shelves and curio cabinet of the room. He showed us the view of the backyard that also had apple, lemon and avocado trees.
Then we ate a delicious meal with the whole family: Juan Carlos, his wife Bernarda, their daughter Sandra, her children Yarlyn, Yeremy, and Yerody (twin boys), and the cousin that lived next door–whose name unfortunately escapes me right now. I also discovered that I LOVE beets at this meal, so progress was made on all fronts.
We traded stories and Juan Carlos had to get the video camera out when we told stories about Cori, la chica muy especial, which included her flat on face wipe out that morning at our hostel about 5 minutes after a conversation that all floors in Chile (at University, in malls, on the street, everywhere) are extremely slippery, her gleeful skipping entrance to say hello to the breakfast room that morning ended quickly with a loud THUD. At one point in her life she also may or may not tried to roll down a hill that turned out to be a small cliff, whoops!
After tea and cookies we headed out to play a little game of futbol with the boys while being serenaded? (is that the word I’m looking for?) by a man with a megaphone on the nearest street corner looking to do some evangelizing.
Juan Carlos then drove us down to the beach and as we played around skipping stones the sun began to set.
He said if we hurried we could make it up to the top of one of the nearby mountain peaks to watch the sunset so we all hopped back in the truck.
We returned home for more tea, stories, and games! They had all sorts of those little mind bending games (like try and take apart these 2 nails that are twisted together) and I introduced the telephone photography game which seemed to be quite a hit. Then Juan Carlos insisted upon driving us the hour back into La Serena to catch our bus to Santiago.
We thanked Juan Carlos and his family endlessly, knowing that words could never properly express our gratitude. On the drive back we talked for a bit in English (knowing he couldn’t understand us) about what an amazing family they were. What a completely random act of kindness, too kind! We talked a bit about how it doesn’t even cross our minds to act like that. I said, “I don’t think all of the kind things I’ve done in my life even add up to the amount of kindness they showed us just today.” Made me think I should start being that nice, no reason not to, right?
The incredible thing is that this family isn’t super rich, nor are they accustomed to entertaining foreigners. They mentioned they like to “compartir,” (share cultures, conversation, etc.) with foreigners but cited the last foreigner they met as a Canadian girl when Yarlyn was 3; Yarlyn is 12 now. We had such luck on Sunday on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, Chile.
Gualliguaica, with all of it’s 120 families, fits in the palms of your hands. And while the world may easily forget about the tiny towns folded into the Andes, I will always remember Gualliguaica and the kindness that I experienced there.
[That’s the whole town–120 houses, although a bit blurry]