I staggered off the bus from Santiago towards Lonquimay at 7:00am with no idea what to expect. I had been nervously dozing off, alarms set at 20 minute intervals. My ‘stop’, if you can call it that, was 2km outside the town Malalcahuello. Each signature iPhone chime (yes I now have an iPhone, yes I know that makes me a traitor) sent chills down my spine that I had missed it, and was now lost for good in the Chilean country side. I was instructed to exit the bus at road marker 88.7km on Ruta 181 and there I would find my home for the next month. It all worked out, I clumsily confirmed the location with the driver, grabbed my bag and was greeted by my soon to be roommate. I ate some breakfast, acquainted myself with the new surroundings, and slowly eased into a very different lifestyle than I have ever known.
I grew up in New Jersey only 30 minutes outside Manhattan, attended university in the first town beyond Chicago city limits, and after graduation moved back East, right into the gut of NYC. The closest thing to ‘rural’ life I have ever experienced for more than a few days is Long Beach Island, New Jersey...I don’t think I need to explain that the Jersey Shore isn’t quite off the beaten path. All I have ever known is city life, and what I found in Malalcahuello was the antithesis. The town has a ballpark population of 500 people. There are a few small tiendas that sell the necessities, a bakery, and a couple restaurants, that’s about it. The next closest town, Lonquimay, is 20km away towards the border of Argentina and clocks in with about 5000 people spread over a huge rural zone. Beyond that it’s a haul to anything more substantial. I knew the region would be quiet, perhaps not to this extreme, but a different lifestyle experience was what I was after, and I certainly found it.
Now this isn’t corn country with nothing but farmland stretching out in all directions. The landscape of this region, part of the Chilean Lakes District, is extreme. Picture perfect volcano cones line every valley, most still snow capped even under the load of intense summer sun. Incredible Araucaria Araucana trees, a rare evergreen species exclusive to the region, are everywhere. Their octopus arms wind through space coated in a chainmail of rigid geometric leaves. Broad trunks, adorned with prehistoric hexagonal bark, stand firm like the legs of a brontosaurus. Bright lakes fill in the nooks and crannies, formed from lava flow dams. Heavy volcanic activity as recent as the early 90s defines the ever evolving landscape.
So, what happens now? What would my work entail? ‘Workaway’, the platform I used to arrange my time at Hostal Ruta 181 allows users (travelers) to connect with hosts (employers) to facilitate work exchanges. I had reached out to the owner of the hostel a few weeks prior and we agreed upon a roughly twenty five hour work week in exchange for a bed and meals at the hostel. However, the details of what that work would entail was none-existent and on day one I had no clue what to expect.
Malalcahuello and the surrounding area has only recently started to develop as a tourist destination, and that is primarily focused on winter sports and a couple nearby ski hills. I arrived in peak summer and the depth of low season; the hostel was empty. Just the owner, a young guy full of energy and excited to share his alternative way of life with friends and guests, one of his friends, and me. Open to anything that moved the hostel forward and would make the guest experience better, the owner and I decided I could start by reinvigorating the two gardens on his property. I have recently taken a deep interest in the urban agriculture movement and this was a great chance to get some traditional and practical experience in the dirt. The garden was made up of two outdoor raised beds and an additional two beds in a small green house. The whole thing had been overgrown with weeds and grasses, and what had managed to survive was starting to be strangled out. For days I weeded, turned, watered, and air-rated the soil to invigorate new life. I planted out every bit of open space, trellised the vines that had been living untamed and future proofed new crop with robust twine structure to grow upon. I battled wasps (loosing on one occasion with a sting to the neck) for dominance in the green house and was lead on wild goose chases by a horrible weed that has intricate root systems deep in the soil making it virtually impossible to eradicate. In the end, tidy rows of beets, lettuce, cabbage, and carrots brightened the soil and cucumber vines raced up towards the first rung of their rope ladder. A once weak zucchini plant rapidly became a behemoth, adorned with fruit and bright blossoms, attracting bees from all over town. We were overloaded with chard, and it soon became a staple of every meal.
A lot of work in the summer heat lead to serious hunger, and it became pretty apparent that I was the only party interested in preparing what I like to call my elevated hostel cuisine. Along with gardener I soon became chef, prepping lunch and dinner most days. After a few meals I earned the position more full time, and about a week in my kitchen role was elevated further. A photography clinic was going to be held at the hostel and I was billed to prepare food for 8-10 over the next three days. If you have ever cooked with me I tend to be a bit manic, frantically chopping away in a controlled, yet stressed chaos. But after a few days practice before hand and complete control of the kitchen I found a true groove.
I smashed out whole chickens for ten which doubled as the base for a truly glorious chicken salad lunch the following day. Crispy skin salmon was served up on a bed of blanched and sautéed chard and beet greens, tastefully paired with a Carmenere from the Colchagua Valley. The final dinner, a rich, fresh tomato, pasta bolognese could have easily fed twenty and became staff lunch for the week to come. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a line cook, I can’t take the heat, but it was quite a thrill to prep food for an unfamiliar audience and my culinary practice found a new swagger of confidence after bagging a successful catering gig.
Chef and gardener were my main roles with sides of craftsman, ditch digger, wood collector, box deconstructor, picture hanger, photography assistant, etc...Some were better then others, but all helped paint a better picture of what life off the grid entailed. When I wasn’t milling about around the hostel I explored the natural wonders of this land unknown to most. The owner and I raced up steep, volcano walls to catch sunrise from the crater, then gracefully skied back down on the loose gravel surface. I had my first real foray into mountain biking, a sport I have idolized from a far for the shear insanity of its highest level athletes, but one I never had the equipment or terrain to attempt. And, obviously, I became acquainted with the local baker, ice cream purveyor, and empeñada shop. I marveled at mirador after mirador in the many national reserves and parks and relaxed next to water falls big and small. After the initial photography clinic I continued to shadow the now resident photographers and learned about filters, polarizers, aperture settings, and exposure times; all very practical skills for the cameras I don’t own. Nonetheless it’s something people can really geek out over and thus sparked my interest.
Back at the hostel I helped cook local lamb and beef over open flame on manual spits, while Escudo beer and stories of travel flowed freely. At night the intense darkness revealed a night sky far beyond what I thought was possible. With the naked eye galaxies that are not our own were visible, and shooting stars went down in flames with A,C,E frequency. Hammock time was plentiful during the intense mid-day heat, and the wide cross-section of guests who passed through were always open to chat, some even taking an active role in trying to improve my Spanish. A couple of nearby forest fires added a slightly unnerving soundtrack of low flying helicopters towing huge bags of water to douse the flames.
My stay at the hostel (26 days in total) came and went in the blink of an eye. Just as my routine was being perfected, it was time to shift gears. In true fashion of the 181 way we had a blow out bar-b-que on my last evening. Two grills loaded with lamb roared into the night. It was an amazing feast shared with strangers turned dear friends. It took more than two laundry cycles to remove the smell of charcoal and lamb from my clothes and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
This was a completely unique experience for me and an irreplaceable opportunity to test drive a life very different from what I have ever known. There were aspects I loved and moments I loathed, but the highlight real will certainly travel with me for a lifetime. I’m not sure when I will make it back to Malalcahuello and Hostal Ruta 181 but that visit will be a great reunion and I’ll absolutely have my snowboard in tow!