I knew very little about the Mapuche before visiting, I only know a little more now. But the few hours were like nothing I had ever experienced.
The Mapuche inhabit parts of Argentina and Chile. They have lived and farmed this area since before they drove the Inca back north. Later after the Spanish destroyed the Inca they too were repeatedly driven back by the Mapuche. Mapuche are incredibly proud of this history and dangerously defensive of this land.
I met an old blind man in my neighborhood in Hualpen named Alberto and upon introductions all he cared to say was, "Soy Mapuche." I am Mapuche. Governments and God might take everything from these people but not their pride.
In Chile there are places that are still off limits to non Mapuches. Chile's dictator Pinochet was very hard on them but they hang on. They are a nation within a nation. They have there own laws and customs. I joined my half Mapuche friends on a visit south to Lake Lanalhue to visit some old friends.
They were extremely welcoming and fed us constantly. They were speaking a mix of Mapuche and Spanish. Spanish I had almost no understanding of at the time. Needless to say, Mapuche sounded like Spanish to me until I was told by my friend who was as clueless as I about what they were saying.
It was an extended family with an ancient grandmother who could neither see nor speak from what I could tell. But she was gently cared for like a holy relic. The father was a working man with large grey eyes that seem to take in everything at once. The mother was quiet and like most Chilean women took her responsibilities to the family very seriously. They had a very comely daughter who as I recall had a cell phone she enjoyed. A few others came and went as we sat there at the kitchen table.
The first thing i noticed upon arrival besides the fact that it was 70F and you could clearly see your breath, was garbage around the yard. As proud as they were at retaining possession of their land they didn't seem to be conditioned to connect litter with disrespecting it. I saw a young boy unwrap a candy in one motion and set the wrapper free to the wind right in the yard. No one blinked an eye. That surprised me. The place wasn't covered in garbage but it was noticeable. As it is in many Latin American counties that seems to be the natural default setting.
I grew up in rural Ohio and now looking back I remember it being exactly the same at my house. It was not unusual to see an old newspaper blown into the treeline and I certainly set plenty of candy wrappers free. Ultimately it takes money and effort to change people's ways.
The afternoon we arrived they welcomed us into their house and we ate fresh sopapilla which is a traditional fried bread, and tomatoes... and wine. The men love the boxes of wine of which tomorrow we would consume many. Today though was a quick snack and drink just to get reacquainted.
Their house was like any other house in the world constructed by working class people. It grew as the family grew. The one very noticable addition was a large square fireplace at the side of the room made out of bricks. It looked more like a kiln for pottery than for heat. And it being summer, was not in use so I cant say how it performed, but it looked substantial. They had seperate sleeping quarters in adjacent buildings and a seperate shower room i was to discover later. And of course not far from everything was their privy.
As we sat there I guess they talked about many things including me. My diet seems to be a popular topic here. I also detected a story the señora was talking about that included a monster with a 'bad heart'. I was thrilled at that! I thought a Bigfoot! That's exactly what I want to know about.
So as I sat there I tried to decipher the conversation but a monster is about all I could figure out. But the señora went on about it. Everyone was much impressed and periodically shook their heads in agreement. I pictured a Bigfoot for sure. I had two days to find this thing.
Finally I couldn't sit quiet and in my terrible Spanish I asked my friend, who had an easier time understanding me than most. She explained it was a neighbor they spoke of. I laughed and said in spanish, I thought they were speaking of a "half man, half monkey?!" and everyone laughed. It's satisfying to make people laugh in another language.
Then my friend explains, "No they are talking about the neighbor who beat two of his wives to death." My first thought was man, I got to meet this guy...but then quickly reconsidered. Cause it was no joke and they weren't proud of it. The señora clearly said he was evil.
In reality I was on a not so secret mission to look for land but later it became obvious I was not welcomed as a buyer. That night I had planned to sleep in the van and that's what I did. I think it at least confused them, possibly offended them. I figured how many gringos have they ever met? They would dismiss it as a cultural thing.
The next morning when I rolled out it was a beautiful sunny day as most days are in Chile. The señora was busy collecting water from a nearby well, so I volunteered to help. I carried a huge metal pail of water into a barn and realized this was their smokehouse. There was a small pit of ashes in the middle of the dirt floor where they lit the fire. There was a tree limb across the length of the room with scraps of dried fish hanging on it. It did not strike me as appetizing.
She lit the fire and put the huge water pail over it and then went about her business. It was then I noticed in the yard an old kitchen table. You could not miss the amount of hair on the ground around it. I continued to wander around the small farm until the man came out.
The Mapuche land is like none ive ever seen and I assume aided in the defense of their nation as much as the ferocity of its inhabitants. The land is a very steep maze of undulating hill after undulating hill. The experience of conquistadors in armor trying to navigate those hills without a compass while also fighting enraged natives would have quickly deterred further expansion. Besides the unique lay of the land I also noticed their main crop appeared to be potatoes.
The man came out of the house and me and my friends walked down the road to a lot where he had his oxen. These were incredible animals. These beasts were 2000 lbs apiece, the biggest I've ever seen. They were apparently kept in the giant yolk that they used to pull a wagon or plow with most the time, so they were as one creature. A giant 4000 pound machine. Their backs were 5 feet high. They were massive beautiful creatures and very docile.
So we took them from the lot and walked up the road to the house and he watered them at the well and left them standing there, of which they had no complaints. Then we all went in for more fresh sopapilla and tomatoes. She had prepared a hot sauce from dried goat horn peppers mashed up in a pestal with some water. She made the best sopapilla I've had here.
After that I had no idea what was planned. So pretty soon men started appearing, one carried a filet knife I noticed. Surprisingly one had a Bob Marley shirt and one had an Ohio University shirt. I could not believe it! I pointed at it and said that's my town in Spanish... I think he understood.
They were all semi interested in the gringo. I mean to say they, as most Chileans react like why would he come here? Its so easy to take your way of life for granted. Anyway at some point I realized that these men had come to help butcher something.
Growing up in rural Ohio I had plenty of opportunities to witness butchering so I was not squeamish about the thought. What I witnessed though was intense! My half mapuche friends went inside, they didn't care to see it. Apparently they knew what was about to happen. But I was here specifically for the spectacle, so I braced up.
Two of the guys of which there were 5, went around the corner and brought back a filthy pig of about 30lbs. They had wired its legs together in pairs, front and back. They brought him over to that table in the yard I had noticed earlier. It was all coming together.
So all the men gathered around the table and held the pig on its side as it became more and more animated. The guy with the filet knife wrapped the pigs snout in wire like its legs were. Then with everyone... but me holding the pig down, the man with the filet knife started probing into the pig just above its chest.
Now, you can imagine the noise this pig was making. The pig had a 7 inch knife completely in it chest and it was screaming bloody murder. The screaming immediately attracted two Ibis into the tree above us. As the Ibis waited for any left-overs I noticed the man with the knife working the handle in a circular pattern and all of a sudden a geyser of blood exploded out of the hole in the pigs throat and the man withdrew the knife.
For about 3 seconds blood hissed from the wound and sprayed about 4 feet almost soaking me. It was very real and very surprising and I'm sure would have been hilarious to the men to see me dripping with blood. Thankfully they didn't have to see my reaction to that.
They threw an old plastic pan under the table to catch what blood they could. I immediately decided there's no way im drinking that. When they offered it to me i said "You first, I insist." And they all got a great laugh and let the two or three mangy half starved dogs have it. Which was a whole other disgusting scene.
Finally after the pigs wails ran out of it which in all was less than 10 seconds. We all stood there, me looking at the filth covered body of this pig on a dinner table in the yard, and everyone else looking at me trying to judge my reaction to what I just witnessed. For my part, I was as much interested in the Ibis clucking in the tree waiting on their snacks. I can understand why my friends didn't care to see it. It was the kind of thing i came to see, that and a Bigfoot maybe.
Now what I thought was the grossest thing of all happened. They had to wash the filth off this pig so they got some water and poured it on the pig who was still lying on the table. With bare hands, they washed the filth from every inch of that pig. It was gentle and seemed almost caring but disgusting at the same time.
So picture a table covered in blood, filth and what was destined to be dinner. It was pretty unsanitary looking.
Then the purpose of the large kettle of water became obvious. They scalded the pig by pouring the boiling water over the body and covering it with a feed sack to steam. Also kind of washing the table in the process.
As the pig steamed the first opportunity to drink came out. This impressed me much. It was a different kind of social drinking, it was like 'hey lets catch a buzz quickly.' it was impossible to call it social in the sense that I am used to in Ohio, mainly cause there was only one glass.
So from what I later deduced from watching them closely, the hombre who wants to drink the most grabs the box and pours a cup and then passes the cup to the guy beside him who, to my amazement dribbled a little out on the ground as what I assume was an offering to his dead "homies." And then in one drink, swills it down, hands it back and the hombre who pours the next and hands the glass to the next and this scenario is repeated until finally the hombre gets his cup.
I, of course partook in the ritual even though I was only a spectator. When they handed me the cup and all watched to see how the gringo behaved, in Spanish I said 'for my grandfather' and dribbled some on the ground before I swilled it down. I could see they approved. A couple rounds and me and the pig were steamed. Then something I was not expecting happened they all produce bic razors and started shaving the pig.
This took the most time of the whole process... maybe 30 minutes. At this point after the pig had every hair removed the process sped up, the head was removed and they cut the pig length-ways spilling the entrails on a feed sack under the table. Right on time the Señora came out with a pan and collected the head, heart and lungs off the ground.
The dogs were back to being well behaved from a distance. I saw the liver still in the steaming pile of intestines and said in half drunk English "You're not throwing that away are you? That's the best part! " One of the men said in Spanish only what i can guess was "relax gringo."
The way they cut the pig up didn't seem to have any baring on the cuts like tenderloin or anything. They did not skin it, they shaved it and then just cut the pig up in serving size pieces.
Meanwhile they picked up the liver and kidneys and threw them on the fire in the smokehouse. This was the perfect opportunity for more rounds. So the guy who was the thirstiest grabbed the box and cup and started serving. We drank two or three boxes of the wine and I realized the wine and the liver and kidneys was payment for their help cutting the pig up.
With the liver and kidneys done they brought them back to the table. The same table that was moments before covered in filth and blood and with the same knife and everything sliced the liver up and we ate... and drank and that was that experience.
I am still amazed every time i get food poisoning here, which was often at first, that that meal never caused the slightest problem. Ironically in fact, the next thing i ate upon returning to civilization, a "completo" or a hot dog with tomato, avocado and mayo, a Chilean staple, made me very ill and I had another all night fever from it.
After we had eaten and drank our fill me and my half Mapuche friends returned to the real reason we were there, the search for land. We drove over to another house and we were told to wait in the road. A big man came out from behind a hedge. I didn't need to be told this guy was 'el jefe'.
He was an impressive guy who had a very somber countenance. You almost had to lean in to hear him he speak. The way he spoke was soft and relaxed. Like he never had to speak up and no one ever interrupted and he seldom had to repeat himself. He was not like the others I met, drinking and carrying on.
For one thing he was taller and bigger than me which was not what I had come to expect of the Mapuche. I noticed his jean jacket looked new also. I also thought to myself as they spoke that this guy on the other end of a weapon would have been frightening. He was big and not just physically.
As we stood in the road and listened to this man speak, I noticed there seemed to be a lot of people on the other side of the hedge between his house and the road. I couldn't see them for the hedge but I could hear them clearly.
I couldn't follow the conversation but I knew my friend was asking about property. My friends mother was full blooded Mapuche so she had all the rights in the world to be there. I could tell the Chief had a positive feeling about her living among them. They talked for about 15 minutes as we stood in the road.
As it went on I heard what I thought I would, among the many words I clearly heard... but NO GRINGOS. He didn't say it to me but he clearly said it to my friend about me. With a look in his eye directed toward my friend like you know white people aren't living here. That signalled the end of the conversation and with that the big guy invited us all into his hedge.
When we entered from the road, it became obvious they were engaged in a fiesta like my other Mapuche friends. And from the head hanging on the wall I guessed it was sheep. Never having eaten much sheep I learned what my father once told me, it has a flavor that lingers, that was true the next day I clearly tasted it but it was delicious at the time. A huge pile if grilled meat and I ate as much as I could and washed it down with an ice cold Heineken.
This group was a little bigger and had a lot of younger people there wearing Yankees gear and other American stuff. They seemed to smile more and appreciate my random appearance more than others. I must say it was just youthful curiosity cause the older people were no less friendly it was just understood I was visiting and definitely not going to be their neighbor. I was really like an alien there. I was probably the first gringo they had ever seen in person.
Later that day we returned to my host house and ate some fried carp that was cut up like the pig, in serving sized pieces. Bony but delicious with sopapilla and tomatoes. It was then that I noticed a wooden fish on the walI that had to be a trout. So I got kind of excited and asked if those fish were here. The man understood and nodded. I mentioned i enjoyed fishing and a young guy volunteered to take me the next day. I was really excited. But we were not going to be fishing with a pole for trout. We were going to be fishing with a spear for carp from the front of a homemade canoe. That sounded like a legit adventure.
That night I decided to sleep in the house and they showed me to the room. It was cozy but I had to walk threw another room that had the Señora and the ancient one sleeping in it. Which was fine until I had to stumble out to relieve myself at about 3am. But I managed to find my way back to bed in the dark without stepping on the ancient one.
But before bed I took them up on an offer to shower. I thought this should be interesting, and I was not disappointed. The señora asked me if I wanted hot water. I said 'no gracias' I said in English I can take it. It wouldn't be my first cold shower. But then my friend explained I'm an idiot and I need the hot water. So I said "Whatever you women think."
The shower was a separate log building with a concrete floor with a drain. The señora appeared with a steam kettle and a wash bowl for me. The room was huge for a shower. It was just a large room maybe 10ft square. The walls were unchinked so there was zero privacy not to mention freezing. When I levered the shower on it became obvious why I needed the hot water. I let out a squeal like that poor pig today. The water came straight from the ground and was blisteringly cold. But it functioned as was expected and I got cleaned up. I didn't hear anyone mention my squeal but im sure they enjoyed it.
So the next day the fisherman showed up without his spear and I was disheartened but we still went out onto this lake. An incredible giant pristine lake that was completely devoid of people. We climbed in the canoe and I pointed to an island and said 'take us there jeves" and the young man started plying the oars.
This lake was placid and picturesque, countless black necked swans, ducks, kingfishers and many many other birds. Chile has an impressive array of birds from Flamingos to Penguins. I noticed dozens of American Coots that I have seen many times diving in the Muskingum River in Ohio.
As our man stroked us closer and closer to the island I watched this huge eagle with an orange head watching us from a post it was perched on. This was the kind of place I dreamed of as a kid.
We neared the island and I jumped out and dragged the canoe onto this island and we walked around for a minute. The island was tiny and wasn't much to see but it was hard to not be amazed.
When we were getting back in the boat I said let me row with hand gestures of course. To which the guy agreed but I sensed his doubt. But I have had many hours at the oars before this, I even built a row boat, so i was confident I would have no problem.
I immediately realized this is not my Oldtown canoe. Oh lord, but the boat was heavy and the oars too were homemade from trees, so they were like two big clubs you couldn't get your fingers around. But I rowed us all over the place and afterwards, back at the house, I heard the guy tell the others with a look of surprise and admiration "The gringo rowed!" and I could see they approved that I did in fact know something useful.
This was about it for our visit but I had a delicious taste of what the Mapuche have successfully defended for a thousand years.