A Mapuche Experience

IMG_3558At this point, I wanted to tell how I lived with a Mapuche-family and what I learned while doing it, but it all turned out differently; so this is a story about how it all turned out differently, with a few philosophical questions at the end (and no photos – unfortunately, I didn’t get to that anymore).

Mapuche are one of 14 indigenous tribes of Chile, who were here before the Europeans came and claimed it all. Today, these indigenous tribes are the minority, and as in many countries, the integration of more or less original inhabitants and newcomers doesn’t go too well. I’d heard about the problems beforehand, mainly that the Mapuche want their land back, and – what infuriates many Chileans – once they have it, they sell it for much money; that’s interpreted as being not about the land, but only about the money (an interpretation which does appear logical). Further, it was said that Mapuche are rather unfriendly towards (other) Chileans and foreigners, and didn’t want to integrate. But there were also voices talking about old traditions and the right for self-determination.

I wanted to form my own opinion and stay as a volunteer with a Mapuche family. Opportunties are hard to find, I finally located a travel agency which offered to live with an indigenous family for a while, working for my food and accommodation, against paying a certain amount to the agency, part of which would go to the Mapuche. I usually avoid these arrangements, but this was the only opportunity I found, so I agreed.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, few things in life are as easy as they sound. First, the agency told me that they’d found a family who’d be happy to have me. The closer it got to the agreed time, the less the family seemed interested, and finally broke off all contact. So, only a few days to the expected starting date, the agency hectically searched for a new family – I had visions of how I would simply be offloaded at the door of a random family, who’d of course be very happy to accommodate a total stranger who hardly spoke their language – but finally, they reported success: I’d live with Eliseo and his wife and children, would help with their shop, and also with renting out typical Mapuche „rukas“ to foreign tourists. They’d be very happy to have me, all was great. Wonderful. In more or less accurate Spanish, I wrote an email to Eliseo introducing myself, and we agreed that I’d take the night bus to Puerto Saavedra, about 10 hours South of Santiago, and he’d pick me up from there.

I entered the night bus on time, vowed during the journey that in future, I’d sit as far away as possible from the toilet (smell!), survived the sniffer dog which ran through the bus at one point (and probably didn’t smell anything anyhow, other than toilet stink), and arrived in Puerto Saavedra in the middle of a beautiful sunrise. At the final stop, the driver threw me out of the bus, and there I was, not completely in the middle of nowhere, but not far off, everything was still closed, and nobody awaited me. Hmmm. I called the agency and asked for help. They called me back soon: Eliseo couldn’t come, some problem with his family, but he’d somehow make sure that I would be picked up. I could also take the one-a-day bus which would arrive in 5 hours. Super. Then a text followed that Eliseo was on his way after all.

He indeed approached me on foot about 1 hour later – I recognized him because he seemed to mumble some butchered form of my name, and therefore it had to be him. That was the thought I held on to for the next 30 minutes, because he took my luggage, brought it to a clapped-out pick-up truck, threw it in, and then another man came, climbed into the car, and drove off. Whilst I still looked after it, dumbfounded, Eliseo assured me that he was just driving to the petrol station, no worries, no problem. I asked, a little late, a little stupidly: „Tu eres Eliseo?“ (you ARE Eliseo) – just to be on the safe side – and he assured me that yes indeed, he was Eliseo. Good. He then gently pushed me towards the supermarket, to buy food for myself and, as I understood, also the family. Really? We’d agreed that I would receive food and accommdation free of charge, against work? He claimed no knowledge of this. Again I called the agency – apparently, all a misunderstanding, only if I wanted to have special German food or such… I didn’t, but Eliseo continued to gently push me towards the supermarket. I am not always dumb (I hope), so I bought emergeny rations of pasta, tomato sauce, chocolate, and beer – one can survive anything on this. When I came out of the shop, there was no Eliseo, and no car, and no luggage. I thought: „Sh.t!“. I thought: „How can you be so naive“. I thought how I would explain it all: Yes, there was this man who sounded like he’d mumble a butchered version of my name, but I wasn’t really sure, no, I didn’t know him, had never seen him in my life, no, didn’t check his identity, but yes, gave him all my luggage including computer and camera… difficult. Whilst I was running up and down the street, Eliseo came out of a shop – phew. Car and luggage also reappeared after a while, and we drove off, towards Isla Huapi, approximately 30 minutes drive.

Finally we came to my new home. Really in the middle of nowhere, a rather dusty affair. An older man came to greet me. Unfortunately, I hardly understood him, and it should only get worse as the day wore on. Eliseo explained that I would live in the house of his parents, together with assorted siblings, nieces and nephews, who all lived together in three rooms (a fourth room was given to me). He himself didn’t live here. Really? Wasn’t I supposed to live with him and his wife and children? No. And help with his shop? No, he doesn’t have a shop, also no wife, and no children. I see. And help with renting out rukas? No. Okay, so what was I supposed to do? Help in the house. I furtively looked around me, no doubt, the house needed some help, but I’d never been a good cleaner… okay, let’s wait and see. Eliseo left, I smiled a bit helplessly at his parents, who gave me Mate-tea, which I couldn’t draw through the Mate-straw, but I didn’t want to ask. One of Eliseo’s sisters asked me questions, but after 5 minutes, she couldn’t think of anything more to ask. I myself ran out of questions after a few minutes myself, especially as questions regarding Mapuche traditions didn’t really hit the target.

Then, things started unraveling. I asked them if they’d received money from the travel agency. Wrong question. First, I had misunderstood, the money was to be paid to a Mapuche foundation, not to the family. That shouldn’t really have mattered, as all had been agreed beforehand with the family, and I was to work for food and accommodation. But: It made a huge difference. The entire family got all excited: What money, what foundation, they didn’t know anything, this was clearly fraud, etc. etc…. after a few calls with the agency, things calmed down, but the temperature had dropped by several degrees, and shouldn’t warm up again. There was only one thing now that mattered to the family: I had paid money, but they didn’t profit directly. For example, later, the toilet paper disappeared, and I had to pay to get new one. And the behaviour of the family towards me got unpleasant, abrupt and curt.

I asked if I could do something for them, and so we walked to their apple orchard, where I collected tons of apples for the next hours. In the evening, I watched the cow herd coming home, and then we had dinner. By now, I was nearly completely ignored by the family, my attempts to start a conversation were met by monosyllabic answers, until I ran out of steam myself. I went to my room early.

The travel agency, with whom I’d spoken a few times during the day, offered me to go to some other family, but it didn’t sound like I would be much more welcome there. Or, as an alternative, to go to a nature park near Valdivia, a region renowned for its beauty. There, I could live in a house with other volunteers and park rangers, and help with foreign tourists. I said I’d sleep over it – I normally don’t give up that quickly, and from experience know that these situations usually resolve itself after a while, resulting in good experiences after all. I was exhausted after the long night bus journey and the unaccustomed physical labour, and slept deeply for 8 hours. Next morning, I thought about what I wanted to do in the next 2 weeks. I thought about the situation with the family – nothing that wasn’t endurable, in any case good for the character, but also quite isolated, with little contact to the family – or rather go to a nature park where I could rather do what I liked doing – i.e., contact with others with whom I could even talk? I decided to go to Valdivia, and sent a text to the agency.

The next morning was also unpleasant – my interaction with the family ranged from being ignored to a heated lecture as to which Mapuche foundation I had paid and which one I should have paid – and when I told them that all was good, I would leave anyhow, they nodded, good that you leave. I said a few words in German (good against stomach ulcers), got up and packed.

After a cool leave-taking, I took my luggage and dragged it to the main gravel road, where perhaps once every 3 hours a car passes through, to wait for the bus that was expected in a few hours, and did what you do in these situations: Opened a can of beer. Only a few minutes later and before I could start on the chocolate, the miracle happened and a little truck approached, I jumped up and held out my thumb, the truck stopped, a man jumped out and took my luggage, I jumped in, forgetting my beer on the road in the rush, and off we went. 30 minutes later I was back in Puerto Saavedra, where I gave my remaining beer cans to the two men as a sign of gratitude, and for the remainder of the day I made my way to first Temuco and then Valdivia, where I took a hostal for the night to recover from it all. Stay tuned for my experience in the nature park.

A shame that it all turned out this way. I know that I can’t take one family’s behaviour as symptomatic for an entire people, and after I had a bit of time to think I know I could also have behaved differently, should for example have made sure that the money went to the foundation which this family favoured. Nevertheless, it all leaves a bit of a sour taste, although I do ask myself what exactly the travel agency did agree with the Mapuche family – not much, as far as I am concerned.

The Mapuche are leading a bitter fight with the Chilean government about their land, and there are enough examples of battles for indepence of people „who were there before“. And of course, the Mapuche WERE there before the Spanish, who conquered Chile in the middle of the 16th century. But what about the people who were there before the Mapuche conquered them (and these did exist). Perhaps a long time ago, but the blink of an eyelid in terms of earth’s history. What makes a piece of land so desirable, so valuable, that the pure accident of being born there will, for the rest of our live, determine our identity,will lead us to fight for it until blood and beyond, will make us feel special just because we were born THERE and not somewhere else? What gives us the right to call this land OUR land, and that of all the unborn children of the next umpteenth generations? The world changes, borders change, if we only go back long enough, entire continents change – there must come a time when we have to accept that the wheel of time has turned again and the circumstances are what they are? Doesn’t mean that I don’t defend myself when someone tries to kick me out of my house and off my land, but should the battle really still rage on 16 generations later? Would have been nice to discuss all this, perhaps I will find someone to answer those questions.

6 responses to “A Mapuche Experience

  1. Gudrun, you’re a survivor! I’m not sure where in that ordeal I would’ve started freaking out, but there would’ve been a freak out. The whole thing was unfortunate, but am really curious about the 2nd part of this tale. Be well!


    • Thanks Val 🙂 I didn’t say I didn’t freak out at some point, did I? The second part… ah well, that was a bit freaky too. More soon. Take care


  2. Hi,

    I was thinking about you all week and was wondering what an experience you were currently having.; when I finally go around to reading your blog I got the answer.

    A good beer or a bottle of wine coupled with a long phylisophical chat could help cure the bad taste in your month. At least you still have your luggage and more importantly you are in one piece.

    Cheers my friend, it will only get better. S

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