Friday, 5 March 2010

Rubbing Elbows with the Friendly Chilean

Rubbing Elbows with the Friendly Chilean

By A. Hyatt Verrill


From Travel magazine, August 1925. Digitized by Doug Frizzle March 2010.


A Whaler on the Chilean CoastChile's Strange Idea of a Pullman—The Spotless Town of South America— Mountains and Deserts of Southern Chile—Beating the Tax Collector


The following article is one of a series written for Travel on the more unusual phases of life on the west coast of South America, which mill be included in Mr. Verrill's book, "Down the West Coast of South America" to be published in the fall. The last article, Those Who Worshipped the Sun, appeared in the July issue, while the next will appear in September.—Editor


“THERE are no Pullman cars on the train," the suave occupant of the ticket booth in the Santiago railway station informed me. "But," he added, "The Señor may engage an apartment. It will be most comfortable and private for the Señora."

This sounded promising. If my wife was to take that long fourteen hour train journey to Concepcion in comfort, then a private compartment would be necessary. And as the ticket seller dilated in voluble Chilean Spanish on the manifold advantages of his suggestion, we pictured a luxuriously fitted little parlor with every luxury and convenience.

"But if the Señor desires it, then must he engage it at once," resumed the attendant, "There are but the two on the train, and I must notify the station master that the compartment is reserved for the Norte Americano caballero and his Señora. It's cost?"— he spread his palms deprecatingly—"Ah, Señor! It is but a trifle for such convenience and comfort— merely twice the ordinary fares, Señor."

And so, as Chilean railway fares are very cheap and the alleged palatial accommodations meant an additional cost of but fifteen dollars, I engaged the compartment at once, relieved at the opportunity to do so at small cost. Had we been ambassadors or potentates we could not have been received with greater formality and deference when we reached the station the following morning. An official, whose uniform might have been that of a general, bowed low, and ordering two uniformed guards to shoulder our baggage, led the way to the waiting train, conducted us to the one first-class coach, and with a grandiose sweep of his hand indicated a curtained-off section at one end of the car on which was pinned a huge placard marked "RESERVADO."

"Behold!" he exclaimed, sweeping aside the curtains. We were too amazed at the revelation to speak, but the joke most assuredly was on us. Enclosed by the flimsy green curtain were two ordinary, leather upholstered seats in no way differing in the least from every other seat in the coach. There was nothing more, not even a footstool. We had paid fifteen dollars for hanging a curtain on its brass rod!

Before we had traveled a dozen miles, moreover, we discovered that the only advantage of the curtain was that it prevented the clouds of dust that seeped through our "compartment" windows from reaching the other occupants of the coach, and confined it to our "private" section. So, as we had no desire to monopolize the dust of central Chile, we promptly ordered the costly strip of cloth removed. But I must admit that even if our visions of a luxurious compartment had vanished we had all the service and attention that normally belongs with an entire Pullman section. Obsequious attendants hovered about, brushing the dust from seats and garments, opening and closing the windows as required, offering suggestions as to edibles and drinkables, and deserting us only at the frequent stations. Each time the train stopped they would rush off, and working like stevedores, shoulder the heavy bags, baskets, bundles and innumerable other forms of impedimenta belonging to disembarking passengers, and, panting and sweating, would lug them across the station platform to a safe resting place. Never have I seen such obliging and willing-workers on a railway train, and seldom did they receive a tip for their trouble. And never have I traveled on a train wherein passengers were so freely, permitted to pile innumerable and bulky pieces of baggage on seats, in aisles and overhead. But evidently the Chilean State Railways are operated for the benefit and convenience of the traveling public rather than for the profits or the convenience of officials, and equally as evidently, Chilean railway rules are made to be disobeyed. Although the cars were plastered with signs prohibiting smoking, everyone, including the train crew, smoked incessantly and, as is always the case in Chile, the fact that the lavatories were plainly marked "Caballeros" and Señoras" respectively, neither sex paid the least heed to the signs. However, everyone seemed to be quite happy and content, each newcomer piled his or her baggage wherever there was available space left, and all chattered and laughed and munched their sandwiches and fruit, and drank their wine, and rushed madly out and as madly back again at each station, and embraced and back-patted and kissed friends and acquaintances as if it were all a gay holiday excursion or a picnic.

I had heard such glowing praises bestowed upon the scenic beauties of central and southern Chile that I was a bit disappointed at the landscape as the train left Santiago and its suburbs behind. To one who had never seen any land but the desert districts of northern Chile with the grim, dull-gray mountains where the only greenery is in the plazas and little "quintas," the Mapucho valley and the country about would appear most beautiful. But to one accustomed to the tropics, or to the pastoral sections of England or the United States, the valley held few attractions. In many ways it impressed me much as some parts of northern France, a resemblance made more striking by the long lines of attenuated poplars and the far-reaching vineyards. But beyond the well-tilled and cultivated fields, the fruit orchards, the waving seas of ripening grain, and the pastures with the grazing flocks, the hills were typically Chilean—the same ochre, moth-eaten hills that had greeted us at Valparaiso. To be sure, it was an unusually dry season; the wide river beds were mere gulleys of cobbles with scarcely a trickle of water, and the countryside was not at its best. But I could not imagine those hopeless hillsides bearing a mantle of green, even with abundant rains.

Everywhere the dominant features of the landscape were the poplars and weeping willows. But, however picturesque and decorative poplars may be in reasonable numbers, yet they are monotonous when they border every field, line every irrigation ditch, and stretch in endless avenues for mile after mile beside the roads. Weeping willows, too, become tiresome and rather depressing, a bit reminiscent of old-fashioned cemeteries, and we longed for the sight of a sturdy oak, a stately elm, a clump of white birches or a beech copse. Something else seemed to be lacking and, presently it dawned upon me that it was wild flowers. It was the Chilean spring, the season of seasons when one might reasonably expect a wealth of wild blossoms, and yet no sign of these harbingers of spring gladdened the eye. In the States, in England, in any temperate land, the spring landscape is gay with a mosaic of color. Buttercups and daisies or bluebells and primroses carpet the fields. Bits of woodland wonderful with rosy azaleas, dogwood or hawthorn; meadows golden with cowslips, blue with sweet flag or starred with violets; roads and lanes bordered by modest anemones, gaudy wild lilies or nodding columbine; fences and walls blanketed with clematis and honey-suckle, sweet-briar and bitter-sweet, and, even along the dusty, grimy railway tracks tansy and mallow pinks, dandelions and butter-and-eggs doing their humble best to brighten and beautify the otherwise ugly spot; all these are ours. But not even a mullein stalk, a dandelion or an iron-weed broke the greens, browns and dull yellows of this landscape. Here and there a rather dejected looking poppy grew, like a pariah, on the outskirts of a field of grain; blue chickory appeared at rare intervals, and clumps of lonely, inconspicuous white flowered weeds strove to maintain a precarious existence beside the roads. But even these were seemingly on the point of suffocation from the all pervading dust that covered every leaf, rose in dense clouds behind every plodding ox cart, and sifted like smoke through the car windows.

It seemed almost as if every weed, every non-utilitarian bit of vegetation had been uprooted, utterly exterminated, to make room for crops. But to offset the lack of wild flowers, there were the roses—hedges of crimson, pink, white, salmon; masses of blossoms rioting over adobe walls and low-roofed houses, as if man, having eliminated every lovely but valueless wild plant, had suddenly awakened to the need of color and beauty and had striven to replace the native flowers with those of his own planting. And nowhere, I feel certain, are there more beautiful or larger roses than those of Chile. Indeed, the profusion, size and color of Chile's cultivated flowers are on a par with her fruits, and, oftener than not, they have outgrown all bounds and are, practically, wild.

Another disappointing feature of the landscape was the absence of picturesque villages and people. There is nothing beautiful in a low, mud-walled hut with filthy dooryard wherein pigs, poultry and other livestock wallow and browse, and it must be confessed that the average home of the Chilean farmer and laborer is of this sort. The larger haciendas which we saw at intervals were palatial, beautifully kept and most attractive homes, surrounded by delightful gardens of flowers, palms and ornamental shrubs. But we missed the well-to-do, thrifty-looking farm houses of England and the States, the neat hay ricks, the well-filled corn cribs, the piled cordwood, the neat, trim cottages, and the great prosperous-looking barns. The farm hands, too, did not appear as well off or as contended as their fellows of other lands, though perhaps that was partly due to their costumes or lack of costume.

A plowboy in blue jeans, cowhide boots and coarse straw hat, or his British prototype in smock and gaiters, may be a far more elegantly or attractively garbed individual, but he at least fits his environment and is most unmistakably a rustic. But the Chilean peasant, as far as appearances go, might be either a farmer, a tramp, a dock hand or a brigand.

It is regrettable that the Chilean peasant has no national nor distinctive costume such as one sees in France, Spain, Holland or Scandinavia. The poncho is the only typical garment, and this useful bit of apparel is common to many Latin American countries. However, what the peasantry lacked in the way of picturesqueness was fully offset by the gayly bedecked and caparisoned rancheros,—the gentlemen farmers and cattlemen with their broad-brimmed, low-crowned Spanish hats, short jackets adorned with braid and buttons, flaming sashes, gaudy ponchos, ridiculously immense silver spurs and ornate horse trappings, and who looked as if they might have stepped bodily from the pages of an Ibañez novel.

Although I was rather disappointed at the scenery at first, I found that it rapidly improved. Beyond San Fernando, the cultivated land was far more extensive; vineyards and orchards were more numerous and larger, the houses appeared better and neater, with picturesque tiled roofs, and the vegetation was more varied. Even the hills and mountains were less bare and hopeless, while the fields showed patches of vivid yellow mustard, mauve-flowered vetch and scarlet poppies. Even the familiar stalks of mullein appeared at times, and along the ditches were cat-tails and pink mallows. The bird life, too, was interesting, for everywhere were the Chilean prototypes of New England songsters, and they seemed like old friends.

There were the familiar meadow larks uttering their plaintive, long-drawn notes; the blackbirds querulously piping from the reeds; the soft gray mourning doves; the swift-winged sparrow hawks; the harriers coursing low above the fields; the perky song sparrows; the impudent flycatchers, and scores of others. What did it matter if the larks' breasts were scarlet instead of yellow, if the blackbirds wore dull yellow instead of crimson and gold epaulets, if the sparrows and all the others were clad in slightly different hues and patterns? But, also, there were many birds totally distinct from any we have in the north. The great, handsome, black and white, spur-winged plovers that rose in flocks at the train's approach, and wheeling and whistling, circled about to alight upon newly ploughed ground. The tiny dwarf teal that paddled about, with equally tiny grebes, in every pool. The curious, dull-colored burrowing parrots, climbing, like four-footed creatures, over the cut banks, and popping in and out of their holes like marmots, and the tail-less, dust-colored, bustard-like "perdiz" that would half flutter, half run a few yards, and squatting down, would be instantly transformed into lumps of the bare earth.

The section south of San Fernando would have been a credit to any land. Greatly was I impressed by the wonderfully healthy and thriving appearance of the vegetation. There seemed to be an entire absence of disease or insect ravages. In the States, even at the best of times, one constantly sees the effects of insect pests and plant diseases. Constant vigilance and unending labor is essential if the farmer is to raise a crop, and insecticides are universally used. But throughout my trip through Chile's farm belt, I saw no evidences of insecticides on the plants, no one spraying the vegetables or fruit trees or picking bugs and caterpillars from vines and plants. Also, I was greatly surprised at the vast amount of waste or untilled land. Possibly much of this area is poor soil or unfit for farming, but as far as superficial observation went I could see no difference, either in soil or other character, between the cultivated and uncultivated areas. Indeed, areas of tilled land were often in the midst of wide stretches of waste land, and vice-versa. Another matter that seemed strange to me was the apparent ease of farming. In England or the States the farmer toils from dawn until dark with work never done; but in Chile, with the exception of a few men and boys leisurely plowing or harrowing with slow plodding oxen, or half-heartedly directing the irrigating waters in the way they should go, I saw few men at work in the fields. Groups stood idly at the wayside stations or about the little farm houses and chatted beside the roads; but all appeared to be taking life very easily and the farms seemed to be pretty much taking care of themselves. Possibly the Chilean farmer has solved the problem of raising lucrative crops without hard work, and if so, who would not go back to the soil, get close to nature and be a farmer in Chile?

By the time we reached Parral we had been transported as if by magic to New England. There was nothing in the landscape to remind us that we were still in Chile. Buttercups and daisies, pale blue forget-me-nots, pink clover and purple lupins carpeted the fields. The good old mullein was again in its element. Oaks, walnuts, chestnuts, locusts and elms were everywhere, and maples shaded the station platforms. On every side were brushy sheep pastures, blackberry thickets and typically New England brooks bordered by alders, while the occasional swamps were dense with a growth of ferns, brakes and brambles.

At Chillan the character of the country had completely altered once more. The land stretched away in rolling prairies to the distant hills, and was almost bare of cultivation. Instead, there were green pastures separated by rows of hardwood trees and shrubs, so that the country appeared like a vast crazy quilt of various shades of green. Sleek cattle and splendid horses grazed in great herds watched over by the Chilean cowboys, and, taken all in all, it was just such a scene as one might view from the windows of one of our own transcontinental trains.

At Yumbel we had entered yet another land. Richly green hills appeared beyond the fields; the broad vividly blue river meandered through lush meadows; truck farms, vineyards and wheat fields again covered the land, and as the train swung along the banks of the ever winding Bio-bio river, we felt as if we had been whisked to the borders of the Hudson or the Connecticut. But the really beautiful scenery of valleys, hills and stream was sadly marred by the clouds of choking dust that filled eyes, nostrils and mouth. I had been told that I would find southern Chile wet and rainy. Instead, I found it as dry as tinder and with a cloudless sky. No rain had fallen for nearly two months, and all averred that it was an abnormal and unprecedented condition of affairs. But wherever I went in Chile the weather, according to the natives, was abnormal. In rainless Antofagasta I experienced almost tropical downpours, and about rainy Concepcion I found weather conditions such as one might expect in a desert. All of which goes to show that Chilean weather is as uncertain as in any other country, and which may explain why travelers invariably disagree in their impressions of a strange land. But no two could fail to agree as to the beauty and attractiveness of the district about Concepcion. It is a delightfully varied land, a land of green meadows through which flow babbling brooks shaded by drooping willows and lined by tamarisks; a land of pastures wherein graze herds of blooded cattle and superb horses; a land of well-tilled farms and seas of grain; a land of rolling hills gleaming as if plated with gold where acres of yellow-flowered giant lupins grow in rank profusion; a land of charming lakes, of pine-clad mountains and of broad serene rivers. And scarcely less delightful than the country round about is the charming little town with its hospitable people.

With its wide cobbled streets, its low massive buildings and its sleepy air, Concepcion is typically Spanish American, and yet it is wholly un-Latin in its cleanliness. It is literally a spotless town, and, despite the scarcity of water at the time of my visit, the streets were meticulously flushed and washed each morning. And, as the street cleaners made their rounds and literally scrubbed the cobbles with their stiff, long-handled brooms, the cocheros took advantage of the opportunity, and dipping water from the flooded gutters, carefully washed not only their antique, weather-beaten vehicles but their horses as well. To be sure, there are no very ancient, very beautiful or very unusual buildings in Concepcion, for the original town of the name, which was established by old Pedro de Valdivia, was located where the little fishing village of Penco now stands. But between attacks by hostile Indians, earthquakes and tidal waves, life in the place became even too strenuous for the adventurous Dons, and the present site was selected and the original city abandoned to the elements. Today, only a few crumbling ruins mark the old city. But, even if Concepcion cannot boast of age-old churches and palaces, it can rightfully boast of a fine university, of excellent shops and stores, of up-to-date business blocks and of a delightful, neatly kept little plaza with a magnificent fountain in the center and a double row of wide-spreading linden trees bordering the promenades. All about, too, are monuments, statues and parks, while the Alameda, —if only properly paved or surfaced,—would be as fine a drive as any South American city could show. But probably the most attractive spot about the city is the Caracoles hill that rises to a height of about five hundred feet at the edge of the Alameda, Up this hill, which has been transformed into a public park, one may travel by auto over the winding road, and from the summit gaze across a wonderful panorama of countryside, river and distant sea, with the little city at one's feet. The only trouble is that the roads, like all roads in southern Chile, are abominable, and it is torture rather than pleasure to traverse either them or the city streets in the bouncing, jouncing motor cars of ancient vintage, or the still more pre-historic, bone-breaking, horse-drawn vehicles.

How some of the public conveyances one finds in these smaller Chilean towns manage to remain intact is little short of miraculous. They appear to be on the point of dropping to pieces, and as one jolts and bumps along over the horrible pavements one feels certain that a trail of the component parts of the vehicle must be left behind. But nowhere in all Chile did I see such battered junk piles as passed for motor cars in Concepcion. The jitney to which the red- capped porter—even in far-off southern Chile the "red cap" is as inevitable as in the Grand Central— led us, and onto which he began piling our luggage, looked as if it had been tumbled down a mountain side, submerged in the sea and had survived a few earthquakes. Indeed, judged by appearances, it might have served old Valdivia as a conveyance in his march from Santiago.

"Do you call that a car?" I exclaimed. "Why, that's a wreck!"

The chauffeur, an immensely fat, triple-chinned Chilean who could have made a fortune in slap-stick comedy films, stopped panting and puffing over stowing the luggage, turned, and grinned good-naturedly. "Si, Señor," he agreed. "But it is the best wreck in Concepcion."

To our amazement, too, the "best wreck in Concepcion," as well as ourselves, managed to survive the trip from railway station to the plaza where, to our amazement, we discovered what was apparently a really excellent hotel. As a matter of fact, the hotel was excellent, as far as site, appearances and equipment went. There were private baths with the rooms, electric lights, and the meals were beyond criticism. But the proprietor, a Slav and an ex-traveling salesman, had his own most unique and remarkable ideas as to decorative effects and furnishings. There was not a dresser, a chiffonier or even a bureau in any room. There was not a curtain or shade on any window. But beside one bed in each room was a gaudily decorated cuspidor; each bath was supplied with a thermometer, though minus soap or bath towels; every lock was upside down, and the fastenings to the bathroom doors were invariably on the outside and not on the inside! However, the hotel was completed instead of being left in a half-finished state, as were many of the buildings, and especially the churches of the town.

Wondering why building work had come to such an abrupt halt, I made enquiries and discovered that there was method in this seeming madness, for under the law taxes can only be levied on completed structures, and no matter how long a building may remain with a section of roof or wall or other portion uncompleted it is free from taxation.

Frequent trains and trolley cars connect Concepcion with its port of Talcahuano which is a busy and far from unimportant port, where the Chilean government maintains a naval station and dry dock. Here there are musty shops and ship chandelries, and a superabundance of noisome drinking places wherein one might expect plots to be hatched and dark deeds committed. To a Yankee, the town is of no little interest, for in former times it was a famous whaling port and in its harbor countless bluff-bowed, weather-beaten, oil-soaked whale ships from New Bedford, Nantucket, Salem and New London, cast anchor. Ashore, the boisterous hard-bitten, patched and toil-stained whalemen, after long months or years at sea, made merry and drank and sang and fought. And here, after they had accumulated tidy sums through oil or bone, and had broiled under equatorial suns and had frozen in Arctic or Antarctic seas, many Yankee whalemen settled down and made their homes. Later, many an old Yankee whaleship was sold to Chilean owners to be used in the local whaling industry, and many an old Yankee veteran of whaling days of New England stood as skipper upon their decks. Indeed, it was largely owing to the whaling ships, and the industry and commerce that followed ever in their wakes, that Talcahuano became of importance. A few of the newer ships—mere youngsters of fifty or sixty years ago, still cruise about the south Pacific and under the Chilean flag capture the humpbacks. But even they have deserted Talcahuano, and the last of the Yankee whaleships in Talcahuano's harbor is a stripped, pathetic hulk whose ornate figurehead is scarred and broken, whose stout wooden davits are sagging and awry, and whose painted ports are faded and weathered. Even her name is obliterated, but still plain upon her broad, square counter one may read the letters of her home port—"New Bedford," as though neither time, neglect, man's vandalism nor the elements could obliterate the memory of that famous old Yankee whaling port.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.