The soul knows, the heart jumps and the mind freaks out. It took a while for me to share the story of our arrival to Patagonia. I was afraid to sound too hyper, like a girl in love for the first time, or a junkie on drugs. Then I realized, the longer I wait, the more stories to tell and they all lead to the same conclusion: Something in me never wants to leave this place. Therefore, if ever, now is the time to introduce you to my “Rivendell”.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s books Rivendell is a hidden valley in Middle-earth, located in a deep gorge by a river, at the foot of the Misty Mountains. It has a cool tempered climate, more so than the Hobbit’s Shire for instance, but its summers are warm and it’s a place of streams and waterfalls. Immortal elves live there still according to the ‘old’ ways, but despite their focus on the past and their semi-isolation, they are wise, sophisticated and in touch with the people and the news of ‘the world’. Rivendell is a place in a fictional world off course, but La Junta, this village in the South of Chile (in the real world), fits every bit of Rivendell’s description.
La Junta is a village at the foot of the Andes mountains. It’s located in a long stretched valley where rivers and people of all four directions meet. You can spot waterfalls on almost every hill and its clear watered rivers look turquoise in the sun. The mountains on either side of the valley are green, filled with ancient, lush forests and their tops are decorated with, what looks like from below, fluffy white carpets.
The heart jumped
We arrived to La Junta for the very first time in April 2016 by following our instinct to go ‘further south’ and interested by a real estate offer that literally made my heart jump when I saw the pictures showing the river and the mountains. That real estate offer didn’t turn out to be something for us to buy (it was swamp land), but the area here got to us. It’s further than we thought we would ever live, colder than we thought we could ever bear, rainier than we thought we could ever like and yet…there’s just something about this place that hurts when we leave it.
La Junta is a young village, officially founded in 1963. It’s a land of colonizers and pioneers. Impenetrable for centuries, until bit by bit, strong-willed and courageous families settled and dominated the land by opening up spaces for farms and homes. We have met many sons, daughters and grandchildren of the first settlers. Some of the first colonizers are still alive, now in their late 90-ies. Most people in the vast area are descendants of the original colonizers and many have inherited large chunks of land. The stories they have shared with us are filled with pride, adventure and hardship and are worthy of a separate post. They have also shared knowledge about the medicinal attributes of the local plants and some have shared ancient wisdoms in random conversations. One lady told me: “the earth requires sacrifice, understand that child”. Every year when the animals are born, a few die. They are born to be taken by the earth. Anything you can give to the earth, she will appreciate and she will be good to you. So, when you pee, pee outside and dedicate it to the earth, for whatever she might need it for. (Yes, I freaked out and no, I’m not ready to pee outside anywhere and dedicate it to the earth, unless there’s no toilet nearby and it’s urgent.) Maybe you understand why I feel the similarity with the immortal elves of Rivendell. The locals still live according to the old ways, they seem to live forever and they too live in a hidden valley, but it’s called ‘La Junta’: ‘the meeting’ for a reason. They are not cut-off from the world.
Just yesterday we were chased by an 88 year old lady with a huge syringe, when she spotted us walking in her land. She lives alone in what must be at least a 70 hect. plot of land, taking care of her cows, her veggies, her sheep, … on top of a hill without electricity, mobile phone or internet. She does everything by herself (including being the vet to her animals apparently). After I explained we were on our way back from seeing her neighbors’ land she calmed down, became a sweet little old lady and invited us over for tea the next day.
We couldn’t believe how fast she walked down the hill to us, how she could manage to run a farm, a home, a life by herself at that age. We were taken through her land earlier that day by a couple in their 70-ies, walking for at least an hour through rivers, over shady wobbly bridges, up muddy hills, over wooden fences to see the piece of land next to the old lady’s. They say there will be a road there soon, so we went to see the land on offer, but we couldn’t buy and live there like they have for years without a road. We were stupefied!
The locals, Patagonians, as they call themselves, are a mix from everywhere. Some have come from Chiloe, others from further North in Chile, but there are also people with German roots, two people from Holland, two people from Colombia, a couple from England and Japan and now us, a hybrid Chilean-Belgian, a Scouser and our elf Laura :-).
The other Patagonians are the animals: horses and cows that roam free literally everywhere. They will stand or sleep on the middle of the ‘Austral Highway’ and they won’t move, you just have to drive off the road if necessary. There are families of goats and sheep to be found munching along the roads, or also standing on the roads. We have had encounters with flocks of parrots on top of the mountains and gentle ‘wild’ boars in the forests (truly they are friendly and seem to smile at you).
Let’s not forget the dogs. The dogs like to play ‘chase the car’. They will run to the streets when a new car passes by and come real close, enough to freak me out every time, and bark loud at the car. Then they go back to their homes to wait for another car. We drove by real slow one time and they didn’t like it, you could see them looking at us disappointed. Now they know us, so we don’t get played with anymore hihi. All in all, do not fear, the animals are friendly. At first we could not get used to huge bulls standing there looking at us, when we had to pass too close for our liking, but they have been harmless. They do look at you like: ‘if you think I’m moving, you can stand there for a long time’.
Another thing I like beyond measure and fills me with joy here is saying ‘Hi’ to everyone. When you are driving and another car drives by, you lift your hand, they lift their hand, we have said ‘Hi’. When someone on the street passes you, you say ‘Hola’. When someone on a horse passes you, they will give you a nod with the head and you say ‘Hi’. Everybody greets everybody, whether driving, walking, on a horse, on a tractor, entering a shop: they all say ‘Hi’! Oh my God, it feels so nice! I never knew I had missed eye contact and greeting every stranger in the city hahaha. I’m going nuts, what a liberation, just to greet a fellow human. Wow.
The mind freaks out.
Anyway, it’s not all sunshine and roses, I’m afraid. It rains a lot, I mean A LOT. On some nights, when the rain is loud and endless, I wake up wondering if I won’t go crazy in the long and rainy winters. Although climate change has hit here too, last summer it hardly rained in three months apparently. I also freak out about having what it takes to live here. I mean, the Patagonian men and women are strong, strong bodied, strong minded. We freak out at everything and they answer: ‘This is Chile, that’s nothing’. This time it doesn’t feel like ‘This is Congo, deal with it’. If feels more like, ‘Hello, that’s nothing, toughen up’. I came here wearing camel-colored boots with high heels, feeling glam, warm and cozy only to be laughed at by everyone. I quickly changed them for watertight Dunlop boots; there went the Antwerpian Latina city chick.
And we still can’t find land, because people are tied or as Buddha would call it ‘attached’ to their lands. They may have 300, 600, 1000 hectares and they may not have any cash, but they won’t sell. Here’s the deal: they don’t need the cash. Their homes are built, they have farms, they are self-sustainable, and they cook and heat their homes with wood, which there is plenty of. There are no movie theatres or restaurants to go spend money at. They apparently have no need for fashion statements, watertight boots will do. Why would they part with their lands which were conquered with blood, sweat and tears by their parents or grandparents?
So, there you have it. There is a part of me (my stubborn heart) that never wants to leave this place, but luck has not been on our side and the mind is freaking out at the differences of lifestyle. I mean, no movie theatres? No restaurants? No fancy clothes? Muddy roads full of cow shit everywhere? My mind is also freaking out, because we truly need to set our own roots, conquer our own land, build our own future. When, where, how? How long will we be rolling stones on the endless road to our future?
Who knows? We are still stubbornly here, in a place that thrills me and scares me. Do we have what it takes to be settlers, in a modern and eco way? Can we dominate the land without harming it? Will we be able to take the rain in the winter? Will we muster the patience to deal with roads that are still not there? Will we ever be allowed to buy a piece of Rivendell? Can we be immortal elves too? Or are we hobbits that should have stayed in the Shire?
Love from Patagonia,