We’ve challenged ourselves on this trip to try things we normally wouldn’t try otherwise. Seeing the state of the earth in different corners of the globe has turned us into staunch environmentalists, and we were desperate to do something meaningful beyond recycling, and carefully buying in-season, local produce.
Travelling involves a lot of taking. Taking in experiences, consuming the local sights, sounds and activities, and generally doing what pleases you. But human nature is to give something back, and we wanted to give something back to the environment.
We searched for a NGO or charity that is doing meaningful work in South America, but didn’t want to charge us thousands for the privilege of donating our time and skills. We were lamenting this fact to a friend, who recommended a Workaway arrangement.
Many young travellers (and more mature ones as well) work their way through their travels, exchanging labour and skills in for food and lodging. We registered with the workaway website, and started searching for a situation in Chile where Austin would be safe and accommodated, and where we could help make a difference in the world.
We found Aluantu, a permaculture eco-farm in northern Patagonia, and after meeting them in person, we agreed to stay on for a month.
The farm is set on a tranquil alpine lake at the base of a cliff, and is accessed by a private road that requires 4WD to travel up on the best of days. It is surrounded by lush temperate rainforest, and the main lodge and little cabins are all presided over by Matterhorn shaped volcano. In short, it was like a resort for people who generally prefer the great outdoors to resorts.
There were waterfalls, salmon fishing, hiking trails through the dense old growth forest, gardens, baby sheep, chickens, stunning views of the ever changing volcano and technicolour sunsets over the lake.
The Fundo (ranch) is owned by a man named Greg, whose American father bought the land more than 60 years ago, and the 500+ ha remain in the family today. We were made to feel welcome, and were generously provided with a little wood cabin all to ourselves so that we could have our own family time in the evenings.
The cabin’s central feature was a wood burning stove which provided heat, made our hot water, and cooked our food. Learning how to cook on a wood burning stove was an adventure in it’s own, and we are now all experts in chopping wood, making kindling, starting fires, and cooking and baking in an unpredictable environment.
There were a handful of other volunteers at the lodge, most in their 20’s, and all of them truly lovely. But like any group, it was truly a cast of characters, and yes, that included us.
We spent our days, rain or shine – and for a while there was more rain than shine – working at whatever was needed around the fundo. For Mark, that meant chopping wood, building a quincho (a covered barbecue house), or clearing land for more cabins to be built. I had agreed to do a sales and marketing strategy for the retreat centre part of the lodge, and found myself in the role of business advisor, strategist and social media instructor. Most of my days were spent indoors, while Mark was outside in the elements.
It reminded me in many ways of the way of life I grew up with in small town Texas. Although we weren’t farmers or ranchers ourselves, we all knew and understood the ways of agriculture and working the land; living in harmony with the land and everything else that occupied it.
Austin flourished there, spending most of his time outdoors, building little stone villages on the beach of the lake, creating hideouts in the forest, and helping to tend to the chickens, feeding them, putting them to bed at night, and collecting the eggs. He learned how to work the gates, a rite of passage for all “country kids”, and generally blended in with the environment around him.
He also made friends with a boy named Alec. Alec came from Long Island, and is the big brother/uncle/friend that any 7 year old boy would love to have. When they discovered a shared love of SpongeBob, the deal was sealed.
Twenty-four year old Alec, and 7 year old Austin were best friends for life. Austin adored Alec, and in turn, Alec played and played with him – building forts, learning about “nature materials” to build with, and on rainy days, they played lego in our cabin. Austin saved a seat for Alec every day at lunch, and Alec taught him yoga in the sunny spot in the garden.
Yes, the parents in us were sceptical at first…why would a 24 year old from Long Island want to play with our 7 year old. But instead of cutting it off at the start, we watched, supervised, and got to know Alec, and eventually more or less adopted him into our family.
So there were all these 20 somethings at the lodge, the 65+ yo Greg and his partner, Helen, and us. Middle aged, with a kid. At first, I totally thought I was one of them – you know….just with a little more experience. But I quickly realised they thought of me as their mom…because I could have been their mom!
I was mortified at first, but later realised it was a huge compliment. These kids who were off travelling the world on their own needed a place of comfort, refuge and some maternal looking after. They asked me about mending socks, how to make beans, and even to patch up their cuts and scrapes.
Eventually I embraced the role, and saw it as less of a defeat of my youthful thoughts of myself, and accepted that I am a middle aged mother, and if some 20 somethings who are far from home need a little nurturing, then I can get over myself enough to give that to them!
We had spoken to the local rural school to see if Austin could join their classes – more for companionship and Spanish language than any expectations of education. While the bureaucrats wouldn’t let him enrol in the school formally, the headmaster invited him to join from 2 to 4 each afternoon during art / music / play time. He was over the moon, and quickly made friends with the eight students who attended the school. It was a half hour drive up the cliff to get him there and back, and Mark and I took turns to drop him off and pick him up.
Eventually, we found a way to enrol him so he could go the whole day – I just needed to drive to the nearest city two hours away and register him with the Chilean school system. So early one morning, Austin and I set out up the hill to go get him registered for school. We had barely gotten out of the gates when the truck just stopped working. There was no loud bang or anything – it just stopped responding. So we pulled off to the side of the road in one of the few relatively flat bits, and walked back to the lodge to tell Mark what had happened. Greg towed us back to our cabin, and there our car sat for the next three weeks while we tried fruitlessly to find a mechanic to come out to our remote location to look at the car — much less fix it.
The walk to school took two hours each way, so spending four hours a day trudging up and down that hill wasn’t really an option. So Austin had to stop going to school.
We had only planned to stay at the lodge for a month, and that time was fast approaching. But with no way out, and no end in sight, we were now there until we could get the truck fixed. We were getting itchy feet.
Mark sent a Hail Mary up to a Pan American Overlanders group on Facebook, asking whether anyone knew a mechanic nearby who could come look at the truck. They came through in a big way. We were put in touch with an American named Daniel from Atlanta. He was a mechanic who lived about two hours away with his Chilean wife, and in addition to leading cross country and motorbike tours into Patagonia, he did a little mechanic work on the side. In short, Daniel was our saviour on four wheels.
He came out the very next day, and he and Mark together found the source of the problem…a broken timing belt.
That sounds simple enough to fix, but apparently it’s not. Apparently when something like that breaks, it bends the valves and the car may or may not even be fixable. Daniel towed us up to the main road and called a tow truck for us to take us the 60km in to Osorno. He also located a mechanic, and handled some of the trickier exchanges in Spanish for us. He was a godsend.
When the tow truck came, we saw that the three man cab was already filled with three large men. We weren’t sure where three more people were going to fit, and prepared ourselves to stay overnight in the small town on the highway until the first bus left in the morning.
But we needn’t have worried at all. Once they winched the truck onto the flatbed (after having to fix the winch first), we were told to pile in to our own truck, strapped down on top of the tow truck! We could not believe it, but we piled in, and giggled all the way to Osorno, riding up there on the back of the truck!
The mechanic was young, but fully competent. Yes, the worst had happened to the truck and the valves needed to be machined. We were told it could take two months to get the parts in for our Japanese Mitsubishi in this part of southern Chile. We were crestfallen, and the week long wait while we waited to hear how long it would take was excruciating.
Miraculously, the parts arrived in just over a week, and a few days later, the parts of the engine that needed to be machined had been done, and our engine had been put back together. I cried tears of joy. The truck had been fixed in less time and for less money than promised, and within days were back on the road, heading around to some volcanoes, ski resorts, lakes and adorable German villages before making a run to the border over the Andes into Argentina.
With little access to the outside world, it felt as though time had stood still. Like we were there for a moment, not two months. Or that it was all a dream. We were glad of our time there. We learned a few things, and appreciated having a community again. We made some friendships, and have a place to call “home” whenever we return to Chile.
The stories and memories we have from Aluantu could fill a (very long) book. Too much to write here, but they are memories that will stay with us forever.