When the February 2010 tsunami washed inland over much of the small fishing village of Loanco, in the Maule province of south central Chile, many homes were totally destroyed, the fishermen lost all of their boats, motors, and nets, and even their new tractor for hauling the boats out of the water was a total loss. None died. They knew what to do, and escaped. The villagers’ belongings were strewn along the coast for miles, and the villagers themselves were dispersed around the area, taking refuge with friends and relatives so as to have a roof over their heads for the cold, rainy Chilean winter that would soon be upon them.
I have sort of adopted Loanco as my escape from today’s sometimes deafening clamor. Whenever I visit Chile, and can get away, I spend a few days at the very isolated coastal refuge Ximena’s sister Veronica and her husband Joaquin have built that sits on a bluff looking out over the long, lonely sandy beach that runs from Loanco north to a spectacular lighthouse, El Faro Caranza. My visits now follow a routine that I imagine often when I am not fortunate enough to be there. After a five-hour drive down the Pan American highway and a diversion east through either Constitución or Cauquenes, I reach their place by driving in along a dirt path from the main road through pastures, wooden farm gates, past rundown adobe farmhouses guarded by ferocious mangy dogs, over a huge sand dune, through a clump of cypress trees, and down into the back yard of Veronica and Joaquin’s place.
About halfway along this path, there is an overlook, a place where you can look way down to the left as you enter, and see Loanco. This view of Loanco is usually lovely, since you can appreciate the blue-green waters crashing on the rocky shoreline around the small village. The distance filters out the poverty and near futility and dangers of trying to make a living as an antisan fisherman. In spite of the distance filter, this view of Loanco was a sad, sad scene the last time I visited, in May, before returning to the US.
So when I visited again in September of this year, I arrived at this overlook late in the afternoon with a certain degree of anxiety. I feared what I would see, so I sort of looked indirectly out of the corner of my eye, thinking just a slight glance would keep me from seeing the ugliness of Loanco’s destruction. But what a surprise! There were boats on the shore, and it was pretty obvious they had motors and were back at work. There were still vacant lots where some houses had been before, but there were also signs of construction activity. So I spent the night still expectant of what I would find the next day during my customary walk to Loanco, but comforted by the feeling that maybe Loanco was recovering, maybe they have a chance of getting back to normal.
Bright and early the next morning, after a big cup of Nescafe with hot milk and burned hallulla toast (in Chile this toast mostly comes burned) with lots of real butter and honey from the Olmo flower, I enthusiastically headed down the dune, and over the beach towards Loanco. How the earth and her earthlings slowly recover from disasters is really something to marvel. Several years before the tsunami, Joaco had planted Ammophila grass to stabilize the dunes closest to the ocean in front of his property. It was working, but Joaco had told me he was sure all his work had been washed away in the tsunami. However, as I crossed this line of low dunes on my way to Loanco, I could see that the Ammophila had survived its February drowning and was sprouting anew. It was miraculously continuing to do its job. The scraps and pieces of Loanco’s belongings which just seven months earlier had virtually blanketed the beach were slowly and progressively being buried or washed out to sea. Tips of splintered bedposts, smashed bookcases and chairs, boat oars, and tattered clothing were still sticking out of the sands, and there were still too many signs of the disaster that struck this village. But it seemed to me that it would not be long before the sea will swallow and the sands will cover what was lost by the residents of Loanco in the tsunami.
Those of you who have followed this blog, or have been fortunate to have visited Loanco, know that my destination whenever I trek down the beach to Loanco is first to watch the fishermen arrive with their catch (their and my timing is such that when I am starting my day, they usually are beginning to finish theirs!) and then a short walk through town to Maria’s and Dago’s restaurant Las Rocas.
On this day in September, as I walked into the midst of the boats on the beach, I was a little early or the fishermen were late so there was no one around, but I could tell by the tracks in the sand that at least some of the new boats had gone out to fish. I figured if I waited a bit, I would see them return with their catch. A quick look around revealed several new boats with shiny new motors. As it turns out, the Loanco fishermen were helped by contributions from a mining association from the north of Chile, the national (international, really) airline, and others to rebuild their small fleet of fishing boats, and a special line of credit from the Chilean government’s fisheries ministry was being made available. Someone had provided the resources to buy a new tractor to haul the boats to and from the water (they used oxen up until a couple of years ago) and the fact that they now had that new tractor parked high on a cement platform well away from the sea made me chuckle. The building used by the fishermen to store fish and fishing equipment, house bathrooms and changing rooms, and serve as a fish market when the catch was sufficient was still totally vacated and probably due to be demolished.
There is an ambitious plan to create a Ruta de Caletas (small fishing village tourism route) to rebuild facilities in 5 or 6 fishing villages in the region, including Loanco. This project, designed by several architects from leading Chilean Universities, pretends to build attractive facilities to house storage areas for fishermen, restaurants and walkways for tourists and townspeople, and shops for artisan products. This initiative is interesting, ambitious, and well worth following, for if it does contribute to improving the economies and living conditions in these poorest of enclaves along the Chilean coast it will be wonderful. Maybe at the same time they will make sure all open sewers in these small forgotten towns are closed and appropriate facilities installed for all dimensions of waste and water management.
So there is noticeable progress with the fishermen. The day before my visit, someone had told me they had had lunch at Las Rocas Restaurant a few days before, and the fate of the owners, Maria and Dago, is of utmost interest to me (as you would know from several of my previous postings on this blog). So having checked out the situation of the fishermen I directed my attention towards the other end of town where Las Rocas stood previously and where Dago had, but lost, his small store. I could see the site where Las Rocas stood before, and sure enough, it was being rebuilt…on the same site perched just several feet above sea level on the rocks. To remind you, this restaurant, totally destroyed in the tsunami, is where you could previously feast on raw erizos (sea urchins), locos en salsa verde (Chilean abalone with a sauce of oil, chopped onion and parsley), paila marina (mixed seafood soup), caldillo de congrio (conger eel soup), fried pescada (merluza or hake), almejas (clams), machas (razor clams), and all accompanied by ensalada Chilena (tomato and onion), and the best french fries on the planet (most likely owing to the fact they still use lard in which to fry them). To fully enjoy this setting and menu, the meal was usually preceeded by a small glass of vaina (a blend of fortified sweet wine or port, cacao and egg) if it is before noon or pisco sour (no time limits nor description necessary) and accompanied by a healthy amount of nice cold Chilean white wine from the producer cooperative in Cauquenes, and a long conversation with Maria. All this was on my mind as I approached the site, for clearly it was not operational. As I walked down the main street, I saw ahead on the left, a sign that read “Las Rocas” next to a small cement house that had partially survived the tsunami and had been rebuilt.
It was closed, but as I stood looking at the large menu board alongside the door and inside at the few tables and bar, Maria appeared in a pickup truck with her daughter-in-law who helps her with the restaurant. She recognized me from my prior visits, and with a big smile on her face (and on mine also to be sure) she gave me a big hug and announced they were back in business. I asked about Dago, who she said was up above on a piece of property planting garlic, but would be at their temporary Las Rocas later in the day. She explained how their optimism won out over their fear of another tsunami (after all, “how many 100-year tragedies can one be victim to in a lifetime?”) and how a new, expanded, more modern Las Rocas will be functioning on the original site by the end of October, in time for the entire spring/summer/fall season when most visitors come to Loanco.
Maria rushed off to do the shopping for the Las Rocas lunch crowd, so after checking out the rebuilding process at the old Las Rocas site, I left Loanco, walked back up the beach, got my car, and decided to visit a small town inland where my Peace Corps colleague Norton was stationed from 1967-69. Empedrado had always interested me, but I had never visited this town that sits truly in the middle of nowhere. You don’t go through Empedrado. You have to want to go there, and I did, just to see where Norton spent two years of his young life before returning to Wisconsin to become a vegetable farmer and raise a family. Even though paved roads have replaced the dirt ruts Norton must have traveled to and from Empedrado, this visit took longer than I thought it would (they all do) and I arrived back in Loanco at about 2:30 to have lunch.
After a long conversation with Dago, who explained with great enthusiasm how he was going to have the refurbished and much improved Las Rocas functioning soon, I was going to sit alone in Maria’s temporary Las Rocas to have lunch. As I sat down a man who was sitting with his mother at a neighboring table invited me to sit with them to have lunch. Through locos en salsa verde and the reliably satisfying pescada frita con ensalada Chilena, and of course a couple of bottles of Lomas de Cauquenes “carignan”, we talked about the chances of Loanco continuing to grow and possibly thrive if the architect’s project to build the “Ruta de Caletas” goes forward. My lunch companions were brimming with optimism about a growing tourism in the region as a result of this project. I am not so sure about that, but I do know that Maria and Dago have enough persistence and optimism to ensure that their restaurant will continue to serve the wide variety of Chilean seafood that attracts people from the region, and some like me regularly to this out of the way spot on the Chilean coast. I hope the projects to rebuild Loanco and other fishing villages are successful, and that the fine folks who live in these towns eventually can live more healthy lives without open sewers and precarious economic conditions, but I also hope that change does not stifle the entrepreneurial and independent drive so many of them have, especially Maria and Dago.
Written in Leesburg, Virginia on October 19, 2010