Finally, I have met Naya. Attempting to meet Nadeschda Del Rio is really why I ended up tossed out of bed, onto the floor at 3:34 AM in the Hotel Alonzo de Ercilla over a year ago in Concepcion, Chile, during that terrible 8.8 earthquake. (You can read all about it in the first posting on this blog, dated May 2010). On that fateful day, my plan was to drive by car to Arauco, a small town south of Concepcion, to visit the widow of an old friend, Enrique del Rio. I worked with Enrique in the Instituto Forestal in 1967 when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I had not heard from or about Enrique or Naya for 40 years. I had finally contacted the Del Rio home in Arauco that day a year ago, before driving to Concepcion, only to hear from Naya that Enrique had passed away 15 years ago. Disappointed by this news, I still wanted to see her, to talk with her about Enrique and to meet his children.
Having aborted this plan to visit Naya in Arauco last year, and knowing that the coastal area south of Concepcion (including Arauco, Lota, Coronel and several small fishing villages) had been seriously damaged and isolated due to the earthquake and tsunami, I have been concerned for the Del Rio family for the past year. As my latest trip to Chile drew to the end, I finally had a few days left in Chile with no commitments and the urge to get out of Santiago for a few days, so I enlisted my old Peace Corps boss and USAID colleague, Gerry (who lives in Santiago with his Chilean wife Maria Elena), to make a visit with me to Concepcion and Arauco to find Naya.
It is a long day’s drive from Santiago to Concepcion and further on to Arauco, so the only stop we made on the way was in Concepcion at the Alonzo de Ercilla Hotel, where I had been the night of the quake. I wanted to see how well they had recovered, since my memory of the place when I left it early the morning after the earthquake was that it had suffered quite a bit of damage. But a year later, the hotel is all fixed and operating as if nothing had happened, so we decided that we would go to Arauco to see Naya, then return to stay at this hotel that night. Gerry insisted, though, that if we did that, we would request a room on the first floor. I had been on the 4th floor in the earthquake, and the first floor just seemed more advisable. The building next to the hotel, which had collapsed into the street during the quake, killing someone in a car parked in the street at the time, was completely demolished. An empty lot now replaces that old building used during 2009 as presidential campaign headquarters for Eduardo Frei. That is pretty appropriate; an unsuccessful campaign, a lost election, a demolished building….three strikes, you’re out!
As we left Concepcion, we crossed the wide, lazy Bio Bio River, and drove right by the ill-fated apartment building which had split in two and partially collapsed during the earthquake, killing several residents and leading to a huge debate and series of lawsuits precipitated by the obvious fact that errors in construction were to blame for this building’s demise. Two taller buildings stood firm right next door, silent witnesses to the crime. We were in a hurry to get to Arauco, so we did not stop to observe closely this landmark building, but agreed we would do so upon our return through Concepcion.
It was getting late as we arrived in Arauco, and we had to search a bit to find the place where Naya had told me a year ago that she lived and was operating her ceramics factory. I had lost the phone number I had used to contact her the year before, so I was not able to call ahead to see if she was there and alert her to our visit. I was just hoping to find her. As Gerry and I drove in a long driveway, past some simple homes and other buildings, we began to speculate as to whether we would even find anyone, since the place was very quiet and we saw no one. However, as we turned a bend in the driveway, Gerry softly whispered “There she is, that must be her standing there…and she is definitely Russian!” Standing in the doorway of what obviously was her ceramics factory, holding a piece of pottery she was polishing, white-blond hair shining in the sunlight, covered with white clay powder from head to toe, stood Nadeschda Mordwinkin Rudenko, my old friend Enrique’s widow.
She smiled from ear to ear when I introduced myself, and honestly, I almost cried as I thought about my old friend Enrique, how he had been so good to me during my first year in Chile as a young Peace Corps Volunteer, how sorry I was he was not there to greet me, and how pleased I was to see Naya after all I had been through to get back to Arauco. Gerry and I toured her ceramics factory, which she and Enrique built 40 years ago but which she is closing down because, at 78 she is tired of working. Besides, the earthquake destroyed the larger of her two ceramic ovens, and she could not repair it. Naya showed us some remaining examples of the beautiful hand painted bowls, dishes, flower vases, and pitchers she has produced for years but which sadly will no longer be on the market. Naya is moving soon to Concepcion to live with her daughter Natasha, where she will teach painting and ceramics in several institutes and schools.
Naya is of a White Russian family that, after escaping from Russia, then from Serbia (Yugoslavia at the time) where they lived in the Diaspora. They arrived in 1948 by boat at the port city of Valparaiso, Chile, with 800 other Russian war refugee families who ultimately settled throughout Chile. She was only 19 when she and Enrique met while living in Penco, a small town just north of Concepcion, and were married. Their six children (Natasha, Maria Alejandra, Maria Cecilia, Eliza, Enrique, and Carolina Nadeschda) and a dozen grandchildren all live in Chile. Naya and Enrique left Chile in 1973, several years after he and I had worked together at the Instituto Forestal in Santiago. She explained to Gerry and me that they left Chile then because they had no desire to go through the civil and social chaos Chile was consumed by at that time as the leftist government headed towards military intervention amidst talks of civil war. Naya especially wanted to leave, since she had escaped as a young girl from what she remembered as similar conditions in Russia and Yugoslavia. They moved to Costa Rica and the United States where Enrique endlessly searched for the right niche to satisfy his independent and creative urge to build his own company, but ultimately they returned to Chile, to Arauco, where Enrique’s family lived and where they built their ceramics factory.
As we talked with Naya about their lives, much of it difficult, struggling to establish themselves in new places, with new languages and new cultures, I could not help but marvel at Naya’s unabated optimism, how creative she has been and still is. I recall some pretty difficult times I myself faced when I went for the first time as a young man to live and work in Chile, but Naya is the kind of person who, without trying, makes me feel guilty to have ever felt sorry for myself.
When we parted after a lovely time together, I became very emotional, as I was when we greeted earlier that afternoon. And I sensed that this very sensitive but life-hardened woman also felt a twinge of nostalgia for times and people in her past awakened a bit by my visit. As Gerry and I drove out the driveway, he said to me “Dave, that was a very nice and meaningful thing to do”. And I felt the same way. In a very small way, I guess I wanted to do something to acknowledge what a good friend Enrique had been to me over forty years ago. I remember how much Enrique admired the United States. I remember the day Enrique entered my office at the Instituto Forestal, shaking, tears in his eyes, having just heard of the assassination in Los Angeles of Robert Kennedy, and cried out “David, what the hell is wrong with your country?” I had no good answer for Enrique that day, but his honest concern for me and for my country helped me greatly that day face up to a very difficult issue and get through a confusing time.
As Gerry and I left the Del Rio home, I deeply wished I had been able to reunite with Enrique before his untimely death, and thank him for his friendship. My efforts to see Naya in Arauco, though, were paid back many times over by the short time I spent reminiscing with this wonderful woman who, during our visit, quietly insisted that “Life is too easy if you don’t find a few stones in the road”. That’s quite an appropriate take on life for a woman whose name in Russian, Nadeschda , means “Hope”.