One Year After; Personal Observations of Recovery in Maule.
“We are never satisfied with a response to a disaster, because it is, after all, a disaster”.*
To retrace the route I took alone about a year ago, the day before the earthquake, Gerry and I left Dichato, drove inland a bit through Coelemu and Quirihue, and then headed north along the coast through Cobquecura, Buchupureo, Curanipe, and Pelluhue. Curanipe and Pelluhue, especially the areas right along the coastal road, are pretty much cleaned up of the mountains of debris left by the disaster. But permanent rebuilding of homes and stores is very, very slow. The area just on the outskirts of Pelluhue, called Mariscadero, where the fishermen and poor families lived, is still a desolate landscape, where very little progress has been made to resettle the area. Rebuilding is not being encouraged in the lowest areas, so anyone who chooses to rebuild in an area declared tsunami-prone will not benefit from bank loans or insurance, making it impossible for most people to rebuild in these areas. It will take many years for these towns to be anything other than disaster zones. Recovery is very, very slow.
We had to push on to Chanco, where we were going to meet up with my brother-in-law, Joaco, who along with his wife, Veronica, have a very special home that sits on a sand dune bluff overlooking the fishing village of Loanco, and the “Faro Carranza” (Lighthouse). We spent some time in Chanco, a rural town which had retained that classical Chilean colonial architecture of one-story, thick adobe-walled buildings all painted in earth colors, with tile roofs and beautiful courtyards within which chickens, horses, even cows and lots of dogs roamed pretty much unattended. But every time I have visited Chanco since the earthquake, and this time was no exception, more of these picturesque homes and stores have been demolished, with empty lots in their place waiting for some sort of structure to be put in the space.
I commented to Gerry when we entered the town that I thought that in 3 to 5 years this town would be back to some semblance of the old “look”, but probably with construction of bricks, cement, and wood, rather than adobe, but designed to give the feeling of the historical look. We talked about it a bit, but the situation of Chanco had made Gerry almost despondent and much less optimistic than I. He believes that this small town that once had a certain distinct and attractive architectural personality, in 3 to 5 years will be nothing more than a mish-mash of whatever types of structures people could throw together, some nice, some not so nice, but no underlying personality. I fear Gerry may be right. This part of Maule is extremely poor, and does not receive much attention from its own regional leaders, much less from Santiago.
We left Chanco and soon approached my favorite spot on the Central Chilean coast, the small fishing village of Loanco. This is where Dago and Maria had their restaurant, right on the edge of the pounding Pacific Ocean, and where about a dozen families reside to fish for “corvina”, “congrio” and recently mostly “merluza”, all delicious fish. Loanco is amazing; in it’s small, isolated way. In the year since the tsunami wiped out most of the boats, vehicles, and houses along the water, the fisherman have new boats and motors, and two new tractors to pull their boats out of the water.
They are slowly rebuilding their homes, and Dago and Maria’s restaurant, “La Roca”, is running at full speed, totally rebuilt smack in the same location where it was wiped out by a wave of water a year earlier.
Bigger and better, their building is nicer, the kitchen is newer, and the bathrooms are cleaner. The food is about the same. Not fantastic, just plain good. We stopped at the restaurant to say hello to Maria, who was still there at about 6 PM, and let her know we would be coming to “la Roca” for dinner at about 8. We then went up the road a bit and through the pastures across the tops of the dunes to reach Joaco’s place. Joaco was there, getting everything ready for us, so we immediately opened a bottle of Joaco’s brother-in-law’s best cabernet sauvignon wine, produced at the “Estrella” vineyard and winery he owns and manages several kilometers outside of Cauquenes. We had brought along some spicy Chilean “chorizo” laced with “merquen”, some creamy slightly aged “Chanco” cheese (most of which is no longer made in Chanco), and some freshly baked “pan amasado”, so we sat on the porch enjoying the panoramic sunset over the five-kilometer-long shoreline, and the Loanco fishing village, with the Faro Carranza in the background. We explained to Joaco what we had seen and heard the two prior days during our visits to Concepcion, Arauco, and Dichato and talked about the progress many are making to rebuild their lives. However, we had to admit we were pretty stunned by how much still remains to be done.
Then we went to “La Roca” for dinner. Joaco and I had “corvina a la plancha” (sautéed sea bass), and Gerry had “Congrio frito” (fried Kingclip, or conger eel). We washed it down with a simple bottle of Missiones de Rengo Sauvignon Blanc, a good, everyday dry wine found easily throughout the US and often served in social events in Chile, like weddings, receptions, and group dinners. It is a very good value, and when paired with Maria’s fresh fish at “La Roca’, contributed to a top notch meal. As we left La Roca, Joaco offered to show us the new fisherman’s building that was recently built where the old fish cleaning and equipment storage area used to stand.
This new establishment is really quite an accomplishment. If you check one of my earlier blog postings about Loanco, you will be reminded that several months ago there was an announcement that 5 or 6 functional but attractive buildings were being designed by a group of university architects, to be built in fishing villages along the Maule coast, establishing “La Ruta de Las Caletas” (The route of fishing Villages, copying the already successful “Rutas del Vino”, wine routes, throughout Chile). I recall being very skeptical that this project was ever going to materialize, but to my astonishment, and great satisfaction, the one in Loanco is already finished, and we had a tour of it that night after dinner. It remains to be seen if the restaurant included in the project to serve not just fishermen but also the public, will prosper, and if it does, will it draw clientele away from the two other restaurants in town, including Dago and Maria’s “La Roca”. But this new attractive structure is surely a source of pride for the town, for the fishermen and their families, and deserves high praise. “La Ruta de Las Caletas” may after all become a reality, keeping an important promise made to the poor fishermen in these villages immediately after the disaster a year ago.
Again Gerry, Joaco and I settled onto on the front porch of Joaco’s ocean-view home, and finished the evening off drinking a single malt scotch we had also brought along in our “traveler’s tool kit”, smoking small Cuban cigars Gerry finally released from the inside pocket of his jacket after much coaxing, but mostly absorbing the incessant thunder of the breaking surf on the shore below. Sleeping at Joaco’s place overlooking Loanco and the Faro Carranza is always a dream, be it because I always arrive there exhausted by the day’s activities, or from the Maule wine we always share on his porch, or the glass of scotch that often follows, or just the lulling sound of the surf, but sleep here is always profound and uninterrupted, and this night was no exception. We needed the rest after a day we began much earlier in Arauco.
We arose the next morning to a typical Chilean breakfast: sliced ham, fresh “quesillo”, toasted “pan amasado”, wild blackberry jam, and a hot cup of instant Nescafe with milk. I don’t know what it is about the instant Nescafe in Chile, but it is delicious. Maybe it is the small container woven out of “mimbre” that the can is presented in, or the fond memories of those breakfasts shared in southern Chile with my colleagues at the Instituto Forestal when I first explored southern Chile as a Peace Corps Volunteer, that makes the coffee taste so good. However, I have always suspected that Chilean Nescafe has something else besides coffee in it, maybe ground garbanzos, I don’t know for sure, but it would not surprise me if it was really a special mixture found only in Chile. It doesn’t seem to taste near as good anywhere else.
Anyway, we finished breakfast, and returned to Loanco to observe the arrival of the fishing boats after their all-night, or early morning fishing. To our surprise and their great satisfaction, the boats were arriving loaded with fish. The fishermen told us this had not been common over the past year, but that maybe, just maybe, the fish have returned after a year of very bad fishing in the waters especially affected by the tsunami.
Hopefully the fish are back and this type of take will last, but on this day everyone was very excited about the number of large “corvina” and “congrio colorado” they had caught. They even had a few of the flat-shaped “lenguado”, my favorite Chilean fish that over the past few years has become very dear, and very expensive now in Santiago restaurants. I like it best when Ximena lightly sautés fresh filets of “lenguado” in a bit of browned butter and chopped fresh parsley, and serves it with a bit of steamed broccoli, all splashed with fresh lemon juice and a pinch of black pepper. Oh yes, and a glass of Veramonte Sauvignon Blanc from the Casablanca Valley (screw top notwithstanding). But back to our visit to Maule.
Gerry and I had to get back to Santiago by the evening, but we still wanted to visit Constitucion, possibly the town most extensively affected by the 2010 earthquake and tsunami. Going through Los Pellines, the next fishing village going north from Loanco, we observed that they, too, were offloading a good catch of fish that day from several new boats with shining new motors. We also observed, from a distance, that their new “Ruta de Las Caletas” structure was also almost done and ready to serve the fishermen and visitors to the village.
Constitucion has been, since the CELCO pulp mill was built right smack on the town’s beautiful beach on the edge of town (but effectively right in town) in the early 1970s, an unattractive place that, in spite of the pervasive poverty in the area and the sickening smell of the pulping process still attracts tourists in the summer to its beaches and riverside. In fact, it was a group of unfortunate vacationers who lost their lives in the tsunami because they were camping on an island in the middle of the Maule river when the wall of water rushed up the river and over into the streets of downtown Constitucion. It is not obvious how Constitucion is going to lift itself up from this disaster. Attempts to expropriate the properties most susceptible along the river, so that homes are not rebuilt in those vulnerable areas have been met by strong civil opposition. Constitucion is also receiving a “Ruta de Las Caletas” pavilion, and we observed the progress they are making with that structure, but a model home, erected to announce the style of new subsidized housing being offered to people left homeless over a year ago, sits alone in the empty expanse that once was a vibrant albeit precarious and relatively rustic vacation spot.
Maybe there will be a “wave” of rebuilding in Constitucion, but it was not evident to us on the day we visited this unfortunate town.
We drove along the beach road, past the stretch where there used to be several typical seafood restaurants, but where everything had been washed away in the tsunami. When I visited here in September of 2010, just seven months after the disaster, there was no rebuilding yet, and it looked to me like there was not going to be any. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see several rebuilt restaurants, hastily put up probably to attend to the past summer’s visitors who habitually go to Constitucion from Talca and Curico, to spend the summer. We drove further down the road that hugs the shore for about three kilometers south of Constitucion, ending at a small port facility. About halfway down this road is where, the year prior to the earthquake, my friend Flick and I spent a night in one of “Willy” and Javiera’s cabins that sit right on the rocks a few meters above sea level. When I returned here last September,
the property was barren, only the outline of the swimming pool distinguishable from the road above where I stopped my car and observed the devastation. But now, these young entrepreneurs have begun in earnest to rebuild their vacation business, “bigger and better” than before, Guillermo confidently boasts.
They are living in two of the cabins themselves, until their new home can be built on the site, and have a half dozen cabins finished and equipped, receiving visitor full time now.
They have big plans for a full restaurant on the site where their home was before, so guests do not have to drive all the way back into Constitucion for a meal, problematic especially in the dark on foggy nights common on this part of the Chilean coast. I must admit, I admire Willy’s and Javiera’s tenacity. In a few short months they will have rebuilt a very attractive place where travelers can spend one or two nights, on the rocky ledge right above where the breakers crash. Oh yes, in case you wondered, Javiera did mention that they have constructed a foot path straight out the back of the property, and up the hill where in a very quick few minutes anyone staying or living here can get to safe, high ground, should there be another tsunami like the last one. On the morning of the earthquake, Guillermo and Javiera gathered up their children, several guests sleeping in the cabins, and some valuables, and escaped the scene in several jeeps, up a road that leads away from the shore and up to higher ground. Their description of what they saw when they returned to the place where their home sat just an hour earlier, does not make a very convincing endorsement for spending a night or two in their cabins. But the spectacular seascape you have from the veranda of each cabin, or even from the beds if you open the curtains wide enough, is unparalleled. For many, it will be well worth the risk. Even Gerry claims he is going to return there with Maria Elena and spend a couple of days enjoying the scene. I’m not sure about that though. (Gerry after all is the guy who spent several nights sleeping in his car instead of his 8th floor apartment in Santiago, traumatized by the continual shaking that went on after the big quake!).
But it was time for us to leave the suffering coastal towns of Bio Bio and Maule, and return inland along the Maule River to join the Pan-American Highway at San Javier. I have developed a deep attraction to these friendly, hard working, mostly poor coastal people, and each time I visit my respect deepens for the way they face their plight.
A year before, the earthquake had destroyed much of Chile’s historical colonial buildings, especially those built of “adobe”. And prior to that, each seismic event over the years, and each period of civil strife have progressively destroyed historical monuments like churches, municipal offices, hacienda homesteads, and even some whole small villages (like Lolol and Chanco). The loss of important pieces of Chile’s heritage was great this time also. One old, beautiful building which was damaged this time was the main house of the Casa Silva vineyard and winery, used before the earthquake as an elegant Bed and Breakfast (or more like an Inn, I would say). When we stopped here right after the earthquake, we were told the owners could not repair the stately building, and were instead going to build a new hotel out near the polo field where they have a nice restaurant amidst the vineyards. Then, a few months later, we heard that, no, they were going to refurbish the old home, and open the Hotel again before the end of 2010. So Gerry and I decided we needed to check this out. Just off the Pan-American Highway near San Fernando, the Casa Silva estate is a rambling establishment of whitewashed adobe buildings, mostly storage barns, surrounded by perfectly groomed vineyards with the main house nestled in the middle of it all. True to what we had been told, there were guests, and the place was humming with activity, horseback rides in the vineyards, riding lessons at the polo field, wine tasting at the sales room, and precisely the day we visited, the beginning of the harvest of the Carmenere grapes that have become so popular in Chile and throughout the world. We sat at a small table at the polo field, lunched on a salad of mixed greens and fresh goat cheese, and washed it down with a glass of their Sauvignon blanc they have named “Dona Dominga”. So Casa Silva appears to be back in business just a year after the quake.
The setting at Casa Silva is truly idyllic. Of course it is this way because hard working entrepreneurs, who also have access to healthy amounts of financial resources, have invested their sweat and their treasury into creating one of Chile’s finest agribusinesses. In just three days, Gerry and I had seen and talked with many hardworking Chileans who were, in their own way, trying to remake their lives, improve the prospects for their children, and rebuild their communities. Some had access to resources, some had only their own hard work and ingenuity to rely on. But all of them show incredible resilience in the f ace of extreme loss afflicted just one year ago, and they exhibit optimism about the future I’m not sure I would be able to conjure up were I to have suffered what they did. But they are also still Chilean, and they are going to continue to be openly critical and demanding of their leaders, and rightfully so. It is not too much to ask that everyone, especially the movers and shakers who work and live disproportionately concentrated in Santiago, expand special efforts to speed up and strengthen the rebuilding of the towns and villages in Bio Bio and Maule, that were so devastated on February 27, 2011.
*MaryCatherine Arbour; Harvard Medical School.
Written in Leesburg, Virginia, on April 30, 2011.