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The Three Sisters

Once in a while a book gets written that reflects so accurately things we have done, places we have visited, and people we have known, that , rather than read it, we experience it. One for the Road, by David Mather, is for me just such a book. My Peace Corps experience was in the same country, Chile, at the same time, and with some of the same people featured in the story, including Mather’s (and my) friend “Oso”, who to this day continues to be a very good friend; and he is still an “Oso”, a bear of a man. Reading this book, a novel actually, I relived many of my visits to Valdivia, the carousing with Chilean friends, the headaches and hangovers, the long meals with “Oso”. Mather’s story isn’t exactly the same as mine. He would go into town and head for the Bomba Bar downtown,
while when I visited Valdivia with my forestry colleagues we would stop first at the “Guata Amarilla”, a rustic grill alongside the river on the outskirts of town, before heading to the Hotel Schuster to have one of the best pisco sours in Chile. Some differences, but the Valdivia Mather describes as his, is also mine.One For The Road brought back deeply hidden memories of nasty Chilean free ranging campo dogs, SAG’s visionary reforestation program, the rich smell of a cook stove stoked with firewood from the native forest, empanadas fresh from the horno de barro, and waiting…waiting…waiting for someone to show up.Mather’s main character in his story, Tomás, lived with a family in the small rural settlement named La Colonia de Cufeo, when he arrived in Chile for his two-year assignment with the Peace Corps. If you have ever spent much time in a place where you do not speak the local language, or at least not very well, you know that you are pretty much left out of most conversations, sometimes even totally ignored, but for the saving grace of lovely, open minded, inquisitive children.During the first year I lived in Santiago, speaking Spanish like a 3-year old, my most frequent and informative conversations were with 4-year old José Luís and his two slightly older sisters. These kids, neighbors of mine, thought my Peace Corps colleague and roommate Tom and I were great entertainment. They would come to our street-side window, which we opened to let the sunlight into our cave-like apartment, climb up on the sill, and “talk” to us. We gave them comics from the newspapers, and candy. They asked us simple questions like “How many cars do you have?” “Do you know superman?” “What’s that stuff you are putting in your pipe that smells so sweet?” “Why are there so many empty bottles on your table?” Very good questions. Great fun. I have often wondered what ever happened to José Luís and his sisters. They are now about 50 years old or so, probably have families. It would be nice to know.

Mather’s fictional Peace Corps Volunteer, Tomás, lived with three young sisters in Cufeo, and his story is similar. These young girls were at first the only people who would talk to him. The older folks took a lot longer to relax and warm up enough to try a comment or two. But he learned about small things like when to pick the wild fruit called chupón, and big things like the prevalence of sexual abuse in rural Chile, from his “little sisters”. And in spite of the friendship that developed, when he went home to the US after his service had ended, he probably lost track of these wonderful welcoming Chilean kids who taught him so much, especially the value of caring.

Just before taking off on one of my recent trips to southern Chile, I asked Mather if there were, by chance, any of his “fictional characters” in One For The Road who might exist in real life whom I could visit. He had said in the preface to his book that while some of the characters in his novel were based on real people, they all had been given fictional names except for “Oso”. He told us that if we followed his instructions, we might be able to find the three sisters PC Volunteer Tomás lived with in Cufeo. So we went looking for the three sisters, Rosa, Ana and little Lilia in the book; Sonia,Irene, and Mila in real life.

We drove out of Valdivia, onto Teja Island, past the campus of the Austral University and the large tourist trap that is the Kunstman Brewery, arriving eventually in Niebla, a small town at the mouth of the Calle Calle River across from the Spanish fort at Corral. All summer in Niebla there is a very funky Chilean tourist type thing called the “Encuentro Costumbrista Playa Grande, Niebla, Valdivia” where they have set up a large stage and surrounded it with tiny little restaurants and vendors selling anything from Kuntsman beer to apple cider they call chicha dulce everything you need to make a Chilean Cowboy (huaso) outfit. The little restaurants serve seafood empanadas, beef shish-ka-bobs, and asado al palo (lamb on a spit). We timed our arrival to lunchtime just for that reason.

When we arrived, they were playing recorded traditional music, but shortly after we arrived a series of live folk groups began to play all types of popular music, including the National dance, the cueca. Our objective was to find at least one of the three sisters, and finding them was becoming urgent because we were hungry and Mather had told me the sisters have two food stands here at the “Encuentro”. We started asking for the Montoya sisters (their maiden name when Tomás lived with them in Cufeo in One for the Road). We lucked out immediately. We found Irene(Ana) with her husband, her son Boris and Mila’s(Lilia) daughter Yohana serving roast lamb in a stand right across from the stage. Irene was ecstatic to meet someone who had been in the Peace Corps and she took us right away to meet Sonia (Rosa) who along with her husband Hernán runs another stand that also serves roast lamb. We had a great time with these little sisters from Cufeo.

More than 45 years have passed since a Peace Corps Volunteer lived in their home, and life in the rural south of Chile is not easy for men or women. But, while older and stouter, these sisters have not lost a bit of their bubbly, open, sincere nature. Irene and Sonia argued over who would feed us their roast lamb. We told Sonia and Hernán we would be back later to test theirs, and went to Irene’s place to have lunch. After all, we found her first. Flick and I sat down pretty sure the roast lamb plate Irene had offered us would be just too large for us to finish, so we thought we would be clever and ordered a cazuela.

That’s a beef stew-type dish we often order and knew we could at least finish that. The generosity of the Montoya sisters is something to behold, and we should have suspected what would happen, that “Gringo clever” fades when faced with Chilean hospitality. So, sure enough, as we finished our cazuela, Boris and Yohana plunked down two plates full of roast lamb, beef and boiled potatoes.
We learned long ago that Chileans can be terribly offended if you do not eat the food they prepare for you, so we finished every last bit, took some pictures, listened to some music, resisted getting up on the stage to dance the Cueca, and said long goodbyes to the Montoya family.

The next day as we drove out of Valdivia, heading south towards Osorno and eventually Chiloé Island, Flick and I talked a lot about the people we knew when we lived as twenty-some year old Peace Corps Volunteers, like Tomás. The Montoya sisters with their food stands in Niebla encouraged me to think that maybe José Luís, my little neighbor on Calle Luís Beltrán in 1967, might at this moment own a neighborhood restaurant in the Nuñoa section of Santiago. Who knows? Maybe he is a professional soccer player, or a high school teacher. I wonder if he would remember me. I must try to find him.

Along rural roads throughout Chile, especially in the south, there are shelters for passengers waiting for buses to come by to take them to town. We were not far out of Valdivia the day after we had seen the Montoya sisters, when we noticed one of these shelters had CUFEO written on it. We realized that up in those hills, above the shelter, is the stage where the Montoya sisters gave Peace Corps Volunteer Tomás, of One for the Road, the soundest education he probably would ever get.

As we drove by the shelter, I looked back through my rear view mirror, at the roof of the shelter, and the trees surrounding it, to see if there was, by any chance, a condor perched there looking over us. I was a bit disappointed, for sure enough, there was not. I had harbored the thought that since we had found the three sisters, maybe, just maybe, the condor would be there.

Note to reader: The last thought in this story only makes sense if you have read the book, One for The Road, so if you have not, please do so.

Posted in Santiago, Chile On March 25, 2012

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David Joslyn
David Joslyn, after a 45-year career in international development with USAID, Peace Corps, The Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and private sector consulting firms, divides his time between his homes in Virginia and Chile. Since 2010, David has been writing about Chile and Chileans, often based upon his experience with the Peace Corps in Chile and his many travels throughout the country with family and friends.
David Joslyn

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4 thoughts on “The Three Sisters”

  1. Judith Works says:

    Can I tweet or facebook this?

    1. Luis Alberto Moya R. says:

      off course . one way …copy the web bar

      like this. And Paste it, on your intended twitt good luck. we love you and Chile.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Sonora, Mex

    Oye hue’on–me estas haciendo llorar.

  3. Clapper says:

    A great read as are all the postings. You have proven that you can go back.

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