Trovolhue High and Dry
There are many small towns sprinkled throughout the Araucanía region of Chile west of Temuco and along the meandering Río Imperial. One of these towns is Trovolhue, which, on a sunny, warm day in the last week of the 2012 Chilean summer vacation period, was our destination as Flick and I cruised along the busy road south of Concepción.
We were enjoying the miles and miles of forested hills and valleys covering this part of the Bío Bío region, south of the Río Bío Bío between the Pacific Ocean and the Pan American Highway, and north of the Rio Toltén, a vast area relatively unknown to most Chileans and unvisited by tourists.
In spite of the isolation of this area of Chile where the southern Bío Bío region melds with the northern half of the Araucanía Region, from 1962 to 1998 dozens of Peace Corps Volunteers were assigned here to work in reforestation, rural health, and community development programs. Flick and I were Volunteers from 1967 to 1970; he was assigned to a reforestation program in Curicó and Talca, more to the north, and I to Chile’s forestry research center, the Instituto Forestal, located in Santiago but operating field projects that took me for long periods of time to parts of the Chilean south. As we drove south from Concepción, we saw signs for many of the places familiar to us as sites where our fellow Volunteers spent the better part of two years: Arauco, Cañete, Curanilahue, Contulmo, and Purén. These towns are all just west of another set of towns further from the coast, where other Volunteers were assigned to coax small landowners to plant trees on very poor land for erosion control and to produce fence posts, construction lumber and firewood: Laja, Nacimiento, Angól, Traiguén, Collipulli and Galvarino.
Our plan this day was to reach our destination, Trovolhue, by early afternoon but we were running quite late. Our departure from El Faro, near Loanco where Flick and I had left Ximena and her mother to spend a quiet week with Ximena’s sister Verónica and her husband Joaco, had been early enough. A Maule breakfast of a big cup of steaming Nescafé con leche, a couple of pieces of hallulla toast smothered with unfiltered, thick, wildflower honey and blackberry jam, a couple of boiled eggs, a piece of Chanco cheese and a slice of salame, and we were off on our week-long adventure. However, our decision to get to our destination that day by going from Chanco to Cauquenes, and then to Concepción along an inland road instead of the coastal road, was a mistake, and an omen of what the rest of the day would hold. Construction on the Chanco to Cauquenes road delayed us for more than an hour, so by the time we finally passed Concepción it was already well after noon.
The last three Chilean Presidents (Lagos, Bachelet, and now Piñera) have all committed impressive amounts of resources to building and rebuilding the infrastructure that Chileans need to move themselves and their products from one end of this long country to the other, to the ports and the urban centers. A key element of this multi-year initiative is the opening up of the many isolated expanses of the Chilean coast where pristine beaches, exciting rocky shores and coastal hillsides have gone unsettled and hardly visited until now. We were traveling, this sunny day in late February, along one of those roads where massive bridges, overpasses, and hard surfaced highways are being built.
When it is all done, it is hard to tell what will happen to this relatively untouched area of the country in terms of development, and destruction, but on this day the main issue for us was that it was taking us a lot longer to get to Trovolhue than we had planned.
We finally reached the small town of Tirúa, about 50 kilometers north of Trovolhue, late in the afternoon. From Tirúa we had two options, a paved road that would take us southeast to Nueva Imperial, from which we could take the main road west to the turnoff and then about 10 kilometers north again to Trovolhue, or a more direct gravel road used mostly by logging trucks, ox carts, an occasional horseman, and dogs who flashed out of the roadside wild blackberry thickets in a futile attempt to run us off the road. We chose the road less traveled, of course, and after about an hour or so of cruising slowly through absolutely beautiful coastal hillsides of forest and farmland, we descended into the town of Trovolhue.
In 1960, Chile experienced an earthquake stronger and more destructive than the 8.8 quake that hit central Chile two years ago. The quake in 1960, centered in the southern city of Valdivia, registered in at 9.5 and killed ten times as many people (more than 5,000). One consequence of this was that the small river that flowed through the town of Trovolhue, situated about 160 kilometers to the north of Valdivia, every year would rise above its banks and flood the town. Flick and I were visiting Trovolhue because one of the prominent stories of the Peace Corps in Chile is that of a small group of volunteers who assisted the townspeople of Trovolhue disassemble their oft-flooded town and move it to higher ground, lock, stock and barrel.
The story goes like this: In 1965, Peace Corps Volunteers helped design a plan to move the town to safer ground. The Volunteers helped obtain the required official approvals and heavy earthmoving equipment and financing to build a new access bridge. They surveyed and laid out the town streets, home sites, and essential services. Public agencies and private organizations all contributed to move 100 families, who dismantled the existing homes and buildings and rebuilt them on the new site. Volunteers worked with townswomen to improve nutrition and health, and to increase income through home-based food preservation and clothes making. After the Peace Corps Volunteers left in 1968, townspeople and the Chilean government continued to improve streets, built a new school and police station, and many more families moved to the new town site.
I have never met Brian,Sharon, or Phil, but I have communicated with Brian several times. He is now professor emeritus in the California University where he has written more than thirty books about Chilean political science and history. He was awarded in 2010 the highest award the Chilean government gives to non-Chileans, the “Condecoración de la Orden al Mérito de Chile”, and has been back to Chile often and to Trovolhue at least once since his Peace Corps service.
Before departing this year on our yearly visit to Chile, I told Brian I was going to try to visit Trovolhue to see for myself the town we had featured on the poster at our reunion. He gave me the names of two men who were involved in the re-siting of the town, who might still be around after all these years, and I promised to see if I could find them.
Fortunately for us, the sun sets late in February in Trovolhue, close to 10 PM . As we entered the town from above on the dusty gravel road, we emerged into a very neat, well-kept village, and immediately parked next to what we figured was the main plaza. Activities in town were beginning to slow down as the shadows from the sycamore trees lining the plaza lengthened.
Or more likely the pace in Trovolhue is slowed down, as we found it, most of the time. Flick and I decided we had to move fast if we were to find anyone who might know about the Trovolhue project in the early 1960s. So, we found the oldest looking person we could, a leathered woman dozing in the late afternoon sun in an old chair in the doorway of her wood clad single story home, and asked her if she knew a Sr. Ernesto Paredes, one of the two names Brian had given me to pursue. Ernesto was part of the town’s construction committee in charge of the 1960s project to move Trovolhue up the hill. She did not know much about Sr. Paredes, but after a fashion let on that the house he owned awhile back was just down the hill a block from the plaza.
Finding people you do not know in Chilean towns is not especially difficult, if you know how to listen, respond, listen again, wait a bit for another piece of information, and then connect the dots. Chileans are nowhere as mobile as folks in the US are, so they can usually be found, if you have time, patience, don’t come across as a detective or a tax collector, and of course as long as they are still alive. Flick and I seemed to have very good luck with this type of search on this trip, especially this day in Trovolhue.
After a bit of idle banter, the lady who runs a small market in the storefront of the Paredes home did seem to remember the Peace Corps Volunteers who helped Paredes move Trovolhue up the hill in 1962. “Could we meet with Paredes?” Well, no. Though Paredes is actually still alive, she let on that he is somewhat infirm and lives in an apartment in the city of Temuco, 80 kilometers away, coming to Trovolhue only seldom. However, whom we really needed to talk with about this whole thing, she informed us, was El Chino. El Chino supposedly lived two blocks up the hill, on the other side of the plaza, so Flick and I set off to find El Chino, expecting him to be a decrepit ancient who after all these years had taken on some Asian features. We found the house, with the help of a couple of giggling 15 year old girls, and went to the door, not knowing what to expect. To our surprise, it turned out that El Chino is actually Oscar, a young man in his 30s, a native of Trovolhue who is so enamored by his town that he has begun a life-long project to document and make public the history and happenings of Trovolhue.
He was so excited when he heard we were once Peace Corps Volunteers also, like Brian, Sharon, and Phil, whom he seemed almost personally familiar with. He explained his whole Trovolhue history and promotion project to us. He showed us pictures he is collecting in his files, including several of Kay’s photographs of the Volunteers at work in 1965 that he had picked up from somewhere via the internet. He is working with another historian, Dino, who also lives in Trovolhue and together with Oscar is documenting the history of Trovolhue.
Oscar remarked that another resident of Trovolhue, Donaldo Obreque Rivas, would be excited to hear about Brian and to know that we had visited Trovolhue to talk about the 1962 project to move the town up the hill. Obreque was one of the members of the Pro-Construction Committee that Brian worked closely with, but unfortunately he was not in Trovolhue the day we visited.
Oscar then took us on a tour of the town, starting at the lowest part, the main street shown in the old photographs Kay had taken in 1965. This was the location of the part of town that flooded every year after the earthquake. We walked up the hill, as he pointed out where the first homes were built on the new higher site. He pointed out with pride the new homes, modern public buildings, and extensive paved streets.
We finally came back, full circle, ending up at the beautiful plaza where my car was parked. It was now getting late, so we bid farewell to El Chino, who gifted us with a promotional DVD about the beauty and attractions of Trovolhue and a promise to meet with Dino the historian, Donaldo Obreque Rivas, and if possible Ernesto Peredes to gather more information from them regarding the project to move the town of Trovolhue to higher ground and the young Peace Corps Volunteers who helped them do it.
Before we drove off, we stopped to thank the lady who got us headed in the right direction earlier that afternoon. By now she had covered her shoulders with an old woolen shall. She looked up from her position in the now shaded doorway, and muttered “Vuelvan pronto”, “Come back soon”. We assured her we would do just that, and headed off down the hill towards Puerto Saavedra and the Hostería Boca Budi, where we enjoyed a fresh fish dinner as we listened to the Pacific surf crashing on the rocky coast below and, with lots of cold Chilean sauvignon blanc, toasted the accomplishments of Peace Corps Volunteers like Brian, Sharon and Phil, and the fond memories and good will they have left throughout the world, especially in places like Trovolhue.
Posted on March 22, 2012, in Santiago, Chile