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Trip 39 — Quinchao Walk

Day 5: Traiguén to Achao
Monday, 1 January 2024

Yesterday: 19946 steps/15.39 km/9.56 mi/2h 55m
Total: 103937 steps/80.69 km/50.14 mi/15h 19m

Jorge and Ana put me to work for our second dinner. Along with Luna the dog and one of the cats, we walked the short path to a densely planted vegetable patch on the steep hillside. Jorge started ripping up the potato plants, some with his hand, some with a hoe, and we filled a large basket. The potatoes were planted in May, and we harvested them seven months later; the plants get used only once.

Then it was on to the beans and peas: large green pods of fava beans and smaller pods of sinila peas. It was important not to pick the fava beans until they were hard enough, Ana stressed. But many pods contained no beans at all, having been torn open by birds.

We climbed back up to the house, past the pigpen, stopping for a snack of redcurrants. Jorge took out two knives and we went to work peeling the potatoes. Jorge, of course, was an expert, and he worked faster and produced much smoother results than I, who was concerned for my delicate pianist hands.

Dinner was a salad of the greens with lamb and mashed potatoes cooked by Ana the master chef. I was happy to do the dishes again, which I think served as actual help — I wondered whether the harvesting and the peeling were activities they might have done faster without me, and they were humoring an outsider who wanted a taste of the Chilote routine without the mundaneness of its daily necessity. Still, I managed to unwrap some of the legumes and tubers, and the rough, jagged cuts I made of the potatoes served to amuse.

"I don't know which is worse — my potato peeling or my soccer playing," I said, after a few minutes on the lawn with Yeri, Jorge, and a ball.

After dinner we headed outside to the firepit, and we talked and listened to songs on Ana's phone, finishing the wine, warmed by the fire built by Jorge.

"Did you see it?" Jorge or Ana said from time to time, looking at the sky. They insisted there had been multiple shooting stars.

One such light in motion was moving steadily across the heavens. "It's an airplane!" I said.

"It's going too fast to be an airplane!"

Well, who knows what's up there, really? And did it matter at that moment? Apart from our conversation, all we could hear was the crackling of the fire and the occasional sheep grunt. Luna and two of the three cats, affectionate cuties who often snuggled together next to the front door, kept us company.

"Not one car," Jorge said. They lived almost at the end of the peninsula. Unless their neighbors were coming or going, there was virtually no possibility of the sound of a vehicle. We could just make out the outline of the hills in front of us, as the very last sunlight disappeared close to 11 p.m.

After a breakfast of fresh eggs (their hens produce plenty), and some parting photos, the family and their sheep saw me out of the gate. For the third time, I went down and up and down and up, toward Matao — not even taking credit for the duplicating of the route in the same direction, according to the official, arbitrary Abecedarian Walks scoring code. (Days 4 and 5 were each really about six kilometers longer than posted.) Twenty minutes in, the family came by in their car on the way to Achao. They obligatorily offered me a ride, but they knew my purpose.

I started the counter at Traiguén, where I'd come up from the beach the day before. I followed the main road until I came to a viewing platform near the island's narrowest point. From here I could see the smaller islands of Chiloé on both sides of Quinchao, and the snow-topped Andes farther east.

The viewing platform was popular. Among those who came up was a family of four. The boy arrived first and hid in the bushes to surprise his parents and, especially, his little sister. She was about two years old and her mouth gaped open when he rose from the overgrowth.

"I had no idea he was there!" I said.

The family had seen me back in Cohem. They were neighbors of Ana and Jorge. They asked my impressions of the island.

"It's very clean, and the people are most friendly," I said. "They take care of each other and the land."

As if to give me an example, the son pulled on one of the wooden railings, dislodging a nail and causing part of the barrier to swing out.

"I'll be right back," the father said. While his wife breastfed their daughter, continuing the conversation with me, he fetched a wrench and pliers and hammered the railing back into place.

I took one detour to keep toward the eastern coast. This was a dirt track hemmed in by trees. Animals appeared out of nowhere when I came around corners: first a cow, lying next to its gate barely an arm's length away from me, and then a horse perched in the middle of an opening in the trees. A pair of barking dogs slid out under hedges where I didn't even realize there was private land, but they were all talk and didn't get too close.

With my strangely intoxicating cocktail of sunscreen, deodorant, and sweat, I'd been a walking potential pollination station at the beach. But here in the hills, with plenty of foxgloves, daisies, and dandelions, the bees left me alone.

I reconnected with the main road, 45 walking minutes south of Achao. More hills; a biker I recognized from earlier in the day came by, and then he returned in the opposite direction. If walking up the hills was difficult, cycling them must be much more strenuous.

The hills kept Quinchao's main town hidden until I was almost on top of it. It wasn't until I passed the cemetery, and a funeral procession walking up to it, that I saw anything resembling a town. Then I walked down a pedestrian staircase and along the beach in the center of town for a few minutes, until I reached the Arca hotel.

No one was there to check me in, but there was a phone number to call. I guess this is the future of things, and having a connected phone is an obligation rather than a strong enhancement. I thought of my trip to Iceland in the spring of 2009, when I was the first visitor of the season to a remote hotel and had to drive a half-hour to the nearest town to borrow a phone and summon someone to let me in. Technology has opened so much up to us (I couldn't have done the Abecedarian Walks 20 years ago, in the absence of detailed maps), but the onus is on the traveler to be ready.

She didn't answer, so I walked down the street to the Mar y Velas restaurant and was lucky to arrive in time to be their last customer of the year. I had a chupe de locos — a kind of casserole with sea snails and baked cheese — and enjoyed the view of the beach and the light activity at the boat ramp, where little ferries keep Quinchao connected with Chiloé's smaller islands to the east.

By then Claudia was ready to let me in to the hotel — with an apology; no harm done — and she informed me that I would be the only guest for the next two nights. She showed me how to open the gate and get in through the unlocked door at the back; in theory anyone could do that, but Achao could hardly be considered unsafe. Breakfast was included, so we agreed that she would come back at 10 a.m. to feed me: Might as well sleep in with nowhere to walk on the first day of the year.

I had visions of sitting in a quiet restaurant with a few other patrons to close out the year, but none of the eateries were open, and Achao had no bar. The main part of town was seven blocks wide by three blocks deep, bounded at the north by the beach. Along the water were most of the restaurants, the central market, and my hotel; heading inland (south) were small markets and, at the southeastern end of town, the big wooden church facing a broad rectangular park.

A few of the mini-markets were still open, so I assembled a dinner of black olives, sliced ham and cheese, spicy corn chips, a tomato, an orange, and a magnum of cheap red wine — plenty for two nights and the only bottle I saw that didn't require a corkscrew. I sat in the lobby of the hotel and spread everything out, watching the scene at the beach.

Just before midnight I took a cup of wine out to the promenade above the steps leading down to the beach. There were a few families, one about to pop a bottle of bubbly. At midnight, a handful of wimpy home-launched fireworks went off around the city.

My first interaction of the new year was a fist-bump with a boy of around eight. People exchanged greetings of "Feliz año nuevo" and the streets were soon calm. Where the upper floor of the central market hung out over the beach steps, a slightly noisier group was settled in with their beers and their dogs. If there was anything resembling a rough part of town, those few square meters were it, and I didn't venture too close.

There were lots of dogs around town, mostly large, fluffy ones, all tame. While I sat on the steps, a white one approached me.

"Hi," I said.

The dog stopped and sat down. It welcomed the attention, and I welcomed a soft coat of fur to pet. When it left, I called it a night.

Ana had told me that there would be a procession leaving Matao this morning at seven, arriving in Achao around noon. I found them just before they walked up to the church: a band of accordions, guitars, drums, and cymbals, alongside flags and a pink Virgin Mary statue carried on poles. The instrumentalists were followed by people singing a completely different melody. I joined part of the service; we may not have been of the same faith, but that didn't mean we couldn't make music together and wish peace upon each other.

When I left, I found my canine friend with one of its buddies, trotting around town, making the rounds.

Knowing the restaurants would be closed today as well, Claudia arranged for someone to come in and feed me a lasagna lunch. He was in and out in ten minutes, departing before it crossed my mind to tip him or ask what I should do with the dishes. I brought them to my room and rinsed them — I couldn't leave them on the table overnight.

I had another walk around town, recognizing people and dogs, before joining the afternoon swim during the high tide. The water had been warm to my hands but colder than my body wanted; everyone else, including the dogs, outlasted me by far.

Having grown up with Michigan football, and with ample crunchy snack options from the mini-markets, I found a stream of the Rose Bowl. For perhaps the first time, "The Victors" wafted down from room 7 of the Arca hotel and onto the beach at Achao. And so I wish you all "Feliz año nuevo," and, for those who participate, "¡Vamos azul!"

Go on to day 6