Chilean Winter and Surrogate Mothers

Chile is cold. Yes, some parts are warm, but many people seem unaware that Southern Chile is neighbour to Antarctica (a large chunk of which is actually claimed by Chile) and that Cape Horn, the southern-most tip of the Americas, is Chilean. Being a proper Canadian, I’m very used to cold weather and so I casually assumed that winter here would be peanuts compared to the horror of winter on the Canadian prairies. Turns out, “peanuts” was the wrong word to describe a Patagonian winter.

Sunset in Puerto Natales

Every morning, Corinne, Graham, Andi, and I wake up and look out the windows of our cozy little hostel. We can expect to see one of the following: icy rain, heavy snow, or blinding sun accompanied by the whistling of a searing, deathly wind. Whatever the weather, we always get ready in the same way every morning: at least 2 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of pants, 5 shirts, a scarf, a hat (or 3 in my case), heavy mitts, and our Helly Hansen jackets (kindly procured as a result of Andi’s proposal to Helly Hansen). We then prepare our cameras, tripods, batteries, and memory cards for the day (one or more of which will inevitably break down at some critical moment of filming). After forcing our heavily-socked feet into winter boots still soaked from the previous day’s adventures, we make our way to one of the lively neighbourhoods of Puerto Natales and begin to film the dogs.

Depending on the whims of the dogs to which we are assigned, we may end up in any number of odd places or situations. If you were in Puerto Natales during the daylight hours of the winter of 2012, you might see us moping about in swamps and creeks, sprinting (and falling) through the “pampas” (large, seemingly endless fields), scraping our faces and cameras as we push through a jungle of thorny bushes, hiding in abandoned roadside vehicles, standing awkwardly outside your house, sliding/skating/falling on the ice-covered roads, or even in your own backyard or patio or garage or doorstop (probably without your permission). When you try to ask us what on earth we are doing, some of us may be able to give you an answer in Spanish, and some of us not, making life all the more interesting.

Understandably, the whole set-up leads to quite a lot of awkward moments, but also a lot of laughter. Only a few days ago, a man opened up his curtains only to find me filming a dog in the process of defecating on his patio. He immediately opened the door, and with an angry look on his face, asked me what I was doing. I explained in my intermediate Spanish about the VWB-VSF Chile project and my role in it, the whole while the dog straining and clearly constipated. The man’s expression changed from anger to delight, and my next challenge was trying to stop him from telling me all about his daughter in Holland, his in-laws, and his current lack of interest in his job.

Some people may also assume that we, as Canadians, came to Puerto Natales to help the deprived people living here, but it seems to be quite the opposite, at least in my case. Despite lacking in material wealth, the people here are some of the richest I’ve seen. They are rich in community, laughter, kindness, family, and neighborliness. In other words, they are rich in all the ways so many people want to be rich, but never really know it, or achieve it.

It seems that I look cold and lonely enough out on the streets to pull at the tender heartstrings of various Chilean mothers. Almost every day, at least one woman shoots out her front door at me to come in for “un café” before I freeze to death. I then reply that I must stay out in order to record the dog’s behavior fully.

“Your health is more important! Just a small coffee (cafécito) to warm you up!”

The coffees proceed to become smaller and smaller, and the time required to warm up shorter and shorter in order to convince me to come in and socialize. As I cannot feasibly continue to work while chatting over coffee, my final answer is that I will come in as soon as I am done filming. I always keep my promises.

Inside, instant coffee is poured into a ceramic mug and some kind of hot snack is waiting on the table. On occasion an entire meal is included with the coffee. There is no point trying to protest, even if you’ve eaten already; you will be told you are too skinny (even though it’s not true) and that you need to eat something before you vanish. I’m usually then asked all about my family, which is the most important thing in the lives of the people here. The time reminds me I have to return to work outside and the conversation ends with an invitation to stop by whenever I’m cold or hungry.

My most memorable Mom thus far is Señora Teresa. I was filming one of her many dogs, Rocco, and apparently I looked cold. I was actually sweating from running after her dog for an hour and so had removed some of my many layers. This was no good. I was ushered in and given coffee and offered a meal. We talked as I sipped away and when I left she stood me in her front entrance and personally dressed my in her scarves and hats as though I were a 4 year old until only my eyes were visible. I put my glasses on and they immediately fogged up from my trapped breath. Teresa nodded her approval and sent me out on the condition that I come back for a coffee as soon as I was done. I did and brought the whole team with me. Señora Teresa was thrilled and took out her camera to capture the occasion. Her two young sons were part of the party and greeted the women in the traditional way, by kissing the right cheek, and by shaking Graham’s hand. Teresa also showed us the set of “overalls” she made for her dog, Canella, to wear when she was in heat so that she wouldn’t become pregnant. After a wonderful evening, we all went home.

Once inside the hostel, I took off my jacket only to find one of Señora Teresa’s seat covers stuck to my bottom. How it stayed there during my entire trip from her house to my hostel is a mystery, but there it was. She’d made the seat covers herself of a fabric depicting a horse head surrounded by a horseshoe, reminiscent of her previous days of rodeo. With the help of Angélica, I practiced in Spanish my explanation speech and put the seat cover in my backpack to give to Teresa the next morning.

First thing in the morning I went to Señora Teresa’s house and knocked on the door. She answered and ushered me in and I proceeded to explain how I came to acquire one of her seat covers and to apologize profusely. I took it out of my backpack, at which point, she started laughing so hard, there were tears in her eyes. She put the seat cover back on the kitchen chair I had sat in the night before, pulled the chair out and motioned for me to sit down.

“Sit down and have a coffee with me. You can’t possibly go out to work before having a warm coffee. And some ham. How the wind doesn’t blow you over is beyond me.”

I couldn’t possibly resist.

– Rebecca