The Avocado Republic of Chile, because it’s Too Cold to Grow Bananas by Walker Rowe*
At 3 AM on a Tuesday in 2006, an assistant winemaker from VIA wines in Talca, Chile picked me up at the airport in Santiago. It’s such a long flight from the USA, 13 hours, that coming and going one gets used to stirring about at such an ungodly hour.
I had come all the way from Virginia to work at the winery and write a book about my experience working the harvest. This was to be my third book on wine, and my last, as I have nothing more to say on the subject, having moved onto other material.
As I embarked, a Napa Valley fermentation scientist who helped me line up this unpaid position arranged with the vineyard that I bring 100 kilos of yeast in my luggage. It filled my two suitcases completely and left scant room for clothes.
To give you an example of just how much yeast that is, in Virginia, where I was a partner in a winery and where I planted two vineyards, we bought yeast in 500 gram packages. At my house, when I wanted to make 5 liters of wine I would put in 5 grams of yeast.
So here I was with enough yeast to make 100,000 5-liter carboys of wine in my luggage, a lifetime supply for any of the boutique wineries of virginia. But at Via Wines, where they make 5 million cases of wine per year, that would last for, well, that would last for, I have no idea.
Anyway, it was all for naught as when I arrived at the winery and opened my suitcase, out flowed the smell of fresh bread. The packages had burst in the luggage hold. Several thousand dollars of yeast had been exposed to air. So it was all spoiled.
Such was my first foray into Chile, the country I have adopted as my home now. Having seen it first in 2006 and having grown attached while frequently going back and forth, I moved here full time in 2010.
Chile is that narrow country at the bottom of the word that no American and few Europeans can locate on a map. If they know it at all, they know it as home to towering snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, and constant earthquakes. Or they might know it from the film “The 33” about the 33 miners who spent months trapped underground in a copper mining here as the world watched on. Antonio Banderas and Juliette Binoche starred in that film. When he came to Chile, all the women swooned. When Juliette Binoche came, I fell in love all over again.
You might wonder why an American like me would give up the USA and move to Chile? Well, for someone my age, 54, who is somewhere between retirement and the need to work, whose kids are off at college, and who was living alone in a farm in the woods with 30 sheep, 2 dogs, and a cat, I felt the need to go live with a woman. So I gave up that lonely existence where, here, I live all alone on a farm in Chile with 1 dog, a cat, and a horse, sans woman.
I would say that what drew me here more than anything was the weather. It’s like California, but without all the people. But what a mistake that was. I had been sold a false bill of goods.
Having lived all my live on the rainy and frozen east coast of the USA and having planted all kinds of crops and gardens, I was thrilled here that in the frost-free, dry weather of Chile I could plant bougainvillea, lemons, oranges, lavender, and roses and wine grapes without having to spray them each week to ward off mildew or worry about sub-freezing weather. All of this is true: the rain free weather here makes Chile an agricultural paradise. That is because rain as it splatters spreads spores and thus disease, which is why California is where farmers grow most of America’s fruit and vegetables.
But what I did not know at the time was Chile in winter is freezing cold and, well, chilly, like the name says. It’s cloudy today as I write this. We have had record amounts of rain this year at the end of the Southern Hemisphere’s winter, in September. And because of the El Niño warming of the ocean this year, those rains have stretched into October, something I have never seen before. It’s supposed to be sunny and warm now. Tomorrow it will.
Bundled up in my warm house in Virginia the cold would have been no problem. But as I explain in my new book on Chile, The Avocado Republic Chile, in Chile, the problem is in winter it’s colder inside than outside, because there is no heat.
No one has central heat here. Electricity and natural gas are too expensive. Chile could buy lots of that from its neighbors Bolivia, Peru, or Argentina, but they do not get along with any of them, still seething over 100-year old tensions and war. Chile has no diplomatic relations with Bolivia. Chilean investors spent billions to build a pipeline from Argentina, but the Argentine government abruptly cut off the gas in 2006 because of the corruption and chaos in that country that makes even the simplest of endeavors all but impossible.
Such is life here in South America. It’s one long telenovela (soap opera). All of what happens here provides much material for the writer who, in my case, focuses on the irony of that. It makes for funny reading too. I’d like to think I write like George Orwell, i.e., his non-fiction, whose stock-in trade was to travel to India, Spain, France, and coal-covered Northern England and flush out through satire what makes those situations absurd.
So, this is what I tried to do with my book, write sort of a memoir and travelogue. But I’m not travelling anymore, as I am here to say. Please take a look at my book, if travel writing and foreign cultures is what you fancy, and let me know what you think.
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*Walker Rowe is an American expat writer living in Curacaví, Chile. He publishes Southern Pacific Review
** All images courtesy of Walker Rowe