Monday, May 11, 2009


We walk out of the Nuevo Mundo Hostel in Ancud, Chile and ask the staff for the best way to get to Fundo Lechagua, an "organic farm" just 10 minutes outside of town where we plan to volunteer for a week or so in exchange for accommodation and food. The local delivery man overhears our question and says he's heading that way. Just hop in the back of his truck. It seems like a good sign. We ride out, enjoying the beautiful weather and passing tranquil beaches. The truck pulls into a driveway across from a local discotheque where there is a locked gate and barbwire fence. "Fundo Lechagua," he says. We jump out, thank him and pry open the gate.

The place looks deserted, and like its been deserted for a while. There are a few dilapidated shacks with dogs chained up outside and an old Fiat that hasn't moved since 1980. As we stagger around, greeted by some loose mutts of different sizes, we see Rosa, a 4'10" old, thin Chilean woman with skin like a paper bag and 3 inch platform sneakers on her feet. We smile and introduce ourselves explaining that we are here to work with Juan for a week. She nods her head, "si, si," and we ascertain from her quickly-spoken Spanish that Juan is not here yet. She takes us into the bigger house where the front door is blocked by a large, dirty -but very friendly- chained-up dog. We enter a filthy kitchen with an old wood-burning stove, a makeshift sofa, some grease filled skillets, and random piles of food scraps. Above the stove dangle some old, dry reddish-brown sausages and some knotted rope that we later discover is not cable cord since it smelled just like the pork links. Rosa says, amongst other indiscernible things, "Es tu casa." So we show ourselves around. From the kitchen the house opens into an attractive, though empty main room built with blond wood beams in an Asian style. The walls are decorated with Chinese bamboo hats, cheap Miro reprints and sketches of Chilean caballeros. We figure out that Juan lives here, when he is in town, and it was him who probably left the random rabbit skins, sheep skins and animal skulls around the house. We find the sleeping quarters and choose from a collection of brown mattresses in several unfinished, dusty rooms. An interesting note about the bedrooms: the locks are only on the outside of the doors. When we return from putting down our bags, we tell Rosa, who is now cleaning up, that we're going to take a walk.

We see a lot of barnyard animals: chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, pigs and cows. The fields are overgrown but it's great to see the cage-free animals, or, at least, their cages are mangled so they get to roam where they please. The scene is pretty nice: gray and white geese waddle around flapping their wings, a turkey sits on top of a fence, friendly dogs monitor the property. We spot adorable brown and tan striped piglets, at least 30 of them, all chasing their mommas and squealing for milk. We watch them for a while and walk to the end of the farm and back several times, avoiding the return to the house. When we do return, Rosa is sweeping up the big room. She tells us that she spoke to Juan and he's arriving the next day at 10:00am. We ask if there is anything we can do to help. "What can you do?" she responds. Not sure we want to volunteer for just anything, we say that Juan mentioned moving and planting vegetables and fixing fences. Somehow this provokes Rosa who then launches into an hour long rant about her relationship with Juan, the difficulty of her job, her husband's ailments that prevent him from working, and some stories of past WWOOFers who were no good. We probably understand about 13% of what she's says but she is standing in front of us holding her broom and never breaking eye contact, so we just sit and listen. She divulges a sad life story, describing the tragic loss of her mother to cancer, followed by the unexpected death of her brother who she was very close to. We think she might cry at any moment as she speaks of her now lonely existence on the farm. We try to be supportive though we say little. When her story is interrupted, we decide to go for another walk.

This time we see other workers returning from another part of the farm. We approach them to say hello and introduce ourselves but they just kept walking. Temple takes pictures while Clay attempts to engage a small wrinkled man who is feeding the pigs with milk from a large plastic trough. He offers to help carry some of the milk but the man isn't interested. We follow him as he rounds up the pigs to corral them back under the broken fences of their pen. We ask a few questions and get a few short answers. Soon the man disappears.

The sun has set and we are now in the cold house. After Rosa says, "Hasta manana," and shuts the door, it becomes clear that there is not going to be a communal European dinner like Juan had described. Luckily, Temple has an emergency stash of food for just such an occasion. We begin to cook (the water a lovely earth tone) but the fire won't catch. Many attempts later, we decide to knock on Rosa's door to ask for help. After sticking her bare hands into the flame, she shows us her secret: burning plastic bags gets the fire going. That's when Fundo Lechagua lost its organic certification. We eat our rice dinner and are in bed before 7:30.

From our first moments on the farm, we started shortening the time we wanted to stay. "Let's give it 4 days" became "2 days should be enough" to "I give it until lunch tomorrow." We wake up the next morning. It's May 7th, Clay's birthday. Over breakfast- one apple and some mushed cereal bars from our packs- we discuss the pros and cons of staying. Clay eventually says that all he wants for his birthday is to leave. We pack up our bags and walk out of the house. We close the gate behind us and begin walking down the road. Temple says, "I've never really hitchhiked before," as Clay sticks out his thumb at the first passing car. It stops: a little white Ford with a baby car seat driven by a pretty journalist. We open the door to U2's "A Beautiful Day" blaring from the speakers. We get in and enjoy a beautiful birthday ride back to Ancud.


foster said...

what a great story!

Bett Addams Williams said...

I can tell u-2 were glad to get back to town; I would have been 2!!! Well told!

suellyn said...

way to get out of there fast...

Noelle Hallman said...

Hey, you said Juan seemed interesting! I am glad you guys got out of there. Happy travels to your next destination!

Mary Moore said...

At least the piggies were cute, looked like big chipmunks, what an experience!!!!

Athena said...

That is an amazing story! You guys are awesome.
So fun to read and see what's going on in your lives down there.
Glad you got to dip outta there on your birthday Clay.
Love ya'll, ABean