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food in a hole on an island (in the universe)

There are few occasions in life when you can actually sense the universe turning around you, interrupting its normal, chaotic, forward flow to sit you gently in place and to organize the elements of time and space around you like the tumbling pins of a combination lock.  I was on Isla Tengla, near Puerto Montt, Chile, walking through tall, yellow grass, following a path paved with crushed shells.  Click – click – click: the sound of fate turning the wheel, dialing the combination, unlocking the door and swinging it wide.  I didn’t know exactly where we were going, or why, but somehow this was the moment I’d stepped into; this was the exact moment where I was meant to be.

Angus and I arrived in Puerto Montt on the Sunday morning bus, and chose Casa Perla at random out of the guidebook.  Perla herself met us at the front door of the homestay, urging us to hurry up, come in, drop our stuff, and ¡vamos!  She spoke too rapidly for me to catch what, exactly, the hurry was, or where we were going, but there was a small cluster of people at the door, clearly waiting for us to join up and get on with it.  “It’s a curanto (coo-RAhn-to),” Trina (a Kiwi woman about my age and fellow guest at Casa Perla) explained as we trooped down the hill toward the waterfront.  “But I’m not really sure what that means.  It’s a traditional Chileno meal, and we have to go to this island, where there’s this woman cooking it.  And that’s all I know.”  Lunch on an island in Chile.  Okay.

At the bottom of the hill, we waited for a bus.  We stood next to the Sunday market, and the scent of fish was overpowering in the 80F sun.  Standing room only on the bus; I found myself pressed up next to Clementine, a Frenchwoman who spoke better Spanish than English.  We communicated between languages, using words and hand gestures and facial expressions.  Closer to the front, Angus met the perfect mate to play Cheech to his Chong.  He and Stace, a sixty-year-old English/Dutch yoga instructor, had somehow grabbed seats and were cracking open their cans of beer, the hoppy odor adding to the sticky air inside the bus.  Stace had a frizzy silver-and-ginger beard and long, thin hair pulled into a tight knot on the top of his head.  Small wisps of light red hair ringed his forehead, ears, and neck.  Off the bus and down a long cement ramp to the edge of the water, where a small, brightly-painted boat waited to ferry us the ten minutes across the sound to Isla Tengla, then another ten minutes walking to the opposite side of the island to the farm where the mysterious curanto was meant to take place.

The farm was small, sheltered, and consisted of a few small buildings: a house, a barn with attached animal pens, and a round, open-ceilinged structure with long tables set for the meal.  Scruffy dogs bickered in the grassy space between the buildings, and older, dark-skinned men stood silently in the doorway of the barn.  Meanwhile a plump, soft-looking matron in a long skirt and lavender apron moved busily from barn to house, house to dining area.  I smiled at the men, asked if I could take photos, and suddenly I had an escort.  Pedro led me through a green arborway into the garden, and to the edge of the stone wall that separates the farm from the beach.  It was low tide, and the beach was huge and wet.  I took a few pictures, and then stood talking to Pedro, doing my best to understand his rapid Chileno speech and trying to respond with the right words when he paused.  He was perhaps seventy, and short, with a heavily lined face, a thick grey mustache, and dark eyes.  My comprehension was not 100%, but it was enough.  He told me about his life, about his travels: he worked in a factory in Connecticut, and later (or perhaps at the same time?) served in the Chilean air force, flying a route that took him through Toronto, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas, San Antonio, Huston, Mexico and Central America on countless occasions.  It was from him that I learned that GW Bush was on a tour of the Middle East, and that Hillary Clinton had won out over Obama in NH.  He’d like to see Hillary take the general election in November, but agreed with me that change is important.  This feels like someone else’s life, like something I might read about.  And yet, this is real.  This is where I am.

Finally, we were called into the barn to watch them “open” the curanto.  In the floor of the barn was a poured cement hole, perhaps a foot deep and a meter square.  Perla, our expedition leader, stood next to me and explained the process in heavily-accented English.  To build a curanto: first, a fire is built in the bottom of the hole, on top of a layer of round stones.  The stones bake in the fire, and when they’re red hot, the cooks begin constructing the layers of food.  Several layers of huge wet leaves cover the rocks, and on top of that they lay alternating layers of shellfish, leaves, meat, potatoes, vegetables, leaves, more shellfish, more meat, and then on the very top, two kinds of heavy, rich potato bread.  The whole lot is covered with more leaves, then several burlap sacks.  For two hours, the food sits and steams and the fat and juice and flavors from the various ingredients drip and mingle and cook.  The smell, as Pedro and two others peel back each layer, is exotic and mouthwatering.

The shells clack and clatter against one another as the matron forks them out in their red net bags.  Two shy cats hide under the benches around the curanto, eyeing the fish and the people, and the dogs creep closer and closer to the hole until someone notices them and shouts them back outside.  The food, once served, fills the long tables to capacity.  There is a watery salsa to spoon over the potatoes and the mussels; bottles of cool white wine are passed while the pile of discarded shells grows on a tray at the end of the tables.  Jo the dog sits at my feet, licking my knee occasionally in hopes of a pork bone.  By the end, my fingers are greasy and my stomach groaning.  This is cuisine.

There is a siesta on the beach after the meal.  I sit with Angus, Stace, Trina, Ant (Trina’s partner), and Clementine, not talking, each of us in our own private digestive stupor.  There’s no need for words, no need to play the “getting-to-know-you” game.  The six of us, we’ve discovered, are going to be together for another whole week as we travel south to Puerto Natales on the Navimag Ferry.  It’s a four-day boat trip through the Patagonian Channels, and it’s the only way see Chile’s Pacific coast.  We will have plenty of time to talk in the coming days.  For the moment, I am easy.  I’m humming along with the universe, in the exact right place at the exact right time.

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