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With a stomach full of mate

Yerba mate (MAH-tay): the bitter herb of southern Chile and Argentina is packed into a dried gourd, leather pouch, or tin cup, steeped in hot water, and drunk out of a metal straw. It’s the drink of the gauchos (Patagonian cowboys), shared around the fire or across the kitchen table. It’s a tradition and symbol of welcome. Deep into my research, well into the last weeks of my time in Chile, I’ve finally arrived on the shores of the Baker River, the famous Baker River, the most voluminous river in Chile and the proposed site for the infamous HidroAysen hydroelectric project.

I’ve been in the town of Cochrane for almost a month, and have been greeted with enough southern hospitality to rival the Baker itself. I’m visiting business owners, teachers, activists, and laborers, asking about their interactions with the energy developer, listening to their hopes of advancement and fears of change. I’m knocking on doors, talking with the “children of the pioneers”: men and woman who are now sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, who arrived in the region in the 1920s and 1930s with their parents, in search of work, land, and opportunity. In each house, I’m ushered in to sit next to the pinging hot wood stove while my host packs the mate and heats the water. The herb is powerful, the flavor sharp and not exactly agreeable, although it mellows after a few rounds. Sometimes it’s served sweet, with a sprig of mint or an orange peel tucked into the herb and a teaspoon of sugar poured on top. It curbs the appetite, stimulates the senses, and has kept me sleepless on more than one night when I joined an after-dinner round.

There are rules to the mate ritual. Accept the cup with your right hand, and resist the temptation to say “gracias”. Don’t say thank you until you have drunk your fill and wish to be excluded from the next round. Sip gently without moving the bombilla, the straw. It’s packed into the herb; moving it will disturb the leaves and clog the straw. Passing the mate lends rhythm to a dialogue and requires that visitors sit within arm’s reach. It fills the pauses in a conversation; it creates a companionable space for silences.

Last week I hitchhiked and walked out to the property of Don Arturo Quinto, one of the landowners who is a part of HidroAysen’s “relocalization plan”: the official way to say that Don Arturo’s 1,000 hectares of pasture and moss-draped forest will be under water if the dams are built. The landscape is fantastic. Walking the faint path to Don Arturo’s wood and zinc house on the edge of the river, I feel like I’m in the enchanted forest of my childhood imaginary games. The elderly gentleman is sweating, carrying buckets of water up the steep river bank when I arrive, but he puts them down and greets me with a warm hand clasp and kiss. He lives alone on his immense parcel of land, and receives few visitors. We sat passing the mate for over four hours. I understood perhaps a third of the stories he told me about growing up on the land, moving animals across flooded glacial rivers, chasing off Argentine cattle rustlers, but I understood the ritual of the mate, and knew that I was welcome.

I set out to do two things: to be impartial, and to focus on the people who live in the region of Aysen. Now that I’m here, I’m finding these two goals somewhat at odds with each other. In focusing on the people, I’ve become immersed in their lives and stories, and their opinions pull me first in one direction and then the other. I see the dam project through their eyes. At last, says Edita Cardenas Cruces, my family will stop fighting over how to divide our inherited land. We can sell it and split the money instead. Marisol Pizarro, speaking from the other side, says: Ojalá that they don’t build these cursed dams. We’ll lose the best part of our land. It’s been in our family for almost 100 years. Although a large number of people I’ve spoken with are in favor of the dams, the people who live in the zone of inundation and are against the dams are the ones whose stories have touched me deeply.

The water that Don Arturo pours into the packed herb is the same water he’s just carried up to his house. It’s Baker River water, cloudy with minerals even as it flows out of the tea kettle. It doesn’t get much more authentic than this. I’m drinking the Baker, absorbing its history, and I’m being enchanted, one round of mate at a time.

* And now, on to business:

It’s been a long month since my last post. I raised my $2,000! THANK YOU, two thousand times over to everyone who contributed, especially Elizabeth Tobey, Brett and Kate Godfrey, Patrick Thornton, Dennis Akimoto, Anna Schwartz, Jack Wilkins, and Elizabeth Judson-Rea, who carried me the last (more than a) few dollars. Now I just have to finish my project to collect the funds, and then I’ll be in touch to organize thank you gifts. Yes, even for those of you who said you didn’t want them. Don’t argue with me – it’s the absolute least I can do to show my appreciation :)

There are new pictures – tons of them – on my photo page. Check ‘em out!

Rio Futaleufu and a Side Trip to the Argetine Border to Make Runway Markers

Torres del Paine National Park is on Fire but Still Beautiful

From El Chaltén, Argetina to Villa O’Higgins, Chile: The 2nd Coolest Border I’ve Ever Crossed

I only have two weeks left in Chile! On March 14th I’ll be flying out of Santiago. As always, I’m excited and sad about transitioning back to the U.S. Lots more photos and writing to come. I’ll be in New Hampshire until March 29th, then in Salt Lake City for a short week before heading to the GRAND CANYON for 23 days. Out of the frying pan and into the fire. Or, in this case, out of the blue silty water and into the red. Life is good.

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