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Stories of exile

My granddad helped set up the telegraph line that once ran across Chile, from Santiago to the south.

When he was up a pole in the middle of the 1940s forests of the south, did he ever look at the green landscape to the next place, the next pole ahead, and imagine what would happen when all of Chile was connected?

My grandparents, aunts and uncles ran the post office in La Pintana where my mother, one of the younger siblings would wander. They did regular post office work and received telegrams for the people in the vicinity, which was part of their income after he bought his 1 Acre of farmland there.

The 12 kids would play around with the telegraph between messages on their shifts, chatting in morse to other operators across Chile.

When we finally returned from exile and spent a first Chilean winter at that farm, they had pigs and had once had horses and cows, but still had geese, ducks, chickens and all sorts of other animals, a small enclosed herb garden that said fowl couldn't access, and around it a huge avocado tree patch across the farm to the stables at the back, which made it all into a really shady place.

He apparently did it to avoid the coming depression in the 30s. They needed to be more self sufficient. The post office gave a stable income together with the ability to eat fresh food each day. The only thing lacking was clothes. The winters were cold and ponchos or other woolly chombas were hard to come by and demanded a lot of work from my grandma and great grandma's knitting needles.

I'm proud to say my interest in farming came from having visited that tiny farm for a large family, which was nevertheless totally organised towards the many different functions and needs a family would have - from needing meat, vegetables and fruit, eggs, and protection from the many dogs, to the need to buy things like bread and wine from nearby towns Puente Alto and San Bernardo.

During our stay I was put in charge of picking the Avocado, which every night the wind would blow to the ground into a sequia, part of the system of canals which ran through the farm, or onto the various makeshift rooftops for the chicken coop and sties. I'd have to climb about these places every morning at 6am to get all the good ones or my grand dad would criticise the fact there was one still sitting there when he got up later on. The empleada would make me usually some soft boiled eggs or avocado on bread and a tea, and I'd be off. Everyone had an empleada, even my poorest cousins. They took care of the kids and house (and usually their own children too) while parents were away at work.

When it was my granddad's birthday or saint, we'd have a huge party and all the 12 kids and all my cousins would come. That's when I got to see a pig being killed, with a hammer and nail, and then cut up into all the various parts for blood sausages, and other bits that could be stored, and of course the pig's head, the delicacy, along with the brain, used to make a jam. It was disgusting, but wasn't sad, although it was upsetting and shocking to watch. I had learnt from my cousin in veterinary school that the really sad thing was horses. They would figure out what was going on and would be sad and despair when led to the slaughter.

We also learned with my brothers, to hunt for hidden nests with eggs and to pluck chickens and that for everyone who lived there, it was part of life to have to kill these animals and sometimes it was also quite sad for them too. For my uncle it was a daily chore, but sometimes impossible, and he said he had to sell his old sow because the day came to kill her and he just couldn't do it. The regular time to do this in any case was the day before a huge family feast when most of that animal was going to be eaten by those 12 uncles and aunts and all my hundred + cousins!

At the market in Puente Alto with my aunt, I chose a grey cockerel, a goat, and 3 ducklings. We bought them and went home, where soon the ducklings all died from various mishaps, the cockerel got an infectious disease and was quickly put aside and killed by my uncle, but the goat lived on as my goat. I fed it each day and would sit with it for a while, as it was in a part of the farm that was away from all the other animals. This continued until my granddad's birthday when he and all my uncles had a great laugh when I realised we were going to eat it and I refused in disgust and alarm.

Maybe you shouldn't eat meat at all, maybe even the farm methods in the outskirts of  '80s Santiago weren't the most sustainable, but if there is any way that you should eat meat, it should be with this conscience that it goes hand in hand with death and killing and bearing that responsibility, not just with buying prepackaged food, handily slaughtered somewhere else.

Pig's heads were quite a difficult thing to understand though. It was considered a delicacy, although I remember not finding it too scary when my mum came home one night to open the fridge to a pig's severed head in the fridge and getting an electric shock when she touched it! After seeing the pig slaughter it was more in perspective. I wanted to become a vet back then so I thought it was necessary to be able to see that kind of thing and not be shocked.

In Scotland I lived in Balloch, 10 minutes walk from the banks of Loch Lomond, just up the road from the old rock of the brytons in Dumbarton. The first Chilean exiles who arrived to the area would find pig heads on display at the butchers with apples in their mouths in butcher windows, and ask for them to the butcher's surprise. They even once reportedly fought over one of these macabre 70s shop displays, as they could be bought quite cheaply, and all the refugees were quite poor. For me, the first encounter with this strange fascination was only when we first went back as a family to Chile after all the exiles were pardoned and we were able to return.

My dad instead hadn't wandered around a post office but a bakery when small, until he went to get a ball across the back garden he walked with his little sandals across some burning coals and they caught fire, burning his sandals and feet. His feet nearly got infected, and it's quite a miracle that he was given the first penicillin injection in all of Chile, because his school teacher had made him feel ashamed when complaining about his dirty feet. They weren't dirty, they were burnt. The teacher was so sorry about calling him dirty in front of his classmates, that he got his friend, just returned from Scotland after the first penicillin trials, and asked for that dose of this obscure but effective new medicine that had just been trialed in Scotland before the war, for my dad. So he survived, and went to live with his grandma up in Putre, a village up the mountains from the big city Arica, near the sea at the northern tip of Chile and spoke only Aymara. My granddad on my father's side had the largest bakery in Arica. This land was a part of the Aymara territory that, before being conquered by the inca  and then the spaniards, had been a network of Allus or small communities.

My granddad on that side of the family was a gambler, who had been an orphan and had been taken in by a wealthy english protestant family. So although he lost money all the time, he was in all the right circles and was very good at getting in good favour with important people in the city. This contributed to the bakery's growth, which continued for another 40 years after he died. It was partly due to one of the most recent finds my dad had made as a family historian that we know that my granddad had twice lost everything as he had run into debt. Both those times correspond to when my dad was sent away, first to Putre with his Yatiri grandmother, and then to a boarding school in Arica to become a carpenter. From the bakery we all inherited the ability to bake insane amounts of bread and empanadas, and I even sustained myself making pizzas and piadinas for a while when I lived in Spain.

My grandmother on that side, now has about 12 descendants both male and female with her name Isabel somewhere in their names. She was the one who instilled in each of my aunts and uncles the desire to become teachers, to learn not just for knowledge but so they could teach and lift people out of poverty, like the people who came each day to the bakery asking for help or a place to stay in return for some work. My great grandmother Rosario was a yatiri, an aymara shaman of the type that has a knowledge of herbal medicine to cure both people and animals. She didn't do births, although my own midwife at my birth in Santiago happened to be one of my La Pintana aunts.

But she rejected the medicine and hospitals in the city and refused to live her last days in that environment. Instead she died soon after, still in Putre, 3000km up, in the Andes. In the traditional Aymara house that my family got converted to legal status finally after a long process. One of my cousins now lives there doing community development. More and more, traditional aymara architecture is seen as something to renew and preserve in the area.

My youngest uncle on that side, who went through a lot of trouble during the dictatorship, also founded Kusayapu, the first indigenous primary school that taught children literacy in spanish and aymara, traditional terrace style farming and irrigation systems, and my brother even spent a time there teaching music - but to kids wildly more proficient than he claimed to be at quena and charango. Another aspect of Aymara belief is that our gods react favourably or not to music and express it in the weather. One particular song by Inti Illimani I taught my children as the rain song, as it causes rain. The gods reacted so favourably to the Kusayapu school band that every time they played there were rain storms across the atacama desert, with the audience asking them to play a bit more quietly or let them cover the electrical system first at least. Apart from this rain 7 music detail, the indigenous curriculum has now been implemented in many schools across the region. My uncle is really a special person.

Now the farm in La Pintana is gone, as most farms are, replaced by 3 bed houses and what was once a small farming area is now part of a sprawling suburb. The farm was split amongst 12 children so that some bits have been sold. The bakery up north is also sold with it's magnificent oven made from iron from an Arica-La Paz railway line's old steam engine now removed. A step brother of my dad's still runs bakeries in Arica, but for years I felt Chile to be farther and farther away.

On my last visit in the 90s we travelled to the south with my brother all the way to Temuco and saw a mapuche market and the wonderful rainwashed greenness topped with the most splendid milky way up in the sky and many wonderful views from hills and mountains to the amazing stars of the south. I finally got to see the amazing scenery my grandfather might have seen back when he was putting up telegraph poles 90 years ago. Despite all this I felt the Chile we were all about, that we represented with our connection to Allende's time, Nueva Trova music and to a culture that was now decades old and in exile, prohibited for so long by the dictatorship, was getting smaller and smaller. It was being replaced by a drive to spend ever more.

There was more work, more growth but it was not based on anything stable. I could see Chile as an enticing place to go but potentially doomed to debt as time went by and if I went I wanted to stay longer, not just for a short holiday. While we suffered the effects of the 2008 crash in Europe, Chileans were still getting SMSs asking them if they wanted extra credit top-ups. It had all gone on a crash course towards more neoliberalism than even we were subjected to here. When I heard the farm was divided and sold, I also had a small family and was struggling with that, but was always a bit scared of what I'd find.

Now that Chile has awoken again, that fear is gone. I know what I'll find now if I go. My Chile couldn't be destroyed or swept away. It has grown across and through the gaps in the pavement and now has blossomed with the strong roots that the neoliberal side of Chile always lacked as it hungrily hollowed out mountains and riverbeds and planned out urban changes.


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