Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Chilean Flavours

A description of a wedding in Chile between a Chilean with long dark hair and a German blonde on crutches, and much more...

The fact that the wedding was going to be in Chile in early December, in the beginning of summer there, was already something special. Having to look for summer clothes to take along before leaving shivering cold Germany felt a little weird. But it seemed a pleasant thought to be able to have a few warm summer days even in the middle of  'our' winter.

Landing in Chile reminded me of how different the whole country looked from the other places I knew -- vast empty spaces with gorgeous landscapes and colours in between densely populated cities. No matter where one was, one did not need to go far to get a view of the snow-capped Andes in one direction and the rising waves of the Pacific on the other. This country has it all from semi-equatorial deserts and tropical areas in the north, through idyllic temperate zones to the Patagonian ice fields of the Antarctic south...

The next thing very special about Chile is the variety of food on offer -- especially that of of fruits and vegetables besides fish of all kinds, mussels (machas), shrimps and crabs and what have you. Exotic and hard-to-get items like avocadoes, artichokes and kiwis grow here,  This was the season to be able to pluck and gorge on apricots, oranges, peaches, chirimoyas (custard apples) and nisperanyas off fruit-laden trees everywhere. Fresh olives stuffed with different flavours could be bought at very small prices, also cherries and berries of all kinds -- strawberries, raspberries, blueberries... especially at the Feria -- or the weekly or twice a week markets where farmers brought their produce to sell directly.

We had rented an apartment on the 13th floor of a high-rise "Isla Grande" on the ocean shore -- one of the best locations in Vina-del-Mar. Besides the glorious sunsets the beach in front of our home had much to offer as the  entire strip had been converted into an entertainment and free-and-leisure time activity zone with play grounds for children, a toy train, sturdy quadratic shaped cement chess board-tables,  walking paths (for walkers and joggers as well as many who needed to walk their dogs), cycle tracks and lots of exercise equipment for the fitness freaks. There was a Feria/ Artesaneria selling handicraft items along a particular stretch where besides the super tasty ice-creams and Churros (long sticks of deep fried pasty dough deep  with powder sugar or manchar (the local variant of caramel) to go with it), and the models of the men from the Easter Islands, one could also buy colourful scarves, handbags, kurtas, harem pants and assorted jewellery from India (often a much better selection at even better prices than back home).

One thing that strikes you immediately on arrival is the vast numbers of children -- most of them happy and healthy looking -- to be seen everywhere. In Chile, there are reserved seats in buses and separate queues at airports for pregnant women and nursing mothers, This is very different from Europe where there are so few people of any age, leave alone just children. Also different from India where given the dense masses of humanity everywhere, the children are most of the time hidden from view. Getting to Chile also reminded me how incredibly friendly and happy-looking the people one met everywhere were. Of course, this added to my frustration of not having any Spanish, but still the cheerful faces one saw everyday was enough to make one feel better...Of course I knew that there was extreme economic inequality in this country and that the people one saw in the beaches and malls of Vina del mar were not necessarily representative... I was also curious to learn more about the Mapuches and the other indigenous groups who also live here... but I was not sure how to go about finding out more, given my problems with communication.

In any case, the main reason we were here was not to explore Chile but to be present at a wedding -- a wedding between a Chilean with long dark hair and a German blonde on crutches! Both of them are vets -- that is why the civil ceremony took place in the zoo where the groom worked, with two 'inseparable' parrots in a cage as secondary witnesses and the trumpeting of a water-lion in the adjacent enclosure to herald the exchange of rings.  The 'assado' grill party in the evening was organised in a kind of 'Horse Farm' in a nearby city -- on a patch of green with a swimming pool and a large open concrete grill next to the Riding Hall.

True to the western tradition, except for immediate family, all the invitees were all friends and work-colleagues of the bridal couple. So, there were not many people we knew there.  Also in the same spirit, it was the two of them who  decided everything that happened -- not only who to invite, but also what to wear, what food and drinks to serve, what music to play, where to shop, when to shop, who will do what and all the other details besides. The fact that the bride had had an accident the week before and could not use one leg, and that we, the bride's family, were coming in from outside and could not do much to help locally, did not really help to ease the problem. To top it all, the bride spent large parts of the couple of days preceding and most of the night before the wedding day marking answer scripts to meet some university exam results deadline.

Given the situation, it was only to be expected that the bride first remembered that maybe she should paint her nails only while waiting to be picked up to be taken to the zoo for her wedding. She had decided to wear a saree (that we had bought for her in India) for the wedding, I found her some matching jewellery, but found it hard to keep her 'tikli' in place without the normal hair clips. Since one leg was out of use, she had decided not to worry about what shoes she would wear, things like a matching hand bag etc. probably would not have crossed her mind even under normal circumstances.  She had washed her hair that morning, and had decided to borrow one of her little daughter's red hair bands to tie her hair in a pony tail to have them out of the way. So much for bridal makeup. My thoughts went back to what most brides willingly or unwillingly have to go through in India on the days leading up to the wedding -- several visits to the beauty parlour, mehndi, haldi-bath etc etc...

As for the groom, his hair was also tied in a pony tail with a blue hair band, that too one that had snapped and had been repaired. He had got himself a black suit and a red tie for the occasion, and was perhaps wearing a suit for the first time in his life. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt all morning and changed into his formal dress only at the very last minute. Just as well because the sun was blazing down that day and one of his many tasks was physically carrying a 50 kilo sack of ice to cool the drinks to the reception area. It would not do for the groom to be at his wedding wearing a suit, sticky with sweat...

They both looked stunning when the moment arrived -- and that is all that really mattered. A German beauty in a light organge-yellow saree by the side of a dark, strong and  handsome Chilean man with a huge grin on his face. With their two little kids on their laps and friends and family as witness they took their marriage vows and exchanged rings. Short speeches were made, a champagne toast was raised. The groom's friends and colleagues at the zoo had decorated the whole area beautifully, they had also produced amazing trays full of tasty canapes and little cakes. That along with the traditional empanadas, olives, chips and other nibbles, made up the reception. In a land where there is zero tolerance for alcohol while driving, people were careful with what they drank. So it was fizzy drinks, water and juices for them, beer and wine for those who could.

They had invited and expected about a hundred people, but in the end many did not make it -- like Indians Chileans too do not really confirm whether they will attend or not, I was told, which complicated the organisation. As a result there were many large kilo sacks full of chips and  many heavy bottles of fizzy drinks left over. Anyway, we collected everything that was left over, picked up more food and drinks from their home on the way and made our way to the place where the grill was planned for the evening.

If it was the groom's colleagues who had helped out at the zoo, it was a family friend and his family who had done all that they could to help with the evening grill party-- electric lights had been installed, table cloths were produced, cool-boxes were arranged to transport the meat, picnic tables were brought over to serve the buffet, last minute shopping had been done, people had been picked up from the nearest metro station... By the time we got there, the tables had already been set up and done up by guests who had arrived earlier.

The men were in charge of the grill and the drinks, and the women in charge of the salads. Chileans grill their meat differently from the Germans -- whole chunks of meat are grilled first and cut later, thus giving the meat a different taste. Moreover, since the salads were supposed to be made in the typical Chilean style, at best we could only follow instructions. We had done what we could the previous day at their home but still there were many things that needed to be done at the last minute -- many lemons needed to be pressed for juice, the avocados and apples cut, the tomatoes and onions sliced. There were mountains of fruits and vegetables everywhere, but where were the knives and lemon squeezers? Believe it or not, the Chilean ladies managed without and did not even complain! And it all turned out so tasty.

The grill party was inaugurated with the groom being formally thrown into the swimming pool by his two brothers! Many others followed suit as it was a warm afternoon and the setting was perfect for a little pre-dinner cool-down. The hosts had bought meat at the rate of half a kilo per person, and drinks at the rate of 2 litres per person! So there was more than enough to eat and drink as the evening progressed. And just as the moon showed its face from behind the mountains, the beautiful wedding cake (made by a colleague of the groom) was cut. I tried to add an exotic flavour to the occasion by breaking into a loud 'uruli' to the consternation and surprise of many around.

The cake cutting was followed, as was to be expected, by a round of dancing. The bride with her hurt foot was not exactly excited about dancing, but the Chileans present were not going to miss the chance. The groom danced the first waltz with his wife-on-crutches; and then he danced in turn with almost all the ladies present till he could dance no more. Everyone was happy. The moon was shining. The party had gone off well. The happy groom told me while proudly showing me his wedding ring that he felt different  -- something very special had happened to him that day.

At some point I realised that there were mountains of leftovers. Figuring that most of the fresh salads would not keep long, in my typical Indian fashion, I tried to find possible 'takers' of left-overs from among the remaining guests -- and started to distribute whatever I could. But I was politely reminded that since I was not technically the host, what happened to what was left and how they ought to be disposed off was none of my business. Well...so much for trying to be helpful...I took the hint and gave up worrying. A visit to the washroom reminded me of the disgusting habit some Chileans have of stuffing used toilet paper into rubbish bins. I never understood why they didn't flush them down instead. Of course the other thing that really bothers me about Chile is the over-abundance of plastic bags everywhere -- if you bought three things at a supermarket, you could be happy if they gave them to you in three plastic carry bags and not six! Seeing those masses of bags all over the place often gave me a sinking feeling that some day the country would simply choke in its own plastic waste. 

Anyway, back to the main story. It was getting to be midnight. Most of the guests had left. A certain amount of tiredness had set in after a long day of celebration, helping out and serious amounts of eating and drinking. The focus had moved on. There were boxes to be packed, airports to be driven to, flights to be caught, early the next day. It would be nice to be able to call it a day... but then we found out that it was not just the washing up of all the crockery and cutlery that needed to be done before we left. We had already done all that, but apparently that was not enough. They also all needed to be wiped dry! Moreover the glasses and plates, the spoons and forks and knives all needed to be counted. The German bride had suddenly decided that before she went home she had to personally make sure that everything was there, clean and sparkling -- ready to be returned the next morning. (Not for nothing did the bride's naughty younger brother give his elder sister the title `Admiral Bene' during the course of the evening -- and it stuck!) The poor groom looked too tired to protest as he meekly did what he was told. Most of us did not trust ourselves with handling breakable stuff at that late hour and withdrew.

At that moment I really wished we were really back in India, and there was some second cousin or some forgotten uncle who would suddenly appear and take charge of the rest. And that the bride and the groom would not have to worry and could just enjoy the moment and the special occasion. But that did not happen, and as we sat outside impatiently twiddling our fingers, fighting with sleep and tiredness, wishing for the day to come to an end, knowing well that the drive back would take an hour at least, it was only the strict sense of 'German'  propriety that stopped even close family members from speaking out aloud and telling the bride what was on everyone's minds -- is this really so important? can the counting not wait till tomorrow morning? can we please go home now? The impatient Indian in me made some noises but without too much impact. Eventually all of us did get home after dropping the happy but completely exhausted couple back at theirs.

I am not sure how the Chileans would have handled such a situation since most of the groom's family had left earlier as they had to travel all the way back to Santiago. But on the way to the airport the next morning, we talked about the events of the day before and also about what we saw of the 'Chilean' way of doing things. Their pace is different, their attitude is different, they are able to improvise when required, they are able to let go and enjoy and celebrate when the occasion so demanded, they certainly know how to dance, they are able to be friendly with strangers, they seem to be more relaxed about everything. And eventually things do fall in place, maybe not quite entirely as expected but still, more or less so -- like the tomato salad of the evening before. Everything is a bit chaotic, like it often is in India, but unlike in India, there are no servants and drivers and cooks (to do the work for you while you only need to supervise and shout every now and then) so Chileans do also know how to use their hands.  

For the bride's two meter tall little brother, the best thing about Chile was the taste of its meat -- he had gorged himself to the full the evening before with the many different kinds on offer and said that he could find very little to complain about. It was clear to him that the meat tasted better because they came from happier animals who were left to graze in natural pastures. The sun, the beach, the landscape and the food -- those were the Chilean highlights in any case. But this time the happy relaxed attitude of the Chilean people got added to that list. And as the bride's sister braced herself for a 8-hour long wait at the airport before catching her 16-hour long flight back to Germany, she said that the prospect had made her very unhappy in the beginning, but as the days had gone by in Chile and she had got more and more used to the Chilean pace and attitude, she had begun to find the idea much easier to accept. After all sitting out the time in the sun reading a book in early December cannot be too bad, even if it would have been much nicer to sun-bathe in the beach or go for the last swim of this year in an open air swimming pool.

And as we made our way back from the airport on Sunday afternoon, earlier than we would have otherwise in order to get back before the highways closed, we saw hundreds of pilgrims, braving the heat and some walking more than 50 kms over the weekend carrying little wooden replicas of the church on their shoulders to get to the holy church Santuario de lo Vasquez in time for  the popular Catholic Feast of the Immaculate Conception on Monday. The highway would be closed for two days to allow the pilgrims to gather. Last year 800,000 pilgrims had gathered there for the event -- some had gone to give thanks to the Virgin for miracles that have occurred in the past, others to ask her to grant them their wishes in the future.

Is it this faith that allowed Chileans to remain happy and hopeful in all situations? Or reversing the question, is it the lack of faith that prevented people like me from just letting go and trusting that things would take care of themselves? Questions of faith and belief have always left me very uneasy, perhaps because I don't really know where I stand in that respect. In any case, I told myself there was no harm in saying a little prayer to the Virgin to bless this beautiful country and its lovely people, especially the sweet little family of the happy newly weds... 


  1. My dear friend Upasana had this to say after reading the story above (for some reason she seems to be not able to upload her comments herself):

    I truly beautiful read. Takes you to the place and lets you feel as if you are relaxing in the ambience and majestic beauty. Also enjoyed the subtle analysis of social behavior and functioning that is so typically your style.
    Thoroughly enjoyed

  2. A nice read like the Chilean summer.Your flow is smooth and effortless to read like a ride down the highway with the Pacific on one side and the Andes on the other to give you company. The wedding scenes are well described with your typical nose for detail. What I liked best is that scene of the bride's insistence on washing and drying the dishes .true to her German sense of perfection.and all the rest of you wanting to call it a day. A delightful account on the nuances and traits of a fun loving people with a faint hint of lahe lahe...just like your own khar khua roots.

  3. A very well written write up. It was so smooth and effortless that I was transformed to Chile. The description was very detailed which gives a thorough idea of the place and the ambiance. I could completely relate to the situation which according to me is very essential to grab the reader's attention and mark a place in the reader's heart. I loved the part which describes the wedding arrangement in the zoo. It was so well written that I felt like I was watching a movie. It was also insightful. I look forward to read similar encounters.

  4. I don't have much faith but was optimistic enough that I can read something nice here and I did. Works either-ways :)

  5. Thanks all of you for your kind words and comments. I am glad you like the piece.. meanwhile the bride has shared the link to this blog on her FB page with the comment:.Probably the most original wedding gift... I am flattered.


  6. I love the way you wrote about the place and the detailed manner in which you write. It is a good and smooth reading. I imagined myself being there taking in the beauty surrounding it, at the same time could not help myself but keep thinking about the wedding situation back home. We are so caught up with what will people and society think, what is acceptable and not acceotable along with huge consumer culture, that we forget to actually think about what is that one wants or what makes a person happy in this special moments. I hope some day, we will be able to put ourself there- What is important to us and what we want in this special moments. Keep writing and thank you. Lovi