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Day 93 – Also, Box Wine Has Environmental Benefits (Puerto Montt)

January 11, 2011

Location: Puerto Montt, Chile

Date: Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I will always remember Puerto Montt as the place where I first tongue kissed the ocean and, shortly thereafter, just missed out on getting stabbed.

It all started out innocently enough with a visit to Mercado Angelmo, a local fish market. About 2 km west of the main bus station you’ll find a bustling bayside collection of buildings where fishermen unload their catch. On the second floor of each winding building are cocinerias—little kitchen restaurants that serve fresh seafood. Each is about the size of a walk-in closet, usually with just enough space to seat a few people and fit a kitchen manned by one person who cooks, cleans, and serves. Each cocineria employs a woman who wanders the parking lot and entrances to the market to lure, cajole, and harass tourists (foreign or otherwise) to coming upstairs to her friend’s/family member’s/boss’s place.

The first thing I tried was a chupe de locos which, if you know only a little Spanish (like me) translates into “crazy people stew.” If you know a bit more Spanish, however, you know this is a stew of “loco,” a type of Chilean abalone. There is something a little crazy, though, about how much cheese goes into this thing. The mass of sludge weighed as much as a small bowling ball and went down about as easy. The flavor was fine, but for a lactose intolerant like me it’s a bit like playing dodgeball with a pineapple hocking Randy Johnson. You might even say it’s kind of loco.

Of course, that wasn’t enough. Had to hit up another restaurant and try something else. Before I knew it, another hawker lady had dragged me up to another joint where I ordered some sea urchin (erizo de mar). My experience with erizo de mar has been in small, Japanese portions. Uni, as the Japanese call it, is an expensive delicacy which is why I opted to try the Chilean take on the oceanic hedgehog.

That was a mistake. A bit of sea urchin delicately placed on a spoon with herbs, roe, seaweed, and wasabi by a fastidious Japanese chef is one thing. A bowl heaped with orangey tongues soaking in what appears to be their own saliva is another. They must have murdered a whole village of erizos to make my meal.

And they didn’t just look like tongues, they felt like ‘em, too, complete with those bumps you have on your own (incidentally called fungiform papillae, a name which doesn’t help the visuals any). It was like French kissing Ursula from the Little Mermaid except you had to chew and swallow.

After three forkfuls I’d had my fill. I kept going (out of pride) and–by heaping mounds of cilantro and onions on top of the macabre display–managed to finish half the bowl. It looked like I hadn’t made a dent.

As the waitress took away my plate, she asked, “You didn’t like them?”

“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s just too much.” Which would have also been true after the second bite.

Afterwards, I walked back to the city center, snapping pics along the way. While photographing some graffiti, I stumbled into a group of men sipping wine from box. They seemed jovial, chatting me up, offering me a drink (I accepted) and they asking me if I knew kung fu, because you know I’m Chinito and all.

My Spanish, mind you, is terrible and Chilean Spanish is like moorland Scottish English—unintelligible to people who nominally speak the same language. That meant our “conversation” involved lots of hand gestures and repetition. I gathered the following:

–One guy was between jobs working in a mine somewhere in the north.

–They were hammered.

–They wanted more boxed wine.

–They wanted me to pay for it.

As I repeatedly resisted their requests to go with them to a store and buy more fermented purple drink, I noticed that the least drunk guy looked uncomfortable. The little miner guy (who looked like a dark skinned Chilean version of Wormtail from the Harry Potter movies) threw his arm around me and the least drunk guy began to fidget.

With his help, I got Wormtail off me, and Now Sober Guy grabbed my arm and told me to follow him. We walked out of the graffiti covered Stonehenge to the edge of the bay and chatted. I gathered the following:

–Now Sober Guy had kids.

–He was a former drug addict trying to get his life right.

–He thought his friends were up to no good.

–He didn’t want to be part of their shenanigans.

This was relayed to me using Chilean Spanish, more repetition, and gesticulations that included miming me being stabbed in the stomach. Delightful.

As we talked, the three other guys (now joined by a skinny, twitchy fourth who looked like he was coming off a meth binge) rejoined us. This time they were more insistent. Now Very Sober Guy looked really worried, especially when Mr. Twitch sat down next to an old fellow who was near us and seemed to tell Old Guy, “You should probably move along, old fella’.”

Now Very Sober Guy pulled me by the arm and marched me away. We didn’t stop walking until we were well out of sight of his buddies. He offered to grab a drink with me at a bar. I politely declined. He wished me luck and we parted ways.

Was I scared? Not really. I was pumping adrenaline, though. Why didn’t I leave when I felt the situation turn in the first instance? For at least two reasons. The first, which makes sense, is that I didn’t feel completely threatened—the group seemed manageable, one guy seemed to have my back, and there were lots of people around. I didn’t feel like they could get away with much (though I did also realize that “getting away with it” might not have been something their drunk asses were thinking about).

The second reason sounds crazy: I kind of wanted to get jumped. I’ve never been in a situation like that before. I wanted to see if I could handle myself. I spent the whole time keeping all of them in front of me. My hands were always out of my pockets. I was ready. And, again, it didn’t seem like something I couldn’t handle.

It goes back to that whole testing yourself thing. Patagonia, deep water solo, scuba diving, sky diving, and eating cuy or dog are all forms of seeing if you can do something that pushes what you thought was possible. Granted, getting into a fight is a bit different because, unlike the aforementioned activities, it’s me against another man (or men) who are trying to hurt me. I was curious to see how I’d react. In the same way I wondered whether I could keep a piece of cuy down without vomiting, I wanted to know if I really could take care of myself if someone threatened my person.

Of course, if I were lying in a hospital suffering from sepsis because I’d been stabbed with a rusty knife, I might not sound so cavalier. I might wish I’d run the second I sniffed danger. The truth is, though, I’m not hurt so I have the luxury of wondering.

Then again, I didn’t exactly push to stick around to find out what I’m made of. I chickened out and walked away (or, more accurately, let myself be pulled away). Guess, I’m only willing to go so far to test myself. I’ll skirt the edge, but I’m not willing to force myself into a fight.

I guess it’s safe to say I’m not going to miss Puerto Montt. The city did provide two valuable lessons. First, just because the Japanese call something a delicacy doesn’t mean you should try to eat a bowl full. And second, it’s never imprudent to be suspicious of box wine drinkers.

GALLERY: No bonus pictures today. In fact, that pic of graffiti above marked an early end to Mervyn’s day—he spent the rest of the afternoon and evening laying in bed watching TV and coming down off an adrenaline high.

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