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Day 94 – Introduction to Chiloe and the Israeli Trail (Told from a Bus)

January 12, 2011

Location: Bus to the city of Castro on Isla de Chiloe, Chile

Date: Wednesday, January 12, 2011

I’m going to the island of Chiloe.

“Chiloe?” you ask. “What the hell’s a Chiloe?”

That’s what I said. Turns out it’s a rainy Chilean island on a bunch of “Top 10” places to visit in the world lists. It makes the lists in large part because Western tourists don’t really come to Chiloe. One telltale sign: it’s not on the “Israeli Trail.”

“What’s the ‘Israeli trail’?” you ask.

Let me explain by first giving a little background. You may have heard that every able bodied Israeli youth must join the army—men for three years, women for two. Afterwards, these militarized men and women in their early twenties typically go on a worldwide trip to blow off steam after a few years of wearing nothing but camo. Post-army Israelis are notorious on the backpacker trail. They generally move in packs, rarely travel alone, have special hostels that cater to their peculiarities, and generally smoke, drink, and drug a little too much.

One young, former officer who I befriended in Laos said there’s a message board where all traveling Israelis go to find out where to go, what to do, and where to stay when they land in a foreign country. Someone says, “I had a good time at Hostel X, ate at Restaurant Y, and partied at Club Z.” Suddenly, every Israeli on a post-army sojourn in said country is at X, Y, and Z. It’s amazing, really–a fascinating cultural strength that could go a long way to explaining the Jewish community’s success in the U. S. of A. But I digress.

As a practical matter, that means when an young Israeli lands in say, Buenos Aires, he or she will join up with a horde of ex-soldiers and travel the country together, taking all the recommended buses, staying at all the suggested hostels, and visiting all the Israeli tourist sites in, hypothetically, BA-Iguazo-Salta-Cordoba-Mendoza-BA just like their countrymen who’ve gone before. They, in essence, follow a trail to all the tourist spots in a country. When the trails hit a choke point like, say, Patagonia, people like me feel like we’re in Little Jerusalem.

All’s to say, it’s a sure sign that a place is well known in the Western world when you see a hostel with a sign in Hebrew. (Note: nearly every city along the established South American “Israeli Trail” has at least one.)

Which brings us back to Chiloe. As far as I can tell, there isn’t an Israeli on this bus. This alone, in a skinny country like Chile—where, consequently, everyone ends up on the same route—is remarkable. It’s a sign you’ve moved off the traditional “hot spots” and are a bit on your own. This fact seems confirmed when I note that there seem to be non-Chileans on board at all.

That fact—the lack of Westerners–is one reason that Chiloe is appealing. It’s not just off the Israeli Trail, it’s off the Western Trail altogether. Not that Chiloe isn’t trying to attract people (see “Top 10 Lists” above). It’s just that between Santiago and Patagonia most people pressed for time (i.e. most Western vacationers) don’t notice there’s an island with a culture all its own.

To Chileans, though, Chiloe is quite a draw. It’s famous for its historic wooden churches, its seafood, its tranquil villages, its temperate rainforests, and its colorful waterside stilt houses.

The culture has a unique, mystical flavor, as well. In large part, this is because of the indigenous people who, for some reason, seem to have been spared the genocide that was occurring on the mainland. This could be because, on the one hand, the local population seemed receptive to Spanish rule (the island is now mostly mixed-race mestiza) and because, on the other, when the Spanish arrived here the local people were mostly wiped out by a smallpox epidemic (which did most of the heavy, genocide lifting anyway). Jesuits and Franciscans went further by doing the spiritual dirty work, building wooden churches in the 1600 and 1700’s.

Despite the cultural beating, the indigenous people were strong enough to pass on their ancient traditions. For example, there’s still a rich mythological indigenous culture of witches, trolls, nymphs, and warlocks.

Add to this mix that the island was the last place to fall to Chilean independence and you can see this place has a bit of a wild streak. Culturally, historically, musically, and mythologically, for most Chileans, Chiloe is another world.

That means, unlike Puerto Varas or El Bariloche, there’s a strong Indian influence. It doesn’t feel like little Switzerland or Germany. It feels like South America.

Which is what I came for. Which is why I’m going to Chiloe. Which is why, once again, I spent another day on a bus.

Let’s hope it’s worth it.

I Put It in My Mouth – A Periodic Feature on Food Told Mostly in Pictures

There’s not much going on in the laidback town of Castro. Getting in late on a bus and having to find accommodations on the fly didn’t help. Once it got dark there wasn’t much exploring to do.

That meant food! First up, an oddity: aloe vera yogurt. It’s actually pretty good. A touch sweeter than you might expect which is good because I can’t say the smell makes me hungry–my mom used to make us rub the goop that comes from the flesh of the plant on sunburns, rashes, or other skin unpleasantries. It’s not a mouthwatering association. The yogurt, however, is good enough to buy (and eat) again.

I learned the name of the waffle-like pastry when I asked the lady behind the counter its name, which I forgot the second I walked out the store. If you want to order it, do what I did: just look for it and point.

This unfortunately wasn’t a hit for me and not just because I had to deal with the Argentine-like use of dulce de leche. It was surprisingly flavorless and a little too flaky. I think it’s a matter of expectation. When I see a waffle shape I expect something a little fluffier. Perhaps you’ll have better luck when you have a go with it.

GALLERY: One superfluous bonus pic of the waffle thing.

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