Letters From Latin America: Elqui Valley, Chile

3 July 2019
Wednesday
3:35pm

¡Buen Díaaaaa!

Judging by how my days in the wine region of Elqui Valley in Chile started, I would never have guessed it would be ending on such a good note. On the first few days, oh boy was my patience supremely tested. My only solace was this other girl, Louna, with whom I could exchange looks and roll eyes whenever these two particular men got on our nerves. You’ll always meet all sorts on your travels. I laughed with relief when she said to me, “You know, this trip is really triggering all my social peeves.” Because then I knew, it wasn’t just me who found a growing amount of people not the easiest to deal with.

There were mornings at the beginning where I’d wake up, peek out of my tent, head to the kitchen, prepare my bowl of oats for breakfast, then rush back into my tent to eat in peace before I get spotted by this talkative man relentlessly seeking an audience. He only had good intentions I know, but he also simply yakked on way too much, not caring if you’re interested in his interests or not.

Soaking up the sun

Once the guests arrived it got better, as there were now more ears to spread the attention out to, rather than to just me or Louna zoning out on him with dead eyes. Thank God for the unspoken female connection though. When she sees me reaching my limit with him, she’d ask a question to divert his attention to her. I’d do the same by ‘taking over’ when she can’t take anymore.

He became quite infamous in his own right because everyone got to know him as the overenthusiastic Australian astronomer dude. It was extra funny because the non-native English speakers couldn’t understand his accent, while the native English speakers never got his jokes. He always, always, always had to explain them. Not to anyone’s surprise, they were mostly riddles he made up himself. This man has been a teacher for the past 30 years. I can only imagine him reusing the same jokes on his students every single year and still wondering why it’s not catching on.

The bigger pain, or more stressful presence, was actually our host. I didn’t notice his quirks until the guests started pouring in.

First, let me say that I feel extremely fortunate to be here. As previously mentioned, I was on the hunt for the best place to catch the solar eclipse on July 2nd, 2019. After consulting Google, I browsed through Workaway and landed a spot as a volunteer to help organise an eclipse excursion. Thank my lucky stars, I was the first to send my host a message, and he declined over 10 other requests since. For that, I am forever grateful.

Those I spent most of my time with

However, it was the way he spoke to us, and even to the guests, which made everything else about him unbearable. When he wants you to do something, he whistles and snaps his fingers to call your attention. Nope. Rude. Just last night, he came out yelling at 4am, demanding we turn the volume down. I get that it’s late, but we’re in the middle of the desert and 90 per cent of his guests were gathered around the fire celebrating the eclipse. Rude.

Customer service 101: Don’t behave like an angry, grumpy dad towards your guests.

One night, when everyone watching a football match, he got upset with a referee’s decision, so he turned off the TV claiming the referee was corrupted so there was no point watching. Rude. A guest took the remote and turned it back on.


Follow Petrina’s journey through Latin America from where it first started:
Letters From Latin America: Valizas, Uruguay

On the other hand, he never wants to be the bad guy in one-on-one confrontations. So he will come to me, ask me to tell Louna to be happier in the mornings because we need “good positive vibes.” He will ask Louna to tell Roberto (another volunteer) that he needs to buck up. Then tell Roberto to tell me I shouldn’t stay up so late the night before the eclipse because I will need to prepare my mind for a spiritual experience. Uh, what? Or ask him to ask me if I gave the guests too many blankets even though I was sitting right there in front of both of them. It was ridiculous. None of his comments about our attitudes made any sense to us because the guests are our priority and I can easily say they loved us. And he was the only one killing the “good positive vibes.”

With Carina and Louna

Understandably, one of the days’ tasks was to deep clean the cabins and the entire campsite. What wasn’t so understandable is that this hasn’t been done since the place opened one and a half years ago. When Louna and I got to it, the amount of grime to scrub off every nook and cranny was seemingly endless. A swamp of gunk had formed and fastened itself to the bottom of the toaster oven. For one of the bathrooms, the sinkhole was just a hole. I looked into what looked like a filter of sorts, maybe to block stuff from falling in? I was wrong. I dipped my hand in and it was a thick layer of hair. It was enough for a baby’s wig. The deeper I dug, more and more fistfuls of hair made their appearance. It’s no wonder he said his lowest score on TripAdvisor goes to cleanliness. It was super satisfying once we were done though.

Another thing that Louna and I bonded over is an appreciation for proper food. I know this is a sweeping statement, but the people here don’t eat vegetables, and the only condiment they seem to use is salt and have mayonnaise on the side. Even with rice. When it comes to preparing barbecued meat, it’s their forte, they got it down. Other forms of food, not so much.


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It’s not that I needed a feast, but when we asked our host to buy vegetables, he replied, “We have potatoes.” While that is technically true, no sir, please get us something green. So he bought cucumbers because, in his own words, those are cheap. There was no more garlic and we had to ration our onions, as those were items he didn’t much care for. Although he provided the (limited) groceries, we had to cook for him because he doesn’t know how to.

This has been the only Workaway place where the host requires the volunteer to cook for him. Unless already stated on his profile, this wasn’t part of the job. The other dude, Roberto, can cook a decent meal, if only he lessened the amount of salt. Whenever I took a nap after his meals, I’d wake up completely parched. For this reason, Louna and I would volunteer to prepare the meals. She’s from France, so she clearly also has a more sophisticated palate.

Mad happy for the desert heat

One time, and I will cherish this time, we were both hiding in the outdoor kitchen area, verbally releasing steam over our ever-increasing list of irritancy. The night before, the overenthusiastic Australian astronomer made a joke to some other people about Louna being his girlfriend. There can only be two outcomes from this statement. One, you make a gagging, puking sound. Two, what we immediately did, which was bursting into a squeal and simultaneously go, “So disgustiiing!” with our limbs rapidly flapping about. It was a silly little moment, but I loved it because of how typically girly it was and how I haven’t had that in a while.

My initial plan was to stay on for a few more weeks after the eclipse because this location truly is majestic. However, Louna’s plan was to leave on the 4th of July and I wondered how I’d survive my host without her.

Elqui Valley is known to be one of the best places on earth to gaze at the stars and this reputation did not disappoint at all. Every single night took our breaths away. But on par, or possibly better than the stars, were the guests. I’d been wondering when I would finally meet people I can connect with easily, and right here, around the fire, was where I got my answer. My antisocial shell has been lifted, staying up the latest every night, dancing away, or being deep in conversation. This body has also been surviving on three to four hours of sleep every night and still feeling completely fine, which is a miracle. It’s like I’m in my early twenties again. Crawling out of my tent in the mornings and greeting these lovely faces with hugs have been a real joy. As one guy, Ryan, said, “It’s been such a pleasure falling asleep and waking to the sounds of laughter.” I completely agree.

All of the above happened because we were all gathered for this one phenomenon. With yesterday being the day. Group by group, our 30 odd guests, plus guests from a neighbouring hostel were transported to the chosen location somewhere on a hill to ensure our view isn’t blocked by surrounding mountains. Some chose to walk rather than get in our host’s van because they said he stresses them out.


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Geared up with protective sunnies

All along the way, there were hordes of people seeking to find their own spots. It started properly sinking in then. Wow, this is a huge deal. People from all over the world flew to this part of the world; including (if I’m not mistaken) Bill Clinton, Richard Branson, and Queen’s guitarist, Brian May.

Once the entire jingbang was eventually gathered, the Australian astronomer gave a talk on what to expect during the eclipse. By this point, we actually found him okay and rather amusing because when compared to our host, at least this guy was nice and never rude.

After the talk, another man got up and introduced himself as a Reiki master. He wanted everyone to form a circle holding hands while he guides them through a 30-minute meditation. Now, there’s been a lot of talk about magic and spirituality in this region, but if I’m not feeling it, I’m not feeling it. I wasn’t up for unnecessary physical contact with a stranger. A few of us walked off, our friends joined later, and we separated from the group to be on our own. Our mini troop consisted of myself, Louna, Mauricio, Rodrigo, Ryan, and Jarrott.

We made our way to higher ground and found a rocky area to sit on. I’d never seen a solar eclipse before so I didn’t know what to expect. Louna was cracking me up because she was so worried about accidentally looking at the sun and going blind. We all had our eclipse glasses on, of course. I took peeks at the sun with my bare eyes and didn’t go blind, so there’s that myth busted. It’s the same discomfort as looking into the sun on any other day. And you can’t see the eclipse happening with the naked eye anyway. The sun is just too bright. While the moon was creeping over the sun, it was more of a, “Oh, okay, cool.” We were all still chit-chatting. Had a laughing moment when I offered everyone a mint and noticed it was Eclipse Mints.

Total eclipse

Birds and dogs were going manic for a moment, making a tonne of noise before going quiet. Then, the diamond ring effect took place, marking the beginning of the total eclipse and the moment to remove our glasses. The second we took it off, everyone burst into an eruption of exclamations. I couldn’t stop laughing for some reason. I was in disbelief. It didn’t look real. More like something out of a sci-fi scene. Then all of a sudden, all that noise turned into silence. Just taking it in, trying to comprehend what we were seeing.

The sun was now black, with a ring of light around it. Day became night in an instant. Even the stars came out to play. There were supposedly weird shadow waves on the ground, but I was too fixated on the skies to notice the land. Only too soon, a quick two minutes later, the moon moved out of the way, and the best part of the eclipse was over. We hugged and high-fived in celebration of having made it here. It was a special moment and we got to experience it with each other. I got to be with people I genuinely liked. What else could I ask for?


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And now it’s today. The day after the eclipse when I’ve decided and informed my host I won’t be staying on. My host asked if it was because of his music complaint last night and tried to explain he wasn’t angry at me but at Roberto because he should have known better. Whatever, dude. Stop trying to shift the blame. I’m more than grateful for my time here but I’ve been working every single day for the past 11 days from 9am until when I go to sleep, and I’m done. Roberto has been here for four months and I have no idea how or why he puts up with being talked to like that. I’ll be leaving tomorrow instead with four of the guys as they’ve invited me to join their road trip back to Santiago.

Gathered around the fire

Okay, I just read that all that again and realised what a brat I sound like complaining about less than two weeks of work. Sorry. But the typical Workaway rule is five hours a day, five days a week. So we definitely did more than was required.

After making good use of Workaway, I’ve come to notice one issue it has, and I’m guilty of it too. Volunteers tend to not be completely honest in their reviews. Or if they have something bad to say, they would rather not leave a review at all. I met a girl who told me she left a straight-forward but diplomatic review of how her host wasn’t always behaving appropriately. The website blocked it from being public with the host’s knowledge that it was not positive. He left her a bad review in return and that was allowed. I was also told that if you get two negative reviews as a volunteer, you get banned. If that’s the case, then obviously volunteers won’t risk it. I probably won’t be leaving one either because while I had a fantastic time, my enjoyment was completely irrelevant to my host. I checked his page again and true enough, there are very few reviews even though he has hosted many. So it’s not exactly possible to give a heads up to future volunteers of what to expect. Oh well. No platform is perfect.

Exchanging photos with Louna

Alrighty, I’m going to help someone take down their tent now. Most of the guests are checking out today. With all the ranting I did, I just realised I forgot to mention how happy I am to be able to wear my sarong and sleeveless tops again in this heat. Even my appetite has gotten better. As in, I’m not constantly hungry and stuffing myself as a way to deal with the cold. It’s all been good here. And tomorrow, ROAD TRIP!

!Te quiero, ciao!

Con amor,
Petrina

PS: Woo-woo stuff about Elqui Valley

1. Besides being an astronomical wonder, this valley is also known for UFO sightings. During my short stay here, I met three (not kooky) people who claimed they saw them.

2. Said to be an energy centre for positive vibrations with the strongest magnetic forces on Earth. I don’t exactly know what that entails, but yeah. No bad jujus, I guess.

3. Naturally, Elqui Valley has become a magnet for Reiki healers, crystal seekers, tarot card readers, and many other new age believers.

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Occasionally referred to as a hobo, Petrina happily sleeps on cardboard boxes at petrol stations, digs through bins for food, and can go without showering for days, when necessary. She has terrible sense of direction but believes that getting lost can be pretty fun too.

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