Friday, November 22, 2013

16 Nov. 2013 The “Chinchillean” Wild Goose Chase

Today was the district Relief Society (women's organization)  activity in Illapel.  Another senior missionary is the district RS president, and she and her counselors have been planning this activity for some time.  

The Zone Leaders had pre-arranged with me to help them scope out a service project with them today after I dropped Carolyn and some other sisters off at the activity.  They asked for my help because "I had the mission 4X4 truck", and “because it was a rough road”. That was my first clue of something suspicious.  It was supposedly a mix-up-a-sack-of- concrete little job, for a poor young mother from the United States that was dumped here by her Chilean husband who went back to the states and abandoned her and her 3 girls in a house in bad condition on the edge of town, and would only take a few minutes to do.
An hour later, after several inquiries, we arrived at the “Gringa’s”  house 30 km from nowhere on the side of a  barren desert mountainside.  Gringa is what the Chileans here that know of her call her…. Gringa is feminine for gringo… "the white girl").  

We arrived with 6 missionaries, to “scope out” the job… Elder Saldívar and I were with the truck, the ZL (the four of us in white shirts, ties and some jackets) and then the District Leader and his companion climbed in too, and they were wearing grubbies.  Those were my next clues this was no normal service project.

We packed the 4 elders packed in the back of the crew cab and off we went. At least E. Saldívar and I had good seats and air conditioning.  

The gringa, it turns out, is a Jane Goodall (the chimpanzee lady) look-alike (in every way)  that has dedicated her life to the study and preservation of chinchillas, a little ground squirrel that has its own national park or reserve outside Illapel.  They have been hunted almost to extinction because of their softer than mink fur.  Her “house”, was a hut on the side of a barren, steep, slope opposite the Reserve.  Think the desert mountains of New Mexico or Arizona, that is what the terrain was like.  Then  drive 15 miles or so off the pavement up the roughest dirt road and steep hills you can imagine. That is where we were.  A perfect place to look across the canyon to the mountainside where a family of chinchillas lived. (They only come out at night though).  Yeah, right.

She has 3 girls that look like they were about 5-8 years old.  The “research site”, their home, is a hut with a dirt floor, no running water or electricity or bathroom hut about 15 km from the nearest paved road and 30 km from Illapel.  She wanted us, with only the 5 bags of cement she had collected, to pour a concrete slab in her hut up there on the side of the mountain. There were no tools or wheelbarrows or shovels to work with, not to mention no water or sand or gravel. And the hut is about 16 feet by 24 feet, very big by Chilean standards, and super big when you think about mixing and pour all that concrete by hand in those conditions.  

Every day big rats dig under the hut’s plywood walls and come inside looking for food. She is tired of living with the rats and dusty dirt floor.   I think I would also be tired of a lot more things than that, living up there.

Because of the manual labor involved to get sand and gravel up to the house, mix the concrete and haul it in bit by bit, with no electricity or running water way out in the middle of Timbuktu, I told her it would probably take 15 people all day to do it, and that the missionaries did not have that kind of time or resources… maybe a couple hours a week, but that it would take more time than that just coming and going.

She would not give up and said she could get some of the mining companies to donate a cement mixer and generator for the day, etc. etc. and she’d call us back when everything was ready. She talked nonstop about 100 miles an hour, like this was the last time she was going to be able to talk to a live human, and in English for the rest of her life.  

All she could talk about was her chinchilla studies, and all the things she had done to make this one little colony she was studying grow larger. All  I could think about was her poor girls, and how I could get out of there faster.  

The missionaries rode in the back of the truck on the way down out of the mountains.  I was glad for that even though I was in the front seat driving, if you can imagine why on a hot day.

Back in Illapel, Elder Saldívar warmed up some leftovers for lunch and in the middle of it the Relief Society Pres. From LV called saying she had arrived to the activity (late) and was somewhere on the highway at parcela 6 instead of paradero 9, and she didn't know where she was, and could I come and pick her up in the truck.  The inter city bus driver didn’t know where paradero 9 was, much less the village of Cuz Cuz, so he just let her out once he started seeing civilization.  So went to find her.  We found her a half hour later about 10 km from her destination, standing on the side of a lonely highway all by herself with her bag of food and stuff she was going to cook lunch with for the ladies.  We had already brought about 50 lbs of frozen fish her brother caught,  from her house  that morning, and had set it in a tub of water to thaw.

The ladies played games and ate… all day long from 9 in the morning til 6 in the evening (and that was ending an hour earlier than planned).  I’m glad I was only there for a few hours because I was bored out of my mind, but at least they seemed to be having fun.  Carolyn won the prize for the most seeds in her orange.  Another lady also won a prize for eating her orange the fastest. They must have played 2 dozen different games, had a spiritual talk, etc. etc. 

The game I liked the most (that I saw) was to see who could be the first to catch one of the dozen or so chickens walking around.  Sister Moreno, from Canela, the branch president’s wife who was raised on a farm and still did farm work, grabbed a chicken in less than 10 seconds.  No one else even got close to catching a chicken.  That chicken sure let out a yell and never stopped until she let it go a couple minutes later. That was funny. 

Also, it was interesting to see how them made empanadas.  The dough is basically a white flour tortilla recipe, not so much lard, no baking powder, kneaded to a really stiff dough that can be either rolled out or flattened with fingers.  Their “pino”, or filling, is basically onions, with a little of some other meat and seasoning.  They deep fried them, because they were cooking over a fire, but you can also bake them.  These particular empanadas were made from various mariscos or shellfish, added in to the onion mixture filling.

Before coming home, we switched the truck back to our car, which Elder Vergara had taken back to civilization 3 hours away in Vina del Mar to have the 70,000 KM maintenance done on it at the Toyota dealer.  We were happy to have our car back.   The truck is a little too big for the narrow passage ways and streets here, but the big tires and clearance is nice for the rough roads.  

 Chilean hillside
 Orange seed champion
 Making empinadas
 Fresh eggs from the "snatched" chicken
Snail on our garden table


  1. LOL! I liked the stories! :D And the pics! Those snails look disgusting!!!

  2. I love the pictures also and I agree with Melanie, not sure what I would do if I saw those snails anywhere near my table!!