Living the rancher life
23.12.2014 - 15.01.2015
I seem to have fallen behind a few months, but I'll do my best to catch up:
The series of buses that took me back over the Andes and all the way down into Chilean Patagonia had all gone very smoothly, excluding my accidental consumption of a plastic fork prong during one of the bus dinners. I even had the luxury of a full 180 degree reclining bed seat during one of the nights. I had never imagined a bus sleep could be so restful. My final bus ride had brought me into a rather small town called Puerto Varas, and suddenly I felt as though I was back in Coastal BC. Most buildings had a log-cabin feel, everything was very expensive (by South American standards), and the landscape was almost identical to home, consisting of heavily forested mountains that dropped straight into the massive Llanquihue lake. Now I just had to find the ranch where I had organized a volunteer position. Following the vague directions of the ranch owner, I took a local bus around the lake for about an hour and a half to the dock of a neighbouring lake. After asking around at the dock and no doubt looking very lost, I managed to find someone who was willing to give me a boat ride to the one and only entrance point of the ranch, across the lake. Another hour on the boat, and I arrived at Fundo Puntiagudo, my home for the next few weeks.
Fundo Puntiagudo is a family-run cattle ranch and bee apiary, spanning a full 55 hectares in the middle of a Chilean national park. It's nestled in a picturesque valley, isolated by a lake on one side, and a combination of volcanoes and expansive forest on the other three. Despite the stunning beauty of the area (I will try to do it justice with photos), the only thing I noticed once stepping onto the dock was the horseflies. With time, I became quite adept at snatching the horseflies out of the air, and would have competitions with the other volunteers to see who could catch the most. That, or we would just throw them at each other. One day, we were able to catch over 60 horseflies each, without taking a single step. I did get used to them though, and was soon able to enjoy the ranch for what it was, huge buzzing pests and all.
Slightly over half my time on the ranch was bee work. Considering I knew absolutely nothing about bee-keeping before arriving, and my spanish vocabulary was lacking in words such as "larval stage", "honeycomb frame", and "drone population", I think I caught on pretty well. A lot of the work involved first finding the queen bee, which could only be identified by being about 10% longer than the rest of the bees. Essentially, it was like a 3-dimensional, constantly moving 'Where's Waldo?'. To add to the distraction, every now and then a bee would find it's way through my boots and 2 layers of jumpsuit to give me a sting on the leg. Ernesto (one of the ranchers) decided to do a bit of work without his mask on, and took about 10 stings to the face in 20 seconds (once one bee stings you, the scent attracts many more). Despite my description, it was actually a lot of fun. Working with the honey itself was no less enjoyable, and I would end up with my hands COVERED in a mater of minutes. I felt like Winnie the Pooh. With an average harvest of 15, 000 kg of honey from 200-400 hives (and 2-3 harvests a year), I had never imagined being around so much honey. We hardly ate a single meal that didn't incorporate this delicious golden goodness.
The second largest portion of my work on the ranch dealt with the cows. With a valley that stays above freezing pretty much all year round (despite the snowy mountains surrounding it even in the summer), I would argue that Fundo Puntiagudo is one of the best places in the world to raise cattle. The cows are outside all year round, grazing on huge grassy meadows and drinking from glacier streams for 8 months of the year. The first two or so months of winter, they're released into the surrounding national park (to prevent them from destroying the now damp fields), where they roam the mountains and graze on whatever they can find. The rest of the winter is spent by the ranchers searching the forests to find and bring back the cows. Only once have they not found them all (only one went missing).
Since all of the cattle work was done on horseback, I was useless unless I quickly improved my horse-riding skills. But these horses weren't the calm, domesticated horses living in stables like I had seen back in North America. They were built like the Chilean ranchers (short, but incredibly strong), and had to be chased down and lassoed in an open field every time we wanted to ride one. My first experience with these horses involved watching Jorge (another rancher), getting bucked off his horse, which he has ridden every day for years. Needless to say, I was given "gordo" (the fat, old horse) for the first while. Still, cow herding was a blast from the get-go. We would move the cows and bulls, yelling and chasing, all around the property, through rivers and valleys, along beaches, and even onto a boat once. I can tell you from experience, farm animals really do not like to be on boats. Although not used for cow herding, my skill-set even expanded to the realm of tractor driving. I might even call my driving proficient, so long as the tractor is no less than fifty years old, that is.
The majority of my time on the ranch was spent living with a British and a French volunteer, Matt, and Pierre, respectively. We had a cabin to ourselves, with water sourced directly from the river, a wood-burning stove to cook the slowest meals of my life and a daily batch of bread, and rats in the attic too lull us to sleep with their scampering. Our electricity was also sourced by the river that ran through the farm, using a small turbine. This meant that the power generated would fluctuate with the river's activity. Some days, it would take an hour to boil a cup of water in the kettle, yet a few minutes later, our lightbulbs would start exploding. The system had some kinks, but it was useful. Between the use of a wood burning stove and making fires for some of the bee work (melting down old wax), it's no surprise that I got at least one big fiery blast to the face. Despite the serious shortening of my eyelashes, eyebrows, and front portion of my hair, it did give me an uneven, stenchy, but arguably necessary trim to my beard.
Most of our days working were spent with the two ranchers that I've mentioned, Ernesto and Jorge. In addition to being the most rustic, skillful, hard-working farmers that I could imagine (it took me 3 weeks to find out that Ernesto had a broken foot, all while doing the work of 3 men), the patience of these guys in teaching us volunteers was incredible. My lack of knowledge about cattle herding or bee keeping would have been hard enough for them to deal with, but the language barrier became a whole lot bigger at the farm. There's Spanish, then there's Chilean Spanish, then there's country-side Chilean Spanish, and THEN there's toothless old man from the Chilean countryside Spanish. I didn't stand a chance. Luckily only one of the ranchers was toothless, but it still felt like another language altogether, and took a decent amount of time to get a hang of the accents.
Being at the ranch in the summer had huge perks, beyond the obvious sunshine. Work breaks involved snacking on the plethora of cherries, raspberries, gooseberries, and whatever else we could get our hands on within the farmland (including wild basil). There were enough berries to provide bucketfuls every day, which gave us great jams, juice concentrates, and an almost everlasting supply of crumble. There were some cons to living in such a lush, remote area as well. On two occasions, we ended up getting very lost in the surrounding forest, one of which coincided with our discovery of Patagonian tarantulas and the widespread use of electric fencing.
I ended up spending both Christmas and New Years on the ranch, which were both as relaxed and low-key as I could have asked for. Jorge actually killed one of his lambs on Christmas eve (generously giving everyone a large portion for Christmas dinner), and was kind enough to show us the multi-day procedure of preparing the lamb skin into a useful pelt or rug. New year's eve was a comfortable evening of home-made pizza (not terribly Chilean, but delicious nonetheless) and pisco, and the following day was spent fishing on the lake. Work continued as normal for the next few weeks, except the arrival of Rodrigo (a new Mexican volunteer), and the departure of Pierre, and we all fell victim to getting lost in the amazing routine of life at the ranch. Suddenly, three and a half weeks had passed by, and I realized that I needed to move on if I were going to see any of the rest of Patagonia. So after some sad goodbyes and a boat ride back to civilization, I found myself back in Puerto Varas, struggling to reenter the travelling mindset.