Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I ran away to Chile and got a temp job at an Ecolodge

After I said goodbye to my family when they went home after Christmas, I had a month and a half to kill before I needed to be back in Ushuaia for…something really awesome (more about that in a future episode). What to do? As nice a home base as Bariloche had been, I was anxious to move on, and besides, there were no affordable beds left anywhere in the city beyond the few days I had booked back at the Green House Hostel. So where to go? The two remaining things on my South America bucket list were 1. Go to the Atacama Desert, see the endoliths and 2. Work for a while at some sort of sustainable/natural farm or tourist outfit.

Spotted on my bus ride out of Bariloche. WHAT IS THAT?? Borg cube crashed into an otherwise nice-looking volcano? Cerro Pantoja at the Argentinian/Chilean border.


#1 – The Atacama – was to satisfy Science Carie, the Atacama (driest hot desert on Earth—some weather stations have never recorded rain—ever!) has been the top of her World bucket list (and #3 on the Universe bucket list after Mars and the moon) ever since I read about the photosynthetic microorganisms that live inside rocks there—some seriously badass bugs.

#2 – Spend time working at a Green Nature Organic Hippie Rainbow Farm Lodge – was to satisfy Treehugger Carie who had dreamed of building an Eco Camp somewhere lovely and mountainous and running a sort of sustainable building and alternative energy demonstration center and laboratory / natural science and green engineering camp for kids. More on that in the post that follows this.

Stuff like this was pulling me back to Chile
Being indecisive by nature, I sent out emails to people involved in Atacama research asking when they were going and if there was any chance of me tagging along. At the same time, I researched Green Nature Organic Hippie Rainbow Farm Lodges in Chile and Argentina advertising a need for help, bookmarked a few that looked interesting (i.e., in a pretty location with people who worked at something more interesting than smoking pot all day and who would feed me), and sent out a few emails, including one to one particular Ecocamp in a spot in Chile I had wanted to visit at some point anyway.

I didn’t hear from anyone for a few days, so I tried to book a hostel room in nearby, but less citified, El Bolson. Still no beds available. Fine, screw you Argentina, so I found a place on the other side of the border in Puerto Varas.

Church in Puerto Varas


And then I got sick. Deathly, wheezy, coughing in a scary rattly way, fever and chills, shit-I-think-I’m-dying-of-pneumonia sick. It had started with a phlegmy cough on New Year’s Eve and wasn’t helped by hiking up a mountain for hours through the rain and freezing cold, then partying until the wee hours of morning, then hiking for hours through the rain and freezing cold back down a mountain. I woke up in the hostel on January 2nd unable to talk and with a horrible-sounding cough, quickly developed a fever, and it was all downhill from there. But that didn’t change the no-beds-in-Argentina situation so I loaded my deathy, wheezy, coughing in a scary rattly way, fever and chills, shit-I-think-I’m-dying-of-pneumonia self onto a bus and wheezed and coughed (trying to be as good as possible about coughing into tissues and wiping my hands down with sanitizer ever few minutes to protect my innocent fellow passengers) my way into Chile. It was another 6 hour trip, which would once have seemed long, but after my 36-hour bus ride to Ushuaia seemed short and I entertained myself by, wheezing and coughing, staring out the window at the stunning views of volcanoes, and wheezing and coughing some more.

Mountains from the bus. That beige triangle is a giant mound of ash on the side of the road from a recent volcanic eruption.
More ash.


I probably should have flagged down a taxi, but being now thoroughly used to being a cheap-ass backpacker the thought never crossed my mind after I arrived in Puerto Varas and then had a few miles to hike with all of my stuff to my hostel. Lots of wheezing, coughing, breath-catching stops, and I arrived dripping sweat and completely exhausted. The upside was that I looked so miserable (and potentially dangerous to others) that a single room was found for me in the hostel attic. It was the cutest room ever, and I quickly set to work napping.

Inside the Cutest Room Ever at the Hostel Margouya in Puerto Varas
Cutest Room Ever would not have been complete without a wood etching of Che Guevara


It was another miserable, feverish night, but I was waiting for a response from my travel insurance company about coverage before I checked myself into the hospital (which would have meant the emergency room, it being a Sunday, and I’m always reluctant to call anything short of profuse blood gushing an emergency), and never got that response so never went and checked myself in. Instead I laid in bed and watched movies that my friends had generously sent to me when I went begging for brainless entertainment on Facebook (I don’t know about you, but when I’m sick I feel like my skull is full of mucus, and my brain stops working) and ate from-scratch chicken soup I made from some chicken parts and veggies I bought at a market a block from the hostel.

That did the trick, and after a few days of that (including another hostel move when I got booted out of the original one), I was feeling better enough to move on.

Bacon Avocado? 
Inside my second quarantine room at another hostel in Puerto Varas


And right about then, I got a response from Amory, the female half of the team at the Chilean Ecocamp I had hoped to work at saying that I could come and see the place and talk about what I might be able to do there. And two days later, I was back on a bus, this time to the legendary Island of Chiloé.

It was a miserable bus ride, and I was two kinds of sick, still plugged up from my dying-of-pneumonia-turned-bad-cold, and also brutally hungover. Yeah, I’m an idiot. It started when I decided to celebrate my last night in Puerto Varas and my feeling significantly better by, rather than eating chicken soup for the 5th night in a row (my kidneys were starting to complain about the sodium strain), going out to the restaurant next door and treating myself to some of the area’s legendary seafood. On my way out, one of the other hostel dwellers told me that I could get $1000 peso beer or wine there with a special hostel card, and although I was at first hesitant to drink anything while still somewhat under the weather, I figured a beer would be good. So I sat down, at the bar because there was no table room (my first mistake), ordered my beer and a ceviche, and started chatting up the locals around me.

Puerto Varas has a large lake and a huge volcano. Making it officially awesome.


There were some great stories and conversations and when one guy insisted that he buy me a wine I didn’t refuse and then another insisted that I try the bar’s pisco sour because they are reallyreallygood, and then the bartender got involved and started having me try things, and…next thing I knew I was god-knows-how-many wines and piscos and whiskeys and and and down and in another bar scrawling my name in magic marker on the arm of a stupidly cute guy from Texas while being gently pushed out by the bar owner because it was 3:30 am and he wanted to go home.

I’m starting to develop a habit of going out for an innocent beer only to stay up all night drinking with gregarious locals. I also only seem to do this when already sick (although, admittedly, my sample size is n=2 at this point). The gregarious locals part is a blast, but the drinking while sick part needs to stop.


My downfall: I took this sign too seriously.

Despite my questionable mental state, I made it back to the hostel without incident (which was conveniently right across the street from the bar, so literally within rolling distance), but was in pretty bad shape the next morning. And I showed up at my stunningly beautiful, peaceful, healthy site of potential temporarily employment—on one of the three buses per week that head out the long dirt road to Chepu from the town of Ancud on Chiloé Island—exhausted, grumpy, still somewhat inebriated, head throbbing, stomach uneasy, having horrible menstrual cramps, wheezy, sniffly, disheveled, and reeking of alcohol. Classy.

And when Fernando, the male half of the Ecolodge team, came out to meet me as I walked down his driveway and said, “Sorry, you can’t stay here, we have no water,” I momentarily considered puking  right there to express how I felt about that news. I didn’t, instead managing to get out a semi-coherent explanation out about how his wife had said I could come, etc. Given the shape I was in, I’m surprised he didn’t throw me out. But he let me stay—for two nights until I could catch the next bus back from whence I came.


Home sweet home in the Ecolodge Dormi
Laundryline in the Dormi


So I checked into the little “dormi” (essentially a non-mountain refugio room) which consisted of a bare room with two sets of bunk beds with naked mattresses), pulled out my sleeping bag, crawled inside it, and slept for a few hours. I woke up feeling significantly, if not quite 100%, better. Then, after dinner with two lovely couples from England and Germany, I went back to sleep. In the morning I was still sick with a cold and still suffering from cramps, but otherwise better. I went for a walk to the dunes at the beach a few miles away, enjoying the quiet, pastoral landscape, the river views, and the birds, and when I came back decided to talk to the owners again about working with them for a while. It was a nice, quiet place, and I needed a nice, quiet place to relax and finally get some writing work done.

View of Chepu Adventures ecolodge from the Río Punta


And guess what? They let me stay!

Two weeks later, I’ve done a little bit of everything:

  • Woken up at 4am to prepare the lodge and get guests suited up and sent off on kayaks for the Ecolodge’s Kayak at Dawn activity, then pulled them back out when they were done
  • Manned the safety radio from 4:45 – 8:30 am
  • Made breakfasts
  • Washed dishes
  • Cleaned bathrooms
  • Ripped the floor out of a rotting bathroom, re-framed it, and rebuilt it
  • Redid their website
  • Made dinner
  • Stripped beds
  • Entertained guests from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Norway, England, Canada, and the U.S.
  • Folded laundry
  • Done translations
  • Given kayak safety orientations
  • Served coffee

Guests enjoying the sunrise during Kayak at Dawn
Arranging fruit plates for guests' breakfast
Re-building a rotten bathroom floor. Step 1: Rip up cracked tiles. Step 2: rip up moldy, rotten pressboard floor; Step 3: build a new frame to support a stronger floor. Step 3: install new frame. Step 4: put down new floor on top and secure to new frame. Step 5: clean. Step 6: prettify (in progress).


Current and upcoming projects include

  • Making a promotional video featuring their sustainability efforts
  • Programming their beer fridge to keep track of guests’ beverage consumption
  • Installing solar panels on the lodge roof

I’ve also had a lot of fun and some pretty incredible experiences

  • Watching the sun rise over the Río Punta and the Sunken Forest
  • Saw a pudu (world’s smallest deer) drinking from the river while kayaking
  • Watched a Kingfisher fish while out on a run
  • Swam with a river otter, the huilin (an endangered species), when it came up to me while I was swimming and chatted with me for 10 minutes
Sunrise over the Río Punta
Kayaks at Chepu Adventures
Bird! Diana? Helpwhatisit!
Sand dunes at the Chepu beach


It’s been great, a lot of fun, interesting, and peaceful. It’s lovely here.

So glad it worked out.