At school, I was something of a nerd. Looking back, I can see how much of my self-esteem was based on my intelligence – on my ability to understand complex concepts and express them in a sophisticated way. Then, at university, I studied English Literature, subjecting myself to critical essays that would send even the most articulate scrambling for a dictionary.
All this is to say that when it comes to conversations, I’m not used to finding myself at a loss. Travelling through the Spanish-speaking world is certainly a refreshing challenge, but if you stick to the hostels and the tourist attractions you rarely need to push yourself out of your linguistic comfort zone. Camping in the desert with a group of Chilean hippies, however, is a different story.
I had come to the city of La Serena via overnight bus from the colourful port of Valparaíso, answering an intriguing invitation from one Felipe Andrés Valenzuela Levi. I had needed help to translate the message, which offered a position volunteering at a weekend gathering of ceremony and traditional medicine called Vive Piuke Mapu.
At the La Serena bus terminal, I was found by Paula, a wonderful woman in a floral-and-silk-banded cowboy hat. Despite barely speaking a word of English, she looked after me all weekend, and by the end, I was calling her tia. But before all that, she bundled me into the back of a waiting lorry with a few others to take the final leg of our journey in complete darkness.
After a bumpy two-hour ride, the doors finally opened, and we emerged squinting into a shrubby desert plain. Small, conical shells were scattered in the sand, vestiges of the ocean that had receded a few kilometres west who-knew-how-long ago. To the east, the foothills of the Andes were perennially shrouded in low cloud. Felipe was waiting for us and, with a warm hug, greeted me in stuttering English: “Welcome to my home.”
He had built a few ramshackle structures there with his father over the years. It was in one of these that the bulk of the weekend’s activities were to occur. Yoga, talks on biodiversity and ecosystems, workshops on ceramics and wool-spinning. All your hippy staples. Even a lecture on the sexuality of plants.
All this might have gone over my head in English. In Spanish, it seemed a lost cause. From the first afternoon, it was clear this was going to be a weekend language learning intensive. A short conversation in broken English once or twice a day was to be the only exception to an otherwise full schedule of focussed listening for the recognisable snatches that might give me a clue to what was being said. Nobody likes to look stupid, and when I got tired of asking people to repeat themselves I would lapse into restfully ignorant silence. And at times, I must confess, I would nod along, uttering si and claro, just to keep a conversation moving, even though things were definitely no claro.
In the absence of complex conversation, I fell into a routine of work. There was much that needed to be done around the site, chores and errands that required little verbal instructions to complete. Preparing meals, cleaning and washing up were all ways of interacting that built good-will despite the language gap.
And there was another language that was spoken there, as well. One that I understood instinctively: the language of ritual. From that first afternoon, in which we commenced the gathering by consecrating a sacred fire with a declaration of our intentions, the weekend was full of rituals. Ceremonies conducted from dawn til midnight to connect to the earth, honour the spirits of the ancestors, and pray for healing for ourselves and the world. The site was dotted with shrines decorated with shells, feathers, little artefacts and precious stones, offerings of fruit and water. To participate in such things, you did not need to know much. It was enough to hear words like amor and tierra. The rest could be understood through gesture, symbol, and the feelings of reverence and connection that were created.
At times, it was enough merely to see the looks on people’s faces. Like when Señora Maria, an indigenous Mapuche of Southern Chile, spoke of her life. When the floor was opened for responses, several of the listeners broke down in tears as they gave thanks for her story and received blessings in return.
These were not the only tears I witnessed. At a Men’s Circle held late at night, at a fire outside the gathering, the business of the Sacred Masculine was discussed. It was my first time at such a meeting, and even without understanding the specifics of each person’s story, I could still understand the significance of what we men were doing, something which at times moved the speakers profoundly as they examined their lives in intimate ways.
And that is to say nothing of the Temazcals – the sacred steam lodges – which I participated in. These I shall save for a more in-depth report in another post.
At all of these ceremonies the message was the same and could be comprehended with even the most basic of language capacity: respect the ancestors, honour their traditions, safeguard and defend the earth, channel the power of love to heal yourself and a broken world. In some ways, I think, more words would have only obscured things. Things which are meant to be felt, not analysed into abstraction. For what does a definition of love compare to an embrace?
It was a lesson I learned time and time again, as countless hugs and kisses were shared. Love, community, family. These things arose without being announced, but were spoken instead through smiling eyes and laughter. So much laughter. It was enough to sit around the campfire at night and let it wash over me, understanding nothing of the Chileans’ rapid-fire joking – save the moments when they all paused and grinned at me, and I knew the joke was directed at the hapless Australian sitting quietly and smiling into the fire. Understanding nothing, yet missing nothing either, for all was contained in their beaming faces.
Finally, of course, you don’t need to understand the words to sing along to a song. Or to hum, or to play an instrument or clap or dance. Music runs straight into the depths of us without the need for explanation. Probably why hippies love to sing so much. Its universal power can bring anyone together into one family, and, having sung my way through a beautiful weekend, I found just that in Chile.
What’s that? No, it’s not a tear. Just the smoke from the fire in my eyes, I swear.