Blogging, memory, music, South America, Sudamerica

The power of a song ~ ~ ~ Musical journeys in my mind

Every day, I’d look at the volcán Villarica. At night, there was a glow in the sky above it, from its lava lake.

 

A little over a year ago, I was living in Chile, teaching English to school kids.

I think about my time there quite often, but whenever I try to write down my impressions of that country, I find it very difficult.

 

I arrived, and dove right into it, caught up in a fast-paced orientation program, then moving to a small town in the foothills of the Andes, during the wintertime. I got off the bus, found my host family and moved into their hostel.

Next day, started teaching, often bewildered by the constant shifts in language. Textbook Spanish, to “schileno,” to some indigenous Mupache words, to “huaso” (a “cowboy” dialect used by the rancher kids), to “flaite” (ghetto slang).  My Spanish was so-so, and elements of “Spanglish” had crept in, from my City Year in a Milwaukee school.   Chile’s “English Opens Doors” program is taught entirely in English, in theory, but I was the only native English-speaker in the school, and needed to communicate with the staff, as well as the kids.

I was using every bit of spare time to think about creating lessons, to travel, find a hot shower, visit friends. I never took time to consider or reflect about my experience in Chile, until I was no longer there.

Now, I can look back, peering at that place and time in my mind’s eye, but that doesn’t necessarily equate to being able to describe it in a meaningful way.

Take Santiago, for example.

A fascinating place, but I don’t think I can really describe that city, apart from a series of brief memories. A walk up the Cerro Lucia hill, or the eerie silence of the city from atop the Torre de Americas, the tallest building in Latin America.

photos of the hillsides by Paul Quealy

 

But these memories already feel distant, like I’m watching a movie. Snippets of memories from Chile are vivid, but mostly they seem like a well-edited video.

 

 

I didn’t take many pictures, and most of those were taken with a cheap cellphone, and are clearly low resolution.  But I can close my eyes, and recall countless images, in clear high definition.

I can recall an emotional link (as you may get during a good movie), but as I replay these experiences in my mind, I cannot bring them back to life.

 

 

In an instant, I can conjure up a stream of images, that blend and flow seamlessly into each other, but they feel like a picture gallery, beyond reality.

 

 

That is, anyway, until I listen to music.

People often talk about scents, the aromas and smells that evoke memories. But for me, music is the strongest link to memory. Places, people, and even emotions come alive again when I’m listening, and it’s the sounds that are extremely evocative.

You usually don’t get to call the tune. For me, Chile is a song I would never have heard, had it not been for my fellow teacher, and good friend Paul, from Dublin.

Assigned as roommates in Santiago during training, by chance, we ended up posted to the same region of Chile, in towns on either side of Lake Villarica.

He was teaching the kids his kind of English, with a strong Irish accent, and would talk about his family in Dublin. And he introduced me to the music of an Irish singer I’d heard of, but never actually listened to, James Vincent McMorrow.

And like soda bread, or mutton stew, McMorrow is very much an acquired taste.

Not my usual rock & roll, or Motown soul.  I heard a high, light voice, like someone quietly singing to themselves.  Usually described by music critics as “delicate,” or even “whispy.”   It was good to hear someone singing in English, but McMorrow was really not my cup of tea.  At first, if I had to pick a single word for this terse, falsetto style, it might be “strange”.

And yet, the first song I heard, “Get Low,” immediately stuck in my head, and became the song of Chile for me.

I’d like to relate, that my theme song for Chile was a hauntingly beautiful folk tune, in 3/4-time, for the traditional cueca, the national dance.  But instead, every time I did anything by myself – riding the bus to Villaricca or Temuco, walking along the beach, on my way to school, when I got out bed – it was this almost airy Irish tune that played in my head.

And when I didn’t hear Get Low in my mind, this persistent, odd song, I’d put on headphones, and listen to it.

Chileans are a welcoming bunch.  Sincere, kind, and generous.  The teachers I worked with, the kids, and people I met day-to-day, were all honest and straightforward folks who love life.

But I was just desperate to hear English. It was exhausting to think and operate entirely in another language, especially when complicated by an unfamiliar accent, dialects and two distinct sets of slang, and there were times I felt like I was unable to think, unless I would be listening to music in English. So I would listen to any tune, any sort of dreck, so long as it was sung in English. Some of it, really terrible.

But, every day, I also listened to Get Low.

 

Now, over a year since I left Chile (almost to the day), when I hear that song, Chile is brought back to me in vibrant Technicolor! And with it, the memories of my friends, students, fellow teachers, glimpses of the landscapes from a bus window, the walks around town, all tinted with a happy glow. It all comes flooding back to me. I listen, and, during the span of that three-and-a-half minutes, I am revisiting Villaricca.

 

 

I can picture walking along the Costenera, see the volcano in the distance across the lake, the children running along the cold water on the black sand beach. I can picture coming up on the big terminal of the Jac Bus station, built from large wooden beams, which signaled that I had arrived back in town. I can picture the walk to Paul’s house, up the hill apart from all the other houses, back along the windy back roads.

 

My village, Pucón, sitting next to an active volcano, often felt creepy, despite being a “eco-tourist hub” with its trendy bars, tour stands, even a nightclub, its legions of bikers and hikers, getting gear on, getting a buzz on, loading up the trucks and buses for their guided outdoor “adventures.”  The teachers and kids were wonderful, but their town, during the winter months, is a dark, rainy place, saturated in smog from the countless wood stoves.  Some days you could taste the air, a pea soup of green wood smoke and carbon monoxide, with a soupçon of formaldehyde and ashes.

Across the lake, Villarica felt like a balanced, happier place, furthering my theory that Pucón’s volcano exerted some sort of magnetic pulse that negatively influenced my mood and emotions. There was a constant disorienting feeling of the surreal in Pucón, a sense of unreality.

 

Villaricca felt normal and safe, apart from the scattered remnants of the old city, most of which was burned during a Mapuche reprisal attack in the 1570s. A local told me the history of the region, and his in-depth recitation of its wars and slaughter also left me with a feeling of unease. The Mapuches, never subdued by the Incas or conquistadors, are resistant to colonization to this day;  some of the church-burnings prior to the Pope’s recent visit were blamed on extremist Mapuche factions.

But back to the music.

As the song plays, Chile suddenly becomes real to me.

I can picture going out for a beer and fried potatoes with onions and cheese (sounds bad but tastes good) with Paul and our local friend, Valentina. I can picture walking on the old concrete of a former dock, trying to dodge the waves off the lake as the wind picked up. I see the church, which meant I was lost, as I only ever saw it when I wandered in the wrong direction. The clothing stores, surprisingly nice and high-end. Fruit stalls that struck me as honest and authentic, with their colorful concrete walls, stacks of oranges, apples, and other fruits. I went there for cheap fruit frequently, at least until I was informed by Paul that the stacks of boxes harbored a considerable colony of rats. I never saw evidence of them, but figured that he was better informed.

 

While the music plays, I feel and recall everything .

We had a party in Villaricca, well, really more of a low-key get together, some of the English tutors and some locals. I can smell the gas of the heaters, feel the chilly biting cold wind, and hear the endless baying of the black-faced ibises on the rooftops around us.

 

Some of the English Opens Door teachers.

But, the song does more for me. Perhaps as my discrete, detailed memories fade and meld into one single dream-like experience, I listen now and see more.

I can see, all at once, the entire journey from Santiago to Valparaíso and everything in between, six months of memories and experiences, compressed into a few minutes.

 

 

I listen and recall our side trip to Argentina, riding bikes into the mountains, the lakes azure blue in the dry heat and the resinous smell of the pines and monkey puzzle trees. I clearly see Valparaíso, perhaps the highlight of my time in Chile. A place that felt magical, and was one of the more amazing cities I have been – very much a place in the here-and-now, and also a place off in a kind of time warp.

 

Now, when I hear Get Low, while I see mostly Pucón and Villariccca, a third town Temuco floats into the recollection, a place where I spent a fair bit of time. A little regional capital, with limited things to do and see, but a place where I was happy.

It’s not that the song is great. The song isn’t great, in fact I find McMorrow’s voice a bit weak and whispery, and the tune has become annoying, or at least, it is, when it’s playing endlessly in my head.

But as a tool, as a means of recalling and reliving highlights of the past, it is phenomenal.

 

The view from Volcán Villarica (in Mapuche, Rucapillán) 2,860 m.

 

You can take a chairlift most of the way up the Villarica volcano, and then hike up the snow-covered bit. Coming back down is faster, and fun – you can slide on your back, using the ice ax as a brake.

 

I have other songs. I recall Hong Kong with “We Were Kids” by Turtle Giant. I can listen to tunes to remind myself of college, or to recreate various trips. One piece of electronica instantly takes me to my college library, third floor, right side, fifth window from the bathrooms, overlooking the quad, with my countless books about the Iroquois stacked all around me.

The furthest back I can go with this trick, is six years ago, a trip through the Southwest, and specifically to Colorado, with The Killer’s “Jenny Was a Friend of Mine,” and a song called “Roya Re” sung by a Punjabi whose name escapes me. Both tunes provided by my Venezuelan friend Luis, with traveled with two things: a big collection of tunes on an iPod, and even bigger knife, and who took the time to introduce me to some new music.

I am now in Boston, and I am still waiting for the song that will define this city for me, but that will come in due time. I don’t even have to listen for it, it will just start playing one day.

 

 

P.S.  If anyone is interested in the “English Opens Doors,” here is the link centrodevoluntarios.cl/

It’s a wonderful program – the concept, the staff, and the volunteers –  run by Chile’s Ministry of Education and the U.N., and here’s a bit from their website:

The National Volunteer Center is a branch of the English Opens Doors Program and is supported by the United Nations Development Programme-Chile. The National Volunteer Center recruits native and near-native English speakers to work as teaching assistants in Chilean classrooms, specifically to improve students’ listening and speaking skills. Volunteers also assist with other initiatives of the English Opens Doors Program, such as debates and English Camps.
Volunteers teach and encourage the study of English while living with Chilean host families and interacting with members of the local community.

McMorrow “Get Low”

[www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ryi20DglVJM]

And War with “Low Rider

[www.youtube.com/watch?v=6A0U7jakUY8]

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Chile, Halloween, Pucón, Uncategorized

Night Noises of Pucón. An Early Halloween Post.

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Once upon a midnight dreary… came a tapping…rapping at my chamber door… A ghastly grim and ancient Ibis wandering from the Nightly shore… Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

I grew up in a sleepy rural part of New York State, that most people have never heard of.   It is pretty quiet.

A dirt track, on the edge of town, where go-karts used to generate a droning sound, audible all over the village on Saturday nights, went bust, years ago.  There’s only a subdued hum from the highway going through town;  the semis stick to the Thruway, five or six miles north of here.  The faint gunshots, from hunters, or the farm boys target-shooting with their knockoff AK-47’s, in the old quarry across the canal, end by sunset.   Occasionally, you can hear cheering and honking during high school football games, or snowmobiles whining around the fields during the winter.  But most nights, the only sounds are crickets, frogs, and cicadas.

Once in a while, you’ll hear a whippoorwill or mockingbird, or an owl quietly hooting, but we don’t have nightingales.  From a pine tree at one of my grandmother’s houses, you’d sometimes be bothered by a pair of Mourning Doves, no one’s favorite.

Then I went to College, where the dorms blared music, and spent a semester in Hong Kong — bustling with all-night markets and traffic, throngs of people 24/7, clanking air conditioners — endless light and sound.   A semester at an English university brought recitals of Disney tunes at 3am, by drunken rugby players in the back alley, complete with a percussion section, as they tripped over the dustbins.

chile-volcano2Currently I’m living in a small city, more like a large village really, in the Lake District of central Chile.

And in winter, the natural sounds of Pucón are louder than any place I’ve ever been in before.

I stay in a hostel, built around and above my host family’s house.  La familia is nice — a large, extended family with many children, aunts, uncles and others coming in and out, but during the winter, I often have the hostel to myself, and my hosts are pretty quiet really.  Even the youngest, who careens around all day, nonstop, crashing into things and laughing maniacally, settles down by nine.

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But here, in a stunningly beautiful place, next to a sparkling lake, in the shadow of the Andes and a spectacular nine thousand foot snow-covered volcano, it’s harder to sleep than anywhere I’ve been before.

Perhaps it’s the winter weather, not especially cold, compared to home, but often unrelentingly gray and rainy, which has been blamed for the region’s high suicide rate.  Perhaps it’s a psycho-electrical effect  on my brain cells, from the unfamiliar pull of the volcanic region and the southern magnetic pole.  But despite all the natural beauty, there is something unsettling and almost unworldly about Chile during the winter.

For creatures like us, mostly dependent on sight, noise is amplified at night.  And the hostel, a weird echo chamber, exaggerates the weather.  Once inside, it seems like wind storms and rain almost constantly buffet my little fragile house, and as soon as I step outside, there is sun and calm. I go back in, and it sounds like the storm of the century is sweeping in.

My hostel is wooden, casually minimalistic in construction, added as a kind of afterthought-second-story, precariously hanging over the house below. Rickety and probably a fire hazard.

Some of my light comes from a plastic sky roof, loosely bolted into the tin roof.  So, when it rains, it reverberates like a thousand drums; and the wind threatens to rip the corrugated tin and plastic panels off the roof. I watch them twitch and rattle in the storms, and wonder just how long before it comes flying off or crashing down.

Threatening sounds echo off the angular roof.  Sound is reflected strangely. If someone is walking down the hallway, it sounds exactly as if they are walking on my roof.

There are few street lights, and most people heat with wood, creating a smoky haze. At night, this is a very dark town, and you cannot see your hand in front of your face.  And that is when the howling winds start to tear at the roof, while rain batters it – deafening and threatening.  During the winter here, it isn’t a pleasant pitter-patter of rain on tin, like you get on a warm spring day – this seems more like some horror movie, where the denizens of a haunted hostel attack and devour visitors once the storm strikes!

At least the House of Usher sank into its bog quietly, in a reserved, British sort of way, without all this demonic clamor.

The din is compounded by the pervasive and never-ceasing uneasiness you feel when you learn the history of this region.  We are surrounded by the sites of graves from centuries of Mapuche-Spanish conflict, and victims of a great drought, one of the most devastating earthquakes in recorded history, and Pinochet’s police state.  There are active volcanoes, and at night, all in all, it seems pretty likely that some angry spirits are out, looking for blood.

And on top of that, the dogs.

The strays of Pucón, apart from a few Labradors, are very large wolf-like animals – and I like them all.  They’ve proven to be sweet and friendly. After a couple of days here, trying to find my way to work, one of them seemed to recognize that I was lost, and walked along with me, until I got to the school.  He showed up every morning after that to walk with me.  Even though they’re strays, the community feeds them and gives them blankets in cold weather.

But at night, they roam the town.  You see their glowing eyes in the dark, like the Hound of the Baskervilles, and during the worst of the storms, when it thunders, they howl.

So picture:  lying in bed, already feeling uneasy as the building shakes and vibrates, rain is smashing down on the roof, the wind slams the plastic panels against the tin, and the tin against the wood rafters — and then there’s the sound of footsteps above you, like someone insane is walking around up there in the lightning storm.  And then dogs begin howling and baying like wolves from the depths of hell.

All this heap needs is a soundtrack playing the “Danse Macabre” and “Mephisto Waltz”.

Even the birds hereabouts are creepy at night.  During the daytime, there are beautiful green parakeets near the lake, and all sorts of ducks, geese, and diving birds on the lake.  In the hills around town, the Roadside Hawks are very handsome little guys.  But at night…

When I first arrived here, after an 12-hour bus ride from Santiago, pretty exhausted, I lay down, but with the rain bashing down on the tin roof, I couldn’t sleep.  Then, during a lull in the rain, there was a weird, unholy keening.

It sounds like…out there in the darkness…a bagpiper is dying.

 

But not…quite…dead.  Trying to finish his last Lament.  “A Haggis Fell Upon His Head, An’ Now My Love Is Deid,” or “The EU’s Ga’n Awa’ O’er the Sea, And So’s Our Economee,” or something like that.

I peer out the window, but don’t see anything ghostly in a kilt.  Or any sinister crones ’round a cauldron with curséd kazoos.

But then, wait, there is something moving on the rooftop opposite my window.

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It’s a bird, with a long, curving beak.  And it’s making a god-awful unhappy sound, like it was in deep mourning.  And extremely constipated.

This was my introduction to the Black-Faced Ibis of South America.

Edgar Allen Poe had his raven, the Ancient Mariner his albatross, Hitchcock his homicidal gulls.

Me, ibises.  Why did it have to be ibises.

 

ibis-ptolmeic-mma

 

 

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Thoth. Not much worshiped anymore, and feeling a bit blue. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tut, Tut, it’s raining birds

Yes, there are ibises here.  And they are horrible.  What normal birds sing funeral dirges at night during a lightning storm?

If you’ve ever looked at those old stone Egyptian carvings, full of hieroglyphics and weird half-human creatures, there’s an ibis-headed god sometimes called Thoth.

Thoth was the patron of magic, math, and accounting among other things, so you know right away, he’s gotta be maladjusted.

I won’t even get into his other hobby, weighing human hearts.

 

M0001949EB Wall carving, gods Thoth and Horus Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Wall carving, gods Thoth and Horus pouring the water of life over the King, Temple of Komombo, Egypt Half-tone Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

“What hath night to do with sleep?”

 

And so, getting back to the midnight revels in Chile — since I’d never seen an ibis outside a zoo, or mummy exhibit, I thought ibises lived in Egypt.

I believe, that the Black-Faced Ibises feel this way, too.  Misplaced and resentful.  Chile is not the warm Nile delta, they’re not worshiped here, there are no pyramids, and they are pissed.

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When I looked them up, some birder described them as “highly sociable.”  I guess you could say, that Charles Manson liked to have people all around him, too.  Ibises are also intensely territorial.  One night, I woke up to find two of them fighting to the death on the rooftop across from my window.  The larger one, in a “highly sociable” way, snapped the neck of the other, and then slammed its body again and again on the roof, to make sure it was dead.

These birds are just plain creepy, and their ominous, mournful song really does sound like a creepy dirge. They stare at me.  Even during storms, when it sounds like the winds of Satan are blowing my roof off, and all other birds have vanished, the ibises sit on my window ledge and stare at me, as if watching for me to die so they can come and peck out my eyes. The dogs howl, the winds try to cave in the small weak hostel, and the creepy birds start their eerie dirge.

So this is the kind of crap that haunts the nights around here.  And this is why I come to school exhausted.

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I wrote this as my first diary entry from Pucón, and re-reading it, it sounds a bit…overwrought?  feverish?  As it turned out, I wasn’t just feeling creeped-out, I actually was feverish, and having a flare-up of a medical problem.  So I took the bus down to Valdivia, where there’s a hospital, had some tests, pills, antibiotics, etc. and feel a lot better now.  And spring is on the way.

Feeling much more like myself, but sticking to the story, sorry, at night, this is still the noisiest Halloween-kind-of-place I’ve ever been.

Love my school, the students, the teachers, the stray dogs, the Andes, and my host family.  And man, all God’s creatures got a place in the choir, and no doubt I’m invoking the wrath of Thoth, the Audubon Society, and the Ghost of Roger Tory Peterson, but I don’t care, I still hate these wretched Black-Faced Ibises.

When I cannot sleep, I send emails to KFC, praising the bird’s flavor and low fat content, hoping they’ll take the hint.

In a museum in Holland, there’s an ancient papyrus, listing all the calamities that finished off Egypt’s Old Kingdom (long before Moses) and one of the curses?  “Men behaving as wild ibises.”

And at Saqqara, in Egypt, they say they’ve found a million and a half of them, mummified.  The historians think this has deep religious significance.

Personally, I think they just got on everybody’s nerves.

And I also think ol’ Pharaoh had the right idea.  Wrap ’em up tight & stick ’em in a sand dune.

Over and out, from me and the Weird Birds of Doom, here at Night on Bald Mountain, Chile.

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