In the village of Baños Morales, southeast of Santiago de Chile, there is a woman who runs a store. The simple tienda in the center of town has a variety of fruits and vegetables on its wood shelves, flour and rice in bags against the soiled whitewashed walls and drinks, kept cool in buckets of water, on the tiled floor. It was from the counter in back that she sold me hand-kneaded bread that reminded me of my mother.
Jacki and I arrived by bus Monday morning. After hours of stop-and-go traffic through Santiago, followed by miles of jarring dirt road, we tumbled out into Baños Morales and stood awkwardly squinting in the sunlight. The driver unloaded our luggage then announced a return to the city at six pm. We would not take the bus back to Santiago.
The village is a handful of small structures, most of which seemed looked after. The colorful cafes, tiendas, refugios, cabanas and residenciales are located at the confluence of thermal springs and streams of the Morado National Reserve where they spill into the Volcán River. Water is gathered from the streams, there is no pavement on the road and if there is electricity, it comes from generators. Compared to downtown Santiago it felt and looked like nothing.
We meekly entered a storehouse unsure if it was open. Below the glassless windows sat two men chatting over a liter of beer while an older woman presided. With a smile she came to us. I asked if she had any bread then she leaned to me with her left ear close and I repeated myself.
“? TIENE PAN?”
Still not hearing, she turned her pale eyes to me and shrugged. The men sitting with the beer both yelled.
“Ah! Pan… Si.”
When I was young and my mother worked part time, she used to bake bread at home. It seemed that every week or so the kitchen was devoted to grinding wheat then mixing flour, water and yeast. In the afternoon the dough would rise and that evening the house would fill with the smell of baking bread. The pan amasado (hand-kneaded bread) we purchased was similar in texture, density and richness, and every bit as good as my mother’s, only it was different.
The following morning we shouldered our packs and walked up the deep valley toward the San Jose Volcano. Not far from town a man was slaughtering a goat. His wife encouraged us to watch, so we did. The throat had been slit and the blood had been drained. The man inserted and removed a long pin from the hind leg. He pressed his lips to the hole and filled the goat with air. As he paused to catch his breath he slapped the belly. Puff, puff, puff. Whack, whack, whack. He repeated this a few times while he explained the process to a boy and girl who assisted by holding the legs. Then with the touch of a knife, he peeled the goat open from throat to anus.
We returned to his wife, who sold queso cabra (goat cheese) from a shack next to the road. She showed me a loaf. It looked delicious. She had several stored in the shack, all unrefrigerated. The temptation was great, but the thought of what might happen if it went bad on the trail forced me not to buy the cheese.
That afternoon we sat on boulders and ate lunch, pan amasado. When my mother was alive and still baking bread I would day dream of wandering off. I dreamt of stepping off the pavement and wandering through the hills. The Uintah’s, the Wasatch, any open land along the highway. It could have been anywhere. I wanted to see all of it. I made lists of things I would need to carry. Clothing and gear were easy. Food was harder. At that age I assumed that I would cook over an open fire and boiling water seemed unlikely. What to bring for breakfast and dinner? Eggs and bacon wouldn’t travel well, nor would steak and potatoes. Lunch was much easier. My mother’s bread was always part of the daily ration.
The geology of the Cajon Del Maipo is dramatic. Multi-colored layers of the sedimentary rock have been pushed and folded vertically leading up to the peaks. Valleys, free of trees, have been sculpted wide by glaciers up high, deep and severe by rivers down low. It took time to comprehend the scale. A ridge that we guessed to be no more than an hour away, according to our experience in the States, would be hours away instead. Just how tall the mountains were became apparent when we hit our high point of 12,000 feet. The summit we stood on was only a foothill compared to those that loomed above us.
At first I was only impressed by the size of the peaks, glaciers and valleys, but after four days, the place grew on me. The sun was with us everyday and felt warm on our faces, but the constant breeze was cool and kept us in sweaters. Mornings, after our oatmeal breakfast, we would walk leaving foot prints in the grainy soil, then after our pan amasado; we would read and drink sweet tea. We spoke continuously at times and then for hours we would be silent. We encountered few people. By the time we returned to the refugio we were enchanted by the lonely beauty of the canyon.
Saturday morning Baños Morales buzzed with ranchers, hostel owners, cafe employees, miners and weekend tourists from the city. All the residenciales, cafes and tiendas churned with business. What was a lazy town Monday was a loud scene Saturday. Having just come from the mountains it was draining, but we knew what we wanted. The woman was in front of her store laughing with customers as we approached. I asked for more bread, but instead of taking me inside she apologized.
“She’s all out.” One of the regulars responded and pointed us to another store.
In the spring of 1999 my mother succumbed to cancer. Since then I have wandered many miles from the pavement, but had forgotten about having her bread for my lunches. It wasn’t until I entered the store in a small Chilean town where a woman, hard of hearing, sells hand kneaded bread, that I remembered. What we ate was different from my mother’s, but eating the pan amasado in the Cajon Del Maipo helped me recall my mother’s spirit and love.
Copyright Louis C Arevalo 2010-2011