Early September, almost spring, and though we needed jackets, the world was blooming. We had spent the night before in La Serena, a favorite city for us in Chile, and then traveled the twisty road up through Vicuna, where the Nobel Prize winning poet Gabriela Mistral was born, to the small town of Pisco Elqui. The steep mountainsides on both sides of the narrow valley were naked, so sheer that no plants had purchase for roots.
We stayed at a woman’s house with a comfortable bed but no hot water. We brought the fleas home with us. But I remember her walking in the morning through her large yard with the fruit trees, grape vines, and the rocks that she had fashioned into curious designs, carrying her basket of freshly made rolls and paltas (avocados . . . I miss the affordable delicious avocados of Chile). We mushed the avocado on the bread and with broken Spanish and English talked of many things. She told us of her crazy neighbor. We spoke of our crazy president (Bush 2, at that time).
The Valle Pisco is where the famous pisco grapes grow and where the delicious brandy made from them distilled. Peru and Chile have a rivalry over whose brandy is the best and which version of the Pisco Sour is superior. Never had the Peruvian version, but I miss the ever-present offering of the drink: at the parties that started at midnight, on the teachers’ bus from Santiago to ConCon, at our neighbor Sandra’s, the bottles in the grocery stores that sold for 2,000 pesos, about 4 dollars. It’s 20 dollars at BevMo. We’ve only bought one bottle since returning.
I realize just now that Pisco reminds me of Mentone, California. The boulders and trees. Both are at the edge of great deserts, so the air is different. Okay, in Mentone, much of the year the air is full of smog, but when there’s a rain and the mountains feel so close that you could reach out and touch them, there’s a feeling that one’s body could go on and on up to the peeks and up to the sky.
I haven’t been to Mentone in years. I was a girl when I went regularly with my parents to see Mr. and Mrs. Buyak. My dad would always stop to get a drink at the bar in town before we got to their house. The drinking began immediate between him and Mr. Buyak as soon as we arrived. Mr. Buyak seemed so old. He died at 65, my husband’s age now.
They had a club house, of sorts, a small room with a neon Coors sign on the wall with a waterfall that never stop cascading. There was a real bar with bar stools and two or three card tables with cup holders at the corners. I remember stepping out on our way to the car when it was time to go home . . . after the beer and the whiskey . .. and looking at the stars, which I never saw much of in Anaheim. Too many streetlights.
There would be times when the grown ups would talk about mysteries of life, how far away Earth was from anywhere else, and what God was like. I think this might be where my own thoughts of mystery may have been born and where I found that place of awe inside of me, sensing myself so small in the midst of everything.
There are some spas in Pisco. And beautiful women with long black hair and mysterious eyes work there. And artist live in town appearing very Bohemian. The town is probably more Ojai, than Mentone, in reality. There’s a beautiful square. Do they call it the Plaza de Armas, like all town squares in Chile seemed to be named? It seemed too serene to have a martial name, but I can’t remember. I do remember the little stone church where the singing of the congregation floated out the door and into my memory.