Cultural Exchange

We got to spend two weeks total at Vinita Farm in Pelequen, Chile. Of our entire trip so far it was by far the most authentic experience we got to do. The town the farm is just outside of is so small they don’t have taxis and it’s primarily a mix of agricultural and artisan workers who make curaguilla grain brooms for all of Chile (at least they used to, the young people of the town do not want to bother with physical jobs anymore and thus the craft is dwindling as fields are turned to more “productive” crops like grapes, apples, and kiwis). During our stay on the farm we got to spend time with the farmer’s family in her home and learn about the customs and traditions of much of rural Chile. There were the small differences that would be quickly noticed by Americans such as light switches being on the outside of the doorway to a room (I consistently forget to turn the light on before I go in the bathroom) or the fact that they don’t flush toilet paper EVER, even in the cities, it goes in the wastebasket. Almost all homes are heated by a fire in the main living area with the occasional supplemental estufa/propane heater. That means blankets on the beds and a chill in winter, something that we often don’t even think about when inside a dwelling anymore. But there are differences that dig a bit deeper as well. Differences that go back to long standing tradition and fundamental variations in the way they live which I found very intriguing.

This starts with food and meals. For those who know me well, I am a very health conscious eater – eating local organic whole foods and homemaking things like almond milk, bread, and stock. One of me and my husband’s goals this year was to cut the majority of carbs out of our daily routine (still eaten just not with every meal – trickier than you might think). Well let’s just say that had to be put on hold until we get state side again… Much of the food is locally crafted in the smaller towns which is great! The fresh baked bread was from the neighbor across the street who delivered daily. The milk and fresh cheese was from the farm down the road. The vinegar was made on site and the apples were picked from the tree in the backyard. The culture shock comes in to play with the staples of the diet. The day starts with bread for desayuno/breakfast, usually smeared with butter and honey sometimes cheese, and black tea or nescafe instant coffee (there is practically no such thing in Chile as legitimate drip coffee – oh Colombia how we miss you!). Around eleven or twelve you take tea – again with more bread if you need a snack. Around two or three almuerzo/lunch is served. It is a big hearty meal (the biggest of the day) that usually takes one or two hours to eat. It is ALWAYS carb heavy, typically rice or pasta, with some vegetables and a smallish amount of protein or meat. And of course bread is served in addition to the main meal. After the meal you have more tea and dessert. Around five you have onces (this translates to “elevens” but for some odd reason is basically your evening snack which is not served at eleven). Snack always equates to more tea and bread. Anywhere from seven to nine you have the choice of either tea (yes again… amazing I know…) or cena/dinner. This would be a smaller portion but carb heavy once again – rice with a fried egg or hotdog, pasta, or leftovers from lunch. Many times it was just us two Americans who even bothered eating dinner, often they would just take tea. I commented to Shane how I couldn’t understand how they weren’t hungry for an actual meal instead of tea and bread. He accurately reminded me that caffeine is a natural appetite suppressant. Five cups a day ought to explain that then… The strong tradition of tea in Chile stems from the 1800’s Brittish influence. I will admit I was appalled at first with the carb overload. But if taken into perspective and given consideration of tradition, although NOT a healthy balanced diet, it is understandable. Grains can be grown plentifully and in most cases year round with some crop rotation. They are cheap to plant, cheap to harvest, and easy to store. When much of rural Chile is still basing its diet on localized production and simpler times, it just makes sense. Interestingly we were watching the news one night which had a segment about the rise in diabetes and obesity in Chile, a trend that mirrors the United States with a slight lag time. Young people in Chile are now supplementing their traditional diets with sugary sweets like cookies, cereal, chocolate milk, and nutella. Add processed foods and sugar to a carbohydrate heavy diet and there’s only one result that I am aware of…

One of the things we always get asked when we meet new people in our travels is what about your house? I explain to them that we sold it and am usually met with blank stares. I explain that the house was great but the yard flooded so we sold it and will buy a new one when we return. Again, confusion. At first I would try to explain that we buy houses in need of repair, fix them up, and sell them for a profit but it is something so totally foreign to them that lately I’ve stopped trying. Here in Chile (excepting the big cities) homes are passed down from generation to generation. The farm we are staying on was purchased and settled by her grandparents 100 years ago. Her mother and father lived there, ran the farm, and raised their family. Then it was passed to her to do the same. Her daughter will take over when she is gone. It’s not just the land either. It’s the homes too. Much of the home is original with one semi major addition after an earthquake took down part of the house. If that hadn’t happened, my guess is the whole house would still be the same. It is incredibly hard for me to fathom this part of their culture. In the United States we have that consumerism mentality. More money or better job? Bigger house. Kids? We need another bathroom now, new house. Wore out and not a handy man? New house. With the exception of my one aunt and uncle I can’t think of anyone I know who purchased their first home together and still live in it. And that wasn’t passed down to them, I doubt their children will live there when they are gone, and they have made plenty of renovations while living there. But it’s funny when I think about it. It’s got a lush mature landscape that isn’t all that common for many homes. Their home is the center of most of our family gatherings and I have found memories of Christmas every year sitting in their living room. It seems to me it’s because they laid down their roots. They took the time to think about their future there. Everything they did was intentional and thought out not done just for a temporary fix or convenience. I was reading a homesteading book recently and it was discussing the need for us to tie ourselves to the land more than we do in current society. The authors belief is that if and when that occurs more thought is put into the future and will thereby start to heal some of the imbalances that we have in our current global industrial agriculture and economy. Ximena’s vineyards are productive and mature; the fields have been in crop rotation and under sustainable methods for decades creating and healthy soil that can be relied on to produce crops. She knows the ins and outs of her land, the farm, the house. I got a glimpse of that here in Chile and it seems a valid case to me.

Towards the end of our stay Ximena was having one of her fields seeded with oats and vetch. She was planting the field for the cattle and horses to graze and said that with proper management the field should produce for two to three years. A farmer from up the road with an old John Deere tractor came chugging down the driveway in the morning, loaded up the seed from the barn, and headed out to the field. Shane of course was checking out the tractor with all its implements and was confused because he saw discs for turning the field over but not a seeder. We followed to see his techniques and were surprised to find that the tractor was not what was doing the seeding, the farmer was. In an efficient and beautiful display of broadcast seeding he walked the 3.7 acre field with a bag across his chest seeding in a precise manner. He would continuously walk forward, grab a handful of seed and toss the seed in a wide row in front of him with the seed evenly spaced apart. By the time he threw the next handful it would line up perfectly with where the last batch had stopped. He had the entire field seeded by hand in a couple of hours or less. When Shane and I were up studying at Growing Power Urban Farm in Wisconsin, Will Allen the founder used this broadcast seeding technique for all of his seeding. Many would consider him “old school” but his technique works and works well. It’s free, doesn’t require fossil fuels, doesn’t break, and doesn’t require maintenance. He lamented that it was a lost art and no matter how much he tried to teach people, it never quite seemed to sink in because the only way to get it right is practice. And in today’s technologically advanced society who has time for that when there are machines that can do it for you? Will Allen and I would have to assume this farmer in Chile have worked with the seed and the land long enough to know all of its intricacies. They know the little things that most of us would never think of like how cilantro can be seeded closer together than basil or that this soil is more fertile then that other bed so it can be planted heavier. The scary concept of not passing down this learned knowledge is what lead me to start The Urban Harvest in the first place. What happens if we slowly move off the land or let machines take our place? If there is a gap in the transfer of knowledge then there will be a gap while we take the time to relearn what used to be common knowledge. Our children often times never get their hands in the soil of a garden let alone know which variety of tomato grows best in our area or what time of year to plant the carrots. This isn’t just localized to the US either; it’s a worldwide generational issue. Farms get bigger, machines replace people, plant diversity dwindles, and seeds are modified to need certain fertilizers and pesticide. Ok, deep breath… This topic always gets me going and I think I’ve made my point. Technology certainly has its place but when utilized in the proper way. To me this farmer was the perfect representation of harmonizing modern equipment with time tested methods. It kept him in connection with the farm and its productivity while maximizing his efforts involved.

We went to the Colchagua Museum in Santa Cruz, Chile on our day off last week. As we were wandering the awesome exhibits of natural and societal history I was really struck by how little time we have been on this planet in the big scheme of things. Humans are really just a blip on the radar. But even in that short span of time we have managed to create incredibly distinct cultures. Sometimes it was separation by sea or land but often times it seems that it was the traditions, language, and land similarities shared over time that eventually lent itself to distinct cultures. Incan runners called Quipus, also known as talking knots, used a system of knots on strings to transfer information across the entire 24,800 mile long Andean road system which kept all of the towns and people informed of births, deaths, religious ceremonies, military operations, etc. Communication and exchange of information kept a society that was spread far and wide together as one cohesive culture. I count myself lucky that I have been able to get a glimpse of other cultures. Gaining knowledge is the first step to wisdom, sharing it is the first step to humanity.