We arrived in Frutillar on a beautiful Sunday, when crowds of tourists lined the beachfront and boardwalk on Lago Llanqihue, the second-largest lake in Chile. After getting scammed by our taxi driver for an extra $3 US (I wanted to fight with the driver about this, but Craig didn’t and since he’s the one who speaks the Spanish, I had to let it go…), we made it to the hotel where we would be doing our work-exchange. Only 3km down a road that skirts the lake, Lagune Club has beautiful views of the lake and surrounding volcanos. (Craig set up our work-exchange through a great site, WorkAway.)
We were pleasantly surprised to find that we would be housed in our own 2-bedroom cabaña (that usually goes for about $150 US/night), complete with a kitchen and a bathroom, but only until more voluntarios arrived to fill the other bedroom.
Next door, three volunteers had already been installed for a week: an Australian, Michael, and a French couple, Martin and Agathe. They, like us, had quit their jobs to travel, and it was immediately apparent that everybody would get along like gang-busters. It has been a common occurence on our trip so far that the English language skills of foreigners, like Martin and Agathe, far surpass anybody else’s Spanish skills, and so the majority of conversations take place in English, despite a shared goal of either improving or learning Spanish. At least for Martin and Agathe, it’s a chance to practice another 2nd language, but for Michael and ourselves, it’s both a comfort as well as a disappointment to not have that challenge.
The work itself has involved a variety of things, mostly the renovation of a small house–painting, plastering, wood-trimming, electrical wiring. Other duties have included blackberry-picking (from whose thorns my clothes and I have sustained many small injuries), cutting down trees and chopping wood, semi-dangerous work sawing through steel beams, and the normal work involved in running a bed-and-breakfast hotel–cooking, making beds, and, unfortunately, cleaning toilets.
Lagune Club is owned by a hard-working family that also runs a dairy and a farm. Ricardo, the 40-something year-old son of the owners, Monica and Sergio, has big dreams. He wants to build a restaurant that can serve up to 400 people (in a town with a population of only 15,000), add on a nightclub, renovate the original house, and has several other small projects running, aside from the work that we’re currently doing. He also seems to believe he can do this all by himself with just the help from unskilled voluntarios like ourselves. Ricardo’s estimates of the amount of time and work it will take to complete these projects is always hilariously short of what we think is realistic. The small house was supposed to be done last week, but we all think it will take at least another three. The restaurant is apparently going to be up and running in under a year, but they’ve only got the foundation done so far. It’ll be a hard road for these coming volunteers!
In exchange for all this back-breaking work, we get:
A pretty nice cabaña (shared)
desayuno (breakfast), which consists of tea or coffee, home-made bread, and home-made blackberry jam. This is not really enough to sustain us, so we’ve been supplementing with fruit, eggs, granola and yogurt, from the local supermarket
almuerzo (lunch), which is always huge and hot, thankfully
There is no cena (dinner) here, instead they have what’s called tomar las onces, which is just a light snack very similar to breakfast. Think of it like English tea, but there’s no satisfying hot meal a few hours later. So we’ve had to make our own dinners; group-cooked affairs that are usually way more food than you’d think we’d need, but somehow all this manual labor makes us very hungry…
We only work 5 hours a day, and also have weekends off (not always the case with work-exchanges, we’ve heard). We can pick blackberries on our own time and eat as many as we want, and we get to use the large, indoor barbecue. Sometimes, it does seem as if the family is being stingy by not giving us dinner, not turning the heater on in our cabañas all the time (and the weather has been down in the 40s F at night), not giving us mantequilla (butter), but 25 hours per week in exchange for what we do get, is not too bad of a trade-off….
Last weekend, we got lucky with some semi-nice weather and took a day trip to Petrohue, where we hiked near Lago Todos los Santos, a beautiful lake with Osorno Volcano nearby.
Even with our snacks and dinners (and a copious amount of booze), we’re not spending very much money (about $10/day total for the both of us), which was the whole point of doing the work-exchange in the first place.
The additional benefit is, of course, meeting such amazing people. I hope to keep in contact with the people we’ve met, and see them someday in the future. We’ve shared so many laughs and had so much fun… it’s hard to imagine that we’ve only known the other volunteers for such a short while.
We did have one unfortunate experience with another French volunteer, who insisted on stereotyping everybody. To me, he kept repeating the two phrases that he knew in Mandarin: “Hello” and “Thank you”. It’s not even my native language, which is Cantonese. He never really said anything else to me, never even asked me if I was Chinese. And after the 5th time he did it and I just grunted in response, he asked me, “What, you don’t like to speak Chinese?” He also insisted to Craig that all Americans cussed constantly and used the n-word, despite never having lived in the U.S. He offended Agathe when he made derogatory remarks about the Arab population in France. He also did not drink (a teetotaler!). In effect, he wasn’t the type of person you’d expect to see doing a work-exchange (i.e. hippie, culturally-conscious, liberal, semi-alcoholic). Luckily, he was aware enough to feel our disapproval, and left only a few days later.
Otherwise, the work-exchange has been like living in a dorm or a hostel–sharing your bathroom, sharing food and alcohol, listening to multiple languages spoken, having a lot of fun. The only downside is, of course, the work, but even that isn’t necessarily horrible and it definitely creates bonds. I have had moments where, in the middle of some ghastly task such as cleaning hair out of a drain, I’ve thought, “What the hell am I doing?? I’m a highly-trained professional, for heaven’s sake!” But thankfully, those moments were few and I eventually remembered that I quit that profession to travel and life is definitely not going to be anywhere close to my previous middle-class existence for awhile.
All in all, I think Craig and I are very happy with our experience. I also think we’re happy that it’s ending. My back hurts, his back hurts–truly, menial labor is not for the weak (just ask the farmhand Lucio who, although only in his 50s, walks with a perpetual hunch and limp). Now that we’ve “saved” some money and met some great new friends, we’re off to Bariloche, El Bolsón, and Pucon for some trekking, hiking, and hopefully warmer weather!