Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Story from Chile, Circa 2000

During grad school and a little bit there after, I worked at Le Travel Store in downtown San Diego. It was a fantastic shop with exposed brick walls filled with awesome travel gear, maps, guide books plus interesting staff and cool customers. I got to help people outfit for their trips and also hear all sorts of great travel stories. My parallel parking skills greatly improved during that time too, as I was always trying to squeeze my car into one of the "informal" free spots in the East Village, back when you didn't go east of 8th Avenue, for fear of who knows what.

Anyway, Joan, the owner, recently posted a link that showed their web page as it looked in 2000. At the bottom of the page was a link to some emails I had sent from a trip I took in 2000 with Matt Daniels, to go visit our friend Chris Carter in Chile. They were fun to read, and I figured I would share one below.

What I love about the specific story is that it's a great reminder to be open to new experiences when you travel.  Here is the story, as it was sent int an email, it's called Fresh Mutton.
 email from: Sophia Habl
subject: Fresh Mutton
date: Tue, 01 Feb 2000

Thursday was one of those days when you wake up expecting to have just another enjoyable and possibly uneventful day - yet when you finally crawl into bed, you are totally stumped at how the day unfolded. We had a slow start to the day, still tired from the boat ride. Matt had met two Chileans on the boat, Fabi and Pilar, who were going to the same town as we were. We all agreed to meet at Cafe Ricer for coffee the following night.

Shortly after arriving at the cafe, Fabi said that she had mentioned us to her brother and that he wanted to invite us over to his house for some food after we finished our coffee. This is a prime example of Chilean hospitality. We had only known these people for a couple of days, and they were inviting us over.

Matt and I agreed that would be fun. An hour later, Fabi´s brother, Oswaldo and some of his friends arrived. We piled into the back of a truck for a cold and damp ride to his house. (It rains 365 days a year in Coyaihque!!) On the ride to Oswaldo's it became clear what the dinner was all about. We were first going to get a sheep, have it slaughtered, and then take it back to the house to roast. Okay, keep in mind it is already 10:00 at night! Before we go for the sheep, we pick up onions, cilantro and lemons from Oswaldo's house.

By the time I had translated to Matt what was going on. . . Surely we would not actually SEE a sheep getting slaughtered. Oswaldo, riding in the back of the truck picked up on our concern and said that it was a quick death, a shot to the head. He positioned his hand like a gun and held it to his temple, making a mock gun firing noise. I was imagining a woolly little sheep with a bullet hole between two big, brown, innocent eyes! I am a city girl, I can't handle this!

We arrived at a house on the edge of town. A small hand-lettered sign in the front yard said "We sell sheep." The yard was darkened except for a bare bulb on the porch. Oswaldo called out a hello and a fellow appeared. He wore jeans, a red flannel shirt and, judging from the two HUGE knives on his belt, looked to be in the sheep killing business. We entered the main yard. The sheep seller's wife and son appeared from one of the buildings and said hello.

I scanned the yard. Two fat but scruffy dogs eyed us. Several sheep skins were stacked on a pallet under a cherry tree. On a line hung some sort of chunk of organs and intestines. Good, I thought, he already killed the sheep; we'll take home some neatly-wrapped lamb chops. WRONG!!! That is when I saw the sheep lying on its side, four legs bound with thin plastic twine. It tried to raise its head to look at us, but appeared to be tired and defeated.

We stood around for a while making small talk. Matt and I looked at each other, looked at the sheep and looked back at each other. This was definitely a travel tale in the making. Fabi soon emerged from the house, carrying a bowl of chopped onion and cilantro.

The sheep killer asked who wanted to help. This would be the person who would hold the bowl under the sheep's neck to catch the blood that would soon pour from the jugular. The helper could not be a pregnant woman or the partner of a pregnant woman. It was believed that being so close to the death would cause the woman to lose the baby. The sheep killer asked if Matt or I were interested, but we respectfully declined. I did not want to feel the moist breath of a sheep on my hand right before it died.

Eventually one of Oswaldo's friends agreed to help. The sheep killer moved the sheep to the block. He positioned the sheep's neck over the edge, above the bowl. He pulled two knives from his belt and began rubbing them together. The sheep killer squatted back down and lifted the animal's head so the neck was fully exposed. With a few quick passes of the knife, the wool was removed and a patch of pale sheepskin glowed under the light. He paused and then with one skillful sweep of the knife, bright red blood began to pour into the bowl. After about 20 seconds, he snapped the neck of the animal. Blood continued to pour, but at a slower rate. When all the blood had drained from the animal, David (the helper) began to stir the mixture.

We moved from the yard into a side work room. A light was flicked on, and for the first time I could see what exactly was in the bowl. The blood had coagulated into chunks which looked like flan. Onion and cilantro floated on top. Several lemons were squeezed into the bowl and then a few spoons were passed around. The sheep killer took the first spoonful and Oswaldo the second. Then they eyed Matt and me. Matt took a small chunk and slurped it down with a lemon chaser, no apparent disgust on his face; so I figured I would go for it as well. I balanced a chunk the size of a large postage stamp on the spoon. I squeezed some lemon on it and, with a big gulp, stuck the spoon in my mouth. The chunk sort of settled on my tongue. I began to chew and that is when my throat felt like it was going to close up. I thought, holy shit, five minutes ago this was warm blood pulsating through the veins of a woolly little sheep. My throat constricted even more. Finally, I told my self "mind over matter" and swallowed.

Later I would learn the dish is called ├▒iachi and is a regional specialty in that part of Patagonian Chile. It is a powerful concoction that is reputed to increase virility. The men continued to eat the ├▒iachi. Matt and I declined a second serving. We lingered around for another 15 minutes or so, the amount of time it took for the sheep killer to skin, de-head and clean up the body.

The rest of the evening passed in a haze of roasted and smoked lamb, served with fat tomato slices, warm bread and lots of red wine. At some point during the evening, it was decided that Matt and I should learn the cumbia - a Colombian dance. Good food and drink make the feet move with ease, and soon the cramped kitchen was filled with movement and laughter. I have no rhythm!! The evening wound down with some tea, and a ride back to our pension at 4:00am.

Yeah, sometimes you never know how the day will unfold.


Lori Arena said...

Ok, I think I am a vegetarian now. I think I will limit my cultural travel experiences to resturants where I don't have to witness the killing of sheep. Very good writing though! :)

Sophia said...

Lori ... the whole experience was a little strange at the time and out of my comfort zone. However, in hind sight, it was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Made me more open to experiences on future travel, that is for sure.