Mel in Chile: The South Part 1

The South: Part 1

I have finally returned to Santiago from the ten-day excursion with my study abroad program. If I was promoting SIT before, I am really promoting them now! The excursions are valuable because they contextualize our lectures, readings, and discussions. The excursions allow us, as students, to move closer to the reality of the theories and discourses we are exposed to in an academic environment.

The title of this blog is “The South: Part 1” because I will divide our trip into three parts. For the first two days we traveled to Ralco, a town in the Biobío region, and stayed in cabins with the other students in our program. The next five days we participated in a homestay in small village called Valle Elikura. During this time we learned about the practice of communal tourism, engaged in discussions with community members, and heard stories of struggles and achievements of the Mapuche group. As we bid our temporary homestay families farewell in Valle Elikura, we spent the last two days around the city of Concepcion. These last days we visited a coalmine, the industrial complex of a forestry company, and had two lectures at Universidad de Concepcion.

Worry not; all of the above events will be described in detail in the upcoming posts.

So this particular post is about the first part of our excursion. We left Santiago at 10 pm on the evening of Sunday, October 13. We drove through the night and arrived to our cabins in an area just outside of Ralco at six am on a very chilly Monday morning. Biobío is the eighth region in Chile bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Andes in the east.

We all devoured breakfast like hungry wolves that morning and headed out to find our cabins. I am not a car/bus/airplane sleeper so I was tired. I planned to claim my bed and sleep well into the afternoon.

As I was wobbling through the grass, sandwiched in between the two backpacks I was carrying, I looked to the left and felt like I had been zapped awake by an electrical force. I saw the most bizarre and beautiful mountain. The peak looked like it had been split in three pieces by a lighting bolt. I thought, “Alright, this deserves some attention.” I dropped off my things in the room and, without any sleep, decided to look for a trail.

As fate would have it, there weren’t any trails leading up the mountain and the forest was too dense to create my own, so my intended hike turned into a nature walk.

The pictures will speak on behalf of the scenery much better than I will be able to describe it in words so I will not continue with descriptions.


These are the cabins we stayed in while in Alto Biobío


This is what our research methods class looked like Tuesday afternoon. The mountain is in the background.

I wanted to talk about what I enjoyed in Ralco. The town has a strong representation of Pewenche people, a group ethnically related to the Mapuche indigenous group in Chile. We were going to visit the Pewenche museum in Ralco. The last time we visited a museum trying to show “indigenous culture” we were in San Pedro de Atacama. It was an incredibly disappointing experience. Until recently the museum (in San Pedro) had an open display of a mummified body of an individual who belonged to the Atacameño group (the indigenous group in San Pedro de Atacama). The Atacameño community denounced this as incredibly disrespectful to their ancestors and an inappropriate display of the Atacameño people in general for many years. The mummified body was not removed until recently. I am positive I spoke of this in my blog post after the trip to San Pedro, but to recap; tourism in San Pedro is almost entirely based on foreign agencies. The indigenous culture is commoditized for consumption of western tourists, and the community itself is outside of any discourses and dialogue on how tourism of their region and culture is carried out. In literal terms, they are also physically outside of the center of the village. The center is now only for restaurants, tourist agencies, and hostels. It maintains a manicured “rustic” image of an “indigenous village” in order to supply tourists with the preconceived notions we have of exotic places. An anthropologist who works at the museum in San Pedro told us she will hear guides tell entertaining stories of Atacameño history to their groups that are incredibly far away from the history as told by the Atacameños themselves.

For this reason, when we were told we were going to a museum that exhibited Pewenche people and their culture, I was a bit weary and irritated.

When we entered the museum, however, I encountered a much different dynamic.

For starters, the museum was relatively small. The two people who worked there told us they were Pewenche. The young man let us know he would guide us through the museum. The museum didn’t have any displays of “ancient artifacts” produced from archeological digging sites. One section had photographs of different Pewenche people from Ralco with a caption of something they wanted to share about the Pewenche culture. Another area displayed Pewenche cuisine, including the instructions of how the food could be prepared. The other wall displayed and explained fruit and vegetables typically used by the Pewenche people in Ralco.

In the middle there were four wax figures of Pewenche males dressed in ceremonial attire, imitating a dance. Our guide told us next month he would dress in that way and participate in this dance.

This museum was a display of a living culture. The Pewenche people in Ralco designed it. They controlled the displays. Most importantly, they control the dialogue of how people outside the culture would consume what the museum exhibits.

We also visited a dam in Ralco. The building of dams is a big struggle the communities and environmental activists have in the Biobio region. I remember in my Environmental studies region we learned about the pros and cons of building dams. I particularly remember we had an exam on “clean” forms of energy so I diligently studied the flashcards of pros and cons I had created for the types of alternative energy we would have on the test. It was…a dejavu moment (i think?) to stand on the dam. I would look to my left and see a huge reservoir and look to my right and only see a tiny river. We also went inside the dam, into the control room to see the technological face of the structure. We also saw the various components of the dam, like the turbines the water turns and the magnetic sheet above it. As far as my understanding goes, the water from the river turns the turbine which causes positive and negative electrons in the magnetic sheet to move, which then generates electricity.


This is the river side


and this is the reservoir side.

inside a dam

This is a section inside the dam where the crew controls….stuff.

The first part of our trip in Alto Biobío was incredibly valuable. I was incredibly happy with the museum. I also felt comfortable knowing I was not “consuming” images of an ethnic group that were built by people outside said group. It was also interesting to visit the dam and visualize not only the “pros and cons” that I kept thinking about, but also gain an understanding of how the structure functions internally.

Physically speaking, the area is incredibly beautiful

It is my second favorite museum in Chile.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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