Santiago is located in Chile’s centre, conveniently splitting the country into the north and south. For some months before leaving Sydney, I had been talking with Leonel about going camping in ‘the south’.

Stretching from Santiago’s southern extremities to the frosty tips of Patagonia, the south is an amazingly diverse area. The focus of our trip was the Tenth Region, known for its lakes and volcanoes. But before exploring them, we were heading to Valdivia, the region’s main city to stay with Leonel’s cousin, Alberto. Joining us for the first leg of the journey was Leo’s older brother, Daniel, who was thinking about buying a property from Alberto’s mother on the city’s outskirts.

Three days after I arrived in Chile, the three of us piled into the motorised shopping trolley that Leonel and Suzuki call a car, and headed south. The motorway from Santiago is well constructed and surprisingly efficient but it comes at a cost. Built by foreign companies who continue to collect significant royalties from its users, the highway is often described by locals as the re-colonisation of Chile.

Like Santiago itself, the northern part of Chile’s south was extremely dry after a long, hot summer. Apart from the vineyards of the Colchagua Valley, the beginning of the journey was marked by dusty landscapes, stony river beds with trickling flows set against the soaring peaks of the Andes. But somewhere in the Eighth Region, everything changed and the country turned green. Pine plantations sprung up on both sides of the road, spreading out in all directions, and a little further on, the snowcapped peaks of volcanoes began to punctuate the horizon. This was the south I had been waiting for.

About 800km and nine ‘peajes’, or tollgates, after setting out from Santiago, we reached Valdivia. After treading water for half an hour in a traffic jam that sprang up with no apparent reason and then promptly disappeared, we drove towards Niebla, the coastal town where Alberto lived. By the time we reached Niebla, it was dark and after taking a wrong turn we soon became lost. In the confusion, we turned down a narrow street thinking it would take us back to the main road only to find it was a dead end. As we were turning around we looked up and saw Alberto, or Albertito as his cousins call him, standing arms folded on the front porch as if he had been expecting us to arrive just at that moment.

Back in Santiago, Daniel had mentioned that Albertito was a ‘personaje’, or character, but this did little to prepare me for the man I was about to meet. Aged somewhere in his forties, Alberto had balding hair, wild grey eyes and a neatly kept moustache and goatee. A woollen jumper concealed his large belly and he wore well pressed slacks. At his feet were two dogs – a small, fluffy one that constantly yapped and a larger one that stood attentively by his side and wagged its tail.

As soon as we prised ourselves out of the shopping trolley, Albertito greeted each of us with a formal salutation, a high pitched laugh and a stifling bear hug. After the initial welcome, he ushered us inside where a round table was set, ready for a large Chilean supper of coffee, bread, mashed avocado and sliced tomato. Albertito spoke quickly with a strong accent, making it almost impossible for me to understand him but between laughs, I was able to decipher that he claimed to be a follower of Nietzsche and a communist sympathiser. It was hard to tell if he was being sincere or if it was just part of his performance. Later, when he found out I was a Christian, Albertito started saying grace before every meal. Although he recited the same words each time, he said them with passion and in a way that appeared to be genuine. But everyone else swore they had never heard him pray before.

After supper, we went out to the patio where we were joined by another of Albertito’s cousins, Paco, who also turned out be a personaje. But unlike Albertito, Paco was a man of few words. In his mid-20s, he was overweight with longish hair a short beard. He sat quietly in a corner, smoking and drinking, only interrupting his silence to laugh or answer a direct question.

With lots to catch up on, the conversation continued into the small hours of the morning, with most of it going over my head. Every now and then, I chipped in with a ‘chilenismo’ from my phrasebook and everybody laughed, led by Albertito and his shrieking chuckle. He continued to tell animated stories, waving his arms, stamping his feet and contorting his expressive face for emphasis. Most of the time, I just sat back and enjoyed the show.

Occasionally Albertito paused from his story to share his unique version of broken English for my benefit. Turning to me with bulging eyes, he would say, “Yo: psych-a-delic”. After telling a joke that everyone else found hilarious, he came back to me and said: “Yo, de ‘other planet’. Tu y yo de ‘same planet’.”

I joined in the laughter.

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