After two days in Valdivia, Leonel and I hopped back in the shopping trolley and headed northeast towards the great lakes of Chile’s Tenth Region. At least that’s what we thought we were doing. As it turned out, we had been given some dodgy directions in town and were actually heading southeast. Thankfully we realised our mistake before we reached the autopista and we turned back towards the north. The real trip was beginning.

Because we had lost time, we decided to head for Lake Riñihue, the closest of the seven massive lakes that lie between Valdivia and Temuco. But the dramas with the directions were not over yet. Cruising along the highway, we missed the exit for Riñihue and Leonel thought it would be a good idea to reverse 200m along the edge of the main road to get back on track. Somehow, we managed to avoid the oncoming vehicles and once again we were on our way. We proceeded to the lake without further incident and arrived in the small town of Riñihue about 8pm, just as the sun was starting to think about setting.

The manager of the small campsite on the lake’s western shore was extremely helpful. After agreeing to give us a discount, he accompanied us down to the camping ground and helped us choose a site to pitch the tnet. And then he hung around to chat about the town and the lake.

Built on a steep slope overlooking the lake, the town of fewer than 2,000 residents is surrounded by a mixture of virgin forest and pine plantations. It’s very green and very picturesque. Framed by rolling hills and stretching for miles, the lake itself is even more impressive. By the time we paused to take in the view, the light was already fading and the tallest peaks were hidden in the clouds. The water was absolutely still and shadows stretched across its surface. It was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings.

According to the campsite manager, the centre of the lake was 300m deep and there was no reason to doubt him. He also said that the top of the tallest mountain, over on the far shore, had broken off and toppled into the water during the 1960 earthquake. Just like Valdivia, this was a place of beauty and of terror.

By 9.30, the campsite manager had returned to his hut and we had put up the tent. Even though the air was cool and the sky was dark, we decided to go for a swim in the moonlight. The water was crystal clear and freezing cold and after about 10 minutes, we returned to the warmth of our towels.

As we ate supper, Leonel and I reminisced about Sydney and argued about God, just as we had back then. The discussion was soon interrupted when a woman from the group of tents next door came over, asking if we had any spare bread. She and her family were camping with some friends and the kids had caught some fish that afternoon. They had just cooked the fish but they had no bread to go with it so we gave them half a dozen slices from our loaf and thought nothing of it.

Less than 10 minutes later, the woman returned with a bottle of wine, thanking us for the bread. The next morning she came back again with some sopaipilla, a fried pumpkin bread common throughout Chile. This time, she introduced herself as Juana and we told her our names as we thanked her for her generosity.

“We are your neighbours,” Juana explained. “Whatever you need, ask us. That’s what neighbours are for.”

That night over supper, Leonel and I continued our discussion about God and Sydney. As we talked my sensitive Australian bowels became agitated and I excused myself, telling Leonel I would have to make an urgent trip to the bathroom.

As I headed off he called out: “Do you have any Confort?” The Spanish word for comfort, Confort is also the most popular brand of toilet paper in Chile.

Before the words were out of Leonel’s mouth, I remembered that Chile has a strict BYO policy when it comes to toilet paper and I realised that I didn’t have any Confort. It was a very discomforting thought and I stopped mid-step, wondering what to do.

Leonel spoke again, interrupting my anxious thoughts: “Why don’t you ask our neighbours?” he said with a chuckle.

Realising I had no alternative, I approached Juana’s camp table and asked in the most dignified Spanish that I could muster: “Excuse me, do you have any Confort?”

Like Leonel, Juana and her husband, Julio, began to laugh. It was about 9pm and they were drinking a mixture of white wine and sugar that had been left to sit in a carved out melon, soaking up the fruit’s flavour. Ignoring my question, they asked me if I had ever tried melon wine. I told them I hadn’t and so they proceeded to pour me a glass. I took a couple of sips and then repeated my request for Confort. This time Juana and Julio noticed the desperation in my voice and handed me a small role of toilet paper. I sped off to the toilet block.

After relieving myself and putting the Confort to good use, I returned to thank Juan and Julio. By this stage, they had been joined by their friends, Julia and Cristian. They had a warm fire going and music playing through a car stereo and Julio insisted that I stay to finish off the melon wine. I ended up staying and chatting for a while. It turned out that both couples came from the town of Los Lagos, about 40km away, where they worked on dairy farms. Every year, they returned to the same campsite for the summer.

Their children were learning English and they themselves had picked up various words and phrases which they were keen to practice with me. Julio’s favourite expression was “My friend!”, which he repeated over and over, pointing to me or patting me on the shoulder. Juana’s phrase of choice was “Oh my Go(d)”, said without the ‘d’. In my broken Spanish and their basic English, we somehow managed to communicate.

After an hour or so, Leonel joined us and the six of us swapped tales about our different countries. When a tune for Chile’s national dance, the cueca, came over the car radio, Juana insisted on giving me an impromptu lesson. Giving me a tea towel and a few quick instructions. Following her lead, I hopped from one foot to the other doing my best to imitate the Chileans I had seen performing the dance before. I managed to make it through the song and this time, Juana, Julio and Leonel applauded as they laughed.

All the while Juana continued to offer us food and drink, explaining that not everyone in Chile was this kind.

“We’re, different,” she said. “We’re sureños [southeners].”

At 4 o’clock, Leonel and I excused ourselves, explaining that we planned to head further north that afternoon and we needed to get some sleep. Before we could leave, Juana rushed over and gave me a crinkled piece of paper with her phone number and email address.

“You’ll have to come and stay with us,” she said. “You would be welcome any time.”

I haven’t contacted her yet but I think I will.

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