Puerto Natales looked like a smaller more panoramically located version of Punto Arenas. The panorama consisted of a wide azure inlet from the Pacific surrounded by a curtain of dramatic snow-capped mountains – the southern tail of the Andes chain. As we’re now used to, the sun still stubbornly skimmed the horizon though our arrival was relatively late.
We looked for the address our CS hosts had given us, hiking upwards from the shore, past the high green walls of a cemetery, through residential neighborhoods of little multicolored houses with patched metal siding. As we passed a restaurant, the number on the door corresponded with number in our hand. We were confused, but our confusion was interrupted (not satisfied by) a sudden outburst from a little white poodle yapping in one of the bay windows and the faces of two woman waving and laughing inside. The door opened and we were ushered into the interior of what seemed to be an inn filled with people, a stove glowing red, and the ongoing exclamations of the excited poodle. We we introduced to several adults, some teenagers and an elderly Austrian named Helga. Disoriented, we were led past a board with hanging keys, a bar, a kitchen and finally into the family area in the back. This was a big room with another cozy stove, multiple worn but plush leather couches and recliners, and a few more new faces.
Our hostess, Gloria, was speaking rapidly in Spanish which I hoped Magda was getting all of. I had read the reviews for these hosts on CS, all extremely positive, but it seemed to be we were in a hostel of some kind. This impression seemed to be confirmed as we entered what was to be our room: a dorm type set-up, with two giant un-made bunk beds on either end. Gloria, still cheerfully explaining things, led us to our bed. My attention was drawn to the first bed where it appeared someone had tried to dynamite a backpack, but only succeeded in exploding half of the contents all over the bed and floor. Personal articles of every description lay about shamelessly.
Gloria told us this was the bed of a German girl who had cut her leg and it was now infected. I thought I could see both the cause of the cut and the infection before us.
Then we were out in the family room again and Gloria got down to business. Here’s where we learn this is actually a hostel, or some style of Internet bait and switch. She began to explain, very slowly, that while we were under her roof, we were family and that her house was our house. Only then was I able to focus on our hostess. She was a middle aged Chilean with black hair streaked with amber highlights. She had a kind, round face and an easy crooked smile. I smiled when she smiled, and she smiled wider. She asked if we understood Spanish well, and Magda explained she understood a bit, and me, not much. I smiled again and nodded like a moron. Gloria looked at me and pointed at her eyes, which crinkled happily,
“Then we speak with our eyes, not our words.” she said, in Spanish.
This was not a bait and switch, this was simply an extremely generous person standing before us, welcoming us into her home.
She had introduced us to her husband, who like many husbands was not entirely invested in the Couchsurfing gig, but he did seem genuinely eager to learn about their visitors and their respective countries. He was not a fan of Americans and especially not of Americans who hadn’t bothered to learn to speak the second language of the Americas. He was going to be tough to charm I thought, so I turned on my most compelling, ingratiating grin. It didn’t work. He had no time for gringos from what he called “Gringolandia”. Magda was another story. They had had many Polish guests and loved them all. When he turned to her he was all warmth and hospitality – helpfully correcting her Spanish as she told him about our travels. If I happened to understand the thread of the conversion and interject a well timed “muy bueno”, his light would dim a little, dark brows clouding the warmth. After Magda finished he began a few questions about America that were less looking for answers than for acknowledgment.
“Americanos clash with the Mexicanos all the time. Americans don’t like the Mexicans.”
I tried with Magda’s help to explain this wasn’t necessarily true.
“America is very violent. New York is very violent. Violence is very normal there.”
Again we tried to counter that yes, while there was some violence it really wasn’t that bad. He looked skeptical. Then I screwed up. You might be thinking I screwed up by trying to participate in this conversation at all but I’m a great believer in talking. The problem with talking is that like walking, you occasionally put your foot in something, especially when it’s dark. I fumbled around for two of the only words I know that might have related to the conversation.
“Barrios Pobre” I said. ‘Poor neighborhoods’ regarding where the violence could be found.
Well. Isn’t that just the typical blanco gringo from Gringolandia. All poor people are violent? I suddenly realized this was a far, far more nuanced conversation than I was equipped for. Our host, who’s features framed and set off two sparkling green eyes turned toward me again and said that poor does not equal violence. The poorest countries were not the most violent. Look at Peru, he offered for example.
It was time to abandon any hope of winning this man over, this is of course true, I offered, with Magda’s help.
Is this true? Statistically speaking, no. But it was long past the time for me to shut up.
Gloria was in the kitchen getting dinner ready with Helga the Austrian. I went to offer help and to abandon my ill-fated mission of peace.
The dining table in the restaurant was sent for 10. Our host’s family consisted of the parents, their teenage son and daughter, another teenage boy, and a large, jolly woman who seemed to be a family friend. The other couchsurfers were Helga the Austrian, the injured German, a young man from Argentina with one relaxed eyelid – he kept his good eye on the German, who despite the state of her backpack was polite and pretty – and finally, us.
The dinner was delicious, Helga made an Austrian salad, Gloria some kind of delicious fish. The conversation was in Spanish, with the occasional smattering of German and English to explain a point. By the end of dinner we felt far more relaxed. The father and I mended fences a bit when I offered to do the dishes and he showed me around the sink.
There was a small catch to this Couchsurfing spectacular. Like 99% of Puerto Natales, Gloria was in the tour booking industry. One of the only reasons to visit is to go to Torres del Paine, Chile’s most spectacular park. Since you have to book a trip through someone, it might as well be through our host. This makes complete sense, and is probably a great reason to host so many couchsurfers. Gloria lamented to us that the rest of the industry considers tourists as a commodity and that she prefers to host and get to know them, humanize them and welcome them into her home. Couchsurfing hosts who’ve hosted as many surfers as Gloria and her family have are in an elite class and are more likely than not collectors at heart. They had three books full of notes of thanks, a map of the world stuck full pins and flags, and still had energy to bring more travelers into their home.
Her colleagues think she’s crazy but it’s a scheme that works for everyone. While I washed dishes, Magda and Gloria planned our trip the next day to Torres del Paine. They figured out the cost of each leg and Gloria gave us tickets right there in her house. In the morning she went and bought tickets to Ushuaia for us.
Living and eating with your customers has its advantages, as does living and eating with your travel agent.
Early in the morning, before the rest of the little inn was stirring, we left for Torres del Paine.