Time's Up on Tenglo

Since my last post, up through the end of January, I have continued with my duties on Isla Tenglo providing water taxi service for the B&B guests and tending to the lawns and gardens.

The weather has been outstanding – sunny and warm, with an occasionally southerly breeze or brief rainstorm to cool things off.  I’ve enjoyed spending time with Christian and his extended family who live on and/or visit the island.

After 7 weeks on the island, I’m also now recognized by and friendly with the locals – whether it’s the staff at Club Nautico Reloncavi (where I eat lunch every day), the other water taxi skippers (who take me back and forth to get the little boat I skipper), the shop owners (where I buy my staples), or random island residents (whom I pass on the path to/from work).  Everyone says “Hola” or “Buenas tardes” with a big smile.

It reminds me why I like this style of travel – staying put in one community for an extended period of time.  I’m not just interacting with people who are paid to be nice to me; I’m interacting with local people as they carry out their daily lives.   And I’m helping my host family run their business and care for their house, trying to make their lives a little easier for a few weeks. 

Because believe me, life isn’t exactly a vacation on Isla Tenglo.  It’s tough living, not resort living.

There is no front office, no security station, no guest services desk, no business center, and no health and wellness fitness room.  There aren’t really any community services like police or fire departments. There is a church, and I believe a school as well.  In general, residents and visitors alike must be self-reliant, resourceful, and resilient. 

I can’t speak for the few hundred people who live here full time, nor the few hundred more who come visit, but I know that for me, the tradeoff is that with the tough living also comes a raw beauty, tranquility, and isolation that is very appealing – as well as the satisfaction of ‘making it’ on your own.  (It’s similar to the appeal of sailing.)

Back home in San Francisco, I never even think about whether I’ll have hot water, WIFI, or heat. On Isla Tenglo, it’s different.  We don’t take these luxuries for granted.  They require constant monitoring and care.  Do we have enough propane in the tank to heat the water?  Is the water pump itself in good working order?  Do we have dry wood for the wood-burning stove?  Do we have too many appliances turned on at once?  (This only happened once, when we had two space heaters, a toaster, and microwave all going at once – the draw on power was too much and the circuit breaker shut off.  Easy to reset, but reminded us we need to be careful.) 

We are lucky that Casa Roja and Punta Piedras are only steps from the beach.  We only have to walk a short distance with heavy grocery or garbage bags.  Many families have to haul their groceries and garbage up and down the hill – mostly by hand or wheelbarrow, as there are only a couple of 4-wheel drive trucks I’ve seen on the island.

We plan our activities around the tides and weather.  High tide means a shorter walk to the house, as the 10-15 foot tidal change can add an extra 30 meters to your walk (across a slippery rocky beach).  Low tide is a good time to inspect boat mooring lines anchored to the seabed, to collect shellfish among the rocks, or to pick up garbage from the beach that washed ashore at high tide.  

The weather here at the north end of Patagonia is unpredictable, and changes rapidly.  Numerous times I’ve had to take a break from my mowing, pruning, or composting to let a small rainstorm pass overhead.  A few times I’ve suspended my ‘taxi service’ because of the high winds and choppy waves.  One day it rained, then hailed, and then was sunny – all within a span of 30 minutes!  I’ve learned to always carry by waterproof jacket and pants, an extra upper layer, and my fleece hat in my backpack wherever I go… just in case.  That south wind is cold!

The weather can get pretty nasty, with gusty wind in particular.  We had a power line go down in December because of the high winds breaking a large tree branch.  Another day we had a tree fall onto the deck, with only the lighter-weight branches hitting the house.  Either event could have been a lot worse!  (A side benefit of the tree falling down was we ended up with a lot of firewood that will be dry by this winter, hopefully.) 

There are a couple of small stores on the island.  I use the term ‘store’ loosely.  These generally take the form of a storage shed in someone’s front yard, stocked with a small selection of canned and dry goods, bottled beverages, and some fresh local vegetables and eggs.  I walk up to the house, ring the doorbell, and whoever answers then escorts me over to the shed where I do my shopping.  The inventory is hit or miss, as are the operating hours.  Several times, I’ve tried to go shopping, but no one is home.  Other times I’ve gone only to find key staples (fresh vegetables, pasta, or beer) are out of stock.  

If I’m not providing my own taxi service, I use the local (professional) boat taxi service – but they only operate during daytime, so we plan our outings to the mainland accordingly.  No late nights out in Puerto Montt, or we’re sleeping on the docks!  Actually, we are fortunate to have the friendly staff of Club Nautico Reloncavi who will take us to the island as a last resort if the boat taxis have stopped running.  And Christian’s Beneteau 44 sailing yacht is at the dock; I slept on the boat a few times for convenience if I’m providing late-night or early-morning crossings for guests on the little boat.

My gardening responsibilities are seemingly endless.  It’s summer now and things are growing like crazy.  I can barely keep up.  Just when I finish mowing the expansive lawn at one of the houses, it’s time to mow the lawn at the other house.  I’ve been trying to compost the grass cuttings, but even the compost piles are getting overrun by grass cuttings.  I need more ‘brown’ stuff, but nothing in Patagonia is brown right now – it’s green, green, green. 

Life on Tengo Island teaches you to be resourceful. You have to improvise sometimes, and make things work until you can get to the mainland again.  In this regard, it’s like sailing.  You have to be self-reliant and use what you have around you.

The other day, a neighbor invited me in for coffee.  I watched her make shrimp empanadas.  She used an empty wine bottle as a rolling pin, and a small plate on its side as a dough cutter.  I watched another neighbor use a huge piece of styrafoam as a dinghy to paddle to his boat anchored offshore. 

Reduce, reuse, and recycle.  These words have never been more true when you live on a small island. 

So it is not easy living – but the rewards are worth the effort.

On Isla Tenglo, you are immersed in nature.   The plant life is all encompassing -- from bright green ferns to towering trees, from colorful flowers to ripening berries and apples.  There is playful marine life, like sea lions and penguins, and traditional livestock like cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens.  And as I’ve mentioned, the weather and tides are part of daily life that you can’t ignore.

The community is welcoming, friendly, and supportive. Everyone I walk by on the island says “Hola” or “Buenos dias.”  People help each other.  We gave a neighbor a ride to the mainland the other day.  A gentleman repositioned the boat for me as the tide receded faster than I’d anticipated.  A neighbor invited me to sit out on her front lawn the other day to enjoy the view overlooking the channel.

The feeling of separation, even isolation, from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Montt is quite unique.  Life is stripped down to what's necessary.  Luxuries may not be material things, but natural things, like a sunny day that dries your laundry quickly or a gentle breeze that dries the sweat from your brow.  It’s a bit like stepping back in time, or at least slowing down time. 

Unfortunately, though, time keeps going, and my time on Tenglo Island is up.  I’ve been here 7 weeks, and have enjoyed my time with fantastic people on this amazing little island.  But I have to get back to my own life in San Francisco.  So, after a couple of tasty farewell dinners (homemade gnocchi and traditional asado - gracias!), I'm headed north to Santiago by bus, taking about a week to poke along a few smaller towns before catching my flight home.

I’ll miss Tenglo, but I’m comforted by knowing I’ll be back again someday.  Hasta lluego!

 Taking a stroll along one of the roads on Isla Tenglo.

Taking a stroll along one of the roads on Isla Tenglo.

 Beach walk at low tide.

Beach walk at low tide.

 Beach walk at low tide.

Beach walk at low tide.

 Up on the ridge, overlooking the south side of Isla Tenglo.

Up on the ridge, overlooking the south side of Isla Tenglo.

 Relaxing at Club Nautico Reloncavi (on the mainland), waiting for guests to arrive.  This part of the job isn't very tough.  

Relaxing at Club Nautico Reloncavi (on the mainland), waiting for guests to arrive.  This part of the job isn't very tough.  

 On the mainland, I hiked up a long set of stairs to the ridge, overlooking Isla Tenglo and the Club Nautico Reloncavi.

On the mainland, I hiked up a long set of stairs to the ridge, overlooking Isla Tenglo and the Club Nautico Reloncavi.

 On the mainland, I hiked up a long set of stairs to the ridge, overlooking Isla Tenglo and the Club Nautico Reloncavi.

On the mainland, I hiked up a long set of stairs to the ridge, overlooking Isla Tenglo and the Club Nautico Reloncavi.

 Christian preparing the barbecue in his front yard.

Christian preparing the barbecue in his front yard.

 Christian grilling all kinds of meats!

Christian grilling all kinds of meats!

 The view from my little room in Casa Roja.  I'll miss it!

The view from my little room in Casa Roja.  I'll miss it!