200km south of Santiago lies the Central Valley. This wine region is dotted with fancy wineries around charming little towns. The little town of Santa Cruz, our home for the next 3 weeks, is situated about two hours south of the Capitol, Santiago.
We get off the bus on a Sunday to a seemingly quiet town. The air is dry here and my skin feels tight. There are only about 6 other people at the bus terminal. We wait patiently for our host, Janine Dubois to come and fetch us, because we have no idea where to go at all. She is originally from California, but ended up in Chile thanks to her Chilean husband Jaime (pronounced Hi – may). Together they have 3 grown children, one of which, Giovanna, is the head chef at the family owned and run Italian restaurant, Vino Bello. The family also owns a small B&B, Hotel Vino Bello, down the road from the Resto. Both are idyllically surrounded by vineyards and open air. The views of the mountains and the protection from the outside world by the grapevines are as relaxing as you can imagine.
We will be spending our time helping at the restaurant, in the kitchen mostly, and at the B&B tending to guests. For the first time since we started our journey T and I will be separated for a few hours every day…I will be in the kitchen, she will be at the B&B, and the week after we switch…can you say separation anxiety.
This time around we do not live with the family, but stay in a little house in town along with other “helpers”. These are two Americans as obnoxious, pretentious, ignorant and boisterous as most stereotypes suggest (I generally have nothing against Americans, I have met many wonderful and pleasant ones). These specific ones couldn’t make it as English teachers in Santiago and are now waiting on tables at the resto, getting paid and living in this house for free for a while before travelling onwards. We didn’t spend much time with them as their primary downtime activity was getting embarrassingly drunk and complaining about their current situation. A far cry from our urge to discover our new surroundings.
Our work in the 150 – 200 pax restaurant kitchen mainly consists of prepping food for later cooking before being plated. It included exciting activities such as cleaning 20 heads of lettuce (my very first job), picking spinach for 3 hours, weighing pasta and portioning chicken, meat and lamb. Later on I did more stimulating things like making crumbed camembert and eventually making pizza on the very last day. There is also a lot of dishwashing involved..A LOT!
There are a few interesting characters working at Vino Bello Restaurant – José, a waiter who has been here for years is definitely the joker of the group and with his limited English and my broken Spanish we always manage to have lively conversations in Spanglish. Rafael (or Rafa as he is affectionately known) the sous chef and little Sofi, the pastry chef are my favourites in the kitchen. Understanding anything Rafa says is almost impossible. You must understand that Chilean Spanish is nothing like any other Spanish. It really should be called Chilean as it is a language only they can understand. He talks and talks, I say “No entiendo Rafa”, then he talks some more, facial expression not changing, no hand gestures to help me guess what he means. This is a problem, as he is the one giving me orders while Giovanna is out of the kitchen. I generally say “si”, and then just do whatever it is I think he wants me to do. More often than not he will walk in my direction, his index finger moving from side to side in front of his chest, shaking his head with a hopeless little smile on his face. Demonstration always works best he’s learnt.
Sofi just laughs at the confusion, and occasionally slips me little bowls of ice-cream. She tells me stories in Spanish, I tell her stories in English and we both just smile at each other because we both probably think it’s good manners even though we don’t understand much. After a daily 5 hour shift in the kitchen, feet in pain, back aching I do have a great deal of respect for those in the kitchens of restaurants the world over.
Seeing that we are in wine country we have the opportunity to try and learn about some of the best wines Chile has to offer. Apparently there is more to know than 1. open bottle and 2. pour in glass. Many of the wineries around Santa Cruz are quite ‘exclusive’ and most specialise in Carmanere – an authentic Chilean grape that mistaken for Merlot in the past. Our first taste of Carmanere is with Janine at Montez, probably the winery with the most beautiful view from the café terrace of the vineyard strewn hills.
One Saturday morning, while getting ready for kitchen duty, a loud rumble travels through the air and the ground starts moving like liquid earth beneath my feet! A few seconds go by and I expect the rumble to pass like the mine explosions in Joburg, except it doesn’t, and I have no idea what to do. I look to T who looks concerned, but not yet alarmed and I suddenly realise that we are absolutely clueless when it comes to the action that needs to be taken when caught in an earthquake. Our first actual earthquake! After that morning we were told that Chile literally has hundreds of little earthquakes every month and generally they are mostly harmless….yeah, until they’re not!
We become comfortable in the dry air of Santa Cruz, find the best ice-cream store in town with ease, and even manage to go for a jog in rural Chilean suburbia. Three weeks here should be interesting enough..