Germans had been colonizing the Lake District of Chile since the mid 19th century but somehow we were totally unprepared for just how much their presence influenced the region.
This was a break for us from Dido’s work and represented a chance to have a few days r&r and for that reason we decided to splash the cash and stay at a decent hotel. Our Lonely Planets guide suggested a timber-faced chalet-style establishment on the edge of Villarica Lake, but what it omitted to describe was the intensity of the Teutonic atmosphere within the building. As our luck would have it, the day we arrived was some sort of German related holiday and the entire staff together with all the German guests were donning national (Bavarian) dress, with all the men resplendent in lederhosen and feathered hats, and their “wenches” in dirndl. I’d ski-id as a youth in Austria, so I was used to this festive sartorial tradition. But what I wasn’t used to and hadn’t expected – at least not quite so overtly – was the proud and brazen identification of the hotel management with their Fatherland’s recent military past. Of course, I knew all about Nazis fleeing to South America at the end of the war, and about Eichmann and Mengele, but somehow I’d always connected this sort of thing with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I was rudely disabused of my ignorance however, just after we had checked-in and the bellhop took us into the elevator, which, instead of the usual mirrors was decorated with numerous photographs of Panzer crews posing on and about their tanks. Amazed and naively thinking that this was some sort of retro decorative gimmick – albeit in alarmingly poor taste, but essentially innocent – I asked the bellhop who these soldiers were?
‘Ach!’ he exclaimed, putting our bags down on the the floor, obviously thrilled that I had shown an interest; ‘This vas mine faater’s Panzer groupen” he said in an accent which was all German without a trace of Spanish,
‘Das man here’ pointing at the largest of the photos at a black-uniformed soldier leaning nonchalantly against his vehicle, ‘das man here ist mine grandfaater. A hero ov ze Eastern front!’
‘Oh gosh’ I replied limply.
‘Ya! A great hero – unt all his camaraden – all heroes!’ he added, gesturing expansively about the elevator. ‘Such gut fellows – yah…’ he suddenly tailed off in sombre contemplation.
‘He was a great man for sure’ I said trying not to betray my total insincerity.
‘But no! Nicht vas my friend!’ he responded.
‘What do you mean?’ I queried, fearing the answer.
‘Nicht vas‘ he repeated. ‘You just met him – zer olt man at zer reception…’
As he walked us down the corridor to our room I pondered what was worse: That I had just shaken the hand of a Nazi “war hero”, or that he had our passports in his possession…
The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides. While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!
We decided to end our visit to the Lakes region of Chile with a day-trip to the famous Island of Chiloe – famous among other things for being the original home of the potato. However, when we’d planned the excursion we hadn’t realised that the ferries which conveyed people and their motor vehicles from the mainland to the island were converted military landing craft – apparently of 1940’s vintage. As our bus rolled onto the craft we were perturbed when we noticed no safety gear of any kind – no life-jackets, no life-rings and certainly no life-craft. Our anxiety was increased by the fact that even with the front part of the boat on the landing ramp we were already being buffeted by an extremely rough sea. Once again, with our recent flirtations with mortality still fresh in the memory, after a mere exchange of looks we were off that bus, and off that boat before you had time to say “Herald of Free Enterprise”! Chiloe would have to wait for another time…