Carmen sits with her American guests in her high-walled yellow stucco restaurant off the main square in the small Chilean lake town of Vichuquén. She speaks in the lilt of hospitality, equal parts intimate and formal. Early autumn light covers the large country tables. The shutters are open. The air is soft. The menu is simple. The food welcomes us home in this new land. At Carmen’s table, we become a little bit Chilean. We are here with Florencia Mesa of Balloon Latam, a non-profit organization that supports rural micro-entrepreneurs like Carmen. Florencia oversees Balloon Latam’s “vinculación ecosistémica”; she supports and connects the networks of micro entrepreneurs in the Maule, Arucanía, and Patagonia regions. In twenty-four hours, she will take us into the lives of seven independent entrepreneurs living and working in the Maule region south of Santiago. Balloon has a simple and effective approach to rural economic development: entrepreneurship is personal. A restaurant, an artists’ studio, nature walks, a line of eco-detergent, a dressmaker’s workshop, a hydroponic organic farm. These are not just businesses; they are manifestations.
After lunch, we cross the square to the Artisanía. Roberto greets us. Totorro, a small black and white dog with strong self-esteem hangs off the cuff of Roberto’s pants. He growls and snarls. With Tortorro still attached, Roberto welcomes us into the shop he co-owns with his wife, Peeky. Together, he and Peeky paint and fire the ceramics for sale in the breezy front rooms. Where the six foot shelves end, a menagerie of vintage album covers, artwork, and sculptures cover the walls. Roberto calls himself a hoarder, but he is not indiscriminate. Roberto credits Peeky as the business brain of their operation, but it was Roberto who thought to hang this collection of curios. “For the husbands”, he says. “The longer you can keep the husbands interested, the longer the wives will shop.” We wind through the shop and a small blue kitchen to the open studio where the kiln fires and Tortorro sleeps on his custom bunk bed. Out back, past a second workshop, three pet rabbits nap in their hutch while laundry dries in the sun. A cat teases Tortorro to certain humiliation.
We drive west to Laguna Torca to walk the edge of the lake preserve with Cristobal, an eco guide and artist. Cristobal will call to tiny flitting seven-colored birds called los siete colores. We will click our camera phones too slowly to capture them. The yecos look like vultures and snort like pigs. They pepper a looming bare branched tree as dusk approaches and they call it a day. A woodpecker pounds his head against the bark next to an unpaved land bridge that bisects a narrow part of the lake. We stand with Cristobal on an elevated platform, binoculars in hand. We are quiet and still. Our shared focus takes the place of small talk and brings us into communion with the birds and with one another. When he is not guiding eco tourists, Cristobal paints watercolors of the birds. He sells the framed originals as well as reproductions on rustic linen bags. His work clothes are dusty; he has the demeanor of a farmer, a biologist, a painter. He is familiar with solitude, and with the land, and he is thoughtful when he speaks. His work affords him time to think about the world and his place in it.
It is dark by the time we reach Soledad. She meets us at the base of her impossibly steep dirt driveway. We follow her up the hillside, a blind ten-year old spaniel in tow. The stars are abundant; we can see the milky way. The lake is black in the distance. From this quiet angled hike we emerge into the light of the house that Soledad built with her boisterous English husband. Soledad and her husband met years before when he traveled to Chile to collect a custom sail boat he had commissioned. They sailed together for the next five years, then settled back in Chile and built an olive farm. That farm sits adjacent to their hillside house; they recently sold it and have retired into environmental activism on an intimate scale. Lake Torca is a summer retreat of increasing popularity. Unchecked development threatens the environment. When runoff polluted the lake, Soledad began Burbujas del Sol, a line of laundry detergents and face soaps so simple, she half-heartedly adds fragrance. Her studio farther up the hillside is part kitchen, part front counter. Soaps, detergents, beeswax candles. Soledad hesitates to call it a product line. To her, it is an intuitive extension of her local environmental activism. And of her teaching. She teaches environmental responsibility in the area schools. She explains that it is not enough to inform. You have to also offer solutions.
The following morning, we drive the narrow streets of Lincatén and stop a girl on her way to school to ask if she knows where la Señora Marta, the seamstress, lives. Marta operates out of her home and is well known. Her house is small, two rooms on top of two rooms. Downstairs, a front room and back kitchen; upstairs, a bedroom and her sewing room. She shows us the elaborate dresses commissioned for the fiestas patrias that mark Chilean independence. She pulls out a chef’s jacket and a windbreaker. Her customer base is large. Still, she does not wish to open a shop or add on to her house. She needs a third sewing machine. Balloon will connect her to competitive grants. At her kitchen table, we eat caramel Manjar on toast and listen to her recount recent events with the Balloon fellows, a young international cohort of entrepreneurial coaches who travel to Maule to live in towns like Lincatén to support local ambitions. Listening to Marta, Florencia eats the Manjar toast. She tells us later that Manjar reminds Chileans of their childhood.
Our last visit before we return to Santiago where I will deliver a lecture, una charla, at the Innovation Center at Pontificia Universidad Católica, is to Ramón’s hydroponic organic farmstead. A large brindle bull dog guards the curb as we pull up to Ramón’s market. He and his wife, Hilda, deliver produce to neighborhoods on a hybrid scooter-truck they designed and built themselves. In the open back of the truck, there is an elevated row of PVC piping that holds heads of young green lettuce. In the bed below, there are care packages of vegetables: lettuces, carrots, radishes. Ramón gardens by eminent domain. He delights in the labyrinth of greenhouses that stretch back beyond the store. Ramón and Hilda tinker, experiment, invent. They make their own liquid organic fertilizer. The hydroponic system is basic and effective; every three days, the small motor churns the water through the pipes, stirring up nutrients. A peek inside the PVC piping reveals the roots of a hundred lettuce babies. Nearby, doves coo in a small wooden coop. A handsome bearded goat stares. One latched door leads to gardens, another to rabbits and chickens. The roof is plastic sheeting. The light is bright and diffuse. The air is humid. Ramón pulls fat little carrots and round red strawberries from their beds for us. Hilda shows us how to shell an almond. We eat our way through their work.