It’s late evening in Castro, on the island of Chiloé. The town is emptier than I expect. San Martin, the main street is where the locals come to shop. But right now everything is closed, shuttered or padlocked. A department store sits nestled between a fishmonger and a grocer. Its huge glass façade and fluorescent lighting is a jarring sight as it casts an impersonal glow onto the grubby street. This is not the Castro I came to see. Next door, the hand painted sign of the fishmonger catches my eye. It lists the fish they have for sale: Corvina; Merlusa; Peje Rey; Congrio and Salmon. The last one is the only one I recognise. Its artless letters painted by someone that knows nothing other than life in Castro. How long before this shop will give way to the big department stores from the capital?
In Chiloe, night arrives like fallen earth. In its shroud I walk, bent toward the chill air. In homes around me, fireplaces are being lit, bringing with it the comforting smell of ash and cooking. This is what I came for. I breathe in the scent from these almost forgotten fireplaces, where meals are prepared for absent men. The road glistens from a recent burst of rain. A blind beggar sits leaning against a shop front, singing a folk song, while tapping his cane on the wet ground. In his other hand he rattles a tin can with coins. I drop loose change into it. He doesn’t react, his singing neither sad nor desperate, he carries on dutifully. I reach concrete stairs that lead down to the foreshore. I stop halfway down, between two houses – one blue, the other red and I catch a glimpse of the sea– black like tar. Tonight I don't need to venture there. It is enough to know the sea is out there.
In Castro, the sea is always present, visible or not. Where the houses sit perched like birdhouses over water, that’s the essence of Castro. It is where the true people of the sea live. Fishermen and their fishing families who draw their livelihood from these waters, as generations did before them. From up here, I can make out the silhouette of their tethered vessels near the few houses that remain. I imagine these people of the sea, wrapped in woolen sweaters, scarves and hats. Their muddy boots by the door. I can hear their conversations as lively and flowing easily within the wood paneled rooms. From this vantage point, I can see lives in motion. Is this the real Castro?
I can see a fringe where dark water and dark sky meet, this I tell myself, is where their stories live. Existing between faith and superstition.
It’s time for me to go back to my room for much needed warmth. As I walk along a side street, I see a dog slink away from me. It ducks into a shadow and then it’s gone. I reach the plaza, the meeting point of the town. I’m surprised to see people still here. Women stride past me, eager to get home. Teenagers sit, embracing on benches beneath grey trees. Stray dogs sniff and explore around their feet. The teenagers’ interlock arms and whisper lover’s words as they stare up at a black sky. There are no stars for them to admire tonight.
A song rises from somewhere, kindling a last breath of enthusiasm for the passage of night. I walk in the direction of a tavern on a corner. The music grows louder, swelling with the sounds of an accordion, an out-of-tune guitar, and the eager voices of drunken men. I stand outside the window, listening to these hard-worn voices. Songs about love, grief and days long forgotten are bellowed out in waves of changing volume. This is the real Chiloé. This is what I came for.
I decide not to enter as it feels like trespassing. So I walk away, while the simple tune continues, pumped relentlessly by the accordion player. When I am far away that I can only just hear it, I pause. It sounds like a train moving in the night, heading to an unknown destination with its occupants blissfully unconcerned. I wait, expecting something to come my way, but there is only the faint melody. I don’t know how long I stand there. Eventually, the accordion player relents also – sinking into the fog and darkness.