Blanca’s kitchen sat in the back of the house overlooking her garden. It was filled with greens and root vegetables that she used for her daily cooking needs. Eggs from a local farmer sat on the counter. Peppers hung drying in the window. Fresh cheese made by a neighbor lay in the fridge. The embers of the wood-burning stove radiated warmth through the space.
In the spring of my junior year of college, I studied public health and traditional medicine in Chile. For my independent practicum, I designed a project on the relationship between occidental culture and mental health perceptions in an indigenous Mapuche community. I moved to the small town of Carahue, Chile with an Airbnb reservation, a single contact at the nearby hospital, and an advisor two hours away by bus. This was not my first time living in someone else’s home, but this was my first time entering a new place alone without anyone I knew by my side. I was a complete stranger.
To welcome me to Carahue, my Airbnb host, Blanca, told me we would make dinner together. She began to mix eggs and spinach from her backyard in a large mixing bowl. She poured it into a frying pan on the stove. The eggs bubbled. She picked up the pan and, with a flip of her wrist, she sent the Frisbee-sized omelet of egg and spinach into the air. Tortilla, she said.
After watching her for a couple of rounds, she handed me the heavy pan and said, Venga, venga. Uno, dos, tres. She exclaimed in surprise as the tortilla spun 180 degrees in the air and landed back into the pan. Una vez más. One more time. Uno, dos, tres. My beginner’s luck had disappeared. The tortilla pivoted in the air and somersaulted half onto the floor and half onto the stove. Blanca tilted her head back, opened her arms, and let out a reassuring belly laugh, a laugh that invited me to join in. She picked up the remnants of my tortilla and pieced it back together in the pan. The next time we made tortillas, Blanca handed me a smaller pan.
Tortilla-making became a biweekly tradition, paired with enjoying a bottle of Chilean red wine while sharing in our daily joys and woes. Blanca also taught me how to knit red roses and craft small felt birds and dolls from local wool. She brought me to the egg farmer and her neighbor who sold cheese. We ate fried fish at the restaurant where only the farmers ate and hiked along the shore in a neighboring town.
Our companionship may have been out of necessity or solely due to proximity, but as I became la gringa de Carahue, Blanca became my guide, my protector and my friend, mi madre chilena. Locals would often ask me, Estás acá sola? Are you here alone? Más o menos, I would reply. More or less. Then, I would tell them that I lived with a woman named Blanca.
Maya Salvio is a neuroscience major, Spanish minor, and community engagement and social change concentrator in the Class of 2018. Spring 2017, she studied public health, traditional medicine and community empowerment on an SIT program in Chile. She hopes to study psychiatric mental health nursing next year and is passionate about the need for a culturally competent healthcare system in the U.S. When she is not traveling or doing homework, you can find her with a stash of dried mango on a hike in the Pioneer Valley telling a story.by