The people make the place

I always take the window seat. Sunsets across countries, stars across states, mountain views and ocean expanses – for why would one stare at the seatbelt light and snoring men when a view lies only a glance away? So on a recent trip from RDU, I found myself sitting window side, flying not out of the country but back to California. Yet as the greenery of North Carolina faded to the mountains of Colorado to the geometric farmlands of the valley, I couldn’t help but reminisce on the travels of the past year.

The people make the place. I’ve heard this expression used many times before, but I also have found it to be incredibly true. Yet in traveling, I have discovered a new interpretation of such a ubiquitous phrase. The people of the lost and forgotten, the overlooked and the ignored, these are the people that truly make a place.

Sleepy roads of Neltume, Chile

During this past summer in Patagonia, as we walked the short path from one house to another, the rain soaked paths of our small Neltume compound filled with puddles, growing and growing as the deluge continued to fall. Days of soaking up the sun passed as weeks of rain followed. We meandered down the road to the nearby waterfalls, passing the vibrant murals with neighborhood dogs falling in our footsteps. Snow peaked mountains laid behind us as we set our way on the path we’d come to walk numerous times. Our days in the sleepy town began much the same way each day – rain falling, fireplaces roaring, blankets scattered about and Radio Neltume calmly playing in the background. The town we knew was clear and distinct, as the wandering roads which were once the great unknown had transformed into streets lined with homes we had been welcomed into. Sipping mate on a July morning, the sky had transformed from a bright blue to a foreboding grey as winter had set in. Yet even within the small Chilean town of Neltume, surprise, newness and intrigue still awaited.

In efforts to beat cabin fever, we set to explore the Museo de los Volcanes, a museum that aims to shed light on Mapuche culture, indigenous tribes of South America, and the history of the Neltume community. The attractions of such a small community continue to overwhelm as a massive museum emerged from the fog and downpour that had surrounded us. Wandering inside, the museum walls were written with words of “Estos objetos del Mapuche muestran las intervenciones que los pueblos originarios realizaron a los elementos naturales que encontraron en su respectivo medio ambiente.” Essentially, the museum embodied the relationship of people and the land.

Blue Mountains National Park- Australia
Sydney Museum exploring aboriginal culture

Wandering the floors, I couldn’t help but to draw parallels between countries of travels past as the Aborginal culture of Australia described the foundational belief of baranyi yagu barrabugu– wisdom of acting now for the future of our garrigarrang. Garrigarrang is a concept that is defined as “the place of the ocean, plants and animals, the beach, land and estuaries; and the seasons, weather and sky.” In short, baranyi yagu barrabugu was a simple notion that one should act with the mindset of protecting his or her environment, quite similar to kaitiakitanga, a guiding principle among the New Zealand Māori. Approaching the environment from a Māori paradigm, environmentalism takes on lessons of spirituality, kinship, respect and value. The Māori concept of Tikanga dictates a way in which one lives; for if one acts in accordance with the examples set by virtuous people, this is referred to as tika. Embodying such tika is Tāne Mahuta, the god of the forest and a parent to the trees, leader of the kaitaki, the guardians of the forest. It is said in Māori legends that in the beginning there was mother earth and sky father. Their son Tāne separated his parents letting light into the world, but in the process harmed his mother and father. To redeem himself, Tāne placed trees on his mother and stars on his father and such trees created the forests that are believed to hold apart the earth and sky. Letting kaitiakitanga guide their actions and honoring Tāne, the Māori look upon such beauty of New Zealand landscapes with more than opportunism, but with awe, admiration, and respect.

Milford Sound- Piopiotahi in Maori
Native NZ parrot species – Kea
Toitū Otago Settlers Museum- Maori Inscription

Within the walls of the museum, I had found the same connection encompassed in the Mapuche traditions surrounding the environment. The Mapuche name Kallinko makes reference to the ngen, the defender, guardian and benefactor that dwells in Lago Neltume. The current ten or so communities surrounding the lake now serve as living embodiments of Lago Neltume, nurtured by their “newen.” Mapuche place a similar value system on their natural world. In native populations, such spirituality of nature is written into themoral code of environmental protection and is approached as something to be respected and protected. Even within Mapudungun, the Mapuche language, words of value surrounding nature fill the pages. Tree– mamëll. Sky– wenu. Mawida– mountain, jungle, forest. For mawida is spoken about with shakin, or honor.

Reflections on Lago Neltume

From country to country and people to people, a reverence for the land was instilled into each culture. As we both descended and climbed countless museum floors, cultural accounts of a reverence for the environment were abound. For in the end, it was these people that made the place.

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