Emerging in the early morning fog, a woman in a dress made of blue-green algae rises from the water off Chiloé. She steps on the shore, her skin perfumed by the sea, her golden hair churning like sea foam. She turns toward the waters from where she came, begins a ritual dance and combs through her hair. Her actions bless the sea life in the waters from which she emerged. The fishing that day will be bountiful.
If she had turned toward the shore, the catch would have been more meager.
The woman is La Pincoya, a Chilote—native to the archipelago of Chiloé—goddess of the sea. Some call her a sea sprite. Another of La Pincoya’s tasks is to transport with great tenderness those on the island who pass away. She carries them to the mystical ship the Caleuche where they begin a new life of eternal happiness.
To reach Chiloé, travelers can choose a 14-hour bus trip from Chile’s capital of Santiago, or take a less than two-hour flight from Santiago directly to Castro, a town located on the Grand Island of Chiloe, the largest in the archipelago. Another option is to fly to Puerto Montt, close to Chile’s lakes region, and drive to Pargua to a ferry that transports them and vehicle to Ancud, Chiloe’s northernmost city. Seals often accompany the ferry on its relatively short 30-minute voyage. Once in Chiloé visitors find brightly colored houses on stilts called palafitos, and in various location 16 wooden churches that are considered UNESCO world heritage sites. I saw images of the ship and other Chilote myths on the walls of a church there. The northernmost island is home to Chiloé National Park, an ecotourism site.
Because of its uniqueness and how the mythical appears in unexpected ways throughout Chiloé, I have often thought of setting a novel there. In the novel, Chiloé is the place where a woman goes to start her life again four years after a tragedy that kept her from completing her doctoral dissertation about the island’s myths. She meets a man—Chilean but also an outsider to Chilote culture—who lost his younger brother in the country’s past political upheaval. Recently, the waters off Chiloe, a community dependent on fishing, were poisoned by a serious algae bloom that threatened its main source of income, its very survival. Sea life of all kinds washed ashore, poisoned by the algae. That tragedy also has a place in the narrative.
In this novel, I want to reflect on how people recover from tremendous loss and how mystery works in the background of their lives. Chiloe, with its myth and unique scenery seems the perfect location to explore the fragility of life. I have to admit that most of all, I want an excuse, though I don’t really need one, to return to a place that fascinated me from the first time I visited there more than a decade ago and one time since. I plan to go back next year. The novel is only one reason why.