Misael Marchan was happy when he arrived in Torres del Paine National Park, in southern Chile, to resume his craft as a pastry chef, full of hope that he would save money to reunite with his family in Venezuela. But just as he was about to achieving his goal, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and put him out of work.
Photos: Álbum Familiar
Torres del Paine National Park, a national park located in the Magallanes Region, in southern Chile, is a magnificent territory. It is surrounded by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Its melting glaciers turn into lagoons, rivers and lakes whose temperatures are too cold for swimming but whose beauty and diversity will stop your eyes from blinking and your heart from beating for a few seconds. No wonder it is one of the main tourist destinations in Chile. Despite the icy landscape, visitors are presented with four types of vegetation: Magellanic forest, Pre-Andean shrubland, Patagonian steppe, and Andean desert, and hope to spot a puma, a condor, an eagle, a guanaco, a woodpecker, or a fox.Misael Marchan arrived there on a dark cloudy day in 2017. He was to work as a pastry chef in a luxurious hotel. He had to take a 2-hour plus ride along a rocky road from Puerto Natales to make it to his destination. The moving van kept the passengers awake, but it didn’t prevent Marchan from dreaming that, from that moment on, things would get better for him; that he would finally resume his job of more than 20 years; that eight months from then he would finally reunite with his family back in Venezuela.In Caracas, he worked in a bakery making pies, puff pastries, bread, and cakes. He also owned an industrial mixer he used at home to prepare recipes for acquaintances and family celebrations. It was his old treasure, one he had to sell when he decided to migrate.Marchan thought he would be able to retire at the age of 50 if he saved what he earned, bought only the essential, and refrained from traveling around Venezuela or abroad. But it got increasingly difficult for him to make ends meet, let alone buy staples for himself and his family. At 52, it occurred to him that it was not too late to start over.In 2017, he packed his bags and headed to Perú.He would not settle down there, though. He could not find a good job. So, when an acquaintance told him about a position as a pastry chef in a hotel in southern Chile, he didn’t think twice and packed his bags again.When he arrived in Patagonia, the only thing he knew was he was going to work as part of the hotel’s kitchen team and that he would be provided with food and lodging, which would allow him to send money back to Venezuela and save some.One afternoon in December 2019, while on a break from preparing desserts and bread for the guests’ special Christmas dinner, he called his family. He was alone, so none of his roommates could hear what he was saying.“Grandpa, when are you coming?” his 3-year-old granddaughter asked.He did not answer and went on to comment on other things to take her mind off the subject. But the truth is he was planning to. After three years in Chile, he could leave and enter the country freely because he had all his documentation in order.In fact, a few weeks later, he was talking by the kitchen’s counter with a Venezuelan workmate who was looking for tickets to travel to her homeland. They agreed to look for options to make the trip together.However, just two days later, his plans changed again: the hotel management gathered all the employees right there and informed them that they were letting them go. Because of the pandemic outbreak, it was too risky to continue hosting tourists from all over the world.The sky was reddish that morning in February 2020 when they went back from the park to Punta Arenas, which is precisely the city where the first COVID-19 case was recorded in Chile.The workers, especially the foreigners, had been left adrift, with nowhere to go back to. Some of them, desperate, bought tickets to return to their countries at a moment when air travel was still permitted.“Where are you going?” asked the women sitting next to him.“I have a cousin in Punta Arenas. I am going to stay there,” he replied.“How about going back to Venezuela? Word is that it’s going to take a long time before things get better.”“But even if that is the case, what am I going to do there? At least here I can figure something out,” he answered.Punta Arenas is about five hours by road from Torres del Paine Park. It is the most important urban center in the Magallanes Region and the city where domestic flights arrive. The air in Punta Arenas is more a slap in the face than a sweet caress, with wind gusts of up to 93 miles per hour. It is said that in 1993, the wind ripped off the roof of the gymnasium of the Universidad de Magallanes and sent it flying across the city’s sky. The wind is so strong that the locals have to crouch down while walking or hold on to rope lines spanned in the streets by the city authorities to assist pedestrians.Weathering the raging winds, Marchan wandered the streets looking for a job. He saw on the news that countries were beginning to close their borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of going back home played over and over in his head, as did questions such as “What am I going to do there? Stare at them?” “If I leave, who will send them money for food?”, and so he went on in his search for work.He was angry.He thought of his mother, who is 86 years old and lives in Ocaña, Colombia. She keeps telling him that she wants to go back Venezuela, that she misses her country.He thought of his seven siblings, all scattered around the world.He thought of his plan to save to retire and continue supporting his daughters. That was why he bought two passenger vans, which he almost sold so he would not have to dispose of his beloved industrial mixer and which are now stranded waiting for him to send money for a tire replacement that is almost worth a one-month rent in Chile.Months went by with not a job in sight. He had been living on what he had saved. In July, a young man from Barquisimeto told him that the construction company Vilicic, which builds bridges, roads, and docks, and asphalts roads in the Magallanes Region and in Chilean Antarctica, was hiring. It was a physically demanding job for someone his age. Besides, he had never worked in construction. But he did not hesitate:“I’ll take anything.”“Go to this address and tell the bus driver to drop you off nearby,” the young man said.During the winter, winds diminish almost entirely in Punta Arenas and are replaced by snow and 35° F temperatures. In July of 2020, they got as low as 28° F. The next morning, at about 8:00 am, Marchan, freezing, left for the construction company. Although the driver assured him that he knew where it was, he dropped him off more than 12 miles from the site, by the area’s airport.When he got off the bus and realized that he was far away from the city, he began to walk along the side of the road. When he saw the first passing truck, he made a sign with his thumb, like backpackers do in the area. That’s why he arrived at the company at around 1:00 in the afternoon.“There is no one to receive your documentation at this moment. Everyone is out to lunch. They will be back at 3:00 pm,” said the watchman, who was very young.Marchan, frustrated, stood in front of the watchman’s post without uttering a word, holding his papers.“This morning, about ten people submitted their résumés. They all got rejected. Come on in and wait.”The guard pointed to a door.Marchan went inside, sat down on a bench that, thankfully, had been placed beneath a roof.It was quite cold.“Do you have a permanent residency card?” was the only question the recruiter asked him two hours later. It allows foreigners with a resident visa to stay and work in Chile.“Yes, I do. I got it last month,” he replied.“Show it to me.”Marchan did as requested.“Have these tests done. If everything is okay, you will start on Thursday.”Marchan left the place overjoyed. He will see a paycheck again. But he was also scared, because it was a job he had never performed before.There were about 60 workers on the worksite. Marchan was the only foreigner.Each time, when he got home, he would tell his cousin about his day.“The wind was awful today. You cannot imagine the breeze I have to cope with on the streets. They send us in groups of four to dig a hole. We take turns pounding the pickaxe, while the rest carve out the soil. I didn’t get why it took so many people to dig a simple hole. Now I do. You have to do it yourself to understand.”Some nights he would come home from work and lie in bed on his back, his legs up against the wall. He once heard that the position helped to alleviate the pain. He would close his eyes for a bit, only to realize a while later that he had been overcome by sleep. He then walked up to take a shower and fix dinner.One Thursday in September, as he was walking home, he felt sick. He arrived at his room and wrapped himself in the sheets.“Go to the hospital and take the COVID-19 test. Otherwise, you will not be allowed in, regardless of the result,” the coordinator said when he called to tell him about his symptoms.He did.He was positive for COVID-19.At first, Marchan was not too concerned. But on the tenth day he began to experience difficulty breathing. That is when fear kicked in.When he got up to go to the bathroom, it was as though he was carrying ankle weights. One afternoon, he went to the kitchen to get an arepa that his cousin had left there for him, and it felt he had walked for miles.“How is it possible that I am going to die so far away from home?” he wondered as he finally made it to the mattress. “I am my family’s breadwinner,” he thought. He felt alone in that strange people’s house and in a cold land that, no matter how much he tried to make it his own, hurt him to the bone. “People here won’t even be able to send my ashes back!”He felt angry again. He cried again.He said a prayer, telling God that he was leaving the whole situation in His hands, that he trusted His decision.A couple of days later, Marchan was feeling better.He was able to return to the construction company. He decided he would leave home one hour earlier to get there on time. Good thing he did, because he had just walked a block and had to sit on the sidewalk to catch his breath, and then again for another twelve blocks. He wasn’t fully recovered yet.“Work the shovel once, and then twice, and then take a break. If you can dig up the hole, it’s okay, even if it takes you the entire day; it’s not your fault,” the supervisor told him when he arrived.It all went very slowly. His workmates were more than sympathetic towards him, which got him going until he eventually resumed his usual pace.Marchan still lives with uncertainty, but that does not give him a headache anymore. He says he no longer thinks that much about the future, and that he now makes six-month plans. “Once the time comes, I analyze the situation and see if it’s feasible or not, and then I go back to making plans for another six months, and so on.” Perhaps he owes it to the wisdom that comes with his 56 years of age, with immigration, with having survived a pandemic, with the Patagonian wind having shaken his body, soul, and thoughts.The weather does not affect him as much as it used to either. He finally understood that the wind will not change and that he is the one who must adapt to it. Although he is financially stable, he refuses to apply to become a Chilean national. He wants to die a Venezuelan.“And do you have plans to go back to Venezuela?” someone asked him recently.“I guess I would like to; I miss my family, my daughters; I want to meet my granddaughter. But, if I do, what are we going to live on? What am I going to do there?” he answered, with the questions he poses to himself from time to time when he gives the matter a thought.This story is one of the many written within the framework of the Tras los rastros de una historia [Trailing Stories] workshop that we offered to fifteen Venezuelan migrant journalists through our online El Aula e-nos platform in the 3rd year of the La Vida de Nos Itinerante training program.
Desde pequeña juego a escribir cosas en un papel. Me convertí en periodista con el sueño de cambiar el mundo. Sigo siéndolo, pero entendí que la palabra escrita es mi forma de crear realidades, escribiendo soy genuina y transparente.