The island of Chiloé is celebrated for its black storms and black soil, its thickets of fuchsia and bamboo, its Jesuit churches and the golden hands of its woodcarvers. Among its shellfish there is an enormous barnacle – the pico do mar – which sits on one’s plate like a miniature Mount Fuji. The people are a mixture of Chonos Indian, Spanish and sailors of every colour, and their imagination churns with tormented mythologies.
The cathedral of Castro was built of corrugated sheet and painted an aggressive orange in honour of the Holy Year. Luggers with ochre sails were becalmed in the bay. At the café in the port sat an immensely distinguished, silver-haired man with long, straight legs.
He was a Sikh. Long ago, longer than he cared to remember, he was batman to an English colonel at Amritsar. One of his duties was to take the colonel’s daughter out riding. Their eyes met. She was excommunicated by her family, he by his. Their life in England was a succession of hostile landladies. One day, he cut his hair and shaved his beard, and they went to South America. He and his wife had been happy on Chiloé. She had recently died.