You know, I spend some of my working life evaluating and assessing teachers and tutors. It’s a mixed blessing, because I find that I can’t stop working even when I’m on holiday. So every guide, presenter and speaker is, unbeknownst to them, under scrutiny! I can’t help it. Sometimes, I’d love to give them a few performance notes, offer a little support and maybe give them some praise for a job well done – well, of course, that last one is easy but the others, not so.
Today, we met Julio. He was our guide in Punta Arenas, Chile, and in my opinion, did a first class job! What I especially liked was the way he linked all the information he had to share to a broader story. That story was one which intrigued me and led me to want to find out more.
I’d had a little startling awakening by finding a tug right outside our verandah, shining a light straight into our suite at 5 am this morning. There had been a few thuds and clunks which suggested we’d arrived and eventually, I struggled from our oh-so-comfy bed to peer through the curtains.
Once it was light, we discovered we had company. It was a lovely morning and we had an early start, so no hanging about!
We met Julio and the other members of our group and made for our first stop shortly after 8am. The open air museum was a collection of donated buildings and machinery without much of a focus but which nevertheless gave a good idea of what life was like for the early settlers here.
We started in a house built by a Swiss family and discovered a medical themed collection inside. Joseph Baeriswyl had been a pharmacist and some of the exhibits had been donated by his family.
What I liked especially was the colour palette of the buildings and the machinery dotted about the place. Not a single garish colour in sight, but soft reds, ochres and greens. It doesn’t take much to keep me happy!
But it was here that Julio began his story. One of the families represented here in the outdoor museum was the Menendez family, in particular Jose Menendez, who was quite a key player in the early days of Punta Arenas. Here, we could see a model of one of his ships and Julio gave us a brief outline of his life. In passing, he referred to Sarah Braun, adding the teaser “we’ll learn more about her in the next place we visit”
The next place was the cemetery! As we stood in front of the (locked) main gate, Julio told us the story of Sara Braun, the founder of this place. Sad to say, that though Sara gets a mention on other websites, there doesn’t appear to be one dedicated to her in her own right. So, bear with me and I’ll try to share what we learned.
Sara had been an immigrant with her family arriving from Russia in the 1870s or thereabouts. She seemed to have a good head for business and soon spotted an opportunity to supply some of the ships passing through the Magellan Straits with fresh water and meat. After all, before the Panama Canal was built, these waters were a very busy shipping route indeed.
In entering the cemetery through the side door, we were following one of Sara’s last wishes – that her cortege should be the one and only time that main entrance was used. But before progressing to her death, we learned a little about her life too, and how the Menendez and Braun fortunes would be combined to result in them owning land in Patagonia the equivalent of the whole of the Netherlands and Belgium combined!
As we strolled around the cemetery, Julio continued the story. Sara married a successful Portuguese settler and businessman, José Nogueira, who sadly died at the age of 48, leaving Sara as a young widow but also his fortune. Meanwhile, Sara’s brother, Mauricio had managed to create a niche for himself in the company, working with Jose to import sheep from the Falkland Islands and even better, marry Jose Menendez’ daughter.
Walking around the cemetery was a good way to learn of these families and their influence on the development of Punta Arenas. Nice work, Julio!
Sara’s mausoleum is set in its own fenced off area and is in character with her Russian heritage. She went on to marry again (twice), to divorce (twice) and then to settle for some “close friendships” for the remainder of her life.
I was rather glad to spot a portrait of her in the entrance to the cemetery, for having heard so much, I wanted a picture in my mind of what she looked like.
Our next stop was the museum of the settlers where there were still more references to Sara, to Mauricio and to Jose Menendez. Julio could continue his story as told here
There were some other interesting exhibits including this memorial to one of the men on board the HMS Beagle. Such touching and surprisingly sentimental words, I thought.
And there was this pressed flower collection which defies description really.
Last stop of the morning though, was the Plaza de Armas, where Julio could put the final piece of his story into place. Here was Sara Braun’s Palace. There, on the corner, was where she set up home, bang slap in the middle of the action. Very grand it was – is – too.
Somewhere too, in the middle of all the “craft market” was a memorial to Jose Menendez as well. Hardly the most dignified setting, but then he was a businessman and would surely have delighted to see some lively trading going on around him.
As we’d driven along, I’d spotted some yarn bombing along the street, so nipped back to take a quick photo.
But actually, what my hero and I both were most eager to do was to touch the toe of one of the figures on the plinth beneath Magellan in the centre of the square, following the old tradition of “touch his toe and you’ll come back to Punta Arenas”.
Well, twelve years ago, we’d done exactly that and sure enough, here we were. We had, hadn’t we?
And then we looked at one another and both had one of those moments, because four of us had touched that toe and sadly, only two of us returned. A tear trickled down my cheek and my hero went quiet before we both composed ourselves and felt thankful that we had all been there at all. We gave ourselves a stern talking to and remembered how thrilled Edna and Gordon had been to travel to this, of all places – who’d have thought it, eh? That we had come back again would have pleased them no end – let’s celebrate that, instead.
Actually, I think Ferdinand Magellan himself looked pretty pleased too.
Our day didn’t end there – I’ll continue the story in the next post.