Living in a Ruka – Lake Budi Cultural Adventure
Perched on top of the hillside on the windy shores of Lake Budi on the Pacific coast of Chile, there is a wooden dome concealed with straw, with thick smoke streaming out of one end. They are dotted around the green rolling hills of this region not to dissimilar to the English countryside. The straw dome is a traditional Mapuche house known as a ‘Ruka,’ meaning house in Mapudungun, their native language. It has quite simply been constructed out of the land. Sadly, the Ruka almost died out 30 years ago as more and more Mapuche communities took the step to move into modern houses. However, where there is tourism there is opportunity and thanks to government funding many Mapuche communities such as the Llaguepulli here on Budi Lake have re-erected them to welcome tourists from all over the world. Harry and I were the lucky travellers.
It takes one month to construct by 10 enthusiastic Mapuche men, five of whom are experts, the rest being young apprentices eagerly wanting to learn the trade. There is no ‘how to build a Ruka for dummies’ book, therefore, this cultural learning exchange between the old and young generation is an essential part of maintaining their traditions and heritage. There is no financial reward either, instead, the men work for shelter, food and above all the camaraderie that always seems to coincide with men in the trade. There is however, a much better reward that comes in the form of a festival once the Ruka is complete. The whole community comes together to celebrate their new home.
The structure is quite complex, with each area having a very specific purpose. The door always faces east which gives positive energy as the sunrises each day. The back of the Ruka holds negative energy which is why the beds always face towards the door to avoid bad dreams. The floor is relatively untouched, mud that has been hardened by constant use and the aid of sprinkling water on it once it’s complete. However, the main focus of the Ruka is the open fire which constantly burns in the middle. Everything centres around the fire, from cooking to keeping warm to family meetings. The cleverly designed air flow enables it to stay warm during the bitterly cold winter months and cool during the summer months. The smoke stained roof and earthy smell gives it a warm, cosy atmosphere.
We sat around the fire on our first night in our cosy new straw home sipping mate, before slowly drifting off to sleep with the sound of the Pacific Ocean crashing against the shoreline. This small window into the lives of the Mapuche was an experience that left me feeling like I didn’t want to leave. The simple principles and elements of the Ruka reflect everything they stand for, respect and harmony with nature. Anyone that loves camping and the outdoors, or is interested in knowing what it’s like to live like an indigenous person, must live in a Ruka once in their lifetime. Regrettably, we did have to leave this welcoming community from the lake as our time with the Mapuche people of Araucanía had come to an end. Now we have time to re-gather our thoughts and head north for the Atacama desert before journeying into Bolivia to meet yet more indigenous communities.
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All pictures by Harry Dowdney