A decades long international friendship between a Bella Coola area woman and a woman in Chile is part of the inspiration for a new children’s book.
Translated in both English and Spanish, Catita the Canadian Kitten or Catita La Catita Canadiense, is the story of a kitten born without a tail who discovers she has a beautiful singing voice.
Author and illustrator Georgina Odi lives in Santiago, Chile and set the story with a backdrop reflective of Stuie in the Bella Coola Valley where her friend Katie Hayhurst lives.
Odi only intended the book to be a labour of love, and a gift to her friend. The story of how it came to be itself, however, is also worthy of a book.
The two women have been friends since 1966, thanks to an organization called The Experiment in International Living.
Katie grew up on a farm near Brantford, Ont, and while attending high school she met a student teacher through a Spanish course who was connected with the organization.
Its mission of the organization, Katie recalled, was to provide opportunities for young people to live with a family in a foreign country to learn and experience each other’s language, customs and traditions, with the goals of broadening horizons, gaining lifelong friends and advancing peace.
Accepted into the program when she was 19, Katie travelled by bus to Mexico with three other Canadian students to live with Odi’s family in the mountain town of Orizaba, Vera Cruz.
Georgina, who she calls Coquis, became her Mexican sister.
“I was really well-suited to that family and we’ve stayed connected over the years.”
Eventually Georgina married a Chilean and moved to Chile.
Katie said they lost touch 1973 and 1990, during the era when Augusto Pinochet was the Chilean general and dictator.
About 19 years ago, Georgina found Katie on the internet through a conference about caribou Katie had gone to and contacted her.
Then in 2004, Katie and her husband Dennis Kuch went to Chile to see Georgina, bringing their son Birch Kuch with them.
“Another sister of Georgina’s was visiting from Mexico so Birch went back to Mexico with her and lived in the home that I had lived in many years before,” Katie said.
That reunion was followed up later by a visit from Georgina’s son, Jorge Ordenes, who came to Katie and Dennis’ home in Stuie and stayed for a winter.
In 2023, Jorge wanted to introduce his girlfriend Fernanda to Katie and Dennis so he arranged a trip to Canada for the end of June, surprising his mom with a plane ticket so she could join them.
They visted at the end of June for three weeks.
“We celebrated with some wonderful Mexican foods and Fernanda made us some Chilean enchiladas,” Katie said.
Georgina, Jorge and Fernanda live on the outside of Santiago, Chile, in a big urban area so being able to take them to do things such as float down the Atnarko River, go on a sailboat to the Eucott Bay Hot Springs, ride bikes through the valley or hike for a day in the Rainbow Mountains was special.
“But most they seemed to just love being here at Stuie and took in the mountains. They are used to mountains, but as they said the mountains in Chile are so different,” Katie said.
A little melancholy that they are getting older and the opportunity to visit in person again is slimmer, Katie said on the other hand it was a great reunion.
Two years ago Georgina wrote the children’s book in Spanish.
Katie raised the idea of them translating it in English too because it is a story, inspired by some of Katie’s Facebook posts and photographs.
“We collaborated and then when we found out she was coming, we said let’s find a way to get it published,” Katie said.
After asking some friends who have self-published she chose a company in Victoria, arranging to have 80 copies made – 40 for each of them.
Katie is going to inquire about putting some in Kopas Store in Bella Coola and in Wells where Birch and his wife Leila live.