Monday, March 30, 2009

A wild pack of family dogs

It started innocently enough. We were sitting on a bench in Providencia in Santiago eating a snack. One of the ubiquitous stray dogs lay a few feet away, lazily eyeing our food. When we left, it followed us nearly a mile back to the hostel. I was so impressed with “our” dog's dedication that I fed her a pancito.

Now, like any leased child, it wasn't all smiles. She occasionally failed to heel and crossed against the light. Taxis would honk and narrowly miss her. I would bury my head in my hands at her bad behavior until I remembered I was just “leasing.” The best part of leasing a stray is that when it misbehaves, you just throw up your hands, and look the other way.

I must admit I had some experience in the dog rental market. When I lived in Santiago as an exchange student, there was this dog that would follow me when I ran one of my favorite routes. It was close to 10 miles and over 1000 feet of elevation gain, but the mutt would follow me all the way up Cerro San Cristobol. I was so impressed I wanted to feed her a rico mote con huesillos, the official soft drink of tourist plazas in Santiago,

So, as I said, it started innocently enough, but soon got out of hand. As we were walking towards the beach in La Serena, we passed a pack of strays flojeando in the street. I don't know what we did, but we caught the eye of the ring leader, and soon we had inadvertantly leased our own little pack of hellions.

From santiago

These were bad, bad, bad, bad dogs (but they made me feel so good.) They really wanted to eat themselves a car. The taxi drivers have no compunction against taking a canine life, so they would honk and swerve towards the dogs, but woe onto the driver who had the humanity to slow to avoid hitting them. Once slowed, the dogs would surround the car and attempt to bark it into submission. Erin even claims that she saw one deadpoint a fender of a car going over 20 mph and hang out for a few seconds. The dogs got within inches of the cars. I had to look away a few times when I thought I was going to witness a tragedy. Even though these were some misbehavin' dogs and we were just renting, I still have a soul.

A motorcyclist approached and quickly realized that he was boned. He slowed to almost walking pace, which fortunately bought him enough time for a taxi to race past and draw the fire. By this time, we had gotten to the beach, and we hoped the end of the line for the rental pack. No such luck. The dogs went and played “terrorize the seagulls,” which I had to admit looked fun, and finally “terrorize Erin,” (which also sort of looked fun, actually.) All the while they dogged us down the shore, and nearly back to the gate of the hostel.

From santiago

Note to self: Do not lease dogs so cavalierly in the future.

From santiago

Sunday, March 29, 2009


Who makes this hat look good?

A. Gringo Grindle

From la serena

B. Albino Andrew

From la serena

Saturday, March 28, 2009

La Serena

I felt this one in my bones. It was only a short (7 hour) bus ride from Santiago, but we staggered off the bus having watched a lifetime's quota of bad Nicholas Cage movies, complete with 2+ pitting edema and tired eyes. We passed the time until we could get into a hostel with eating a hearty German breakfast, making travel plans, and wandering along the beach. We must have still smelt of the Germans, or the breakfast, or something way more interesting when we headed to the shore, because the dogs flocked (again). They frustratingly hung around for hours; wet and sandy, smelling like only moist, stray dogs can smell, shaking their matted hair on us any time we would attempt a sunny nap on the beach. Thankfully the hostel had a dog proof door that locked.

Enjoying sitting on anything phallic

From la serena

The next day, we got cocky and rented a car to explore. I ended up driving (Andrew did not bring a driver's license). We headed out to Fray Jorge national park, a unique patch of rainforest in the middle of the desert. The coast around La Serena is very dry. In fact, some sites farther north have never recorded rainfall. This is a new-er occurence, because as recently as 30,000 years ago, the same coastal rainforests that make southern Chile so lush extended all the way to the northern border with Peru. Since then, the climate has dried significantly, so the northern forests died off, except for 400 hectacres in Fray Jorge. Some incredible fluke combination of topography, predominant winds and temperature ensure that a few hillsides along the coast are shrouded in almost-constant fog. The vapor from the fog condenses and provides enough water to sustain a few tiny slices of the vestigial rainforest from 30,000 years ago.

But the most incredible thing is that presence of the forest itself increases the moisture available. The leafs and moss provide extra surface area for the fog to condense, so that if the woods were to disappear, the soil would probably dry so much that it would be impossible to plant a tree and have it grow there. When you visit, you walk awhile in fog-bound scrub, drab and brown, until you turn some mysterious corner and enter a verdant, green forest that is dripping water. Incredible. Inexplicable. Cool.

The cloud of fog that sustains Fray Jorge coming in over the desert.

From la serena

Moisture collecting in the forest.

From la serena

Taking a stroll through Fray Jorge

From la serena

We had an appointment that night for some stargazing at one of the observatories in Vicuña. The isolated skies around the area are supposed to supply some of the best stargazing in the world, and many of the world's largest telescopes are housed in white mushroom buildings on the hills of the desert. We overconfidently decided to take the inland, bumpy route to the observatory where we had an appointment at 8:00 for some looking upwards. The route began paved, surprisingly, and we had over 4.5 hours to go only 54 miles. The smooth pavement that initially suckered us in, quickly took ugly stepsister mode and decayed into a dusty, bumpy one lane track carved into the hills (also filled with poisonous snakes and landmines...). At 9:00, after me sharing some not-so-nice-stressed-out-driver words, we decided to pull over on the side of the road and bivy for the night. It was actually better than making it to any city, as it was a moonless night and the stars were out full-force. My stargazing alliances are fleeting: mountains above treeline, desolate desert, or on the beach with the sounds of waves in the background. It might be because I just had a desert experience, but I think that stars among sand and cacti is the best.

Driving in the desert.

From la serena

The next morning we found our way into Vicuña, finally, where we toured a pisco plant (with disappointing sample sizes) and learned more about Gabriel Mistral. Pisco production seems not to be so much of an art as wine making, even though it is made in similar ways. Grapes are separated, smashed, fermented, distilled, aged, and bottled by an amazing production line. Mr. Rogers would giz in his pants if he saw the wonders of the bottling room at the Capel pisco plant. Forget crayons.

Pisco fermenting.

From la serena

We headed back to La Serena, where traffic was a cluster. Roads were discontinuous, one-way, and seething with traffic. To top that off, the bus stations have no entrances. You actually have to be parachuted , or catapulted depending on your preference, into the parking lot to get on the bus. I found out over these two days that I miss driving as much as I have missed my TV over the past two years...not at all. I gladly boarded the bus that night to let someone else drive me to San Pedro de Atacama.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Santiago, part II

In 2005, I spent a half-year in Santiago as an exchange student. I spent a good portion of the time in near-constant haze of embarrassment from either 1) not understanding at all what people were saying to me 2) misunderstanding what people were saying to me or 3) being misunderstood. Even though I was studying almost constantly, I ended up with some of the worst grades I've ever received.

It was not all bad. I had a homestay with a family in Santaigo. Every evening, we'd have dinner and Marta and Mario would patiently endure my ugly spanish. Their children--all-grown--were whitewater kayakers, climbers, and former Pan-American Games athletes. Mario and Marta, themselves were the coolest retired people I'd ever met.

The most common slang word in Chile is güevon, which means literally “giant egg,” and is functionally equivalent to either asshole or dude, depending on the context. Güevon comes from huevos—eggs, i.e, testicles, and it has rich usage as a root word for other expressions. Agüevonar means to be disheveled or f'd up. Equivalently, güevona is a female analog of güevon. So one night when we were discussing the intricacies of Chilean slang, Mario started talking about how some people call everything and everyone güevon. He told Marta, güevon, to pass the bread, and I interjected that Marta would be more correctly called a güevona, since that is the femine form. However unbeknownest to me, güevona is not “dudette” but more like c--t. Mario feigned indignation and held up his steak knife towards Marta and told her to sacrifícelo, sacrifice me.

They treated me like family. When one of my host brothers married, I was invited to the ceremony, including the double-secret Chilean highlight, which is when the lovers crouch over some legal documents and sign them in the presence of the civil registrar (only civil servants have legal authority to wed in Chile.) I wanted to visit them very much when we went to Santiago.

Erin and I went to their house for dinner. We sat down to delicious roast beef with arroz, salad, cookies, chocolate and tea. It was just like when I was an exchange student, except for the yawning absence of Mario at the table.

Two days later at lunch Marta told me how it happened. Mario hadn't smoked a cigarrette in over thirty years, but about a year after I left Santiago, he fell ill. The doctors found lung cancer, and after fighting for a while, he died.

Mario went blind about 10 years before I lived in Santiago. He spent his time with his grandaughter building enormous lego castles and dabbling in number theory as he summed integers “to keep his brain limber.” Despite their uselessness to him, he knew by heart the location of the light switches in the house and would polish them. His collection of classical music was alphabetized so that he would only need to touch a couple braille labels to find the disc he wanted. He ran 5k and 10k roadraces with his daughter. I don't know if you can really bid someone farewell who is dying, since I know of no words that can penetrate something so final as death. But regardless of futility, I wish I could have said goodbye.

Yet, life goes on. In the past couple years, I have several new Chilean nephews, who are hilarious. My Chilean brothers and sisters are making a name for themselves in their careers. It's obvious how much Mario is still missed, but there is also much for which to be joyful. And for that I am very glad.

Martin is one of the recent added nephews. He is hilariously sly when he's misbehaving. When I came to the house at night, the lights in one of the bedroom were flashing on and off and I could hear Martin shrieking. Martin's mom--my host sister--opened the door and I remarked to her that I thought there was a tormenta, a storm in the room. Martin heard this and starting yelling "Soy una tormenta"--I'm a storm. When Marta came home we tried to tell her about it, but when Martin heard us calling him a tormenta, he made a puppy-dog face and said, offended, "No, soy un niño"--I'm a boy.

From santiago

The family

From santiago

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Santiago, Part I

Erin and I arrived in Santiago early and found our hostel. I had lived in Santiago before for a half-year in 2005, so knew my way around a little.

Standing on the top of Cerro Santa Lucía, an old fortress built on a hill in the middle of the city. The history and foundation of Santiago is an interesting story, either hilarious or tragic, depending if you are rooting for the indigenous people or the conquistadores. Cerro Santa Lucía plays a somewhat prominent role.
From santiago

The best museum in Santiago is the Museo de Arte Precolombino. Not only is the collection extensive and excellent, it is very well curated.

From santiago

Yesterday, we tried get into the Andes to climb a mountain, Cerro Plomo. Near the ski areas east of Santiago, Cerro Plomo is the highest thing you can see from Santiago. We planned on trying to hitch a ride from where the road splits off from Avenida Las Condes, a major arterial.

We managed to botch the pre-approach so hard that we never even left the city. We got on a bus, maybe even the right bus, to take us to the end of Las Condes. But we never knew. With our cumbersome, bothersome packs we ended up securely stacked in the corner of the bus as a growing hoard of pingüinos--middle school students in black and white uniforms that look penguins--stormed the bus. I had already known from prior experience that at rush hour, it's near impossible to travel with any luggage by public transit, but had not counted on this initial rush hour of students.

By the time we could escape the bus, we were by the evocatively-named Cerro 18 (Hill #18), which I had of course never heard of, and dusk was falling, as was our desire to be in Santiago for much longer. It was clear that we wouldn't be finding a ride up to La Parva that afternoon, and Erin and I were feeling fairly cityed out from the whole experience. We took a seat at a bus stop that looked promising to take us back to terra cognita. It had been sappingly-hot all afternoon, but finally the heat was breaking. The cordillera was turning a nice shade of red, and the heladeros were out in force selling icecream. It was as pleasant an afternoon as I had ever had in Santiago.

Erin looked over at me and made it clear that this was my mission, and my call. I looked up the illuminated mountains, very nice. I then looked back down to the south, and a bus with people packed like firewood lumbered past. We turned tail and fled for La Serena.

Friday, March 20, 2009

chi chi chi le le le.......Puerto Varas

We arrived in Puerto Varas (Chile!) shortly after dozens of buses from a Norwegian cruise line. Passengers from the cruise were off to descend upon and devour every morsel of food with an ñ in the name and T-shirt with the word "Patagonia" on it in the whole city. They were also aggravatingly crowding all of the information offices where we needed to get to find out about camping and climbing guides. We ask one of the cruisers when they are departing, and we only have 45 minutes to go. Not too bad, so we decide to wait it out in the grass in the plaza with a few empanadas. There is a guy playing Celine Dion covers on panpipes at the center of the plaza, and he definitely knows his audience. The somewhat grumpy, overgrown cruisers are eating it up...the guy is getting so much action, he can´t make it through 30 seconds of "My Heart Will Go On" without being interrupted for a picture or for someone buying his music. Good for him.

The clock strikes 5 pm and food wrappers, instead of glass slippers, are left blowing in the wind as the hordes return hastily to their buses and boat. We search around for an information office that knows anything about something other than high priced hotels and restaurants. We find out that CONAF (Chile´s national park service), has closed Volcan Osorno to climbing for the rest of the summer due to the condition of the glacier. We do, however, book a rafting trip at the base of the volcano and find the only camping in the city, so it´s not a total loss.

View of Osorno from Puerto Varas.

From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

The camping was at a great hostel with the best vibes and friendliest host we have had so far this trip, and we showed up just in time for a bit of dinner. We sit down at the table to a communal dinner of shepherd´s pie. The tables are decorated with green, white, and orange tablecloths. U2 and Sinead O´Connor play in the background. The friendly Irishman at the end of the table is wrapped in his country´s flag and holding a gnome dressed in green. He is talking about parades, the cruelty of the English throughout history, and of beer. It´s the beginning of our Chilean St Patrick´s day celebration.

After a few boxes of Clos/El Gato/other cheap wine, and after concocting rather interesting after-drinking snacks (who knew butter, aji, and mayo mixed together is great on pringles?), our band of multicountry hostellers head out to find a bar in Puerto Varas to celebrate with a Guiness. We parade down the road with the flag, dancing newly taught leg-only dances, and make our way to the bar. Surprisingly, there is an Irish pub in Puerto Varas. Not surprisingly, the Irish pub doesn´t serve Guiness, is decorated with Mexican Sombreros, has a local punk rock band playing Nirvana, and decidedly was not celebrating St. Patrick´s day. We settle for pisco sours, as they are kind of green. Conversations between Irish, American, Israeli, and British companions become way more interesting in Spanish after a few drinks. The Irish guy talks up the owner and locals in the bar, and trades his Irish flag for the Chilean flag hanging on the bar wall. Now the bar is more Irish than it was before...a mark was made. We walk home, and sleep well.

A cosmopolitan group of mascots: Shammy the irish submissive, Goldie the goat, and Dr. Derry the futbol playing gnome

From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

The host of our hostel, Gonzalo, reinforcing stereotypes.

From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

The next day was filled with rafting the Petrohue river. I fell off on the first rapid. Granted, the guide was trying to get someone to fall out of the boat, and I was seated in the victim´s seat, but falling off the boat only 2 minutes into the ride is a bit embarrassing. Oh well, everyone got wet at at some point. We spent a few hours on the rapids, and journeyed back to town for some food. If ever in Chile, you need to try a hotdog completo, loaded with avacado, tomatoes, mayo. I don´t like hotdogs. I find them kind of disgusting actually, but this one even looks good. Doesn´t it?

The dog.

From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Today we headed out to the national park for some hiking and views of Osorno and one of Chile´s reportedly "most beautiful lakes", Lago Todos los Santos. It was rainy, and the cloud ceiling was extremely low, making views of the volcano impossible. There were some underwhelming waterfalls, the lake was nice and volcanic (black sand, blue water, islands of land), but most importantly there were tons of murta, a tasty red berry good for eating. We plan to bake something with the large bag we picked...something that involves pastry-like substances...maybe weĺl try our hand at helado.

Andrew's photoshoot.

From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Picking murta at the base of Osorno on a rainy day.

From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Trying to fit the waterfall and Andrew's gargantuan melon in the same picture.

From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Lost in Translation

We got ourselves marooned in Bariloche, Argentina and I was annoyed. Granted, Bariloche is considered to be many to be first-class place to spent a few days. It's next to a nice lake and a national park. There are lots of places that sell ice cream and chocolate and beer. You get the idea.

However, I wanted to be in Chile. We had passed it bien flojo in El Bolsón, which was great. But after reading the guidebook, we realized that there was rafting to be had, and maybe a nice, symmetric volcano to climb, and some hiking in Puerto Varas, Chile. I didn't want to waste 16 hours waiting for the next bus across the border.

Nonetheless, it was not to be. Even though it was only 3PM, and even though Osorno isn't more than 6 or 7 hours away, the last bus had left a couple of hours ago. With foul humor I waited in line and bought two tickets mañana por la mañana--tomorrow morning--then stormed off to inflict myself on poor, long-suffering Erin.

We shuffled a couple kilometers to the city center. It required our most agile car-dodging skills to cross the murderous traffic careening through uncontrolled intersections, which did nothing to sooth my annoyance with Bariloche. Our hostel was occupied with pushy ___'s in the kitchen who elbowed their way to the sink and grabbed the colander out of our hands without so much as a permiso.

The next day dawned fair and clear. We found our bus and got on our assigned seats, 19 and 20. The bus leaves on time and we are off! I bid Bariloche adieu with an obscene gesture and lay back in my seat. The conductor starts down the aisle, checking people's tickets. I get the tickets out and Erin gazes at them idly. Erin gives me a funny look and asks me if it's not the 17th, pointing at the ticket. It says it's for 3/18. I look at my watch, which duly informs me that it is, indeed, the 17th! I stare at Erin, mute with horror.

In nearly every ticket office in the country hangs a sign asking--nay--demanding that the buyer doublecheck his tickets before leaving the window to verify that the date, time and destination are correct. There is no reclaim otherwise. It's entirely my fault.

But here we are, in seats 19 and 20 on the departed bus and no one has accosted us for being in the wrong seats. I hand the tickets to the conductor, who sees nothing amiss with them, but is confused that we aren't on his manifest. No matter, he'll come back in a few minutes and add us he says. I begin to wonder if we might no escape unscathed. We are underway and there's basically nothing between Bariloche and the Puerto Varas. Until I remember about Villa la Angostura.

Villa la Angostura is a tiny little town on the north end of the lake. My stomach tightens as I begin to see signs of civilization; cabins for rent; trucha alhumada for sale. I attempt to quiet my growing panic as the bus stops in the tiny station. There's hardly anyone waiting. Yet, a couple boards the bus and walks slowly next to our seats. We're screwed. We get up and walk forward to confess our sins to the conductor.

I am awarded a kindness undeserved. The conductor shrugs and says, ok, there are a couple of seats in back still. We shuffle to the back, heads to the floor. I am mortified by the scene I've caused, and when we find that there's only one seat open in the back, despite the conductor's offer to move people around so that we can seat together, I refuse and joke with him that Erin is probably sick of me anyway since this way all my fault.

I slump down into my bumpy and stinky seat at the very back of the bus, next to the bathroom and stare out the window. The scenery is not half bad. The are clean faces of granite splitting hillsides of what looks to be temperate rainforest. Now and again the snowy apparition of Monte Tronador peeks out. And hey, my seat is actually roomier than the rest of the seats. I am making small talk with the Argentinian next to me when the conductor comes back to get a cup of coffee. While he's back there he asks me if she--Erin--hit me much for my error. I said no, well, maybe a little, but suave--softly. He smiles and walks to the front of the bus.

Erin is at the very front of the bus. Normally this is a kingly seat, with the prettiest views, easiest egress and, uh, smoothiest ride. Erin is getting none of it. The seat is half-broken, there's little leg room, and to make matters worse the conductor and drivers are talking excitedly in thick Chilean spanish, glancing back at her from time to time, and laughing uproariously.

I am oblivious in my comfortable, albeit malodorous seat and drift off to sleep for a while. We stop in Osorno and the conductor and driver switch places. The ex-driver wanders to the back of the bus. He obviously wants to talk to me. After getting formalities out of the way (de dónde eres), he asks me if Erin hits me often. I say no, not often, and wonder to myself what the conductor told him. He excuses himself to attend to something at the front of the bus, only to return a few minutes later to ask me again about my abusive girlfriend.

I am beginning to get alarmed by how far out of hand this story has gotten and tell him that no, Erin didn't hit me for screwing up the dates of the tickets and that's she a very nice lady who even buys me dinner often. This seems to satisfy him and we turn to more cheerful subjects, like how much we both hate President Bush. He starts to ask me about my family. It starts innocuously enough: how many siblings I have, how old I am, what my parents do. He asks if my parents are still together. I say yes, and begin to wonder what exactly he's getting at. He then asks if my dad was very strict with me. I am confused and tell him no, I was lucky to have a stable childhood with loving parents, aside from some unpleasantness in junior high. He smiles a knowing smile and says, ah, that must be why you are so humilde--humble/shy.

Our arrival in Puerto Varas interrupts the therapy session. We get off the bus and bid the smiling driver and conductor chao. I recount my strange story to Erin who shoots me an annoyed look and tells me about animated and unintelligible conversation the conductor and driver had about her. I still do not understand how it progressed to the point of a psychoanalysis of my childhood. I guess some things just get lost in translation.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009


*a work of historical fiction
We are on the bottom level of the bus. I had fanticized that the bottom might be more comfortable, being closer to the folcrum of the swaying lever that is a bus in motion. Nonetheless, the bus lurches out of the station like a drunk and I am rocking back and forth just like always, like always, like always. Although this time maybe with gentler amplitude.

It's late and I am lightheaded from staying awake waiting for the bus. There is no one out. Even the dogs are silent; curled up the sides of the streets. After a few fruitless minutes of staring at the swirling patterns my overstimulated brain paints behind my eyelids, I open my eyes. The bus has stopped and bluish light is flooding in through gaps in the curtains. A police officer, a boy who looks even younger than I am, boards the bus and passes up and down the aisle, comparing our names to names he has on a clipboard. He disappears upstairs and I return to staring at colors behind my eyelids. The patterns gradually slow as my brain asquiesces. After a few minutes, tone of the idling engine quickens and we lurch forward. A few more minutes pass and I fall into a feverish sleep. I dream of being lost a strange city and being unable to find Erin.

Suddenly, I'm awake again. I look over at Erin. Slow breathing. She is still sleep. Something is strange. It takes me a moment to realize that the ever-present moan of the engine has ceased.

I badly need to pee. I stumble along the dark aisle past passengers covered in blankets. My feet have swollen and I step awkwardly to avoid their sprawled legs. I try the bathroom door. The light is not on inside. Unoccupied? No, it's locked. Maybe it's broken. I feel a cool breeze on my right entering the bus through the open door. I step outside.

It's still dark. A full moon is only halfway sunk to the west, so dawn is still a few hours off. There are no buildings visible, only a brown field flat as a gravestone, split by the gravel highway. I walk slowly around the bus until I see the driver or the tripulación holding a flashlight in his teeth while trying a panel with a wrench. He looks up at me and says nothing. I walk to the back corner of the bus and am entertaining thoughts of irrigating the field, when suddenly the engine roars back to life. My fears of being left by the side of a deserted road quickly overwhelm my desire to pee. I mince back to the open door on my swollen feet. Strangely, now the bathroom door is open. I utilize this and return to my seat feeling much better as we roll along the gravel, rocks crackling against the bottom of the bus. I fall quickly into a dreamless sleep.

The awareness that the bus is stopped fights its way into my groggy brain and I awaken. This time the engine rumbles like always. There are lights outside and a building. The east is bruised blue with the predawn. A sign indicates policia of the Santa Cruz providence. The door whooshes open and a lady police officer steps on with another clipboard. This one wants to see our passports. I eye the ceiling sleepily as I wait to offer her mine. By the time she has finished her rounds, there is a red glimmer on the horizon fighting its way through low, grey clouds. We pass down streets of utilitarian houses of prefab concrete beside flat, open lots of brown bushes barely visible in the gloom. Plastic bags pinioned to the bushes flutter in the wind. We must be arriving.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Carefour: center of the Universe

Throughout all of our travels in Southern Argentina and Chile, no matter where we wanted to go in Patagonia, the road always led back to a nondescript, flat, dusty, crossroad town - Rio Gallegos. The pattern goes a little something like this: Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos to Torres del Paine to Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia to Rio Gallegos to El Chalten to Rio Gallegos to El Bolson.

As we are moving up North, there will be no reason to pass more wasted time in Rio Gallegos. Not that this makes me extremely sad, because there is no reason to spend time in Rio Gallegos...period. All that said and known, Rio Gallegos has consumed over two of our travel days. We have had hours to wander the streets in search of engaging ways to spend our time. Every time we have come up short, and ended up at the Carefour.

The Carefour is like an French Walmart in Argentina. It has the six obligatory sections: food, clothing, personal hygiene, household, automotive, electronics. Hours have been wasted wandering the mazes of stalls (too many types of cheese to choose from!), and we have probably seen half of the city´s population buying corn (yeah, I don´t know why corn either, but aisles and aisles of corn go missing daily) there at some point. Contemplating things I have learned on this trip, there are two lists: "Things I learned backpacking in Patagonia", and "Things I learned at the Rio Gallegos Carefour".

Things I learned at the Rio Gallegos Carefour:
1.) Do not assume a fancy exterior implies a decent bathroom. Carry toilet paper with you at ALL times.
2.) Sometimes you think you are understanding a conversation in a different language, but you you really aren´t. (Ex: A discussion with a friendly Argentine in the canned produce aisle (buying corn). I found out at the end of a long lecture (during which I was nodding along with every sentence), that I was agreeing with an antisemitic tirade and I had no idea.)
3.) Hold on to your moneda, they are precious. People will try to talk you out of them, and it will only go to allowing the same child to ride the automatic batman car eight times in a row and ¨NaNaNaNa-NaNaNaNa, BATMAN!¨will haunt your dreams.
4.) Security tags are underused in the US. Or, stealing single pairs of cheap white underwear is the latest Argentine rage.
5.) Milenesa is different from Vienesa. However, the are both types of meat...or resemblances of meat.
6.) AC/DC is played everywhere. "I´M ON A...."

I´m still working on composing my list of things learned in the Patagonian outback...more on that later. But for now, I hope you have the lyrics of ¨Highway to Hell¨ stuck in your head for days.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

El Bolson

We spent the last two and a half days hanging out in El Bolson, a small hippy town surrounded by fertile valley (good for organic farming) in the Argentine lake district. We camped, did some day hikes, ate alot of berries along the trail, checked out some water holes for swimming, tried as many flavors of helado and locally brewed beer as we could stand, and shopped at the district feria artesanal. El Bolson is a city of buena onda, good vibes (except the robbery of the beloveed whisperlite). Today we are headed out to cross the border back into Chile following a path that the locals recommend which involves ferries and trails past the frontera...we´ll let you know how it went in a few days:) Peace, love, and sweet dreams in the meantime.

Day hike to cabeza del indio, a wind-n-erosion shaped rock in the shape of a head
From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Picking blackberries along the trails with stained fingers
From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Just because I like taking pictures of fires...
From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Sampling El Bolson brewery´s creations. The most amazing, girly fruit beers ever! The cherry and raspberry were my favorites.
From Bariloche, Puerto Varas

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lift Thine Eyes

Some have the Romantic view (note the capital R) that the wilderness is unbounded good; humans are depraved. Perhaps Christopher McCandless might have thought the same before his trip to the Alaskan bush turned ill.

Yet, events both recent and distant remind me that the wilderness is not idyllic pastures with laughing brooks. It is also an unexpectedly snowy, cold, pathless place full of slide alder, seracfall and breakable crust. When you find yourself in such a place it's astounding how fast you are reminded that the wilderness is utterly apathetic about us humans. It will follow its own cruel law to completion.

However, simply drawing a dichotomy between the benign, pastoral view and the sublime, yet perilous view oversimplifies matters. Much of my attraction to wilderness is due to its wildness. Wilderness puts me and my petty problems in their proper place. It is a relief that while human generations come and go, nature proceeds with units of geologic time many orders of magnitude removed.

How many generations did it take for Bear Creek, in Kings Canyon NP to cut its channel through the resistant granite? Certainly more than just mine. That's obvious for me to type and you to read. Yet when I realized that a few years ago sitting next to Bear Creek, it was utterly comforting. The burden of my life's problems was removed and placed into context. Regardless of what I do, I am powerless in the face of the process of erosion, glaciation, uplift.

Yes, the unavoidable corrallary to this powerlessness is its danger. I am impotent in the face of nature. But where does my help come from? I lift up my eyes to the hills.

From Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The faces of Fitz Roy

Cerro Fitz Roy is the highest mountain in southern patagonia. We camped next to it for a couple nights in Parque Nacional De Los Glaciares and got a spell of good weather.

Fitz Roy is closest to the Argentine town of El Chalten. El Chalten supposedly means "the mountain that smokes" to the Tehuelche indians, who lived in the area pre-colombus. This is because there almost always seems to be a cloud hanging around it. Moisture from the Hielo Sur condenses and gets blown east by the incessant westerly winds. In the lee formed by Fitz Roy's east face it remains.
From Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

In the clouds.
From Parque Nacional Los Glaciares

Fitz Roy is a highly sought-after summit for mountaineers. We met a team of French climbers who intended to climb it. If they summited before the 10th (today), they might have succeeded, because the peak was utterly clear on the 9th. Today, it rained sideways.

At dawn
From PN Los Glacieres

From PN Los Glacieres

At night. How'd we do that??
From PN Los Glacieres

With a mountain goat.
From PN Los Glacieres

Saturday, March 7, 2009


We spent 13 hours on a bus to Ushuaia, Argentina. We ferried across the straight of Magallan. We squeezed onto a zodiac and crossed the Beagle Channel. We climbed into the interior of Isla Navarino and looked out towards the Southern Sea. There was no one. We counted ourselves lucky to have gaunaco trails beating through the calafate brush and deadfall sticks from the beavers to guy out the tent.

We waited days for a boat back across the channel. We finally departed late in the day. The sun had set. Dusk had arrived and from the looks of it, night was waiting impatiently. Motoring across the channel, I looked west at the final glimmer of light. Glaciated mountains on Isla Hoste beckoned. Miles of primitive coast on the Isla Grande extended westwards, sentinel to no one but a dark Beagle Channel.

I turned north towards the lights of Ushuaia. There were cars on route 3 heading towards Rio Gallegos and eventually Buenos Aires, illuminated cell phone transmission towers decorating the hillside, all the infernal creations of Mankind.

Then we hit a swell and the wind picked up. I didn't look back west.

Friday, March 6, 2009


We were hoping to catch the return boat back to Ushuaia the morning after finishing the trek, but due to some problems with what were told was government papers and permission to sail between Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, our boat back to Argentina was delayed indefinately. We spent a few days bumming around Puerto Williams, waiting for papers and alot of books, played some chess, cooked with what good vegetables we could find, had some good conversations with other travelers, and took naps by the fire at the hostel. We made it back to Ushuaia, and we are currently on a bus back up north to see the mighty Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre. We will be out of communication for a few days.

A few pictures in the meantime...

Manning up to the Manjar jar.

From Dientes

View from Puerto Williams.

From Dientes

I´m too sexy for this shirt, too sexy for these gafas del sol...

From Dientes

I used to like chess. Playing with someone who takes 20 minutes between each move cured me of that. I have alot of pictures of a chess board from one game.

From Dientes

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Isla Navarino and the Dientes Circuit

About a week ago we traveled by zodiac from Ushuaia (on the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina), back into Chile to Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino. Not quite the end of the world, but as close as we got without time to harass the Chilean Armada into letting us hitch a ride to Cabo de Hornos or means to take a high-class yacht further south to Antarctica. Because of land disputes that are ongoing between Argentina and Chile there is no regular boat that runs between Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, although it is very close, separated by only the Beagle Channel.

Our goal was to hike the Dientes circuit, a trail that encircles the Cordon de los Dientes...a jagged, toothlike (hint the name ¨dientes¨) mountain group that is visible in the Southern landscape from about everywhere we had been in Tierra del Fuego. I was dragging at the first part of the hike due to about three days of almost no food due to a nasty gastroenteritis (and was probably driving Andrew insane with my frequent rest stops), but was improving over the first few days. We had printed out what we thought (at the time) was an overly-detailed brochure of the hike that is published by the Chilean ministry of Natural resources, but we were glad to have all of the details we could get when we were actually on the trail. It snowed pretty heavily during the hike, making route finding a bit of a bitch. The trail was not marked well and compass bearings, although easy to do, took you through some pretty scrappy brush and slowed things down. Needless to say, we retraced our steps pretty frequently throughout the circuit. We passed through alot of snowy alpine areas as well as boggy, beaver damaged forests. More than 20,000 beavers live in the mountains of Isla Navarino, and you can definitely seen the impact they have made. Many fallen, dead trees, dams that change the direction of the water flow and flood areas that were not flooded in the past.

We finished the hike in about 4 days, and made it back to Puerto Williams. It was a burly hike, and now I can say that I´ve done the ¨most southerly trek in the world¨. However, we were definitely ready to be done with the trek...mostly because of the weather and difficulties with trail finding.

Packing into the zodiac with a disembodied hand

From Dientes

The Beagle channel

From Dientes

Andrew behind a well marked cairn (not many of these), with the dientes in the background.

From Dientes

We woke up to snow on the second day.

From Dientes De Navarino

From Dientes De Navarino

Snowy talus.

From Dientes De Navarino

Dientes, reflected.

From Dientes De Navarino

The muddy high step.

From Dientes De Navarino

Winter comes a spring begins.

From Dientes De Navarino

Beaver damaged forest.

From Dientes

Andrew pinching Cabo de Hornos and the South Sea

From Dientes

We finished!

From Dientes De Navarino

PN Torres del Paine: Wind

I think that the third element of Patagonia has to be wind. Wind that brings you to a standstill when walking against it. Wind that tears tents out of the ground. Wind that keeps anything except for the hardiest plants from growing. I was reading a book about Patagonia in one of the hostels we were staying at, and came upon this quote that I thought is very true of Patagonian wind:

¨In these inhospitable lands blows the fastest wind in the world. It carries thousands and thousands of ice darts from the pole that pierce any protection, sinking cruelly into veins and bones, instead of providing living warmth. What vegetation can resist these many blasts?¨

- Robert Caillois, Patagonia

Not to say that it is always windy, and there are places that are protected geographically where the wind is not so harsh, but there is a definite presence of the wind in all that grows and lives here. Some of the points that we had hiked around while hiking in both Torres del Paine and now on Isla Navarino have cute pictures of an old guy blowing, indicating that it might be windy at those points on the contour map...and I have learned that the old guy´s lungs are working great.

Andrew took this video with his camera, and I think it´s pretty indicative of the wind, because ýou can´t even hear his voice, only the wind flapping things around:

From Torres Del Paine


Some more pictures from Torres that I wanted to post, just because I liked them...not that they have anything to do with wind, other than it was probably windy when I took them.

The cuernos of PN Torres del Paine in the background.

From Torres del Paine

Trail leading beside Glacier grey, which looks alot like a sea in the background between the peaks.
From Torres del Paine

Leaving Torres del Paine on a particularly clear day.
From Torres del Paine