Punta Arenas, Chile
I’m afraid I must admit defeat, for the moment. Though I’ve tried everything I can think of, it looks as if the Antarctica trip is just going to have to wait for another time. I’ve talked to every shipping company in Ushuaia and Punta Arenas, the Navies and Air Forces of both Argentina and Chile, The Chilean Antarctic Institute, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Antarctic Institute. I’ve been met with sympathy but no results, usually stemming from a combination of my lack of seafaring documentation and my foreign nationality.
Ushuaia seemed promising at first, but after a month I was more than prepared to leave the place to freeze in it’s own unpredictable summer sleet showers…
My entire 27 days in Ushuaia were spent living inside my faithful Hamburg Sud Plus-Sized Shipping Container; after five or six days it even began to feel rather homey. After all, I’ve heard of lots of people these days who have literally turned shipping containers into homes (complete with windows, doors, electricity, and running water). My home was far from this advanced, but I bought candles, hung clotheslines for my wet clothes, and read books inside during the night.
It was in a lucky spot, this container; at the bottom of a stack of six high with four on either side, it would take a solid day’s work with an extremely robust forklift to reach my container, should whoever makes important container decisions feel that it should be moved or, God forbid, actually used. Around the container yard was a slowly corroding jungle of rusting car bodies, gargantuan tractor tires, steel cable and assorted other bits of industrial scrap, acting as a barrier with the undeniable threat of tetanus and/or zombies, depending on your state of mind.
All this was situated behind one of Argentina’s many YPF service stations, where I would read my books, drink coffee, and occasionally, shower. I befriended Daniel, the night gas pumper, and spent a number of nights drinking mate and killing time inside the little office.
I made the four kilometre walk to the centro of Ushuaia almost daily; I would play my harmonica, look for boats, or simply walk around aimlessly for no obvious reason until it got dark. The downtown is rather an annoying place for a person like me; Ushuaia has long ago sold it’s soul and most of it’s body to the tourists. Duty-free gift shops and expensive restaurants line either side of the street, while every other person you run into is chattering loudly away in some language other than Spanish. I belive Ushuaia would be a smashing place for some retired people with lots of disposable savings to waste on frivolous purchases and overpriced king crab platters; for me, it was a bit of a bother. However, that’s not to say it wasn’t beautiful; the Martial Mountain range with Monte Olivia and Los Cinco Hermanos was breathtaking, and the Beagel Channel, whenever it wasn’t obscured by some sort of cloud or another, was a pretty sight to gaze upon. The Argentines in Ushuaia were also more friendly than I remember people being in Salta or Buenos Aires, so there’s a plus side to it.
Ushuaia, being the last stop on the Argentine highway Ruta 3 and the most southerly city in the world (with Puerto Williams Chile being a mite further austral, but with only 2.000 inhabitants), it is a popular place for people to either start or end their South American adventure. For me it was only the middle…and I was not alone.
My very first day in Ushuaia I went inside a YPF to get out of the snow and warm up for a little before heading out to scout a place to sleep; upon entry, I saw someone who seemed to be a fellow traveler; a well-used backpack filled with clothes, a tent, and a sleeping bag sat limply next to a pale-skinned man with curly blonde hair and oval-shaped spectacles. He looked up upon my entry and gave a friendly smile, which I returned as I shook the ice from my hair and took a seat.
‘Hello, how are you?’ asked the man in French-accented Spanish. I told him I was doing fine, and we soon began to talk. It turned out that we were on a similar adventure!
Johnathan is a 25 year old Frenchman hailing from ‘near Paris’ (that seems to be where most Frenchmen I’ve met are from), and he had hitchhiked to Ushuaia from somewhere in Canada, I belive. We had been traveling for almost the same amount of time, about a year for each of us. He let me use his laptop to check a few messages and we agreed to later meet for a beer.
I met Johnathan again a few days later and we exchanged stories; Johnathan’s adventure was very impressive: he told me he planned to travel for 3 years, as he had saved his money back home in Near Paris for the trip. He was easily able to take whatever route south he pleased, as a French passport is a lot better to have in South America than an American one. He floated easily across borders that had given me hell in the past (Bolivia-Brazil and Panama-Colombia, to name a few), and I was envious of his nationality. Johnathan informed me that he was probably going to be staying in Ushuaia for three or four months so that he could work.
‘It’s not that I need the money,’ he mused. ‘I think I just need to rest, to be in one spot for awhile. I got a job waiting tables at one of those restaurants in the downtown. That way I can make a little extra money since I’ll be here anyways.’
I knew how he felt; when one has been on the road for so long, sometimes you need mental rest periods where you don’t move around too much. However, I don’t think I would have liked slinging hash at one of those fancy venues in Ushuaia; first off, I didn’t travel a roundabout 22,000 miles across two continents and both hemispheres so as I could wait on tourists in Ushuaia. My last four jobs in the States were serving at restraunts; I’m defiantly not ready to do that again. Secondly, as I said before, Ushuaia was not the kind of place that I wanted to be in for three months. Thirdly, to work in one of those upscale places I would probably have to don the dreaded starchy apron and checkbook, shower periodically, and probably shave off my beard (which I’ve become quite fond of, though my darling sister candidly informs me that it “looks as if a rat with some sort of skin disease has taken up residence under your chin.” Aren’t family members marvelous?).
Along with Johnathen, I also met two Russians named Anastasia and George, both 26, who had also hitchhiked here from Canada, having been on the road since May of 2009. They are Canadian citizens and work as a gardener and a carpenter, respectively. Anastasia and George arrived about five days after I did, and I was excited to meet the determined duo, as their trip is understandably interesting. Apparently they spent their first night in Ushuaia a mere twenty metres from my shipping containers; the next morning they had been invited by one of the workers at the YPF to bunk in her house some two kilometres away. I met up with them two days later, and we went and enjoyed a few beers and bread on an abandoned boat near the old airport.
I liked the two of them very much, and we seemed to get along well on that occasion; Geroge and I told stories only a hitchhiker could tell…
‘I once got this ride in British Colombia (said Geroge) with an older man, maybe fifty years old. We were driving through a very beautiful place with lots of mountains and geological things, and the man was very friendly and seemed to know a lot about the geology of the area. I was very relaxed and comfortable with him, until all of a sudden, out of nowhere, he says to me “So, if you want to, you can come back to my house later on and I’ll give you a bed. It’s a nice farm in the mountains, very beautiful.” I didn’t really want to, and especially so when he added casually, “…and if you want, I can suck your dick.” He said it just like that, like a matter-of-fact sort of thing. “I am gay, and I would like to suck your dick.”‘ George made a face and chuckled.
‘He was very calm and straightforward about it, so I just said, “No, no, that’s okay, that’s…okay. But, um, thank you, I guess.” The guy shrugged and said OK, and then went on talking for awhile. Then later, he asked me, “So, I mean, you’re sure you don’t want me to suck your dick? I mean, like, I want to like, suck your dick, I like to suck ing dicks, and I wouldn’t mind sucking yours. Right now if you want, we can pull over.”‘ George took a swig of his beer and laughed again, shaking his head.
‘I told him “No man, no, no I do not want you to do that, I am not gay.” He just shrugged again, and we kept driving; the conversation went back to rocks and things. I almost forgot about the other man’s desire to suck my dick until when it was time for him to turn off the highway; he said, ” Well, I’m leaving the highway here. My house is just down the road, are you sure you don’t want me to su-“‘
‘”I’m sure,” I said.’ George finished spreading butter on his bread. ‘I mean, he was a nice guy, he just really really wanted to suck my dick. Haha.’
I chuckled. ‘The blatant homosexuals are always preferable; they tell it like it is, and you can get all of that embarrassment out of the way right off the bat, unlike the ones who, consciously or unconsciously, conceal it and act perfectly straight. One doesn’t learn otherwise until one notices the startlingly detailed photos of nude men in disturbing positions posted lovingly around the bathroom mirror; at least, this brings to understanding their previously baffling personal preference for white miniature poodles and turquoise jewelry.’
I met them again a few days later in my container; we had slipped away from an uneventful Argentine asado where none of us felt really welcome, so we went back to Hamburg Sud to slurp wine barbarically straight from the bottle. I had run out of candles, so we had to use the light from Geroge’s cell phone in order to see anything at all. Geroge remarked that, with us being inside the shipping container and surrounded by twisted and rusting metal, it was a bit like a post-industrial apocolypse sort of thing. Anastasia and I agreed. At one point we ventured outside with the intention of starting a small fire near the entrance for light/warmth, but we were yelled at by the police for trespassing and had to make a big loop back to the container so as not to be caught again by the marauding marshals. The conversation turned, inevitably, to world politics, or, more specifically, American politics.
‘I don’t understand why so many Americans volunteer to join the military,’ said George. ‘So many Americans have so much hate for entire races of people for no good reason. For instance, most Americans in these days have a negative outlook on the Muslim people. I know – I don’t mean to bring this up – I know that the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers is why Americans hate Muslims. But I don’t understand why, really. It was not all Muslims who did it; really no-one knows for sure who really did it, but if you should hold anybody responsible you should hold the governments responsible, not an entire race.’
‘That’s a good point, man,’ I said, ‘But you have to remember that most Americans are fiercely patriotic and when it really comes down to it, wholly ignorant (an unfortunate combination which history has proved is disaster waiting to happen). They join the military because they feel it is their duty, and they hate Muslims because everybody else tells them to.’
‘Do you not have any Muslim friends?’
‘Maybe one or two. I honestly don’t know many, but I don’t hate them, that’s for sure. They’re normal people, most of ‘em. And you should give some people a break, some Americans. They just get caught up in the emotion of everything.’
‘What do you mean, the emotion of things?’
‘Like, the heat of the moment, I suppose. That period of time after some big event during which most or all of your actions are guided by your emotions, not your logic.’
‘What kind of an event?’
‘Well, let’s do something hypothetical. Let’s go dredge up some Cold War paranoia, when everybody was afraid of being nuked. Let’s say that some country, I don’t know, Iran, managed to slip in an A-bomb into Houston Texas, where I’m from. Everybody I know there dies, my family included. Now, I’m kind of emotionally unstable as it is, but something like that would shatter any control I had in the first place. For weeks I would not use my brain, and would be likely to do something irrational like join the military so I could go kill those Iranian fuckers whom destroyed everything I love…for awhile. Hopefully, I would come to my senses before doing a damn fool thing like that, but to be honest I might not. Sure, later I might think it out and say to myself, “Joining the military to kill Iranians when it was the Iranian government, not the Iranian people who destroyed everything, might not be the best idea.” But by then it might be too late. When something like losing loved ones happens, you cease to think like you ought to and becomed ruled by your emotions, be they anger, grief, confusion, or any combination of these. And that’s one reason why lots of people join the military; they are making decisions based on their emotions, not their minds. Maybe they lost a family member in Iraq, or they have a father who is making them feel like shit for not “doing their duty,” or they are just blindly patriotic, and being governed by the emotion of pride. My point is, people tend to follow their emotions, not their mind; and this is especially so when it’s after some life-changing event.’
‘So you say that if Iran bombed your city with an A-bomb, you would join the military, and want to kill Iranians.’
‘Maybe. If I didn’t get myself under control in time. If I let emotion control me.’
George shook his head in the dim light of the cell phone. ‘That’s bad man, that’s a bad mentality to have. I do not have that mentality.’
‘I wasn’t saying my mentality is like that; I’m saying that I would probably be governed almost exclusively by emotion if an event like that happened. And I think you would be too, for a little while. Anybody would be, it’s nigh on impossible to be stoically logical all the time. We’re all human.’
‘If my loved ones were all killed in a blast that was the doing of some other nation, I would…I would sit, and think, for a few days, and then decide that it was not the race of that country whom is responsible for my loss. It is the government. joining the military for revenge is not the answer.’
‘Yea, that is what you should do. Think before you act.’ I agreed. ‘But is it what you really would do; you wouldn’t let anger or any other emotion influence your decision?’
‘No. I don’t think I would.’
I shrugged. ‘Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn’t. If you did, you would be one of the fortunate few. But let’s be honest, no-one can really know what they are going to do in a situation like that until it happens. It’s like being in a war, only with emotions; you never really know how you’re going to react until the bullets start to fly. I’m just being realistic with myself when I say I’d almost definently succumb to my own emotion; I don’t have a lot of self control.’
We went on like that for some time, and then the conversation turned to our respective travels. We had a similar adventure, but a totally different outlook on it. Mine was aggressive and conquering, while theirs was tranquil, loose, and rather blasè.
‘Our trip is very peaceful. We just let whatever happens happen, and nothing is really a problem because we don’t make it a problem,’ said Anastasia sedately.
‘Well, that’s very well, and sometimes my trip is like that too, but…you don’t like the feeling when there is a challenge ahead of you? Like, take for instance, crossing the Darièn Gap…I viewed it as an obsticle the I needed to overcome, that I wanted to overcome; it was one of the leading reasons I wanted to get to Colombia in the first place: so I could have the satisfaction of conquering the obstacle of the Gap. And now, I’m trying to get to Antarctica, not because I really have a huge interest in the place, but because it’s hard to get there. It’s a challenge.’
Anastasia shook her head. ‘We didn’t view the Gap as an obsticle; we were just along for the ride, and if we didn’t make it, than so what? We would do something else.’
‘All right, but you don’t take a certain satisfaction when you conquer an obsticle, when you come out on top? The thrill of conquering an obstacle is what makes me want to do it, it’s what makes it worth doing! If there were no obstacles, no challenges, life would be boring.’
‘No, we don’t think that way.’ she said serenely.
‘So the way you see it,’ said George, ‘you make obstacles out of things that are not obstacles.’
I snorted. ‘Not obstacles? You don’t call a swath of uninhabited, mountainous jungle an obsticle? It’s the very definition of one!’
When Anastasia and George left that night I got the feeling that I may have rubbed them the wrong way one one or two of those topics. Hey, I was only speaking how I honestly felt; it’s better than sugar-coating it all. I still liked them, even if the emotion perhaps wasn’t wholeheartedly mutual.
I’ve been catching some flack lately from a number of different people about some of the things I do, and let me try and clear things right now in this post so we can get it out of the way…
I’ll admit it right here: I’m a man with many faults. I am idealistic, irresponsible, narcissistic, defensive, impulsive, vulgar, and sometimes manipulative; I know. I recognize my problems and issues, and, well, I’m working on them, okay? While I don’t think being idealistic is really a fault, I try to keep my head out of the clouds when I’m trying to use it. I try to make more responsible decisions, at least when it comes to money, my old nemesis. I recognize my narcissism and try to think of the world as less of a play where I’m the star and more like a stone-brick building, where each stone has a purpose (though some are admittedly more important than others). I try not to misinterpret some things people say as a deliberate attack on my personal views; I try to think things through before I just run out there and do it, and I try to swear a little less because, well, a man has got to have a little class. And I really and honestly try very hard not to manipulate people for my own personal gain. That’s the biggest one, I think; I’m very good at it, being manipulative, and it becomes so easy just to slip back into the habit when I’m not paying attention. If one has read any of the really early posts on here you will know what I mean.
That is certainly one thing I don’t like about staying still in one place (like Ushuaia) for a chunk of time; it becomes so easy to slip back into the old ways, becomes so easy to bum cigarettes all day long, to talk to people for the sole purpose of bring up the fact that I haven’t eaten in two days so that they might buy me something to eat or give me ten pesos. I try very hard to stick to my principals; play music, work for food, and things like that. But when you’re in the same place day after day, it becomes rather trying; the same restaurants won’t let you work for food every day, and eventually you run out of places where they will let you work. You can play your music, but the same people pass every day, and even if they tipped you yesterday, you can’t expect them to tip you every day.
I slipped up a few times, I’ll admit it, and I think Anastasia and Geroge noticed; I got a very strong impression that this was another strike against me in their book, and perhaps the biggest one. I can’t say I blame them; acting a contriving con to people who mean you well is indeed an awful thing. However, before anybody decides to send me a nasty message saying that I’m just bloodsucking moocher prick, make sure you’ve been in the same boat as me at least once in your life. It’s easy to condemm me if you’ve spent your whole existance with everything you wanted, or you’ve never been really hungry because you always have at least a little money to eat. When you’re hungry, you do whatever you can to keep your belly full, even if it sometimes means taking advantage of the situation. It’s survival instinct, and every single one of you has it buried down in there somewhere. I try very hard not to if it involves a person who means well, but, like I said, I’m far from perfect. Yes, it was my decision to leave without money; I put myself here. But unless you’ve been in my shoes and can tell me a better way of doing things, then please save it.
Consequently, I decided that I needed to get out of Ushuaia as soon as possible, despite the fact there was another person that I had wanted to meet still in Ushuaia; Juan Villarino, a famous Argentine hitchhiker who has published a book about hitchhiking in the Middle East. I avoided meeting him. Why? Well, to be honest, I really look up to the guy; he’s everything I want to be. But what if I did a botch-job like with Anastasia and George, and he ended up despising me? That would be absolutely dreadful; before meeting him I needed to go out and, just like Cool Hand Luke, “git my mind right.”
So one morning I just up and left; I opened my eyes and thought of my upcoming day, which basically consisted of trying to figure out how to eat. I had a little money left over from my five-day stint as a baker on Calle Don Boscos (I was mislead into believing the job was long-term; it was not), so I went to the supermarket, bought 4 kilograms of rice, and left Ushuaia. The decision was so sudden I even forgot to say goodbye to Johnathan at his restaurant.
I didn’t really know where I was going. When people asked me I told them I didn’t know. The first night I ended up in San Bernardo, the Chile-Argentine border in Tierra del Fuego; the second night I camped in some 18th century ruins called San Gregorio about 120 kilometres north of Punta Arenas, Chile.
San Gregorio is a strange place; foundsd in the 1850’s, it used to be a livestock ranch, but in 1976 the San Gregorio ranch was closed down for good and a factory was built 20 kilometres to the north. The old buildings still stand today, stoic reminders of a bygone time, rotting away and slowly giving way to the relentless Patagonian winds. Two families still live in the grand mansion out back, and sheep are still kept there, though in much smaller numbers; thousands of sheep skeletons lie scattered about the windblown plains surrounding San Gregorio, the direct reasult of a particularly brutal winter in 2001 where it snowed almost twenty feet in less than four days. Most of the sheep froze to death.
On the beach there lies two enourmous, ancient rusted boats constructed in the late 19th century; they now lie beached on the shores of the Strait of Magellen in San Gregorio. Instead of springing for cleanup costs, Chile decided that it would be cheaper to call them National Monuments and let them waste away there on the beach head, where they have been since 1973. They were once grand vessels (built in London), but 37 years of salty tides and howling wind has reduced them to little more than corroded skeletons; their Capitans are squalling gulls, and their crewmembers the scuttling crabs nestled in every crevice. Such is…the afterlife of boats.
The next day I arrived to Punta Arenas, where I am now. My first two nights I camped in a very nice city park,cooked rice, drank mate, and roasted wienies over a peaceful campfire. After that I camped in a place about 50 km to the south called Puerto del Hambre, where some unfortunate Spanish settlers sent to claim the Strait of Magellean for Spain starved to death about 500 years ago after the King just sort of forgot about them there…hence Fuerte Bulnes, six kilometres to the south, where the first Chileans took claim to the Strait in 1843, beating the Dutch there by a mere 24 hours. During the weekend I hung out with my new friend Carlos (who does the parking tickets). We got very drunk and smoked lots of pot. Today I got blown around by the daily hurricane-force winds which are the norm in Punta Arenas in the summertime, and tried for a last-ditch attempt at Antarctica.
That last thing was unsuccessful; I’m afraid the dream has indeed been denied. However, I am determined to try again in New Zealand someday. Until then, I feel I must focus all of my energy and attention on the Amazon Adventure, my next…challenge.
Next stop: Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine, and Magellenic islands…
The Modern Nomad
2. San Gregorio thousands of dead sheep, and rusty boats
3. Puerto del Hambre
4. Fuerte Bulnes