Punta Arenas, Chile
I once knew this kid who was near his happiest with a writhing, infuriated venomous snake in his hands, and was just about at his happiest when he learned from the Discovery Channel that you could milk the venom out of it using ordinary household items like latex gloves and a glass jar. He was of the reckless type, obviously, and the fact that the slightest slip could end with his hand full of cottonmouth venom and his little heart in full cardiac arrest made him all the more excited to do it again at the first available opportunity; and for what, exactly? To have a little vial of that delightful hemotoxic mix of evil proteins and twisted carbohydrates to set proudly on display atop his bedside table next to his collection of assorted igneous rocks and miscellaneous rifle and machine gun rounds he had managed to lift from his father’s gun cabinet when he was alone in the house.
Along with collecting strange, taboo things usually explosive in origin, the boy loved to keep pets; due to his aforementioned fascination with danger, very rarely where they your run of the mill puppy dogs and parakeets. For example, lots of people like to keep large, lumbering tortoises that enjoy a nice lettuce leaf every few days and maybe some crunchy store bought pellets; this lad kept three ravenous, long-tailed aquatic snapping turtles in his fish tank, (all named ‘Bob,’ numbers I, II, and III, respectively), whom wasted no time monopolizing the already rather forced food-chain in his tiny twenty-gallon tank by snapping up every single other living thing in under thirty seconds. The boy kept these turtles for three years until they outgrew their quarters.
After the end of the Bob’s Reign of Terror, goldfish were a common purchase at the local pet store by the boy, and he would sit for hours in his room by the tank watching his brand-new and rapidly growing garfish methodically devour them one by one. The garfish lasted for two years until it too got too big for the tank and he had to replace it with more baby snapping turtles.
Another example: you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who wouldn’t kill a black widow spider on sight and without the slightest hesitation. Not only did the boy not kill black widow spiders, he was known to spend hours turning over boards in his shed in search of the feared arachnids. When he inevitably found one, he would coax it into a jar and keep it on his bedside table next to his cottonmouth venom, watching with genuine fascination as it spun its messy web and mummified the unfortunate crickets he tossed inside every few weeks. Eventually (to the horror of his very tolerant mother) it spun an evil-looking spherical egg sack and was banished from the house. When this happened, he would simply spend an hour in the shed and come back with a brand new specimen. Sometimes two.
People who think they’ve got a soft spot for the creepy crawlies might go out and buy a big, lethargic black scorpion from their local pet dealer and feel extremely brave about it all. One day, during a trip to San Antonio, our boy’s heart nearly stopped with excitement when he found a three-inch long mother scorpion with about fifteen maggot-like young clinging to her back during one of his many daytime walks in the green belt to turn over rocks and climb trees. Eight months later, he had a bustling, breeding nest of no less than 87 brown scorpions in various stages of maturity living in several stacked boxes in the darkness of his closet.
The list goes on; some people kept ball pythons, he kept coral snakes (‘Outside!’ insisted his magnanimous mother; even she had her limits). Many kids wanted an iguana for Christmas; he wanted to go to Arizona so he could capture the only true venomous lizard in the world, the Gila Monster, or at least settle for a Mexican beaded lizard, which only had toxic saliva.
During his extremely early years, his fascination with danger was mostly limited to being an audacious tree climber and having his favourite dinosaur be the Tyrannosaurus Rex (which later changed to Velociraptor after he figured that, after all was said in done, they had probably been more dangerous than the huge, lumbering T-Rex). This soon progressed to the aforesaid obsession with living dangerous creatures, which mixed rather alarmingly with another quirky characteristic…
The boy was an overdoer. You’ve probably already guessed that when you heard about the 87-strong scorpion army he was raising in his closet, but that was just the veritable tip of the iceberg; once he found something he enjoyed, nearly every waking moment of his life would be spent obsessing over this one particular endeavour. For example, lots of little boys liked to collect bugs and stick them on pins like they saw at the science museum; after our kid got back from his first trip to the Witty Museum in San Antonio, he started his own very thorough and extremely detailed bug collection, which, over the period of ten years, grew to a very impressive representation of nearly 600 species of local insects and arachnids and a few tropical butterflies smuggled craftily in his pockets out of the walk-in live tropical butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Natural Science. Neatly labelled with both common and Latin names, his collection even included an alcohol-based euthanizing system for any unfortunate local butterflies he managed to snare.
Once when he was four or five he got one of those old train track sets; you know, the ones with the wooden tracks that you put together to make a nice little circle to zoom the toy trains around on. He enjoyed his first set so much that he received the same gift for several Christmases afterwards, and soon had a bona fide lumber yard of tracks in all shapes, sizes, and lengths at his disposal. Unhappy with the limited of the number of bridges he could make with the measly wooden blocks included, he would make bridge supports with anything available, from couch cushions to kitchen chairs to duct tape. Bridges would cross randomly over each other, and sometimes grew to resemble an intersection of two major real-life interstates. Sometimes they would climb all the way up to the top of the entertainment centre at a treacherous eighty degree angle, and descended at an even sharper decline, oftentimes ending with a sharp turn or roadblock made from assorted stacked science books, just to keep things interesting.
The myriad of train tracks were never restricted to just one room; with literally hundreds of yards of construction material at his disposal, the boy would spend days constructing complex networks of tracks which at one point covered nearly the entire second story of the house, zig zagging through two bedrooms and the bathroom (he had makeshift bridges which would go over ‘lakes,’ which in this case meant the filled bathtub and the toilet). On several occasions the tracks actually went over the edge of the second story balcony, with strings tied to the upper railing for supports (the boy recognized the danger this would present for his fictitious passengers, and allowed what he felt was the appropriate number of ‘accidents’ to happen on this particular perilous stretch of tracks; sometimes toy trains would rain down on the living room from the balcony above).
The examples go on and on and on; when he was about sixteen he decided to pick up the guitar. By eighteen he had crammed a good six years of guitar theory in his busy little head. Around age fifteen he decided that he wanted to run a marathon; before he was eighteen he had run nine full-length marathons and 22 triathlons of varying distances.
Sometimes he went too far; as he got older a few practical jokes taken to absurd extremes landed him in hot water both at school and with local law enforcement. Nonetheless, his parents were usually very tolerant of their eccentric son’s habits, which ranged from slightly odd (tacking posters on the ceiling) to downright strange (filling up plastic grapes with hot wax). However, the older he got the harder it became for his parents to deal with him, and his mid-teens were spent in almost constant conflict with his mother and father.
The main source of dissention was performance in the classroom; while the boy excelled at anything he enjoyed to an almost inhuman degree, he went to opposite extremes of failure and lethargy when it came to something he didn’t fancy, which included most of his subjects at school (except for Science and English). For example, throughout most of his school career, the youth absolutely loathed any type of math; correspondingly, he made such low grades in the subject that it was almost comical (marks were usually somewhere in the neighbourhood of twenty right out of a hundred). This infuriated his parents, who knew if he simply decided one day that Algebra was his new favourite thing in the world to do, he would easily become the best in his class.
That was the life of this boy: a life of extremes. All or nothing. Now, most of you have probably guessed by now who this boy is. No? I’ll give you a hint. If you’re reading this right now, you know him, or at least know of him. Still nothing? All right, one more…
Just after he had turned nineteen, this boy decided to try his hand at hitchhiking. He soon found it one of those things that he would probably spend a large portion of his life obsessing over, and his first hitchhiking trip spanned for a year and a half over 30,000 miles, several continents, two hemispheres, and fourteen countries.
That’s right. That boy was me. Is me. Always will be me.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I’ve started off this post with a fifteen hundred word summary of my idiosyncratic but extremely enjoyable childhood; don’t you worry, I’m building up to something.
Now that you’re all a little more familiar with who I’ve always been, perhaps we can now better understand how and why I do the things that I do, because some of my most frequently asked questions are of the how and why variety.
Without a shadow of doubt, the past eighteen months of being a career wanderer has changed me more than perhaps any other way of spending eighteen months is capable of doing. For example, I can give you my current reason for living the way I do quite easily: I travel to seek adventure, and because I love the world I live in and the absolute unadulterated freedom wandering it beckons into one’s mentality. I travel because I want to learn about other cultures, but I also travel because in all honesty I can be very lazy and it’s the easiest way to live. I travel because as much as I want to broaden my mind, I am still very selfish and, since it is my latest obsession, nothing in particular seems to take a paramount importance over this latest mania.
That being said, if you would have asked me three weeks into my trip why I had decided to travel, the answer would have been quite different. The reason I originally decided to travel, and travel by hitchhiking for that matter, was the imminent danger that it was sure to present. A first time hitcher has no idea how easy and relatively safe it is to thumb your way around Mèxico and Guatemala; just watch the news! You’ll be abducted by drug cartels before you get out of Tijuana! You’ll remember how excited I got with a cottonmouth fang half an inch from my pre-teen index finger; when people told me about the real-life dangers my trip was sure to usher in, it made me want to go even more. I left the States with the idea that what I was about to do was akin to a solo hike across Siberia in the wintertime or hunting a lion with a .22. Very dangerous, but at the same time remotely possible and sure to be an extreme adventure.
Well, I was right about one thing: it was an extreme adventure! But the danger was overrated, and after a few months I began to realize what I was doing had in fact been done before, and was currently being done by at least twenty or thirty other people. This gave rise to my sense of competition, and I wasted no time trying to have the most extreme hitchhiking journey of them all; while on the outside I complained about getting marooned in the Carribean, or wandering the Atacama Desert with limited water supplies, or being pulled out of the Mamorè river at gunpoint by the Bolivian military and later having to flee the country like a fugitive, inwardly I was excited and rejoiced, chocking it up to another extreme experience I had during my hitchhiking trip.
Yeah, yeah, I get it. It’s not about having the most extreme trip, it’s about how much you yourself grow mentally during your own personal spiritual journey, and blah blah blah blah, pass the peace pipe, lets make flower baskets and have unprotected sex in the mud. But in case you haven’t figured it out, that ain’t how my brain works. Ever since I was old enough to think, it’s always been a competition. A race to be the best. I had the best bug collection of any ten year old I knew of, and if I had ever come across a kid who had a better one I would have seethed in jealousy until I obsessively built my collection to exciting new levels. I always had the coolest critters scurrying about my bedroom, and I honestly don’t know any other kids who managed to run nine marathons between the ages of fifteen and seventeen.
While some people might see this as a negative trait, I see it as one of my most important positive ones. Without this, I would have never achieved anything I’ve done, at least not to the impressive levels I’ve managed to boost them to today. When things got shitty I would have turned back, but instead when things got shitty I was even more determined to continue on. I greeted danger with a smile, however foolish it may have been. It’s just who I am.
Now, I’m not totally discounting the hippie Kum-By-Ya mentality of travelling; In fact, for most people it’s probably the best way of doing things. I’ve even managed to absorb some of it during my travels, and I think it’s done me nothing but good. It evens me out a little bit, and when I start to get over-the-top obsessive about something that’s happening, I can use it to chill myself out a little bit. These days the trip is a lot less about the doing and a lot more about the going. I read a quote somewhere, I’m not sure where it’s from, or who wrote it, but it says ‘To be a real Traveller, you’ve got to not care much, just enjoy the trip. You know, the going.’ And I think that’s a lot closer to how I feel now than the ‘be the best’ mindset I had in my early times. To bo honest, I’ve had many actual spiritual peaks and experiences that have shaped the way I look at the world, and I think being a wanderer has definently givin rise to a spiritual side that I never even knew I had. That all being said, my sense of competition and my mentality of extremes will never die.
One of the hardest thing about having a personality of extremes is the fact that I am more than willing to do whatever it takes to get what I’ve decided in my mind that I want, and as soon as possible. The last post is a perfect example: I had it firmly in my mind that I wanted that kayak, and I wanted it now. I sent every person I know a polite request for donations, shamelessly begging people I’ve never even met for twenty bucks. And it worked, to an extent; I got nearly $500 dollars in donations mostly from people I’ve never met in my life, and to those people I am eternally grateful for enabling me. You know who you are.
Still, it wasn’t enough for the kayak, and I was forced to try another approach. The kayak trip was and is so firmly in my mind that being $350 short was far from stopping me. So, true to form, I’ve done whatever it takes to get the next part of my adventure up and running, even if it means doing the unthinkable: stopping travelling.
I know, I know. What the hell, right? What are you guys going to read late at night while partially drunk and smoking a fat doobie? But before you go slitting your wrists and asking yourself what the world’s come to, I urge you to calm down. It’s only temporary. Let me explain the events which led up to this happening…
I realized that I was going to have to get a job, either that or start a pot farm. I was, as I mentioned before, $350 short for the kayak and that wasn’t including essential gear like paddles and a wet suit. Total, I was going to need about US$1,200 for all critical equipment needed for the kayak journey.
When I got back to Punta Arenas ready to go kayak shopping, I was in high spirits. After a few hours of searching, I found a guy who owned a sea kayaking company that did trips into the Strait of Magellan and was willing to maybe sell me one. I got on the bus to his house in the nearby small village of Rio Seco, which was a very interesting place indeed. He was a very rich man, and was currently in the process of constructing a life-sized seaworthy replica of Hernando Magellan’s original ship, which was used to explore the Strait of the same name nearly 500 years before.
As interesting as this was, it turned out his kayaks didn’t fit my desired specifications and I decided to look elsewhere. But no worries; within two days I had found the perfect boat, a sixteen-foot ivory coloured fiberglass beauty of a sea kayak with a cool name to boot: the Cruz Diablo. When I told the man who was selling it all about my upcoming adventure of epic proportions, he was very impressed and slightly off-put that anybody would actually be crazy enough to try such a thing. He asked me if I had any experience, and I quickly invented some for myself so as not to raise any alarms. He agreed to sell the boat to me, and we made an appointment the next day to do a test run. I wasn’t worried; how hard could paddling a boat be? I’d spent a lot of my childhood in canoes, after all.
I arrived the next day to the agreed-upon spot in the Strait of Magellan, bright-eyed and bushy tailed in anticipation of finally getting on the water. The kayak seller arrived soon afterward, with my beautiful future kayak on his trailer. I practically jumped out of my clothes and into the wetsuit and was soon floating around…awkwardly. Very obviously awkwardly.
Before this day, I had spent a total of about two hours in a sea kayak, and that was on a lake in Wisconsin during the summertime. The Strait was cold and, more problematically, windy. The kayak was very narrow, so while it was very fast it didn’t have much in the way of stability, especially with no cargo and an inexperienced paddler. The man who was about to sell me the kayak looked at me with a confused expression, and asked me why it looked like I had two left arms when I was paddling. Did I really have experience?
Sensing danger, I quickly assured him that I did in fact paddle the Aleutian Islands in their entirety a few years ago, and blamed my inelegance on being unaccustomed to the new boat and the fact that I hadn’t been on the water for a couple of years. He then asked me if I knew how to do an Eskimo roll (which, for those of you who don’t know, is the act of righting the kayak with the paddle after tipping over). I told him….yes.
This wasn’t entirely a lie. I had really learned the Eskimo roll before, but it had been several years back and in a five foot whitewater kayak. I had managed to do it successfully a few times, but that was the extent of my rolling experience. I knew what was coming next.
‘All right, then. Let’s see your roll,’ said the seller, with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
‘Uhhhhmmm…’ I said. ‘Uhhhmmm…all right then. Let’s see. Hang on. Uhhmmmm…’
I tried to remember the steps of the classic sweep roll. Something like arc, then sweep, twist, then hip-thrust? Or was it hip-thrust while arcing and twisting? And sweeping? And what was that bit about your head? Something you had to do with your head…
Seconds passed. Figuring I had to do something, I took a deep breath, braced myself, and rolled the kayak upside-down.
Fuck that water was cold. That was the coldest fucking water I’d ever felt in my entire life. The wet suit seemed to be of absolutely no help. Shock rocked my body in an icy wave. OK, shit, I needed to roll up and get out of this bloody cold water stat. Let’s see, arc, and….sweep?
Nothing. The kayak may have had bobbed a little to the left, but apart from that, I was still underwater and rapidly running out of air. OK, once more…arc, and…hip thrust?
Nothing. That was it, that was all I had. I pulled the spray skirt and wet exited.
‘I thought you knew how to roll?’ said the vendor.
‘Well, it’s been awhile. I really have done it before!’
Being an obviously nice guy, the vendor then spent the next hour coaching me on how to roll. After those sixty minutes I had managed to roll about halfway up before plunging back into the icy depths, and my lips were starting to turn blue.
‘All right, we’d better call it a day. Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk.’
Shivering, I changed out of my wetsuit and back into my normal clothes. However, instead of feeling deterred or discouraged, I felt determined and focused. This was something that was a lot harder than I initally thought, and for that I was glad. After all, if it was easy than everybody would do it.
I came back the next day and we had our little meeting.
‘So.,’ said the vendor. ‘I’ve been thinking about the trip you’re planning. Do you want to know what I think is going to happen to you?’
‘You’re going to die.’
He gave me a stare and went on. ‘You have absolutely no idea how to paddle a sea kayak, you can’t do the Eskimo roll, and you haven’t a clue what a surf rescue is.’
‘I do now!’ I protested.
‘How?’ he asked.
‘Googled it…’ I muttered.
‘Right. Well, I’ve thought about it, and I’ve made the decision not to sell you the kayak.’
‘What?’ I sputtered. ‘What? Why? I can re-learn the roll, I can practice it!’
‘Look . I’m a serious kayaker. I’m a member of an association. If I sold you the kayak and you went out there and died, it would be my fault for selling it to you. Do you really know what you’re getting into? The sea here is cold, the weather is extreme. Even professionals think twice before tackling a trip like this!’
‘But I will learn!’
‘Not if you want to leave before January 10th, you won’t.’
‘OK! I’ll leave on the 20th!’
He sighed. ‘Look man. I can’t do it. If you really want to go you’ll have to find somebody else to sell you a kayak.’ He then stood up and left the room, then stopped. ‘You haven’t really paddled the Aleutian Islands, have you?’
I thought for a second. ‘Well, maybe not all of them…’
‘Maybe one or two of them…’
‘Well, I’m a very experienced daydreamer on the subject.’
‘Uh-huh. Look man, I admire your spirit, but this isn’t one of those things you can just go out and do. Good luck finding another kayak.’ He left.
I was crushed. What was I going to do now? The price of that kayak had been a real steal; I would never be able to find another one like it I could afford. I left the office depressed.
Over the next couple of days I thought hard about what the vendor had said, and the more I thought about it the more it seemed like he was right. This was no afternoon picnic I was planning; this was a real, hardcore expedition-type journey. As much as I really wanted to leave now, I knew I would have to make some compromises if I wanted this thing to actually happen. I went back to the vendor’s office several days later.
He looked up from his scribbling. ‘You again? Did you find another kayak to buy?’
‘No. But I’ve been thinking a lot about what you said, and…I think you’re right. Going now would be suicide, practically.’
He nodded. ‘Go on…’
‘I’m still going to do it.’
He frowned slightly.
‘But…I’m going to do it your way. I’ll stay here far as long as it takes to learn all the necessary skills needed for the upcoming journey. Please. I’ll do anything if you’ll just sell me the boat and the wetsuit so I can practice. I promise I won’t leave. I’ll be staying here until at least August while I figure everything out. I will learn!’
The vendor raised an eyebrow and rolled his eyes ever so slightly, then gave a huge sigh. ‘You just don’t give up do you?’
He chewed thoughtfully on the end of his pencil. ‘August. That gives you…’ he thought for a moment, ‘…eight months. Still not nearly enough time, in my opinion, but I suppose you can learn enough to bail yourself out of trouble when it inevitably finds you.’ He licked his lips. ‘All right. I’ll sell you the kayak, and the wetsuit, and I’ll coach you when I can, but it’s mostly going to be up to you to get comfortable in that boat.’
‘Yes!!’ I shouted. ‘Thank you!’
‘But…’ he interrupted.
‘But…if you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it right. You’re going to need a GPS, a SAT phone, and permission from the Chilean Navy.’
‘Done. I could use those things anyways.’ I grinned, then stopped. ‘So, um, I don’t have all of the $400.000 pesos right at this moment, but maybe we can work out a sort of a payment plan…?’
‘Sure. We can figure something out.’
And we did. I paid him ¼ of the price, $100.000 pesos, and therefore obligated myself to making the rest of the money by working. And I got the kayak.
And so that’s how it is; before I spend the next 2 years of my life paddling around in a kayak, I’m going to have to actually learn how to kayak first. Sounds crazy, I know, but as much as the idea of just heading out into the sea with practically nothing inspires my idealistic heart, I’ve got to be realistic for once in my life. If I’m going to have a good chance of survival I’m just going to have to do this one right. I look at it this way: if I can run nine marathons in two years, learn the guitar in one year, cycle four hundred miles a week for three months, and survive twenty years of reckless existence, I think I can become a pretty good kayaker in eight months.
This all happened some weeks ago; I still haven’t figured out that blasted roll yet, but I am getting a lot more comfortable in the boat. I’m not worried; I’ll get it soon.
Obviously this isn’t the end of the post; I’ve left out practically all that has happened since I last wrote, so if you’re getting sleepy then I suggest you hit the sack and save the rest for morning, cause I’ve got at least 10.000 more words heading your way…
The last post ended with me in Puerto Natales fooling myself into believing that working at a dishwashing job making $6.000 pesos a day was eventually going to pay for my kayak…
A few days into it I actually worked very hard, and didn’t mind doing so because I was focused on the task at hand, which was basically, ‘get kayak now.’ My performance was actually commended by the restaurant owner, who at first I liked. However, after a week on the job, she informed me that since I wasn’t to be available for longer than a month (this was back when I thought I would leave on the 10th of January), she soon booted me in favour of some person who could apparently work for several months longer.
I was a bit downtrodden but knew work was easy to find, so I didn’t let it get me down. I noticed that my Chilean visa was getting a little bit old, so I decided to make a little foray into Argentina to do a bit of exploring and renew the visa. That was the day after my Vagabond Hitchhiker’s Christmas, which I spent alone on a freezing cold beach eating two-day-old cheese sandwiches and ham paste. Gotta love it.
Since Puerto Natales is only about twenty kilometres from the Argentine border, hitching there was like taking candy from a lazy baby who likes peas better anyways. The crossing was uneventful, and I soon had the pleasure of experiencing a southern Argentine sunrise over the Patagonian badlands, just outside the small coal mining town of Rio Turbio. For the fifth time in my life, I was in Argentina, and I had no idea where I was going. I had few options from here; I could: A) go to Rio Gallegos, a rather dirty port town that I’ve been to before; B) go to El Calafate, the tourism hub of Argentine Patagonia, or C) go to El Chalten, a remote mountain town founded thirty years ago for adventure trekking near the South Patagonian Ice Fields. El Chalten was the obvious choice.
After shooting the breeze with some coal miners and drinking yerba mate at the entrance of one of the mines (and learning that I could’ve had my first Argentina trainhopping experience if I would have arrived the day before), I continued in a vague northerly direction towards El Chalten. After a quick ride with a middle aged man and his two preteen boys, I arrived to a remote crossroads.
‘Now, both of these roads will take you to El Chalten. One of ’em’s a little longer in distance, but the shorter one isn’t paved. Which one you wanna take?’
I elected for the shorter unpaved route through the seemingly endless badlands. It turned out to be a pretty good decision. As I walked down the lonely dirt road that seemed to go nowhere at all, I felt the good old fashioned rush that only rural South America can give me. The wind was low, the sun was high, and the sky was the sweetest shade of baby blue you ever set your eyes upon. After a brisk 30 minute walk, I took a break and did the stationary hitch for an overloaded Renault that I knew wouldn’t stop. I occupied my time by just enjoying being where I was. Clouds moved in, but they just made everything more beautiful.
Say what you want about Argentina; Patagonia is the place to be in the month of December. I’ve described in detail to you the vastness of the plains, and I’ve seen them more times than I care to count. But every time I make a visit, it never fails to take my breath away, be it the middle of the winter when everything is blanketed in snow or the dog days of summer when the winds howl and the the guanacos prance gallantly about in the open grass. As I walked along that lonely road I almost forgot I was hitchhiking; in fact, I missed several cars because I strayed from the road to investigate an interesting rock or see how close I could get to a sheep before it noticed me. It was one of the most liberating days of my journey.
I spent the entire day walking. It was just one of those times.
Around noon I found a nice spot to rest near a small river bustling with the daily summertime activity of flamingos, ducks, geese, and countless cheeping songbirds. I was even surprised to be bothered by small flies that liked to land on my eyeballs; so startled was I to find jungle-like insects this far south of the equator that I ceased to be bothered by them.
And so the day went on; walk for three hours, rest for half an hour. Walk for three hours, rest for a half hour. It was quite enjoyable.
Towards three o’clock the sun actually began to get very hot; I found myself stripped down to the sleeveless muscle shirt for the first time since October. Any cars that used the road seemed to pass primarily in the morning, and in the afternoon the lane was all but silent. I took long detours into the pampa in search of interesting animal life; and find it I did!
Every few feet scurried small, iguana-like keeled scaled lizards that I theorized were definitely of the genus Liolaemus (they later were confirmed to be Liolaemus martorii), known around Patagonia Argentina as the Lartija.
The Lartija scurried around the pampas eating small black beetles and sunning themselves on the occasional rock. Upon confrontation, they would dart to the nearest tuft of grass an immediately try to not be seen.
Once my eye got used to seeing them it became fairly easy to pick out their camouflage, and after that capture was quite simple. They were a very good sport about it, and even posed for a few photos, which I took with my new camera (thanks to Mr. Robbie Burns for that Navidad donation!).
Then something amazing happened; I was in pursuit of my sixth specimen, whom had darted under a particularly large and poky patch of bunchgrass. My hands were poised to start rooting around underneath with my fingers when I came across something exciting that I hadn’t encountered in more than a year and a half, something that reminded me a whole lot of home…something fat, black and red…
A black widow spider! Awesome! I had no idea that they survived this far south! And as I soon discovered, they didn’t just survive in the Patagonian badlands…they thrived!
I can happily say, without the slightest bit of exaggeration, that there was a black widow in every square foot of that particular stretch of dry meadow, sometimes three or four! My inner child rejoiced; it was a black widow jubilee, a bash, a spider soiree! I wanted to take photos of all of them, but I had to settle for just the fattest ones.
Some, like this particularly beefy bimbo down below, had helped themselves to the population of black beetles I had observed the Lartija feeding upon; not a good place to be a beetle! Snapping reptilian jaws and engorged venomous spiders at every turn; I’d prefer to take my chance getting smushed on the road.
The black widows were literally everywhere I looked; talk about watching your step! Looking out over the expanse of seemingly empty plains, one never would have guessed the dangers that awaited the careless and the barefoot.
I spent a good three hours watching black widows do what black widows do, which, to be perfectly honest, isn’t a whole lot. That is, unless you decide to participate!
I hunted down as many black beetles as I could find and gave my offering to the fattest of the bunch; after all, one who bites his thumb at danger as often as I do wouldn’t hurt to feed the beasts he tempts so…
Around six or seven I wrenched myself away from the meadow and began my hour long walk back to the road. Upon arrival I continued north for about three more hours before tiring and deciding to make camp for the night near a tired-looking patch of thorny bushes, the tallest vegetation for four hundred miles.
The wind began to pick up slightly, and as the sun slowly sank down over the horizon the heat of the day evaporated into a chilly night; I was glad to have my sleeping bag on hand. The sheep bedded down a few bushes away, the guanacos were fast asleep on the neighbouring hillside, and the clouds cleared out in the sudden wind to reveal a crystal-clear night sky above me.
As the stars peeked their twinkling faces one by one out of the inky blackness, I gave a satisfied smile and mentally registered another one of my Very Good Days of The Trip and slipped off to sleep amid dreams of flying through the endless Patagonian skies blanketed in starry constellations in the form of black widow spiders…
I woke up the next morning around seven with a dry mouth and sore legs; after a few gulps of water I began packing up camp and was soon back on the dirt track that served as a road in this uninhabited stretch of Patagonia . As much as I had enjoyed the previous day, I was ready to hitch a ride out of there and get on to El Chalten.
Around eight the first of the traffic began to slowly start trickling in; nine-thirty saw a white van pull over and lift me to the paved highway. The driver dropped me off at the crossroads for El Calafate and El Chalten. I thanked him and began walking along my stretch, which wound around a hill and then continued north until dead-ending in some extremely jagged mountains a few hundred kilometres to the north. That was, apparently, El Chalten.
For once in Argentina a ride was short in coming, and we rode along in relative silence until I was dropped off at an out-of-the-way estancia (Spanish for ‘remote house or farm’) about a hundred clicks south of El Chalten. On the north side of the property was a small house with smoke coming out of the chimney; the south was occupied by a nineteenth century style home with an out-of-place hedge surrounding it. Since the day was once again getting rather hot and I was low on water, I went up to the house to see if I could get a refill. As I was heading up to the house, a man with a beard and dreadlocks emerged from a patch of dry bushes and asked what I wanted, and I told him that some water would definently do the trick. He pointed to a small river behind the property and said I could draw water from there. I thanked him and walked down the embankment until I came to the river. The water was a light bluish colour, and since it came directly from the glacier in El Calafate it was ice-cold. I dipped my face in and drank for a few seconds before filling up my two water bottles.
Refreshed, I decided to see if I could find some hot water to prepare a yerba mate and get a little caffeine in me before continuing on to El Chalten; I went to the north end of the property to the house with the chimney smoke and knocked on the door. After a few seconds the door opened to show a tall, thin man in his late twenties with premature male-pattern baldness. Unfazed he kept wherever hair did grow (which was everywhere except the top of his head) in long, fat dreadlocks.
‘Do you need something?’ he asked in Argentine accented Spanish.
‘Hot water would be nice,’ I said, and held out my thermos. He nodded and gestured for me to come in. The place was, apparently, a resturaunt. There was a large-ish dining area in which were ten or twelve wooden tables and chairs, all obviously hand-made. My host pointed to one of the tables.
‘Have a seat, I’ll be right back,’ he said, and then dissapered into the kitchen.
While I waited I inspected my new surroundings; photos of various Argentine cowboys bucking around on angry horses dotted the wooden walls of the room. The restaurant had a rodeo theme, but not exactly the American idea of what rodeo is.
Argentine rodeo is different; first of all, they never ride bulls, only broncos. The second difference is the dress. Ten gallon hats are nowhere to be seen; instead, the Argentine rodeo cowboys wear a sort of a beret, like Jamie from the Mythbusters, and usually have some sort of interesting facial hair, also like Jamie from the Mythbusters. Chaps aren’t worn, nor tight jeans or button-up plaid; instead the preferred wear seemed to be baggy-type cloth pants, neutral-coloured rough-cotton shirts, and sometimes, worn cloth vests of varying earth tones.
Baldy Dreadlocks soon returned with my thermos filled with hot water and I began preparing my drink.
For those of you who don’t know exactly what yerba mate is, it’s a traditional South American tea made from the leaves of the Ilex paraguariensis plant. Unlike normal teas, the bulk of the mate (pronounced mah-tey) consists of the leaves themselves. You pour your vase (known as the ‘mate’) full of the shredded leaves (known as the ‘yerba’), and add hot (never boiling) water. The water is filtered from the leaves from a silver straw known as the bomba, which has a flat base with many small holes in it that allows the water to enter but filters the yerba.
There is an art to preparation; since I like things that require a little effort to properly prepare (i.e., tobacco pipes, hand-rolled smokes), I enjoy the preparation process of the yerba mate. It goes like so:
Step 1: Fill the mate 2/3 of the way with yerba of your chioce (I prefer the brand ‘Taragüi’).
Step 2: Put your hand over the top of the mate, turn it upside down, and shake vigourously for a few seconds, then right it. There will be a bunch of powdered yerba on your palm; wipe it off and repeat the process three or four times. The purpouse of this is to get as much of the powdered yerba to the top of the mate as possible, so you don’t suck it up through the bomba.
Step 3: Prepare your water. It should be hot but never boiling. This is because if your water is too hot, the leaves of the yerba will turn into paste and you will suck them up through the bomba. Therefore, your water should be about 90º C.
Step 4: Pour a small amount of hot water into the mate. Wait for a moment while it absorbs then pour a little bit more. Continue until the mate is about 2/3 full of water. When your mate is 2/3 full of water it will appear full, because the yerba will rise to the top.
Step 5: Place your thumb over the top of the bomba, and, using a scooping motion, scoop it into the yerba until it’s on the bottom. Release your thumb.
Step 6: Fill the mate with more water until it is full. Now you are ready to drink! When there is no more water there will be a loud sucking sound; this means you need to add more. When doing so, try to pour in the same spot as the bomba, so as to avoid yerba blockage taking place.
It’s very ritualistic, and that’s one thing I love about it. Not to mention it gives you a much cleaner rush than a cup of coffee; it’s actually very good for you. Several studies show that it exhibits significant cancer-fighting potential. It is commonly drunk everywhere in Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, the southern states of Brazil, and southern Chile. It is also the national beverage of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
I prepared my mate and dipped into the relaxing ritual of drinking, and refilling, drinking, and refilling. I was very hungry by this time, as I hadn’t eaten since leaving Puerto Natales nearly 36 hours before, so I asked Baldy Dreadlocks if there was any way I could do some work for a lunch. He said he would go and ask his friend, and vanished out the doorway. He returned a few minutes later with the same guy who showed me to the river, who said he had plenty of work for me to do.
‘Follow me!’ he said, and went out the door. I set down my mate and followed. After emerging once again into the hot sun, we began walking down to the river. We stopped by a small shed and my host emerged with a shovel and a pickaxe; we then continued down to the river until reaching a small chicken house that was built into the river embankment.
My host gestured to the house. ‘I’m going to turn this into a pig pen for the sow. Dig a trench around this fence (he pointed to the dilapidated chicken-wire that formed a small yard in front of the house), about 2 feet deep. When you’re done come and get me and you can have lunch.’ He handed me the tools and strode off up the embankment. I shrugged and got to work.
The ground was pretty hard, but I managed all right. I had gotten a pretty bad sunburn the day before black widow watching and the sun beat down rather heavily on my shoulders. Apart from this, it was quite pleasant work. ‘Dear Patrick: Today for food you will dig a trench for a farmer.’ I love my life!
When I finished about an hour and a half later I went back up the embankment and found my host, who had a nice meaty Argentine lunch ready, which I inhaled in less than five minutes and afterward continued my mate drinking.
I was quite enjoying this place; very peaceful, and it had a nice ridge with an interesting rock formation up top nearby, which was fun to look at. I decided to maybe pass the night there and continue to El Chalten the next morning. I informed my host of this, and he said that was fine with him, and if I wanted dinner than I was going to have to get back to work on the pig pen. That sounded all right by me, so after a smoke I headed once more to the river, shovel in hand. My host dragged out some old wooden pallets and a piece of tin roofing and told me to figure out a way to turn them into walls.
It was pretty simple; I sunk the pallets and tin into the ground and buried them with wet earth and river rocks of varying sizes. I then weighted them down with very large river rocks to provide a bit more security, and did the same with the tin; I left a small space for a door, which I made out of half a pallet and wire (for hinges). Around nine that evening I had a perfectly good pig pen constructed; I was rather proud of myself, and I led the fat, complaining sow to her new quarters in a good mood. My host fed me dinner, as promised, and afterwards I headed down to the riverbed to roll out my sleeping bag and catch forty winks before the next day began.
The next morning I bid farewell to my friendly hosts and my spiffy sow house and was back on the road after another mate and a chocolate bar. I waited for three hours with absolutely no luck. While I was waiting, I began thinking about the upcoming kayak journey, and wondered when I would have to head to Punta Arenas to get things in motion.
During the wait I decided that I needed to go to Punta Arenas a soon as possible, so I made the decision to save El Chalten for another day and get back to Chile so as I could start getting everything together. I turned south and started walking.
Six kilometres later I was in the middle of nowhere with absolutely zero traffic, with no shade in sight as I boiled under the hot sun. Three clicks further down I found a shady spot in the shadow of a ridge on a small hill that looked like it couldn’t make up it’s mind if it wanted to be made of dirt or sand. After another hour wait there, I finally managed to flag a car, after several rather awkward sprints to the side of the road from my shade to try to flag cars that had no intention of stopping for me. The ride took me to a small crossroads town where I stopped to get more water for another mate (the guy tried to charge me for hot water, then felt bad and changed his mind when I turned out my pockets to reveal lint, a gum wrapper, two cigarette butts, and loose yerba). I was lucky hitching out of here, and hitched a ride all 250 kilometres back to Puerto Natales after a very short fifteen minute wait.
I encountered a spot of trouble at the border crossing; you all of course remember when I lost all my possessions in Natales just a month ago; I sure do. Well, I had reported the incident to the Carabineros (Chilean police) in a last-ditch effort to get my things back, and they had flagged my passport number for vagrancy after somehow learning that I had squatted in some guy’s boat for a week. I assured the fellows at immigration the I was not, in fact, going to be sleeping on the streets any longer, and they let me pass and told me to be careful.
When I got back to Natales, I figured I’d find a quick job for a few days so I would be able to get to Punta Arenas with at least five or six thousand pesos; I could easily make that in a day. As I was walking down the main street of Puerto Natales, I passed Angelica’s Restaurant, the same place I had worked at just a few days before. As I was passing by I noticed the owner sweeping out the kitchen. I poked my head in and said hi; she seemed very pleased to see me.
It turned out that the other girl she had hired was an awful worker; slow, lazy, doing everything half-assed; pretty much how I usually wash dishes, but I didn’t say anything. Long story short, Angelica wanted me back! I was a little put-off; I’m not used to people actually commending my work effort in a job like dishwashing, but apparently I had done a top-notch job. Could I start again right away? Like, now?
Well, sure! This was just what I was looking for! I went inside, donned my plastic apron and hairnet, and was soon back to washing plates and scrubbing away at dirty pans.
My first impression of Angelica was a good one; but it was not to last. She was an incredibly neurotic woman with an unhealthy obsession with the dishwasher’s sink. For example, let’s say that I had sixty plates waiting to be washed; anytime the sink would become clogged with food and the water would get brown, she would absolutely freak out, even though I didn’t use that water to rinse the plates. It was rather a superfluous issue, and though I felt that getting the dishes rinsed fast and then cleaning the sink out afterwards was somewhat of a better, more efficient plan, she insisted that I break from the plates to clean out the sink anytime it got the slightest bit dirty. This became rather annoying after a while.
Angelica also seemed to live in a perpetual state of total panic; it didn’t matter if the place was completely empty and there wasn’t a single dish to be washed; she would frantically bounce from one end of the kitchen to the other shrieking about fried salmon or pasta and never really calming down at all. She reminded me of one of those little yappy dogs that is always squirming around by your feet and pisses the floor if you make loud noises or sudden movements (she had two dogs that did that). It was rather unsettling, but I tolerated it for the time being.
Once I got off around midnight that evening, I returned to my place under the same semi trailer and went to bed rather exhausted. I woke the next morning to a faint westward wind in a good, relaxed mood. I sat up, stretched, and surveyed my surroundings. All of a sudden I noticed something warm was nestled up beside me; something warm and…breathing.
It was a dog; and not just any dog, I knew her!
I had made friends with this little mutt a few weeks before during my first couple of days in Puerto Natales. We met when she stole a piece of chicken right out of my hand when I wasn’t looking. A fast friendship was soon formed, and before long she was following me everywhere I went and had joined me under my trailer during nights. I had named her ‘Ladrona’ (which is Spanish for ‘thief’), and after I left for Argentina I thought I would never see her again. However, after my first night back, she had found me in no time at all!
One of the foundations of our man-dog friendship was the fact that I am weak and would usually give her half of my scraps that I scavenged from work. I didn’t blame her for sticking around; when she was with me she ate just as good as I did, which is pretty good if you’re a dog. I gave Ladrona a poke, and she opened her eyes a fraction of an inch before fully waking up and giving a profound dog-stretch. Then she looked up, licked her chops and thumped her tail against the semi tire, blinking expectantly. I rolled my eyes and gave her a little piece of meat I had left over from the previous night’s shift at the restaurant and began packing up for the morning.
I ended up working at Angelica’s for four more days, until finally leaving on January 2nd due partially to the need to get to Punta Arenas and partially to the fact I couldn’t stand Angelica for another minute longer. I arrived to Punta Arenas anew on January 3rd, ready to go find a kayak.
Now, I’ve already told you everything there is to know about the kayak, but that was far from everything that went on in Punta Arenas since I got here about a month ago. As soon as I got into town, I gave my old friend Carlos a call and met him at his house around nine that evening.
I’ve mentioned Carlos before; he was the first friend I made here in Punta Arenas. Carlos is one of those Latin American men who, upon seeing anybody who looks un-Chilean, feels the impulse the say things like ‘Hey meeester, how are djoo?’ or something of a similar nature. Usually any tourist ignores these types of people, but since I’m friendly I just sort of started talking to him. Of course, the extent of Carlos’s English was limited to the aforementioned ‘How are djoo…’ and ‘hot gurl,’ so once he discovered that I spoke Spanish fluently he wasted no time asking me a million questions about everything from the direct translation in Spanish of various Discovery Channel shows like ‘Mythbusters’ (Cazadores de Mitos) to the real-life location of Texas (he thought it was a city in California). Carlos works on the street as what we would call in the States a meter-maid, though his job title in Spanish sounds much cooler than the English version: Guardiayuda Tarjetero.
His full name is Juan Carlos Toro Saavedra, which took me about three weeks to remember in it’s entirety, though he usually goes by various nicknames such as ‘Basura‘ (which means ‘trash’) or ‘El Chico’ (because he’s so short). After I first met Carlos on a windy, chilly day in early December, we quickly became good friends. When the weather was shitty outside, he would let me crash on his floor and watch cable programming at his house, which, I can assure you, was a hell of a lot better than sleeping under a bridge or in the park.
Through Carlos, I met a whole host of other people, most of them tarjeteros like himself. After I got back to Punta Arenas from my wanderings in Argentina and Puerto Natales, Carlos and I would usually hang around on the street corner where he worked and sneak sips from warm cans of beer when the Carabineros weren’t looking. After he would get off for the day we would head for the house of one of his friends, Checho Corona, who lived with his wife Tania and three-year old son Tomas; there we would start doing what 98% of Chilean men do after getting off work: drink beer and smoke cigarettes.
Carlos and Checho were not subtle about how enthused they were to have a foreigner amid their recurrent circle of friends; whenever new people would come over, Checho would introduce me as his ‘cousin from the U.S.A.’ (since I have a Corona Mexican beer tattoo and that’s his last name), and sometimes he would call people just to tell them that his ‘amigo gringo’ was over in his house and that introductions needed to be made.
This, I think, is one big reason I will probably never again live in the United States. There, I’m just another guy; but here in South America, people pay attention to me just for how I look and where I’m from, and sometimes practically come to blows over whose house I get to stay in for the evening. Everybody wants to be my friend, and obviously that feels pretty good. Everybody is interested in what I have to say, where I come from, where I’ve been; it’s just an overall good vibe, and I’ll admit it boosts the already sky-high chip on my shoulder into the startosphere…but anyways, what’s life if you don’t feel good about yourself?
Carlos and Checho have a pretty set-in routine in their lives: work on the weekdays from eight in the morning until seven that evening, and Friday and Saturday nights are usually spent at a popular local bar called the ‘Jungla Bar.’ I’ve been on several occasions, and it’s a pretty hopping place. Carlos and Checho also happen to be good friends with the bouncer at the Jungla, Albert, and so by default Albert and I also became good friends. Albert is a very friendly guy who nonetheless takes pleasure in throwing drunk bar partons who like to pick fights on their asses into the street with boyish enthusiasm.
While I was still bouncing around from house to house for most of the month of January, I spent a total of about a week crashing at Albert’s place and drinking tequila with his brother Claudio, who is just as friendly and likes to make fun of Argentinos and talk about the Pacific War and why Bolivians will always be the losers.
Around the second week of January I had just woken up from under my bridge and was wandering aimlessly around the Plaza in search of something to do when someone handed me a little slip of paper that said the following:
¡NO AL ALZA DEL GAS!
¡MAGALLANICOS UNIDOS POR NO AL ALZA DEL GAS EN MAGALLANES!
LA ASEMBLIA CIUDADANA ESTAN ORGANIZADOR UN MANIFESTACIÒN HOY EN LA PLAZA DE ARMAS DE PUNTA ARENAS, 1100-1300
¡VAMOS A ALZA EL VOZ PARA QUE LOS MAGALLANICOS ENTENDEN QUE EL PUEBLO NO SE VENDEN!
Apparently there was about to be some sort of protest right here in the Plaza de Armas. I looked at the big clock on the cathedral. Ten minutes to eleven. It looked like I was about to experience this firsthand! As the people began gathering outside the city hall, I asked around the get a feel of what this was all about.
Chilean president Sebastian Piñera passed a law recently to cut Magallanic natural gas subsidies by 16.8% in order to, quote, ‘attract more investors to the area.’ In doing so, he blatantly broke a promise made during a previous visit to the city to not cut gas subsidies. This was not sitting well at all with the people of an area heavily dependant on subsidized natural gas to heat their homes during the frigid southern winter; in fact, the region of Magallanes uses natural gas for just about everything, including to cook, power their vehicles, and make electricity. The region is not a rich one, and with food prices a good 30% higher than the rest of the country due to its remote location, cuts to subsidies would leave many Magallenic people struggling with high gas bills throughout the winter season, which lasts 9 months out of the year.
Magallanes has long enjoyed much cheaper gas than the rest of the country, due mostly to the fact that Chile’s only producing natural gas wells are located here, along with the aforementioned fact that the region uses much more gas than the rest of the country.
The proposed hikes sparked anger throughout the city of Punta Arenas, and as I was soon to learn, this gathering was just the beginning. As I stood and watched, people began to arrive to the plaza toting handmade signs saying things like ‘MORIR, LUCHANDO, DE FRIO NI CAGANDO!’ or simply ‘NO AL ALZA DEL GAS!!’ Soon the gathering of thousands had blocked off the main street and were beginning to swarm as a man shouted into the microphone and got everybody even more riled up. Chants echoed throughout the streets, and everybody waved around their homemade black martyr flags, swarming like a disturbed hive of bees.
All ages, shapes, and sizes made an appearance, from the very old the the very young. Old men shouted in anger at the City Hall from across the sea of humanity, and fathers put their sons on their shoulders so they could see everything that was happening. Women of all ages came with metal pots and spoons, wasting no time making a good deal of racket while the man behind the microphone kept shouting.
Around one, the protestors gradually began to dissipate back from whence they came, and I figured that was the end of it. But they came back the next day, twice as many, and right then I knew that this wasn’t just going to blow over in a day. By the third day of the protests the entire city was abuzz with chatter and rumour. All day long car horns would reverberate throughout the streets of the downtown, and people took to carrying their black martyr flags around wherever they went. Every car was decorated for the protests; vehicles of all types motored around town with black flags and hand-drawn signs taped to the windows. Some people even went as far as to draw on their cars with permanent markers.
It was pretty contagious, all of this, and since we were in Chile where any disruption from the norm is quickly turned into an excuse to party, I was having a pretty good time. On the fourth day the protests moved to the costanera (beachfront), and ended with live music until 1 a.m. With every day the protests went on, the further everything in the city drifted away from everyday life.
So far, I had been having a pretty good time; all this shouting, chanting, and flag-waving was good fun, and everybody seemed to appreciate my foreign support to their home-grown cause. I even got a black and a Magallanic flag and waved them around with everybody else. Now, before you call me a bandwagoner, I must say that I truly did support their cause; the Chilean government is very openly right-wing, and you all know my views are just about on the opposite side of the political spectrum. My own personal philosophy aside, the proposed gas hike was purely for unnecessary government profit, something that quite blatantly robbed the people of one of their most basic needs: the need for a warm shelter.
I chanted just as loud as any Chilean and enjoyed this city-wide excuse to get drunk. While the people shouting into the microphones were certainly angry, most of the Chileans shouted their chants with a smile on their faces. One woman told me, ‘We have all come out here to show the Chilean government how united we Magallenic people really are! Yes, it’s true, we are out here at the Costanera mainly to protest against the rising natural gas prices; but in doing this we all become closer as townsmen, and as brothers and sisters here in the most southerly region of the world! Here our unity is our strongest suit; it is such a cold place that we have no choice but to stay close during the wintertime!’ she said with a proud smile. ‘Here in Magallanes it is different than the rest of Chile; we are a country within a country. We are practically cut off from the distant capital in Santiago and the rest of our country to the north. Did you know that it’s easier for someone from Punta Arenas to get to Buenos Aires than it is to get to Santiago? We have been, and remain, isolated from the rest of Chile, and for this every citizen of Punta Arenas knows that we are not Chilean! Somos Magallanicos! And if the government in Santiago cannot understand our need for the natural gas, then we will band together to push them away!’
Quite an impassioned speech, and the mentality of ‘We aren’t Chilean, we are Magallenic!’ which had already been in place for decades, began to spread and multiply amongst the frustrated masses in Punta Arenas. The next day, Wednesday, the protestors took their protesting up a notch…
Late that evening, at around midnight of the fifth day of protesting, Punta Arenas burned.
People from every neighbourhood and every house were out on the streets feeding bonfires which consisted mostly of tires, though whatever they could get their hands on (from mattresses to couches to stolen scrap wood) was also thrown into the flames. On that night began what the Asemblia Ciudadana (The Citizen’s Assembly) deemed ‘El Paro Indefinitamente,’ or the Indefinate Strike, in which all major roads in the region of Magallanes, from Puerto Natales all the way down to Porvenir in Tierra del Fuego, were to be blocked off until the demands of the people were met. That night was the first of many, and the people of Punta Arenas took the word ‘roadblock’ very seriously.
No-one was allowed to pass in their cars, and a cut would be made in one place for a few hours before randomly switching it to another. Consequently, transportation all throughout region deteriorated and travel became next to impossible. The only way to get around the City of Punta Arenas was by walking or bicycle, and the only way to get to the International Airport was by walking almost 20 kilometres. Consequently, thousands of tourists from all parts of the globe were stranded, and after a few days were very upset indeed.
I had mixed feelings about the roadblocks; on one hand, it certainly was a good way to get the government to pay attention to you. On the other hand, I had seen roadblocks like this in Bolivia and Ecuador, and they seemed akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face. The only people it really hurt were the Magallenic people, and if this kept up for too long the already limited resources of Punta Arenas would be exhausted. With that being said, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!
Maurardering groups of twentysomethings were the principal culprits for the random fires in the streets, so I went out and joined up with one. Tires would be scavenged, (‘scavenged’ being a euphemism for ‘stolen’) from front yards and parked cars and then carted to the nearest bonfire. I didn’t really feel comfortable actively stealing things from people’s yards, so I let some of the other guys do the dirty work and settled for just throwing things into the flames. When no more tires could be found, scrap wood was stolen, and when that ran out we dragged an old, rusty car frame into the middle of the road and lit that on fire, too.
For the next four days the skies of the Brunswick Penensilua were black with smoke, and the city began to deteriorate. The Carabineros were witness to all of the mayhem, but had clear orders not to arrest anybody unless they were breaking the law; a total of 207 people were arrested for things like theft of lumber and looting, but were released within hours. As I had predicted, the shops began running out of food; there was no bread in the bakeries, the grocery stores closed down in support of the strike, and the city began to look like a war zone. The ashes from the night’s bonfires dotted the street, and charred wire from the insides of the tires was strewn all round the downtown area. All businesses were closed by Saturday, and most citizens spent the weekend frantically scurrying around town looking for a place to buy bread.
The Argentine government filed an official complaint on behalf of more than 500 Argentinos trapped in Punta Arenas and 100.000 more trapped on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego in the cities of Rio Grande and Ushuaia. The aforementioned idea of the people of Magallanes being not Chilean, but ‘Magallenic’ became more and more proliferant in Punta Arenas as the Chilean government in Santiago refused to bend. Banners saying things like ‘Long Live the People’s Independant Republic of Magallanes!’ became more and more frequently seen.
The largest roadblocks on the Ruta 9 (the only road leading out of the city) were reinforced with the help of local truckers, who parked their rigs across the road, opened up their trailers, and cooked asado (Bar-B-Q) for all the protestors who came there.
One day during the daily gathering in the Plaza, one of the members of the Asemblia Ciudadana called for people to ‘help reinforce the Ruta 9 roadblock by coming with your tents and your bodies!’ He called for people to ‘camp out in the middle of the road.’ Free food would apparently be provided for anybody who decided to help out in this way, and that pretty much sealed the deal for me. I didn’t have a tent anymore, but I still had a sleeping bag and my body. That night I headed on over to the main roadblock and, to the delight of everybody there, rolled out my sleeping bag in the middle of the highway and slept there for two days.
On the second night of the fires, tragedy struck; I was out with my friends at one of the roadblocks near Carlos’s house when we heard the sound of an engine revving to its maximum potential, followed immediately by a loud crash and an an ear-splitting scream. It was coming from one of the roadblocks about fifty meters ahead; me, Carlos, and Checho sprinted over to see what had happened.
What greeted us was a chilling sight; the fire that had been blocking the road was spread out all over the area, with bits of burning tire and hot wire sizzling evilly in patches from one side of the roadway to the other. There were two circles of people around two alarmingly still black figures on the pavement; one of them was on fire. People were batting at the flaming figure with blankets and arms and legs, but it burned on. Someone was screaming, someone from one of the circles; she sounded like an older lady. Her scream was raspy and full of grief and pain. People scurried around in a panic, shouting, screaming, pointing. Finally the figure was put out.
After a few minutes there came the sound of an ambulance siren, but it could not get close enough to the two lifeless black figures on the pavement due to the presence of another burning roadblock further down the road. I and about twenty other young men ran to the fire that was blocking the ambulance and began clearing the bonfire fire away with any materials available; pieces of wood, rakes, our boots. Still, the process was slow and the fire intensely hot. Black smoke from the tires choked our lungs, but after about five minutes we had it clear enough for the ambulance to pass. As soon as it had passed we ran back to where the inert figures still lay on the pavement ahead. As I ran it felt like I was running through a muddy field, like my boots were sticking to the pavement; in fact, they were. The fire had melted the thick rubber soles and turned them into hot, sticky paste.
From then on there was nothing we could do; we watched helplessly as the ambulance loaded up the two figures, who were covered with soot and blood, totally unrecognizable in regards to age or sex. I still didn’t know what had really happened; as the ambulance pulled away, the crowd looked on in silence. The fires burned on, indifferent and aloof, their crackling and popping the only sound in the night air.
It was awhile before I figured out what had happened, but after asking around I finally got the full story: A pickup truck had tried and succeeded in running through the roadblock. He had been driving without his lights on, and had hit two young women (ages 18 and 20), hurling them bodily into the flames of the fire where they burned for about ten seconds in the intense heat before being pulled out. That was apparently when I had shown up. The motionless silhouettes on the road, the destroyed roadblock and fire. The driver had fled the scene, as the police made a very tardy appearance, arriving just as the ambulance was loading up the two young women into the bay. They questioned everyone there, including me, but I wasn’t able to give any useful information on the missing pickup, as I hadn’t actually seen the accident happen.
I read in the newspapers the next day that the two young women had died shortly upon arrival to the hospital from severe burns and internal bleeding; also among them was a 1 year old baby, whom I guess I hadn’t seen in the commotion. The child was the lone survivor, and was released from the hospital four weeks later with severe burns. The driver of the pickup was caught a few days later; he admitted to being drunk at the time of the accident, and is now in jail where he belongs. He faces trial in March.
The next day there were more people in the Plaza than ever before; after the Asemblia Ciudadana had their turn up on the microphones, the father of one of the girls who had died the night before came up to the platform, dressed in a wrinkled collared shirt that suggested that he had spent the night in the hospital. The buzz of humanity calmed as he stared out over the crowd, eyes shining.
‘My fellow townsmen,’ he began, voice wavering. ‘My fellow townsmen, last night a terrible calamity befell our fair city.’ He stopped as the crowd listened with rapt attention. ‘As I’m sure most of you have heard, my daughter and her friend were…they were…killed…last night at one of the roadblocks near the Ruta 9.’ He stopped, his breathing deep and laboured. ‘She was my daughter, and she was so young, so full of life. And it was her, my daughter, who was going to University, it was my daughter who was about to get married, and my daughter who promised to take care of me when I was old. My daughter…’ He stopped again and stared up at the City Hall.
‘And despite all these things, all she had to live for, it was also my daughter, who last night…burned…’ He gave a huge sob as tears streamed down his face. ‘She burned, for twenty seconds, right there in the middle of the road. Twenty seconds, my daughter was on fire.’ He gazed sadly up at the sky for a moment as the crowed listened on. ‘My daughter and her best friend died last night, cut down in their prime amongst this madness that has become our city. For what, I will never know. All I know is that I shall never see her again in this world.’
‘Now,’ he went on after another pause, ‘Now I would like to ask everyone out there to join me in a moment of silence to honour the memories of my daughter and her friend. Just for a moment, please…join me in silence.’ His voice cracked on the last word, and he bowed his head. The thousands of people in the plaza were suddenly deathly quiet, as silent as a thousand churchmice during Christmas Eve Mass. A light wind buffeted the plaza, causing the black plastic martyr and regional flags to rustle eerily, the lone sound in a space packed to it’s capacity with people. A gull screeched, dove, and landed on one of the flagpoles; and still everyone was silent, hardly even breathing for fear of making a sound.
Finally, the speaker looked up. ‘My daughter and her friend are dead, and nothing will bring them back; and now I find myself wondering…who is there to blame?’ He paused for a moment, jaw tightening. ‘Perhaps I can blame the man who ran them down in his pickup truck and then disappeared into the night; or maybe I can blame the people who lighted the fires that burned my daughter up. Maybe I can blame the ambulance driver for not getting there soon enough, or maybe I can blame the Asemblia Ciudadana for starting this strike in the first place.’ He hesitated, then went on. ‘But all of these blames, all of this finger pointing at our own townsmen, is baseless.’ He glared up at the City Hall, a glare full of anger and hate. ‘It is obvious who is to blame here; it’s the lawmakers up in Santiago, those sons of whores who have so coldly decided to cut our region off from the resources it needs! If they never would have broken the promises they made to the people of Magallanes, we would never have needed to fight!’ The crowd began to get riled up; people were shouting chants verbally abusing the members of the Chilean government, and someone threw a glass bottle at the City Hall, which smashed into pieces and rained a few citizens with glass.
‘PIÑERA!’ bellowed the speaker, referring the the Chilean president. ‘Piñera, you son of a whore, you listen to me and to this five-thousand strong manifestation of MAGALLENIC PEOPLE! We have all gathered here today to show our anger and our determination in the face of your lies and manipulation! This is no longer just a political problem! You and your whole dirty cabinet have got blood on your hands, the blood of MY FAMILY! Murderer! Thief! This is far from over! MURDERER!!!!’
After the last ‘murderer,’ the crowd began to chant the word over and over again in Spanish.
‘Asesino! Asesino! Asesino! Asesino!’ With each syllable the mass would stomp their feet in sync with each other, so it felt as if their voices were moving the Earth. I got a very uneasy and distinct feeling that this wasn’t just showboating; there was an electricity in the air, hanging heavily over the Plaza like a combustible gas, a gas that was just waiting for an excuse to ignite and explode into violence. As the mass slipped deeper and deeper into mob mentality, the Carabineros showed up dressed in full riot gear, ready to defend the mayor and the city hall from the increasingly angry horde which was beginning to swarm and swirl like a group of tiger sharks just before a feeding frenzy.
After a few hours of chanting and mayhem, Vladimiro Mimica, the mayor of Punta Arenas, emerged from the City Hall to declare his total support for the protest movement, vowing to use all of the power available to him to keep the government from cutting subsidies. Later that evening the mob began to dissipate, and reformed at all the major roadblocks all over town. The next day Chilean president Sebastina Piñera announced a total change of cabinet, bringing in a new Minster of Work, Minister of Defense, Minister of the Interior, and most importantly, Minister of Energy. Meanwhile, Magallanes remained paralyzed and Punta Arenas remained under siege by it’s own citizens.
On Sunday, the tenth day of the protests and the sixth day of roadblocks, the new Minister of the Interior announced that it would enable the Security Clause in the region Magallanes, which is the Chilean equivalent of Martial Law, giving the reason as ‘to combat public disorder.’ This would give the police power to forcefully remove the roadblocks and arrest any who resisted. That night there were 400 more arrests, and several policemen entered the hospital with injuries from flying rocks and glass bottles. While many smaller roadblocks were removed, the main roadblock that cut off the Ruta 9 still stood.
On Monday, the eleventh day of the protests and the seventh day of the roadblocks, the new Chilean Minister of Energy Laurence Goldborne (the same man who headed the project to extract the miners trapped underground in the Region of Atacama some months before,) arrived to Punta Arenas to hold peace talks with the Asemblia Ciudadana in an effort to end the strike, which was costing the region more than a million dollars a day in lost business and expenses. Upon his arrival he was very nearly caught up in a mob that threatened to overwhelm him on his ten-foot walk from his vehicle to the City Hall. Around midnight it was rumoured that an agreement had been made, but the Asemblia Ciudadana changed their mind at the last minute; and so, the strike entered it’s twelfth day with gloomy, stormy skies.
On Tuesday afternoon, the twelfth day of the protests and the eighth day of the strikes, the Asemblia Ciudadana triumphantly announced their victory on all national television stations across Chile. Minister of Energy Goldborn had struck a deal that the Asemblia Ciudana was finally happy with: government subsidies to Magallanes would still be cut to the region of Magallanes, but only by 3%; along with this, the government would be granting more than 17.000 cash subsidies of more than US$1.000 per family per year. When it was all said and done, each gas customer would only be paying about CL$1.000 (US$1.50) extra per month in gas bills.
And so the Siege of Punta Arenas came to an end, and life finally returned to normal in the 12th Chilean Region of Magallanes. Roads reopened, supplies flooded into the city, every supermarket and local vendor threw open their doors; and the Asemblia Cuidadana carved another notch into their victory stick. The people got what they wanted, sending a message to the world: Don’t bend to the wills of an unfeeling government with ulterior motives! Resist! Rebel! In many places in the world, the people fear the government. But here in Chile, the government fears us!
World events soon followed in the footsteps of Chile; protests continued in Tunisia, followed shortly by one of the top worldwide news stories for the past two weeks: the Egyptian uprising to overthrow the oppressive rule of president Hosni Mubarak. The rest of the world looks on to Egypt, but this year of protests started first right here in this small city of 150.000 inhabitants called Punta Arenas. The year 2011 has begun with social revolution; let us hope that it ends in peace.
After the protests finally came to an end and the city opened back up, I found myself with several work opportunities, the most prominent being as a guide to the Parque National del Torres del Paine. On the following Thursday, I found myself in a white van leaving out of Punta Arenas with a group of twelve Chileans from Santiago and various other northerly locations. My job? To explain to them (in Spanish) every aspect of the National Park and take them on walks to various points of interest. I wasn’t worried; I’d been to the park before, and every time someone asked me a question i didn’t know, I used my amazing ability to Pull Stuff Out of my Ass and usually ended up with a fairly plausible response.
After that first day I found myself headed to the National Park almost every day; it was rather exhausting work, but I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I awoke every day at 0430 and then spent the next hour and a half riding around Punta Arenas and picking up our passengers for the day. Once we had everybody loaded up, we would drive for three hours to the north until we reached my old friend Puerto Natales. There the people would eat breakfast and drink coffee. Following this we would walk around Puerto Natales for a bit and I would show them the sights there; from the Plaza, to the cathedral, to the swan-studded Costanera. Following this we would head north to a cave known as El Cuevo de Milodòn, an Ice Age-era cave where a German scientist discovered genetic remains of a Giant Patagonian Ground Sloth in the late nineteenth century (hence it’s name, Cueva de Milodòn, ‘Milodòn’ being Spanish for Giant Sloth).
After this we would head into the park and I would take all the people on a brisk five kilometre walk along the Grey Lake to see the glacier of the same name, along with numerous icebergs which floated around the frigid body of water. Due to the fact that many of my tourists were quite old, some of them could not make the full 5k walk since the Grey Lake area is one of the windiest places in the park (one day the wind was topping 135 kph). However, one day I had in my group this very old lady in her early eighties named Paoula, from Arica (the extreme north of Chile near the Peruvian border). Paoula was very talkative, and told me all about her mission to see the glories of her country before she died. Despite the fact that she was so old and rather weak, she insisted on making the full 5 kilometre journey, even going so far as to climb up a ridge to the lookout because she ‘didn’t want to miss out on anything.’
Along with the fact that my job consisted of walking around all day in one of the most beautiful places in South America, I also loved my new job for the people I met, like Paoula. Ironically, most of them were Chilean, and I felt at first a bit awkward; here I was, giving a tour to Chileans, in Chile, and I was a gringo. But I soon got over my awkwardness, and always by the end of the day I had twelve new Chilean friends. It was a strange feeling to wake up each morning and actually look forward to going to work.
As if just enjoying my job wasn’t enough, I was also getting paid Big Money! Each day I went to the National Park, I made CL$25.000 (US$52). So, using my newfound fortune, I decided to go legit and actually get a place here in town. After all, I told the kayak man that I would stay here until August, so I may as well get a room while I’m here…
I found the perfect place right next to the city center; I pay less than US$200 a month for it. It’s three blocks from the sea, two blocks from the plaza, and comes with a kitchen, bathroom (with hot water) and cable TV. It feels rather strange, living like a normal person again, but anytime I start to feel slightly boerd I just remember what I am doing all of this for: the kayak adventure. The Ultimate Risky Adventure, which appeals very strongly to my aforementioned lifelong love affair with danger.
I’ve been living here in Punta Arenas for almost two months now, and am working hard to integrate myself into Chilean society. I’ve friends, a house, and now, since I’ve started work as an English professor at the most respected language institution in town, two jobs, both of which I enjoy very much. The days are quickly becoming shorter here as the austral winter moves in for it’s yearly 9-month occupation of the region. I find myself actually settling into a relatively normal routine of work, friends, and free time.
I remember wondering what it would be like to actually live in a foreign country; not travel through it, but live there. Be a part of the local community; make friends, make enemies, and broaden my mind to levels that would be impossible to achieve at home.
Now I know.
Looking back on my eighteen months of wandering the Earth, it blows my mind to think that one decision made more than a year ago, the decision to just leave my apartment and head somewhere but at the same time nowhere in particular, has ended today with me living in the most southerly city in the world, teaching English and guiding people through a breathtaking national park on the wee tip of South America.
I have done the unthinkable: I’ve stopped travelling. But in all honesty I couldn’t think of a better place to do it.
Viva Chile! Viva Magallanes! Viva la vida de todos los viajeros en nuestra mundo misteriosa y bella! Que sus viajes estarè largas y lleno de diversiòn y buenas ondas!
Until next time, my friends…
The Modern Nomad