Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
The steel-grey waters of the Drake Passage stretch ominously out from the chilly, windblown harbour of Ushuaia; beyond that, the Southern Ocean roils and raves on the desolate coast of our planets’ most southerly landmass.
I have arrived to the self-styled ‘End of the World,’ the Argentine city of 30,000 known as Ushuaia. It’s a likable enough place, situated on the southerly end of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, with a quaint downtown area framed pleasingly by glacier-capped mountains. As predicted, gaggles of tourists dressed in immaculate North Face winter clothing wander haplessly around this austral city, clutching frantically at their battered copies of ‘Lonely Planet’ (South America on a Shoestring…as if such a thing were possible). They leaf desperately through its dog-eared pages, searching for the Top Rated! hostels, the Five Star! restaurants, the Great Value! tours.
I stand on Ushuaia’s windy streets, snowy despite the fact that this is near the end of the southern spring, with summer just around the corner. I have no Lonely Planet, nor any guidebook for that matter, though I do have a wizened old copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim stuffed hastily in one of the cargo pockets of my camouflaged Bolivian military pants, a lender from the local library. My winter clothing is not name-brand, but it is special to me and keeps me warm: a llama fur poncho from Bolivia; a windbreaker jacket given to me as a gift from a Chilean family who loves me like their own; a woolen scarf from a dear friend in Mexico, worn both on my head and around my neck. My leather lace-up boots from La Paz protect my feet and keep them warm, and under them are two pairs of woolen alpaca socks, a well-wishing gift from a charitable Peruvian in the frigid Altiplano of the Southeast.
I am not staying in the Top Rated! hostels; my current lodgings are inside an empty plus-sized shipping container owned by the German freighter giant Hamburg Süd (for bulky or high-gauge cargo of all types! announces the sticker on the interior proudly in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and German), stacked five high in a maze on the eastern industrial side of Ushuaia. I do not eat in the Five Star! restaurants, though I have ventured inside a few times in order to find hot water for my twice-a-day meal of coffee and increasingly stale bread (I am usually given the same type of look reserved for a mange-ridden cur caught digging through the garbage or a sizable chunk of bubble gum found stuck quite firmly to the sole of one’s new leak-proof Martins). I do not take the Great Value! tours; my tours are of my own making, and may or may not come to pass in the near future.
The ever-present frigid wind whistles eerily through the streets of the most southerly city in the world; the weather alternates every five minutes between snow, rain, sleet, hail, and sunny skies. The sun, when visible, hangs two-thirds of the way to the western horizon, though the hour is late (nearly nine p.m.); days start early in the extreme south this time of year, and end late.
I take no notice of the curious weather; I have business to attend to. My past four days have been spent traversing by foot Ushuaia and surrounding official places trying to find some way to gain passage farther south still, across the moody Drake Passage sulking menacingly to my left and to the closest thing left to unknown wilderness on the meticulously mapped surface of our Earth today:
I am laughed at; to Antarctica, by thumb? Ha! You must be crazy, or stupid, or an interesting combination of the two! they say to me with a condescending grin plastered sloppily on their faces, which are being stuffed boorishly with fish and rice. The Argentine coast guard helps nothing; I am yet to even be granted passage onto the pier of the Port of Ushuaia (“For security reasons,” they say to me, eyeing my flowing poncho and long beard flapping briskly in the wind). I’ve made several trips to the local empresas, which own and operate southbound ships of both cargo and tour purposes leaving Ushuaia to the southern continent. I found little there to encourage me, however; I was given infuriating beaurocratical answers such as ‘Due to existing regulations aboard our ships casual labourers are not permitted due to the extensive documentation required for our workers. If you would like to submit an application online for our next available season of hire (January 2019) please do so on our website.’ They may as well have added ‘…and don’t let the door hit your ass on your way out.’
Despite all this, I remain in high spirits; I have talked with the Argentine Science Foundation, who has promised to inform me by email when any Antarctic-bound foreign research vessels arrive to Ushuaia (including, excitingly, the Calypso II, daughter vessel of the late and much-revered French oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, due to arrive sometime this December). I shall also soon make a trip roughly 150 kilometres to the west to the Chilean port of Punta Arenas, for it is rumored that Russian vessels sometimes depart by sea to the Russkov Station on the coast of East Antarctica, though it is also rumored that this station has been closed down. In addition to this, a number of other vessels also depart to the Peninsula from Punta Arenas.
While I may be able to reach the Peninsula from here in Southern Patagonia, arriving to my ultimate goal, (the South Pole), remains almost further away than ever before; it seems the gateway to the Pole (the U.S. Research Station McMurdo on Ross Island, perpetually frozen into the Ross Ice Shelf), is virtually inaccessible from this part of the world. Nearly all flights and ships to the McMurdo depart not from South America, but from Chirstchurch, New Zealand. Due to this information, I have also begun looking for some way to New Zealand. This may actually be easier than one might imagine: the harbour of Ushuaia is crammed with Australian and Kiwi sailors; some are adventurers here to round Cape Horn, a difficult feat, very important and much-revered in the sailing subculture. Others are simply here to avoid paying the fee necessary to traverse the Panama Canal by slipping quietly through the nearby Strait of Magellan, on their way home from sailing the seas of the Mediterranean or Caribbean.
In any case, my chances of finding a ride to New Zealand and then to the McMurdo are proportionately higher than getting first to the Peninsula and then across 2,000 miles of frozen sea and windy ice-fields to the Station. Additionally, most vessels departing from southern Patagonia are Argentine, Chilean, or of other nationalities; most vessels taking to the Southern Ocean from Christchurch are of my own blood: The United States. I feel my chances are a little better with them than with the military of, say, Russia, who can be seen stalking darkly around the harbour about a kilometre offshore even as I write.
Arriving to Ushuaia was an adventure in itself, though surprisingly easy and quick…
Leaving Quinahue el Boldal was difficult, not because the hitchhiking was poor, but because of the people I had to leave behind. Marcello and his little family, combined with the full force of my self-dubbed mamita Chilena and other assorted relations came in a crushing wave of friendliness to bid me farewell and wish me luck on my austral adventures. Gifts of food and warm clothing were thrust upon me (“I don’t want my son to freeze to death,” said my mamita Chilena breezily as she piled three sweaters, two pairs of thick socks, a beanie cap, two pairs of long underwear, an extra scarf, and a windbreaker jacket into my arms). I left them my hammock as my token of gratitude, with a promise to swap my warm clothes for it once I returned (they wouldn’t hear of it, and insisted the clothes were mine forever. However, the hammock was accepted, and before I left I noticed one of the older uncles already had it hung between two trees and was snoring peacefully in the shade, with an old shaggy dog following his example beneath him. Same age, same habits, species notwithstanding).
I walked briskly through the Chilean countryside, departing from Jorge’s house after several score hugs and well-wishes from the family around nine o’clock. A ride came after about an hour when I was halfway to the town of Chepica, and I was taken the distance back to the Pan American Highway, south of San Fernando and north of Curico.
The day dragged slowly by; the hitchhiking wasn’t particularly good that morning. After a full day riding with David, my only lift of the day who was a deliverer of engine lubricant, (very friendly, but rather repetitive and leering at times: “Have you SEEN those WOMEN in BRAZIL? I mean, DAMN!” was an example of a typical conversation with David), I found myself midway between Los Angeles and Temuco at nightfall. I camped in some wood chippings behind one of the gas stations and continued south early the next morning.
The hitching continued to be terrible; by nightfall that evening I had only managed to get about 350 kilometres to Osorno. This, however, was my last stop on the Chilean Pan-American Highway; the next morning I was to head east to Bariloche, Argentina through the international and literal mountain pass Cardenal. After more camping in some damp but soft moss in the wood behind a metalworking shop, I headed for Argentina just after sunrise.
Since I was in the south of Chile, it was of course, raining. This was the third time I had passed through Osorno in my life, and, like every other time I had been here, the sky was busily attempting to flood the Earth with sheet after sheet of soaking precipitation. As I stood dripping in the downpour local birds and other wildlife took no notice, frolicking joyfully in the wet whilst cars heartlessly passed me by, apparently altogether unwilling to take a wet man in a lama poncho into their cars for a hundred-click ride to the Argentine border.
By midday I had made it closer, at least, and found myself quite isolated on the road (which had by now become quite mountainous), about twenty kilometres from Argentina. In the altitude the rain had turned to snow, and, already thoroughly drenched from my previous long waits in the lower altitudes, I became freezing cold as well. The occasional Chilean trucker passed by without a second glance, and the Argentine cars didn’t even bother themselves with a first one. By two-thirty, I was becoming decidedly annoyed. What kind of person sees a soaking man standing in heavy snowfall asking for a ride twenty measly kilometres to the east and just keeps on driving, regardless of the fact that they are the only person in a car that which has five seats? I did not know what kind of person did that, but I was certain that they were not the type that I wanted to meet. A great man once said, ‘The good thing about hitchhiking is that the assholes always drive right on by.’ With this thought in my mind, I let the passing cars motor up into the forested mountains without muttering obscenities of any language at them from under my breath; my ride would eventually come. It always did.
Around three it came; a big forest-green semi idled moodily on the side of the road ahead as I sprinted lopsidedly up to the cab, my pack hanging wildly off my left shoulder. I pulled open the door, threw myself in the front seat, and gasped,
‘Thanks *huff* for *huff* stopping, *huff* sir.’
‘You’re welcome,’ said the trucker amiably. ‘To where do you travel?’
I thought about it. My actual destination was Ushuaia, but this trucker was Chilean and almost certainly going to Punta Arenas, in the Chilean territory of southern Patagonia. But we were still in Chile, not yet on the Argentine side of the border. Truckers can be wary about crossing international borders with hitchhikers, and rightfully so; their papers only permit one person in each semi. So I said,
‘Just across the border, maybe twenty kilometres.’
He nodded sagely. ‘That is what I thought.’ Tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, he said, ‘I will drop you off five hundred metres from the Chilean checkpoint.’ As an explanation for this, he added, as I predicted, ‘My papers only permit one person in the truck.’
‘That’s fine,’ I said, still slightly out of breath. ‘I really appreciate you stopping, I’d been waiting for hours in that awful snow. Some people…no heart at all. What’s your name?’
‘Nice to meet you Juan, I’m Patrick.’ I said my name with the typical Spanish accent, like Patreek, for South Americans rarely understand what I say if I use the English accent. Juan took my proffered hand and pumped it in a firm but friendly way between shifting the gears of the mammoth truck.
‘Nice to meet you. Where are you from, Patreek?’
‘The United States.’
‘Oh, very nice. I am from Temuco, Chile.’
‘I was just there yesterday. They have glass windows above the highway,’ I said knowledgably.
‘For the noise,’ said Juan. ‘I live right near the road. Before they put up those windows, there was a terrible racket from the freeway at all hours. We couldn’t sleep a moment.’
I had always wondered why they were there. I thought for a bit, and then said, ‘So tell me Juan, what’s a nice Chilean guy like you doing going into Argentina?’
‘I am going to Punta Arenas.’
I knew it. ‘Ah, Punta Arenas,’ I said, trying to sound neutral. ‘Very cold there, yes?’
Here was a delicate situation: Punta Arenas was not very far at all from Ushuaia, only about 160 kilometres. If I could get Juan to agree to take me to Punta Arenas, I would save lots of time that would have otherwise been spent plodding my way down through Argentine Patagonia, a place with a well-known reputation for long-wait hitchhiking. If Juan took me to Punta Arenas, I could be in Ushuaia before the eighth of November, two days before my predicted arrival time. I needed to choose my words carefully; Juan seemed like a very nice guy, and if I said the right things then I could be in Tierra del Fuego in nothing flat.
Juan then said the exact sentence that I needed to maybe get to Tierra del Fuego in short notice. He asked,
‘To where in Argentina are you going?’
‘I’m not going to Argentina,’ said I offhandedly. ‘Well, not ultimately,’ I added hastily as we passed the sign that said, “Frontera Argentina 15 km“. ‘I’m going to Punta Arenas as well.’ This was true, because I did intend to visit Punta Arenas at some point after Ushuaia. Perhaps I would even try there first, if Juan decided to take me with him.
‘To Punta Arenas? It is very far away. How will you get there?’
‘The same way I got here: hitchhiking.’
‘It is a very long way to hitchhike,’ said Juan, raising his eyebrows. ‘Patagonia is a very large place. It may take you weeks.’
‘I know,’ I said, shrugging. ‘But that’s part of the game, I suppose.’
Juan nodded wisely. ‘For what reason are you going to Punta Arenas?’
‘I want to find work on a boat.’
‘There are many boats there,’ said Juan, still nodding. ‘It is a good place to find work, especially this time of year. I think that you will be successful.’
‘I hope so,’ said I, my mind still clinking around the problem of how to politely ask for a ride all the way to Punta Arenas without sounding demanding. It was, after all, nearly 3,000 kilometres away. Unable to think of anything, I just said,
‘So Juan…is there any way you could take me all the way to Punta Arenas?’
He looked up from the snowy road for a moment. ‘To Punta Arenas?’ He gave a little wince, and said, ‘I am sorry, Patreek, but that I cannot do.’ He fumbled around in his dashboard for a moment, and pulled out a sheet of paper, an official document of some kind. He pointed to some scribbles.
‘You see this? This says that only one person can be in this truck at the border crossing. And for this reason, I cannot take you to Punta Arenas, for it would involve two border crossings: this one up ahead, and the one back into Chile.’
I told him I understood; after all, his job was at sake. We drove in silence for awhile. Then Juan said,
‘Well…there is maybe something that we could do.’
‘What?’ I asked, excited. Perhaps I was going to Punta Arenas after all!
Juan spoke slowly. ‘When we arrive to this border, you must leave the truck and take care of your documentation as if you arrived on foot. Then, you must walk to the other side (make sure you are out of sight of the police!), and I will drive you to the Argentine border checkpoint. If you do the same thing there, and then meet me in Argentina on the far side…then I can take you to Punta Arenas.’
‘I could do that!’ I said, barely able to contain my excitement. ‘The truckers in Central America used to set that up with me, it’s no problem!’
‘All right,’ said Juan briskly. ‘Well, we are arriving to the Chilean checkpoint as we speak. You must get off here.’ He pulled the big rig onto the side of the icy road. ‘I will pick you up on the other side, but only if you are out of sight of the police!’
I assured Juan I would be of a good distance from the checkpoint by the time he finished his paperwork; grabbing my pack, I headed off, the slushy ice crunching beneath my boots as Juan chugged off ahead.
I took care of all the required paperwork at the border and walked into the ‘no man’s land’ between the respective checkpoints of Chile and Argentina. After about fifteen minutes of a fast-paced gait on my part, I heard the sound of Juan’s truck grinding through its gears on its slow way up the mountain. When he saw me, Juan stopped and picked me up, as promised.
We rode to the Argentine checkpoint and repeated the process, and, after about an hour of walking in the Argentine Republic, Juan came once again rolling by and picked me up, just as he said he would.
As we rolled out of the mountains and towards Bariloche, Juan and I began to talk and found that we got along quite well. He was eager to learn about the United States (“Unayyye Stayyyy!”), and loved my harmonica playing.
‘It is like the music of Nuevo Orleans!’ he said excitedly. He took the harmonica from me and examined it. ‘Is it very difficult to play?’
‘Not really,’ said I, trying unsuccessfully to be modest. ‘There are only twenty notes.’
‘Only twenty! You say it as if that is few. Twenty notes is twenty more than I can play!’
I assured him that, with a bit of practice, he would be able to pick it up in no time. I promised to give him a lesson after we stopped for the evening. As we drove on into the Patagonian night with Bariloche fading behind us and El Bolson on the horizon, I asked Juan to teach me some songs in Spanish.
‘Okay,’ he said uncertainly. ‘But I do not know very many, and I am a terrible singer.’
‘I’m not Ray Charles myself,’ I said assuredly.
‘Well, there is one that my son sings day and night. I can only remember a few lines…’ He thought for a moment, and then sang it. After fifteen minutes of me repeating after him and asking what all the words meant, we were both belting out,
Para hacer un chaufer de primera
Acelera Sr. Conductor!
Translated, it means, ‘To make a first-rate chaufer, accelerate, accelerate, accelerate Mr. Driver!’ Rather reckless, yet appropriate, considering the excessive velocity used by the majority of South American drivers. There were more songs to follow, including,
En el puerto queda, solita mi amor
Pero yo te dejo, con mi corazon!
Aya, la aucencia, augmentaré
Mi amore por ti
Por ti, Li Li Marlin!
In the port waits alone, my love
But I am coming with my heart
There, there is nothing, but I shall expand
My love for you
For you, Li Li Marlin!
And then, lastly, a Chilean drinking song:
Los que han nacidan en enero
que se pongan de pie
Y con una copa en la mano
la beban hasta el final
Idale! Idale! Anda, borracho y dormir
Those who were born in January
stand on your feet
And with a cup in your hand
drink until the end
Chug! Chug! Get drunk, and sleep.
This was continued for each month of the year, and when your month was mentioned you must ‘rise to your feet, and, abiding by the song, chug your drink away!’ chuckled Juan. After we had sung ourselves hoarse into the wee hours of the morning, Juan suggested that I write a harmonica accompaniment for some of the songs. I, in my slightly drunken state of mind that comes when one does not sleep for long into the night, viewed this as a stroke of deep genius on Juan’s part.
I tooted away on my harmonica for a moment, found a few fitting notes in the right key, and told Juan to fire away.
‘OK,’ said he, ‘One, two, ready, play!’
I started my line of notes while Juan gruffly belted out the words of ‘Li Li Marlin.’ We weren’t able to get past aya la aucencia, augmentaré before the hilarity of our off-tune squeaks and croaks caused us to fall into fits of tired, delirious laughter.
Once recovered, Juan pointed ahead to a patch of lights on the road further up. ‘That is a rest stop. We must stop for sleep. It is nearly four hours past midnight!’
I could scarcely believe it; never had a ride with a trucker gone so quickly. Juan was one of a kind, to be sure. Slowing the big rig, Juan pulled into the station, killed the motor, and stood up out of his seat to stretch his back.
‘Aagh. My back has become extremely sore. I have never gotten this far in Patagonia from Bariloche in just one evening of driving! I am glad I gave you a ride; you are quite an entertaining distraction!’
‘As are you,’ I replied tiredly. ‘Juan, my friend, I am more tired than a man whom has just ran fifty kilometers. Where do I sleep?’
Juan climbed up behind the seats of the cab and unbuckled the top bunk of the sleeper beds, which fell down into its slots with a metallic clink. ‘You may sleep on the top, while I rest down below.’ He stretched, took off his shoes, and collapsed in a heap in the small space of the bottom bunk. Before I could even remove my boots he was fast asleep, the gentle, even sounds of his snoring reverberating hollowly throughout the cab. I soon followed.
The next morning Juan awoke at around nine. ‘Wake up, Patreek, we must be on the move once more.’
I groggily rolled over and reluctantly came out of the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag as Juan twisted the ignition. The big engine thundered to life, and we were rolling once more through the windy Patagonian plains before I had gotten my boots back on.
The day passed; we slid smoothly by the vast, grassy plains for hours and hours.
One does not know the meaning of the word ‘endless’ until one travels by land through Patagonia; apart from the road, the monotony of tan grasses dominates the vision for as far as the human eye can possibly hope to see. There is no way of knowing whether the grasses come to an end just at the threshold of human vision or simply go on forever, stretching eternally into infinite oblivion. Every once in awhile we would pass a few trees which would provide a break in the monotony, for a moment; Juan informed me that hundreds of years ago, there had been pioneer homesteads in those places.
‘They planted the trees to provide a natural shelter from the wind,’ said Juan astutely. ‘Nowadays, the homes have long since vanished, but the trees remain.’ He lowered his voice, then continued on somberly, ‘Most of them died of exposure or starvation…during the winter months.’
We passed these solitary groves every fifteen miles or so, bleak reminders of those who tried and failed to civilize the feral Patagonain plains. I imagined for several hours what it must have been like to be a Patagonian settler back in those bygone days…
A Spanish farmer reads a bulletin notice in colonial-era Spain calling for settlers to colonize its new territories in America to ensure that they remain Spanish, for God’s Sake! I imagine how it must have looked…
Beist thou without work, or struggling to support thine thriving family?
Fear not, O impoverished Peasant, for the Spanish Crown has thy solution!
Her Majesty Queen Maria invites all thee whom find it agreeable in thine hearts to serve Her by colonizing those Imperial Territories of the Spanish Crown in the fruitful, exciting lands of America!
These Loyal Servants of Her Most Highness shall be rewarded with no less than 10,000 ko’s of Prime Farmland, Five Hardy Mules of the Finest Quality, and the Unfaltering Blessing of Her Mightiness The Queen, as well as thy patriotic satisfaction of keeping the most unwashed of Portuguese sons of swine off the Rightful Territory of the Most Highest and Powerful Nation of Spain.
Interested Parties should contact the Office of Colonial Affairs on Avenida Maria before the New Year of 1615. Gypsies Need Not Apply!!!
By Gods! was the likely thought of the Spanish farmer, fallen on hard times. This sounds like a fine offer! So off he goes to Avenida Maria to the Office of Colonial Affairs; after taking his number, waiting in several long lines with no clear purpose, filling out six forms that all asked the same questions, and wondering why the government employees took four hour lunch breaks, the farmer successfully signed he and his family up for the Spanish colonization of the wild land of America! What could be more exciting for little Juan, Jorge, Mario, Maria and Antoinetta? His Wife would bear him many more fine sons and no daughters in the fresh air and open plains, surely; not like this putrid European air they were currently choking down, like the rat in the sewer-pipes…
Six months later, after a two-month boat ride (during which little Antoinetta tragically died of cholera), the farmer arrives triumphantly to the fabled land of America. It’s an incomprehensibly vast and untamed wilderness; overwhelmed, the simple man genuflects several times and swears quietly in the Name of the Most Holy Mother of God.
Off the ship roll the wagons full of their supplies, their five hardy mules (“…as promised!” points out the enclosed letter cheerfully), and the map to the general location of his new homestead. In high spirits, the farmer and his family set off into the unknown, covered wagons clanking cheerfully along into the mysterious West.
As they drive, the farmer reads through more of the enclosed introductory pamphlet, penned on impressive Royal Spanish Parchment Paper and emblazoned in Peacock Green Ink of the finest quality:
To be read only upon arrival!!!!
screamed the front page. Due to seriousness that four exclamation marks carried in those days, the farmer was careful to do as he was told.
Welcome to Spanish America, O loyal settler of New Spain!
We the Most Stately Administration of the Spanish Crown trust that thee hast receiveth thy mules and thy cargo-wagons, as promised! and in an acceptable condition after the rigors of sea-travel. Enclosed is the location of thy future prosperous farmland…!
Enjoy thy life in New Spain, and thou must rememberest: PPS!
Pay thy Royal Taxes!
Piss on the Portuguese swine!
Scan the Horizon for Savages!
Savages, thinks the farmer, with some alarm. No-one told I such Barbary may be afoot. I hope very much mine quiet little family does not encounter such evil things. The caravan rolls onward, deep into colonial Patagonia, the blue seas of the Atlantic fading away in the distance. A new life, thinks the farmer dreamily. We go forth to start anew…
Years have since passed since the happy times of the farmer’s first arrival to the New World; years of hardship, hunger, and misery. To start anew indeed, thinks the now-old man bitterly as he sits alone in his empty home during another harsh Patagonian winter. I haveth not one piece of bread or venison to feed mine weakening body, nor one drop of brandy to quell my old nerves… Suddenly, unable to take it any longer, he runs from his home and into the harsh snows and icy winds, faltering in the deep drifts and rolling down a steep snow bank. Beaten at last, the old farmer screws up his face in agony and shouts to the heavens, “Thou hast forsaken me, O mine God of Nigh! I stand here in this savage, frozen land, mine Wife since two years dead from starvation, mine Children frozen in the icy snows of the winter of ’29, and mine Mules all dead by my own hand, for there be naught game to be hunted nor harvest to be reaped in this desolate land of America!” The farmer collapses to the ground in his weakness. As the cold seeps into his old bones, life finally starts to leave his withered, tortured body; he crawls to the grove of spiking Pine, planted along the edges of his modest homestead by his loving wife after their happy arrival to the homestead all those years ago, now halfway buried in the deep snow. The memory grows faint as the farmer’s mind begins to shut down. My ‘new life,’ indeed is his last conscious thought as he huddles up against the trunks, before the spark of life leaves him forever and the cold snows of Patagonia bury his frail body for the last time.
The stately groves still stand today, rustling in the eternal winds of the Patagonian plains, timeless grave-markers for the long-lost settlers of old which dot the horizon of Patagonia, a warning to all who dare try and tame the Beast that is the frigid Plains.
Of course, there are those that have survived; every few hundred miles we drove past a small town that managed to subsist here, isolated in the most literal sense of the word in the vast grasses, though they are forced to import their water (‘It is a strange thing,’ said Juan to me pensively, ‘it seems always to be raining in Patagonia, or snowing; yet there is no water to be had here!’ He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘Where it all goes, I do not know.’) Sometimes even mid-sized towns sprout up when there are mountains around to block some of the wind (these, I assume, are the principal reasons the town of S- has managed to remain in existence for more than a century, as the sign in the entryway so proudly states in bold letters).
Patagonia is not always the vast grasslands, however. We passed great grey mountainsides which jutted regally into the blue sky, stabbing aggressively at the cotton-ball puffs of clouds which floated in vast numbers above the southern land; great mountains, forbidding canyons and gorges, scars and blemishes on this strange land. Their beauty was undeniable; but was a dark beauty, like that of witches.
Meanwhile, as mystical Patagonia rolled quietly by out the window of the semi, I felt us slowing down; the air breaks hissed and we pulled over onto the shoulder of the highway. ‘Why have we stopped?’ I asked curiously.
‘Lunch,’ said Juan with a grin.
I looked around; we were miles away from anything.
‘Here,’ said the trucker placidly. ‘I am going to cook for you ‘Juan’s Chilean Soup.’ I always make this when I travel through Patagonia; restaurants are few and far in between, and I don’t much care for the food in Argentina,’ he said winking. ‘Not enough onions. I like onions.’ He began unloading pots, pans, and a gas stove from a space under his seat that was apparently a lot larger than it looked. ‘This is cheaper as well,’ said Juan thriftily, and he began busily removing all the ingredients out of a medium-sized ice chest that had somehow managed to fit underneath the seat as well.
‘We’re going to cook?’ I said, bewildered. ‘But the wind is so strong outside!’ And it was; some gusts slammed into the cab with such force that the truck shook about as if in a strong earthquake.
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Juan tolerantly. ‘We shall cook here in the cab!’
And cook we did. Soon, Juan had a potful of meat, carrots, onions, and mixed vegetables simmering on a roaring gas burner, giving the inside of the cab a pleasant odor.
‘The onions are the most important,’ said Juan as he industriously chopped a fourth and scraped it into the pot, blinking his eyes with the tart aroma that had replaced that of the soup. ‘If you don’t eat enough onions, than your stomach never gets fully emptied,’ he droned, blinking as he started chopping a fifth. ‘People who never eat any onions have all sorts of food caught in their stomachs. This way, you start afresh each time you dine.’ He scraped the fifth in, and looked up at me. ‘You know, I heard of one fellow who could not eat anything, for the amount of food that was trapped in his stomach and could not pass on…and all because the man ate no onions!’ The trucker shook his head, as if to say “what a pity,” and began chopping a sixth.
‘I don’t really like onions all that much,’ I said, wiping the tears from my eyes.
Juan looked up at me. ‘Are you hungry?’
‘Do you wish to eat before you arrive to Punta Arenas?’
‘Then today, you like onions,’ he said, and with a grin, scraped the sixth one in. The soup steamed ominously, the meat and carrots invisible beneath Juan’s regiment of chopped stink.
‘I guess I like onions,’ said I apprehensively. Juan produced a wooden ladle from somewhere and began to stir the mess, which hissed menacingly; as if angry someone dared disturb its malignant mumble.
‘Now,’ said the trucker, businesslike, ‘you must keep stirring the soup so that it does not stick to the bottom. After five minutes (he looked at his watch) you must add that second bag of mixed vegetables over there by the bunks.’ I nodded, unable to see the phantom bag since my eyes were full with water caused by the onion funk. Juan appeared unaffected; perhaps he had developed immunity over the years.
‘It has now been five minutes. Add the bag!’
I groped around in what I thought was the general direction of the vegetable bag, wishing we could crack a window or something. Finally, after coming up with a bag of chocolate donuts, crumpled-up loose leaf notebook paper, and a bag of Smarties, I managed to locate the elusive mixed veggies. I tore open the bag with my teeth and dumped it in the pot, hoping it would repress some of the onion smell; it didn’t.
‘Perfect!’ said Juan happily. ‘And now…we wait.’ Great, I thought.
‘Can we roll down a window?’ I mumbled grumpily, still unable to see anything with clarity.
‘And let all this wonderful, cleansing smell out? What a waste that would be!’ said Juan, aghast. But he could see I was quite uncomfortable, and said, ‘Oh, crack open your side if you wish. But don’t come a-weeping to me when you find you can no longer digest your food properly!’
Gasping, I groped for the button which would release me from my sour-scented prison; finding it, I jammed it down with my thumb and stuck my head out into the fierce Patagonian wind, taking huge gulps of the cold, clean air.
‘What a baby,’ I heard Juan mutter good-naturedly as he stirred his onions.
Surprisingly, the soup turned out to be of tolerable flavour, as Juan had cooked his smelly scoundrels to the point of almost total collapse (‘To release the enzymes,’ Juan replied sagaciously after I’d asked why). I finished my bowl and used my bread to sop up as much onion juice as I dared.
‘I’m finished,’ I announced once I had scarfed the loaf.
‘Great!’ said Juan, ‘there is plenty more!’ and before I could object, he had ladled another sloppy spoonful into my valiantly empty bowl. I sighed, and resigned myself to eating it all. Food is, after all, food, and to waste it is, in my book, a great travesty …even if it is mostly pulverized onion carcasses.
After we had cleaned up the cab, I was put on dish-duty. ‘I cook, you clean!’ Juan had cried reasonably (reminding me rather alarmingly of my father), and I washed the stinky dishware off in good spirits. Juan was a great man, despite his disturbing love for onions. I was lucky to have gotten picked up by such a fun person.
We continued off into Patagonia, my stomach rumbling irritably with all the onions (‘Can you feel yourself becoming unburdened by all the excess food?’ asked Juan excitedly. I felt like I was about to be unburdened, all right…). We drove until the day had worn itself out and the night had returned once more, whereupon Juan declared that I must serenade him with my harmonica in order to keep him awake.
‘I’m making record time on this trip!’ he said animatedly. ‘We must drive late into the night once more!’ I extracted my mouth-organ and began obediently tooting away, but after an hour of this I began to grow tired.
‘Teach me another song in Spanish.’ I suggested.
‘I know no more.’
I thought for a moment. “Then I’ll teach you one in English!’
He shook his head. ‘I am terrible at English. I do not even know one word.’
‘It’ll be easy,’ I assured him. ‘Memorizing songs is the easiest way to learn another language.’
‘All right, I suppose,’ said he, still sounding unsure. ‘What song shall you teach me?’
I knew just the song, one that had been gloriously stuck in my head since my magnificent train-hop in Peru: King of the Road.
‘OK, so the first line goes like this: “Trailers for sale or rent…”’
‘Treell…ment?’ said Juan pathetically. Perhaps this would be more difficult than I thought. So I drilled the words into his head like a Texas oil rig going full-force into the Gulf of Mexico.
‘There you go! Trailers!’
‘Tray-lurss!’ said Juan, more confidently now.
‘Traylerss!’ he said happily.
And so it went, with each word of the song. I even taught him the meaning of each word, so after I had hammered the lines into his head, he could remember what they meant. Finally, he was able to repeat the first two stanzas, without my help, after about four hours of drilling on my part. Juan sang, with each syllable having a different and completely wrong note, hilariously off-tune. It was like so:
“‘Tray-lers fo sayle o ren’
Roo’ to let…fifty cen’..
No foah…no po’…no pits…
I don’ have ci-ga-ret!’”
(he always giggled childishly after this one. Then…)
‘“Too are…pushin’ broo…
Byes iight by twel’ far bit roo’
I’m a man of mean…by no mean?
Keeng of da ro’a!’”
Afterwards, just to see if he remembered what the words all meant, I gave him a ‘test.’ We covered all words; this is a sample:
‘How do you say habitationes, o piso, in English?
‘Roo’,’ sang Juan unceartintly.
How do you say mascotas in English?
‘How do you say cigarros in English?
How do you say para arender in English, both words?
‘Ren’, and…’ he paused for a moment. ‘Too le’e?’
‘How do you say yo no tengo in English?’
‘Eye don’ hab…’
‘Fon…’ trailed Juan.
Pleased, I tried to change things up on him. ‘Juan, how do you say, yo no tengo mascotas in English?’
He started. ‘But you did not teach me that one.’
‘Ah, but I did. Think.’
Juan scrunched up his face. Then, ‘Eye don’ hab…’ a long pause, then, finally, ‘Pits?’
Juan did very well indeed, though his pronunciation perhaps needed a bit more work (‘PETS!’ I had shouted at him over and over again. ‘With an EH! PETS!’ ‘PITS!’ he would shout back at me every time). However, I was quite proud of myself, and of Juan. Perhaps I should look into teaching English as a foreign language, for something to do in a far-off city dominated by Spanish, my newest toy.
By the time Juan’s English lesson was over, it was nearly five a.m.
‘It is time to sleep,’ said he, and I agreed wholeheartedly. All the hours of shouting ‘PE-EH-EH-EH-EHTS!!!’ had really taken it out of me. ‘But I shan’t remember a word of the song…’ he thought for a moment, ‘Keeng of de Ro’a’, in the morning. I shall forget it all.’ I disagreed. Juan pulled over the semi on a random side road and we collapsed into our respective beds, Juan still muttering the lines to ‘King of the Road’ under his breath as he fell asleep.
The next morning, to Juan’s immense delight, he was able to remember all the words to ‘King of the Road,’ except for the word ‘for sale.’ After a quick memory jolt from me, he remembered. Juan was amazed.
‘I did not think I was this smart!’ said he happily. ‘I must learn all languages in this way! Do you know German? I’ve always wanted to speak German!’
‘You and me both, brother.’
We laughed. We had covered a lot of distance in the night, and were now almost to the southern border of Argentina and Chile, so close to Tierra del Fuego that one with a strong arm could throw a stone into the Strait of Magellen. When we arrived at the border crossing it was time for me to get out and walk once more. I wrote down the words to ‘King of the Road’ and my contact information on a napkin for Juan in case we got separated.
‘This way you will never forget,’ I told him as he took the napkin, storing it reverently away in his wallet.
This border was like most others I had passed: an official-looking building which congested the flow of traffic on an otherwise clear road. Semis, buses, and personal vehicles were parked all around as their occupants went inside to perform the necessary ritual of Immigration and Customs.
I went inside, Passport at the ready, anticipating an easy crossing. I went up to the Immigration desk, got my Passport stamp, and then went over to the Argentine Customs desk, manned by a fat man wearing thin spectacles.
‘Please put your bag onto the belt of the X-ray machine,’ he said boredly from behind his rims. I did so, and he jammed a red button with his fat finger. Nothing happened. He tried again; nothing. The sausage banged the button over and over again in its frustration. The customs man sighed. ‘Not again…okay, please put your bag on that table over there.’ I did as I was told.
The fat customs man waddled over to the table and sat heavily down in a plastic lawn-chair, which creaked tiredly in protest. He eyed me from behind his spectacles. ‘Do you have any drugs?’
‘Plant or animal products?’ he sighed out.
‘All right then.’ He pulled my bag over to him and began going through the pockets with his thick fingers. After a moment, he seemed satisfied. ‘All right, now I need you to turn out your pockets.’ I did so.
‘And your hip-bag.’
I assumed he was referring to my discreet fanny pack, in which I kept all important items, including, I realized with a lurch, the nugget of Kind Bud that Mauricio had given me in Chile the week before. The pot was all gone, I had made sure of that long ago. But as I opened up the zipper I couldn’t help but notice a lingering smell…it had been Very Good Weed, after all…
The customs agent, fortunately, seemed not to notice. He emptied out the contents and began jadedly shuffling through them, his fingers looking like greedy grubworms squirming after a particularly tasty bit of rotten wood. After a moment, all seemed well, until he came across…damn it all…
A paper pipe. I had forgotten to ditch it, and it just reeked of the good stuff. If he didn’t notice that smell, then he deserved to be fired. Unfortunately for me, he did notice it, and his job was apparently safe for the day (though the following one looked decidedly grim). Slowly, meticulously, he began to unroll it. I had forgotten all about that pipe, and I was not entirely sure there weren’t some half-charred chunks still in there…
Finally, he finished unrolling it. I noticed with huge relief that there were no stray nuggets in there. I and my mates are usually very thorough, after all. The fat customs man looked up at me.
‘What is this?’
‘Mmmmm…’ I said vaguely.
‘What were you using this for?’
‘Mmmmm…’ I said again.
He stared severely at me from behind his tiny spectacles. He then appeared to realize that, at any moment, he may have to get up from his chair, and seemed distracted for a bit with the gloominess of this impending strenuous activity. He sighed. ‘Wait here for a moment,’ and, after many pathetic grunts and grumbles, managed to free his tremendous rear from the plastic lawn-chair, who looked immensely relived, for a chair.
I waited and twiddled my thumbs, not extremely concerned. They can’t arrest one for a slightly burned sheet of paper from the inside of a cigarette box and the strong odor of Woodstock, can they? I didn’t think so.
The fat man returned a few minutes later with a couple of serious-looking men with military uniforms on. He sighed once more.
‘These men are going to have to check everything you have to make sure that you don’t have any small pieces of marijuana on your person,’ he said tiredly and adjusted his spectacles, which had gotten comically lopsided somewhere between when he had left me and when he came back with the serious men.
‘Please come with us,’ said one of the serious men. ‘And take your rucksack with you.’ I did as I was told, and was led into a small room in the back of the building.
‘Please put your bag on that table.’
‘Please wait for a moment.’
Soon, in came another man with a military uniform, bearing with him an intensely overexcited male Chocolate Labrador, who, upon being granted access into this room with all these people and that mysterious bag, gave his master a look of pure adoration and promptly jumped onto his shoulders and licked his face enthusiastically.
‘N-no, no.’ He pushed off the Lab, who looked, despite the rejection, in absolutely the same fanatically thrilled mood. ‘Go find the drugs, boy go find the drugs!’ said one of the military men. The Chocolate Lab barked, whapped his tail on the floor, and licked his chops.
‘Go find the drugs!’ The military men led him to my bag, and the Lab immediately stuck his nose inside, sniffed ardently for a moment, and came out with…my towel. The Lab then began to eat my towel.
‘N-no, no, don’t eat the towel,’ said one of the military men tiredly, and tried to take it away. The Lab, sensing a game of tug-of-war on the horizon, pulled passionately back, his tail whapping against my leg in his excitement. ‘Let go!’ commanded one of the military men loudly, and the Lab released his hold. Despite the firm command, the Lab still seemed distinctly elated that things were happening, and that he was the center of attention! The man tossed my towel onto the desk, and said again, ‘Go find the drugs, boy! Go find the drugs!’ The Lab eagerly returned to my bag; then, putting his front paws up onto the desk, recaptured the towel with a pleased grunt.
‘I think he needs more school,’ I said, holding back fits of laughter.
‘Shut up,’ said one of the military men.
The military men took my towel out of the room. Then, again, ‘Go find the drugs, boy! Go find the drugs!’ The lab disappeared once more inside my bag and came out with…my backup towel.
After that the Chocolate Lab was removed, presumably for more thorough schooling and/or biscuit rationing. We waited for a moment, and then in came the same military men, this time with a grossly overweight black lab, whom, I was told, was markedly less excited about the world and, more importantly, about towels.
The Black Lab did seem very unexcited about towels…or about anything, for that matter. She came inside, looked around the room dully, and promptly lay down and went to sleep (I was reminded strongly of the fat customs man…perhaps this was his dog). The military men tried several times to rouse her (‘Find the drugs, girl, find the drugs!’), but they were completely and utterly ignored. I do believe, in that few minutes she was in there, the Lab slipped into REM sleep. She was snoring.
After several attempts to rouse her that were met with snores louder still, the military men gave up. Perhaps they should switch to German Shepherds; I could have told them that Labs either have
A) No discipline whatsoever, or,
B) No work ethic whatsoever
This is why they make such great companions, I told one of the military men happily, who gave me a sour look and told me to go to Chile already. I left the room with my pack in tow.
‘I trust you want me to dispose of this?’ The fat customs man held up my paper pipe. He was back in his plastic lawn-chair, who looked very tired, for a chair.
‘Surely,’ I said, still chuckling about the Labs.
And so I arrived to the extreme south of our world. The time I was delayed with the Labs caused Juan to need to leave me, due to time constraint reasons. ‘I’ll see you on Facebook, my friend! Keeng uv de Roo’a!’ he called out to me as I went into Chilean customs, and he motored off south. I grinned and waved back to my friend. Now, with Tierra del Fuego on the horizon, I could go to Ushuaia directly. I made my way to the ferry in short notice and was soon on the big ship loaded with semi trucks, motoring off towards the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. A strong wind buffeted the Strait of Magellen, the salty sea air rifling my hair not with violence, it seemed, but with a caress.
I sit now in the Public Library, (The End of The World Library! proudly proclaims the sign out front), enjoying their willingness to remain open for wayside wanderers like me into the wee hours of the morning in celebration of their 84th anniversary. I have been alternately perusing the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and a few works of the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, while in the back of my mind thinking hard about what I must do next to continue my Adventure as I wish it.
I have told many here about my wish to take to the Sea, though, surprisingly for a port town, many seem to fear it. This is a port town, yes, but with the glacial mountains surrounding it (and the town stretching impressively up their slopes), it is also a mountain town. I am reminded of a poem I read only yesterday in a Kipling novel, about the mountain mans’ fear of the Sea:
Who hath desired the Sea- the sight of salt water
The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber
The sleek-barrelled swell before storm- grey, foamless,enormous and
Stark calm on the lap of the Line- or the crazy-eyed hurricane
His Sea in no showing the same- his Sea and the same ‘neath all
His Sea that his being fulfills?
So and no otherwise- so and no otherwise hillmen desire their
Hillmen be silenced! I embrace the Sea, though I know it not. Ha! Might I say, I embrace the Sea, for I know it not! It is the unknown; the boundless, bottomless, endless depths of mystery unidentified, of stories long gone untold. Its watery currents stretch throughout all the crevices of all the world, carrying with them all the secrets and all the mysteries of all of mankind for all of time. No man knowest the secrets of the Sea, and no man can ever hope to know such a thing. Yet the very epitome of the aimless wanderer such as I, is that of the sunken ship; whose rotted timbers, caught in powerful undersea currents, sail timelessly throughout the inky depths, never reaching port, nor island, nor home. An eternal wanderer, doomed- or blessed? to forever drift about the seven Seas; of water, of salt; of time, and of tales. For this reason…for this reason…I wish take to the Seas.
There is a woman singing sweetly in Spanish in the next room to the tune of nylon-stringed guitar. The songs are slow, in a minor key, and seem to deal chiefly with lost love and new beginnings. Such is the tune of most songs, but does this perhaps mean something? I have reached the end of another continent, South America…my lost love, perhaps? And I do love her so very much, after all, but for all this it still cannot be. And a new beginning? Yonder lays the Drake Passage, waters unknown. The beginning of something new…
The woman sings on…I am lost in thought for a moment. The Sea, so close, lies on the horizon, cresting, roiling, bursting with mystery and almost impossibly tantalizing to my wandering mind. And yet the hillmen warn me anew of its follies, for, so say they, the sea can be to thy a foul mistress indeed…
Who hath desired the Sea- the immense and contemptuous
The shudder, the stumble, the swerve ere the star-stabbing bow-
The orderly clouds of the trade and the ridged roaring sapphire
His Sea is no wonder the same- his Sea and the same in each
His Sea that his being fulfills?
So and no otherwise- so and no otherwise hillmen desire their
Ay! the hillmen do indeed desire their hills! But I am no hillman…
I desire the Sea.
And t’ither it…do I go.
The Modern Nomad
He who knowest not to where he wanders…