Monday, August 29, 2011

Patagonia: Tierra del Fuego

The land of fire.

Tierra del Fuego. The second reason to see the south. The last place I would see Chile. The farthest shore in the world. When I climbed aboard the ferry, the anticipation was unbearable. Brain and waited abovedecks while watching the crossing into the last island.

As we got closer we could make out more detail of the place. Dolphins lead the way.

And finally it stopped and we walked onto Porvenir.

I stood upon the bottom of the world.

Porvenir has the worst aspects of San Pedro and Punta Arenas. It's cold. It's too small to have a thriving life, but it's not a tourist place. So the town is always sleeping all the time. It took a while to find a hostel and longer to find a place to eat. But we managed both and are soon ready for my last trek. We didn't have a goal this time or a well researched route. It seemed somehow right to make the last one random. So we picked a direction and started walking.

Very quickly something caught our eye, a swarm of geese far off in the distance. It wasn't a flock; too stationary for that. Intrigued we investigate further.

Hundreds of geese. Thousands. More geese in this one spot than people in Porvenir. We stared slack-jawed for a while before moving on. There is a ridge in the distance, and we decided to climb it. There are many barbed-wire fences in our way, but they were old an broken and easy to climb.

Oh hey, alpacas. Or llamas. I can't tell them apart. We decided to follow them...


Brian thought they were pests, I prefer to think they were sheep alpacas. We decided to cross over and catch the sheep, hopefully sheer off some wool or something. The slope up was almost as steep as San Cristobal, but Brian showed me some tips and it was easier to climb. At the top we were caught by the owner of the herd. He's really nice, though, and let us continue romping around his land. Eventually we reach the top of the ridge, the landscape ahead stark with mountains and glaciers.

The way back was faster. We found a road with a blessed lack of shrubs and stones. After an hour we got back to Porvenir and walked along the shore. From there we watched the sunset, and with that my time in Chile came to an end.

I wrote this post in the airport of Punta Arenas. Soon I will fly back to Santiago, and then to Detroit. I have been in this country for almost three months. I have walked it from North to South. I have stood on two oceans and watched sunset over a lifeless valley. I have climbed mountains, trekked deserts, and traveled to the end of the world. I marched in protests and fought in riots. And despite all this, or because all this, I did some damn fine research.

The summer is over. I'm coming back to US with lapis lazuli, stones from the Atacama, and rocks from Patagonia. I'm coming back with a million stories. Most of all, I'm coming back a better person. I hope.

This will be the last time I'm online until I reach the States. I feel blessed for having done this. I have gone many places here, from the driest desert to the farthest shore. And yet there is always another world, another challenge to face, another frontier to conquer. This summer I conquered many. And someday, in another time and another place, I will face the frontiers once again.

Another time, and another place.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Patagonia: Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is the capital of the region and a major shipping center. That's really all I know about it. My day in it did not get off to a good start. I landed there 10:30 last night and immediately set on finding a hostel. The port has a large number of backpacking hostels and residentials due to all the people heading around the region. Unfortunately, they're all closed for the off-season. It took me an hour and a half to find a hostel that was less than 50 dollars per room.

Today was mostly unexciting. Brian came in around two. We found lunch and head out to check the ferries. This will be our ticket to get to Tierra del Fuego tomorrow.

Punta Arenas runs a duty free zone at the edge of the city. I was expecting more trade goods and stalls and fewer car shops. We end up buying small things.

Brian and I waded out into the Strait of Magellan. Then we ran back because the water was cold.

This is a short blog post because not much worth talking about happened today. It was more a buffer day to relax. Tomorrow is the last big day of my trip. We'll see how that goes.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Patagonia: Torres del Paine

If there's one name attached to Patagonian Chile, it's Torres del Paine. The park is probably Chile's most famous attraction. It was half the reason I came down south. Normally I would have done its star attraction, the 'W' trail. Unfortunately, 1) it's closed in the Winter and 2) When open it takes four days for an experienced hiker. I opted for a guided tour instead. The tour and entrance fees would cost more than all three days in Atacama did. I hoped it was worth it. I knew deep down it wouldn't be.

Just forty minutes in I discovered deep down Hillel was a goddamned idiot. We had come to the first attraction in the park, the Myrmidon. That's science speak for saber-toothed tiger. We officially went in to "learn more about the history", which is guide speak for "check out this huge-ass cave." The last time I had been in a large cave was when I still lived in New Jersey. That time was already a dim memory, and I looked upon the cave with completely virgin eyes.

I'm sure they say it's the Myrmidon cave to make the tigers more interesting, not the cave. We had not even reached the park yet. The mountains were still a backdrop on the landscape, and we couldn't even see the main towers yet.

Then we arrived in the place proper.

I took eleven pictures of this. Different lighting, options, positions, trying to find some way of capturing the majesty of what I see. It's no use. The stark mountains are mirrored almost perfectly by the water below, The lake and landscape are individually impressive, but together they blow me away. I'm looking at something straight out of a faerie tale. Nestled in the mountains are the Towers.

We did not hike them. That's something for a group with more time and skill than we have. More importantly, a group that can come in the summer. We head a different way.

After some more driving our guide let us out and told us to hike. So we did. It's not a long hike. Maybe ten minutes until we reach the end of the path.

I clambered over the railings and get as close as I dare.

More driving. We reach Lagoon Azul, a small lake carved out by the retreating glaciers. I mentioned the glaciers. right? Glaciers are responsible for the entire park.

After this we split up. Most of the group headed with the tour guide into a hotel that's for some reason lodged within del Paine. They got lunch there for 60 USD. The remaining tourist and I hoisted our backpacks and started our long trek. We had stood upon the Blue Lagoon. It was now time to cross the Grey one.

The retreating glacier left a beach of gravel. It's a long and exhausting walk, but we moved through it. Then it's up the steep path for an hour, until we finally reached the end of our trip.

Looking back I realize how facile this all sounds. How was this any different from the hikes or the tours of Atacama? I can't convey the sheer power of the place in pictures. I can't make you feel overwhelmed with a stream of purple prose. I can't describe what made me take dozens of pictures of the same scenes, trying to place in bytes the images burned onto my eyes. The photos I put here are less than a tenth of the total ones I took, many of them of things not covered here. There's just so MUCH. I spent more here than all three days in Atacama, yes, but this made the desert look like a cheap tourist trap. Crown jewel of Chile, indeed.

We barely scratched the surface of the park. A full tour of the places, seeing and doing everything around, would take two weeks. And you know what? It'd be worth it.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Patagonia: Puerto Natales

At 8:20 I stepped out into the chilly Patagonian air. It's now all-to-clear how far south I am. My breath tastes like frost and the day bites like a Michigan autumn. I clambered aboard the Puerto Natales bus and slumped into my chair, almost falling asleep right then and there. I phased in and out of consciousness as the bus began its three hour trip. Occasionally I glimpsed scenes of the beautiful new landscape. The sun rising over the Straits of Magellan. Snow covered plains, the whole works. Winter has not yet left this place. 

Normally Puerto Natales is packed with tourists. Fortunately for me, though, it's the off-season right now. I get an entire dormroom in the hostel to myself and the tours are hella cheap. I spend a couple of hours wandering through the town. Right now it's slumbering and San Pedro is alive. Yet the two cities don't even compare. Natales has a vitality that Pedro never will. It has reasons to be aside from tourism. The thing that drives it home are the toy stores. There is one every few blocks. These aren't the penguin and glacier (now with real melting action!) souvenir shops masquerading as toy stores. No, they sell board games and toy guns and Digimon plushies. Puerto Natales doesn't dance to the whims of its tourists. It merely tolerates them.

They say the only reason to go here is as a stopping point for Torres del Paine. I disagree. It's also worth it for the views. The mountains are wholly different here from those in Atacama and Santiago. Those were backdrops far away, big enough to see but not relevant to your life. The ones here look like they'd crush the city if an avalanche happened. They're also colder, more crystal clear in the chilly air. Contrasted with that are the ramshackle ruins of the shoreline. I thought waiting in an empty airport was surreal. The abandoned stretches of the seaport put it shame. I walked along the coast and started taking pictures.

Eventually I came across three wrecked boats. None of them will be seaworthy ever again. It's easy to clamber aboard the smaller read one. From there I managed to crazy jump onto the blue one. I had to scramble madly and almost fell, but eventually pulled myself on.

Getting down was a problem. I couldn't jump in reverse, and it's high enough that I'd have to freefall my way down. If I was Tito or Brian this would be a cinch. But I'm not Tito or Brian, I'm "worst fear is falling" Hillel. I tried a few safer ways to get back to the smaller boat. I tried to build a bridge with the detritus. I tried to make a ladder. I even dropped below deck and tried to tear a hole in the structure. After a futile half hour I tied one of the ropes around my waist and half-climbed, half-rappelled down. it was terrifying. I'm never crazy climbing landlocked boats again.

I have no idea who this guy is, but from what I could make out he's either talking about the education riots or the Bolivian slapfight over Atacama.

One thing that really irritated me with the Atacama trip was how miserly we were with food. People preferred to eat peanuts, plain oatmeal and pasta rather than explore the local cuisine. I can totally understand why people would do that; food money could be used for other things. But now I'm here alone and I'm planning on eating every lunch and dinner out. Yeah, it's take some money out of my pocket, but 1) I've been working nonstop for two years and can afford the tiny cost, and 2) This is gonna be my last chance to eat more Chilean food. The food is damn good for the price; this lunch I had the best fish in my life for $10. Plus with nobody else around I can lightning-fast service. I've been making sure to leave good tips.

Overall I'm glad I opted to spend a day in Puerto Natales. But I should head to bed now. We'll be spending 10 hours tomorrow in Torres del Paine, and I need to catch up on the sleep I lost in the redeye flight.

Airport musings

It's one thing to go into an airport during peak hours when you're surrounded by hundreds of fuming people and every step you take is egged on by the mutterings of an angry crowd. It's another thing entirely to go in off hours. There were no lines, no people, no rush. I ducked under the queue dividers in the scanning room and went straight to the head. The guards were much more laid back and even asked where I was going. I cracked a couple jokes and juggled for them. They thought it was fun.

(It's a little interesting making jokes in Spanish. Given my grasp of the language is two steps below "pitiful" I can't tell complex narratives or play language games or convey complicated remarks. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of a combination of a few choice words and a lot of pantomime. The latter's been godsent in general. Since I keep on forgetting the words for "allergic" and "die", I explain that I can't eat nuts by saying "Nueces" and making clutching my throat. I can get some pretty detailed ideas across with only body language. This must be what it's like to not have autism.)

Aeroportuario Williams is totally unlike the other ones I've been in. I could charitably describe it as 'functional' and less charitably as 'collapsing'. Most of the walls are plywood and corkboard. I could probably knock it over with a strong kick.

I'm presented with my first dilemma within minutes of landing. I wanted to spend Friday seeing Torres del Paine. The standard way to do that is to take a three hour trip to Puerto Natales, do it at 8 AM, then head back around 6. But I found a tour that leaves directly from Punta Arenas. Sure, it's slightly more expensive and has longer hours (5 AM - 10 PM), but I wouldn't have the Natales hassle. Plus I don't have to find two hostels and get to spend Thursday in Punta Arenas, widely considered to be a more interesting city. In the end cost and curiosity beat convenience. The guides I spoke to said launching from Natales gives a better tour, and I'm inclined to trust people who've been doing this their whole lives.

The first bus to Purto Natales leaves at 8 AM. I'm writing this at 6. I vaguely consider napping, but then I discover the free internet. I can upload my first post before I even set foot in the city. Looks like it's gonna be a long day.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Preparations for Patagonia

At 2:30 today I finished my internship.

My boss came in while I was eating lunch. He told me that he finally reviewed all of my code and it worked perfectly. He was happy with the effort I put in and the results I got out. He wished me good luck with my travels and hoped I enjoyed my time here. And just like that I was done.

At 4:20 I cleaned out my office. Cleaned the whiteboard, threw out all the papers, took out the trash. At 4:25 I wiped my browser history and deleted my computer account. At 4:30 I walked out the campus gates for the forty-fifth and last time.

At 4:50 I briefly lingered around the aftermath of today's riot. Somebody had blockaded a street on one end with cinder blocks. On the other end they stuck a fire. The police wouldn't let anybody get too close. This was right behind that church I saw on the first day. Where I took my first picture. This will be the last riot I have to see for a long time, I hope.

At 9:00 I finished packing. Everything's heavier than I remembered. Probably an accumulation of all the bits and pieces of Chile I'm taking back.

At 10:00 I climbed to the top of our apartment complex. From here I could see a mile in every direction. All the homes, shops, and churches were thrown chaotically beneath me. A friend once posed the question: when does a city become a home? I don't think I agree with his opinions, and I'm not sure of my position. But I know that, in these past two months, Santiago has been a home to me. A home I'm going to leave forever.

At 11:40 I will leave my apartment for the last time and head to the airport. At 5:30 tomorrow morning I will land in Punta Arenas, the southernmost city on the mainland. From there I will spend five days in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Then I will return to Santiago for a few short hours before taking my flight home.

Goodbye, Santiago. You were a good home.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

What I didn't do

You've read all about the things I did do, so some of the ones I didn't:

-I never went into that church. In retrospect that probably would have been impossible to arrange. Yes, I hate soup grapes.
-Didn't track down all of that guy's sculptures. I forget which one. Forget everything about him, really, besides that he did sculptures. Oh, and he had a nice fountain.
-I never made lava cakes. I blame my terrible kitchen. Sorry Tito.
-I am not bilingual in Spanish. I'm honestly wondering why I thought I would be.
-I did not go into the rainforest.

That's all I can really think of. Man this was an intense summer.