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The Long Way Home

-- Travels Through South America

by Erik Olsen

A Simple Phone Call

Everyone was making money. Or trying to, or talking about it, so that every conversation inevitably came around to the topic. I understood the need; it was the height of the dot-com boom, an unprecedented period of opportunity, and the world seemed so infused with promise: the promise that with plentiful stock options or enough cash on hand you might never have to work again.

 

The problem, though, was that I didn’t feel part of it. Sure, I’d had a minor opportunity at a large computer company in Silicon Valley. There had also been offers back in Seattle with smaller companies for generous stock options.

 

But I wasn’t consumed with the idea of making lots of money. On the verge of turning 30, I was consumed with the idea of living life to its fullest before settling down, and to me this meant doing more with my life than wasting it away in a cubicle with only the whir of a computer and the bleat of a fax machine to keep me company. 

 

What did you do when you were rich, anyway? Most of the rich people I knew were obsessed by their work or their toys, and hardly took the time to think about, let alone get to know, other parts of the world. Orange County, where I grew up, was full of stodgy old white people whose main purpose in life seemed to be how to hold onto their money. I even had a name for them. I called them HOMPS, which stands for “Hands Off My Pile”, as that was the predominant sentiment by which they lived their entire lives. HOMPS hate government, yet many of them no doubt make their living off some form of government expenditure, for example in defense contracting or mineral extraction from public lands; many others are involved in banking or law where protecting people's money from the government earns them their bread and butter. The HOMPS aren’t bad people; they just grew up in a world where the main goal in life was to accumulate wealth and property. It's capitalism, sure, but there's a closed-mindedness to it, a stifling selfishness that seems very unhealthy, and I have always wondered why they don’t see how lonely it is to huddle around your possessions and interact solely with your own kind. In many ways, despite their wealth (or, because of it) the world hadn’t treated them all that fairly either. Many had family problems, high divorce rates, drug and alcohol problems, sons and daughters whose lives of excessive comfort had made them soft and purposeless.

 

I’ve been a shoestring traveler most of my life, starting when I was an adventuresome teen making non-parentally-sanctioned trips into Mexico. I’ve never questioned that the best way to get to know a place and the people there is to travel cheaply, to ply the dusty streets in search of a place to stay, to eat what the locals eat (stomach problems be damned), and to expend every effort to avoid spending much time with fellow countrymen. And for some reason I’ve always thought that getting really rich would do away with all that.

 

There were other issues. I was still recovering from a messy break up with a girl. I’d been in one of those awful relationships where you both know it’s wrong, but you cling to it out of habit because you can’t really picture not hanging out anymore. Then she turned out to be the one that finally said good-bye and I couldn't stand that, being the one who was dumped, so, driven by raw, injured ego, I went insane for a bit, behaved tortured and reckless, as if engaged in some kind of jihad, as I desperately sought to revive the relationship. This, of course, was silly, and wrecked any hope of salvaging a friendship. Not that I wanted one. But I did feel pathetic, feeble and worm-like, and even though my friends told me that I was acting like a wuss and that they’d like nothing better than to beat the shit out of me, I went ahead and did many really foolish things that are probably best left unmentioned. Even now when thinking about it, I feel kind of ill.

 

Anyway, it's really amazing how quickly things can turn around as a result of a single small decision. In my case, I decided to travel. To bail on the confused disaster of a life I'd created. To just leave. It all happened pretty quickly, and started with a phone call.

* * *

The call came, as calls of this type often do (that is to say, life-changing calls), when it was least expected. Saturday morning and I lay in bed in my basement room in a house in Seattle wearing a pair of tight fitting white underpants, and listening to Nirvana playing Pennyroyal Tea on the stereo, not the most uplifting music, I grant you, but the doleful chords and suicide-inducing lyrics had a strange appeal. Outside it rained. Streaks of water glistened on a filthy pane. A typical Seattle day.

The phone rang.

“Hello?”

            “Erik Olsen? Is Erik Olsen there please?” The voice on the end of the line was female and business-like; the tone of someone calling about an outstanding debt.

“Who’s calling, please?”  I said, partially distorting my voice by putting fingers across my lips.

“This is Susan at the Rotary Club of Seattle. May I speak with Erik, please?” Shit! Susan was the chairperson for the Rotary Scholarship committee, a group of hard-faced Seattle business people I’d met a few weeks earlier in competition for a year-long scholarship abroad, something I’d applied to more or less on a whim a few months earlier.

“This is Erik,” I said, remembering mid-sentence to  remove the fingers from my mouth.

“Erik I wanted to call and thank you for meeting with us, and to say that on behalf of the committee, we enjoyed interviewing you.” This sounded like the quintessential rejection setup. It didn’t matter. I was kind of expecting it. Susan was one of the people I’d interviewed with the week before. She was the head of the scholarship committee whose job it was to select an individual for one of the coveted Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarships. A friend of mine had won one of these scholarships a few years before, and said that it had changed his life. Aware of my passion for travel and understanding other cultures, he told me to apply. I expressed my doubts. Such things always went to classic overachievers: straight-A students, Harvard graduates, future astronauts. But my friend was persistent. “What have you got to lose?” he said. And so I’d applied and made it through the first set of interviews. Then, when I was called back for a second interview, I was grilled by a dozen or so local members in a spacious conference room on the upper floor of the Safeco Insurance building in Seattle’s University District. I thought the interview went OK, but when I left, I wasn’t feeling as if I’d nailed the thing. I left the building more or less consoling myself with my friend’s words: What had I lost? Nothing. It was a good experience, but surely I wasn’t going to win anything. Then the call came, and I stood there in tighty-whities as a woman on the other end of the line explained how my life was going to change.

“I have some very good news,” she said. My mouth dropped open.

“Ung hm.”

“Congratulations, Erik. The committee was very impressed with you, and we believe you will make a fine ambassador of goodwill. You’ve won this year’s scholarship. You’ll be going to Chile.” I sat there for what must have been over a minute in stunned silence. I was happy, no question about it. The call had just changed my outlook on the next year of my life, and who knew where things would go after that.

“Erik?” came the voice on the other end of the line.

“Yes, wow, thank you. This is really incredible. I...thank you...thank you...thank you.” And then I hung up.

This was amazing. Like a gift from God. I had my chance. I could leave behind everything: the job, the long days of staring at screens (I was working for a large video game company), the rain, the memories of a failed relationship. If this wasn’t the cure for my psychic ache, what else would be?

 

* * *

The seed for traveling across the expanse of South America was actually planted at a young age. There was a map of the world on my wall when I was a kid, and when I first got my drivers license at age 16, I looked at that world map and thought, ‘Wow, if I wanted to, I could drive south into Mexico, and just keep on going. I could go until I drove off the end of the earth.’ (Of course, this is untrue. There is no road across the Darien Gap below Panama.) This was a magical thought to an adventuresome young mind; a frightening one to a parent whose kid just got his license.  

I’d chosen Chile as the destination for my year abroad for two reasons. The first was that I already had a familiarity with things Latin, having lived in Spain for a short time and in Los Angeles, very near the border of Mexico, for most of my life. Second, I had some facility with the language, which was a requirement for the fellowship.  This made sense. They didn’t want to send people to live alone in foreign countries where they’d be completely lost. (I can speak to this from personal experience. I also lived and worked in Thailand for a bit, and despite my best efforts, I never got a handle on Thai. Needless to say this affected my ability to participate constructively in a many important professional discussions). This said, I really didn’t know the culture down there at all. When I looked at the South American continent, I thought of all the countries as states, and lumped everything together under the nebulous term “Latin”.

I would come to know Chile intimately over the course of the year, but the rest of the continent remained a mystery. When my year was up, I decided that rather than go straight home, I’d find some way to travel back to LA so that I could see more of the continent. In fact, I decided to make it to Antarctica. And from there, I’d take the long way home.

Exactly what that meant at the time was unknown to me. I’d never been very good at planning. It always seemed more interesting when you just went. I hardly had any money, but it wouldn’t cost me much because I’d travel cheaply. I’d stay in the most inexpensive places I could find, and would camp out where I could. I’d eat inexpensive food from the street or grocery stores. Typical budget travel. I knew it would be an amazing adventure, and three and a half months later, when I arrived in Los Angeles gritty, bearded and about 20 pounds lighter, I was right. This is the story of that journey.

* * *

Final Days

I spent my last days in Chile sitting alone on the floor of my spartan apartment sipping Chilean wine (I’d become quite a connoisseur of the reds), and staring at a large map of South America. The map was “borrowed” from an issue of National Geographic at the local American library…I mean to return it one of these days. I also had a copy of The Lonely Planet, which I was using to determine the best route up the coast. 

My first goal was to get to Antarctica. I asked around in Santiago if there was a way to get down south cheaply, and was told by a Chilean friend that the Chilean military did a lot of travel to Antarctica where there were a number of Chilean bases. Maybe I could get a cheap ride? A few phone calls later I was put in touch with a guy I knew from the Rotary Club of Santiago. The club was composed mostly of well-to-do business people, very upper class, and so their connections into the Chilean military were high up.

Eric was an older German gentleman I knew who told me I could likely get on a trip at the beginning of the year. He said he'd check for me and then get back to me. A few weeks passed and then I got a call from him one evening.

“Do you still have an interest in travelling to Chilean Antarctica?” He placed an emphasis on the word ‘Chilean”.

“Yes, of course.”
            “Then you are in luck. There is a space available on a boat out of Punta Arenas. It leaves in a week.” A week? That didn’t seem like nearly enough time to prepare. There was way too much left to do. Suitable clothes to buy, things to ship home, I had to get out of my lease. But it didn’t matter. This was likely my only chance to make it that far south, and since that was very much the goal of the whole exercise, I told him to count me in, and then I set about packing up and leaving the city in a week.

With Antarctica in the bag, I still had to figure out what my route home was going to be. Since I’d traveled through most of Chile already and well into Bolivia and Peru, I decided I would take the eastern route: up the coast of Argentina, through Buenos Aires to Iguazu and into Brazil. My timing had to be right because I wanted to be in Salvador, Brazil by the start of Carnaval. Salvador, or Bahia as it is also called, was the place to be for the Great Global Party. In Salvador, I was told by a friend who'd been there the year before, Carnival was the real deal. Rio, he explained, was overrun by tourists. Salvador was far more interesting. And dangerous.

From there, I’d continue my way around the bulge of Brazil to the mouth of the Amazon, where I’d find passage upriver. I’d press up, through Venezuela, Columbia, Panama and the rest of Central America, and through Mexico, before crossing the border into the US and finally arriving at my parents’ home in Los Angeles. It was one hell of a long way to go, over 15,000 miles. But I’d never been more ready to tackle such an adventure. I wanted to be on the road.

 

            My last evening in Santiago was spent in my friend Fred’s apartment. Earlier in the day, my landlady and I got into a serious row over my definition of “cleaned up and ready for the next occupant,” the result of which led to the sacrifice of a large portion of my deposit and a hasty departure.  Fred and I shared a six pack of warm Chilean beer (Fred had recently moved in and his fridge was not yet working), and listened to a few of his CDs. He had 100’s of them. He got up and put on a Kris Kristofferson disk. Not what I would have chosen, but I confess that as we sat and listened to Kristofferson’s soulful baritone, I couldn’t help but feel cheery. He sang of independence, being on the road, taunting the Devil.

            The phone rang all evening. Every call was from a different Chilean woman that Fred was dating. It was my first glimpse of a system he’d employed since arriving in Chile. Chilean women were notorious for calling and not identifying themselves when you picked up. This caused Fred serious headaches because with so many different women interested in him, he could never be sure whom he was talking to. He often kept six girlfriends at a time, keeping them in a steady rotation so that whenever he met a new girl that he liked, he dumped another. The system Fred came up with was this: he gave each new girl he met a different name so that he could tell them apart. Currently, he was Glenn, Roger, Doug, Mike, Pete, and Erik, the last of which, I admit, was flattering. I suggested he add John, Paul, and George and Ringo. The system seemed to work well. A woman would call and ask for, say, Pete, and Fred would check the list by the phone to cross-reference the name Pete with that of the girl who was calling. It was a remarkably clever system, I thought.

I sipped a beer as Kristofferson's voice rang through the apartment.

I’m not saying I beat the Devil, but I drank his beer for nothin.’

            Around midnight, one of Fred's girls dropped by, a lovely Chilean with 7-Up bottle green eyes and a tight sweater. They disappeared into his room, and I dozed off reading the liner notes to an Bob Dylan CD. I managed to get about four hours sleep. It was fitful sleep. I couldn’t get the coming trip out of my mind. Had I packed everything I needed?  What was I supposed to do once I arrived in Punta Arenas? What if the plane was late? What if I missed the boat? What if all my money ran out? This endless barrage of questions and uncertainties gave me the hard-core jitters and made it impossible to get a decent night’s sleep. Listening to Fred bang the young Chilean girl in the other room didn’t help much either.

 

Off He Goes

Said he'll see me on the flipside

of this trip he's taking for a ride

He's been takin' too much on,

off he goes with his perfect holy unkempt clothes

there he goes.

-- Pearl Jam

 

 

             The morning sky in Santiago was a silvery blue, with pink clouds marching across it’s expanse like a herd of stuffed animals. Even at five-thirty in the morning there was traffic in the streets. It consisted largely of Santiago’s awful yellow buses, boxy mechanical monsters that roared and belched smoke into the air, smoke that would soon settle over the city in a dismal shroud of smog. I carried a large pack filled with far too many books and my handmade Spanish guitar, which was in a soft black case. I was weary, but buzzing with an electric thrill that I was on my way.

            On the plane I sat next to a large, beefy Chilean man who seemed to be completely unaware of the protocols of personal space on commercial aircraft. He wore dark prescription glasses and a business suit. He read the newspaper and kept to himself, despite my initial efforts to be friendly.

            “Are you going to Punta Arenas?” I asked.

            “Yes,” was his curt reply, which he spoke without looking up. It was obvious that he didn’t want to be bothered.

            Behind me, I heard English…actually, not just English, but the loud, trumpeting version that means Americans are speaking. An American couple from New York. They appeared to be in their early-sixties.  The man was heavy set, with Brillo pad hair and black bags that sagged under lids like Hefty bags. He was vigorously discussing their itinerary with his wife. She was a graying blond with big fruity blue eyes that suggested an avid interest in astrology and/or the monthly revelations of People magazine. He seemed eager to announce to the entire plane each port of call and every flight number of their trip.

            I peered over the seat and asked them where they were from, more or less knowing the answer.

            New York,” the man announced, as if he were just asked the question as a contestant on a game show. “And you, where you from?”

            Seattle,” I said.

            “Oh, Seattle. That’s a lovely place,” said the wife. “I hear it rains a lot there. You know, they’ve had a very hard time recently. Some of the worst storms of the year.” I knew. My friends had been complaining in e-mails all winter about how horrible the winter in Seattle had been. One of the worst in decades.

            “My daughter, you know, was just in Seattle,” the woman informed me. “She was there on a job assignment. She works for a law firm in Manhattan. One of the biggest. My son is doing his MBA at Cornell. He spent last summer in Russia, and did some very interesting work there.” How we’d moved from the weather in Seattle to the résumé of each family member was a mystery to me, but I smiled as if interested.

             “You know,” she said, placing her hand on the head-rest in front of her, and leaning forward slightly, as if passing on state secrets, “the Mafia has infiltrated everything there. Business-wise, it is very hard to accomplish anything, there’s still so much red tape and people to pay off.” I nodded and uttered a long, tapering, “Ahhh”. Then, she leaned back, raised her eyebrows knowledgeably, and, as if she’d just competed an award-winning book on the subject, said:  “Oh, I figure it will take 15 years before they get things straightened out. If they ever do. You know how the Russians are.”

            I soon learned the man was known back in New York as “The Rice King”. An impressive title, I had to admit. He bought and sold rice in international markets. A global businessman. I asked him if he found the rice business exciting: “Oh sure,” he said. “Great business. Very exciting. Lots of action.” He was a nice guy, but for some reason, I imagined him in a dark, smoky room, waving a fat cigar around with big arcing swoops of his hand as he ordered business competitors to be rubbed out. I asked him where they were headed.

Antarctica. With good friends. Rice friends. A big trip down south. Far south.” I realized at that moment that so far the man had avoided using a single verb. I wondered if that meant anything.

            Mrs. Rice King showed me a pair of day-glow yellow parkas that she said had been made expressly for this trip. They were bulky, awful-looking things that were of such a bright yellow color that I almost needed sunglasses to look at them. Each had an embroidered patch on the shoulder with a picture of a penguin standing on an iceberg. They were obviously very expensive I smiled and became nervous about the tattered Gortex shell I’d brought, wondering if it was going to be enough.

            The two of them seemed very proud: proud of their children, their success, and the fact that they were headed to South America and Antarctica. I think they wanted me to be proud of them too, but I was too busy being proud of myself for not being like them. They were obviously nice folks, but I think their concept of travel differed significantly from mine. I didn’t know the details, but I imagined they were going to be on an expensive cruise ship, perhaps something organized by a company like Abercrombie and Kent. A ship called The Explorer or Antarctic Adventurer, with morning brunch buffets and evening banquets. And each passenger would be given a pretty pin-on name tag and a complimentary “I’ve been to Antarctica” certificate at the end of the cruise. And every day at noon there would be an “educational session” with the on-board biologist, some professor taking advantage of a free cruise junket, who would discuss the bizarre mating ritual of the Antarctic sea elephant and explain why penguins look the way they do and how many tons of krill can fit into a cubic mile of sea water…

            Ok, I’m being harsh. The fact is, maybe I was even a little jealous (especially about the on-board biologist – wouldn’t it be cool to have a specialist available to answer all your stupid questions?) I had to give them credit. At least they weren’t growing old in front of the TV somewhere, overeating, popping Geritol and wasting their money on all the things they wouldn’t be able to take with them to the afterworld.

            I needed some rest. I leaned the seat back, closed the curtain, and laid my head against bulkhead, conjuring dreamy images in my head about Antarctica and what lay ahead. About an hour later, I was sitting there with my head lolling to one side, a silvery spider’s thread of drool hanging off my lower lip, when I was awakened by a surge of severe turbulence. I pulled up the window shade and stared out the window into a blank gray wall of clouds. Then, we dropped out of the clouds and I saw the flat, scoured earth below. It was a colorless landscape of ranches and open fields, low rolling hills and monotonous desolation. All the earth below was made of the same faded greens and browns, as if someone had pulled a plug below the surface and drained out all the color. Glug glug glug. In the distance, the sea was dark gray and frappéd by the powerful winds that lashed at the surface. We’d arrived at Punta Arenas.

            It was a perilous landing into the airport, which lies about twenty miles outside of town. The wind, loud and furious enough to elicit frightened gasps from Mrs. Rice King, seemed intent on blowing the plane around like a leaf. I closed my eyes, scared to death, afraid that any second we’d be slammed onto the tarmac or catch a wing and go spinning head over tail with the plane disintegrating into a brilliant fireball. Of course, no such tragedy occurred, and soon we were safely on the ground, taxiing along the runway.

“How ‘bout that?” said the Rice King, slapping my headrest from behind.

“Oh my, that was something,” exclaimed his wife.

“Thank God,” I thought.

Debarking the plane, I bade farewell to the Rice King and his wife, and expressed my best wishes for their safe journey. “Good to meet you. Nice trip,” he said. Still no verbs.

Near the terminal exit, I noticed a gaggle of old people boarding a bus, and knew it had to be my group. I saw Eric, the German-born Rotarian whom I knew from Santiago. I walked over and said hello, introducing myself to the others.

“So you are the young American we’ve been waiting for,” said one of them, expressing his impatience in decent English. “What do you think of the bottom of the world?”

 

Geriatric Spring Break

I was ushered aboard a surprisingly comfortable bus and packed in with about 30 others, and soon we were rumbling down the narrow, single lane road towards Punta Arenas.

I was the youngest person on board the bus by about 40 years, and the only foreigner (that is, non Chilean). But this difference in age didn’t prevent people from acting like children. In fact, the half-hour bus ride to the docks in Punta Arenas had a dreamlike quality, as if I were watching a cable channel program on some kind of septuagenarian Spring Break road trip. Men teased their wives and pinched other men’s spouses, and the women teased back. One guy flung a balled up ticket envelope at another guy, who responded in kind by shooting him with a rubber band. A silver flask was passed around and emptied just before it got to me. There was laughter and back slapping and the randy flashing of dentures. In a way, I felt like the oldest one there, like a chaperone. “Now you kids stop it this instant!”

            We rode along the coast, and on the ocean side, I saw an old fishing trawler that had washed ashore, its decaying black hulk listed in the mud. On the other side were gently sloping hills and wide grasslands harshly combed by the winds. It was strange how everything seemed to lean away from the sea. There were no tall trees or buildings; nothing stood very high. The trees that did grow on the hills were bizarrely shaped, with branches and leaves twisted and disfigured and bent diagonally away from the coast. I’d never seen the weather expressed in the landscape so vividly, nor so vigorously.

            A man in the adjacent aisle asked me a question in English. He was a distinguished-looking Chilean gentleman with blue eyes, a thin David Niven mustache and a healthy mane of gray hair. Like many of the Chileans I’d met over the course of the year, he was obviously of German descent. He wanted to know if I’d ever been this far south.

            “Only once,” I said, and explained that I’d been down for a week in Puerto Natales the previous October to hike through Torres del Paine National Park. He nodded.

            “You know that all parts of Chile are very different,” he said. “The country changes tremendously from North to South.”

            “Yes, I know,” I said. I told him that I’d seen Chile from top to bottom over the course of the year.

            He seemed surprised. “Oh? And what do you think of my country?” he inquired. I’d been asked this question so often in Chile, just by habit I’d developed a standardized answer:.

            “It’s a beautiful country,” I said. “There are so many interesting things to see, and I have found the people here to be very kind.” The answer sounded practiced, but he seemed satisfied. He sat back contentedly and smiled. I think he was also hamming it up a bit to show off his English.

            Que bueno,” he said, “Yes, it is a beautiful country. We are very lucky. And you are very lucky. I think it is important for young people to travel.”

We passed a number of large ranches, known as an estancias, where hundreds, perhaps thousands of sheep nibbled the grass. The blue-eyed man leaned over and tapped me on the arm, pointing out the window: “This part of the country is famous for wool,” he said. I nodded politely, even though the presence of all the sheep had pretty much tipped me off. “First the English settled here, from Wales, and then many others. Dutch, Yugoslavians, Germans. This whole area was settled by European farmers. Like in America.” He was right. I knew part of the story from the books I’d read before the trip. In fact, among the many books I’d brought along was Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, one of my favorite travel books of all time, and a book that, along with Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express, largely fueled my passion for travel to this part of the world.

            About half an hour later, we rumbled into Punta Arenas. I saw many houses clustered upon the gently sloping hills near the sea. I was surprised to see how colorful the houses were, painted in different pastels, many of them gingerbread-like, with roof tiles or shingles in an assortment of delicate colors. It was as if the residents were seeking to enliven the otherwise color-depleted surroundings. We entered the city and I immediately had the urge to get out and explore, to wander down the gloomy avenues, among the rows of small, weather-beaten, but colorful homes. I was eager to find out what life was like here at the end of the earth. But I would have to wait. A man aboard the bus stood and said we were already a bit late for the boat, and we’d have to proceed directly to the pier. I would save Punta Arenas for another day.

 

Lo, the Aquiles!

            We arrived at the port and continued to the end of the main pier. We passed a series of large cargo and fishing vessels tied by thick ropes to massive iron cleats the size of minivans. The first three ships were flagged from Japan, Argentina, and Russia. The last ship on the right was a long, military-gray freighter called the Aquiles, a Chilean Navy vessel obviously ready to set sail; there was a long line of civilian and military passengers waiting to board via a narrow gangplank. The bus pulled up alongside and stopped.

            “That’s our boat,” said the blue-eyed man, tugging on my jacket. I suppressed the urge to thank him for his brilliant and glaring statements of the obvious, but I knew we had a long cruise ahead and I didn’t need to make any unnecessary enemies.

            We spilled out of the bus and waited patiently in line to board. It was slow-going because a sailor standing at the head of the line was asking for passengers’ names and then checking them off a list he held in his hand. When my turn finally came up, I was distressed to find that my name wasn’t found on the passenger list. I heard suspicious whispering behind me when the sailor holding the list went to talk to a nearby officer to discuss the problem. They finally cleared it up, but then the sailor had trouble with my name. Olsen, it seems, is a difficult name for the Latin tongue, in the same way, I suppose, that Guillermoprieto  might be difficult for English-speakers. I had had trouble with it before in Chile. For some reason, everyone wants to spell it with an “H” and two S’s. H-O-L-S-S-E-N. I’d never met anyone named Holssen in Chile, or anyplace else for that matter, but I assumed it was popular down here since that was what everyone wanted to call me. Anyway, soon I was aboard and happily putting down my bags on one of the beds in my assigned cabin - or camarote, as it is called in Spanish.

            The cabins were far from luxurious. No champagne on ice, no mini-bar, not even a mint on the pillow, but that suited me fine. Navy boats across the world aren’t known for pampering guests. Besides, with all the traveling that lay ahead, I figured it was best to get used to bare conditions. The fact is, in a few weeks, I’d look back on these camarotes and they would seem as luxurious as the Four Seasons.

            There were four beds to each cabin with a narrow aisle between them hardly wide enough for me to pass with my pack. A single porthole glared at me from the wall facing the door. There were four of us assigned to each room, and each had a small closet and a reading lamp over the bed, which came about two inches away from your face and delivered a toasty Richard-Dreyfuss-in-Close-Encounters burn to the side of your face. A step beyond the beds there was a small writing desk and a padded chair. Everything was spotlessly clean and well ordered, really just about as anal-retentive as hell.

            There was another man inside the room, a cheerful, plump Chilean named Jorge. Jorge was a baker from Concepción in the south of Chile. He was a round man who looked like he enjoyed sampling his wares. He reminded me of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda; in fact, he looked just like him, or just like a book jacket picture of Neruda I’d seen. The other two roomies would show up a little later. There was José Domingo, who at 78 was the patriarch of the cabin. He wore expensive European designer sweats, and had a thin Yugoslav mouth which turned down into a frown even when he smiled. José Domingo was friendly in a Mafioso sort of way, in that he spoke in a deep, quiet voice, and talked about his family a lot, but didn’t divulge much about his line of work. The third, also named José, and who I’ll call José II, was a silver haired businessman from Puerto Varas, also in the South, who had left behind his wife and kids to, as he said with a tone of voice addled with implication, “Get away for a little while.” Like most of the other passengers, my roomies were all about twice times my age, but it never seemed to matter.

            The horn blew above, the engines kicked in, and I went upstairs to explore the upper deck. I met my friend from Chile who had invited me along in the first place. His name was Eric, and as a former president of the Rotary Club in Santiago, he had all the connections to make the trip happen. As I understood it, he knew the Admiral of the Chilean Navy, a Señor Martinez Bush, and had finagled the whole deal, getting all of us on this maiden tourist voyage of the Aquiles.

 

We stood there among about a hundred others, waving good-bye to well-wishers who stood on the pier. I was startled by the number of Sony Handicams I saw, and wondered if there’d been a discount special on them in Santiago. I stood on the top deck as the boat groaned away from the pier and started forward, violently churning the gray water behind us. The Chilean anthem played scratchily over a loudspeaker. Sailors in uniform scampered about swabbing the deck, batting down hatches, and doing what sailors do. From Eric, I also learned a little bit more about the ship’s kill-three-birds-with-one-stone mission. It seems we were not only taking a large group of passengers to Antarctica, but that the voyage was also part of a cold-water training mission for the navy men aboard, for whom, I understood it, this was their very first trip to Antarctica. And thirdly, we were making the trip to transport some goods to two of the Chilean bases down here.

 

            Soon, we were on our way, pounding through the wintry waters of the Straits of Magellan. Where the Straits leave Punta Arenas the water is surprisingly wide (in fact, it is known as Paso Ancho, or Broad Reach), and closely resembles Puget Sound in Washington State. In a short time, Punta Arenas became a dark, lumpy streak behind us, and what lay ahead was about ten hours of navigating around the hundreds of small islands in the Straits before we reached the Pacific Ocean and Drake’s Passage.

Sometime about three hours into the trip, we suddenly turned around. I was below deck, bent over in the narrow gangway in the rear of the ship, examining a few of the pictures hanging on the wall. They were mostly lithographs of scenes from famous Chilean battles (of which there are few) and faded photographs of Chilean submarines (the Chilean fleet had four of them). Suddenly, the ship listed to one side and I smacked my forehead against the wall. Wondering what the hell had happened, I hurried up to the second deck and stood at the rail. We were heading back towards Punta Arenas. But why?

            “What’s going on?” I asked one of the sailors standing by leaning against the rail.

            “We’ve forgotten something,” he said gravely. “Something muy importante.”

            “Really? What?”

            “I don’t know,” he shrugged, and then walked off.

            A group of six passengers stood clutching the rail and gazing over the edge. Two of them, both women, looked ill, the color of their faces was a greenish pink, like old bubble gum. Their husbands stood by looking worried.

            “Anybody know why we’re turning around?” I asked.

            “I think we are going back to pick someone up,” said a tall gray-haired man in a green parka that was too big for him.

            “Any idea who?”

            “Carlos says maybe the admiral himself,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of the guy next to him.

            “Really?”

            “Yes, there were rumors he might be coming aboard,” Carlos noted confidently, as if just now deciding to pass on important information he’d already been privy to. “That would be interesting, no?”  I waited at the rail, enjoying the frigid wind and the exhilarating feeling of being in the Straits of Magellan. I wondered who this important person was supposed to be, and if it was the admiral, why had we left him behind?

             About half an hour later, a small speed boat came hurtling  towards us, and a dozen sailors busied themselves throwing ropes overboard and lowering a collapsible ladder to the water. Meanwhile, a group of us clustered around the rails craning our necks over the side to see who was so important that the entire ship had to turn around to get him.

            There was no important passenger left behind. No admiral coming aboard. Not even a captain or a cook. The ship that pulled aside was loaded with cases of whisky and wine, which someone had forgotten. The cases were diligently hoisted aboard and stowed below deck. I found it a bit hard to believe that we’d gone back for this, but a great sigh of relief went up from the men who stood nearby. One of them leaned against the wall and turned his grateful eyes to the gray sky.

            “Thank God,” he said.

            “Far more important than the Admiral,” voiced another. This sentiment was echoed enthusiastically by the rest of the men standing around, who solemnly nodded to one another that leaving behind this precious cargo would have been grounds for keelhauling.

            “Booze,” spat one of the wives. “We turned the ship around for booze. That’s absurd.” A few of the men shot her a glance as if she’d just let loose a horrible, awful-smelling fart.

 

Crooked Straits

            The places in this part of the world have dreary names:  Desolation Island, Point Starvation, Tortuous Pass, the Gulf of Sorrows. This is not surprising. It is a land of coldness and death. No condos. No hotels. No cheesy tourist knick-knack shops, 7-11s, all-night Laundromat or DKNY billboards displaying the perfect breasts or rock-hard abs of fashion models. There were no roads in sight, not even a path along the coast. There were just dark rolling hills of grass and rock that crept silently into the freezing water. It was a lonely and forsaken place, known to sailors for centuries for the nearly endless storms that batter the coastline, the scarcity of animal and plant life, and the dangerous intermingling of land and sea. All of these things create a feeling of being pushed to the very edge of civilization, as if you are passing through the gates of a different world.

I doubt things have changed much here since Ferdinand Magellan first sailed through believing (correctly) he had found a safer way around the continental tip to the Pacific. Well, perhaps things are a little different. We were on a massive navy ship after all, with ample heating, a full mess and a well-stocked bar.  Magellan sailed in fragile, slow-moving wooden hulks, with no GPS, and little food. In fact, by the time that Magellan reached the straits that bear his name (named, incidentally, after he was killed in the Philippines), he’d already sailed all the way from Spain, and along the coast of modern-day Brazil and Argentina. During that time, one of his ships had been destroyed (the Santiago), and he was about to lose another to mutiny[1].  To say that it must have been a miserable trip is an understatement.

The first thing I noticed is that the straits are anything but straight. Historian Daniel Boorstin called them “the narrowest, most devious, most circuitous of all the straits connecting two great bodies of water.”[2] I don’t know about that, as I can’t say I’ve been in many straits in my life, but I will say that over the course of twelve or so hours it took us to reach the Pacific, we darted down this inlet and into another and went around islands large and small. We cruised up narrow channels and wide ones, and I know that if I’d been driving, we would have gotten horribly lost.

            Of course, the straits are expertly mapped now. Oceanographic maps show the depth of the straits to the foot, and with GPS, there’s little chance a ship will find itself getting lost down the dead end of Useless Bay, as Magellan did. Still, with all the technology and all the people on board, it was a strange feeling to be sailing in the very same waters where such an amazing voyage took place almost 500 years ago. As I stood on the deck of the Aquiles, watching the approach of Cape Pilar at the mouth of the Strait, where we, too, would soon enter the Pacific Ocean, I imagined myself on one of Magellan’s boats, and wondered if I would have experienced the same sense of futility and despair that his men felt. What would I have done? Join the mutiny or hang with it? Would the thrill of seeing places that few Europeans had ever seen before outweigh the pangs of hunger and the agonies of dysentery and scurvy? I don’t know why such thoughts came to me at that moment, but my guess is that there is something about the vicious barrenness of the place, the gulag-like bleakness that stirred my emotions and made my mind ramble off in strange directions.

 

Americans on Board

            I wasn’t expecting to find any of my countrymen on the Aquiles, so I quite surprised when I overheard some folks in the galley talking about “The Americans”. I wasn’t exactly eager to search them out, but I was curious who they were. It was not until about five or six hours after we’d set sail that I finally met them. They were gathered in the lounge in a small cluster of four, two men and two women, and I overheard them speaking English nearby:

            “I’m telling you,” said the tallest man of the group, “that’s why the ozone’s disappearin’. It ain’t what we’re doing at all. It’s all the whales out there farting.” This comment was followed by a round of raucous laughter.

            “Oh, stop,” said one of the women. “That’s not true at all.”

            “No, I’m serious. I read somewhere that methane comes from, you know, living creatures, actually puts more of them greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we do with our factories.” The rest of the group seemed to be digesting this information when I stepped forward.

            “Where you folks from?”

            They turned, surprised, I think, to hear American English. “Oklahoma,” boomed the man who’d been speaking. “How ‘bout yourself?”

Seattle.”

“Oh, the rainy city.”

“I hate the rain,” pouted one of the women.

Smiles and handshakes went around, and the obligatory exchange of personal data. Their names were Don, Stan, Jane, and Barb. Stan and Barb were husband and wife, while Don and Jane described themselves as “just friends”. My quick estimate was that Don had about 20 years on Jane and Jane had about 15 pounds on Don. All four of them came from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and had been invited on the trip by a Chilean business friend. Don was tall and gangly, with a steel-gray Sinatra haircut and big, square-framed glasses. There was something about him that said accountant. He did some kind of work in the oil business, although he was never very explicit about what it was. He said his work often took him around the world to many exotic places like Libya and Iran, which I thought was interesting, if not a bit sinister.

            Stan was fit, balding, and had a red-ripe face that lit up like a Christmas light when he smiled. (“We just got back from Cozumel!”). He looked like a country singer, or an aging game show host. He explained that he was a pediatrician with a successful practice back in Tulsa; so successful, in fact, that he and Barb were able to travel a good part of the year. “We’re shooting for the Century Club,” he announced. “You have to visit 100 countries to make it. You get a card and everything. Chile is our 69th. No pun intended. Ha ha.”

            “This is an actual organized club?” I asked, ignoring the joke, whatever it was.

            “Yup, all you have to do is visit a hundred countries. Just set foot in one, see? It doesn’t matter if you’re there for a week or a minute. Even airports count. Step foot in an airport in a new country, you check it off the list.” I nodded doubtfully, thinking to myself that this was one of the stupidest things I’d ever heard of. Only Americans would have a competition like this.

            “We did the airport in Australia, for example,” said Barb. “Didn’t see the Opera House or anything, but got to check that one off.”

            “And remember in Thailand on the northern border?” Stan reminded his wife. “We wanted our driver to stop and let us get out to touch Burma, or Myanmar they call it now, but he wouldn’t do it.”

            Barb nodded and then finished the story: “So we had to hire a boat later, just to cross the river at the border, and we jumped out and touched the other side. One foot. That was number 49.” They giggled together as I imagined the two of them someday being shot dead at the border of Haiti or Libya or wherever, in an attempt to reach The Century Club - that magic 100.

            “What brings you on this trip?” I asked.

            “Well, Don knows some guy down here involved in Rotary, and apparently this guy called one day and said, ‘You wanna go to Antarctica?’, and then Don asked us and I said, hell yes. And here we are.” We chatted a little more, but then I got bored and figured it was time to do something else. I decided to explore the ship, to venture into the guts of the Aquiles to see what she was made of.

            Built in 1987 and launched in August of the following year, the Aquiles was 337 feet long and 56 feet wide. The ship functioned primarily as a troop transport vessel, and secondarily as a cargo vessel, moving goods up and down the long Chilean coastline.  She was built in the shipyards of Talcahuano near Concepcion, south of Santiago, and was one of the few navy vessels actually built in Chile. Most of Chile’s navy boats were built in Britain or the States. Without cargo she displaced some 2,200 tons of sea water; when fully loaded, she displaced 4,700 tons, the rough equivalent of the contents of Shamu’s tank at Sea World. The Aquiles could travel at a maximum speed of 18 knots and her maximum transport capacity was 250 people, although it seemed to me, counting crew and passengers, there were many more people on board than that. The ship was a single screw (one propeller) with a 7080 horsepower Krupp Diesel engine[3]. Altogether a pretty respectable beast.

            Four lifeboats dangled from the sides, two boats on each side, each with a capacity of about 40 people. I did the quick math and realized that things didn’t seem to add up properly, and I wondered and hoped there were inflatables located somewhere else. Up front, near the bridge and also astern on the poop deck, there were two 20 mm guns, little things, pea-shooters really, four in all, suggesting that the Aquiles was not much of a fighter. There was a sheet posted near the bridge that listed the weight of our current cargo. We were carrying just a little over 11 tons. I wondered if that included passengers.

            While exploring the lower deck, I peeked into a room cramped with a large set of desks where a couple of officers were sitting behind computers. I asked if they could direct me to the engine room.

            “Why do you want the engine room?” one of them asked suspiciously.

            “Because I’d like to see it.”

            “You can’t see it. It’s closed to passengers.”

            “Closed? Why? Are you sure?” the one speaking looked at me with a hard expression that suggested he was not used to being second-guessed.

            “Because it’s closed!” he snapped, and then he turned abruptly to the work he was doing on the computer.

            Unwilling to provoke a major international incident by taking things further, I made my way down to the mess instead of visiting the engine room. Of course, I’d sneak down again later.

All the people on board were broken into groups according to what deck you were on and the particular section of that deck. There were two decks and two groups per deck, so that made four groups in all. Ours was third, which meant we had a designated chow time for evening meals of seven-thirty.  The food was about what I imagined typical Navy slop would be: chunks of oily meat and instant potatoes, and some ground up greenish vegetable matter that smelled of spinach and gun metal, all of which was spooned onto the plate by morose young sailors on mess detail. I took an open seat next to three guys who all said they were teachers from Concepción. They looked like teachers. All of them were kind of doughy, had bushy mustaches and that look in their eyes as if they’d long since passed the point where they saw their profession as “virtuous”, and were now waiting things out until they could retire and collect their pension. Or that’s what they ended up explaining to me. 

            It was 10:30 in the evening when we rounded Cape Horn. Given the fact that it is the Southern most continental point in the world, I kind of expected more (what I hoped for, exactly, I can’t say, perhaps a large blinking sign saying, “You are now leaving the continental land mass” or something like that). The famous cape was little more than a black hunk of land beneath darkening gray skies. Everyone hurried out to watch and to film it with their Handicams, and I just stood there scratching my head wondering what all the hullabaloo was about. A short while later, the announcement was made that we were passing Diego Ramirez Island, which looked like a mole on the face of the sea. It was the last bit of land we’d see until Antarctica.

We were being followed out to sea by magnificent birds with enormous wing spans. They soared behind us effortlessly on the cold air currents in the wake of the boat. They dipped and dived, nearly catching their wing-tips in the ship’s frothy trail. I thought maybe they were albatrosses, and I hoped they were, as I’d never seen one in the wild. I thought of Coleridge’s poem and the good omen that albatrosses were supposed to bring:

 

And a good south wind sprung up behind;

    The Albatross did follow,

    And every day, for food or play,

    Came to the mariner's hollo!

 

 And then I thought of the less-than-environmentally-green sailor who senselessly killed one of them and was forced by the ship’s captain to wear the bird’s heavy carcass around his neck:

 

And I had done an hellish thing, And it would work 'em woe: For all averred, I had killed the bird   That made the breeze to blow.   Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, That made the breeze to blow!

 

What a bummer. The guy must have been glad, though, that he hadn’t shot a whale. Or a manatee.

My guide book had a center spread of lovely bird photos, and these helped me discern that the birds were in fact Giant Petrels. Among some of the others that came and went were Cape Petrels, Prions, Terns, and the heavily built - and mean as hell - Subantarctic Skuas. There was not an Albatross to be found.

            Once in the Pacific, the weather began to turn nasty. Black clouds swarmed like an invading army on the horizon, and the wind began to wail like a troubled spirit. The sea had become a different beast altogether, and the ship rose and fell clumsily on gigantic swells. Since the afternoon, the temperature had fallen by ten or twenty degrees. We’d entered Drake’s Passage, a 600-mile, wind-lashed gouge of angry water between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula, where the world’s two great oceans crash and roil in brutal tumult, where waves fifty feet high are not uncommon, a body of water that is widely considered to be the worst in the world for ship travel. I went back inside.

            The lounge was packed with Rotarians drinking beer and glasses of whisky on the rocks. They were eagerly discussing business, sports (in this case how well the Chilean soccer team would fare against the Peruvians in an upcoming game), and drinking, the three main topics of Rotarians around the world. I think there is something in the Rotary membership guide that restricts members to these topics.

            I went to my room and read for a few hours. I must have dozed off at some point because a bit later all three roomies had come in and climbed into bed. I’d been startled awake by a terrible noise, as if someone had dumped a handful of nuts and bolts into a blender and pressed the button for liquefy. It was  Jorge, who slept right below me, snoring more loudly than I thought humanly possible.  I’d never heard anyone snore quite like that. No matter how tired I was, with that going on all night, it would be impossible to sleep. José and José II were both awake and they gave me a “what should we do?” shrug. José climbed down off his bed to give Jorge a friendly shove, but before he did so, I told him to wait, and went to my pack to get my micro-tape recorder. I held the recorder an inch from Jorge’s large nose and taped a good twenty seconds or so of his snoring. I figured he might want to hear it; as would numerous others on the ship. José gave Jorge a sweet shove that made him grumble, but had the desired effect of quieting him down. From then on we slept relatively well.

            I awoke promptly at 6:30 to the sound of the shrill Navy whistle bleating over the loud speaker in our room. I felt a little strange. It wasn’t sea sickness exactly, more like the feeling you get after riding a roller coaster. All of my roomies were already up and had breakfasted. They were talking among themselves about me, joking about how lazy I was to be in bed at that hour. Why is it, I wondered, that old people always get up so damn early. My father wakes and goes to work at five; my grandparents all get up at five-thirty. Is it a growing awareness that your last days are approaching, so you feel you’ve got to make the most of each new day? Or something biological, like a dormant gland that suddenly starts squirting Vivarin into the blood stream?

            The mess hall was virtually empty. It wasn’t my group’s time, but I didn’t think anyone would notice. I sat alone and drank my coffee and ate runny eggs at a table. Then I went upstairs to the lounge where there also seemed to be a puzzling scarcity of people. Where was everybody? I found many of them outside, not enjoying the fresh bliss of a new day, but mostly puking over the side. The rail, about as far as I could see, was occupied by barfing Rotarians, hucking up their coffee and breakfast into the blue sea.  It was interesting to see how the sea-sickness would sometimes just leap upon someone without warning. A guy I’d meet the night before named Miguel came up and greeted me with a smile. He’d gone to Colombia for an MBA and now worked as the head of a small business NGO promoting US and Japanese management practices throughout Latin America. We’d just begun to converse when the smile dropped from his face like an anchor, and his eyes went kind of yellowish, his face an off-green. He stood abruptly and bolted for the community barf rail. From my vantage point inside the main hall,  I could see him perfectly framed in the window so that it was almost like he was on TV, leaving a little part of himself behind for the fish.

Did I mention the sea? What an incredible blue it was? Man, this was by far the deepest, bluest ocean water I’d ever seen; an impossible blue the color of those ice packs you put in Styrofoam coolers to keep the beers cold. I thought is was a shame that so many of the folks aboard could not appreciate that wonderful blueness.

            I was lucky. Perhaps it is the Norwegian blood in my veins, a lineage of sturdy Norsemen who’d braved these kinds of waters for centuries, but I never felt sick. My legs often felt a bit elastic, my head sometimes lighter than normal, but I never felt the need to empty my guts into the ocean. That’s more than I can say for about two-thirds of the boat. Even some of the sailors were ill with la marea. 

            I sat down to read on one of the couches in the lounge.  It was a book I’d long looked forward to reading: The World According to Garp, by John Irving.  Two things made me want to read it:  First, it was about a wrestler. I wrestled in high school and believe the experience was transforming. Second, I’d hoped it would be strong inspiration about the thrills of the writing life. It wasn’t, but it was one of the funniest tragedies I’d read in a long time. I’d seen the movie with Robin Williams and hated it, and I hated it even more while reading the book because the whole time I had to endure thinking of Robin Williams as the main character. I hate that about adaptations. I’ll never read another Tom Clancy because Jack Ryan is always going to be Harrison Ford in my head. That’s why you’ve always got to read the book first.

A rather large woman with a well nourished face came to sit next to me, curious about the book, and obviously eager to talk with me in English. I welcomed the company and asked if she’d read the book too, perhaps a Spanish version. She said she hadn’t, and then sat down next to me. This was unfortunate. When her ample buttocks met the couch, there was this sickening crack, like a bone breaking, and the couch collapsed beneath us. She rolled onto the carpet, her legs kicking helplessly in the air like an insect, and let out a throaty wheeze. I stood up quickly to help her, and a couple other guys came to her aid as well.  When she was righted, standing there in front of a gawking crowd, she stood there looking totally humiliated. I felt sorry for her, and wanted to say something consoling like, “Oh that old couch. Salt air’s been eating right through it. I’ve been waited for that to happen for days.” But instead I stood there stupidly and watched her burst into tears and disappear from the lounge. I never saw her again.

            The motion of the sea created some other extremely entertaining scenes. From my vantage point sitting comfortably on another couch, I was an observer to an assortment of skits that might have made a good segment of “America’s Best Home Videos”:  There was the stout, ruddy-faced Rotarian from Santiago - “in the gas station business” he’d told me earlier - who, with four drinks cradled against his chest, was attempting to navigate his way across the floor to make a delivery to his thirsty wife and friends.  The boat rose and heaved and then fell hard, and his course, rather than a straight line between two points, described a perfect parabola which ended with him dumping those four drinks in the lap of a sleeping Rotarian. The victim, who perhaps might have been already dreaming of the cold Antarctic seas, awoke immediately, more than surprised to find himself drenched. And then there was the short, bothered-looking man with the Sony Handicam, diligently recording for posterity the lazy flight of sea birds behind the ship. As he searched his camera bag for a blank tape, another passenger upwind discharged his breakfast into a sudden gust, causing a frothy beige spray to envelop the poor fellow and his camera. Then, there was the coffee table that seemed to move of its own volition as we passed over a particularly violent swell, smashing into a lady’s shins and pinning her helplessly against the wall. Finally, there was the well-dressed man who had already had his share of whiskeys, and who, after losing his balance, groped feverishly for something solid to hold onto, but found only the flabby arms of his friend’s wife whom he pulled on top of himself as the two rolled rather obscenely on the floor in front of a small, but obviously interested crowd. These scenes and others were far more enjoyable than my book, and I found that over the course of two or three hours, I’d only read a chapter or two of Garp.

 

The Bridge

            We were given a set of printed “Rules of Behavior” when we boarded the ship. I read the title, but didn’t get through the rules themselves. I’m not exactly sure what was there, but I think a few of them had something to do with where you could go on the ship.

No matter. I ventured forward to the bridge with an intense curiosity to see how the captain and crew were keeping us on a direct course in the middle of such rough seas. I figured that if I was nabbed, I could play the stupid foreigner. But to my disappointment (as I‘d hoped to be the first one to be so bold), there was already a gaggle of Handicam-equipped passengers on the bridge, standing around and chatting with the half dozen or so crew members who were involved in navigating the ship. I wanted to show off my extensive knowledge of seafaring, and took some time to carefully design and phrase a question, which I directed at an intent-looking young man who was adjusting dials on the radar console. The radar screen was very cool-looking, just like you see in the movies with the big circle and the spinning line that swoops around going beep when it hits something big, like an iceberg.

            “So, how do you steer this thing?” I asked. He looked up at me as if I’d just asked him if he’d made high score, and said nothing. He pointed to a fellow in a navy blue baseball cap who was seated behind a large wooden box with an assortment of knobs, dials and needle displays on top. I stepped over to him, and noticed he had his hands on a tiny wheel that came out of the box about chest high in front of him. The wheel was made of solid brass, had half a dozen brassy protrusions extending from it equally spaced around the circumference, but was no larger than a dinner plate. What a disappointment! A fan of old sea novels like Treasure Island (as well as Gilligan’s Island), I expected the wheel to be one of those massive wooden things, bolted to the deck, and the captain, invariably some wooden-legged Ahab with an eye patch, stood there holding on for dear life as waves crashed over him. Still, there was a rousing motto inscribed on the little wheel: Vencer o Morir, it said. Win or Die.

            The atmosphere on the bridge was reserved and professional, and the crew went about their business without taking much heed of the curious on-lookers. “Heading 137 Southeast,” came the call from the young sailor standing behind me; he stood in front of a menacing-looking M-16 secured to the wall. “Bearing 16 knots.”

            A little while later, a crowd developed around a man who’d entered the bridge a few moments before. He was slender, tan, and movie-star handsome, like Cary Grant, but shorter. He wore a navy blue turtleneck sweater beneath his buttoned up pea coat. You could tell from a mile away that he played an important role on the ship. He seemed aware of this as well.

            “Who is that?” I asked a sailor whose name tag identified him as Second Lieutenant Secas.

            “That’s Captain Medel,” he said with a reverent look in his eye. Captain Medel was telling the group about a prior voyage on these same seas. He spoke quietly, but waved his arms to illustrate. I stood on the fringe of the group, managing to catch bits and pieces of the story:

            “The waves were 15-20 meters high, crashing over the bow, smashing against the windows...ship rolled and pitched, all you could see was sky, then the water coming at you...down at any moment...radioed for assistance, but there were no ships within 90 miles...waves swept away cargo...lost two lifeboats...thirteen people with broken bones...” An interesting story to be sure, but I thought it a bit of a breach of wise captainship, a bit like an airplane pilot telling air disaster stories over the flight intercom. 

            A little later, as I stood in the rear of the bridge scribbling down coordinates, trajectories, and other useless numbers, a squat, intense-looking man approached me and asked quietly if I was a spy. He wore a blue windbreaker and a green baseball cap pulled down low over his eyes. He seemed quite old and very suspicious. The question took me off guard. I wondered if he was joking. I laughed and said, “Excuse me?”

            “You are a spy, an Argentine spy?” A stiff silence hung between us for a moment. I didn’t know what to say. Then a man who’d I’d been speaking to earlier came over, put a hand on the man’s elbow, and said, “Arturo, he’s American. He’s not a spy. Leave him alone.”

            “An American?” Arturo said, his eyes suddenly flashing, expressing a genuine (if somewhat manic) fondness. “Ah, an American. That is good. Good. I thought you were an Argentine spy.”

            “No, I’m not a spy.”

            “Not a spy,” he repeated, nodding. I turned away from himand watched the sea for a while, hoping he’d go away,  and when I turned back, he was gone. 

            “What was that about?” I asked the man who had defended me.

            “Arturo is a little strange,” he said. “Some people are very suspicious, particularly of the Argentines. There are many unsettled differences between us right now, and it makes some people nervous.”

            “What kind of issues?” I asked.

            “Issues over territory. Over who owns what. Like the ice fields.”

            I knew what he was talking about. In Santiago, there’d been numerous stories about the dispute which was said to be the last remaining unresolved territorial issue between the two countries. The southern ice field runs down the center of the Andes far south in Patagonia. A 1991 treaty signed by the then-Chilean President Patricio Aylwin and former Argentine President Carlos Menem, divided the field into two roughly equal portions but nationalism and political interests had stalled ratification of the accord in both countries. There were obviously many lingering suspicions between the two countries.[4]

            I went back to the rear deck and stood for a while watching the wind rip across the surface of the sea, lifting great scallops of water into the air, which would then explode in sprays of white. The petrels were really digging the cold, fast winds, and their numbers had increased. I wondered if they’d been there all night. Why were they following us? Were they watching, laughing their asses off at the grown men and women who stumbled around like drunkards? It sure seemed like it; I swear some of the birds were smiling.

            Inside the lounge there were even fewer people than before. The stalwarts who were there, however, seemed to enjoy the rough seas. The boat would rise and fall, and list to one side or the other, and each time, as stomachs leapt - mine included - a great hoot would go up from the people in the room: “Woop!” they’d declare, as if we were enjoying some amusement park ride. “Woop! Woop!”

            Down in my cabin, all three roommates were lying in their beds affected with la marea.  José Domingo turned over languidly when I came in, and I asked him if he was going to be OK. He groaned. Jorge snored loudly. I went back upstairs. 

            The sea had calmed considerably when evening came, and people came crawling out of their cabins to hit the bar. I found the Americans sitting together drinking whisky and Don bought me a round. They were discussing their weight.

            “I used to be 200,” Don said, patting his belly. “I went through a whole series of personal trainers until I found the right one. Ray,” he said, as if we all knew who Ray was. “Yup, Ray did what all the others couldn’t. He brought me right back down to my ideal weight, 175 pounds.” Don took a sip of whisky. “Yup, Ray did me right.” The others nodded in approval as if Ray were standing right there working his lats.

“I lost 14 pounds on the cabbage soup diet,” said Jane.

“The what?” Stan asked.

“The cabbage soup diet. It’s becoming famous. You get to eat nothing but a soup made of cabbage, onions, peppers, tomatoes and celery, every day for a week.”

“Didn’t you get hungry?” asked Barb.

“It wasn’t too bad. You’d be surprised how quickly you can get used to it.”

“Cabbage gives me gas,” announced Don.

“I doubt if you’re getting all the nutrients you need on a diet like that,” said Stan, who was, after all, a doctor. “Most of the weight you lost is probably water loss, not actual fat tissue.”

“Oh,” said Jane, perhaps finally understanding now why her ass was still huge.

This was more or less as interesting as things got, which explains why I started drinking heavily. I ended up buying the next round, and then everyone else had to buy a round, and before I knew it I’d downed six whiskies and was quite drunk.

The next few hours passed in a blur. I started to feel ill from all the alcohol that saturated my sytem, and decided to go down to pass out. I entered the cabin, where a faint light from the midnight sky shone through the porthole and cast a soft plum glow on the planes and edges of the room. I took off my clothes, got into bed, and just as I was about to close my eyes, I looked across at the other bunk and realized with a sudden dread that something was wrong. The guy sleeping across from me didn’t look familiar. It wasn’t Jose Domingo, but some guy with a huge bald head and one of those great bushy gray Monopoly Man mustaches. Thank God he was bald because if it weren’t for the light on his head, I wouldn’t have realized I’d slinked into the wrong cabin.  Clad once again in tighty-whiteys, I gathered my clothes in my arms and scurried down the hallway to the right cabin, hoping no one would see me, half-naked and stealing through the pink, creamy light of the passageway[5].

 

Antarctica: The Arrival

            Around ten-thirty the next day, a wave of excitement rippled through the ship. Long on the horizon, an iceberg was spotted, the first real sign that we were nearing Antarctica. We’d sailed far enough south into the latitudinal zone known as the Antarctic Convergence, and when the announcement went out about the iceberg, Handicams were broken out like rifles during an invasion. As we approached and passed the iceberg on the starboard side, it seemed everyone on board was standing at the rail watching and filming the floating chunk of ice.

            The iceberg - the first sea-borne berg I’d ever seen - was monstrous, about the size of two city blocks. It had a flat mesa top and sheer sides that caught the sunlight and blazed a dazzling white, like a floating shopping mall. I wondered how long ago it had broken off and where it would go? How long would it ride the swift, cold currents of the Passage until melting away?

            The wind was terrifically cold, and bit my nostrils and froze the tears that welled up in my eyes. Over the next few hours, we passed more icebergs, some of them traveling in flotillas like an armada of alien ships, all of them of the same flat shape. I learned that there is a reason for this. As opposed to Arctic icebergs, which usually have pointy tops sticking out from the sea, Antarctic icebergs are tabular, or table-like, because they calve off the tabular ice shelves. As a result, they look more like buildings.  They can be huge, too. Far larger than the ones we saw.  In fact, in 1965, an iceberg broke free of the continent and floated 120 miles off shore of Scott Island. It was roughly the size of Connecticut[6].

            I snapped a couple of pictures, while those around me did the same or shot with their Handicams. I watched one would-be Jacques Cousteau stand on the upper deck and do a full 360 degree pan of the sea and the ship, resolutely holding his Handicam against his eye and turning around in excruciatingly tiny steps. It took him about five minutes to do the full circle, about 60 percent of it just flat blue sea, 10 percent iceberg, and 40 percent a close up of the side of the ship. Ugh, I shuddered at the thought of having to watch that video.

            We spotted the islands in the early afternoon, a long, flat expanse of snowy white punctuated by tall rock towers jutting into the sky. The wind blew from the direction of the islands, bearing the smell of earth and ice. The islands were smothered with glaciers like thick dollops of ice cream or frosting that met the sea as towering white cliffs over 100 feet high. 

            I made for the bridge, which was now crowded with curious passengers (obviously the rumor had spread that the rule against civilians on the bridge was laxly enforced). The area around the map table was particularly crowded, and I had to squeeze my way between two plump ladies to get to the map so I could tell what the names of the islands were. The smaller island on the right was Nelson Island, and the one to the left was King George Island, which was to be our first destination.

            As I watched the island approach on our port side, Stan suddenly appeared next to me in a bright red Patagonia jacket, just a shade redder than his face, which beamed like a newly shined apple. “Isn’t this great!” he said giddily. There was another man sitting confidently in the captain’s chair, a large man with intense blue eyes, a navy blue sweater, and four stripes on his shoulders. He was peering out the window through a pair of big binoculars. I remembered that Captain Medel had only worn three stripes, so I wondered who this man was who seemed to outrank him.

            “Excuse me, Lieutenant,” I said to Second Lieutenant Secas, “Where is the Captain?”

            “Right there,” he said.

            “But that’s not the man who was here yesterday.”

            “No, that was Captain Medel. That man there is Captain Roman.”

            “There are two captains on the ship?”

            “Yes, but not really. Captain Roman is the Commanding Officer, but Captain Medel is the official captain of the vessel for this voyage.”

            “So Captain Roman outranks Captain Medel?”

            “Yes, but he’s not in charge of the ship.” Second Lieutenant Secas’ explanation didn’t make a lot of sense to me, so I decided to ask Captain Roman myself. He gave me the same confusing answer. My impulse was to ask who, if the need should arrive, would have to go down with the ship, but I kept the question to myself.

            Captain Roman turned out to be an easy-going, affable man. He spoke perfect English and reminded me of somebody’s uncle. Whose uncle? I have no idea, but he was decidedly “uncle-like”. We talked briefly about the life of a Chilean navy man, which he said was full of adventure. He was proud of the Chilean navy, which was said to be the finest in Latin America. I believed him. Captain Roman told me he’d been in the service for 36 years, and that his father had served in Japan during the Second World War.

            “He fought with the Americans,” he told me. “He is very proud of that.”

             We came upon a narrow strait between the two islands, and I noticed numerous small black animals darting through the water. They swam just below the surface and then broke through, squirting through the air like pinched watermelon seeds, before splashing down. I thought maybe they were some kind of fish, but on closer inspection could see that they were penguins. How totally cool! I had no idea penguins could swim so fast.

            Soon, we entered the strait, swung around King George Island and steamed north into calm, glassy Maxwell Bay on the back side. The surface of the water glimmered gold and silver, like a billion coins. The bright sun suggested warmth, but a severe chill had settled over the cramped harbor. The small thermometer that hung on the window of the bridge read six degrees below zero centigrade.

Sailors in heavy navy parkas and gloves swarmed like ants over the bow of the ship, preparing to drop anchor. We hummed to a stop about a mile off shore. There was already a ship moored nearby, a rusted cargo vessel flying what appeared to be a flag of the Russian Confederation. The boat appeared hardly sea-worthy. It had long streaks of rust running down the side, and a number of holes in the side. On closer inspection, however, these turned out to be portholes. 

One of the crew on board the Aquiles yanked a metal arm attached to the anchor assembly. The anchor fell with a hard splash, and the spool holding the chain unwound with a furious racket. We were more than a mile from shore and an announcement went out over the intercom that for those interested in visiting the island this evening, life boats would be departing in the next half hour. I hurried back to my room to get some things.

            As luck would have it, when I returned there was already a long line of people waiting on the deck near the lifeboats to go ashore. I stood behind a frail-looking old man and his wife, wondering to myself how safe it was for them to be standing around in such cold temperatures. Six or so sailors were busy lowering the lifeboats into the water while another two were fiddling with the ropes that controlled the narrow staircase we were supposed to descend. Watching the scene, I became a bit unsure of the whole enterprise. There seemed to be a lot of question-asking going on, and the whole affair reeked of inexperience. I don’t wish to criticize the Chilean Navy, but when the ladder twisted and its ropes tangled, and when top half of the life boat splashed into the water ahead of the bottom half, and then swung against the ship with a loud thud, I wondered how much training the boys had had to date on this equipment. Many of the crew looked to be in their late teens. There was something altogether nerve-jangling about placing my life in the hands of Menudo.

            The passengers in the front of the line began the slow and treacherous descent to the bobbing lifeboats while a sailor stood at the top of the ladder and checked off names. Good thinking. They wanted to be sure they left no one on shore. But the process was excruciatingly slow and it was so damn cold standing there that I had the urge to call it off altogether and rush back to the bar. Furthermore, many of the eager travelers were old, and watching them hobble and wheeze down the ladder was almost more than I could bear. It took one lady a full ten minutes to get down the staircase; she took a step, and then brought her other foot down to the same rung. Then she’d huff and puff a few times before going again. I had to balance my sincere concern for the health of these old folks with a mad desire to scream, “Hurry up you old dame! It’s freezing up here!” 

It was freezing down in the boat, too, and it took them over half an hour to get their shit together and get the boat moving towards shore. I was shivering so badly that it felt as if I was losing complete control of my muscles. I sat down on the hard bench of the lifeboat and tried to keep warm by knocking my knees together.  I berated myself for bringing such a thin pair of gloves, and hoped to God that it wouldn’t get much colder. My fingers were already numb and the water in my eyes felt like it was going to freeze my lids shut at any moment. I couldn’t believe how cheerful some of the folks were, particularly some of the elderly, and I felt ashamed because all I wanted was to find someone to bitch at.

Our boat moved away from the ship and headed towards shore. As we passed alongside the Russian vessel, it dawned on me that something was missing. A vital piece of equipment on any boat, let alone one skimming through frozen seas.

            “Excuse me, sir?” I said to the sailor who stood in the bow. He was flapping his arms in a gesture that I couldn’t tell was an effort to keep warm or some Chilean navigational technique. “Aren’t we supposed to be wearing life jackets?” He looked down at me as if I were something that just fell out of someone’s nose. My lips were frozen, and I wasn’t sure if the Spanish came out correctly.

            “Que?” he said.

            “I said, aren’t there supposed to be life jackets? For passengers?” He shrugged and I searched my memory to be sure that I had used the right words: chaleco salvavidas. Another sailor nearby scoffed, “Why do you need a life jacket? If you fall in this water, you only have about twenty-five seconds to live. We’d never get to you in time.” I saw a faint smile cross his lips as he exchanged glances with his buddy sitting across from him. Bastards, I thought.

            We made it ashore in about 40 minutes. I was miserable. Futilely, I hoped there would be a Starbucks somewhere nearby. And maybe a hot tub. We landed on the pebbled beach, and the sailors aboard leapt out and tried to haul the boats further up the beach, but they were very heavy wooden things, and the sailors barely managed to budge them. A troop of Chinstrap Penguins eyed us with curious interest from just a few yards away as we lumbered out of the boats.

             It was a very odd sensation to have my feet on solid ground again. I could still sense the movement of the ship in my legs, which translated into a kind of rubbery feeling that left me slightly off balance. Even though I felt like I’d entered the first stages of hypothermia, it dawned on me that I now stood upon a new continent. More than that, I stood upon Antarctica, a place that I’d only dreamed of, a place I never imagined I’d ever visit. Despite feeling colder than I’d ever been, I took survey of my surroundings and was filled with a strange kind of elation. It was an odd feeling, immediately accompanied by an odd thought:  It occurred to me then that standing on Antarctica must be a lot like standing on the moon. It takes tremendous time and energy to get there, a vast amount of planning and resources, but once you finally make it, you look around and wonder, “Now what the hell am I supposed to do?”

            To my left, a rocky cliff jutted out into the water, effectively cutting off the beach in that direction. To the right, the beach stretched off in the distance, and I could see the pale lights of another settlement about a mile away. There was no plant life and very little color to the surroundings save for a magnificent sky that held a few violet wisps of cloud.

An officer called for our attention. He announced that we were not to stray from the base. Doing so could be very dangerous, he said, and the Chilean government could not be held responsible for what accidents might occur outside of Chilean territory. It was 8:30 p.m. Boats would begin taking passengers back at 10:00. The last boat would be at 11:00. Be sure you don’t miss it, he said gravely.

            My discomfort with the temperature was largely a problem of my own making. I simply had not come prepared. The gloves I wore were not warm enough for Antarctica and the jacket I had on, packed for its lightness, was keeping out only some of the wind. In reality, though, it wasn’t that cold. In the winter, Antarctica can reach 100 degrees below zero. Right now it was probably ten below, at most. The sun was shining; nevertheless, I had to get indoors quickly.

The light in Antarctica is magical light. Surreal light. Part of the reason is that the air is so cold it has a higher density and therefore more easily refracts the light. This means that everything is cast in an illusory glow you don’t see other places.

            Since it was relatively late, there wasn’t much happening around the base. A number of families lived on the base, but they were likely holed up inside their homes enjoying dinner or doing whatever it is one does to pass the time in a place like this. Other than a gang of bored-looking penguins, of whom I tired quickly (and they of me), there wasn’t much to see. There were about a dozen buildings on the base, flat uninspiring structures that reminded me of a suburban prefab office complex. There was also an assemblage of storage sheds painted a hideous day-glow orange that didn’t jive at all with the environment, but were painted that way so they’d be easy to find in a storm. All the facilities except for the chapel were closed, which was a disappointment in a way because I thought it would be really cool to send a letter home from the post office.

            I decided to check out the chapel. It was up a steep gravely slope that stretched away from the shore. On the way, I passed some of the folks who worked on the base coming back from worship. I said hello, but they hardly acknowledged me. Not really much to be cheery about in a place like this, I figured. Perhaps assignment to the Antarctic base was Chilean the equivalent of being sent to the gulag.

            The chapel was an elegant wooden structure about the size of a typical family room. There were only about eight pews, and a splayed Christ up front. It was simple, but solemn, the way a church should be, I thought. Not over done in gilded frippery and ornamentation like so many churches I’d seen in Latin America and Europe. The best part about it was that it was warm, so I hung out and watched a few of the devout come and go, praying, I imagined, to be delivered away from this place.

 

            Antarctica is a God’s gift to superlative-lovers. In addition to being the highest (in terms of average elevation), the coldest, the windiest, and the driest continent, Antarctica is also the most remote. The continent, formed millions of years ago as part of the great continental landmass called Gondwanaland, surely the coolest name ever given to a chunk of earth. Judging from the maps drawn by speculating geologists, Gondwanaland was like a great continental orgy, the coming together of Australia, India, South America, Africa, and Antarctica, into a magnificent land blob some 650 million years ago.

Since I was a kid I’ve thought that the whole tectonic shift thing is extremely neat; but it also seemed far-fetched. How could all of these land masses possibly be floating around on top of a sea of molten rock, crashing into one another, making mountain ranges and digging deep trenches? It is such a bizarre concept. But there is, in fact, paleontological evidence in Antarctica that supports this theory. Antarctica was long thought to be a migratory path for marsupials moving between the southern continents in early Cenozoic time. Then in 1982, documentation for the theory was discovered when the first mammal remains, a marsupial fossil, were found on Seymour Island in the Weddell Sea. The animal could not possibly have migrated that far south, and it certainly wouldn’t have survived the coldness of the Antarctic continent. The theory of plate migration and continental movement had been tossed around for years before, and accepted as religion by some scientists, but it was this discovery that that helped convince those geologists and paleontologists who remained doubtful of the theory’s validity[7]. 

Probably the most significant document to decide the future of Antarctica was signed in 1957-58, the International Geophysical Year, or IGY (which, I might add, was also the title of a Donald Fagan song). Twelve of the world’s nations declared interest in the region, the US being the primary architect of the effort, and together they ensured the future protection of the continent by laying the groundwork for the drafting of the Antarctic Treaty. The treaty, by setting of this entire continent from development and military conquest, remains one of the world’s great documents of international cooperation.

On the boat, I’d found a glossy pamphlet published by the Chilean Air Force that described the operations on the base. It turned out there was actually a full blown settlement on the island called Villa de las Estrellas - “the first and only Chilean settlement on the Antarctic continent”. The settlement included a hospital, school, post office, chapel, bank and general store. An airstrip was located just outside the boundaries, where occasionally C-130s and Twin Otters belonging to the Chilean Air Force brought supplies and equipment.

The human part of the settlement consisted of 14 families of the Chilean Air Force, many of whom resided there permanently.  Word had it that to strengthen Chile’s claim to the area, a number of pregnant women had even been flown down here to give birth to native Antarcticans. I could hardly imagine what it would be like to grow up in a place like this: the vast unending blare of white, the interminably dark winter days. The boredom.

 

The residential structures snuggled next to a tall outcropping of rock whose sheer, black cliffs loomed over the harbor like something out of an Alistair MacLean novel.

           

After all my extremities had thawed, I set out to explore the base further. I considered climbing the hill to the south which led to the top of the cliffs over-looking the harbor. I thought there might be a nice view of the harbor from the top. The sky was of the most remarkable color I’d ever seen, and the Aquiles lay bobbing in the distance like a toy boat. I saw a narrow trail snaking up the side of the mountain, but just before I set out to climb it, I changed my mind. The thought of venturing off the base suddenly appealed to me. Why not go to the Russian base, I thought. What was the worst that could happen? I checked to see if anyone was watching, and seeing no one, I tromped off the gravel path and into the snow in the direction where I thought I might find Bellingshausen, the Russian base.

 

Bellingshausen

            I walked for about 15 minutes with the sun riding fairly high in the sky, and finally came to a bridge arching over a deep running stream crusted along the edges with ice. I crossed it. The bridge must have been the boundary to the Russian base because on the other side, there was a cluster of old buildings with the flag of the Russian Federation flapping restlessly in the wind. The buildings were old and falling apart, more like huts, all of them made of prefab corrugated sheet metal bleeding long streaks of rust. There were a few vehicles around including a huge tank-like beast. The place was in far worse shape than the Chilean base, and except for the flag and a few lights burning, it had the look of abandonment. 

            I walked towards the largest of the structures, where the windowpanes glowed from inside, and then the door flew open. A very large man stepped outside. A shock of fear went through me. He was about six foot four, with the broad, rounded shoulders of a linebacker, a full grizzled beard, and a tall, balding head. He bore a strong resemblance to Solchenytzn, but looked strong enough to rip my limbs off. He approached wearing a faded, tattered sweater with a patch over the right breast. I stood quietly as he approached and tried to come up with a good excuse for being there. 

            “Hi,” I said cheerfully.  He blinked slowly, and his big hairy face remained a frozen, expressionless mask. I looked at his hands. He had huge hands, the size of Frisbees, the fingers as big around as Cuban cigars. He obviously didn’t speak English. “Soy Americano,” I said, wondering if he spoke Spanish. An uncomfortable silence hung in the cold air. I moved a lump of ice around with my toe.

            “American?” he said finally, with a tone that wasn’t quite friendly, but not exactly angry either.

            “Yes. That’s right. American.” He nodded, pausing for a moment. He stared at me for about ten seconds, sizing me up, perhaps deciding how he was pummel me. ‘Do I stomp him like aluminum can into snow? Or maybe break his arms and feed him to the sea elephants?’ Finally, he took a deep breath and pointed to the building behind him.

            “You want see Russian store?”

            I laughed out loud. Here I am, trespassing on Russian territory and rather than shoot me, they try to sell me something. It seemed an apt commentary on the post-Cold War world.

            We marched across the frozen ground to another one of the low, dilapidated buildings and went inside. We entered a kind of foyer, bathed in soft light and paneled with blond wood. It was warm inside. There were a series of bookshelves with scattered cheap-looking Russian artifacts sitting on them labeled with small note cards with prices hand-printed on them. The prices were in dollars. “You look. If like, buy,” he said.  Most of the stuff was old communist paraphernalia: canceled Soviet stamps, gold-plated  Soviet medals with Lenin’s face on them, and small, colorless banners. I’d seen the tin medals before on a trip I’d taken to the Eastern block just after the Wall came down, when there had been a kind of free-for-all yard sale of “Soviet” junk which was being sold as collectors items to Western tourists. I picked up one of the medallions thinking it would make a nice souvenir, and he watched me closely with his arms folded across his chest. When I noticed the hefty price tag, however, I quickly put it down out of fear he’d try to physically coerce me to buy it.

            I knew that just out of courtesy I’d have to buy something.  I was am ambassador of goodwill after all. So I selected an attractive envelope decorated with Cyrillic letters and an embossed penguin that had stamps from the Russian Federation stuck in the corner. I paid him two bucks for it and then asked him his name.

            “I am Igor,” he said, pointing at himself with one of his huge bratwurst fingers. Then he pointed at the envelope, “Thees ees my expedition.”

            “Your expedition?”

            “I lead expedition. Number forty-one.” A radio crackled in the adjacent room, broadcasting something in Russian, and I heard another voice say something in return.

            “Is that what it says? The forty-first expedition?”

            “Yes, ah, forty-first. I am team leader.” Another man dressed in a short-sleeved shirt poked his head into the room, smiled at me and said something to Igor in Russian. Igor replied and then the man ducked back inside. In the closed confines of the small room, I suddenly caught a whiff of rancid body odor. It came from Igor’s direction. We chatted for a few more minutes in this very basic English, and every time he lifted his elbows a little and let them fall, the smell got stronger. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice, but my watery eyes must have given away the fact that I was asphyxiating.

            “How do you fly to here?” he asked.

            “I took a boat,” I said, pointing in the direction of the harbor.

            “Mm, days ago, big storm. Big sea,” he said, moving his arms to suggest something stormy. I winced, feeling as if I would soon faint, but made it seem like I was responding to his comment.

            “Where are you from?”

            Siberia,” he said proudly, and then he smiled for the first time, revealing a mouth full of horribly kept teeth, like shards of broken dishware. “Very cold. Like here.” He moved his arms again, and I was hit again by a wave of foul air. I tried to breathe through my mouth, but as anyone knows who has ever shared a bathroom with someone who follows a poor dietary regimen and is relieving themselves (i.e. one of my old college roommates), this is quite ineffective. I had to get out.

            “Igor, may I see more of the base?”

            “Yes, of course. Follow.” He led me out of the building back into the cold where I took a deep draw of wonderfully fresh air. Igor pointed to the large building I’d seen earlier. “Go there,” he said.

            I went, and Igor disappeared back into the smaller shack. As I made my way across the ice, someone came out of the large building, a thin man in a white turtleneck sweater. There was something about his bearing that made me think he might run the place. His arms swung loosely at his sides, and there was the hint of a smile on his lips.

            “Hello,” I said, hoping to sound friendly. “I’m American.”

            “Yes,” he held out his hand. “I’m Anatoli. Welcome to Bellingshausen. Please, come inside.” I followed him into the building. “You have met Igor?”

            “Yes, just now,” I said, pleased that he spoke decent English. “He said I might be able to see some of the base.”

            “Yes, of course. We do not get many visitors here.”

            He led me inside the building, which was far larger than the other. It was dark inside the first room, and I noticed that the wall was lined with huge boxy machines with lots of buttons and knobs and tiny, colorful lights blinking. It was like a scene from a 1960’s sci-fi movie. He noticed my curiosity. “Old equipment. Very old.”

            “Does it still work?”

            “Yes, it is all we have. You may know that the Russian Federation does not have as much...resources, as we used to. Here in Antarctica, we are not currently a priority.” He said this with a hint of bitterness as he led me down a narrow hallway, at the end of which I saw a small dining area with a round wooden table and chairs. There were other rooms and offices, but all of them were empty or closed. I walked right behind Anatoli, and noticed how perfectly straight he carried himself, like a soldier. The tight turtleneck and his wide shoulders tapering down to his narrow waist added to this effect.

            “What do you do here?” I asked as he led me into a spacious office, impeccably neat and tastefully decorated with posters (among them a few of tropical scenes).

            “Mostly this is a research station. We have expeditions that are involved in the study of the atmosphere. This particular expedition, which Igor is leading, is studying changes in the ozone. Here, take a seat.”

            We sat down on a pair of comfortable chairs that Anatoli pulled away from the wall. His desk sat in the corner, meticulously neat, but without a computer. A glass enclosed bookcase rested against the wall, lined with memorabilia from previous expeditions, as well as a few shot glasses and bottles of vodka. I imagined that living in such an hospitable place as this, vodka becomes something of a necessity. In the strong white light of the office, I got a better look at him, and realized he was fairly young, in his mid-40’s. He had intelligent eyes the icy bluish color of a glacier. His thin, graying brown hair was swept back from a large round forehead, and his features, particularly his cleft chin, were strong and masculine. He looked like a mixture of Sting and Kirk Douglas.

            There was a map of the island on the wall, and I noticed on it that there were quite a few other bases located on the island. China, Korea, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Poland, Uruguay, all had bases on King George. I asked if there was much interaction between the bases.

            “Yes, quite a lot. We do a few projects with the Chinese, for example. And our relations are good with the Americans. Not much with the Chileans however. They don’t get along too well with others on the island.”

            “Why is that”

            “Well...” Before he could finish the sentence, a blond woman came in bearing a tray of coffee and small porcelain cups. She sat down and introduced herself as Sofia, and then pulled up a chair close to Anatoli. She was German, a 24-year old ornithologist six weeks into a three month scholarship studying bird life.  She was a large woman, with a round, white face, like a plate. She wasn’t ugly, but hardly attractive. She was cheery, almost giddy, and walked around the building casually in a loose T-shirt, white pants and tennis shoes; an odd ensemble, I thought, for Antarctica. I learned that she was the only woman currently on the base along with 17 other Russian scientists. All male. It was obvious right away that Anatoli was protective of her. I asked her what it was like to be stuck on an icy rock so far from home with 17 men.

            “It’s wonderful,” she said brightly. “Every day, you get all sorts of presents and lots of attention. All your needs are well taken care of.” Anatoli smiled devilishly at this, rocking slowly in his chair with his hands clasped over one knee.

            I asked Anatoli how long he had been in Antarctica.

            “Seven years.”

            “Seven years! You’re kidding? Without going home?”

            “No. I have gone home a few times, back to St. Petersburg, but I figure why stay there when I can live in a place like this?”

            “Don’t you get bored?”

            “Not at all. There is much work to do.”

            “But the isolation must be horrible.”

            “No. That is one of the things I most enjoy about it here. I don’t like to be around a lot of people. That’s why I took this position and left St. Petersburg.”

            “Do you have family?”

            “Yes, I have a son,” he said, and his face saddened a bit, the wrinkles around his eyes bunching up into little deltas, “but he is part of the new Russia. He is in St. Petersburg studying economics, and all he wants to do is make money. Like most young people his age.”

            “Has he ever come here to visit you?”

            “No. I asked him to last year, but he said he didn’t want to come.” Now, Anatoli’s face betrayed intense emotion, Sophie saw it too, and I thought it better to change the subject.

            “What do you do for entertainment?”

            “I read a lot.” There was an awkward silence, a lingering discomfort, as I wondered if I’d blundered onto a tender topic. I tried a different tact, hoping to move onto something he could be passionate about without such a strong personal flavor. “Anatoli, you said that there were problems with Chile. What type of problems?”

            This seemed to work. Anatoli’s face brightened and he went on to describe how the Chileans had built Villa de las Estrellas as a means of solidifying their claim to the Chileno Antarctico. Now, with a few vodkas in his belly, and perhaps because he felt he could trust me a little more, he was being a little less diplomatic. The reservation in his voice disappeared:

            “Mostly problems over who controls what. They are very militaristic. More than the rest. More even than the Chinese, who are quite good scientists. The Chileans are not interested in science. I think that they are like the Germans before the Second World War. Luckily, they are not organized like the Germans.” This last comment got him a harsh, but playful slap on the arm from Sofia.

            My head felt deliciously light from the vodka, and I had been so enjoying the conversation with Anatoli and Sofia that I’d forgotten to look at my watch. I checked and saw that it was 11:00. The last lifeboat to the Aquiles was supposed to be leaving at that moment.  In a panicked rush, I stood up and begged their forgiveness that I had to leave. Sofia smiled and shook my hand and went back to her studies, and Anatoli graciously offered to give me a ride back to the Chilean base. He put on a heavy coat, and soon we were rumbling over the ice and tundra in a dark red Soviet car with a faded yellow CCCP stenciled on the side.

We splashed through the river, and rode bumpily along the thin gravel beach. There were dozens of people standing out in the cold, which meant I’d not missed the last boat, but I was puzzled to see no boats in the water. I got out and thanked Anatoli for everything. He nodded and drove away.

 

Some Kind of Cold

            I soon discovered why I had seen no boats in the water. The sailors who’d taken us ashore had forgotten a significant certainty of seamanship: tides go out. The boats were sunk in the sand and proved to be far too heavy to move off the beach. We spent another hour standing in the freezing air watching the sailors try to move them. Finally, we gave up and the sailors called for the Zodiacs, which were apparently stored somewhere on the Aquiles and had to be inflated and motored to the island. Thanks to the Stoli and the two hours spent in the coziness of Anatoli’s office, I was not nearly as cold as before, but I was worried about some of the other passengers, many of whom seemed to be suffering miserably. The Zodiac ferried passengers half a dozen at a time back to the Aquiles as we, mostly the younger males (and by younger I mean those of us under 60), waited for our turn. In order to help make sure that everyone got back on board, I waited until the last boat. By that time, however, I thought I was going to die of hypothermia. I did jumping jacks and ran in place, but nothing much seemed to help. A frail old man sat on the rocks next to me, steadfastly refusing to go until others did. He was worse off than me. He was hunched over, hugging his knees and shivering violently. He kept making strange huffing sounds that made me wonder if he was having a heart attack.

            It was 2:15 in the morning. I turned to look at the base. Its saffron lights glowed in an ethereal haze. The sky had faded into a purply twilight, and on the horizon ahead of us, black clouds amassed for a stormy assault that would fall upon us the next day. The ladder up the side of the ship had become dangerously slippery, and it twisted so that when I climbed up it, my feet lost their purchase half a dozen times, and I held on to the hand rails believing that I would fall into the freezing ocean at any moment.  When I got on deck, I made immediately for the bar. Most everyone else was already there.

 

            Back on the boat, I played my guitar alone in the camarote for a while, and then tried to piece together exactly who owns what in Antarctica. I came to the conclusion that the word “ownership” doesn’t really seem to apply. This is an odd concept in this day and age, when everything seems to be owned by someone. The Teritorio Chileno Antarctico encompasses one and a quarter million square kilometers, about double the land mass of Chile itself. But parts of the same territory are also claimed by Argentina , Norway, and Great Britain[8].  The bright side, is that starting with the landmark International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58, all claimants have promised to use the continent “for peaceful purposes only”[9], and this includes an environmental protocol that forbids mineral activities (that is, mining) until 2048.

            The aggressiveness of the Chilean effort to establish a presence on Antarctica made sense when I discovered that the ground rules for Antarctic territorial claims were largely based on the 1924 words of US Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, who said:

            “It is the opinion of this Department that the discovery of lands unknown to civilization, even when coupled with a formal taking of possession, does not support a valid claim of sovereignty, unless the discovery is followed by an actual settlement of the discovered country.[10]

            So the Chileans seem to have taken this advice to heart and gone for broke to make stand their claims. Good for them I say. They were given this anorexic string bean of land to live on while Brazil bulges up north like an obese old aunt with a gland problem, and Argentina is blessed with some of the most fertile soil on the globe. Nothing wrong, I say, with making a claim to a massive chunk of ice that no one else really wanted.

 

Heading Back

            In the morning I’d heard a rumor that three people had been injured climbing the ship’s ladder, and a few others had shown the first signs of hypothermia. I couldn’t find anyone to confirm this, but no one denied it either. I think most people were just happy to have the experience behind them. Many were probably wondering why they’d decided to make the trip at all.

            The storm hit sometime around ten that same morning, with winds howling and reaching speeds of 80 miles per hour. There had been plans to go ashore again, but due to the storm, they were canceled, which meant people spent most of the day on board, drinking heavily and socializing on the closed deck. The bar was crowded by 11 am, alive with gruff, straight-talking businessmen like a scene in some floating frontier town saloon.

I ran into a young Brazilian named Carlos, a handsome young fellow who seemed well educated and extremely articulate who warmly treated me as if I were a guest in his country even though I hadn’t yet told him I was going there. Once I mentioned that my itinerary would include a long meander up the coast of Brazil, a stop in a number of her largest cities and then a long cruise up the Amazon River, I couldn’t keep track of all the suggestions that came my way. Carlos even told me the one word that, like a code, would unlock his country’s deepest secrets, would certainly satisfy my every want; a word that sounded powerful, pounding drum-like, and even months later now so nicely sums up what the country is about that I write it here as if it were a sacred mantra, so heavy with holy substance upon the lips that I almost feel the need to protect younger readers from its potency:

“Bunda!”

            “Excuse me?” I said.

            “Bunda! It is the most meaningful word in Portuguese.”

            “Bunda,” I said, as if holding for the first time a new brand of candy bar in my hand, as if I were asking the word itself a question.

            “BUNDA!” Carlos boomed a smile so broad across his face that I thought the top of his head might topple off behind him.

            “What does it mean?” I asked, and felt like a sinner.

            “It means the backside of a woman.”

Carlos drew curves in the air with his hands suggesting robust womanhood and once again thundered: “BUNDA!”

It was a good word, though I was not sure how or when I would use it. I had to admit, though that it had a warmth and energy to it that I knew would help carry me through, would help keep my sights focussed through the next cold, faraway days.

 

            I spent most of the afternoon writing in my journal and letters to home as we lay anchored off shore.  The winds blew in such fierce gales that the windows rattled on the upper deck. Once, I stepped outside wearing just jeans, boots, a T-shirt and my REI shell, and the glacial gusts hit me like blows. I ducked back inside. We pulled up anchor sometime in the late afternoon and headed for Base Arturo Prat on Greenwich Island, which lay about thirty miles north of King George Island, where we were to pick up supplies to take back to Punta Arenas.

            We dropped anchor in Yankee Harbor, and when the call went out to go to shore, less than half the number of people lined up to make the trip as the night before. The trip took about half an hour. We rode in a Zodiac; the cocky sailors who told me I didn’t need a life jacket the day before were humbled by their embarrassing escapade with the lifeboats. The Zodiacs were faster than the lifeboats, but they were far more frightening and irritating because they took on more water and caused the sea to sometimes leap up and smack me in the face with the coldest water I’d every known.

The base consisted of a series of flat orange buildings that squatted on the tundra not far from the water. A Chilean flag snapped in the wind atop a high pole. We were greeted inside with a pot of fresh coffee. The folks inside the base were extremely friendly, and eager to spend time talking with us. Captain Roman was there, and I asked him what there was to see on the island.

“Not much,” he replied.

I asked one of the men what in the world they did for entertainment here. 

            “We have movies to watch. Sometimes we watch them many times, which is good because it helps me with my English.”

            “Really? Which movies?”

            “American action films. Steven Seagall is the best. I like the explosions. Roberto knows all the lines,” he said, pointing to a guy who stood among another group of visitors. I wondered how many words were to be found in a Steven Seagall film, and what words were they?

            I pounded three cups of weak coffee, ducked into the men’s room, and then went out to explore the island. The weather had improved significantly while I’d been talking inside the station so that I could see for a mile or so in each direction. I’d planned on setting out across the ice plain to the south of the station, but the Captain had warned me that the weather changed very quickly here, so straying too far from the base wasn’t a good idea. Sound advice, which this time I decided to follow.

Outside was all ice, rock and sea. The ground was carpeted in a pillowy red lichen that made an odd sighing noise under my feet. To the immediate north, a small shrine was perched on the top of a hill. The island was very narrow here, just a quarter a mile across, and I walked to the other side in a few minutes, and found a gravel beach where a small squad of penguins stood idly around. Scattered around on the beach were whole loads of penguin corpses, the little rib cages bleached white by the sun and cold. I could tell they were penguin bodies because their small velvety flippers had been left intact, even though the bones had been picked clean. I learned later that the Skuas, fierce predators and the only animal other than man to regularly travel as far south as the pole, attack and eat penguins, which kind of irked the conservationist in me. The poor little bastards. As if it wasn’t cold and shitty enough, they’ve got to worry about getting devoured by other birds. 

           

Land Ho

            We stayed through the next day, and then set sail the following evening for Port Williams, a small Chilean settlement on the Isla Navarino at the tip of the continent. Once we were out of the calm seclusion of the bay, the seas rolled and heaved, and the ship once again became The Great Floating Vomitorium. Passengers disappeared into their cabins, and the bar remained a key refuge for the sea-weary.      

            At around seven in the morning a voice crackled over the loud speaker announcing the approach of Cape Horn. The cape, named by the Dutch for the city of Hoorn rather than because it resembles a horn (which was always my impression), stood out beneath the bright sky like a continent all to itself.

            I grabbed my camera and hurried up on deck where the Handicam brigade was already assembled and dedicated to the documentation of each moment. One man was talking to his camera as he panned across the horizon, “This is Cape Horn, we are now passing Cape Horn. It is beautiful here. Cape Horn. It is windy and cold. Look over there. It must be very cold.”

            We rounded the Cape and sailed between a series of dark, uninhabited islands and into the Beagle Channel. After a short time, we came upon Puerto Williams, lying peacefully beneath the sun. Just across the channel to the immediate north was the Isla Grande, the largest of the cluster of islands known as Tierra del Fuego. The ship made a slow turn into the harbor and moored at the pier. We’d stay for the night, which left the entire day to explore the island.

            The structures nearest the port belonged to the Chilean military, as the port functions mainly as a naval installation, and were mostly one-story homes and offices of sheet metal, painted yellow with blue roofs. The town was half-encircled by a series of hills, mostly densely forested, but many of them were shaved and gashed from clear-cutting. Far behind the town, between the forested cleavage of two green hills, stood the serrated spires of the Dientes de Navarino, Navarino’s Teeth, which reminded me of Wyoming’s Grand Tetons.

            The center of town consisted of a small square of about a dozen buildings that included a small pub, a post office, a telephone office, a bakery, and two poorly-stocked variety stores selling candy, small toys, and faded postcards. I stopped inside the pub for a sandwich, sitting down alone at a table among a group of somber, beer drinking men watching a soccer game on the television. I asked one of the men at a nearby table when the telephone office was supposed to open.  He shrugged. “Maybe five,” he said, swigging his beer. “Maybe later.” That was over an hour’s wait, so instead I decided to set out and reconnoiter the island.

            I headed east on a narrow dirt road with no destination in mind. I passed alongside a channel where a young couple paddled canoes silently through the water. I climbed a grassy hill over-looking the port from afar, and pressed on until I was outside the town and there was nothing around but trees and fields of grass and mirror-surfaced ponds. I moved off the road and walked along a path through the forest, passed a narrow inlet and a lake where a stand of dead trees looked like a party of dancing skeletons, and where hundreds of birds were feeding on tiny crustaceans in the muck.

            After I’d been walking for about two hours, I came upon a long white building streaked with rust. From quarter of a mile away, I could smell dead fish, and by the time I got close, my eyes were watering. Still, I decided it was interesting and incongruous enough that I thought I’d check it out. I heard the sound of machinery on the other side of the door. I knocked, and when no one answered, I went in. Inside, dozens of women dressed in soiled white smocks stood at long metal tables, cracking open sea urchin shells and spooning the gooey orange meat into small plastic bait boxes. Each lady wore a pair of rubber gloves and had a pile of empty shells next to her that stood about half her height. The boxes were placed into milk crates, which were stacked six high near a loading dock at the entrance where I stood. Given the number of crates and my estimate that each held a few score boxes of urchin meat, I realized that there must have been thousands of them. What agonizing labor, I thought.

I was approached not soon after by a burly, toasted-skinned man who wore a clean smock, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The boss. He asked me what I wanted, and, struggling to come up with a sensible answer, I explained that I was just hanging out. This was obviously a foreign concept. His eyes did this weird little dance over me that suggested he thought I might be insane.

“You must go,” he said finally.

Many of the ladies looked up at me and I took note of their faces. They were tired faces, sad, overworked, eyes drowned in red fatigue. I heard the administrator’s angry voice order them to continue working as I stepped outside.

            I walked for another half hour, passing a few lonely shacks where laundry hug on the line and fluttered in the breeze. I passed a man chopping wood outside his house, and asked if I could take a picture. He happily posed for me, sitting on his chopping block and giving me the thumbs up sign. When I figured I’d walked far enough, I turned around, and headed back, and when a truck passed, I stuck out my thumb, just for the hell of it, and the man driving stopped for me and told me to get in. It happened that he was returning to the port, so instead of walking all the way back, I hitched a ride with him. We chatted briefly about life on the island, which he said was very “tranquilo” but “feliz”, and then he dropped me off just outside of the town center.

            That night, as I went for a quick walk into town to get a beer from the small store, I passed along to the end of the pier and came upon a pair of old men standing naked in the late light. They had just gone skinny dipping in the near frozen water. One of the men had his back to me and picked up a towel as I walked by and placed it around his waist. The other, far less modest, faced me and placed his hands on his hips as I walked by. I tried to avert my eyes, but it was too late. His pubic hair was gray and wispy, like smoke, and his penis, whitened and runted to a useless cob by the cold, seemed to grimace at me like a very miniature version of the old man to whom it belonged. I cringed and walked on. 

            We set sail for Punta Arenas first thing that next morning, slipping quietly through the calm gray waters of the Beagle Channel.  We were greeted at each bend and crook in the channel by magnificent blue glaciers caught in their frozen tumble into the sea. There were so many of them, oozing down the rocky face to softly kiss the water, moving a few feet every day.

I stood at the rail of the Aquiles, riding a moment of pure, intense joy. This was it, man. This was really it. I felt freer at that moment than I had ever felt in my life. There was no “to do” list to write, no morning meetings to attend. I had nothing to do but ponder the wonderful open expanse of my future where nothing was defined and everything seemed possible. There was nothing special to cause this sensation; nothing but a wide open trip up the South American continent. That was certainly enough. I was now so far away from the world of office cubicles that it ceased to exist in my mind. It is not often that as a traveler I have felt this exhilarated. It was a wonderful feeling, like a rush of the finest drug. I was pumped up, doped, spaced out, turned on. And the cool thing was: I still had so far to go.

 

Punta Arenas

            Punta Arenas calls itself the city at the end of the world, although the Argentine town of Ushuaia, which is further south, actually deserves the honor. This part of the world, known as the Magellenes, like so many cold, faraway places, is bent and hardened by the elements, and all of nature’s character is etches on the faces and in the personalities of the people who live here.

The Chilean writer Francisco Coloane, who was born on the island of Chiloe in the south of Chile, and spent much of his life in the Magellenes, said of the place, “The sheer difficulty of living here brings people together, creates a human solidarity and sense of honor that people from the rest of Chile don’t always share.[11] 

            The city has ridden an economic roller coaster over the last 200 years. During the Industrial Revolution, Punta Arenas was one of the busiest ports in the world, a major traffic hub created by the boom in sea trade between the European and North American continents. It was a bustling place where ocean-weary sailors would disembark to find fresh food, booze and easy women. Today, near the port, along the Calle Roca and part of the Costanera, the streets are still lined with seedy cafes, bars, and flop houses.

            The construction of the Panama Canal ended all that. The canal cut by almost 8,000 miles the distance required to take goods from New York to San Francisco, and Punta Arenas economy fell into a nose dive[12]. Almost overnight the great coaling stations deserted, the wharves emptied, businesses folded, people left in droves for the North or to go back to Europe. The city returned to its status as a cold and lonely outpost at the tip of the continent. In 1914, the Evangelists lighthouse, gatekeeper of the Strait, logged just five ships for the entire year, in 1920, eight, in 1925 four, and in 1930, just two[13].

            However, one industry saw growth. In 1877, an English trader, lured by the vastness of the Patagonian steppe, bought a flock of sheep to the area from the Falkland Islands, and let them roam the flat and arid grasslands, where they champed to their hearts’ delight. Sheep were tranported to Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego, and took immediately to the cool Fuegian climate. It didn’t take long before a flood of European immigrants, mostly English, Scottish, Kiwis, and Aussies, came to settle and make a living in the harsh, but lucrative climate. They called themselves Magellanicos, and they became landowners and administrators of the great ranches, called Estancias, while an ample supply of workers, called peons, came from the Chilean Island of Chiloé and the small, dusty towns of Argentine Patagonia.

            The Estancias spread northward, far beyond the mountains, sweeping across the grazing lands of the guanacos and the old hunting grounds of the indigenous occupants, a people known as the Onas. By 1893, sheep herding and wool became big business, and the Sociedad Exploradora de Tierra del Fuego was formed, creating the largest sheep farming organization in the world. The Sociedad had its own freezing works and leased over three and a half million acres of land, where million of tons of meat and wool were exported every year, most of which left the port of Punta Arenas.

            The most recent economic boost has come from tourism. The city is a few hours’ drive from Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, IMHO one of the most incredible national parks in the world[14]. Outfitters are everywhere, and many people have turned their homes into rentable rooms called hospedajes. But this, too, could be fleeting. The rumor is that an airport is being considered near Puerto Natales, which is closer to the glaciers and Torres del Paine further north, and which would obviate the need to land in Punta Arenas to access these places.

After a quick walking tour from the port to the center of town, I spent the morning in a small, spartan cafe where stern-faced businessmen drank thick coffee, gnawed on breakfast rolls, and slumped in concentration over their newspapers. I’d bought a copy of El Mercurio, Chile’s national paper, and took some time to ingest a dose of the world’s ills while I considered my next move. I was also reading Herman Melvile’s Moby Dick, which I’d not read since I as 17. I was intensely drawn to the story, finding it far better this time around. Many books I’ve read over the last few years have been like that, now that read them by choice. It’s funny how that has worked. Reading has become something almost religious to me. It is probably my favorite thing to do in the entire world. I’ve only felt this way about reading for the last 10 years or so, and it was something I had to discover on my own, through my own exploration. There was no one in my school that turned me on to reading. I wish I’d had a mentor like that; someone who took the time to personally take me through the wilderness of knowledge, to point out the things that were most important and why. School was a chore where I grew up, something you had to do and get over with. College was a means to prepare you for work, getting a job, making money; it wasn’t an end in itself. You weren’t learning for fun. It was only when I started reading for myself that I realized how much else lay out there in the world, how important were imagination and knowledge and understanding things. This realization came late to me. I was a late bloomer. It was reading that opened up the world to me as I made my way through college, that made me realize how important are the “unquantifiables” in life, the things you can’t place a price on, the things that satisfy the soul.

Reading a good book is itself an event, and the place where you read it can lend a powerful impact to the ideas an images that leap off a page. That’s what was happening now; a powerful confluence of forces that came together both internally and externally and created a wonderful feeling, a rush of excitement and contentment. I glanced from Melvile’s pages through the smoky panes of the cafe in Punta Arenas, and I realize how completely satisfied I was at that moment. That there was no other place I wanted to be. That I was experiencing pure contentment being in a foreign country reading a great book.

 

            I found a small and comfortable residencia up on the hillside with a view of the city and the port below. The place was run by a 35 year-old Chilean named Manuel who had quit his job and was taking advantage of the tourism boom by renting extra rooms to foreigners, mostly young backpackers like myself.

            When I entered, Manuel’s seven-year old son, David, was glued to the TV set, and hardly acknowledged that I was there. He was engaged in a bloody hand-to-hand battle with a hideously masked female named Hydra who had six arms and could do impressive back-flips. Manuel looked at his son and then at me and said proudly, “Mortal Combat. He is very good at it.”

            Manuel went into the kitchen to make coffee, and David turned to ask if I wanted to play. Sure, why not? I stored my bags away in my room, and sat in one of the uncomfortable metal chairs near the TV, and we played ten rounds of Mortal Combat. I have to say that I’d never before played the game, but still managed to route the little lad 8-2, and would certainly have continued the merciless drubbing if suddenly the child had not grown frustrated and turned off the game machine.

            I left Manuel’s place after the coffee to explore the town further. In the Plaza de Armas, or central plaza, there was a statue of Ferdinand Magellan, a scabbard strapped to his side, as he gazes out imperially over the green straits. A movie theater nearby was showing El Profesor Chiflado, The Nutty Professor, with Eddie Murphy, and right next door was an arcade brimming with token-laden children.

            In the early evening I was back at Manuel’s house. Manuel was chatting with a pair of Spaniards who’d just arrived. He had the gift of gab. If I got him talking about something, he’d go on forever. I asked him how many visitors he had in an average week, and listened for the next hour as he described each one of them: their names, country of origin, and one or two memorable traits about each person. I learned that Marcus the German was clean and very quiet, but didn’t like video games; Tasha the Israeli was very pretty, but argued incessantly over the price of the room and food; and Kenneth, the American, had demanded to have a pair of keys to the house, but then left without giving them back. I wondered what special detail he would remember of me. Perhaps that I’d whupped his son at Mortal Combat.

            The next day, I decided my first sightseeing goal would be the cemetery out on Calle Bulnes. My guidebook described it as “one of the best cemeteries in Chile”, although I was unclear exactly what that meant. The nicest graves? The prettiest view? The best dead people? And whose job was it, exactly, to review cemeteries?

            It was a beautiful day, crisp and sunny. I went down to the center of town for a coffee and inhaled the salt-sweet breath of the sea. Suddenly the whole town seemed a much brighter place.

            Along Avenida Bulnes, I ran into a trio of raggedy tourists making their way to the Plaza from the outskirts of town. They were filthy and unkempt with tattered clothing that made them look like homeless. Their unwashed hair was tangled and matted into an oily mass that they hoped resembled dreadlocks, but seemed to me more like something that just washed up on the beach. Yet, one wore a pair of expensive Nikes and each carried a nearly new state-of-the-art backpack that must have set them back a few hundred dollars each. I heard them speaking as they approached and was embarrassed to hear American English.

“Hey, dude,” one of them said. “You American?”

“Yes.”

“Dude, where can we catch a boat to Antarctica? Any ideas?”

“None.”

“Where you coming from?” another one asked.

Antarctica.”

“No shit? And how’d you get there?”

“Just kidding,” I said, having second thoughts. “I came from the north.”

“Really?” said the third, suspiciously. “Or do you just not want to tell us?”

“No, I’m serious. I just came down from Torres del Paine. You should definitely go there if you get the chance. Good luck.”

“Yeah, whatever. You too, dude.”

I kept on, and reached the cemetery in another ten minutes. I was thinking about these guys the whole time. I felt bad, in a way. After all, I’d snubbed my own countrymen. But it disturbed me that anyone would travel to another country looking like that. I knew the type: just out of college, seeing the world for the first time, eager to let loose, to be the opposite of what daddy and mommy want you to be. There was a rebel spirit about them that I had to respect, but I couldn’t shake a feeling of disgust, which hung with me like a pungent aftertaste, for this type of behavior. It seemed stupid and feeble to let make yourself so unpresentable so that other countries frown upon Americans when they go abroad, frown on them more than they already do.

Why am I so down on my countrymen? This thought occurred to me as I walked along and realized more and more how twisted was my thinking about my country. One minute I was lambasting America for churning out a horrid stream of low-brow cultural slop, the next minute I was defending it as if there were no other place on earth a sensible person would ever imagine wanting to live. I didn’t know how to deal with this strange schizophrenia. I guess that part of the reason is that although I know in my heart that the system is right, that capitalism and government by a broad consensus rather than a military junta is right, I have a hard time with the fact that American culture, which is so lowest common denominator, so marketed, could some day wipe out all that is unique about other places in the world. That in the future, we’ll all consume the same crap, and you’ll never be able to go anywhere where things are different. That in any city in the world there will be a Banana Republic and a Starbucks and the newest film out of Hollywood, and there will be no need to ravel any more. That scares the crap out of me.

 

            The cemetery was enclosed by a high, white wall and inside was row after row of the most magnificent graves I’d ever seen. Many didn’t look like graves at all; they were like homes or monuments, ornate and exquisitely carved marble structures with windows and fountains and marble plumes. The names on the engraved markers and plaques read like an immigration roster: Juan Debravnic and Family, Ruth Elsa Hitpass, the Mladivic-Vrandicic Family, Vitor Aquila, the Ivelic-Ursic Family, Wilhelm Herrnsman. Placed inside the glass windows were heirlooms and pieces of jewelry, old black and white photographs of large, proud-looking families and portraits of the deceased at a young age, young-men with sharp European traits, eyes flashing, handsome and ready to take on the world. Some of the sites had fresh flowers piled in front. I spent an hour just meandering up and down the long rows, and then headed back into town.

            Back at the house, Manuel had a couple of friends over from Rio Gallegos. The man was a hunchback dwarf, whose butt rode all the way up the middle of his back. He had a thick, black mustache and spoke in a rapid-fire accent that I found almost indecipherable. He was traveling with a lumpy, grumpy woman about a foot and a half taller than he was. Her hair was dyed dark brown with about an inch of gray showing at the roots. She had a long nose that bent so far over her upper lip I thought it might easily touch her chin. Her stockings sagged around her ankles like a snake shedding its skin. She looked like a witch. Manuel introduced me when I entered:

            “This is the Yanqui who is so good at Mortal Combat.”

            “You have upset little David,” the witch said.

            “Hmm, Yanqui,” sneered the hunchback, eyeing me like he thought I might taste good after being boiled in his wife’s cauldron. You speak very good Spanish for a Yanqui.” I wish I could say the same for you, I almost replied.

            “Thank you. It’s enough to get by.”

            “No, really. Yanquis usually don’t speak any language other than English. Not like the Europeans. I once met a Danish man who spoke eight languages.”

            “Really? Which ones?”

            “Let’s see, French, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, English, German and Spanish. Yes, I think those are the ones. Was that eight?”

            “Seven. But three of the ones you mentioned are very similar. All Scandinavian. Maybe they shouldn’t be counted as three separate languages.”

            “No?”

            “I don’t know. Maybe you’re giving him too much credit.”

            “Well, he spoke many languages,” he said curtly. “And Norteamericanos don’t.” His tone of voice was beginning to annoy me. Always implicit in this kind of argument is the idea that Americans are uncultured boobs who are out to dominate a world they don’t understand. I could sense something to that effect coming. If he’d been nice about it, I would have agreed, but he was being snotty about it, so I thought I’d antagonize him a little.

            “The good thing is,” I said. “We really don’t need  to speak other languages. In a few years, everyone will be speaking English, and knowing other languages will be kind of a novelty.” He pursed his lips a few times and then moved the palms of his hands around in little circles on the table top. Then he said, “I wouldn’t be sure of that,” left the room. I regretted being a jerk later that night, and made up my mind to apologize to the man if I saw him again.

 

On the Road through Patagonia

            There was no opportunity to apologize. The next morning I boarded a bus and headed North via Highway 3 to Rio Gallegos, the capital of the Santa Cruz region.

            The scenery outside the town was how I remembered seeing it from the sky the week before. The landscape was wind-swept and dry, with long ravines scarring the countryside, and a ragged blanket of coarse grasses and scrub running up the hillsides. What few trees existed, grew bent and twisted, forced into bizarre contortions by the wind. The winds are known locally as the williwaws, and were rumored to be extremely nasty. They gust from nowhere and smack you so hard and so unexpectedly that they can knock you over, Ka-boom!, like a Mike Tyson punch. A local joke has it that sheep here are born with claws to grip the ground so that the wind won’t carry them away.

            I’d chosen to travel up the coast instead of along the Andes because I’d heard that Calafate and Esquel, both Argentine sites in the Andes are said to be extremely beautiful, but expensive and teeming with tourists. The lower East coast of Argentina was said to be mind-numbingly boring, and endless expanse of nothingness. But this aroused my curiosity. The prospect of all that wide open space had a strange appeal. Here’s what Darwin wrote about them:    

            “In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless.  They can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants.  Why, then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory? The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown: they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time.  If, as the ancients supposed, the flat earth was surrounded by an impassable breadth of water, or by deserts heated to an intolerable excess, who would not look at these last boundaries to man's knowledge with deep but ill-defined sensations?[15]

 

            I’d like to say that the scenery overwhelmed me, and that I was mesmerized by “the free scope given to the imagination”, but my sensations were, I think, not quite so ill-defined. But perhaps that was because I was aboard a large bus, along a well-trodden road, with a group of loud Argentine tourists on their way back to Buenos Aires. There was a young guy in his early twenties sitting in the next row with dyed white hair and a tattoo that seemed to crawl over his shoulder. A television monitor was bolted to the roof directly in my field of vision, and with the sound cranked up to the highest volume, I was forced to watch Speed starring Keanu Reeves.

            This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the scenery. For the most part, the plains along Highway 3 were as bereft of life as Darwin says, but occasionally the monotony was broken by rich green pasture, erupting suddenly along a river bank and twisting off to the horizon. Or by a herd of sheep, sullenly chewing grass and looking like puffs of gray smoke in the distance.

            It took about five hours to reach Rio Gallegos, a dusty town of weary-looking cowpokes, where in 1905 Butch and Sundance staged a bank robbery. The town maintained that old western feel, as if a bank robbery was just the kind of thing you felt like doing. It was also the port from which a great deal of the wool exports were sent to England in the early part of the century.

Supposedly, you can get great deals on sheepskins in Rio Gallegos, a fact that suggested this was probably the origin of many, if not most, of the steering wheel covers sold along the U.S.-Mexico border.

            I considered staying in Rio Gallegos for the night, and resting up for a day, but something told me to keep going, to press on for a while longer. It was a good feeling, a sensation of exquisite freedom, of knowing that I could go anywhere I wanted, all I had to do was buy a ticket or stick out my thumb along the road. I decided to let fate decide, and when we pulled into the bus station, and I saw there was a bus leaving in a few hours for a place called Piedras Buenas I figured that was enough of a sign. I kept going.

            The area around Rio Gallegos is mostly part of a series of vast estancias owned by old English and Welsh families. In 1934, there were 93 of them, ranging from 2,000 to 20,000 hectares in size. Today, the number has decreased as bankruptcies and a trend towards consolidation have changed the character of the traditional estancia. As we motored along, there was one thing that nagging me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something, given what I’d read about this place, that wasn’t quite right. Then it dawned on me: where are all the sheep? After hours of driving through this part of the country that was famous for wool production, I’d seen very few actual sheep. I mean, 75 years ago, there were some 80 million of them here and in other parts of the country. As you went from place to place, you would’ve had trouble not accidentally blundering into one (and I’m sure some of the lonelier gauchos may have done so purposefully). So where were all the damn sheep? This was what was going through my mind as we continued up Highway 3 in Patagonia. 

            I’d brought along far too many books. But where was I going to find books in English along this desperate road? My foresight to this effect led me to stock up on books as if I were trying to start my own library after the nuclear holocaust. I had 23 volumes in my pack, which took up more room than the clothing I’d brought. In fact, the preparedness issues I’d had in Antarctica were almost entirely to blame on my fear that I’d be stuck somewhere in the middle of the pampas with nothing to read. So my last week in Chile, I spent a few hours scouring the local English-language bookstore for all sorts of books. I had fiction and non-fiction, travel books and books about war. The idea was that I’d read a book and then either dump it or encounter a traveler and who wanted to trade. With luck, by the time I reached Central America, I’d have a much lighter pack. That was the plan, anyway. 

 

            The bus to Piedras Buenas featured another American film, some Van Damme film whose name I didn’t write down. This time, however, the sound was kept so low I couldn’t hear the dialogue. This was fine with me, although with the monitor right in front of me again, my eyes were constantly drawn to the screen, and even without sound, I quickly determined the plot. Brainless action movies, I realized then, are the perfect American export to non-English-speaking countries. Brainless action films have minimal subtitles and easily cross cultural and linguistic barriers: everyone understands the bad guy getting blown away. Explosions and gunshots are the new Esperanto reaching widely across cultural and linguistic divides. And isn’t that a fucking shame.

            I managed about half an hour into the film to draw my eyes away and read. I was still laboring through Moby Dick, which I continued to find excellent reading, but demanded a lot of concentration. A man a few rows behind me saw that I was no longer watching the film, and approached to ask if I might switch seats with his son. Before I could say yes, however, the man next to me jumped out of his seat and gave it to the youngster, who plopped down beside me with a toothy grin.

            The kid was wearing army fatigue pants and a Wile E. Coyote T-shirt and a pair of fresh new Reeboks. He had a chubby, bovine face and little brown eyes partially eclipsed by the fat in his cheeks.

“I want to see the movie,” he said.

            “You like Van Damme?” I asked. He nodded enthusiastically as if I’d just offered him cookies. His eyes remained fixed to the screen.

            “This is my favorite,” he said, his voice high and squeaky.

            “Where are you from?”

            Rio Gallegos.”

            “Where are you going?”

            “Piedras Buenas.”

            “Really? Me too. Why are you going?”

            “My uncle.”

            “Your uncle lives in Piedras Buenas?”

            “Not in Piedras Buenas, near there. On his estancia.”

            “And you’re going to stay with him there?”

            “Yes, we’re going to visit him now for an asado.” He spoke to me out of sheer politeness. Van Damme had just orchestrated a perfect flying kick, knocking a dark, Arab-looking guy off of a motorcycle, and the boy’s eyes followed the action closely.

            “What does your uncle do?”

            “He raises sheep.”

            “Is it a big estancia?”

            “No, not a really big one, not like some of them.”

            “What does your father do?”

            “He’s a teacher.”

            “What’s your name?”

            “Leonardo.”

            “How old are you Leonardo?”

            “Thirteen.”

            I left Leonardo alone as Van Damme film drew to its fiery climax. I gazed out the window and scribbled some notes about the passing countryside:

            “Lots of nothing. Mirror lake with pink flamingos. More nothing. Few lazy hills. Estancia, white, square building. Long fence. More nothing. Stomach is bothering me a bit. Took off shoes. Feet smell kind of raw...”

           

            Piedras Buenas was even slower than Rio Gallegos, if such a thing was possible. When I got off at the bus station I wondered why I had chosen it, and remembered that it had merely been the next available destination out of Rio Gallegos. Besides, the name was nice: Good Stones. Leonardo and his father had gotten off a little earlier, just outside the town, where his uncle was waiting for him.

            The bus station was a simple, dumpy-looking building along the main street in town (there were only three streets). A dusty haze hung over the town, and the setting sun turned the sky the color of rust. I left the station lugging my book-filled pack and guitar, and must have looked silly.

            I entered the only hotel I could find, and found a man inside sitting in a big cushioned chair watching TV. The chair was so large, and the man so small, that it seemed as if the chair had eaten the old man and was now slowly digesting him. He was a little old guy, shriveled and almost greenish, like Yoda.

            The old man grunted at me when I came in. I thought maybe he was a guest, and that perhaps the concierge would be along soon to fetch my bags. I stood around acting like everything was cool, and finally, when no one showed up I said to the guy in Spanish, “Excuse me, do you know if there’s anyone here?”

            “Of course there’s someone here. What do you think you’re looking at?”

            “You work here?”

            “What are you, an idiot? Of course I work here.”

            “Well, you didn’t...”

            “What do you want me to get up for? What do you want?” He said this like an accusation.

            “I was hoping you might have a room.”

            “Yes, I have a room,” he said, wiggling up out of the chair. He took few steps down a nearby hallway.  I watched him, wondering if I should just turn around and leave. “Come on, let’s go.”

            So this was Argentine hospitality, I thought. There was no one else staying there, but he gave me the room at the very end of the hallway. It was about as spacious as a U-Haul trailer, with hardly enough room for a bed. I was too tired to complain, so I just said the hell with it and put my bags down.

            “I’ll take it,” I said.

            “Take it or don’t, it’s all the same to me,” he grumbled. ‘There’s another hotel in town. Go there if you want.”

            “I said I’ll take it.”

            “Suit yourself,” and he walked off back to the TV.      I didn’t sleep well because all night long the wind blew and the branches of a rose bush scraped against the window. It was an awful high-pitched scrape, like fingernails on glass, which is exactly what I ended up dreaming about. I dreamt that there were these hideous, disfigured beings outside the window, clawing at the glass trying to get in. Like a Stephen King novel. When I woke up, I was not just frightened, but for the first time on the trip, I was lonely. What was I doing? Why didn’t I just go home? I had so far to go and I was just getting started. It all seemed so awfully far away. My home, my parents and friends. Could I make it? I felt sick to my stomach, filled with fear that I was doing something awful, useless, that the sensible thing to do to go home and get a job. I tried to put the loneliness out of my mind, to concentrate on what lay ahead.

            In the morning, as I sat in bed staring at a large fly on the ceiling, I heard the old man shuffle down the hallway and stop right outside the door. I waited for a knock, but none came. Then he shuffled away and I heard the sound of his footsteps fading away. Weird. I found him a little while later in the kitchen. He was bent over a black wood-burning stove making coffee.

            “Can I have some coffee?” I asked hesitantly.

            “Of course, what do you think this is?” I suddenly realized that this little guy was actually funny. That maybe this whole grouch thing was just an act of some kind. I reached down and petted his dog, who’d been sitting under the table.

            “What’s the dog’s name,” I asked. The old man mumbled something. “I’m sorry?”

            “Caesar,” he (the old man) barked.

            “That’s a nice name.”

            “No it isn’t. It’s a lousy name. My son gave it that name.”

            “You have a son?” I asked.

            “Yes, he is at his uncle’s house.”

            “Is your wife there, too?” I asked.

            “No, she died five years ago,” he said softly. Gone was the hostility in his voice, and I was amazed how the introduction of just a small personal theme changed the mood.

            “Do you live here alone?”

            “No, the dogs live here too.” He’d poured himself a cup of coffee and was now sitting facing me at the table. For the first time I saw his face up close. It was an interesting face, weather-beaten and harsh, with deep lines etched into the forehead and around the mouth. His eyes were set deep into his face, as if they’d been pushed in with thumbs. He didn’t look Spanish or Italian. I asked him where his family came from and with a few words seemed to open him up.

            Scotland. My father’s family came from Scotland, and worked here in the wool industry. We owned estancias throughout Patagonia, three of them, but they were sold. Many people who had estancias here have had to sell them.”

            I explained the nature of my trip, and told him I’d been living in Chile for the last year.

            “It’s a tragedy,” he said.

            “What’s a tragedy?” I asked, wondering if he meant my experience in Chile.

            “The Chileans used to be like your blacks to us. They did all the manual labor. They worked for us. But they were smart and we were lazy. Now they think they are better than us. Now they want to take from us. They are expansionists,” he said. Expansionistas. “They used to be a very small country when the Spanish ruled. But then the Spanish left and the Chileans took land in the north, and then in the south. Even now they are trying to take our land from us. And they will probably succeed because they are economically very strong. We are weak. It is our government. They can do nothing right.”

            I downed the last bit of coffee and thanked him. As I got up to retrieve my bags and leave I asked him his name.

“Charley Wilson,” he said.

            “Thanks again Charley.”

            “Good-bye,” he said.

            Something about Charley put me in a decent mood. I found the main road out of Piedras Buenas, and stuck out my thumb. There was a discarded tractor tire in the dirt on the side of the road, and I sat down on it while I waited for cars to arrive. There weren’t very many cars on Highway 3 going North. Quite a few seemed to pass going South, but only once every five minutes or so did anyone pass going the other direction. I sat down on the soft bitumen, and took out my guitar. It was very hot to the touch, so much so that plucking the strings at first caused minor pain. I sang an old cowboy song called Red River Valley:

from this valley they say you are going

we will miss your bright eyes sweet smile

for they say you are taking the sunshine

that brightens our day for awhile

 

            And then I waited. And waited.

 

            Hitch-hiking is a lot like looking for a job. It requires dogged persistence, it is never a sure thing, and you have to deal with a lot of rejection. The hitch-hiker stands on the roadside, his thumb out, a supplication. He is usually slightly nervous, especially if he is new to the game, and a bit ashamed that he has no wheels of his own. The supplication is beautiful in its simplicity: the thumb points skyward like a miniature steeple, the stance is always a bit non-chalant, never too diffident or aggressive, the eyes and facial expression are reserved, never pleading, never desperate. Hitch-hiking is something of an art. Some people have a talent for it, others don’t. I don’t.

            The air was very still, hardly a breeze at all. The sky was serene and unclouded, but the scorching sun blasted me like a furnace. Almost two hours passed and no one so much as slowed down for me. I was covered with dust, sweat and grime. I started to pass the time kicking rocks across the road, trying to get them to land on the white line on the far shoulder. I picked up stones and tried to break a bottle about twenty feet away. It took me almost an hour. I was going crazy.

            Finally, a white Peugeot rattled up the road and stopped in front of me. The driver had a narrow forehead, accented by a thick Frieda mono-brow, and the feeble beginnings of a beard. His name was Mario. He was a truck driver for an estancia near Córdoba, transporting sheep all over the country. He called himself a peón. For the last week, he told me, he’d been visiting his family in the south and was now headed to San Julian to visit some friends before heading back to Córdoba. We drove along and talked mostly about Argentina and life on the estancia. He spoke about the long days, the heat, no women. He said that truck driving was a difficult and often lonely job.

“But at least I have a job,” he said. “For that I am thankful. Many of my friends do not have jobs. They hardly make enough money to support their families.”

“How much do you make?”

            “About $300 a month, to support my wife and two kids.” They lived with his parents in a small town near Córdoba. The owner of the estancia where he worked, an Englishman, was extremely rich, he said, had wonderful cars and an apartment in Buenos Aires, but little was passed on to the peons. He blamed the country. “The whole government is corrupt. They do nothing for the poor. All is done for the rich. Many people do not have jobs, and those that do cannot afford decent lives because everything is so expensive.”

            Mario asked me if I wanted to listen to music, and then put on a new tape he’d bought. Tango by Julio Iglesias. The music was lovely, but through his lousy car speakers sounded like Julio was singing from the bottom of the toilet. Mario sang along with the words:

 

            Al dejarte pampa mía

            ojos y alma se me lennan

            con el verde de tus pastos

            y el temblor de las estrellas

            Con el canto de tus vientos

            y el sollozar de vihuelas

            que me alegraron veces

            y otras me hicieron llorar...

 

            Speaking with Mario was refreshing, particularly after dealing with the kid on the bus. He knew of almost nothing American. He’d never heard of Seattle or San Francisco, and looked at me with a dull stare when I asked him if he’d ever listened to Pearl Jam or Nirvana. I asked if he was interested to hear a Nirvana song. He said yes, and so I fished a tape out of my bag and snapped it into his player. We listened to Pennyroyal Tea, and after the song was finished he politely thanked me, removed the tape and put Julio back in.

            “I prefer tango,” he said.

            After a little while, we reached San Julian, his destination, and he asked me if I planned to stay or keep going.

            “Keep going,” I said.

            Loaded down with pack and guitar, I walked along the road for a few miles. There was a truck stop on the left-hand side, and I stopped across from it believing this a good strategy to catch trucks heading North. There was another hitch-hiker waiting there, a young Argentine guy sitting in the dust, leaning against his pack. He also had a guitar. He looked at me and said nothing.

            “Hola,” I said. He nodded.

            “Been waiting here long?”

            “Almost three hours.”

            “What’s the problem?”

            “The problem is no one is stopping.”

            A tanker rolled by, and the guy stuck out his thumb without getting up. Maybe that’s why he hadn’t gotten a ride. He wasn’t trying.

            He’d come from Calafate, he said, in the lake region near Lake Argentino. A few friends he’d been with had already driven back to Buenos Aires. He figured he’d be able to hitch and make the trip back in a day or two, but had already been on the road for 36 hours. He looked beat. His eyes were red and had bags under them, he had a few days old stubble, and his jeans and shirt were filthy. His name was Javier, and he was a music student at the university in Buenos Aires, studying the classical guitar.

            An hour passed, and then another, and we got no ride. Javier hadn’t said much, but neither had I. A VW van passed with a large family inside; all the faces, like tan ovals, gawked at us as we stood alongside the road. The sun beat down on us, on my guitar case, and inside I heard the raw twang of a string breaking. Finally, Javier spoke the first words in over an hour, “I’m going into town,” he declared. “Come along if you like.” I went.

            The salty breeze that wafted in from the sea was as welcome as a dip in a refreshing swimming pool. We went to the bus terminal, and discovered the next bus north wouldn’t leave until two in the morning.

            “I guess we wait,” I said.

Near the station there was a small park. No grass, just a dirt lot where a W.W.II Argentine fighter plane had been converted into a jungle gym. A child sat in the cockpit, and another walked along the wing about ten feet off the hard ground. You wouldn’t see that in the states, I thought. It had “lawsuit” was written all over it. There was a thin strip of dirt along the waterfront which was supposed to pass as a beach, and while Javier made a phone call, I took a walk. A lizard skulked beneath a rock, and a father and son fished along the shore. A low wall was painted with the words: Cavallo = Ladrone. Ernesto Cavallo was Argentina’s former economics minister, a Harvard-trained economist who was the brains behind the recent economic plan that, according to some, was failing.

            I returned to the station and found Javier sitting outside beneath a concrete overhang playing the guitar. He played a tango, softly and beautifully, his fingers moving over the strings and frets of his guitar with enviable skill. I was impressed and intensely jealous. I asked him to teach me to play something. I re-strung my guitar and he showed me how to play the beginning section to La Cumparcita. I found it difficult. I fumbled across the fretboard as if I’d picked up the instrument for the first time. I showed him how to play Hotel California, and before long he played it better than I. Then I showed him the chords to American Pie, and we sang the song with the glum weariness we felt. Two girls, ticket-sellers from inside the station, came out and stood in the shade and listened to us. They clapped and smiled when we were through, but when we tried to talk to them, they coyly explained they had to return to work.

            Javier and I had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Two jaded waitresses stood at a bar, one with a baby in her arms. They both watched Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg on a television. I tried to engage Javier in conversation, but he answered almost all my question in monosyllables, and kept his eyes focused on the TV. We went back to the station, and Javier said he was going back to the highway. I didn’t feel like getting back on the road. I told him I was going to wait for the bus.

“Ok,” was all he said. We shook hands and I watched him leave with his pack and guitar.

            I caught the 2 am bus, and as we rumbled along highway 3 into a blank no-man’s land, I stared out the window into the dry, inky calmness of the night, where the moon’s milky light spread over the sky and land, making the two indistinguishable. Then the road meandered east and then back towards the coast, and took us through a series of quiet coastal towns; places like Fitz Roy, named for the captain of the Beagle, the boat Darwin rode on; Caleta Olivia, whose defining characteristic was a 20 foot-high white marble statue of a man turning a large spigot wheel, symbolic of opening the flood gates to progress (or something like that). And then Comodoro Rivadavia, Patagonia’s largest city, and a center of Patagonian oil-production. By early morning, when the sun brought back definition to the world, we approached the outskirts of Trelew, near the Chubut River.

            My impressions of that city were not at first very favorable. The outer environs erupted like a sore on the already dull landscape, a vast canker of crumbling cinder block houses and sickening clots of garbage. The spaces in front of people’s homes were choked with discarded plywood, plastic waste and shards of corrugated sheet metal. Children crouched over and played in shit-brown puddles of filth, and dark, beaten men drinking beer crouched around a fire burning on the raw ground. A pall of thick black smoke rose from the fire, the kind of acrid, poisonous smoke that comes from burning plastic. The scene was like many one comes across in Latin America; although the city itself was not so bad, the filth and misery had been pushed to the fringes, and formed a sort of a noxious membrane around the otherwise attractive center.

            Not much further on was Puerto Madryn, a busy, middle-class resort town located near the entrance to the toadstool-shaped Valdez Peninsula. This is where I stopped. I stepped off the bus and walked along the main thoroughfare, Avenue Roca, which in the late morning, was teeming with sun cream-smeared, swimsuit-clad tourists. Puerto Madryn’s main attraction is a narrow, clam-shaped beach that runs for about a mile southward in a slow curve ending at a small hill known as ‘The Indian’, where there is a statue of an Indian over-looking the town. Out front, near where people swam and rode jet-skis, there was a pier where large ships were docked, unloading ballast water and making the beaches unswimmable.

            I found a cheap, grimy hotel a few blocks away from the beach where the paint blistered and peeled off the walls in flakes about the same size as the cockroaches that scattered when I turned the light on.

            The next day, I was up early and caught the first rickety bus to Puerto Piramides, a little town at the point on the peninsula where the stem of the toad stool meets the cup. Peninsula Valdez is about eighty miles long and thirty across and is, for the most part, a mini outback. The lowest point in Argentina - 132 feet below sea-level - can be found on the peninsula. It was mentioned briefly in Darwin’s Beagle[16]. It is also vividly described in Gerald Durrell’s The Whispering Land. Durrell was a British naturalist, who had a sharp eye for behaviorist detail. I particularly enjoyed his description of a rendezvous between two fur seals:

            “Their hindquarters undulated together, not quickly, urgently, or crudely as in most animals, but slowly and carefully, the movement as smooth and precise as honey pouring from a jar. Presently, closely entwined, they reached their shuddering climax and then relaxed. The bull hauled himself off his wife and flopped down beside her, where they lay gently nibbling one another’s mouths and faces with a tenderness that was remarkable. The whole act had been beautiful to watch, and was a lesson in restrained love-making which a lot of humans would do well to emulate.[17]” Durrell, I thought, could have made a decent living today as a writer of pulp romance novels.

            There were too many people at Puerto Pyramides. The little town, which was really just a few wooden buildings and a beach, was teeming with Argentine tourists. I stood out among the crowd because I wore a backpack and hiking boots, and people looked at me with a discomfiting disdain as I walked down the beach. I noticed that almost every group was using a round object with a silver tube protruding from it. I was sure it was some kind of drug apparatus, like a bong or a pot pipe. But everyone seemed to be doing it.

            The tide was so far out and the beach so flat that the waves made a lazy line of foam. I walked for miles, sometimes over the sand flats, sometimes having to scale the rocky cliffs to make my way over the areas where there was no way to pass. Four hours later, I realized that I was totally alone. I stood on the lip of a plateau where the waves crashed violently below me, and I had an incredible urge to yell at the top of my lungs. Nothing profound. Just a primal scream, a release of energy. I put on my walkman, which had a tape in it that Fred gave to me, and the first song on was What’s Up? by Three Non-Blondes, and when it came to that part that goes:

And so I wake in the morning, and I step outside and I take a deep breath, and I get real high, and I, scream from the top of my lungs, "What's going on?"

 

I belted this out as loudly as I could. Birds took off in a panic, a small squadron of crabs scuttled off in terror, but I didn’t care:

“And I say, "Hey yeah yeah hey, hey yeah yeah." I said, "Hey, what's going on?"

 

There was no one around, so I rewound the tape and played it again. I stood on the edge of the earth, arms outstretched, screaming out at the sea. And then, almost cruelly, the moment passed, and I looked out to sea and wondered what the fuck I was doing.

 

            When I started to make my way back, I discovered that my entire route along the rocks was cut off. The tide had come in. I had no choice but to head inland, into the outback, but it was already early afternoon, and there was at least four hours of walking ahead.

            I could feel the heat pressing down on me. I was without a hat, and my face was burning. So were my arms and my legs. The road turned away from the coast, taking me deeper and deeper into the outback. Up ahead I came upon a truck parked alongside the dirt road, and found three long-haired, ragged-looking guys sitting next to it. They’d made a shady spot beneath a blanket strung up between an old tent pole and the door of the jeep. It seemed an odd place to stop and camp since the beach was close by. I asked them what they were doing.

            “We’re out of gas and water,” said the bearded one who looked like Che Guevara. He wore cutoff jeans and a ceramic ornament that looked like some Hindu symbol around his neck.

            “Are you going to look for some help?” I asked.

            “We’re waiting for the tide to go down, and then Pablo will go back along the rocks to Piramides.”

            “Can’t you use the road?”

            “It’s only twenty kilometers by the beach. The road is over fifty,” said one of the other guys who was so sunburned that his skin had become blistered all over his back, chest, and arms.

            “I see,” I said.

            “You should stay,” said Che.

            “Where are you going?” asked the blistered one. “You know there’s nothing that way,” he pointed in the direction I’d been headed. “It will take you a over a day to get back, and if you don’t have any water...well, I wouldn’t advise it.”

            “Where are you from?” asked the third one, a lanky guy with a pucka necklace.

            “The United States.”

            “Yanqui. You want to have maté?”

            “OK,” I said, unsure what a maté was. Judging by their appearance, I assumed it was the name for dope. I was wrong. Maté is the stuff I’d seen all the people on the beach drinking. It is Argentina’s most famous beverage (they don’t have it in Chile, or at least I’d ever seen it).  It’s basically a type of ground up tea-like herb that they sprinkle into a hollowed out gourd, then add boiling water, and drink with a metal filtering straw called a bombilla. The plant itself is called yerba, and the drink as well as the apparatus, is called maté.

            They heated some water in a tin kettle over a small hand-pump camping stove. The bottle they used to hold water was early empty. They told me their names: the bearded guy was Edy, the big, blistered one, Pablo; and the lanky guy, Fito. When the water was ready, Pablo filled the gourd and handed it to me. It was very hot, and tasted like oregano. I could taste the flavor of the herb in the water, a strong flavor, but not unpleasant, and it wasn’t as bitter as tea. 

            “Thanks,” I said, passing it back.

            “Is that all you want?” Edy said.

            “I could have another, but you guys go ahead.” The guys smiled at me and then Edy explained the custom behind drinking maté.

            “First, when the maté is yours, you should drink it all. Finish it. Second, never say thank you if you might want more. Don’t say anything. Just give the maté back. That’s the custom.” The gourd was passed to a person who sucked it until he growled dry; then it was refilled and given to the next person. We did this three times, and then it came again to me.

            The guys were from Rosario, a large town to the Northwest of Buenos Aires. They said they hated BA. 

“Everyone has to be in a hurry there,” Edy said. “That is no way to live. Life is to enjoy, to relax and let it happen to you. It is not about money and all the things you own.” The two others concurred with this philosophy by sagely nodding their heads. Pablo rolled a cigarette.

            “In the United States, everyone is very rich, no?” Fito asked. “I mean, except for the blacks.”

            “Untrue,” I said. “And there are some very successful black people in my country.”

            “I have heard that you do not treat the blacks well. That the police beat them with sticks and no one gives them work.”

            “Well…” I paused, unsure how to answer this. “It’s not all like that.”

            “I read these things in the newspaper. I see them on television.”

            “That’s a prejudiced view of America,” I said, knowing that there was some truth to what they said, but annoyed that they based their entire opinion on the negatives. (Funny how I’m sometimes so hard on my countrymen, but once they are insulted by someone else, I rush to defend them.) “Things really are much better now than they were 20 years ago.” I added.

            “What about that black guy that got beaten up by the police just a few years ago? He didn’t do anything. He was just driving his car.”

            “Well, he...”

            “What do you guys do for work?”

“We don’t,” Che said. “We’re all unemployed.”

“No work at all?”

“I sometimes get money for fixing cars,” Edy said.

“I’ve worked before. For six years on a farm. I had my back broken by a man who sat on his porch all day with a cell phone and drank whiskey. He just a few years older than me, the son of an estancia owner. He didn’t have to work and someday he’d inherit all his land from his father. He knew it. He treated the peones like trash, like he was better than all of us. I hated him.” With this comment, the conversation died and we found ourselves sitting in silence in the dry heat. I hoped they’d break out some more maté. I didn’t think it was polite to ask, but I was very thirsty and figured what the hell. However, I realized when I looked around that they’d all dozed off.

I decided to head back.

“Where are you going, friend?”

“I’m heading back to Puerto Madryn.” I asked if they wanted to come. 

            “No, thanks,” Fito said. “We’re in no hurry. This is very nice here. Very peaceful.” Mucho paz.

“Do you want me to send someone to help?”

            “No. Don’t worry about it.”

            “OK, ciao.”

            “Ciao.”

 

 Café Talk

            It took me about five hours to walk back to Piramides, and by that time the sun was setting and most the people on the beach had packed up and left. I made the last bus to Puerto Madryn by just five minutes.

            The following day I dropped in to a small cafe in Puerto Madryn for lunch, just as President Clinton was beginning his Second Inaugural address (El Segundo Mandato) on a small black and white TV. I had so tuned out of American culture that I didn’t even know it was supposed to be on. There were three other people in the cafe, and we watched the speech with a mixture of boredom and partial interest. The guy who was working there, a short ex-soldier in his early 20’s named Hector, knew I was American. He had a buzz-cut and a flat nose that looked as if it had recently been smashed by a fist. I didn’t much care if he kept the speech on, but the others asked that he turn up the volume.

            The speech was dry, full of promises and flavorless Presidential prose, lots of stuff about “building bridges across America”. I was less interested in the speech itself as what the people in the cafe thought of it. The two other customers were named Marisa and Pedro, a young couple from Rosario. Marisa was an attractive school teacher in her mid-20’s, and her boyfriend, Pedro, was an economist for the city tax authority.

            When the speech was over, I asked them what they thought.

            “I liked it very much,” said Hector. He said it in a sugary, kiss-ass way that immediately made me suspicious of him.

            Pedro said, “I think my favorite part was when he said everyone needs to take responsibility for making things better. I thought that was good. We don’t really have that belief at all. Because of our history and culture, we’ve never had much true democracy, Argentines lack the optimism of Americans.”

            “You always hear that about Americans,” Marisa said. “They’re so proud, and everyone believes in change, that the individual can have an impact. No one here really believes that.”

            “Why not?”

            “Because there’s never been an ethic for that kind of individualism here. It’s always been the elite, or the government, or the military who run things, and they always believe that they know better than everyone else.”

            “Why doesn’t anyone try to fix things?”

            “Because you can’t. Argentina’s always had problems with corruption and bad governments. No one really feel they can make a difference.”

            “We don’t have any strong leaders,” Pedro said. “There’s no one to believe in, so people just accept it and try to live normal lives. There’s no one to trust. No one cares.”

            “The same people who are supposed to change things are the ones who benefit from the corruption, why should they change? They won’t,” Marisa added.

            “You don’t like Menem?” I asked.

            “Menem is shit!” Hector hissed.

            “No one likes Menem,” Pedro said, a bit more tactfully.

            “He’s made a lot of promises, too,” Marisa said. “And none of them have been fulfilled. No one trusts him.”

            “I also like the part where Clinton talked about everybody getting a chance,” Marisa continued. “That’s another thing we don’t hear a lot of here.”

            “Did you believe him?”

            “Not really. No politician really says anything meaningful. At least he says it. I think most Americans believe it.”

            “Don’t be so sure,” I said.

“All politicians love to hear themselves talk,” said Pedro.

            “What didn’t you like?”

            “I didn’t like the part where he says America goes overseas for democracy,” Marisa said. “I think they go places like Latin America and Africa because it serves their own interests.”

            “Economic interests,” added Pedro.

            “Exactly. They want American businesses to make money. America is always about money and power. If it doesn’t go their way, they will intervene, and they don’t care what happens to the people where they go. Like what they did in Panama. It was good they got rid of that man...”

            “Noriega?”

            “Yes, Noriega. But the Americans didn’t have to invade the country to get rid of him. Kill all those people. There should have been another way.” 

            “I thought the speech was unrealistic,” said Marisa. “He made lots of promises which it is obvious he cannot keep. And the presentation was so extravagant. That’s very American, I think. Always a big ceremony and such pride. It’s like watching a commercial.”

“You always get the feeling someone is trying to sell you something. If he were not a politician, I’m sure Clinton would have been a great salesmen. All your Presidents are great salesmen.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I said.

            I left the cafe thinking about the conversation I’d just had and about the powerful influence of American culture on countries like Argentina. I bought a paper from one of the many street kiosks in the city. Maybe it’s not so bad, I thought. Maybe people, even most Americans, do see through all the marketing bullshit, all the fakeness, the absurdity, and just accept that things have to be that way. The alternative, I suppose, would be a sort of awful place where everything and everyone is always serious and everything is always meaningful and you would be surrounded at all times with horribly earnest and honest people and... well that just sounds horrible. Anyway, I don’t know why this was a comforting thought, believing that others were in on the absurdity of things, but it made me feel less lonely in a way.

I opened the paper and thumbed through three full pages dedicated to Brad Pitt’s arrival in La Plata to begin filming Seven Years in Tibet.

            By coincidence, I happened a little later upon Pedro and Marisa, who were sitting in a café along the main drag. They invited me to the beach to drink maté and I went along. It was still very hot in the late afternoon. The maté gave me a deliciously uplifting sensation, a killer buzz. (Was there caffeine in maté?) I was starting to see why it was such a popular drink.  We sat on the grass near the beach discussed movies, music and culture. Finally, they said they had to leave, and as a gift, they gave me their maté gourd and bombilla. We swapped addresses, and I told them if ever they came to the states, to look me up.

 

On the Road Again

What a wicked bitch mother nature can be. I’d been so hot, so miserably overwhelmed with the heat and humidity over the last few days that it didn’t occur to me to bring along a jacket on the bus. When I left Puerto Madryn that night on an overnight ride for Bahia Blanca, it got very cold, and I shivered horribly in my shorts and T-shirt. I asked the driver at a stop if he could open the cargo bay below the bus so I could fish out my jacket, but he shook his head in that exceedingly annoying way that some Latin men perfected and said it was impossible. Needless to say, I wished him ill. I ended up contorting myself fetus-like on the seat, and counted the passing minutes of what seemed an eternity until the sun rose in the morning.

            The bay water in Bahia Blanca is not white at all, but an ugly industrial green-gray which now plays host to navy boats and other shipping vessels that ply the coast. I planned to stay there for a few days, but changed my mind on the bus and decided that I was in a hurry to get to Buenos Aires. I’d check the city out for a few hours and then would continue on.

            I got off the bus, stored my bags in the station, and went to discover the soul of Bahia Blanca...in three hours or less.

            It was still very early, about six am, and the streets were quiet and empty. The light bathed everything in a pearly bluish haze that restricted definition, and as the sun rose, angles, edges, and colors emerged, as if growing slowly out of the objects that possessed them. Sounds, the hum of autos, the clank and rumble of buses, and the hoarse shouts of the street merchants, all rose with a steady, sonorous vigor, the rush hour crescendo. People emerged from buildings and buses dressed in shiny suits, wielding briefcases and entering tall mirror-faced buildings. The experience made me aware how alive a city actually is; how, like an animal, it opens its great eyes, yawns, stretches and then begins its daily enterprise.

            I made my way along the road to the center of town and the central plaza, where there was an attractive park. As I watched people come and go, darting into office buildings or passing through the park hurriedly, I felt a pang of guilt. These people were going to work, making their daily bread. I was just a traveler passing through, here for an instant to catch a mental Polaroid of their lives. It was also a harsh reminder of what lay ahead of me in a few months, once I got home and had to find gainful employment. Perhaps it was a good thing I was scooting quickly out of town.

            I took the bus north again, just a few hours further to Monte Hermoso, a small, bungalow beach community that wasn’t on my map. It was a charming spread of summer homes, tourist shops, ice cream stands, and an unusually large arcade. It is also the place where I caught my first glimpse of the beauty of Argentine women.

            Argentina has the highest per capita expenditure on plastic surgery in the world[18]. You can see it in the way that some women are just too perfect, unblemished, air-brushed, like Playboy centerfolds. You can see it in the teenage girls, who have large, perfectly shaped boobs because, for their 15th birthdays, they asked for breast enlargement surgery. This obsession with beauty, I think, has a lot to say about the Argentine character overall.

            After a few weeks in Argentina I came to see the country as kind of the Jan Michael Vincent of countries. Although it was once a star of Latin America, a long series of poor decisions and lousy governments have worn it out and made it a shell of what it once was. But the people there still cling to the notion that they are somehow superior, that they don’t deserve to be lumped along with other Latin countries, as if it was some horrible divine mistake that they ended up on this continent instead of in the heart of Europe. You feel sorry for them in a way, since Argentina was earlier in the century supposedly quite a prosperous place (seventh on per capita GDP in 1935), so say the statistics)[19], and they still hold on to this glory as if it still means something. As if people still care.

 

            The seats on the bus out of Monte Hermoso were tolerably comfortable, and sleep came relatively easy, albeit sporadically. That said, there was a corpulent German sitting behind me with huge, thick legs, like an Argentine steer, who kept noisily adjusting himself and in the process kicked the back of my chair a number of times. Finally, I spun around and glared at him, and he let out a heavy sigh, turned over his meaty palms and said, “Excuse me, zey do not make dees seats for beeg people.” His legs were not the only thing usually big about him. He also had a monstrous Carl Malden nose that was affixed crookedly to his face like a refrigerator magnet, and seemed to pulsate with a webbing of purple and red vessels reminiscent of a scene from Aliens. There were no other seats available so, I had to just stick it out. 

            In the stillness of the night, we slipped through busy beach towns like Necochea, Mar de Plata, and Villa Gesell, all teeming with wealthy, partying Argentines escaping the suffocating heat and humidity of Buenos Aires. It was a temptation to get out and stay for a night or two in some of these places, particularly given the stories I’d been told of dancing until eight in the morning, easy love with beautiful women, but I kept going, eager to get to the city.

            I awoke around five am, straightened my chair back, and immediately heard a throaty groan from the German behind me. His knees had been pressed into my chair-back all night, filling me with the temptation to slam the seat into his knees, perhaps crushing his kneecaps, then I’d turn around and say, “Excuse me, they don’t make seats for big people”. But he WAS big, and probably could have crushed me by sitting on me, so I just sat there and stewed.

            We entered the outskirts of the city. The buildings there were low, crouching structures that looked as if they’d been stomped on like old aluminum cans. A neon sign flashed Pizzeria, and on a corner, a pack of men in dark police uniforms stood drinking coffee and smoking. An empty soccer field looked like a blank check, and a eucalyptus grove sweetened the air for a few luscious seconds. The sky was much brighter now, its fresh light soaking into the buildings, trees, and faces of people on the streets. A green stoplight ahead looked like a rebellious star, unwilling to give up its light to the glare of the sun. Apartment blocks sprouted up on each side of the road, wide-shouldered like blocking backs. On an overpass, I looked far down onto a small grassy park where I could see two human figures beneath a tree, naked, one on top of the other, moving to a rhythm that didn’t leave much to the imagination. An old factory, decrepit and grimy, sat among piles of old tires and discarded cable spools. It seemed abandoned.

            Once in the main part of the city we passed along the newly built-up waterfront, where a string of attractive buildings had been rebuilt and turned into high-end office buildings and upscale restaurants. Across the dikes, loading cranes arched over the water like great metal mantises. We entered the bus terminal near Retiro train station, pulling in around seven o’clock in the morning. I had no idea where I was going to stay, and decided to leave everything at the station and head out on foot in search of a hotel. It was early, but the streets were jammed with cars and buses. The air was as hot and thick as a jungle. I left the terminal and strode past the Retiro Station, past the riot of street sellers, magazine kiosks, and food joints out front, and crossed a series of broad avenues where the British Tower pointed its shadow towards the city. I came upon the monument to San Martin, The Liberator, who straddled a horse with its hooves kicking into the air.

            Doubling back a bit, I soon found myself on Lavalle Street, a narrow pedestrian avenue lined with fast food restaurants, cinemas, seedy hotels, and clothing stores. The pedestrian avenue soon dumped me out onto the Avenida 9 de Julio (named for the date in 1816 when Argentina gained independence from Spain). A Washington Monument-like obelisk stood in a round plaza a few blocks south. My Lonely Planet said it is the widest avenue in the world.

            I crossed 9 de Julio, heading towards the monument and then continued up Avenida Corrientes, where there seemed to be a lot happening. Corrientes is like New York’s Times Square. The street is a carnival of flashing lights and monstrous theater marquees announcing the names of current shows in bold, gaudy lettering. One of the more popular shows (there was a sold out sign in the window) was about businessmen and extramarital affairs, which seemed to be a popular theme in Argentina. The doors to the theater were festooned with life-sized pictures of the actors, featuring men in business suits and near-topless women in suits that were less than business-like.

            I was in serious need of a caffeine fix and ducked into a cafe. There were many to choose from, most of them smoky, elegant places with varnished wooden tables, lots of brass and aloof bow-tied waiters. I ordered a coffee, shocked at the exorbitant price, but pleased that I was never bothered by an anxious waiter hoping to move me out for the next patron.

            Behind me, two businessmen were engaged in a serious discussion about their work, which I judged had something to do with high technology, as I heard sprinkled into their conversation words like “megabytes”, “software” and “internet”. The internet was huge in BA, and there were signs everywhere advertising internet connections.

            A little before noon, I was out on Corrientes again. Judging by the multitude of kiosks and bookstores I saw, I was left with the impression that Buenos Aires is an remarkably literate city (the official literacy rate for the country is 95%). On Corrientes there were scores of bookstores on every block, more than of any other type of store, and even at ten in the morning there were people inside browsing the shelves, thumbing through classics, the newest bestseller or oversized picture books. Among the books in the front window, were books by Latin writers like Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Also, the Celestine Prophesies (Los Diez Prophecias) was a big seller, as were William Bennett’s Libro de los Virtuosos and John Grisham’s El Cliente.

            I found a hotel just off Corrientes on Callao. Not the nicest place in the world, but it was reasonably priced, and at least there was a ceiling fan. It hardly helped.

In the morning, I drank a cup of strong coffee and gnawed on some hard medialunas (sort of a miniature croissant) in the hotel’s small, dark cafe that looked out over Sarmiento Street. The cafe was serviced by the same man in charge of the hotel. He was a handsome middle-aged Porteño named Eduardo who had worked there for a few years. Apparently, there weren’t many guests to attend to that day, because after serving me, he poured himself a cup and joined me at the table. We talked about Buenos Aires, and as he sipped his coffee, he spoke passionately about the city and its people, and occasionally his eyes would take on a distant, reflective look, as if he were dreaming.

            The first part of the day would be dedicated to trying to get my Brazilian visa, and then afterwards I walked down to the waterfront, where the newly-rebuilt boardwalk was busy with natty business-people meeting in fancy restaurants overlooking the water. I walked past the magnificent ARA Presidente Sarmiento, a three-masted frigate which once served in the Argentine navy, and is now a floating relic open to tourists. The waterfront was lousy with mosquitoes, which made the walk in the burdensome heat even more unbearable. Every summer, according to the newspaper, Buenos Aires is invaded by mosquitoes, and this was supposedly one of the worst years on record. The government had initiated a campaign, as it does every year at this time, to get rid of them using “non-toxic bug killer” - an interesting term - but it obviously wasn’t doing much good. I found myself slapping at my arms and legs so often that I must have looked to passers-by like an Austrian oom-pah-pah dancer.        I continued down the waterfront for a while, and then back-tracked up to the famous Plaza de Mayo.  At the end of the plaza sits the Casa Rosada, the Argentine White House where the President lives. It wasn’t a particularly attractive building, particularly the color, which is sort of a sickly off-pink reminiscent of white skin. The color was supposedly achieved by mixing beef fat, blood, and lime together. It looked like it.

            On the Plaza Mayo there were a few tourists hanging around snapping photos and, like me, sweating. It was a quiet, peaceful day on the Plaza. Sometimes this isn’t the case. The Plaza is the key staging place for public protests in Argentina, and has been the site of numerous major demonstrations and rallies. For example, in 1945, throngs of Argentine workers, called the decamisetados, or shirtless ones, gathered to hear Evita Perón demand the release of her husband, who’d been jailed for populist activities. In 1987, more than 800,000 Argentines flooded the Plaza in a pro-democracy demonstration that demanded the government fess up for its prior deeds.

            Probably the most famous demonstrations are those which continue even today. Every Thursday at around 3:30, the Mothers of the Plaza Mayo come here to march counter-clockwise around the Plaza to protest the abduction and murder of their sons and daughters, victims of the “Dirty War”, the years of repression at the hands of the military junta that ruled Argentina between 1976 to 1983.

            The stories of those who were abducted have a frightening Orwellian quality to them. People were not simply killed or jailed, they were “disappeared”. This usually meant the victims were taken from their homes in the early hours of the morning, and driven away in a black Ford Falcon, a car which still sends a chill down the spines of people who remember those years. A vast majority of those who were abducted were not charged with any crime, they were simply taken away and never heard from again. They became known as “los desparecidos”, the disappeared ones, or ‘NN’s’ which stands for ‘Non Nombres’, or ‘No Names’.

            I found an empty seat on one of the benches in the plaza next to a young man reading the newspaper. He was well-dressed, clean-shaven, and sported a well-greased coiffure that didn’t budge in the occasional breeze that blew off the river. I asked him if he was from Buenos Aires.

            “Of course,” he answered, with a bit of arrogance. “And you? You are from the states?”

            “Yes,” I said.

            “But you speak Spanish?”

            “I’ve been living in Chile.”

            “Really?” he said. “And now you are traveling in Argentina?”

            “That’s right.”

            “You will like Argentina more than Chile,” he said. I thought maybe he was being facetious, but his face was a mask of seriousness. I asked him what he did and he told me he worked for one of the big banks. He’d gone to business school in Buenos Aires and was now a relatively high up, judging by they way he talked about his job. He looked very young, but said he was 32.

            After more small talk, I asked him about the Mothers of the Plaza, but he just shrugged and said they were part of an older Argentina. “They are respected for what they do,” he said. “What happened here was bad, but we need to think ahead. We cannot occupy ourselves with the things of the past.”

He asked me about the Chilean economy (I told him I’d worked as a journalist in Santiago), and said he was convinced that Chile was not doing as well as the growth numbers suggested.

            Argentina will be better off in the long run,” he said. “We have much more land, many more resources. The Chileans, they have copper. But you cannot build a solid economy out of copper.”

“But the Chileans are major producers of fruit and wine, and even some manufactured goods.”

“The Argentine beef is the best in the world,” he said, as if I he hadn’t heard me. “And the women, they are the world’s finest women.”

            He finished his sandwich and said he had to get back to the office. We shook hands and he told me to be sure to see San Telmo, which was relatively close by.        

            I got up almost immediately after he’d left and started on my way. From the Plaza Mayo, I walked down a small hill, around the Ministry of the Economy building, and along the Paseo where I watched my reflection in the smoky glass windows of the numerous cafes and bistros along that street. I had read about San Telmo in my guidebook, and had planned on seeing it at some point. It was located in BA’s Southern Quarter and was supposed to be the bohemian barrio of Buenos Aires, like Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.

            I turned up a block to Avenida Defensa, and a little further up and I realized I was in San Telmo. The streets were very narrow and some of them laid with cobble-stones. On a particularly narrow and blind corner, there were two dark-haired boys standing innocently next to a lamp post. They looked too innocent. When a car came by, they removed two water-balloons from behind their backs and smashed them on the car windshield before laughing and running away. The driver was very surprised, but unable to turn around or give chase. He looked at me and shrugged and then drove on. On Avenida Defensas seemed as if every store was an antique shop. Beautiful antiques, too. Most of the stuff was obviously from Europe, but a good deal was from Asia or the Middle East. All of it was ridiculously expensive. In one window there were extravagant crystal chandeliers and marble statues, chalices and vases made of fine porcelain, candelabras of polished brass and silver. In another, there were Egyptian artifacts and Chinese scrolls. In a third, a black Corona typewriter, a Sentinel radio, and an old phonograph whose speaker looked like a great red blossom.

            It seemed run down to me, but Defensa Street is where many of the city’s most important families built their homes in the 19th century. The neighborhood’s first residents were the Irish, Blacks, and Italians who settled here in the 18th century. Life at times was miserable. In the 1870’s a yellow fever epidemic swept through the barrio, killing many. The going theory was that the disease was brought in by the heavy Riochuelo fog that settled over the harbor at certain times of the year, and so those that could afford it, took off for other parts of the city.

            Some of the older places in San Telmo are known as chorizos or sausage houses, because the facades are very narrow but the property stretches far back. Many of them have three interior patios, a style of architecture favored a hundred years ago. The first patio was where the inhabitants lived, the second was used to cook and wash, and the third was where they kept animals. Some of them have been converted to restaurants. I knocked on a few doors and asked if it was OK to peek inside. One lady obliged, in fact, she was very proud of her home. “Yes, of course. Please come in,” she said, smiling and taking me by the arm. She had a right to be proud. It was a lovely place, tastefully decorated and filled with antiques. It was quite cool inside and I wondered if she had air conditioning.

            San Telmo seemed the perfect place to lose oneself, I thought. Every street had something to offer, some interesting sight or sound to make note of. There was a row of restaurants and tango music wafted into the streets from inside one of them.

            Soon, I came upon the Plaza Dorrego, a well known tourist spot, and the site of the Sunday flea market. The plaza was surrounded by restaurants and more antique shops. Who buys all these antiques? I wondered

            I sat down for a drink at one of the small outside restaurants. I felt as if I’d been walking the Sahara. There were two young guys sitting at the next table, and I introduced myself. One of them was Argentine, the other South African. The Argentine’s name was Ernesto. He was a handsome, blond guy who spoke perfect English and told me he had just finished business school and had just been hired by Philip Morris. “They [American firms] pay very good salaries here,” he said. He’d set his sights on making it into a top MBA program in the US. The South African guy was named Garston, and he was on his way home that same day after nearly a year of being on the road. We talked for a while, mostly in English, and then they invited me to go with them to the La Boca, a tough old neighborhood (sort of like the Bronx), located at the southern tip of the city along the Riochuelo Canal. We grabbed a cab, which let us off near the water.

            La Boca had real visual charm, but smelled like an open sewer. Most of the homes in the neighborhood were made of old sheet metal and other scraps that were taken from abandoned ships by the poor, mostly Italian, immigrants who settled here in the 1800’s. This was supposedly a kind of Genoese tradition, as was the idea to paint the facades of the homes in outrageous colors, which today makes the neighborhood look like something out of a 1970’s Sid and Marty Croft TV show.

            After a beer at an outdoors café, we took another cab to Ernesto’s house in Recolleta on the other side of town. In actuality, it was not that far of a ride, but the economic and aesthetic differences between the two neighborhoods were startling. It was like going from Watts to Beverly Hills in a matter of blocks. Ernesto, like many Argentines his age, lived with his parents. Their flat was located in a tall, elegant (and extremely well-guarded) apartment building near Avenida Santa Fe.

            Ernesto spoke not only perfect English, but also French, German and Italian. His father worked for a bank and owned a good deal of property outside the city. I told him that I’d been in Chile for a year and he winced. I asked him why.

            “We hate each other,” he said flatly. “To us they are like the Bolivians or the Peruvians. We believe we are better than they are, but they are showing everyone that they are the ones who are better. This is very hard for an Argentine to take.”

            “Why can’t the Argentines catch up?”

“Corruption. Our governments have always been corrupt. This one is the worst we’ve ever had. They steal and steal. Everyone is involved. We get it from the Italians.”

            “There are a lot of Italians in the government?” I asked.

            “No, no. The government is run almost all by Semites: Jews and Arabs. Menem is Arabic, he’s from Syria; and he has appointed mostly Jews and Arabs to his cabinet. There are more Jews here than in some large cities in Israel. Third after Tel Aviv. And New York. The problem is that people see government service as a way to make money. No one’s interested in doing good.”

            “Why doesn’t somebody protest?”

            “Some do. But they don’t accomplish anything. It’s just the way things are.”

            Ernesto’s attitude towards social change seemed fairly common to other Argentines I’d met. The attitude consists of an understanding that things are not as they should be, that there is corruption and inequality in society, but that these things are more or less to be tolerated as a fact of life. These young people wanted to hurry up with the business of modernizing the country; they viewed the Dirty war much the way American youth today feel about Vietnam:  they want to get it behind them. They want to talk about Mercosur and the promise of free markets. They want to discuss privatization and high technology, music, television, movies. And sex.

            Buenos Aires had the greatest concentration of beautiful women I’d ever seen. Short skirts, day-glow orange and green blouses exposing the mid-drift. Knee-high patent leather boots accentuating long, tanned legs, legs either liposuctioned at great expense or made fit by hours of aerobics at the fitness club. Women don’t walk the avenues in BA; they strut, heads held high, eyes aloof, as if they are all on a shoot for a big name fashion magazine. I often tried to make eye contact with women in Buenos Aires, but every one of them walked past me as if I didn’t exist, as if I were made of air. Or shit.

            This is a sweeping stereotype of the Portenas, and I’m a bit ashamed to make it. Everyone bashes the Argentines for their arrogance. But the Argentines will often admit this themselves. The late Marcelo T. de Alvear, one of the country’s former Presidents once said:

            “Argentines refuse to accept any truth which makes them inferior to anyone else. Theirs is the greatest city in the world, their frontier mountains the highest and their pampas the widest; theirs the most beautiful lakes, the best cattle, the richest vineyards, and the loveliest women...perhaps it is this overwhelming pride of the Argentines that leads them to believe that they can live aloof from any interdependence of nations; that they are self-sufficient without possessing even elementary industries; and that they have no fear of whatever changes may come.[20]

 

            I caught a concert in Lezama Park one night. A local symphony assembled on a make-shift stage below powerful klieg lights as hundreds of porteños endured the summer heat to sit on the sloping grass, slap at mosquitoes, and keep the Coca-Cola seller busy. I couldn’t think of a more perfect place to be. The music - a mixture of Beethoven and Bach - filled the evening air like sweet perfume. It was the perfect way to wind down after a long day of exploration. I sat next to a couple and their two perfectly-behaving little girls, listening to the music. I spoke briefly with the father, who told me I should have brought along a girlfriend. From then on, I couldn’t help notice how many of the people at the concert were couples. I suddenly felt rotten because I wished it was true.

            The feeling so potent that after the concert, I jumped into a cab and asked the driver to take me to a good bar where I might be able to meet some woman. He was an older gentleman with thick jowls and a bushy mustache. He wore a Greek fisherman’s cap and a yellow shirt open all the way to his stomach. There were large tufts of gray hair sprouting from the back of his collar such that it was difficult to tell where the head hair ended and the body hair began. He told his name was Marco.

            The bar he took me to was about two miles up Cordoba Street away from the center of town. There were no signs outside, and the windows were tinted an opaque black. An arch of blinking lights over the door was the only indication that something was happening inside. The door opened heavily. Inside I was greeted by a woman in her thirties who wore a bodice that pressed her breasts together in such a way that they would have made a nice memo holder. She smiled at me sweetly.

Two red velvet curtains hung across a doorway. There was a small gap between the curtains that allowed me a glimpse of the inside. I started through them but was quickly intercepted by a fat man in a dark suit with a wire coming out of his ear. He smiled at me too, but not in a way I would describe as “sweet”.

            “What can we do for you?” he asked.

            “Uh,” I said as I noticed a pair of topless women walk by on the other side of the curtains.

            “You want to go in?” I nodded.

            “OK, you can look inside,” he said. “Follow me.” It was obvious to me now that I had entered a bar where the concept of meeting women involved a financial investment, perhaps a substantial one. Still, I figured the place might be good for a few laughs, so I followed the fat man inside.

            A soft red light bathed the interior of a spacious lounge area. There were a number of booths in the middle where men chatted with women, all of them topless. At the bar straight ahead, four gorgeous women sat on bar stools. A large blond woman passed holding aloft a tray of drinks. She was amazingly good looking, a Claudia Schiffer look-alike, maybe prettier. Suddenly, I was making serious eye contact with another one of the ladies at the bar. She smiled at me and then ran her tongue slowly over her front teeth and I realized immediately that she was not attempting to remove some errant peanut butter. I experienced a faint tingle in my groin region.

            “She likes you, yanqui,” the man said from behind. I’d forgotten him and was a bit annoyed when he reminded me he was there. I also wasn’t sure I liked being called yanqui.

            “I’ll go talk to her,” I said. 

            “That will cost you $180 pesos,” he said.

“What? To talk?”

“Believe me, it is worth it. Look at her. Can you imagine what she will do for you?” I caught myself. I had no intention to start picking up prostitutes, no matter how lonely I was, or how beautiful they were. I really just felt the, um, the urge to talk to her. I wasn’t going to pay for the privilege.

            “No thanks,” I said.

            “Then you must go.”






To be continued...