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.
“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
“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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
you still have an interest in travelling to Chilean Antarctica?” He placed an
emphasis on the word ‘Chilean”.
“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.
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
was far more interesting. And dangerous.
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
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
‘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.
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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?”
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
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.
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
“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
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.”
“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
“Any idea who?”
“Carlos says maybe the admiral
himself,” he said, nodding his head in the direction of the guy next to him.
“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
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.
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
During that time, one of his ships had been destroyed (the Santiago),
and he was about to lose another to mutiny. 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
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?”
“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,
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
“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.
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
“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
“Closed? Why? Are you sure?” the one
speaking looked at me with a hard expression that suggested he was not used to
“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.
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
“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
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.
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.
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.
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
“No, that was Captain Medel. That
man there is Captain Roman.”
“There are two captains on the
“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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”
“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
“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?”
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
“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
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
“Yes, of course. We do not get many
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,
all had bases on King George. I asked if there was much interaction between the
“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.”
“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
“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
“But the isolation must be
“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.
“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
“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.
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. 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”,
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
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
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
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:
“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
“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
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
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
“Not much,” he replied.
I asked one of the men what in the world they did for
“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.
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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?”
“Dude, where can we catch a boat to Antarctica?
“Where you coming from?” another one asked.
“No shit? And how’d you get there?”
“Just kidding,” I said, having second thoughts. “I came from
“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
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
“This is the Yanqui who is so good
at Mortal Combat.”
“You have upset little David,” the
“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.”
“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
“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
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:
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?”
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
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,
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
“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?”
“Where are you going?”
“Really? Me too. Why are you going?”
“Your uncle lives in Piedras
“Not in Piedras Buenas, near there.
On his estancia.”
“And you’re going to stay with him
“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?”
“How old are you Leonardo?”
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
“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
“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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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:
dejarte pampa mía
y alma se me lennan
el verde de tus pastos
el temblor de las estrellas
el canto de tus vientos
el sollozar de vihuelas
me alegraron veces
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
“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
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
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
Durrell, I thought, could have made a decent living today as a writer of pulp
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
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
“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
“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.”
“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.”
“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
“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.”
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
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
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
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.”
“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
“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
“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
goes overseas for democracy,” Marisa said. “I think they go places like Latin
America and Africa because it serves their own
“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...”
“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.”
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.
opened the paper and thumbed through three full pages dedicated to Brad Pitt’s
arrival in La Plata to begin filming Seven Years
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?”
“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
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
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
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.”
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
“I’ll go talk to her,” I said.
“That will cost you $180 pesos,” he
“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
“No thanks,” I said.
“Then you must go.”
To be continued...