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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Last Post Patagonia

Every good adventure ends with a battle of wits against nature.

This is why we left our comfortable, smoggy existence in Santiago for the frontier lands of Patagonia.  Our itinerary? The classic journey to Torres del Paine, a national park comprised of glacially sculpted peaks, wind-swept valleys, and the distilled essence of Patagonia.  

We began our journey in Punta Arenas.  Closer to Antarctica than Santiago, Punta Arenas is situated on the Strait of Magellan, serving as the main port city for the region.  It was a winter wonderland of sorts, dusted with snow and lit up with Victorian mansions, churches, panaderías, and a giant, ornate cemetery with unusually cut trees.  The fanciness of the city harkens back to the wool boom of the 1800s. 

We hopscotched from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, viewing an alien landscape through the condensed windows of our bus.  Little green trees gnarled into each other and melded with the snow, giving way to hilly pastures and an expansive fjord.  Sheep roamed free and so did we.

We lucked out with lodging in Puerto Natales at Yaganhouse, a little cottage for backpackers. In town we grabbed a cheap, hardy meal and organized transport to the park.  During the winter, there is no public transportation to the park, so all rides have to be contracted through local tour companies. 

Awesome things we saw on the way to the park included:
- A big cave where Milodon fossils are found
- Flamingos in lagoons
- Lots of Andean Condors, the heaviest birds in the world (up to 50 lbs)
- Lots of guanaco
- A pack of ñandú, birds that resemble emu
- An elusive armadillo, rare in Patagonia but common roadkill in FL/TX
- waterfalls, lakes, and a red skunk

Ingratiated into nature, we reached the park entrance and got dropped off at a ranger station. We were on the wrong side of the park. All of the hiking that we had planned for had relied on starting at the other end of the park, and our plans were now moot  The rangers eyed us suspiciously. Who were these gringos trying to backpack through the park in winter? 

With a rough new plan, we ambled out of the office into the great unknown.
First up, hike to the abandoned lodge.  In summertime, a big lodge sports awesome views of the mountain for those who can afford it.  It is empty and locked in the wintertime, cemented as an eery testament to civilization amidst the howling wind and snow in the valley.  A few construction workers linger to upkeep facilities. 

We reached the lodge and set-up camp nearby, trying and failing to refill our water at one of the hotel's many closed facilities.  Making the most of limited daylight, we immediately set off on a 6 hr hike above the valley toward the rock towers, leaving our camp behind in the valley. Little did we know that we wouldn't be returning for two days. 

The hike was steep but rewarding,  climbing into a misty canyon of the mountain range toward the Torres.  We planned to walk to Refugio Chileno, another abandoned building, and then turn around and go back.  (Refugios are wood cabins staffed in the summer which hikers can stay in for a fee dorm-style) 

Several hours passed and we finally saw the refugio below us, lo and behold, with smoke rising from its chimney! There were others. 

We descended to the refugio with intentions of refilling our water bottles.  Two American backpackers greeted us, Andy and Josh.  They had huge packs and lots of ice/rock climbing gear. Beside them was a short, tough-looking Patagonian named Victor.  Victor was the lone employee of the Refugio Chileno during the winter.  He had the simultaneous roles of upkeep, repair, sherpa and rescue.  He sheltered marooned hikers out of the kindness of his heart in the closed refugio and was, as Josh put it, a man's man. He remarked (in Spanish) that we were unwise to be hiking at such a late hours in such bad weather, and offered us a night's stay in the closed refugio, free of charge. 

Andy and Josh had tried getting an up close view of the Torres earlier that day, but were stopped by waste-deep snow, low visibility, and snow tornadoes.  They had tried camping near the refugio, until Victor found them and brought them to the refugio.  Victor chuckled at the few crazy hikers who end up at the refugio every winter -- "todos locos," he said.  

It was very lucky that the refugio was "open," because as the weather worsened, so did our health.  I had been sick previously and Patience was getting hit by the worst of it.  Things would have been very bad hiking and camping in the snow.  Victor made some pasta and we ate, one big happy family in the middle of nowhere.

The next morning saw a hike further up and into the mountains.  Snow dappled pines gave way to monstrous rock faces battered by wind.  No matter how far we went, we couldn't see the Torres, the shear cliffs that make the park famous.  They were literally right in front of us, but it was cloudy and snowy and visibility was low.

We returned to the refugio and decided to hightail it out of the park with Andy and Josh.  They had organized a ride out at 4 pm.  We descended to the valley and packed our tent, which hadn't been blown away!


Then we waited to get picked up. 4 pm came and went... and then 5... and then 6, and no van came to pick us up.  Wind howled past the porch of the hotel that sheltered us and we sighed. Darkness descended.

Eventually Patience went over to talk to a construction worker parked in his truck off in the distance.  She explained our situation to him. Turns out he was very friendly, and a big fan of Florida. He let us heat up food in the same place where the construction workers eat, which was the cafeteria of the lodge itself! After breaking into the shutdown lodge, life was better.  We saw some wild foxes and devoured ramen.

Later we were herded to a random cabin where some construction workers lived.  There was a vacated room with two bunk beds where we slept.  Patagonians are very hospitable people.

The next day we walked to the nearest ranger station about 6 km away - during the walk the clouds cleared for the first time and we actually saw the Torres!

At the administration building, we found a guy with sunglass-goggles returning to Puerto Natales at noon.  Back to the real world! We went to a momma-style Chilean diner in Puerto Natales, where we found a not so friendly old man who we suspect was a Texan.  He was there for what he described as "mucho dinero" in the oil biz.  The scene was something out of an old Western:

The old Texan asked the waitress, who spoke no English, "Honey, could you give me a cerveza?"
She looked confused, and he yelled, "A CERVEZA!"
Still confused, she reached for the menu to have him to identify the item. He yelled, "does she have a problema" to everyone else in the restaurant, and screamed "Una CERVEZA" a final time.
 "I can't even get a goddamn beer in this place," he muttered as he slammed the door and walked into the rainy night.

We tipped well, had a good last stay in Puerto Natales, and traveled to Punta Arenas the next day.  We explored the chilly beach, cemetery, churches and mansions and were off, just like that, to sunny Texas and Florida.

Patagonia was as intriguing as expected.  We witnessed the raw power of nature and some breathtaking landscapes.  We were amazed and grateful for the hospitality in such an inhospitable land, and have really enjoyed Chile.


We'd like to thank everyone for reading our rambling stories.  Thank you, and good bye.

Chile Con Queso

Friday, August 8, 2014

Street Juggling

If MISTI Chile were a university this would be my thesis: The Anthropology of Street Juggling.

There are some marked differences between jugglers in the US and Chile. 

Jugglers in the US tend to be mathy people and lots of them are old with long beards or generally misanthropic appearances.  In Chile, most of the jugglers are young and have a healthy amount of tattoos and dreads.  They are youth in revolt -- skater punks who don't skate, but juggle.  Juggler punks.

American Jugglers (Left), Chilean Jugglers (Right)

Chilean jugglers not only look different, but have a completely different juggling style from peeps in the US.   There are the traffic light jugglers, the performers who run in front of cars and juggle for a few pesos during red lights. Many of them are incredibly talented, like this guy.  I think Houston could benefit from some traffic light entertainment, but people in the US are less willing to give money from their cars. In fact, street jugglers would probably get run over by some F-150s in Texas.

Juggling is much more competitive in Chile, at least in my experience. Frequent competitions take place among jugglers.  Who can juggle X trick the longest? Who can knock everyone else off their unicycles while staying on? 

All these questions and more were answered at the  juggling "encuentro" that we attended in a local park this past weekend.  Over 500 people flocked to Parque Nuñoa for a monthly meet up put on by Organic Juggling.  It was a fun afternoon participating and bearing witness to competitions like club combat, 7 ball endurance, and unicycle combat.  I like how people just meet up in parks and juggle in Chile. I think that it is the contributing factor for why such a popular "street culture" has formed.  Anyone can just drop by the park and learn and laugh with local jugglers. 

Unfortunately, I left a ball at the encuentro.  The guy who ran the encuentro contacted me, and I went to the Sunday meet-up by the art museum to retrieve it.  Little did I know what mayhem would follow. 

Being a good juggler doesn't change the fact that I'm a gringo.  Standing in a concrete ring, clearly the only gringo around,  I was pitted against some of the best Chilean jugglers in a variety of competitions.  A bunch of hoodlums shouted things in spanish that I didn't register.  This was the world cup of juggling, US versus Chile, from the looks of it. People formed a circle around us to watch. Whenever I won a competition,  the hoodlums would shout "white power!!!", and correspondingly  "black power!!!" every time I lost.  And ultimately I did lose, winning only a couple of ball trick contests.  Chile prevailed, and I said my goodbyes, impressed by the talent and rowdiness of the juggler punks. 

Winding down

Today is our last day in Santiago! Very early tomorrow morning we will leave for a 5 day journey to the heart of Patagonia. Our internships are wrapping up: Ian just has one project to finish, and I have one more participant (myself) to run with my eye-tracking experiment before I call it quits and condense all my data for analysis at some undetermined time in the future. Weeks have passed, smog levels have varied, and we have managed to make the most of the rest of our time in the city with several fun escapades. But although our last few weeks have been peppered with a) asados (Chilean barbecues), b) learning the traditional Chilean dance, "Cueca", c) meeting the new round of international exchange students who will succeed our fruitful reign, and d) having several street-encounters with Chilean jugglers reminiscent of a 90s skater movie, I'd prefer to use this blog post to reflect on our time in Chile as a whole... cue slow acoustic guitar.

Concerning Chileans:
 I will miss the look of pleased surprise I receive when Chileans realize I speak Spanish. I will not miss the frustration I feel when they use that as an excuse to start talking to me in rapid, slurred Chilean slang.

One of the strangest encounters I've had with a Chilean: One day, when I was walking my oh-so-scenic walk to work in the rain, and I encountered a puddle too huge for me to walk through or jump over. Before I could simply walk around it, a  Chilean ran up to me with a big smile, holding a long piece of plywood over his head. He set it over the puddle in front of me, forming a make-shift bridge. Once I had crossed, he shook my hand, picked up the board, and scurried off into the rain.

Several other MISTI students are in agreement with this statement: Chilean waitresses are the sassiest waitresses you will ever meet. Prepare to feel uncomfortable and/or insecure after an encounter with one.

I took three tap classes in Santiago. It's the first time someone has shouted "Arriba!" at me while I tap danced.

In general, Chileans aren't quite as outgoing as some other countries, but if you initiate a conversation with one, they will often be incredibly friendly, giving you advice on where to go, what you see, possibly even inviting you to tea or introducing you to people who can aid you in your travels.

Chileans eat everything with a knife and fork. This includes pizza, hamburgers, and sandwiches.

Concerning traveling in Chile:
Chile has great traveling infrastructure: buses and flights criss-cross the whole country. Just make sure you're not getting a crappy deal as a foreigner: when Ian and I checked "United States" as our country of origin on the official LAN airlines website, the prices were nearly 40% higher than they were when we checked "Chile"...

Chileans will be very confused if you visit non-touristy parts of the country. For example, when we went to Constitución, we asked at the train station if there was a place we could find visitors' information or a map, and he just gestured to the town around him and said, "For a town this small? Not necessary."

When you're traveling in Chile, it will be obvious right away that you're not from Chile, but beyond that they have no idea. I've pulled off telling people I'm English, Australian, and I've had people ask me if I was from Paris or Spain.  On the other hand, it's surprisingly common when you're walking in El Centro for vendors to start following you, trying to talk to you in English just because you're white. I bet the white Chileans that vendors must inevitably accidentally do this to get really annoyed.

And thus ends our Penultimate Post. I hope that our readership has enjoyed "Chile con Queso" thus far, and that they eagerly await our 15th and final chapter, recounting breathtaking tales of Patagonia and Torres del Paine, undoubtedly told by Ian since he gets to write all the exciting posts.

...We will miss you, Santiago!