Saturday, February 18, 2012

Austral Haul

An open road. A loaded pack. The crunch of gravel and the whipping wind. You're not 100% in strength but damn does it feel good to be mooooooovin'.

The wind in Torres was a bitch, and she left you with some sniffles in Puerto Natales causing a 2 day de-lay but the immune system gave a sucker punch and you were back on the road in no time, just fine.

A short wait, short ride, it's all great. Walk a ways looking at linticular clouds mount like pancakes, flat stacks piling up above some gaucho's place. An hour stroll and a mixed bag of women from Switzerland, Australia, and Chile give a hand through the tolls of immigration. 2 more stamps and you're back in Argentina, Che.

Río Turbio's got a mine, not much more, so you don't waste time. Stick out the thumb and hey diddly-dum! The first catch is a miner who backpacked once to the north, now he's payin' the road debt back and drops you off at the crossroads to the Ruta 40. Time to make a bit of an acquaintance and walk a bit because you'll be stickin' with her for about 600k to Chile Chico.

You note the backpack is definitely back and the little bug you caught is doing wonders on the strength reserves. A good long sit ends with a lucky bit as a Bob Marley blastin' Argentine keeps you in time all the way to La Esperanza. This town's got absolutely nothing going for it, at least surely not esperanza.

Compañero Chileno and you fish for a bit but decide to quit and bring a new trick to the table. Approaching the town's seemingly only cookery, you ask with humility, if to cook some pasta they are able.

"Che, no problem! Hey grab a chair, would you like me to pass the maté?"
"Well, don't mind if I do if it's all right with you, and how is everyone passin´?"

So ya sit right there in that plastic chair while the guys pass ya some beer and y'all start chattin'. They serve you the 1/2kilo of pasta and added a veggie sauce with some bread for munching, free of charge.

Waking the next day the skies are looking dark, a few drops fall just as you begin to start. But you kids are playin with luck today! You get a ride without even leavin the service station, all the way back to Ruta 40...then you're left in the rain, a painnnnn in the ass but not 3 cars pass and a couple takes your wet hides for a ride.

"Where to?"
"We're taking a day trip to El Chaltén"
"And coming back?"
"That's right, so if we catch you on the return we'll give you another flight"

Soon Mr. Fitz Roy is looming above, clouds swirling around him in the cold air, with trekkers looking from below at the show. A few hours and lunch then back to the exit, the couple takes you to the crossroads and exchange emails so you can send them some uploads.

The wind is howling, bullying you and your pack. You jump and catch it like the sails of a galleon. A short truck ride and you've made it to Tres Lagos, or, almost. The service center on the outskirts (if there was any town there in the first) provides the night's camp and you make the most.

Next day and you face ol' 40 again, this time she's pure dirt and gravel for as far as the eye can travel.
"Wow man, how are we going to conquer this..." (pickup stops) "one..."

"Would you be willing to give a lift? Anywhere north would be a gift."
"Of course, we're going to Chile Chico"
"You mean the Chile Chico 400k that way?"
"The only one I know of. Sorry the cab's full, you'll have to sit out back."
"Please! No problem! Let me grab my pack."

And so begins Dust Ride. Such a fine powder that's been given a million years to settle gets disrupted by every pull of the Firestones. Rickity-tik-TANK-TONK-BAP slap the stones on the Japanese steel carriage. One hour, two hours, three hours then bizhhhhhhh, ah a patch of tarmac thank YOU Kirschner for giving a little bit of public funding down here! The tailbone's been jostled enough that it's now flush with your rear. But as suddenly as it's come...drop! Rumble, rumble, bumble and the sand storm provides you with it's blanket humble.

The halfway point allows a respite and rinse so you shovel off the rouge from your face. The rickshaw needs a rubber paw change and some combustible but the station's dry as the surroundings. No problem though, your chauffeurs are prepared with a hose and two jugs of the green naphtha. So who's to start the siphon? Ah, how nice of you to volunteer! The dragon fuel leaves your mouth with a taste of magnificently aged tarpentine moonshine.

Back on the road! Back on the pebbles! If your ass hurts now by the end it will treble! But wait? Can it be? From here to Chile Chico it's both dust and bounce free? And hills hide the pampa behind the curtain, your return? Date uncertain.

Chile Chico, aye que rico! Back in the adopted homeland just after 2 short days. A couchsurf contact allows you guys to set up the tent in the apple tree grove and shower off the day's dose. The wind still howls outside but is no match for the bag of deliciously warm sleep.

Sunday and the town is dead, held hostage indoors as the gusts throw everything to the ground...including ruby orange apricots to be found. A routine price check on the pasta in a small family supermarket brings you to a gathering of the local elders, swiggin' grape juice of the white and red varieties. The best from the box is insisted upon you and the conversations begin about the "damned Israelis" and days of old Chico's insobrieties.

Blasted wind keeps on blasting till the morning and you're ready to hit it again. To the main drag at a leisurely 2pm, it's lined with Israel. You strike up conversations with them and find it interesting that this patch of the journey is the only part by thumb, the rest by bus. To each their own in the outstreched arm we trust.

So what's to do when there's so much competiton and traffic so few? Strap the sign on the back and pick up the slack, it's time to ramble on. The competition looks on, confused and dumbfounded as to what the scraggly gringo-chilean team is doing. And so it's 30 minutes walk, 3k ride, 50 minute strut, 25k lift, 1 hour skuff, 3 hour flatbed to Puerto Guadal shared with some Israelis and spent hooting and hollerin' like cowboy of the respective countries (Yee-haw, tiuuoo,uyuuui!), then the crossroads with the grand Carretera Austral is breached in the waining hours of sunlight. To the right are some cabros from Santiago and a friendly banter finds you with some camping pals. Que tal. Stories are shared 'round the campfire with noodle soup and a 1.5 of red wine jive.

Pit...pat...pit...pat-pit...patpitt-pat...patpitpatpitpattattaTATAaPATtatPatTATTATATTTAAAAATAAAA "good morning, it's 6:30 and time to get up" says the shower. It's a benign windless wet pour, easily walkable, easily if only there were some rides to fish for.

2 hours and a jeep comes to pass, alas they can only take 1. So it starts down the road but brakes and into reverse it goes.
"Yeaaa Ok two of you hop in, this is my wife _____ and my daughter _____ now from where you kids coming?"
"Cauquenes, 7th Region"
"...and Los Angeles"
"Ahhh both Chileno?"
"haha oh please no, Los Angeles California"
"Really? I'll be. You must have been practicing your accent"
"Sometimes I can pass if I keep it nice and short"
"Well you fooled me for a second there kid"
You know you're sure you did.

And you bump down the road to the turn off at the marble caves. The steady rain is a deterrent to taking the boat out so there's a good 5 hour waiting period chatting with some Swiss cyclists near the bonfire. Someday, someway, you're gonna bike this route. Details and other logistics like money will be worried about... later.

There's a break in the rain, a chance to end this boredom and hop on a skip to see some marble eroded by the gentle lap of waves of a million years. 5000 pesos, a lap around some interesting island rocks, and some photos. As much as you don't want to sound like a "I'm above tourism" prick, nature has a tendency of losing it's value when it's paid for.

9pm in Rìo Tranquilo and you're fooling around with your "Recièn duchados" sign for the few cars that pass, all laughing at such a grand fib but hey at least you've got class. The sun casts crepicsulars of neon orange and red from behind the mountainous backdrop and as you take an errand for the daily bread it seems as though the night will be spent in this town at least recently fed. But on the return trip you see the scene play out in slow-mo. The pickup stops, the compañero questions, up with the bags, and you take off running not wanting to miss the ride that's apparently to Coyhaique.

Ice ride. Oh if you'd had any idea! The trip, motion sick popsicle stick. Flyin' down the gravel road to the 9th circle of Hell where ol' Beezulbub is whipping up a windstorm that passes through every layer, goddamn it's a slayer! Not even the cocoon sleeping bag provides any sort of relief and you curse the gale out loud, just to be sure it hears your discomfort...

But the landscape. Bathed in the brightest light from the brightest of moons you've ever seen in 23years 6 months and 5 days. Each nauseating twist in the road and a you watch magic unload on pupils wide looking at nature pure and bonafide. The sparkle of the ice water dancing down river while saw-toothed ranges cast long shadows over the forests and plains below is a gigantic grace saving you from the invisible cutting wind.

Useless your trembling self is in arming the tent at the service station 4 hour later.

A warm sun knocks on your eyelids and it's time to check out of Coyhaique. After so many single road towns the bustle and jumble of the region's largest provides a stark contrast to those passed. At the city exit the pack hardly hits the ground before it's recollected and thrown into the bed of a well-loved pickup. 30 minutes later it's back on the tarmac, a wait with frequent trips to the trees lining the edges loaded with plums, maki, and bees.

Friendly farmer takes you and 5 others 5k and then you watch with jealousy as a pickup takes them away. You're left for 3 hours before stuffing into a circus mobile. A 20k trip to the middle of the forest with the lions, tigers and rides. Farmer Jaime gives the go to sleep under the moon on his private piece of Patagonia.

And the morning wait forshadows fate. A dismal 30k then perching it along the Rìo Cisnes. Hours and hours with your boredom you fight, only one car stops and says the cross is a 5k hike. 5k? Ok. And the kilos hit your back, but after 5 clicks have passed you ask some Brits rolling fast "No more than 12", agh sonofabitch oh well, and 2 hours more sun hotter than hell. Alas more cycles! And what do they say "10k and you're good for the day" but by now you don't trust a word anyone say. The sun is sunk behind the clouds it's shrunk, but to trudge you must. La cruce, la cruce, la cruce, la cruce or bust. The last chunk of 3 is ridden in speed, and you've arrived to where the tarmac ends. With sweat and funk, you take refuge in the roadside shack, with holes, vermin and other luxuries to pamper.

An early start but not necessarily catching the worm. The conversation with Mr. Traveling pirated DVDs man (among other merchandise) is as good as any to kill time.Then some luck to La Junta you strike, or about 70 more than the day before hike. Glacier valleys are as common as inner city alleys and exist in precious ambience too perfect for words.

La Junta, "a meeting place for friends" it says, "apparently the memo didn't arrive" thinks you. And it's still dirt that gets kicked in your face with every car that passes every 10 minutes, but the 3rd is a winner.

"I've worked in every part of this country. Antartica to Rapa Nui. Laying roads and asphalt's the game. Played pro soccer and studied under socialism yet worked for a dictator. Pardon the munching boys I haven't eaten nothing all day. You've heard of the Bulls right? Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippen, and maaan, who was that other guy? Rodman! Oh could he play dirty, but never fouled-out nope. Ah, and see here kids they're sprayin' SR7A, compound sticks to the gravel under the asphault but they'll finish this stretch of road today yup, and you can drive on it tomorrow..." all the way to Chaitèn.

It's been a year out of the country that bears your passport so why not set up the tent on the beach and splurge on a 6 of Chile's finest, 12 months down 3 to go. The pitter-patter chatter knocks you out.

Sell out. The bus tickets remind you how much transportation really costs, and the bus reminds you how much it sucks to travel by bus. Limited view, limited mobility, and isolation. 5000k tramping has spoiled your core and 12 hours to Puerto Montt with 3 boat crossings exiting Jurrasic Park is pure mental sedation. As Austral fades a promise is made to return again to slay the beast properly.

Then Valdivia, now Conce. Home base. HQ. The start of round two. 2 months to Bogota, and 6 to Wichita.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Fortress Torres

"Ruso! Ruso! Conchetumadre!"

The Ruso has just disappeared from sight and not a sound comes from below. The darkness of night has seemed to complicate the descent entering the fortress and an unseen cliff has just swallowed your Russian comrade. The lack of moon and cloudy sky creates a near pitch black environment and a slight rain begins to fall on you and compañero Chileno. The Torres now seem that much further away.


Leaving Ushuaia was a longer process than expected and it wasn't until 1 in the afternoon that you found yourselves standing at the entrance to the city, as cold and windy as ever. 30 minutes yielded a ride from Mauricio, a local or Río Grande for 14 years who has owned many a restaurant in the area. He takes you two through the village of Tolhuin situated in the heart of Tierra del Fuego and famous for a small bakery that hand makes incredible pastries and houses an aviary complete with parrot and toucan. Probably the southernmost birds of both species. Before getting out at the roundabout in Río Grande, Mauricio gives you a kilo of bread along with a few pastries for your journey, proving once again that it is impossible to go hungry at the bottom of the world. Buena onda, buena onda.

A short walk along the highway and a most unlikely fellow decides to pull over. You never learn his name but the Frenchman is everything of an interesting character.

He's towing a catamaran, 100% carbon fiber straight from Europe, able to cut through the icy waters of Cape Horn and battle the high winds. You pass through various checkpoints with him as is necessary in Tierra del Fuego, the fact that he's shipped his v10 Tuareg and boat from the old world requires more paperwork and red tape to wade through. You realize that you'll probably not leave the island that day. While Franchito likes to gun his 400 horses to over 120kph on the gravel road, he's also a photographer and stops every 5 minutes to take pictures of the setting sun and guanaco. You arrive in Cerro Sombrero low on fuel, and luck would have it that the only gas station in town closed at 8. After a meal and a harrying ordeal  trying to back out the trailer in which Franchuto begins to yell at you in all sorts of colorful French words you don't catch, it's time to find a place to camp. A churchyard will suffice and as it has a overhang it will help block the rain that comes the following morning.

At daybreak, you decide to ditch Franchuto and catch a ride with a lighthouse worker who's lived in various parts of the island, including a year at the end of the world on Cape Horn, and interesting profession it must be. After the ferry across the Straight of Magellan a Chilean family from Porvenir takes you to a service station that goes towards Puerto Natales, and a bit of a wait later a pickup drops you off at Villa Trehuelches, one of the smallest towns you've ever seen. There's another hitcher on the highway and it's always good to make friends on the road right? A is a Russian born in Kazakstan who's been traveling for more or less 2 years, working on and off to support the journey. Turns out he camped here the night before as the hitching was incredibly slow, not the greatest news as you return to your perch and watch the sheep graze and a lone grey fox runs across the road. A lamb roasting over a spit comes to mind.

It's not until 7 hours later that a pickup with two rowdy Chileans finally comes by and picks you and the Ruso up. The ride is full of crude jokes and music videos of "I'm sexy and I know it", one of the strangest tunes to be blasting as the landscape changes from boring, dull hills to dark, ominous jagged peaks. The truck summits a grade and the bay of Puerto Natales comes into view. The sun's rays pierce through the cover and illuminate the snow below. You try to take pictures but the words and images have no concepts to describe what lay in front of your eyes.

Thanks to your conversation with Ruso you now have contacts with Couchsurfing in the area that you can crash on. A few blocks later and you find the couch to be a very interesting home, essentially a bed and breakfast but through couchsurfing. They offer a place to stay but mention "contributions are gladly accepted" after explaining to you various times how humble and middle-class they are.

The next day is a late start to the road and hitching in groups of 3 is no easy task. 5 minutes in, a van stops and offers a ride for only 1, so there goes Ruso. "No problem" you think "there must be plenty of traffic going to one of the most visited parks in the country, somebody is gonna take us". After a 10k walk not a single ride has yielded and you stop to rest. It's not until 30 minutes later that a truck transporting gas takes you 15k. An hour more, 3k. 2 hours, 20k. 30 minutes, a solid lift to the road leading to the park entrance. Close, so damn close. And along comes your Winnebago, only Latin American so it's a Mercedes-Benz model. All the same, it looks the part. You had played catch-up with this family for most of your journey to Puerto Natales and finally, finally, it stops. The father drives mesmerized by the guanaco and the mother's head sits on a swivel as she whirls around with her binoculars viewing the landscape. Their grown son asks you questions that are barely comprehensible.  You lumber along at an incredibly slow pace but hey, it's faster than walking. It's not until right before the entrance to the park that you see Ruso, sitting in the grass, he's been there for the majority of the afternoon. The three of you now ride to the entrance and see the place crawling with PDI and CONAF park rangers. The fee of 15 thousand pesos as a foreigner is nonetheless impossible, a stealth entrance, necessary.

The National Lampoon family is fed up with the list of rules for camping and decides to head for el Calafate but before they leave you, beers, water, crackers, and cake is stuffed into your undeserving hands. The three of you are left speechless.

Turning your backs to the tank kicking up dust down the road you hike it up the hills to find a place hidden from view and discover an open well, perfect for cooking a pasta dinner over open flames, but careful not to start another fire that's closed half the park thanks to a careless camper (Remember kids, only you can prevent forest fires). It's not until midnight that you descend the hills to the road in attempt to make a covert entrance. A few kilometers down the road and dogs from the sheep ranch begin to bark and a light comes from the house, fleeing to the hills you hit the dirt behind some bushes. Apparently crossing the road will be impossible and it's necessary to go up the hills to find the road on the other side. So up it is, pure bushwhacking and bush stomping through thistles and thorns. The starlight is scarcely enough to make out the mountains in the background and the ominous clouds that come promising rain.

From the summit you can see the sheep farm far behind and below, the entrance gate with lights from a television flickering through the window is still about 2 km away. A river runs around the border of the park like a moat and is much too deep and rapid to cross with equipment, on top of this, the cold water would cause hypothermia before you even reached the other side. The only option is to sneak past the entrance and cross the bridge soon after. Time for the descent. A gradual decline soon tilts to 45 degrees and you have to hold your pack on your front side to get more friction on the dirt. Your poor eyesight leaves you behind the others a few meters as the three of you negotiate routes down the slope. About an hour later the pale light reveals the road and the thought that you will finally end this tedious stumbling in the dark.

And then... Ruso disappears from view without so much as a muffled thud in return. Compañero Chileno lights his lamp, there are more important things than stealth at the moment.

"Ruso! Ruso!"...silence. Then...

"Ummpf, chicos... don't come down this way..."

To the right lies a soft sandy embankment and the two of you left on the hill clamber down to look for the fallen comrade. To your left he sits, nursing a nasty puncture.

"What hurts?"
"My foot, but it's not broken. I know what that feels like. But my back...hurts very much".

First aid is administered to the cavity in his shin and it's not until then that you look up at the sheer rock face that afflicted the damage.
"Holy shit...huevon you fell about 4 meters!"

The fall has given him quite a sprain and the clandestine sneak into the park looks as if it's been terminated. Supporting his weight the three of you trudge slowly towards the gate and a soft rain falls. The patter of the drops landing on your pack. Lights off. Nothing but the crunch of rocks and gravel underneath uneven footsteps. You pass the guard station as if it were nothing but a garden gate. Was it really that easy? You set up the tents below the PDI camper behind some bushes. "There's no possible way that we won't be discovered at daybreak" you think as the warmth of your sleeping bag causes your eyelids to close.

It's 10:30 and bright as day when you awake, emerging from your tent to see hordes of tourists pass down the road. You wave with a smile to the buses as they look back at your mangy figure with the tents in the background. "Did he really just spend the night there?" can be read on every face pressed against the window.

Ruso has awoken with a strong pain still lingering but is able to fight it off and mounts his pack. And you all set off, expecting to get caught by the authorities at any moment...but it never happens. Not once in the 3 days that you spend there are you questioned. The exit is just as care-free, exiting in the middle of the night under another cloud of rain.

Hitching the next day back to Puerto Natales is another long wait, and when you leave to ask a nearby restaurant owner a few questions, a ride comes and picks up your companions, leaving you to walk alone. No worries though, an hour later and you're able to find a ride back into town.

The current rain, and a tingle in your throat, has given a day of rest before setting off to el Calafate where there is supposedly a free lamb asado all week long. It sounds too good to be true, but there's only one way to find out right?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

All Quiet on the Southern Front

It's a quiet Ushuaia Saturday morning, even for the already quiet city. The sun rises at 5:30 casting long rays through the silent clouds rolling and tumbling over the surrounding peaks. You sit in a mildly inebrious state for a few minutes and watch the life come to painting.

"You're at the...end... of the world" you think to yourself, mouthing the words. And yet it feels strange.

A week ago you were traveling, pressing, trudging, moving with the same motivation of the greatest explorers to simply to arrive. It was always further, to the south, to the end...and now you're here. So why uneasy?

For the necessity of money you landed a job as a waiter, it's alright, a few hours each night, the bosses are a bit cold and reserved, but the job pays the booze. Yet all the same, it's time to move. Becoming comfortable sleeping with a reliable roof, bed, and money is the sole reason why you feel uncomfortable...and the road's a callin'.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Luck will find a way

The summer sun at the end of the world crosses the sky at an angle and the wind incessantly whips at the face. Tonight's sleeping arrangement is still left unknown.

An early wake-up and goodbye to C and the baby is followed by a ride to the hitching spot in L's car. Many thanks and good lucks later you and compañero Chileno are on the side of the road with thumbs out.
"Oye W man, take off you pack it's going to be a while..." and a semi pulls over to the shoulder, "hahaaaaa! Conchetumadre huevon!"

Fecundo gives the first ride on the way south, about 40km to a junction, the conversation is primarily about his multiple girlfriends and son. He's got a camping stove set up in his cabin and doesn't hesitate to light it up and pass the mate gourd.

The next spot yields a 45 minute wait until you throw your packs in with Daniel. You chat about politics and the influence of transnationals in towns, they seem to help and beautify at first but then follow with contaminating sludge and worker mistreatment.

Scruff the security pup.
You're dropped of in a highway town and start walking along the road, now the Ruta 3 that will take you all 300 plus km to Ushuaia. The two of you are more or less wandering, kicking up dust and looking for a better spot to place your hook. You laugh as you pass Arroyo California and snap a quick shot before a truck pulls over to the side, without even doing the motion! A quick questioning of the driver and he's got no problem throwing you two in the back of an empty container, rattling with such a racket that it's necessary to put toilet paper in your ears to soften the sharp clangs and clanks. At this time the clouds start rolling, large cumulus mamatus offer a sure prediction for rain. Sure enough, an hour passes and you've donned the rain gear over your shirt and board shorts. The truck stops as the first drops hit and José calls you inside after scolding you for dismounting on the highway side, he's right as a bus flies by within arms length. Like Fecundo and Daniel, José also has the same gas stove that seems to be standard issue for maté prep. That´ll be about 2 liters of the stuff by the end of the day. He drops you off at a roundabout near Azul and gives you the friendly double-honk of good luck as you start wandering down the direction of Bahia Blanca in the light rain.

Around 6:45 you cal it a day as the drops threaten and you leave the asphalt to a pasture in some bushes. A few minutes later and the gear is safely out of the wet. All attempts to start a fire under the lean-to fail and you enjoy a tuna on raisin cookie dinner, the remaining tuna is given to a stray dog who's followed you from the crossroads and he sleeps soundly out of the rain after you've prepared him a plastic mattress over the wet ground. About 400km total and you sleep to the patter above.

Waking up the next day is easy with more than sufficient light at 6. Quickly pack up the tent and brush your teeth then back to the highway. About 15 minutes of walking and fishing brings Pedro the van driving mailman to the side. The dog trails a bit before Pedro guns it and you see your last night's security guard fade away. Pedro seems to have many loves in foods, many of which he can't eat due to blood pressure and diet complications. You still manage to have a good beer conversation with the man. 120km later he drops you off in Tres Arroyos.

Asking around the station only get's you a few laughs from the Argentines so compadre and you take to the walking strategy again. 5 minutes down the road and trucker Luis pulls over. A man quick to lament his status and family issues he nonetheless is an avid helper of travelers. You share some sweet maté on the way to Bahia Blanca and after a dismount and remount, eventually you end up in the service station El Cholo. Stomachs growling from a lack of breakfast, you head to a parrilla to ask to buy some bread and after a confusing exchange, learn that the 2 loaves are free!

So back under the shade it is to feast on gourmet tuna and bread. You're ready to hit the road again when from across the way the owner of the parrilla calls. Thinking you've done something wrong you put on the innocent face as you approach, but something else in in store,
"where did you go buddy? I was looking all over for ya!"
"Ah just under the shade to eat a bit"
"Well, I hope you're still hungry, pull up a chair, lunch is on me!"
And with that you and W sit dumbfounded as your served steak, sausage, kidney, liver, and a bit of salad and soda to wash it down. You eat until walking becomes difficult. " I don't want you to go back to the US and say ya passed through Argentina hungry now!" he laughs.

A rest at the service station is necessary but you hit the road soon after with a rejuvenated force. Having thought your luck was spent, your jaw drops as after little more than 15 minutes of walking and Wladmar pulls off the road in his VW pickup. "Where to guys?"
"As far south as possible"
"Ah great! I can take you all the way to Trelew if you like?" (about 800km) "but one of you is going to have to hop in the bed."

W gets the honor of viewing the countryside pass by windshield free as you hop in the cab. You immediately take a liking to the man as he says "you know, I drove by those other hitchhikers and said 'man, I could have helped them out' but I didn't know where they were going. How great it was I stopped to ask you guys and that I could help!"

He calls himself a "renegade Chilean" and moved away from his homeland in '75 during the dictatorship but harbors a harsh criticism for his mother country's politics and culture.
"its all Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le but it's not backed up. We want to be patriotic of our own soil, but when we buy foreign things because all our industry produces is crap products, what does that say? We want to be a tourist country but what do we actually have that is Chilean? We greet people dancing (gives the cueca spin motion) but then we go home to buy pre-fabricated foreign products. And if you talk bad about the county people get on your ass in a second! They only want to hear good things about their country"
"Welcome to the US" you say.

And on and on he goes about the loco politicians, about the (better) Argentine differences, philosophy on consumerism, and his dream to buy a motorcycle and finance a trip by doing carpentry wherever he rides. He gives a cyclist a thumbs up and a honk as he passes by. They are a different sub-sect the tour cyclists, bus travelers all the same.

As darkness very very slowly falls over the landscape you can tell Wladmar is getting tired and W in the back is freezing his balls off and grabs both sleeping bags to fight the cold night air an 80kmh winds. You too are getting sleepy as you pull in for gas and wait in a ridiculous hour long line to serve about 20 cars. The only thing keeping you from nodding off is Wladmar's own sleep deprived body and wavering eyelids. Numerous times when the conversation stops the car moves a bit into the center divide and then sharply pulls back, Wladmar calmly stating " Oops,I fell asleep, I fell asleep" It's not until 2:30 that you manage to convince him to pull over and get a few hours of rest.
Compañero in the back

You're off again at 5 with Wlad still periodically falling asleep but arrive as Puerto Madryn at 7, you opted out of Trelew to see something a bit more spectacular.

A few hour naps on the beach and you hit the boardwalk. It's nice to walk barefoot after so many days wearing boots. On the pier, W and you make an "artisan fishing pole" that doesn't yield much success, and even after a kind fisherman gifts you a hook and bait, the failure is still obvious.

Leaving W to tend the line you try your luck playing harmonica for coins but after 30 minutes are left with nothing. Heading back to the skatepark you find W and some early teenyboppers. You chat with them and finding a remarkably mature kid on your hands.

You and W walk to the center of town to split up in search of work. Finding a Carrefour and tooting a few notes on the harmonica there nets your first busking prize of 50 centavos from a group of children. Perhaps their generation isn't so rotten and corrupt as we previously thought. A few sour looks from the security guard and it's time to park the ass on some different grass. The boardwalk seems like it's got a good vibe and you play...and play...and play...for almost an hour before a young kid yells something you don't catch.
"Give me 50 cents!"
"What? Man can't you see I'm playin' my butt off for nothing!"
And with that, he reaches down into your hat and takes out a 50 centavo coin. The little fucker! Furious, you shout out a HUEON! and grab the brat, prying the coin from his thieving fingers, more afraid of you than anything.
"Fuck you!"
"Yea Suck it!" as you turn around he tosses his bottle at your back and storms off. This has attracted the attention of a few passerby and a bike cop who turns around and begins questioning before he rides off to catch the young punk.

A few nicer passerby begin to chat and you give your story, perhaps a bit embellished, and they stop to listen to your toots. Toot to tootle. Wah wah hee-wah.
"Hey man I want to give you a bit for your trip, it means a lot more to you than it does to me" and he passes you 4 pesos, or about 400% more than you've collected the whole hour. "I'll add you on Facebook man."

Puerto Madryn by night
You meet compañero Chileno at the car wash he found some work at, and learn that he pocketed 40 pesos in his 2 hours of work. "Well, I guess that's bread, tomato and paté for dinner tonight!" You guys trek it out of town a ways and open air camp in the Million Star Hotel as critters like beetles and scorpions crawl underneath the sleeping bag.

The sun's up early as your direction turns south. You catch a ride up the hill with a construction worker to make it the rest of the way to your friend Ruta 3. A little more than a half hour later yields a ride to Trelew and the pursuing walk finds a river. You attempt to fish and cook pasta over a fire, spilling the water 3 times before getting it to boil. The banks are teeming with pea plants so you make the most of it and grab your first veggies of the trip.

Another walk after the river so hot and dry as your water reserves have been depleted. Luckily, there's a service station about another kilometer away that's just been constructed and you drink the water in huge gulps and rinse off a few days of sweat that's been accumulating in your hair.

Hitting the 3 again at the peak sun hour of 4pm isn't necessarily your wish but luck's still with you in the form of Bolivian-Argentine Richard and his big rig of new VW's and Toyotas packed so close that you wonder how the hood of one doesn't scratch the window of the other mere centimeters away.

"To Ushuaia?" he starts, "Well I can help you out a bit, at least to Río Gallegos," in other words 1200km. Rock and fuckin' roll.

...and the first 400 is pampa so flat that you could take 100 pictures various kilometers apart and not tell the difference. "Look over there" points Richard, and you look while he starts cracking at the sides. You look again, nothing but pampa, and realize he's pulling a fast one. Nice work my friend, very funny.

Pampa de mierda
About 5 hours in and he makes a stop to eat dinner, pulling the monster of a rig over with a sharp turn of the wheel as if it were nothing else than a toy kite. W and you take out the bread and tomato, eating the simple and usual combination of carbohydrate and fruit (or veggie?). Richard returns with a bag of milanesa, fried egg, ham and cheese sandwiches and grunts at you "Eat man, c'mon!" The bomb drops on the stomach in about 5 minutes.

As you pass through the following town, Rich cat calls at about every moving thing with tits that he sees, honking his horn and being amusingly crude, or at least as amusing as machismo can be. It's about this time that the truck starts to really loose strength and the engine feels like it's tugging much weaker. Any sort of hill it approaches and the power is simply sapped, forcing the angry Bolvian to throw it into first.
"The bitch of a mother who gave birth to you!" among other flowery remarks are followed with a quick smile and laugh. "You know who's fault this is?" he asks rhetorically "Charqui's" pointing at you. Earlier on it had been established that your nickname would be that of dried horse meat, or Charqui as it sounds similar. You travel late into the night and sleep during the wee hours of the morning in the passenger seat while Richard takes the bunk in back.

You wake up the next morning to Richard's yells as the truck seems to have even less power than the day before. Many stops are made throughout the day to change to oil, check the fuel lines, and other mechanical troubleshooting. Most of these inspections finish with Richard discarding the used chemical or non-biodegradable substance to the side of the highway to rest for 400 years before returning to an organic substance.

It's not until you're within 20km of Río Gallegos that Richard realizes the fuse for the panic button is bad and has been half cutting-out the engine for the last 12 hours. By the end of the ride, you've been in the truck for more than 24 hours.

Another walk awaits you at this time to the outskirts and there seems to be little vegetation to stealth camp in. Out in a field is a shed made from an old shipping container. Using it as a shield from the incessant winds blowing across the pampas, you bundle up in your bag before the sun sets around 10:30.

You sleep well and amazingly the wind stopped as the sun went down, making the tent unnecessary. Other than a mouse that jumped in your hair at one moment, the night was completely tranquil. Getting your things ready for the day of hitching ahead (Ushuaia is sill 587km to the south) you spot 2 other hitchers running to an incredibly large rig on the highway. "Well at least it won't be impossible to get a Sunday ride" you think to yourself.

3 hours later and 6 km of walking down the road the wind is tearing your ears off and causing you to shout a few lines from Richard's book at every vehicle that passes you by. Another truck rockets past followed by a smaller car and you sigh at what seems to be an impossible day. But wait...the car pulls off to the side and put on the reverse "Holy shit, is he stopping for us?!...Yes, he is!" and Juan emerges from the driver's seat. "Where to guys?"

About a half hour later and you're stuck in the customs line to check out of Argentina and into Chile once again. A 2 hour ordeal thanks to the bureaucracy resulting from a conflict over Tierra del Fuego that almost resulted in a war. Instead the island is half and half. Customs takes your garbanzos as Chile is notoriously known for it's strict food regulations. At least you steal an apple from the trash where all the confiscated food is dumped and you consider the trade a fair deal.

Crossing the straight of Magellan leaves you wondering how a wooden ship 500 years ago could have ever survived these seas with an average height of 2 meters and winds that blow seawater clear across the 3 lane ferry.

Estrecho de Magallanes
Tierra del Fuego isn't much different than the panpas you left before, but a bit more hilly in places which really changes the landscape for a more attractive and dynamic photo opportunity. "You know we would stop and fish if customs didn't take so long" says Juan. You're almost more upset that he mentioned it.

2 and a half hours over gravel roads on the Chilean side and passing into Argentina again leave you with probably the quickest turnaround time between entry and exit stamp your passport will ever see. You reach Río Grande at 8:30 and the sun is still clear in the sky.
"Well if you could drop us off at the service station that would be great"
"Yea, I could do that but it's in the center of town and a bit dangerous, or I could invite you to a few beds that my children aren't using at my place with a roof, your choice." Sold.

An hour and your first shower in 6 days later Juan asks "so who's up for empanadas?" and you go out on the town to feast on empanadas of ham and cheese, Roquefort, and spiced meat. You call it quits at 1.

Juan the savior and YPF, the savior of bathrooms and water.

You begin early and rise with the sun as Juan has to be at work by 6. The wind still kills even with 3 layers and a jacket, but at least you're clean and well fed. Today feels like Ushuaia and with 210 to go till the end of the world you can taste it. The first ride was with a good natured trucker driving a sedan at 160 kph (do the conversion) which brought you halfway. The landscape noticeable changing from relatively flat to forests with streams and snow-capped mountains even in the summer. The second ride comes from an Argentine born to Bolivian parents who works as an electrical engineer. He hands you a manual on basement water pumps and asks for help in translating terms you didn't even know existed in English... but that doesn't matter, you've arrived.

The mission is to pound the pavement for dish washing and odd-jobs but every place turns you down. Still, you scored an all you can eat buffet at a Chinese place, even if they were a bit cold to talk to, the kilo of oil soaked potatoes, noodles, and fried mozzarella sticks resting in your stomach feels better than emptiness.

The town is interesting but after being rejected by so many places it feels cold, not in the sense that there's a constant arctic wind blowing, but the fact that it's all tourism. If it wasn't for being at the end of the world it would just be another tourist trap filled with trinkets that people buy when they travel a few thousand km to say they went there. You hike to the hills and spend the night in the tent, a bit discouraged.

The day began late but you slept well. Packing your camp you tell W "today we need to find work, if not, we're out of here." And so you went, asking more restaurants and shops, but apparently all work is on the weekend, and today is Tuesday.

You arrived at the end of the block and say exasperated "well, let's walk that way" but before you can take a few steps a voice from a red van asked in English "Where you going?"
"Uhhhh, that way." and the van made a U-turn to where you guys were standing.
"You speak Spanish right?"
"Uhhh, yea man"
"So you guys are backpacking eh? When did you arrive?"
"Yesterday morning, but we are probably going to head out tomorrow if we don't find work today, we'll be on our way"
"How much money do you have?"
"Well about 5 pesos each"
"Hmmm, well hop in the car, you can stay at my place and have something to eat, but hurry I'm working right now"
Eban works for the municipalidad and an avid fly fisherman.
"My dream is to one day go to Montana or California or Alaska or something" he rattles off as we sat dumbfounded at our luck. "Man I love Chileans! My last girlfriend, the love of my life, is Chilean. And it's hilarious that you speak Chilean too, I've only known one other foreigner who speaks like that and the guy was a crazy German. What's your name again?"
"S, but most people here just call me Charqui"
We arrived at his place and he told us "Ok, you guys can eat whatever you like, use the Internet take a shower, the place is your place...but it's also mine, I'll see you in a few hours."

And so it is, here you are with all the luck in the world, at the end of the world.

Monday, January 9, 2012


The night before a big journey always puts one thinking. Uncertainty? Certainly. The first fishing spot could result in complete failure leaving your spirits hopelessly crushed for the 4 month trial ahead. Thinking of this makes the end of the world feel just that much farther, and Bogota a pipe dream... but that's the beauty of the thumb! Anything is game and the ball is always in play. Take us a few kilometers to the Ruta 6? Awesome! All the way to Ushuaia? Nothing could be better! Share a beer? Preferably no if you're driving but hey man it's your vehicle your rules.

We'll see what Argentina has to offer. If it's anything close to the hospitality in Buenos Aires or Zarate thanks to A and family on Calle Escobar who didn't let you leave the house without first filling your stomach with arroz con pollo, or C and L in Zarate who have done everything possible to keep the damned mosquitoes at bay, you'd be traveling the rest of your life. But what's been realized more than anything is that this trip will be about the people you meet along the way. Time to rest the digitus primus.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fire stars, glass fruit, and basic rivers.

Taking it slow in Valparaiso after the firedance last night, it's cost hardly a few dollars to travel close to 400 kilometers.

True the trip up was full of stories and experiences worth sharing, but time will only permit a description of Valpo New Years chaos. An interesting word chaos, it's always plural.

The night begins suddenly, mounting a colectivo around 10 to a friend's hut and being introduced to many a couchsurfer who take great interest in your prospective trip and might even decide to join along. Rise to the canopy and you meet a group of gringos here in Chile for a business startup program contracted by the government, it's difficult to get a true vibe reading as everyone is in 100% full-tilt party mode.

The fireworks are only the catalyst of the night as their sparks set-off the chain reaction of bacchus behavior that is soon to come, and when the show finishes you descend the hills.

Remains of the inebrious fruit have already started to accumulate in the gutters as they rattle down the concrete sometimes hopping then exploding into a thousand different fragments that twinkle from the streetlights as if they wish to be fireworks themselves.

The 60% drunk swagger you've used as camouflage seems to be in style. Tunnel-vision still allows for enough periphery to see trees, walls, and doorsills being tagged by the herds of Beerbers in their natural habitat of blurred shadows. "Bathroom is unoccupied..."

Passing through the main thoroughfares is simply mind-numbing as entering crowds is like entering the forests of the Amazon complete with the venomous spitting Waaahalacas making bile pizzas on the sidewalks. Every once in a while you pass the lone crouching Gameovertang who's fallen victim to the over consumption of fruit in this strange harvest.

The night proceeds by scaling the mountains to attend the tribal dances with song emanating from the Bassbills perched on power-poles above the natives. There are distinct family groups but must most come from the Techno and Dance phylum.

As the sun begins to rise and you descend the highlands to the valleys below, the scenery comes into focus. The concrete basins, unable to retain the precipitation coming from the tribal overindulgence of beeries, have been converted to rivers and lakes. The stench of the basic liquid burns the nostrils but doesn't deter the masses from their continuous consumption and the glass shells give a perpetual jingle bouncing down the slopes.

The masses in the valley become restless, an electric tension is felt in the very ground they stand on. The sea begins to bump and crash into the structures of the jungle. You pass broken and damaged public features and decide it best to make your way to the den before the situation becomes dangerous.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Farewell to Conce

Sitting in the internet café off the central plaza of San Carlos you reflect on the first day of the viaje.

Christmas in Penco. Probably the place most like your native Hermosa Beach. Small town on the coast of a large city. The avocado eaten before Christmas mass is doing a number on the intestines. Going back to Jorge's place begins a night of discussing politics until 4:30 when you finally have to excuse yourself and crash on the couch.

So much for leaving at the crack of dawn. The pack has to wait for assembly until 11 after a few more winks of sleep. Alas it never ceases to amaze how much cluttler and crap has been accumulated over the year and how easy it is to pack-rat it all.

Mid-way through the process you take a stroll through the neighborhood you've come to know quite well over the last 10 months. Chacabuco is deserted but Parque Equador is in full swing with children running around the fountain and riding new bicycles on the path. You stop by the bakery where a good friend Fernanda works and she gives you two absolutely exquisite empanadas for the day's journey. A few days earlier she also gifted you a set of combat rations straight from the Chilean special forces unit for the southern journey ahead. Awesome.

The first go of the pack is deemed much too heavy, around 35 kilos, alas the shaver and water bottle must go. A gift for Chimbe and a beard for you.

One last pass of the apartment, home for the past 10 months, and a shot of pisco to calm the nerves. Nervious? Possibly. Anxious as hell to get started? Been that way for months now.

Damn this pack is heavy walking through the streets of Conce but you've got to pass by your favorite bar to snap a pic. Averno, you shall be missed.

Time to get on the micro to drop you off at the spot you've fished there before but there are already doubts before you start.

Walk a way up the highway, it's still not too late to back out and return to Penco for the night with Jorge, out with the thumb.

10 minutes and you try a sign, "quizás soy Jesús" perfect for the season.

30 minutes in and you've got a bite! You run over collecting your 3 bags of mostly junk, fumbling and dropping them, but ecstatic to have a ride.

"Ruta 5? San Carlos?"
"Te llevamos a Chillan, dale?"

The car starts out towards la Ruta de Itata. "Wanna beer?"
You can tell this ride is going to be good.

Politics,highways constructed by Mexican imperialist businesses, music, time signatures, the Gringo Nations' lack of rhythm...

"haha! Yea I've tried to dance cueca a few times" you mention, then admit "beer helps".
"I play cueca and other music at a bar every Tuesday..."
"Wait, you mean martes Chileno? At the Averno? Weon! You're the guitarist aren't you!"
"Sure am!"

If running into a musician from your favorite bar isn't a sign then you'll be damned.

"So you're from California right? You know there's a lot of links between that state and Chile. In fact one of the cuecas I sing is about the roto chileno working in California during the gold boom."
"What exactly is the roto chileno?"
"Basically a Chilean who works from day to day on odd jobs. He's good at drinking, a womanizer, and sleeps anywhere he can lay his head."

You arrive on the outskirts of Chillan, exchange numbers for a possible New Years' encounter in Valpo. Good man that Choro Boro and his girlfriend!

You walk under the overpass and relieve the beer, fish a bit longer but it's a bad spot. Maybe it's best to stay in Chillan for the night so you walk over to the toll booth entering the town.

Standing less than 5 minutes later a middle aged lady in very nice car takes you to the street ("Schlayer" says the woman, "German, heil Hitler"... hmmm maybe that was a bit innapropriate Señora) of your friend L, you practice English along the way.

A few calls yeild nothing, a short walk and you ring the bell.
"Hello, who is it?...Sarkis? Really?"
 L and T are going to Conce, but at least you manage to have some sort of farewell as you had missed a goodbye with them a few days prior.

So you're left to have delighful conversations over Christmas cake with the mother and you're certain this is what you've been looking for.