Posts Tagged ‘Patagonia’

Torres del Paine National Park is in the southern Chilean part of Patagonia. The Cordiella del Paine is the most impressive part of the park with the hugely impressive ‘towers’ or ‘Torres’. These three needles which you will see in my pictures are around 2,500m altitude. It’s possible to spend a lot of time hiking and climbing in the park but I really went to see the three towers.

I arrived from the south because I was staying in Puerto Natales which is about 1h30 or 112km from the park. Unlike most of the tourists I wasn’t staying in the park, I found it rather expensive for basic cabins, this was why I did an extremely fast ascent to get the view of the three towers. My bus to return to Puerto Natales didn’t give me much time to hike so I ran as often as I could and made a scramble over the last thirty minutes to get to the viewing point.

All experience is subjective and it was an extraordinary sequence of events that coloured my experience. I hadn’t read too much about the place before arriving in Southern Chile, it didn’t seem to be on a par with the other bucket list places in South America. I was pretty tired after jogging or at least marching to the lake from where you can see the towers. When I eventually got to the top it was…awesome.

People (mostly Americans and Australians) use the word awesome to describe many things. After seeing the Torres del Paine I don’t think I can use the word any longer. I was literally struck with awe and wonder. When I saw the view of the impossibly large granite monoliths I reeled off so many swearwords I felt like I had got a kind of condensed turrets syndrome. My feet were rooted to the ground and I felt paralysed. As I got my senses together I realised there were three people behind me who were taking some food whilst leaning against a rock. There was no confusion, they weren’t fazed and I wasn’t embarrassed by my outburst. They simply looked and listened and basically said ‘we had the same ideas’. A scene like this couldn’t even be imagined, the most impressive lands of Tolkien’s Middle Earth couldn’t compare with this site. By this stage in my ye ar long trip I had seen many things and many places. I will maintain that New Zealand is the most scenic place I have visited. However, as a single site and a single experience, the three Torres of Torres del Paine have remained the benchmark for all my experiences before and since.

I regret to describe this in such superlative language because I fear it may raise expectations before others visit, but I have to be honest, it’s the best thing I have done whilst wandering. I was also very lucky to have a clear crisp day, I have been told that the weather in Patagonia is pretty fickle. I leave you to look at the pictures, I hope they give a sense of how impressive this place really is. I don’t like having my picture taken in front of places but I include one on this occasion because I felt a real sense of achievement and I hope you can tell by my expression the wonder I felt. The picture was taken by the people on the rock shortly after my turrets outburst.

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I just completed a monster bus journey breaking my previous record of 23 hours, my new record is 33 hours but actually it took 34 and a bit due to some complications at one of the stations. I would have extended this journey to at least 40 hours but the bus schedule prevented this task so I now find myself back in El Bariloche. My original intention was to go down the Atlantic side of the continent and come back up the Chilean coast on the Pacific side. Unfortunately this was made impossible by cost and seasonal variations in transport. So I have just revisited many of the places I have already seen, I thought I would be more annoyed but instead I just think that there is a certain symmetry to the entire journey. Sometimes its nice to return to places you have already seen, it gives you a sense of the passing of time and what you have seen and done in the intervening period. I think between my first visit to El Bariloche and my current one, it has been the most intense period of travel for all the time I have been away from home. It has been the most difficult due to the sheer distance between places and the inaccessibility of places I had intended to see. I am always trying to calculate the value of any journey or destination, ‘worth’ or ‘value’ is difficult to calculate. This isn’t an obsessive need to categorize experience, sometimes it can be simple economics. It is worth travelling so far on a bus and using up so much time to see..a rock, or a building, or a town? A lot of the time it’s very subjective and based on who you are travelling with and even the weather. If you trying to come up with an equation it would be something like:

 p / t + m = value

p =  number of photographs taken

t =  time

m = money

Actually that’s complete bollocks. I really hate maths. The idea of working out an equation for how good a place is or how worthwhile an experience is… is total crap!! Being in horizontal snow with Antarctic winds on the Beagle channel is beyond the realms of calculation. Looking at 1000m plus granite pillars after a half hour scramble is impossible to compare with anything. Watching a 50m ice tower collapse into a lake off one of the most impressive glaciers in the world… you just cannot describe in words, pictures or anything else

 Tomorrow I´m going back into Chile and visiting the Lakes region; Pucon. I feel this is a halfway stage in South America before I head up to the Atacama Desert and eventually into Peru. The thing I cannot believe is that the best is yet to come, I´m really glad to have finished up in South America as everywhere else would have been slightly disappointing after here. It might be premature to say it, as I have much to see, but Argentina is still the best place. This is especially true of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Travel is often just A to B, a bus taking you to a town then minibus to a hostel. Travelling in Patagonia is totally different, you can stare out of the window for hours and see nothing, I actually thought I could see the curve of the Earth because there was such emptiness. I think of all the photos I have taken the ones from Tierra del Fuego will be the best. I sometimes took a photo, and immediately after looked at it on the view screen and just stared in wonder. For some reason photographs can make something more real, I don’t think video cameras have the same effect. I have really been heavy on the editing, this saves money for development and forces me to take higher quality, or more pertinent pictures, the Brazilian girls I travelled with take millions, half of them with themselves doing catalogue style posing. They asked me why I don´t have myself in the photo and I said there are 3 main reasons:

1. I don´t actually want to see my face next to some of the most beautiful scenery in the World, it detracts from how Impressive something is.

2. I am usually the one taking the picture, I don’t trust other people to take a picture, even if they say ‘Is it ok, do you want another?´ I never have the heart to say..actually you cut my feet off and it’s lob sided, your visual sense is questionable and reflects your poor choice of clothes, haircut and general way of life.

(where was I ?) oh yes, number 3

3. The most important reason why I don´t like to be on photos is vanity. Vanity is one of the most common modern sins and one of the most difficult to detect. Pictures of people next to famous monuments and mountains inevitably get blown up and framed then left on the mantlepiece or in the office. I and most others don´t really need to remind ourselves that we have been somewhere which means that in general these type of pictures are done for the benefit of other people, as if to prove you have been somewhere. The people pictures I have taken are generally from meals or just to remember faces and faces in places. Having said this I do usually take a picture when I have just got up a mountain or something, this is some human weakness to show man´s power over nature, I’m sure Freud had a name for it.

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                      As for the moment I’m staying in a homestay type place again, no English in sight. It´s veryt nice and tasteful and the owner looks like the comedy actor Luke Wilson (brother of Owen). I´ve got a mere 9 hours on the bus tomorrow, so I´ll get some token sleep……………….hasta la vista y buenos noches (manana para ustedes!!)

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Hypothesis: Locations with stray dogs are inherently more interesting, spontaneous and fun.

I was followed back from the El Bariloche bus station today by a couple of stray dogs, they must have followed me for a good  4 km. They weren’t threatened by me, they weren’t threatening towards me; I had no food. So why did they follow me? I think they were just slightly bored or curious, or a combination of both. This is by means a rare event, I was also followed by a stray in Mendoza for most of an evening; he even sat beside me at a restaurant table. The Mendoza stray looked fairly well fed and content, and like my new stray friends he didn’t seem to have any motive for his pursuit. I made friends with a stray in the bus station of Rio Gallegos, a place where I spent the night so I didn’t miss the bus to Tierra del Fuego. I think the longest stray pursuit was walking back from a national park near Pucon. I reckon on that occasion I was tailed for about 10km. My favourite stray was a dog I christened Pascal in El Calafate bus station. This was a long and boring experience so I was glad of the company. Pascal didn’t care much for my egalitarian viewpoint on not petting; he was very frisky and enjoyed jumping up and biting my backpack.

I have developed a great fondness for stray dogs, they are in our World but because they have a life without being constantly petted and fed chum every 3 minutes they kind of go about their business with a great sense of indifference. They are not dependent on humans so they live a kind of parallel life without interfering in the affairs of humanity. They have a streetwise world-weariness that I find appealing. In Santiago I noticed that they wait for the lights to change before they cross, and when two strays meet each other they don´t go nuts like two dogs in the park. Woof woof woof …my collar is better than yours,…my coat is shinier than yours…I have a higher protein content in my diet than you….my stools show that my diet is far superior. Yes, that’s the conversation of pet dogs in the park. On the contrary, the strays just sniff each other  then head off in the opposite direction. It’s a sniff of recognition not one of competition. I have so much respect for the strays that I don´t stroke them like you would a pet, just like you wouldn’t stroke an unknown human. It’s socially acceptable to dote on, pet and patronize lesser forms. Babies and toddlers rarely get a firm handshake; they get pointless questions and repetitive banter. I feel like I cannot condescend to this level with the noble strays I have met. For fear of losing their respect I do not pet them, I also fear rabies and fleas. I told a Chilean that you never get stray dogs in England…he said why? I responded that people care more about dogs than their fellow-man. The RSPCA was formed before the NSPCC. This got me wondering about the correlation between the number of stray dogs and society itself. I think a stray dog rating system can tell you how exciting and spontaneous a country is.

It seems that in the “developing” world there are a lot of stray dogs. I used the old “…..” because Italy also has a lot of stray dogs and that´s a G8 country that has a higher standard of living than the UK, actually 21 countries in the World have a higher standard of living than the UK. I wonder why we have such a massive economy (7th largest in the World) but we have such a low standard of living? This brings me back to my first point; we have almost no stray dogs. This may sound strange but a country that doesn’t give money or spend money on pounds, RSPCA, Puppy passports, dog coats, diamond collars, Feng Shui books for pets and goodness knows whatever other bollocks people waste their money on…should have more disposable income to raise the standard of living. Stray dogs is only the tip of the iceberg, we also spend on personal and private security, Insurance premiums and let’s not even mention Lawyers, especially divorce and family lawyers. Divorce is still illegal in Chile but they seem to have found a way round it…they don´t get married. I think one of the biggest ways in which we waz away our nation’s millions is on Health and Safety not to mention Environmental Health. Something which was intended to safeguard people has turned into a pseudo-religion. Everyone is second guessing everything and every weird court cases get blown out of all proportion before making their way into Urban Mythology.

I have worked in enough places to know that if there were inspections all the time almost every eatery would be forever closed. If there were an eatery that respected all the rules set down by environmental health freaks they wouldn’t have time to actually cook anything. The best food I have ever tasted in my life has been from places that would have failed on so many counts, luckily these meals were in countries that didn’t care about such trivial crap. I am aware that it´s there for our protection, and there are certain places… like ******** in **************, that deserve to be closed down. Despite the case of something other than mayonnaise in the mayonnaise I think the whole thing wastes a lot of time and money. The number of hurdles you have to jump through to even get near to opening a food vending establishment is insane, I think this is why in any town centre in England it´s so hard to find anywhere to sit (or stand) and have a snack or drink. The countries and cities with the stray dogs wandering about tend to have the highest proportion of good cheap eats.

People think that the main reason for travelling is to see the World’s sites. I believed this to an extent before I set off. However, now I think the main reason is to experience other cultures and ways of life, to have perspective. I don´t mean playing panpipes with Bolivians or painting my ass with white paint and dancing with Aborigines. This is seeing the other, the exotic through our own eyes.  What I really mean is seeing things from a totally different viewpoint. I like to see how other people do things, even simple things like having a cup of tea or crossing a road. In Singapore you wait for the green man before you cross a road, in Napoli you ignore the lights (if they actually work) and you cross in a slow and predictable manner so that drivers can slow down for you, or in rare cases actually stop. There is no correct way to cross the road as people and places are different. I think it´s healthy to learn from other people and use this outside perspective to change your own ways a little.

To think that you do things better or see the World more clearly is complete ignorance. In this respect I have been amazed at the spontaneity and dynamics of eating establishments in various places in the world. I resent the cost and complexity of going out for a meal in my country. I’m from a country where the kitchens are clean and the employees all have certificates, but the food is cloned and the experience is franchised, soulless and a constant disappointment. Are you enjoying your meal? The underpaid ‘servers’ will ask. In this question the server doesn’t care and even if they did we would never be honest enough to give an exact appraisal. We say “Yes it is fine thanks.” Then we cringe into our crinkle cut chips and add more salt to tepid plate full of mediocrity. I love the elemental nature of street stalls and market food in places like Bangkok and Hong Kong. Eating seems so central to life and there are so many restaurants and eateries spilling on to the streets.

Anyway, getting back to the original point I believe my country with no stray dogs, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, will be pretty much screwed for the coming years if we continue down the path of…..

Champagne Socialistic, nanny state, handholding, form-filling politically correct, box ticking race riot fearing, community caring, committee holding, show of hand showing, democratically crippled bollocks that chokes life and prevents spontaneous freedom. So until I return I´m going to enjoy drinking in unlicensed premises till 8 in the morning, eating from a shack that didn´t pass any tests and drinking moonshine from unlabeled bottles. I´ll probably get a little gut rot from time to time but I´d rather rot my guts temporarily than rot my soul for eternity.

Conclusion: Places with no strays have sterile, whitewashed super hygienic places to eat. Like eating in a dental surgery.

Places with stray dogs have exciting steamy, smelly food. They have authentic non bourgeois eateries for every man and his dog.

If I recall the last e-mail I sent, or at least the last on… e-mail was from Mendoza. Since then I have calmed down a bit and settled into life in Latin America. If anybody cares about geography I left the dusty Mendoza for the freshly alpine El Bariloche in the Lake District. I spent a couple of days going up large mountains and eating Panchos (hot dogs)…more about that later. I must admit I was quite wasted after Mendoza, both physically and mentally, so I spent about 6 days not talking to a soul. This antisocial quest was made easier by the fact that most people in Barliloche seem to be of the Levantine persuasion, Israelis. A couple of them tried to make conversation with me in Hebrew but this is a language I have no knowledge of, after realising I was from another land they quickly lost interest in me and went off to talk amongst themselves. I think I have been mis-identified as an Israeli more than any other nationality, it’s usually a matter of context. There is a kind of trail of Solomon in Argentina, many hostels are Israeli owned or mostly frequented by Israelis. As I travel alone there is no easy way to identify me as an Englishman, travelling in  a group allows people to hear you talking and figure out where you are from. People rarely think I am from England for a confusing set of reasons. I have heard justifications like:

‘Oh, you had a bandana on so I didn’t think you were English.’

‘You didn’t speak for like 10 minutes so I presumed you were Chilean.’

‘You had a Brazilian Football shirt on so I thought you were Brazilian.’

Like I said, it’s a matter of context more than physical resemblance. However, since I developed a suntan from orchard work and my hair has become increasingly long and wild, I suppose I look more non- English than at any other time.

Back to the travelling thing. El Barliloche is perched on the North of Patagonia but the scenery is classically Alpine, parts of the town look very Swiss with a mixture of logs and rustic grey stone. There are also many German immigrants in this part of Argentina, so things seem distinctly European compared to other areas.

From El Bariloche I travelled into the real Patagonia, luckily the most boring part of the journey was during the dark. I think it took about 20 hours bus travel but the buses are suprisingly comfortable and they put films on for us. I find the films are a good way to learn a bit of Spanish as they have <English language but subtitles in Spanish. My next port of call was Puerto Madryn in the Welsh area of Patagonia. This was a pleasant and orderly city with a nice seafront and a few streets of shops and cafes behind the promenade. It has the sleepy feel of a provincial resort that has had it’s heyday but has still continued to shuffle along into the 21st Century. Most people visit this place to see wildlife on the nearby peninsula Valdes. This was the main reason I went but after realising that I have already seen most of the maritime wildlife elsewhere I decided to visit some strange Welsh towns instead. This mini adventure was a genuine surprise and has really affected my worldview. I don’t really know what I was expecting but I found the experience odd and otherworldly.

Before I go on I want to do a brief summary of who the Welsh are.

Thousands of years ago skilled pottery makers and builders of earthwork fortifications arrived in Britain from various places on the Iberian Peninsula. These people are generally reffered to as Celtic, a term also applied to people from Central Europe who also migrated to the British Isles in about the 5th century before Christ. The term Celtic is hugely contentious and is probably based on Herodotus misplacing the source of the Danube in the Pyrenees. I’m of the same opinion as Julius Ceaser who identified the Iberians as Keltoi and those further north as Gallic.  Anyway, the earlier wave of settlers quickly spread through the British Isles and became skilled farmers and Tin Miners in the South West. This influx probably supplanted the previous inhabitants of the isles who arrived 6000 to 12,000 years ago from the European Ice Bridge. Their skills in the extraction of tin warranted the attention of the biggest merchants and traders of the time, the Phonecians. Are you still with me? Good. Fast forward a few hundred years to the advent of the Roman Empire and the Celtic people reffered to as the Britons were still going about their business of farming and wiping out each other’s tribes with their ferocious War Chariots. The men were tough and the women were tougher. They had bizarre rules about what fish and fowl were not for consumption and they often had shaven heads but left a very long moustache. The Romans being a literate and curious people discovered about this lost but slightly prosperous corner of Europe from Greek literature, and as any self respecting Imperialist would do…they invaded. According to some of the Romans the Gallic tribes on the continent received help and arms from their cousins from Albion.

After a couple of failed attempts the Romans finally managed a successful invasion in about 43 AD. One of only two successful invasions of Britain in recorded history. There were a few skirmishes as can be expected, especially from the Britons in the North (Brigantes) and also those wild tribes of Picts and Scots who we now refer to as…Jocks. After this brief period of restlessness Britain was governed quite successfully by the Romans. They introduced the modern city, sanitation, transport, communication and many other interesting things. Despite being in Britian for around 400 years the Romans left almost no Genetic legacy on the people of the Isles, this is because the Britons were ‘Romanized’ and took care of their own business. The only Ethnic trace left on the Isles came from the Roman Mercenary soldiers, usually from North Africa, Macedonia and Sarmatia. Due to troubles in the Empire the legions who had protected Britain so well had to withdraw before they finally got wasted by the Huns and the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Thus, Britain and Britons were left defenseless against the invading Picts from beyond Hadrians wall. Some bright sparks in Kent and near London decided to invite an even more Savage bunch accross, Saxons, to expel the invading people from the North. This confusing time is known as the Dark Ages when history turns to Mystery and Mystery turns into dead ends and hearsay. What we can say is that the whole geopolitical structure and ethnic distribution completely changed during this time.  There is some debate about whether these Germanic peoples displaced the aboriginal Britons by conquest, migration or genocide. What we can say is that this period laid the foundations for many of the boundaries and place names we now use. Things changed so much that parts of the Island of Great Britain became known as Angland from the Angles of present day Denmark and  North Germany. To distinguish the Saxons from Saxony, people referred to the new settlers as Anglo Saxons. It’s difficult to be precise but the Anglo Saxons were the taller fairer race who inhabited the more easterly regions of the Island. Over a period of 200 years or more the original Britons, a ´darker race of smaller stature speaking an Ancient tongue, were gradually pushed further and further West. The marginalization of these ancient Island dwellers may not have been as clear cut as people believe. Ethnically, it’s difficult to prove that all the Celtic types were pushed West. The new peoples from Europe may have been a small ruling elite. . Culturally, it’s fair to say that the language, habits and legends of these people rested with those we now called  the Welsh.

Eventually the original Celtic types were confined to Cornwall, present day Wales and Rheged (the land between North Lancashire and Strathclyde. These people who had lived on the British Isles for millennia were in effect a lower status race in their own home, they were supplanted in  power and possibly in number (at least in the Eastern parts) by the peoples of Northern Europe. In fact they were regarded with such disdain that they were called …’The Welsh’, meaning slave or foreigner. I find the history of the Welsh difficult to come to terms with. I am quite convinced that within the mysterious and baffling language, in the songs and secrets from the valleys, is about the purest most authentic form of where we are all from and who we are, or were, or should be. This may also be true in the wilder and more remote parts of Scotland and Ireland. So here lies the confusion. I consider myself to be from the Isles, not just the artificial boundries of England but from the Isles as a whole. I would like to think that if I were to trace my bloodline it would trickle back to these ancient peoples who were pushed to the West. I don’t think I have any kinship with bearded Norse or Germanic types, even though I speak a variety of their language. Despite all this romantic pondering I am English and both Wales and the Welsh seem foreign to me. The Welsh are now confined to Wales where many still speak the original tongue of their ancestors, along with Basque it is the oldest language in Europe. Being part of the entity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, many Welsh have contributed to the civilization and culture of the modern World…Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Catherine Zeta Jones and of course Hurricane Higgins. However, not content with singing in the Northern hemisphere many emigrated to Patagonia to raise sheep and make wool products. It was these Southern Hemisphere Welsh that interested me.

I made a journey into the back of beyond to see life in the Welsh settlements. I went to Gaiman, one of the strangest places I have ever seen. To get there I took a couple of local buses, on one bus a little Indigenous girl fell in love with my knee or maybe my trouser leg, she pulled it for about 50 minutes. Luckily I was reading the book ‘Are you Dave Gorman?´ so I was totally ok with her pulling the knee of my jeans. The scenery around Gaiman is flat and devoid of anything interesting, I did see a field full of torn plastic bags though. I suppose they blow in the wind then get caught on the thorny scrub, I think the guy from American Beauty would have had some kind of a breakdown with all those plastic bags not blowing about. The colour of the scrub can only be described as a shade of Nuclear Winter. This is a mixture of grey, beige and pale green. It’s the colour of Eastern European council estates, the colour of rubble after an explosion and also the colour of people´s complexions in an AA meeting somehwhere in Glasgow. Anyway, it was dull and flat. The Town itself was mostly one street, when you looked up the side streets they ended in small steep escarpments. There is something very Sergio Leone about the whole place, especially the silence. I went for a wander up a side street and was beckoned into a Welsh Tearoom by a blond kid on a bike (yes it is that weird). Inside a lady asked me what I wanted…………………er……………..tea?? The cafe or tearoom looked like it had recently been used by a large coach party, all the other tables were strewn with crumbs and barricades of crockery. The sight of previous activity only served to highlight how empty and quiet it was for my brief stay. I was the only one in there and they served me a HUGE pot of tea with about ten cakes. The tea was strong and good, exactly like tea at home. The cakes were ok in a slightly stodgy way. I can only describe the decor as late seventies institutional with a veneer of floral decoration and small tasteless trinkets. The girl who served me had mousy blond hair, wide blue eyes and freckles. Freckles?? I’ve only been in S America about 10 days but I had forgotten what they looked like. The people here were clearly not Southern European or Andean but obviously they spoke in Spanish as a first language. After growing up admiring or villifying South American football players, I found it hard to shake off the image of South Americans being swarthy, dark and exotic. Here in this small corner of Patagonia the inhabitants could have been serving you beer in your local or giving you cashback in a mundane supermarket. I since discovered the myriad of different races in Argentina.  After my tea I wandered about a bit more but did’nt really find anything, just run down factories and a few other tearooms. It was definitely more for the experience than the sites. I can add this place to my list of people in unexpected places, like the Mongolian construction worker in Perth or the Portuguese/ Brazilians in Malaysia. I have a real curiosity about lost tribes and South America is full of lost tribes. There are so many different groups to be found in unexpected places. In the spitit of my Welsh excursion here are a few other lost tribes in the Latin mix, the people who make me do a double take may be the descendants of the following:

Scottish farmers in Patagonia

English Railway Engineers in the Chilean lakes and Valparaiso

Germans in the Chilean lake region

German Mennonites in the Paraguayan Chaco region

Japanese in Sao Paulo and Manaus

Wealthy Palestinians in Chile

Nazi war criminals in Paraguay and Brazil (they usually run petrol stations)

Jewish immigrants from WWII in Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Neapolitans in Buenos Aires.

Thats just a few but I’ll find some more.