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kpetunia.com -> road stories -> south america = orcas!

¨I wanted movement and not a calm course of existence. I wanted excitement and danger and the chance to sacrifice myself for my love. I felt in myself a superhuman abundance of energy which found no outlet in our quiet life.¨ -Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

In February 2004 I flew to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America and travelled overland by bus, foot and boat to Cartagena, Columbia. The trip lasted 8 months.

These are the newsletters I wrote along the way.

Starting from The End of the World...
I overdosed on orcas...
...travelled up the Rio Paraguay
only to land in a hammock with a cowboy in Brasil...
then tripped out on Bolivia...
and marvelled at market savvy Peru...
until I got to gorgeous Columbia, and left too soon.

__________________________

Last time I wrote I was aiming for orcas in Argentina and now we've already crossed over to Paraguay via Brasil. Orcas. Anyone who knows me well, or even not that well, knows that orcas dominate a big part of my brain in my dream symbology and home entertainment strategies.

For years, I've had these recurring videogame-esque dreams of orcas swimming by me and filling me with the temporary ability to psychically tap into the best of people's hearts and minds until the psychic ability battery runs low in my dream screen and I am ordinary again.

And as for entertaining with orcas at home, few people have been to my beachhouse and not been cajoled into watching the famous orca clip from David Attenborough's Trials of Life. You know, the one where the orcas storm the beach and snatch unsuspecting sea lions from the surfline and then carry them out to sea to toss and flip them around in the air with their tails like badminton birdies until they finally eat them. I cut that clip out of the Hunting and Escaping episode and looped it onto a videotape so we could watch it over and over again with ease.

All this and I had never even seen an orca. There had been opportunities but they were always in captivity at an aquarium or seaworld and that felt like cheating. Also, I saw a dolphin sitting on the bottom of the tank at an aquarium once and it just looked so bummed out at its lot in life and there was nothing I could do for it to make things better and I left with a big pit in my chest that didn't leave for days. I went to places where people see orcas swimming in the wild all the time and stared obsessively off the bow of the boat and from the beach, afraid to blink or pee, because surely only then would the orcas surface and put on a show. So, all that devotion and I'd never seen an orca. Not a fin. Not a flipper.

So I went to Peninsula Valdez, and finally finally finally got to see enough orca. There are so many seals and sea lions in Peninsula Valdez that you can't walk on the beaches. They're too covered with them. There are so many right whales in the bay every October that you can't look out to see and not see one out there with its tail in the air just dur, dur dur dur dur sailing across the bay, catching the breeze until it hits the other side and swims back and starts over again. You've got roads full of dopey guanacos that just stand there chewing their cud as you drive up to them and the bleak Patagonian landscape is broken up with foxes, emus, and all sorts of other creatures. But most importantly, it is the only place, where at just the right time of year, the orcas come like Christmas to gobble up sea lion wiener pups on the beach, and that is why I was there.

My friend Jennifer flew down from the states for a week to watch the carnage. (I guess she had the orca fever, too.) It was a long slippery drive from one end of the Peninsula, where the only cheap rooms were, to the other side, where the masses of weiner pups were but we got spoiled on our first day, when we were greeted by a view of the park rangers and handful of tourists all clumped in one area and looking in the same direction through their binoculars to see the orca show in the sparkling sea beyond. Their tail lobbing and spyhopping infected us with readiness and determination to be there for the main event, like a good pre-show warm up will do.

Together we drove our little red rental car back and forth over loose gravel roads dodging dumbass guanacos and running rheas. Jen fell in love with the hairy armadillos that waddled up and down the hillside nosing around for food. We found a dead armadillo on the roadside and had an armadillo funeral. We went to the greatest depression in Patagonia and Jennifer crawled out of it. We became slaves to the tides, arriving at the crack of dawn if we had to, when the ocean still hadn't covered the green seaweed covered rock formations, so we could see the sandy channels between these formations where the orcas swim in for seal pup snacks.

During low tides, little brown 30-pound weiner pups squirmed and squiggled around in the tide pools and practiced swimming for the first time. Their big golden moms taught them to fish then would ditch them periodically for several to go out to sea to binge on fish. During those times, the pups would be left behind to be haphazardly guarded by big roaring bulls with the manes that give sea lions their name. One out of every five weiner pups gets eaten by an orca at Peninsula Valdez. Excellent odds for us. Bad for the weiner pups.

High tides were high alert times. As soon as the ocean rose enough to stretch out over the tidepooling area and touch the beach, where the seals were lounging around, orca attacks became a possibility.

When I look at sea lions, I usually think that the Hindu gods made a mistake when they made me a human because I look and feel much more like a sea lion than a person most of the time. Knowing this, and also knowing that if I stuck around long enough on this beach I would see one of 'my people' get munched in a violent way, this pilgrimage was kind of a Benares for me.

But if you went to Benares and no one died that week and so there were no dead bodies to contemplate, no stench of burning flesh to be overwhelmed by, and then make your peace with, what would you think? What would you do?

Me, I started to get bloodthirsty. After a few days of daintily denying my prurience, those cute little weiner pups started to seem more and more like orca chow and less and less like my little buddies.

Some days we wouldn't see so much as a fin or a spout. We would sit there, getting lopsided suntans and red eyes from staring out to sea through our binoculars in the same direction for hours. One the good days, the they showed up. Fins and spouts at first, then up to 11 at a time would come swimming right by! Newborn calves, grandmothers, adolescents, long finned males. Pods wove patterns in the water as they came closer, fins slicing through the surface with synchronized breath. Imagine living and breathing in unison within acoustic range of the same group of creatures for 70 years! The Peninsula Valdez orcas are silent when they are close to shore, unlike their burbling, squealing, whistling, snorking, raspberry blowing North American cousins. They don't need to make noise despite their subtle and complicated, constantly varied and premeditated group hunting techniques. They just know each other forward and backward from all that time they spend together.

Some days they came right by us, surfing the waves, breaching out from inside the pipelines, spyhopping, tail lobbing and doing all kinds of other wonderful beautiful spectacular orca things.

One day, midweek, Jennifer and I, treated by her mom for Jennifer's birthday, got to stay in the fancy
estancia right by the seal snatching beach and so we didn't have to make the 1 and one half hour drive each way to get there. The people at the estancia set the tone for the rest of the time we were there. Ingrid Visser, a fearless kiwi woman who is the world's leading expert on orcas infected us with her all consuming orca passion and blew us away with her photographs and stories of orcas in and out of the water, all over the world, eating sharks, surviving beachings, being movie stars, thinking abstractly and so on. Gretchen was a rich loud American photographer who eventually grew on both us us. She seemed to be singlehandedly funding the entire place by paying the $300 a day permit to sit on the beach up close to the orcas, in front of the attack channel whether they showed up or not, not to mention to exhorbitant estancia rates, 4 by 4 rental truck, walkie talkies so everyone within 200 km could relay an orca spotting when it happened, and so forth. i would shrivel up with jealousy when the orcas showed up and she got to run down to the beach far away from me and in front of the orcas when they were there and i was left on the cliffs above squinting through my binoculars with the busloads of tourists. She was there for her 7th year running and despite having seen Punta del Norte transform into a tourist attraction, and get more corrupt and confused in the process of becoming a destination spot, she keeps coming.

And then there was Juan. Ohhh, my stomach still lurches just to think of him. Yep, he had me at hello. See, when we drove over to the estancia to check out prices and availability, he came out of his house and blasted us with his super duper South American rancher man mojo. And rented us a room that was available by a fluke. Exhausted after days of tidechasing, we crashed immediately. Upon waking, we learned that he built the guesthouses at the estancia all by himself. (I imagined us kissing.) Then we found out that he and his mom and dad own all of the land and beaches in the northern area of Peninsula Valdez - all of the private beaches were the orcas hang out. (We had a beautiful wedding.) Then he showed up at dinner time and flashed his big secretive sapphire eyes at me. (Our children were gorgeous.) Then he took us to his own personal beach and started tossing pebbles into the sea until a pod of curious orcas swam up to the beach and checked us out. They swam right up to us in the surf, spyhopping, blowing bubble kisses, rolling over onto their backs to get a good look at us - who knew that you really could call the whales?!?! (I was a goner.)

Juan didn't love me back. Then again, he never knew that I had already kissed, moved in, married and spawned with him in the first place. I called my cousin Becky all the way from Argentina for advice because she knows what to do about this kind of thing. She said that I should be mysterious, wash my hair so that it smells like flowers and get close to him so that he gets a whiff of it and becomes curious. Instead, I employed my usual calamitous dating strategy: I dressed up real cute and hid in the bushes whenever he came near.

I didn't sleep for 36 hours after that first orca encounter. My dreams had become my reality and every
time I closed my eyes, I just saw all of those all around me. and whatshisname.

We kept on driving up and down and squinting squinting for another few days and saw more orcas but nothing like that day at Juan's beach, and although they would sometimes casually ride a wave up onto the beach and let the following wave pull them back out, they weren't after the seals, they seemed to be just riding up to the beach for fun. What a bunch of teases. Jennifer went back to California. I swapped out our rental car for a cheaper one with a cassette player and bought some tapes to keep me company during the drives. My music choices at the music store in Puerto Madryn were extremely limited, so my soundtrack was comprised of Argentinian pop music, Patagonian folk songs and Thus Spake Zarathustra. I found a copy of Jaws in Spanish and so plucked my way through that while I waited for the orcas every day and giggled at the appropriateness of it.

Then all of a sudden, pandemonium broke loose on the beach. The first day of attacks, there were 27 attempts, and about 9 of them were successful enough for me to see weiner pups flying through the air once they'd been dragged out to see. Perfectly white and perfectly black bodies slid out of the waves in perfect synchronicity, snatched seals, thrashed them around in the surf and slid back out to sea with their prize clenched in their jaws. The other seals would just sit there, sometimes even swimming into the water to get a closer look at the bloodshed, worse than rubbernecking Americans at the scene of a traffic accident.

Sometimes it got gruesome. For instance, after gorging themselves all day, I watched a mom orca teach her orca kids how to hunt. She sidled up to the beach and picked up a newborn pup, broke its tailbone with her teeth so it couldn't move around or get away, and then placed it back on the beach. Her kids took turns riding waves in, picking up the pup and putting it back for about an hour. The next day, the pup was still there, and alive but just barely. The next day, it was gone.

The attacks continued to occur over the next few weeks, but they were happening farther and farther away from the tourist area. I'd watch Juan and his little group of estancia visitors go running to the jeep and zoom off over the hill to his private beach around the corner as the orcas swam away from the one beach that was accessible to public visitors and straight towards Juan's place. I knew exactly what they were going to see and it was torture to be missing out. But he only had four rooms at his estancia and they were all booked up for the next few weeks and would have cost $180 a night to stay in even if they had been free. I grew more and more resentful of the few people rich enough or lettered enough in Marine Biology who were allowed to run down the hill to the blinds on the beach when the orcas came as I strained to see them through my binoculars from a mile away.

The hairy armadillos everywhere that Jen and I had found so cute and weird at first became pests. The more I got to know the rangers, the more I learned about the ugly politics and manipulations that took place between the locals. Juan showed up with his pretty stick figure argentinean girlfriend looking well fucked. A hairy armadillo ate my empanadas when I wasn't looking. I got fed up and left. It started to rain as I drove off of the Peninsula for the last time and hundreds of birds came into the road to bathe and drink from the rain puddles forming in the holes all over the road. The road is covered with an inch of little rocks and so you slide and fishtail your way up and down the road as the incredible Patagonian wind blows your car this way and that. I saw a different tipped over car nearly every day. To drive more than 35 miles an hour down those mindnumbingly dull straight flat roads was to ask for an accident. Braking worked sometimes. Kind of. I have never hit so many animals in my life. I think my final tally was one bunny, one medium bird and probably a half a dozen of the little birds playing in the rain puddles. I was in such a foul tempered mood about my stolen empanadas and stick figured Argentineans in general and those elusive orcas in particular that as I drove and the little birdies flew lazily up to meet my windshield with a little thwack I just kept on driving and wished I had the soundtrack from the Jungle Book and could be blasting "The Great Cycle of Life" as I decreased the Patagonian bird population by a few more.

I blasted north to Buenos Aires and from there to northeastern Argentina. The buses in Argentina are a holiday in themselves. Charming leggy stewardesses bring you pillows, tasty meals, coffee and sweets and generally make you feel coddled. The chairs turn into full sized beds and newly released movies are played in English with Spanish subtitles. For 36 hours, I slumped in a series of buses in an Ativan and air conditioning induced stupor blearily watching the northern Patagonian pampas roll by. The incredibly sophisticated, overly educated, neatly coiffed Argentinean bus stewards periodically floated by and offered me another espresso or perhaps a fresh pastry and I would try to discreetly wipe away the long trail of spittle connecting my cheek to the pillow before reaching for another treat.

I perked up when palm trees started appearing and it started getting jungly out there. There was a town called Resistencia that I wanted to visit because it supposedly had the most sculptures per block in the world. I'd seen red roadside alters to Gaucho Antonia Gil, the patron saint of gauchos, all over Patagonia, and so I went to Mercedes, where the gauchos go to pay their respects.

On the way to an estuary, I picked up a great big hunk of eye candy named Uffe from Denmark and we travelled north together for a week. We helped each other along. He had a sense of direction and I speak Spanish. Since I am almost always lost and he never understands what anyone is saying to him, it seemed like an even swap.

Monkeys started making cameos in an estuary called Ibera. Then it just got all beautiful all of a sudden. Beautiful!Beautiful!Beautiful! Iguazu falls! So so beautiful! Full moon rises over crashing cataracts! Beautiful! A flock of toucans land in a tree overhead, their squaks barely audible over the roar of water! So beautiful! Over 250 waterfalls to get dipped in, walk around and over and look into, never getting old, more amazing around every corner as butterflies hitch rides on unsuspecting tourists! So amazingly beautiful! And those waterfalls, you would never know they were there in this quiet estuary, that is, if there weren't advertisements everywhere telling you about them, then bam! There you are in them and surrounded by them, then go another mile and you are back in a quiet jungle stumbling upon macaws, caimans, tapirs and cabybaras. I went back to Iguazu Falls day after day, returning to the hostel at night to drink with the Northern Europeans (how I love their coooool equinamity - they get on with everyone, it seems), dance with the South Americans on holiday, and eventually I added another dimension to my days when I discovered the Sheraton Resort Hotel swimming pool. The Sheraton is the only hotel inside Iguazu Falls its swimming pool offers the view of views of the waterfalls. It was easy to sneak in, so I would go into the park in the morning, loll around the swimming pool with the hotel guests, and then when it cooled off in the afternoon, go tromping around on the metal doubly reinforced banistered walkways. I got sick of tourists but not the waterfalls.

One thing I love about travelling in general and third world travelling in particular is the absence of railings, warning tape, and functioning streetlights. Having to watch out for live wires on the street, potholes on the sidewalk and so on adds a level of alertness that knocks my american complacency right out of me. It is an incredible but true fact that you can walk out of your door in most anytown, USA with a blindfold on and earplugs firmly lodged against your eardrums and meander from one side of town to the other and the odds of something happening to you, such as a traffic collision or even bad spill are very small. While this is nice if you really are blind and deaf, it can lull you into a dull shortsightedness that makes it more and more difficult to notice when the world changes around you and real dangerous changes start happening in the streets and the system because finely honed senses are not necessary for survival in America. There's nothing like a surplus of potholes and reckless drivers whizzing by at all times to keep you on your toes. It doesn't take much energy or effort to avoid accidents, but it gets the old instincts primed and ready for when disaster strikes when and if it should.

The impressive walkway system at Iguazu Falls was anomalous to my other experiences in South America. The glaciers in southern Patagonia came crashing down right by our little boats and it was luck, nothing more that kept us from being washed away by the waves created by their calvings.

Then all of a sudden for no particular reason it was time two go. two expensive visas later, i moved from argentina through brazil to paraguay. each country has a reciprocal agreement with other countries. so if they need a visa to visit your country, you need one to visit theirs. if they get fingerprinted, mugshots taken, inquisitioned in little secret rooms that you didn't notice before by armed stony faced attendants and fined upon entry to your country for not having your i's dotted and t's crossed correctly, well then, so do you. if they need proof of lots of money, letters from employers, return tickets and so on, vice versa. Europeans, South Americans, and Australians watch with clean hands as i get black fingers and mugshots, then look at my passport, smirk, and say, 'american, eh?' i see how american guards treat foreigners at the airport, so i don't complain. just swallow this medicine we've made thinking fair is fair and wishing hard that we had taken some governmental etiquette lessons from those coooool little northern european countries back before the bombs started dropping and certain planes started crashing into certain buildings changing everything now. but if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. i celebrated passover with a muslim girl from iran, some atheists and agnostics and who knows what from europe and here and there, nominally catholic south americans, and a bunch of israelis. we passed the book and read from it, sipped wine, had a good laugh and an even better meal, and that act in itself seemed like it was doing more good for world peace than most marches i have been in, letters i have signed and votes i have cast. we just gave each other a really good listen, see.

But that is all in the past now. no more gorgeous argentineans for now. bye bye mouth watering 2 dollar
steaks. it is onto asuncion, paraguay. from there, i will take a slow boat up the rio paraguay into the
pantanal in brazil. my food will be whatever is in that pot bubbling by my hammock and my neighbors will
be considered beautiful and lucky if they still have all their teeth at 32.

Paraguay. no one ever talks about paraguay. PJ O'Rourke said that Paraguay is nowhere, famous for
nothing. This is true, but patagonia is nowhere and i really fell for it. Paraguay is big cat country, full
of jaguars and pumas. Mennonites and Moonies own huge tracts of land here. a true tourist frontier (despite the privately chartered busload of intrepid danes enjoying their golden age and this air conditioned 3 star hotel i am in). Paraguay seems like a place where people go to disappear. I hope I don't disappear. I
will be staying on the track here instead of fleeing the gringo highway. But so far people speak clear
spanish (a big change from argentina and chile), have beautiful manners and are kind. We'll see, we'll just
have to see.

Okay, dear darling reader, where do you want to go now?

Hmm, let's see...I want to...

Play with orcas...
Float up the Rio Paraguay...
Dance the Forro...
Learn 10 reasons why Bolivians are the weirdest people in the world...
Float through the jungle...
Find a tropical island paradise...

None of the above. I am too busy for that crap. And I think it is time for you to get a real job, Katherina.

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