¨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.
Objective: Go North
okay okay okay. So here´s what has happened since I left California in January: I went to Tulum in Mexico for a month and got brown and strong and calm. Then I went to South Beach, Miami for a few days and rolled around in the big mushy love of my good friends like a pig in a mud puddle.
Then I flew to Ushuaia, Argentina, otherwise known as The End Of The World.
Turns out that The End Of The World is quite a tourist trap. It is all about being at the end of the world there, though for a price you can go even further to the end of the end of the world - to Puerto Williams for $100, to Cape Horn for $300 or to the absolute bottom of the globe, argggghhhh here be dragons!, Antarctica for $1000. I visited the Port at The End Of The World, rode the Train At The End Of The World, walked in the Park At The End Of The World, slept, ate and ran away from humans dressed as penguins posing for pictures at the End Of The World for a few days and then decided that was enough of that and headed north overland to Calafate, where the glaciers advance and moan and crash down in front of you from moment to moment.
I had never seen a glacier or an iceberg before. They are very blue. Somehow I always just thought that was fancy photographers doing their light tricks or bad development jobs but they really are shockingly blue in every shades imaginable. And absolutely gorgeous. The glaciers were huge and they did come crashing down one giant piece at a time just like my guidebook said that they wood. It was difficult to tell how big the pieces were that were falling until the waves reached the shore. The fall happened, the sound came, then a few minutes later, waves. Hypnotic and spectacular.
Onwards, up the gringo trail, now paved over with accompanying spreadsheets full of information on hotels, bus schedules and parrillas listed by price and location. My god these Argentinians are organized! To Chalten after a quick dip into Chile to trek around in Torres del Paine National Park. More hostels, more spreadsheets, more spiky breathtaking mountains stabbing at the sky and fog and dirty backpackers looking for Patagonia Autentico.
Super organized Argentina makes me as nervous as Germany, which sent me over the edge. And in Germany 10 years ago, everything worked so perfectly and efficiently that it had me crouching in cobwebbed corners of dark church courtyards scowling at gargoyles nervously muttering about death my eyes scrambling desperately around the courtyard in search of a little disorder. I´ll take the cheerfully unapologetic inefficiency of Mexico any day over these sparkling streets. I had had it with the gringo trail so I dove into the woods and walked to Chile alone.
It was a long rainy walk in which I got cold, wet and hungry, had to slog through wild torrential streams with my 50 pound pack, eat calafate berries because I ran out of food, and so forth. In other words, I had a great time! I got just beyond the Chilean border and reached a huge lake that was surrounded by glaciers. I waited in the house of an old woman for several days where I nursed my bruised toes (no hiking boots on this trip - dumb move), picked all of the cherries from her cherry tree (she made me a pie) and listened to the people talking on the short wave radio. They sounded like Spanish speaking whales due to the signal but it was the most entertaining thing around and so I sat there facing the old lady all day long watching the clockhands creep around in circles and the sky brighten at daybreak and then darken once again, mercifully giving us a break from each other as we laid in our separate rooms and waited for sleep to come until darkness turned to light, politeness roused me out of bed and back to the chair by the stove in the kitchen, and I would sit there again watching the clock hands creep around wondering if the ferry ever would come. Time passed in that house, but only just. She had been living there since birth and had some how managed to find a mate, spawn a few kids who grew up and went to more happening places, then outlived her husband, leaving her all alone on the edge of that lake with her cherry trees and cats.
One day, a neat little blue boat showed up and out of nowhere there appeared three other travellers who had been camping out in the woods nearby waiting for the boat, too. They turned out to be an inspiring group. Like me, they feel funny on the gringo trail and so, by foot and by bike, they, too, had slogged their way over here and all of them were tough tough tough! The little boat putt-putted us across the lake and we found ourselves dumped off in a hospedaje called Apocalypses 1:3 but the proprietors weren´t spooky jesus people and the lady of the Apocalypse pumped out fresh bread for us to sop up our boxed wine with as fast as we could eat it. One of my companions was an Austrian environmentalist named Gregor, who is walking around the world for three years. See his website at globalchange.at. Another, Loic, is a French land surveyor living in French Guiana who spends his time hacking through jungles, sending signals up to a hovering helicopter above and and making maps of the uncharted jungle territories. I have a blurry picture of him, a Frenchman, drinking wine out of a box, because who knows when I will ever see that happen again? He noticed my extreme pleasure at witnessing his uncouth behavior and told me that there is a spam that goes around France of wine in a can - no words, just the picture. Bouf. The third guy was Swiss and on a bicycle. He has been biking around China and all over Asia for about 5 years now.
The adventure guy trio made plans to meet in 5 days´ time, 200 kilometers up the Carretera Austral, and they were travelling via bike and foot. I, the black-and-blue-toed princess adventurer, was travelling by thumb; the bus wasn't due for another week and I was getting antsy. I hadn't seen a patch of blue sky in weeks and was getting sun starved.
And, I didn´t have the right kind of money to stick around. That is, I had a 100 dollar bill with a stamped red letter A on it, which made it unacceptable to the locals in Chile, plenty of Argentinian Pesos (anything Argentinian is a dirty word in Chile and vice versa), Traveller´s Cheques (ha ha! that´s not money here!), Visa cards (see Traveller´s Cheques) and was about to either offer my headlamp to the hospedaje people for a few days of food and sleep or split by thumb.
The Carretera Austral was Pinochet´s idea. He wanted to build a lonnnngggg road that would connect string bean Chile all the way from north to south and that would bear his name. It is about halfway done, everyone just calls it the road, or el camino, and no one goes on it except for rich tourists in 4 X 4s and gauchos on horseback and the occasional truck driver. I glommed onto a couple from Chile who were touring and had just reached the bottom of the Carretera and were turning around and heading back north, and my fantastic ride began. The carretera is the most beautiful road I have ever been on. It is like seeing all 50 US states in a day, the landscape is that diverse and spectacular. It is peppered with big slow deer called huemuls, guanacos (llama times horse times camel times deer equals guanaco), rheas (brown floppy feathered ostriches) and armadillos. Every bend has you craving some glorious Beethoven symphony to accompany the scenery. My ride was playing death rock, but that worked out fine, too.
I would have lingered but I was in a rush. I had to get to Puerto Madryn in the middle of Patagonia´s Atlantic Coast to meet my friend Jennifer by Saturday. It was Tuesday and I had 1000 miles to go. I was making about 200 miles a day, so was optimistic. I made it into Argentina on Wednesday and the sky got blue again. Winter had been pounding on my heels and making my bones creaky in beautiful foggy Southern Chile. Sidewalks soon reappeared and my $100 dollar bill became acceptable currency once again. They even had ATM machines! At this point, there was even a bus system available but I was liking the thumb travel and the towns were small enough and the traffic sporadic enough to feel safe. I got a ride to the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in a 1986 Russian UAZ. These roads, I should mention, are not paved, they are gravel, and they are vertiginous and windy. Travelling by car feels too fast to take it all in and by foot, too slow and painful (the big rocks on the road are constantly twisting your ankles). Every so often a gaucho would ride by in a fedora on a horse and I could see that he has the pace of this place just right by the look on his face. Decades of utter contentment with the occasional rainstorm that just wouldn't quit were written all over it. He's in sync with his surroundings and himself as he ambled up and down Patagonia knowing he'd get there someday, just in time.
The Cueva de las Manos is littered with hundreds of handprints created between 10,000 and 2500 years ago by means of holding the hand up to the wall and spitting around it with crushed pigment from the colorful rocks and cliffs all around the area. The landscape was dry and full of canyons. There were paintings of guanacos and footprints of rhea birds, guanacos and pumas created in the same way as the human hands. There is even an animal that looks suspiciously like a unicorn, but locals insist it is a one horned huemul and get angry about all the intrigue that British writer, Bruce Chatwin, caused by calling this one horned horse a unicorn.
After the town of Perito Moreno and the Cueva de los Manos, traffic was iffy, the landscape was a description of nowhere, and so I sadly tucked my thumb in and got back on the bus. I got off again in Pico Truncado to the confused stares of my fellow bus passengers (no gringos in this town). Why would I want to go here? But as we moved into oil country, I was sitting there thinking about dinosaurs and fossil fuel and how the blood and bones of our ancestors were being used to propel us across this desolate landscape and the wind roared outside creating horizontal tree growth and up from out of the town limits of Pico Truncado rose a dinosaur! This one was built out of used oil barrels and machinery. The oil workers were on strike and had blocked the roads and were burning tires to protest their nonpaying companies and the black smoke and fires backlit the dinosaur and I knew that this was the place for me. Also, I had a feeling, since there was rumored to be a sound park full of kinetic sculptures built out of old oil machinery.
Unfortunately, the perpetually powerful wind actually quieted down when I got off the bus and the sculptures sat silent. I took pictures and banged and shook and blew at them and tried to imagine what they would be like on a windy day. Even as sculptures, they cut a fine figure against the background of desert, power grids and wind driven power generators. I wasn´t disappointed but I had to go before I could track down the creator because Saturday was coming and I still had a long way to go.
Buses are predictable, though, and blasted across the belly of Patagonia, bored to sleep by the landscape, which is only fascinating in that it is a visual description of nowhere. And now here I am in Puerto Madryn by the sea, just in time, early even, sitting in this high speed internet cafe looking forward to tomorrow, when I will head over to Peninsula Valdez at high tide to watch and wait there every day on a cliff above the sea lion rookery because this is the place where the orcas come crashing onto the beach to snatch a seal.
I will be here for a month, I suppose, until I have had my fill of what they call the serengeti of the marine mammal world. Then I will keep zigzagging back and forth slowly north over land until I reach the top of South America or run out of money and have to go back to the United States and work to feed this voracious travel bug that I've got rampaging through my system.
Meanwhile, I am happy and healthy and as deeply content as a gaucho at the way the dice have landed me here. I hope you are the same. Send me your news and stories - I´ve got nothing but time and would love to hear from you!
All the very best, Katherina
¨I boasted to you of my desire to change, but I was not prepared for the change the trip itself has already wrought on me. I swim in vacancy. The rigors and distractions of travel are my only theme. I see why neurasthenics are advised to travel. I scarcely think about myself at all anymore. There are only practical questions. My inner life is quite evaporated.¨ - Susan Sontag, In America
Okay, dear darling reader, where do you want to go now?
Hmm, let's see...I want to...