Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dreaming Northward

I find my way out of Coyhaique at last, striking north on the Carretera Austral for Puyhuapi. Juan Pablo, who offered to drive and save me valuable time on the bus, said the trip would be fast and concentrated, like a dream. It was.

We get a late start out of town, about 2:30 in the afternoon, with the sun high overhead. North of Aysén we pass the tiny settlement of Manihuales, and shortly thereafter the pavement ends and the landscape begins to change. The forest stretches in all directions: damp, dense, and green. I am overwhelmed by its frantic and reckless tangles. As always in Patagonia, the snowy peaks of the Andes surround us and enclose our world with an impressive border. They seem to become sharper and markedly more severe as we head north. The moon already chases behind us, and Jaco Sanchez sings "Tengo que pensar..." on the radio while we climb hairpin turns to cross the pass. I am lost in my thoughts, deep into the dream, and fixated on the enormous green ferns and spindly lenga trees hugging the road.

It is dusk when we arrive at Fijordo Queulat, but there is just enough light to make out the glassy water of the ocean meandering inland to meet the peaks. The carretera hugs the fijord and deals us endless potholes and sharp turns, until night finally closes in and the lights of Puyhuapi illuminate the distant shore. Puyhuapi, a tiny scattering of cabañas and German bed and breakfasts, is silent and tranquil in the darkness. The stillness of the mountains and the water, and the palpable sense of isolation create a distinct feeling of peace.

In the morning, a rare sunny day in this perpetually rainy climate illuminates the landscape anew. Everyone in Puyhuapi seems desperate to talk to us, as if they´ve been awaiting visitors in solitude all winter. They probably have. We converse with the German owner of a hand-woven rug business and shuffle around the edge of the fijord. We then head back south to the looming Ventisquero Colgante, a massive hanging glacier suspended between two peaks and reflected in a luminescent blue lagoon.

Late afternoon, and we fly back down the carretera and over the pass, stopping to pick up two hitchhikers who happen to know Juan Pablo. Patagonia is enormous and yet surprisingly small...there are so few people it is not uncommon to find an acquaintance in the middle of the wilderness 400 miles away. Our companions bring renewed energy to the cab of the truck as they recount their journey and plans to walk through the night if no car had stopped. I ponder that possibility.

Eventually we all lapse into silence, watching the moon rise and the peaks turn a warm pink. The moon is full, and this time we are chasing it, until the peaks become dark shapes and the lights of Coyhaique appear in the valley below. Night has definitively fallen by the time we hit our first traffic light. Awake from the dream, I struggle to hold onto some tangible evidence that it was real. Even the photographs seem to lie. Asi es la Patagonia.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


The days of winter vacation are passing rapidly and marked mostly by weather: sun yesterday, rain today, temperature dropping or rising... some days the fire starts easily and other days not so much. I am working on my motivation to leave Coyhaique and explore, but in winter the idea of riding a bus six hours to sleep in an unheated cabana is slightly unappealing. In any event, my recent surplus of free time has allowed me to reflect on life: here, elsewhere, and anywhere.

In a little more than three months I have ceased to think twice about powdered milk and coffee, having to relight a pilot halfway through the shower, and sometimes sleeping in a mummy bag under my blankets. I have perfected my "ciao," switched my cellphone language to Spanish, and even incorporated the ever present "po" into my vocabulary. (Po is an abbreviated form of pues, and Chileans use it to emphasize everything, i.e. sipo, nopo, obviopo.) Adapting to existence in a foreign culture is an odd thing. I sometimes wonder if I will continue to put mayonnaise on rice and eat pizza with mustard and hot sauce when I return to the states. What will I do without a wood stove to warm up my socks and red wine? Will I never dance chamamé again?

But the most pressing realization about life at the bottom of the world is how little things really do change. I have my daily routine, I go to the gym, I hang out with friends, I have a boss I don´t like, I struggle the same struggles and think the same things. We can´t escape who we are or the essence of our existence no matter how much we try to change the details. And for me, this is a very important point. I believe in the power of a journey to profoundly change a person, but I don´t believe we can depend on exotic experiences to make us who we are. At the end of the day in Coyhaique, I lay in bed and listen to the rain falling outside my window. And if I close my eyes, I could almost be on 5 Sherry Lane, wondering what tomorrow will bring.