Saturday, January 19, 2013

Puerto Natales Overtime


I’ve seen it! With my own eyes! So I can finally believe that it has been returned to me in all it’s now-fairly ripped up and plane-manhandled glory. Nothing is irreparably damaged and nothing gone, so I am very happy to finally be able to repack my belongings and head into the park! Pretty absurd and awful first experience of losing luggage, so I am very glad it is over. I received the bag last night and am confirmed to take a bus in for my program tomorrow, with very little idea as to when I’ll be back. I’ve been invited to come stay at Erratic Rock for free whenever I so please during my volunteering stint, as long as I do a little bit of work. Work means greeting people, giving information, locking the door after hours, doing laundry, manning the bar, and, today, gardening. Rough life. I may just come back on one of my breaks just to rest, do nothing in particular, and get out of the wind.

One of my favorite buildings across the street

To the North
I’ve had quite a bit of time to bumble around Puerto Natales, Chile, alone for the last few days, successfully getting my first Patagonian sunburn. Yay, redheads. I'm collecting a decent number of photos of random houses that I think are absolutely gorgeous. The colors here are wonderful and one of my favorite things is just walking aimlessly and getting borderline lost just to look at pretty buildings and murals. The town is very much so South American, but you can also just tell that you’re at the bottom of the planet with the near-Antarctic feel. It’s a sunny, warm, and breezy summer, but when you wander down to the docks you really are aware of how cold that water is and how indescribably gigantic and close the mountains on the other side of the water are. My photos can’t do justice for how huge these mountains are; it really reminds me of driving through the Collegiate Range of 14ers in Colorado. I’ve made a point of walking to the water every day I’ve been here, and it has yet to get old.

One really odd observation is the celebrity of the town: the Milodon. It is everywhere. Now what is a Milodon? It is a prehistoric giant sloth. I learned a bit about the history from In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, and I believe its fossil was found here. There’s a giant sloth statue when you enter the town, its outline is on every street sign, and the taxi company across the street is called El Milodon Taxi. Kind of a ridiculous love of Puerto Natales’. There are also stray dogs all over the place. No surprise to most anyone, but I would totally adopt every single one. They’re practically all mid-size adorable dogs that have the life of running all over the place and getting fed by the collective town. Obviously there are downsides to their life, but according to people I’ve met in the hostel, this town is a much safer place for stray dogs than many others in South America. Stray cats, on the other hand, are super rare.

El Milodon Taxi
Stray dogs taking a siesta

Panqueques con espinaca y una limonada a la afuera del café
Food’s been an interesting adventure of trying whatever costs around 2.000 pesos and seems fairly strange or at least really tasty. Breakfast is homemade in the hostel everyday and always the same thing: an omelet (LOADS of oregano, for those of you who know my opinion on that), great homemade bread, and yogurt in bags with muesli. Dinners I basically always roll over to the next-door bar owned by the hostel for one of the two things served: amazing pizza or a mechada wrap (although they occasionally make a mean curry). It's a great way to meet random travelers, not eat alone, and explore the Patagonian microbrew selection (nothing named El Milodon, I'm disappointed to report). The place is half bar and half gear rental, has kayaks and maps for the daily park info session all over the place, and we tend to watch either climbing videos (Reel Rock 2012 my first night) or Planet Earth in the evenings on the wall. It's great. I usually end up joining whichever hostel friend group of the day I'm with for lunch, but yesterday I pulled a completely solo lunch in the backyard of a coffee and lunch shop. It took a solid two hours but was really nice and calming, considering I have zero place to be, zero people to be with, and zero way of anyone contacting me. Getting better at this alone thing, although I still know for a fact this would be much more enjoyable if I were with a friend or family member. I’ve essentially decided I’ll be back with said friend or family member, though, and only for a week or two to trek and visit the surrounding area on a real vacation.

Justin giving the park info session at Base Camp
Base Camp bar/gear shed and Erratic Rock hostel
I've been migrated from my hostel room to a room next door with the fellow interns (four people my age, from Connecticut, a brother and sister from Oregon, and Holland)--I am living on a mattress on the floor above a bar in Patagonia. Talk about study abroad. The hostel is basically heaven and I could not have lucked out any more by ending up here. It has been a lifesaver to have a place to essentially live for an indefinite time while waiting for my bags and trying to simmer down my anxiety of starting off this trip with quite a bit going completely wrong. It has been much less culture shock and more travelling-internationally-alone shock for me, thus far. It’s kind of odd, since I feel like I’ve been here before. The hostel itself is exactly what my beloved Outdoors Haus at Wheaton would be if we were able to stick around and amass stuff for longer than four months twice a year. I love it. It feels like home, other than the fact that you share a room with four other people and that the cats, Bonnie and Clyde, are actually friendly (a welcome change from Sisi at home who only loves herself and my dad. Such a bummer).

Clyde the cat, who is afraid to go outside
It has taken some getting used to that people pass in and out every day or so, so I end up making friends for a few hours at a time. Still, I’ve met some really cool people in the process: lots of Australians, an Austrian, a handful of Norwegians, the flock of American business school students from my first day, a super friendly Brazilian woman, a pair of friends from Wisconsin, a few French, and some unfriendly Germans who look like they’re in high school. Overall, it’s been great meeting all these people, and I’ve been turned into The Girl Who Lost Her Bags. I got my bag yesterday, complete with toothpaste! Chacos! Jackets! Shampoo! so I was finally able to take a real shower for the first time in a week. While waiting for one of the showers to open up, a guy I hadn’t met yet arrived to also wait for the shower and said “Oh, you must be The Girl Who Lost Her Bags!” I have no clue how he figured this out. I’d been out on a walk when my bag arrived, so I guess that’s how the story proliferated without my presence… either way I just said yes and how pumped I was for a real shower, although I couldn’t find a towel. He then tried to let me use his clean one and said “No no, seriously, I’ll give up my towel for The Girl Who Lost Her Bags!” He evidently has lost plenty of his own bags and says not to worry, since pretty much everyone is up for helping out a Girl Who Lost Her Bags. This ended up being Carl, my super-duper-friendly Wisconsin friend who just finished his 10-day Torres del Paine trek.
Some really incredible colors

This is my final full day in Puerto Natales and I am certainly ready for a change. Tonight is Open Mic and Taco Night at the Base Camp next door, so I'm pretty excited for that as my last night in civilization. I’m very apprehensive about the next step of entering the park and being at the mercy of the volunteer group for awhile. The Wisconsin pair told me they saw some men building a wooden suspension bridge in a fairly precarious way (“I’m glad someone else was willing to do that, since I never would!”) so… hopefully I’ll have to build small bridges instead. I’m pretty sure I’m going to come back to Puerto Natales for one of my stints off, so I may have internet again in a little while. Everything is up in the air as usual, though, so… we shall see!

Mural of the Torres del Paine
Much love from the Milodons,

Proof that I'm alive! Down by the water

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Worst Transit of All Time

Why hello world,

I was not expecting to be able to write for several weeks but alas, I was not expecting much of anything that has happened in the last 48 hours.

Warning: this is a long post. Apologies for my venting.

All prepped and ready to leave my house by 5am Tuesday, the American Airlines cyborg called to mechanically inform me that my very first flight was cancelled, thanks to single-digit temps, ice all over the place, and the classic issue of Albuquerque not knowing what to do with themselves when things get cold despite it happening every year for the months of winter… shocking. This earned me a couple more hours of sleep that had me waking up to believe that the entire Torres del Paine plan was just a dream. Nope, got on a plane that eventually took off despite loads more delays due to neither the plane nor the equipment to fix the inactive plane actually working.

Thanks, Albuquerque. Notice the "Feels Like -6 °F"
Those delays earned me a great time in Dallas, airport 2 of 7. The plane landed at 1:54, before taxi. My next plane was set to take off at 2:05. Guess who miraculously made that connection? Add another reason to keep running marathons to the list—sprinting 20 gates in the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport with a backpack and carrying a 35-pound rolling suitcase (yes, carrying. More maneuverability). The fun part of this was when the entire front of the plane that I was seated near cheered for my running ally and me when we bolted out of the plane as soon as the jetway opened.

Miami was one of the worst airports I have ever flown through, considering it was gigantic without a train or moving walkways, and that I had to leave security, re-check in while trying to explain my fairly ridiculous itinerary in Spanglish, go back through security, then speed walk while on the phone with my mother, having my first episode of questioning why this madness is worth it. Oho, past Emily, it has yet to begin.

That flight was fantastic, a welcome change from day one: nine hours to pass out after one of the best airline meals I’ve ever had. I learned long ago that the trick with airline food is to always, always go with the pasta option; this gem has seriously never failed me. The family of three daughters near me were very nice (although really made me wish more than anything that my sister were with me), I was surrounded by beautiful Spanish, and wine was not an option with dinner: the option was vino tinto o blanco. A tricky way of getting all the passengers at elevation to sleep for the flight, which I did quite happily.

Buenos Aires Ezeiza has easily been the best airport, even if it was under construction. Still, I never had to leave security and just had to follow the way for transit passengers, where I encountered no lines before being passed through a single metal detector with my shoes on by a very tough-looking security woman before entering a rather new, empty, and sunny terminal at 6am. Got some help from a nice desk clerk and camped out in front of my gate to observe my first Sudamericano surroundings and have a great conversation with an Australian student en route home. This flight was also quite nice, where I woke up from a short nap to see the Andes and Aconcagua out my window. It was breathtaking, easily. This is near Mendoza, and got me pretty excited for that next chapter.

Volcanoes while landing in Puerto Montt
Santiago is when the fun really started. The airport was more reminiscent of the most depressing hallways of the basement of my job in a laboratory a few years ago, and I really was beginning to feel like a herd of cattle being led to the slaughter… without knowing exactly what the slaughter was. Instead of following transit passenger signs like in Buenos Aires, I was redirected to pay the reciprocity fee to enter Chile and go through customs even if I was far from my final destination. Unfortunately, customs was a three-step process and the second step I had to go through twice thanks to paperwork misinformation on my Argentina-Chile flight. Before step three, I had to collect my checked bag from a carousel and re-check; however, I had checked my bag straight from Albuquerque to Punta Arenas, to avoid this. When I got to the carousel for my flight, it had already pumped out all the bags… and mine was nowhere to be seen.

Queue the panic beginning to bubble to the surface. I had no choice but to go through this security anyway and my barely two hour connection was now at 20 minutes. I speedily bought food for the first time in my travels (just pointed to something on the menu and asked for the internet password) before frantically contacting my parents and my volunteer group. Many thanks to Carl for being on Gchat and calling my mother to summon her on Skype somewhere around 8am on a Wednesday in Albuquerque, and my volunteer group told me to just be persistent and grill any desk attendants for my flight about my bag. Three attendants later, a guy seemed to seriously check and then tell me that, yes, my bag was scanned onto my next plane. HALLELUJAH.
Anyone recognize this? I don't believe it is Cerro Fitz Roy

On the final flight I had a grand time translating between most of the passengers and the only-Spanish-speaking attendant, getting me ridiculously excited about Spanish. This route was even more incredible than flying over the Andes as we just flew along them directly and, after Puerto Montt, there was nothing but lakes, volcanoes, glaciers, and incredible mountains the entire way. As we stopped in Puerto Montt, I turned to my new French friend Felipe, en route to his own 10-day Patagonia tour, to comment on how beautiful it was. He just said with a big grin, “I can’t wait.” I was finally starting to believe what I’ve gotten myself into and more excited than stressed for the first time.

Incredible glaciers near Argentinian Patagonia

Punta Arenas was the final test. The baggage carousel did bring my gateside-checked bag, and yet… I waited and waited and my backpacking pack never came. All of the attendants in Punta Arenas spoke rather broken English, if any, so I translated for myself and an American man who had just come from Easter Island and lost his pack as well. While filling out the contents section of my missing bag report, I straight up started crying as I realized the extent of everything that is currently lost somewhere on two continents and the fact that I know each and every single object that is in that pack. This report was thrown together in about 15 minutes before a bus to Puerto Natales arrived by the fellow American’s reservation. Having already missed my own chance at a bus, I heckled my way on in pretty ridiculous and fairly desperate Spanish—the bus was full but they granted me standing room for the three-hour bus ride for 4.000 CLP (about US$8). It was sitting in the aisle of this bus that I really just wanted to give up.

Chilling on the floor of the bus
Mind you, giving up is not a common feeling for me at all, but this is the situation I have found myself in: at the bottom of the planet with none of the belongings I depend on to fend for myself and completely alone for who knows how long. I have a toothbrush but no toothpaste. I have my few electronics, but do not have the near US$3000 worth of gear I have amassed over my life of outdoors escapades. I have my handful of summery clothes for Mendoza but have no jacket or hiking boots whatsoever. I have my old prescription glasses but not the new prescription I just recently attained. I have lost many a gift from friends and family that have meant so much to me and to them. And at this point on the bus I had no way of contacting anyone when all I genuinely wanted to do was just turn around and take another two days to fly all the way back to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to burrow myself into my own bed and not emerge for the next month or so.

Instead, I rolled off the bus at 11pm while light still lingered in the sky from the recent sunset, speedily figured out the Puerto Natales map and trudged over to the Erratic Rock hostel where I have a one-night reservation. Now, my friends, I am quite delirious from flights and staring at some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen while flopped on the floor of a bus for a couple hours. When I walked into the Erratic Rock, I quite seriously thought I was dead and perhaps in heaven. It was toasty from a cast-iron stove in the corner, the walls were covered with posters of Torres del Paine and ancient snowshoes, quickdraws, and guanaco pelts, there were a few cats rolling around on the floor, and two women about my age were perched on a couch watching Almost Famous. I met the owner Julie, who told me not to worry: AMA volunteers are extra-welcome at Erratic Rock and I can stay here for free as long I need and will get a free ride into the park to meet up with the AMA group whenever my bag arrives.

So for now, I do not know what I will be up to in the next hour let alone few weeks and I’m feeling like the biggest failure of all time, but hey, I am alive and I am safe, so things aren’t too awful. There is so much more to write about, but I have already ranted on for long enough and it’s looking like I’m going to be here with very little to do for awhile so I’ll probably be writing again. Postcards may happen. Email me and I would love to talk to you. Anyways, off to hunt down lunch and bumble down to the water here in Puerto Natales with my new flock of five business school student friends who are heading off to do the W route for 5 days this afternoon.
There is a reason no one ever goes to Patagonia--it is ridiculously difficult to an extreme just to get here. I am so close, and yet so far away.

Much love,
a very defeated Emily

Friday, January 11, 2013

To Patagonia

¡Buenas tardes y bienvenidos!

Less than a week from today, I will be both incommunicado and very much so in shock. On the morning of January 17th, I pile onto a bus for a rickety two hour ride just to roll off into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in the Región de Magallenes, Chile, at the bottom of the planet. Affectionately known as Holy Sweet Mother of Jesus National Park to some, living here will be quite the test--dumping myself in the boonies of a country I've never been to in a language I'd like to think I'm fairly tolerable at for a solid two months of sleeping in a tent whilst traveling solo internationally for the first time in my life. Bring it.

Itinerary of flights ABQ to PUQ, January 15-16
After months of hunting and applications and emails and wire transfers and plans, I will be volunteering with an NGO within the park, Agrupación Medio Ambiental Torres del Paine (AMA Torres del Paine), on a trail maintenance crew for five weeks of the Patagonian summer. AMA is essentially the Torres-specific equivalent of the National Park Service and I will be working with a small team of fellow volunteers from all over the world on a variety of projects, depending on what's needed in the park. Our main tasks include the reparation and clearing of existing trails and bridges, wood-working on signs throughout the park's trail system, expanding the latest recycling and compost program, and teaching visitors and local students Leave No Trace principles. As an additive plus, I get a few days off every eleven days to do whatever I so please in one of the most gorgeous wildernesses of the world. I'm particularly excited to get more backpacking experience in and to meet plenty of other crazy outdoorsfolk in refugios and on the trails.

How did I end up getting myself into this? It honestly started off when I was somewhere around ten years old and saw a National Geographic documentary about pumas in the Torres del Paine National Park, and have had it in my mind ever since. Years later, I was fortunate enough upon admission to Wheaton College to be awarded the Balfour Scholar that includes a stipend for an unpaid venture in the summer following sophomore or junior years. There were plenty of other options I had bouncing around to do in the extra long southern hemisphere summer, but I figured I'd at very least visit while on the continent: why not actually get to know and give back to the park, rather than briefly pass through?
51°0′0″S 73°0′0″W

After emerging from the park, hopefully unscathed by puma, I immediately fly from Punta Arenas, Chile, to Buenos Aires for study abroad orientation with IFSA-Butler before moving to Mendoza, Argentina, for the remainder of the semester ending in July. I'll write more about that when the time comes and I rejoin society on February 21st. Fun fact of the day: Punta Arenas is the furthest south capital of any province in the world. Also, I was curious and switched the south coordinate of Torres del Paine to north; this is what happened:
51°0′0″N 73°0′0″W

 I am excited, overwhelmed, and terrified, but I still don't think I realize what madness I have gotten myself into this time and don't think I will until perhaps when I get off the 20 hours of flights. This is one of those times when the mindset I learned from skydiving last summer comes in handy--you're in the plane, all you can do now is jump. Clearly, I won't be jumping out of any of the planes between Albuquerque and Patagonia, but changing my mind really hasn't been an option since August. They say if you're not scared, you're not trying hard enough. If that's the case, I'm trying pretty outrageously hard.

Las Torres Moonlight, photo courtesy Jack Brauer

I am notoriously awful at keeping in touch and shall try my best to update this blog throughout the semester just to keep you all posted on my general life and adventures. I am supposed to have spotty internet access when I'm at la estancia in the park, but I don't expect to have much luck with it and if so, Skype priority #1 is my mother. Still, emails are definitely welcome and I will try my best to respond! Regardless, hearing from you will make my day just as it does no matter where in the world I happen to be. Once in Mendoza, I'll be much more on the map (a mailing address!), so just ask me and I'll let you know of my contact details.

I'll be missing Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, President Obama's second inauguration, the Super Bowl and Über Bowl at my beloved Wheaton Outdoors Haus (Glory!), and several friend's birthdays including my 21st, so I wish all a lovely end of January and beginning of February!

Much love from the bottom of the world,

Some links that you may find interesting:
Voluntary Horizons, my contact with AMA
Erratic Rock hostel, collaborator with AMA
The Patagonian Foundation
Puma: Lion of the Andes National Geographic, my inspiration for just $1.43 on VHS!

Wheaton College
Balfour Scholar

 *found by T.K. Baldwin

Photo credits to Jack Brauer, one of my favorite mountain photographers
Torres del Paine Panorama, photo courtesy Jack Brauer