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Cold feet!

It was the whales that did it..

 

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A grumpy old woman tries to recapture the spirit of her youth by gatecrashing her daughter’s gap year. That’s me at the moment only a matter of days before setting out. Things have changed since I first got the idea of going to Patagonia. Why Patagonia? I liked the name. I liked the idea of distance. I liked the idea of South America. But now I’ve got cold feet. How predictable. I feel a strange reluctance to go anywhere. I’m fed up with buying all the stuff you need: a rucksack, a waterproof jacket, walking boots, etc, etc. I just want to stay on my sofa and sample foreign places from the safety of my sofa. Besides what if Trump wins the election? Shouldn’t I be on familiar territory near familiar people as I was when Brexit happened. The day after I went to the Ladies Pond and sat amid women who shared their disbelief. It was comforting..very comforting. Not one of them had voted leave.. or she was keeping very quiet about it. There was a sense of shared wailing and gnashing of teeth and a shared angry splashing and plunging.

It was the whales that did it. I read about them migrating and being really visible from the coast of Argentina. There was no time to lose. We would have to go in November in order to see them. But now even whales leave me cold. What was I thinking? Will we catch them in time? Or will they have already left, driven further afield by global warming. Will the sight of a Southern right whale do anything to mitigate my misery if Trump wins the election? Even if he loses, he will stage some kind of protest event and the shock waves will be felt all the way down the Americas and the whales will dive deeper and become invisible beneath the waves, not deigning to show even their flukes.

It’s just that I have to actually get going. When you plan something for too long you go off the boil. You’ve been there and done it a hundred times already in your head and it never ever lives up to expectations but is just a kind of sequence of practical steps that you feel disinclined to carry out: first pack your bag, second, print out your boarding pass..

When you conceive of an idea you never, ever, ever think about the minutiae. You’re always floating on some cloud, skipping over some altiplano..

I loved the idea of the Pampas…not the nappies…I once had a book about a wild horse La Bruja that lived on the Pampas. Nobody could catch her. She was that fleet of foot.

I must stop this ridiculous moaning..but I’ll miss my family, miss my friends, miss my old job, miss London, miss my string quartet, miss my old familiar life, miss my old stomping grounds, miss the Ladies Pond, miss my bicycle, miss my cat…..miss the next episodes of Poldark, miss the new series of Humans…I’m such a couch potato…

 

It will be good..I think…I may even learn some Spanish. Up to now I’ve become obsessed with an ap. that has made me learn the word for maggot and chisel and rafter and repression, Police presence and a bird in hand is worth a hundred in the bush. It’s utterly addictive and I suspect completely useless..It’s comforting in that anal way trains are to train spotters. I realise I am a train spotter about languages. I just acquire words for the sake of having them rattling around my head….it’s just a nice thing to do..the more useless the words, the more I like them. My favourite kind of words are those that deal with extreme emotions such as estremecedor= spine chilling, or words describing characteristics such as  soberbio=haughty..

I may even have to speak to someone soon in order to ascertain where the bus station is. The thought sends me into a small panic. What is the word for bus station?

Will I even bother to buy a camera or just rely on my phone? Should I devise a special hiding place for valuables in the lining of my trousers. What should I do if we are mugged?

Cold feet, cold feet, cold feet!!!!!!

 

 

 

On being mugged in BA

sophie-in-ba

We had two days in BA, just enough to see a few things and get the hell out. After three months of being in the countryside or in a small town (Punta Arenas is about the size of Leek, Puerto Natales and El Calafate are considerably smaller) with no buildings higher than two storeys we were a bit daunted at the thought of BA in blistering heat. Being a nervous traveller I was very aware of the dangers of being mugged, robbed, ripped off, taken for a ride etc etc etc. My first thought on arriving from El Calafate where we had spent three calm and days inspecting glaciers and icebergs was that we should find a trustworthy taxi driver. As soon as we set off I went on a big charm offensive telling him about our experiences of solitude on an Estancia a million miles from anywhere. I told him about the thrill of making bread and feeding chickens and picking raspberries and Calafate berries. I wanted to convey a Julie Andrew, Amish/nun like innocence. I left out any references to shooting rabbits and branding calves, but he laughed as I told him how much we had lapsed as vegetarians. He told me the most he could bear to spend in the countryside was two days. He was driving really fast by now along some boulevards of breath-taking breadth past a succession of impressive statues and I was beginning to wonder how much longer our journey would take when he suddenly turned into a narrow side street and stopped. ‘That is your hostel,’ he said and sure enough it was: El Portal del Sur on Hipolito Ygroyen. The price, which corresponded to that of his meter, was less than I expected so I told him he could keep the change. He beamed and then suddenly came over and gave me a hug! Then he hugged Sophie. I have never been hugged by a taxi driver before and I doubt if I ever will be again. If only people hugged each other more, the world would be a much, much, much better place!

The hostel was very big on four floors with very high ceilings. It was cavernous and slightly sinister. Sophie and I had a room to ourselves, which was a welcome change from sharing a room with seven other people in El Calafate. I must add here that they were always extremely quiet and it was a very nice clean hostal, and we met an amazing Brazilian man travelling with his brother and his son of Italian and Portuguese descent, who cooked homemade gnocchi and pizza every evening and let us have some, and also hugged us both as he said goodbye, despite my Portingnol.  But my God it felt good to be able hear expressions like: fique a vontade and tenho saudades again after thirty years – such a musical language! And I was so good at mimicking the accent, Marcello was quite blown away and didn’t at first realise at first how little had remained intact underneath the surface. But still phrase after phrase came back to mind, rolling in after decades of neglect and I was so happy to be able to listen to him expounding his ideas about racism in Brazilian society as he pounded the pizza dough and cut the gnocchis into strips. ‘You look at the US, there are black people in high positions in society. You see Judges, Police chiefs, TV hosts and of course up till very recently, the President. In Brazil there are no black people in any positions of power whatsoever…nada, nada, nada, nada!

Anyway, that first evening in BA, just as we were about to turn in, a neighbouring nightclub started belting out loud electronic music, which sounded like metal bars being welded together(!) and which went on till five in the morning. Fortunately, Sophie and I were so tired that we managed to sleep through most of it. The next morning, we had breakfast on the fifth floor breakfast bar, which was nice, although it was already really, really hot and the croissants were definitely stale and the jam didn’t taste anything like the jams we had been making on the Estancia. But hey ho, I was happy then because we were downtown, only a few metres from the Plaza de Mayo, right in the heart of one of the most exciting capitals in the world..

Our first stop was the Cathedral on the Plaza del Mayo, because it was Sunday and I wanted to catch a bit of the Mass. That sounds like I’m being a little bit voyeuristic about religion but the Cathedral was thronged with other tourists doing just that and at least I didn’t allow it to become a photo opportunity. Sophie, who had never witnessed anything like it before, was intrigued by the queues of people lining up to receive the body of Christ, though she did know what they were doing. I was a bit tentative about being able to fill in a gap in her education.

‘Do they do that every Sunday?’

‘I believe so, yes.’

After that we wandered in search of the famous San Telmo market and were not disappointed. It was great: a narrow street with wonderful old buildings with elaborate balconies and quirky bits sticking out. We were interested in buying a present for Paul! Then we had lunch in a really cool place, literally and metaphorically with a big buffet type arrangement, where you were charged according to the weight of your plate. After that we went in search of the modern art gallery because we knew it would have really good air conditioning. There was a great exhibition on the drawings of Argentine artist Antonio Berni, as well as one dedicated to Picasso’s sketches.

We had an ice-cream, which was very refreshing, at a small ice-cream parlour, had a little snooze in a park, and then went on walking to the area called Boca, which where there are some wonderful painted houses.

We were following a map the hostel had given us and it was only a bit further to the painted houses but we had strayed away from the main road and we were walking past a stadium. It was extremely hot. The area around the stadium was deserted.  A family sat in the shade of a single tree. We went a little bit further into a side street. Sophie noticed a man on a wall, who suddenly got up and started walking very quickly towards me. I saw him too and I felt threatened but assumed that he was going to ask me for money, or something. He was maybe in his late thirties or early forties and he had short black hair and a composed face. I can’t remember anything else about him. Sophie thinks he was wearing trainers.

He didn’t say anything as he approached me but he then he attacked me, hitting me on the chest and then again until I fell down screaming. I remember feeling disappointed that I wasn’t able to scream louder and I remember that awful feeling we all have when something we have often dreaded happening does actually happen, that sickening this is really happening to me moment. I was down on the ground and I remember trying to kick him from below but all my resistance was truly pathetic. I also remember that Sophie was trying to push him. She tried to pull his arm. She remembers feeling having a thick mouth and it was really hard to speak and she was saying something in English and her lips weren’t really moving properly. She remembers seeing him carrying something pointy in his hand, which was too thin to be a knife. Then he ran off! What a relief! We both saw the thing he had in his hand, which had a black handle.

A little later and he ran off. We held each other shaking. The shock was so sudden. It was so horrible, our utter vulnerability, yet he hadn’t taken anything. I had a gash on my chest where he had struck me and another one on my back, neither of which is that bad, but the thing he had in his hand can’t have been a knife. In my bewilderment, I first thought it was a torch which had taken out of pocket, but it wasn’t that. It was probably a screwdriver or something, which is something we realised much later. We checked my pockets where I had been keeping our cash, not very much of it, and my phone. They were still zipped up. We checked my bag where I had been carrying my owl purse with my precious notebook of Spanish vocabulary and a few odds and ends. I had left my cards and passports in the hotel. He had taken nothing except robbed me of my enjoyment of the day and of any desire to continue to explore Buenos Aires.

I felt such pride in Sophie’s courage. I think if she hadn’t helped me it could have been much, much worse! I’m not even that sure that he was trying to rob me because he didn’t try to snatch my bag, which would have been the obvious thing to do. But if Sophie hadn’t been, fighting back….but then she could have been horribly injured herself, or even killed. It doesn’t bear thinking about! I would have been in a really bad state, especially afterwards. She was a model of quiet strength. She was so sensitive and so caring and so strong and so heroic!

We talked to a woman who had heard my screams but she was completely nonchalant about the attack. We decided against going to the Police because we didn’t have much faith in them and we knew we probably couldn’t even recognize the man. Actually, we could have maybe done so with photos but it was so hot and all I wanted to do was get back to the hotel and have a shower. We were quite traumatized. I was in a really dark mood and Sophie was amazing, calm, collected and purposeful.

Should we go to the Police now that we have had a day to come to terms with it? We have one more day here. I think it wouldn’t achieve much. We have spoken to other tourists, many of whom have been robbed and who have reported these incidents to the Police, who are overwhelmed with cases like that. A New Zealander told us that that same morning how he was robbed of his camera and passport. He was walking to our Hostel from the bus station and he was within a few yards of it when he felt something foul-smelling being sprayed onto his face and hair. He stopped to investigate what it was. A ‘helpful’ girl approached him and offered to help him remove the stuff from his clothes and his bag. A second later she had made off with it. Another ‘helpful’ man pointed out where she had run off to…the wrong way. It was such a slick operation and over in seconds. He lost his camera and all his photos, which he hadn’t backed up.

Today, all I want to do is perhaps go out to see some Tango later and go to a bank …yikes… and otherwise remain holed up in our hotel room listening to the Bach violin Concertos. There is nothing quite like the Bach violin concertos to get you back into a good mood!! I also have to say that telling Paul was so good for morale too….so good…even better than Bach!

Punta Arenas and Penguins

 

punta-arenas

 

 

We finally left the Estancia after two months and went to Punta Arenas, on the Magellan Straits about two hundred miles south of Puerto Natales and the starting off point for expeditions to the Arctic. It felt like the right time to go. It was lovely being on the Estancia but it was also good to leave. We will definitely miss the beauty of the surroundings and the joys of country life: gardening, looking after hens, collecting eggs, making bread and living as a small community, eating together three times a day. It felt a bit Amish, perhaps. But Punta Arenas was a welcome change. It’s kind of rough and ready but I really liked it.

I was sad to miss the women’s march back home. Here in Chile there is a lot of uncertainty about what the Trump era will mean. Even Ricardo, a supporter of Pinochet, is sad to see Obama go and is shocked that America can produce such an obviously unhinged leader as Trump.  The weirdest thing was though that we ended up staying in a hostal being run by Ricardo’s ex brother-in-law, a Pinochet hater!

His name is Juan Pedro and he’s a man of Croatian descent, who was very informative. He told us that Chile is a country which is practising denial about many things. Nobody wants to confront the past. The Pinochet years have swept under the carpet. Everyone pretends that things are going well in Chile but it’s a country of appearances. The reality is that it’s very difficult to make a living. It’s a very expensive country and a lot of people live in poverty but nobody want to talk about social problems. The neo liberal agenda has been successful. There is no talk of re-nationalising industries that were privatised under Pinochet.  Television, which is in private hands is appalling. TV news is superficial  Forest fires are raging up and down the country in a summer of record-breaking temperatures and nobody mentions the words: global warming.

Of course, there was no hint of heat in Punta Arenas because it’s so far south. It was like  a typical summer in Glasgow. What warmed it for us was Juan Pedro’s hostal. He runs it with Rubi, his Columbian wife and they create a communal atmosphere, allowing their guests to sit together round a bit table over breakfast and get to know each other. We had long chats with Chileans, Argentinians and a lovely Brazilian couple. I asked them about how they felt about Dilma Rouseff’s fall from power and they said it was a far right coup. She was progressive: pro-abortion and she was removed from office on a trumped up charge, which was later not deemed a crime. The mood in the country against her was also apparently poisoned by the evangelical movement, which is very strong in Brazil.

There are some good museums in Punta Arenas which one would expect given its history. Until 1914 and the opening of the Panama Canal, Punta Arenas, whose name means Sandy Point, was the way to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean . Punta Arenas is also where Ernest Shackleton set off from on his ill-fated expedition which culminated with his crew huddling under two boats for 137 days on Elephant Island, eating surviving on seaweed and penguins. Shackleton tried three times to rescue them but in vain. The British, caught up as they were in the slaughter of the first world war, were reluctant to try to help him. At a function there her fired his gun at the wall of the British Consulate in frustration. In the end the help he could find came from Chile in the shape of Luis Pardo, the young captain of a tug boat who wrote a letter to his parents just before setting out saying he was prepared to die for the honour of his country. He knew what a dangerous mission it was. He succeeded by the skin of his teeth, arriving just as the men were about to cook their staple lunch of seaweed and penguin and came home to a hero’s welcome. Then he quickly faded into obscurity, from which he is now being rightfully rescued by Chilean museum curators.

Another wonderful thing Juan Pedro did, apart from introduce us to some really cool people, was take us to the cemetery and show us his parents’s tomb, which is in the Croatian section. It was a fascinating place and extremely beautiful, laid out in yew-lined avenues dedicated to all the different groups of immigrants who were drawn to this place. The cemetery is a lot posher than the actual city.

cemetery-in-punta-arenas

 

The avenues of strangely clipped yew trees are like something out of Magritte!

 

yew-trees-in-cemetery

 

Anyway, the main reason for going to Punta Arenas was to see penguins. You pay for a boat ride to the Isla Magdalena where the Magellanic Penguins are. You can pay even more money for a longer boat ride to see King Penguins. You are allowed one hour to walk around and the penguins don’t seem to mind the attention. The youngsters are still quite fluffy and they stare at you without any fear.In fact they seem rather curious to know what the fuss is all about. On the way we also saw three dolphins leaping in the wake of the boat, a couple of sealions in the distance and even further away some smaller species of whale. The only down side of the tour is that you are rush along rather too quickly by the tour operators. Still everyone gets a lot of really good pictures and arguably that’s what we all came for!

penguins-1

 

 

 

 

Hiking in the Middle of Nowhere

One of the strangest things about living on the Estancia is that you really are in the middle of nowhere. It feels so strange to know that the only people you will see for days at a stretch, apart from the people on TV, are the people who live under the same roof. When you go hiking you see literally nobody else, not even as a tiny little blip in the distance. There’s nobody, nobody, nobody apart from you and the condors.  Also the landscape is really truly bleak in a way that begins to make you long for gentler landscapes. It can get under your skin like the wind. Sophie and I rarely went on major hikes on our own. We were too busy but we went on a lot of lovely little ones. When the children went off to spend two months with their grandparents it liberated Karen, who was able to explore the Estancia properly for the first time! She’s only lived there herself for the last six years and she never really had the opportunity before with two small daughters to care for.

 

landscape

 

The first big hike was with Ricardo too, in his wellies. We wanted to climb the mountain that overshadows our house and climb the crags where the condors have their nests. In the future tourists will have their own trails up there, or rather that’s the plan.

 

 

condor-cliff

 

Condors circled above us. As as we climbed ever higher we had the satisfaction of seeing them from above. You can see their white wing feathers. Black from below. You can see their white ruffs around their necks. You get a sense of their enormous size.

And here’s a photo I took later to give you an idea:

 

stuffed-condor

 

 

Puerto Natales seemed very small and beyond it there were two mountains in Argentina. We were like gods on our mountain top. The whole world seemed to lie at our feet.

 

 

view-of-the-fjord

 

On another trip we went to see the lagoon on the other side of the mountain. It was a day of mists and  furtive sunshine. We walked a long long way over bogs and very soggy ground. Karen was very keen to keep going as far as possible and so we decided to start going back at six, knowing we had at least four more hours of daylight to return in. We reached a dense forest and found it difficult to find a way forward. Dead trees, felled in storms or old age barred the way. There was an old corral deep in the heart of the forest that had been used for sheep long ago. Karen took out her machete and cleared a path. She put down markers to enable other walkers to find the way. She was keen to cut a path through to a lagoon but time was beginning to run out. The weather was also beginning to change. Clouds were rolling in, shrouding the mountains.

lake

 

We finally turned back and started the long walk home. It started to rain but not for very long. We were rewarded by the sight of a rainbow as we reached the Estancia.

Now of course we’re not there anymore and everything we experienced is becoming a memory…everything that seemed real to us is no longer real. We’re in El Calafate and have been to Punta Arenas…more about those later…perhaps…internet willing….

Doomed

Doomeddoomed-sheep

We’ve been eating so much meat but we’ve been living so close to the source of it that it’s impossible not forget the animals it’s come from. It’s almost possible to taste the grass they grazed on. I don’t feel so sorry for the rabbits, which are a pest, but I do feel sorry for the sheep. There’s something endearing about sheep, especially when one has been feeding lambs for so long.  But living here you have to accept the reality of what sustains this place. Ricardo’s lambs are highly sought after. They’re bigger than usual, having had a really good life, albeit very short, drinking their mothers’ milk and romping around on the Estancia. I’ve often been reminded of that Kazuo Ishiguro book ‘Never Let Me Go’ about people being cloned and cultivated for their organs. The clones never really questioned their fate. They knew they were heading for an early death. The lambs don’t even have an inkling. Now is the time when friends and neighbours have started buying Ricardo’s lambs off him. The peak time for selling them will be the end of January. They will have to be vigilant because they’re worth a lot of money. They have had a lot of problems with sheep robbers in the past who would come in little boats at night and round up the sheep with their dogs. Now these people are no longer such a threat. Rising fuel costs have made it less attractive to steal sheep and transport them elsewhere to be sold on the sly.

Nowadays the biggest problem is with foxes that seem to enjoy killing sheep for fun because they don’t eat them. Yesterday a lot of lambs and their mums were rounded up so that the man who had come to castrate a stallion would be able to choose three males as payment. 80% of the lambs are sold. The strong females are kept to renew their stocks and they live about ten years, which is longer than in other parts of the country. They get rams in from all over Chile and have about twenty five of them roaming around by the beach. They try to have a big day for mating on the twenty first of May so that all the lambs are born at the same time.

The trouble is that I like sheep, whether male or female. They are both stolid and sensitive. They have big eyes and droopy eyelids. I also like cows for the same reasons. The longer I spend with them, the more reluctant I am to eat them. They are not intelligent, it’s true. It was amusing to watch the lambs getting stuck behind a gate they had just passed through successfully. They were standing in front of the opening but they still couldn’t figure it out. Petunia these days tends to head butt me in search of more milk when her bottle is empty because she thinks I look like a cow. But maybe it’s just as well that they’re not that bright. They would die of boredom otherwise, stuck in their lonely fields for months on end. I remember a programme about a sheep farmer in the Lake District who maintained that his sheep were permanently depressed and wanted to die because they were so bored. Perhaps they should introduce some mental stimulation for sheep, hopscotch or skipping or a quick game of cards before bedtime.

I think Patagonian sheep have a little more oomph in them. The winds must perk them up quite a lot. Apparently, sometimes the wind blows them a long way off and they are discovered years later having expanded to three times their normal size with the weight of their unshorn wool!

When I get back I will revert to an unwavering vegetarianism with no lapses in Turkish restaurants of any kind. Yo lo juro! Nothing that has a face on it will ever pass my lips again. Nut roasts for ever! It was especially hard coming to Puerto Natales today with a lamb in the back, trussed up and ready to be sold to a neighbour. He had such a nice face.Both Sophie and I were struck by how sensitive his eyes were. They haunted us for days afterwards.

Christmas

This Christmas felt a little strange. We didn’t really know what to expect. On Christmas Eve we had quite a lot to eat during the day and were not expecting to be suddenly fed a huge side of lamb and potatoes at ten o’clock at night!! But at least we weren’t eating the lamb we had seen and hopefully his eyes weren’t quite so sensitive with such long delicate lashes……oh, the guilt!! It was like being on an overnight bus journey in Argentina. You also get fed a hot meal at ten pm. Anyway, Matti, who had stayed up to receive her presents, fell asleep, so it all felt a bit pointless trying to munch through a huge dinner and stay awake since nobody else was going to get any presents, since Almendra was with her other granny. None of us were remotely hungry enough to pay more than the tiniest lip service to the meat. Then we started to watch The Sound of Music. It was nice to sing along to ‘The Hills are alive’. As the plot gathered momentum, so did the commercial breaks. It was almost as if someone in the TV station absolutely detested Julie Andrews. It wasn’t just that there were many adverts at ever more frequent intervals, but the fact that the same advert was repeated ‘tres veces mas’ tres veces mas’ tres veces mas’ beauty treatments for older women again and again. The advert annihilated the Trapps’ ‘goodbye’ song. It obliterated the effect of ‘Edelweiss’ and made a nonsense of the scene when they’re hiding in the Nunnery. It was by now almost impossible to follow a plot, even for people who already knew it by heart and it was an utter relief when the final shots were shown of the Van Trapps fleeing the Nazis over Alps which now looked like huge bottles of wrinkle cream.

On Christmas Day, we attempted to go fishing in the afternoon from the shore. It felt nice to be doing something as a group. (Sometimes you feel a bit like a Monk working in the garden for long periods, weeding or composting or clearing new ground without trying to make conversation in Spanish, which is something we do at mealtimes with often quite hilarious results. You tend to get the wrong end of the stick and invent an answer to a question before you’ve understood it. (Yes, I need glasses for driving. I don’t! The British adore Bovril. At least a hundred. oh, you mean me, not the Queen! ) The only person who caught something interesting was Tim, the nice workway French man, again, who has a knack for hunting all kinds of critters it seems. He didn’t seem very keen on doing anything with it so his girlfriend took over, finding a plastic bag and filling it with water to keep the fish alive just long enough for us to find out whether it could be eaten. (It could) The rest of us just watched and hoped that it couldn’t, while trying to get the sea weed out of our hooks.

There was also an earthquake of 7.6 magnitude in Chiloe. Thousands of people were evacuated from the beaches all around the area. There was footage of a supermarket being shaken to its core which was shown again and again. I’m beginning to think there’s a chicken and egg thing going on with Alzheimer’s. Either we’ve all got it already, hence the need for repetition, or we need to have it induced, hence the repetition because the only way to bear being shown the same thing far too many times is to forget that you’ve seen it before. Luckily, there were no fatalities and there was no tsunami and by the following day most people had completely forgotten all about it, which was just as well because it was the festive season after all..

Boxing Day was spent largely in monkish style in the garden again. The wind blew and blew and finally we were blown indoors for the rest of the day, by which time the greenhouse needed fixing again and the animals needed feeding and we could stop our contemplations. Yesterday evening was a lot nicer though, weather-wise. There was a huge confederation of black-necked swans very close to the shore…lovely.

We’re looking forward to a very quiet new year. Karen’s parents will be there, as will the French couple and the two little girls. We will probably watch another classic musical…and then on the seventh the girls will go off with the grandparents for two months and we may never see them again, which is a big shame because we’ve grown very fond of them. Almendra loves Sophie, whose name she was overheard saying in her sleep last night. She quite likes me too and often refers to tus errores. I’ve been telling everyone all the scrapes I’ve got into over the years and she’s been paying close attention. The other day she blew me away by remembering Graefin von Bolza’s name, the countess, whose children I looked after for two months when I was Sophie’s age. I’ve told her I would one day write them all down and dedicate the book to her so that she will never have to repeat the same mistakes that I have made, which also include eating an apple in a dolmus in Istanbul during Ramadan.

It was also fun coming to Puerto Natales with them just now for the day. On the way Karin spotted a duckling which she thought she might rescue because it was ailing. She handed it to me but it shat all over my coat. I handed it to Sophie and it shat all over her hand at which point Matti started throwing up at the back of the car!

New Year

We were ready this time and kept a space in our stomachs for the late-night feast of more lamb, muy rico! And on New Year’s day we got to ride the horses a bit…..the whole style of riding is completely different from what I’m used to..

me-on-horseback

Then it was back to work:

Branding

First of all Ricardo goes in search of one of his herds on his Estancia on horseback, accompanied by his four dogs, which are four very brave little dogs. The cows frequently try to round on them, but in vain the dogs are too quick for them.The calves are separated from their mothers who stand around mooing loudly in protest. It was moving to see how concerned the mothers appeared, at least initially. They were the ‘indignadas’.

las-indignadas

 

Separating them required a lot of courage on Ricardo’s part. I saw him almost being kicked twice.That can be quite tricky if there are bulls involved. On the last occasion there were three of them, corralled with their cows and my golly, were they impressive mounds of flesh and sinew..Once the bulls had left the corral they headed off to challenge the other bull and they went head to head in a fight. But since they both lacked horns they couldn’t do each other any harm and after a while wearied of it….

Then, one by one they are driven down a passageway and strapped onto a board, which is lowered onto the ground. If they are male, they are castrated by having something tied around their testicles which means they will drop off. Then their ears are marked with a yellow marker and then they are branded with a hot iron on their side. Ricardo did the actual branding. Karen did the paperwork and prepared the yellow markers. Tim. held the tail of each calf, gingerly avoiding the shit that they inevitably produced in response to their fear and their pain. Once it was over they took a few seconds, even minutes to be persuaded to leave. But then they finally trotted off or cantered off in search of their mothers, who had not stayed waiting for them as one would have supposed, but who had mostly buggered off somewhere else.

My role was to open and shut the gate, which kept the cows penned up. Cecilia the wonderful French workaway had to single a calf out and persuade it to go through the gate by shouting ‘Viens ma petite poule!’ and brandishing her stick. She did it with great panache and verve. I had to close it behind her as quickly as possible so the calf wouldn’t be able to return. I felt bad doing it. They were so obviously distressed and scared. On the other hand, I felt a strong need to be part of the branding team because I enjoy being part of a team, any team? Oh, dear…but this team had a conscience.  I knew Karen wasn’t comfortable with  her role either but at least the pain doesn’t last very long, she kept telling me. It’s essential to do it because if they calves are stolen, which often happens, they can be easily identified.

Yet it was a little worrying how quickly I became desensitized to the pain and the terror of the calves. Within two sessions I had ceased to care too much and was more concerned with doing my job as quickly as possible so no time was lost and to relieve the boredom and learn the odd idiom from my vocab book and not get too much smoke in my lungs from the fire to keep the brands hot. The most important thing was not letting the side down. I was a little bit shocked at myself. But maybe the branding experience isn’t that bad, I heard myself argue, after all, when it’s over the calves run to their mothers and quickly get over it. At least they’re allowed to stay with their mothers. They will be sold off for meat when they’re about nine months old, so like the sheep they have had a short but pleasant life roaming around a wide area, eating grass and drinking water from mountain streams. In the milk business male calves are usually killed off at birth. They are sometimes put into bit trenches and dirt is shoveled over them while still alive!

Gender roles in the estancia

I have one little quibble about the way things are done here and that’s to do with gender roles. Tim gets to cut the grass, with an electric mower, shoot the rabbits with a great big rifle and hold the calves’ tails as they’re being branded. Admittedly he’s very good at these things, especially the last one. I often caught him putting the flanks of the afflicted in sympathy, which was a very sweet gesture, though it probably did not do much to allay their pain. He’s undoubtedly a delightful man who can speak very good Spanish and is a tower of quiet strength. But why was Sophie never offered the chance to kill rabbits? Instead she has been given traditionally female nurturing roles: bottlefeeding the lambs and the heifer, tending the garden, weeding and protecting the plants, helping reconstruct the greenhouse, baking bread, helping with all aspects of putting a meal on the table. And here again we come up against that biggest sticking point of the sexes: who does the washing up?

Ricardo and Raul, Karen’s otherwise delightful father, stand or sit in lordly majesty while the women bustle around preparing the food and clearing the table up. Washing up takes ages. Every utensil must be handwashed, hand dried and put back in its place. Not once did either man reach for a towel. But what about our young Frenchman? Ah, well, you may well ask. After his triumph in shooting not just three but five rabbits, the man who had been more than prepared to help his girlfriend construct two rather elaborate cakes, seemed to morph into the kind of person who no longer felt any obligation to stoop to the washing up liquid or the towel either. Strange isn’t it, how quickly males are corrupted? But I’m being a little unfair?

The only man I have encountered here who was prepared to do the washing up was that a certain Brit, a young wind engineer who studied at Sheffield, by the name of Jonathan. Long live the Jonathans of this world!

What should we have done? Should Sophie have insisted on being allowed to shoot rabbits, which would have raised her status? Should she have thrown down her towel after the thirteenth plate and demanded to be given one of Ricardo’s many rifles? And what about the fact that the men are always served first and are given the biggest portions? Well, their work is more physical, isn’t it? You simply don’t burn up as many calories picking raspberries as you do pulling a trigger. Picking Calafate berries is a little bit more strenuous though. You have to walk quite far in search of the Calafate trees and then try to not to allow your hand to be shredded to bits by its incredibly sharp thorns. But it still doesn’t entitle you to escape the washing up because you’ve come back with a load of berries as opposed to fresh meat!

I’m reading an interesting book called Alla en la Patagonia by Maria Brunswig de Bamberg or rather by her mother, a German woman called Ella Hoffmann who emigrated to Patagonia with her three daughters. The book is in the form of letters home to her mother in Germany. It’s in Spanish and not difficult to read with a dictionary but the phrase that struck me this morning was one referring to Ella’s surprise in being helped to do the washing up by two of her many male guests: y los dos hombres me ayudaron a lavar los platos.

And the men helped me wash the plates…and this was in 1923!!! It was definitely something to write home about..

The Ultimate meat eating experience

As you know we’ve been eating a lot of meat and most of it walked very close to where we live a very short time before it became possible to stuff it into our mouths but the most vivid example of that was when Tim walked into the kitchen carrying the biggest slab of beef I have ever seen in my entire life. It transpired that Ricardo had been obliged to shoot a rogue bull through the forehead the night before. We were going to be able to live off it for days to come! I was fascinated so I went out and took a picture. Does that sound shocking? But here is is:

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Note the bird shit on its back…it attracted a huge amount of attention from feathered raptors too!

Torres del Paine

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It was pouring with rain at nine in the morning when we left the Estancia, which didn’t bode well for our trip. Poor Petunia was shivering with cold as she drank her morning milk. We had to tie Pluma up otherwise she would have followed us all the way. I did not want to be the person who put the chain round Pluma’s neck, so Karen did it. The girls, who had been condor feather fighting with Sophie till eleven, were in good spirits. Four-year-old Matti, sitting erect and poised at the back of the pick up truck, ready for a play-day with her Kindergarten, her hair swept into an elegant side pony tail, informed me that the tour buses that go to Torres del Paine stop at the cave of the Milodon first, that giant sloth, whose remains are mainly in the Natural History Museum. I have never met anyone who makes Spanish seem sweeter or who is more persuasive than Matti! If anyone ever returns those remains to Chile, it will be a grown up Matti or her sister Amendra, brandishing their condor feathers at the British minister responsible for holding on to treasures purloined from foreign parts. Or perhaps she would simply tickle him or her in the armpits..

It was still raining as we got off the ferry in Puerto Natales and it continued raining throughout the day as we stocked up on cheese, something resembling cheese, and bread, or something resembling bread from the biggest supermarket in Puerto Natales and the one with the longest queues. What are we doing? This is crazy, I thought, as we inched along. This is surely the worst possible time to consider going to Torres del Paine.. We’ll be soaked to the skin and miserable and our bread and cheese sandwiches will crumble away before we can even put them into our mouths. We won’t even see this Chilean holy grail of mountains, this ultimate of ultimates!

I was  also dreading the idea of a nine kilometer hike up relentlessly steep gradients. Gardening and kneading bread and condor feather fighting doesn’t really count as preparation. Porridge does, though, good old porridge.We got up at six and I had a huge bowlful before walking to the bus station. Two hours later we arrived at the park entrance. We then got off the bus and joined a long queue to pay for our tickets and give our passport details. That took ages and was shot through with dread and anxiety because Sophie had forgotten to bring her passport and I had failed to note down its number in my vocabulary book, which I carry around with me wherever I go, in a small owl-shaped bag. In considerable anguish we asked first one official and then another, who shook their heads and told us to ask someone else. We tried contacting Paul but there was no signal.  I contemplated writing down a false number on Sophie’s form, but Sophie told me I that was a crazy idea and I listened to her because I know that despite being forgetful, she is always a thousand times more sensible than me. We pictured ourselves walking around the entrance to the park and pretending we were having a really nice time. There might be the odd guanaco to spot. We had even seen three lesser rheas from the bus, those strange ostrich-like birds, a rare and elusive sight. Finally we got into the building and presented our paperwork, minus the missing passport number and the all- important lucro, the cash, the plata, the dinhero, all 22.000 Chilean pesos of it. Was I going to try to add a little extra sweetener accompanied by the phrase: ‘Vamos arreglar esto.’ which had worked so well in a sticky situation on the Bolivian Peruvian border back in the late eighties? No, I wasn’t! What do you think I am, louca? They let us in of course with a little shrug of the shoulders. Then we were herded into a small room and shown a film reminding us not to stray off the path, not to drop litter and above all else not to burn our loo paper but to bring it back with us in whatever state it was in.

We finally arrived in the park at around eleven and started walking. It wasn’t as crowded as all that and best of all the sun was shining. I was as happy as a lark. We had got in! It occurred to me in a vague sort of way that the long path from the bus station to the hotel and beyond would not be quite such a happy experience on the way back, but I quickly put the thought to rest.But one thing we were very aware of from the very beginning was how little time we had. We knew the bus would leave at 7.30 so we decided that no matter what we would have to turn back at 3 and set Sophie’s alarm accordingly. We couldn’t afford to miss it because all the refugios and campsites were already all booked up. This has been the new policy of the Chilean government in response to last year’s overcrowding situation. Last year people took their chances and the situation was more fluid, in the literal as well as metaphorical sense with toilets overflowing and far too many people sharing tents.

Then we started our ascent. We went up and up and up and up and up and up giving way again and again to hosts of hikers who were much quicker than us, marching up with their proper hiking sticks. Unexpectedly, we encountered a train of horses being used for transporting goods to one of the refugios or campsites in the area. How nice it would have been to have been on horseback, I thought a little wistfully as we plodded on.

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Then about half way we saw the refugio, a delightful little hostel tucked behind boulders across a dodgy bridge across a rushing river. There are many bridges like this one.

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By now we were already pretty tired and not doing that well for time. Sophie was definitely not exactly marching briskly and I had to keep reminding her to hurry up. We briefly refueled on peanut butter sandwiches and then a little later chocolate, but there was definitely not a spring in our steps.Nonetheless, we pressed on and on through a lot more woodland with the kind of trees I had been missing, tallish trees without prickly bits, and climbed higher and higher. Occasionally there would be signposts telling you what altitude you were at. But we ignored those. It’s usually a mistake when you haven’t progressed very far to equip oneself with any kind of information, especially to ask other people how much further it is, but I couldn’t help asking a young couple, who seemed about as unfit as were. The man was a mine. First you go through a lot more woodland, then you have to cross a field of boulders and finally you will see in the distance a lot of people who look like ants, who are climbing the final ascent. Oh, dear, I thought, maybe we should just turn back now and save ourselves the agony of getting quite far, but not quite far enough. Sophie was already considering the possibility of trying again tomorrow, something I was sure couldn’t possibly work. After all we had already climbed so far and our peanut butter sandwiches were gone! But we pressed on and eventually emerged from the woodland to see what lay ahead:

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There was scree and boulders and the wind had picked up and we somehow the sheer volume of other hikers, the sense of purpose that they conveyed, that sense of wanting to keep up with the Jones’ as well as the lure of the Torres themselves, which are hidden from view all the way up, until you reach the ‘mirador’ the viewing area. If only they would show themselves to people lower down, I thought. I know we are unworthy, but please, can we not just catch a little glimpse? Distract yourself, don’t think about walking, just walk and walk and walk and get into a rhythm, I thought and so I decided to decline as many Spanish verbs as I could remember. And so the time passed until we were almost at the top. ‘How much further is it now?’ didn’t seem quite such a ludicrous question. ‘Oh, only a matter of ten more minutes,’ said a happy man, on his way down. ‘You mustn’t give up now, it’s so worth it!’ Ten more minutes! I thought, but the woman I spoke to two minutes ago, told me it was only five! We could see the Torres by now in all their majesty but still the path led on and on and what was worse, it led downwards!! I’m not going down now, I felt like shrieking. What are they playing at? This is outrageous! I will write a letter about this to the Chilean President herself! How can they play with us like this? We duly went downwards and rounded a few more boulders and then we realized what all the fuss had been about: the Torres rise above a lake of turquoise blue and the effect is breathtaking…..It was the lake that was missing from the picture, the lake that gives them their name. ‘Paine’ means blue in Mapuche. We had made it. Just at that moment Sophie’s alarm went off and we had even made it in time! And then a condor soared and the mist cleared and the sun shone and the snow glistened and I felt the fleeting feeling of the moment..and someone stripped off and jumped into the water to intensify that feeling even more and we laughed with amazement at his craziness.

Now all that remained was the small matter of going down. We gave ourselves fifteen minutes to gobble down what remained of our cheese sandwiches, unwittingly giving a few tiny birds many crumbs to feast on. The wind was even colder and I put on every last layer that I had been lugging in my rucksack and took photos. Just as we were about to leave we ran into the young couple. There was mutual congratulations and I asked them to take a picture of us…I took one of them of course.  Then without any further ado we began our descent. At first bolstered by a feeling of relief that we had made it after all, we walked down very happily but a few hours later, a glance at my phone told me that we had really been dawdling and it was time to double our speed. The remaining two hours of the walk was grim determination. I have very bad knees. They work well going up but they start to complain a lot going down. And now I felt every last jolt and it was relentless, of course. Even getting to the Refugio was no fun any more and that was only half way down. My Spanish verbs deserted me. I was left effing and blinding, though only to myself. I held on to branches and trees as I walked along, hoping I wouldn’t trip over. I did at one point but the tree saved me. Sophie was plodding behind in her wonderful, steady but slightly infuriating way but I kept urging her on because by now time was definitely not on our side. Other walkers, whose company I had enjoyed on the way up, annoyed me as they skipped and walzed past us, bouncing down the path that we could only totter along.

We collected water from streams to drink and ate the last of our chocolate. We attempted to fashion walking sticks out of sticks and told each other how brave we were. I lengthened my stride as often as I could and resisted the temptation to sit down on a rock for a few minutes because the pain became much worse that way.

The last bit was the worst. The path from the bus station to the hotel that we had so happily trotted along at the beginning of the day, seemed interminable, even though by now we were walking along flatish ground

On and on and on and on…you get the picture, I think…so suffice it to say, that we did get to the bus with only ten minutes to spare!

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We will not go into the state of my knees now. We are going to have a day off today and tomorrow return to the park for a stroll around a lake. Then we have the prospect of a five hours hike back to the Estancia where we will remain until the 25th of January without any internet but with the use of a washing machine.I have also bought a new and stronger torch! Will my knees survive or will I come back a cripple? How will things go for over Christmas and New Year? What will happen when the Biologist come to visit the Estancia to pep up an eco tourism/birdwatching project that at the moment doesn’t seem to be going too well. How will we get on with the new French couple who have arrived while we’ve been gone? How will things pan out in Calafate and in Buenos Aires?….

Find out in the next exciting installment or find out from the horse’s mouth. We will be home on February 1st

So, it really is ciao for now!

 

xxxx

 

 

 

 

Building a Windmill

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I have had the great pleasure over the last few days to have witnessed a windmill being installed at Karen’s and Ricardo’s farm. After four days of solitude with only two lambs, a heifer, a dog, two cats and a million baby rabbits and three hundred thousand adult rabbits for company, we were suddenly joined by 23 people connected in various ways to the Windempowerment movement and who had spent the entire last five days building this windmill according to the specifications of Hugh Piggott, who has been designing windmills for people living in rabbit infested areas for the last thirty odd years, and to the wishes of Ricardo’s and Karen’s two daughters, who insisted on having an owl picture for the tail. The windmill team arrived in a variety of four-wheeled vehicles and one motorbike. They were all incredibly friendly and we were hugged and kissed and greeted so warmly, as if we were old friends. There were only three women, a French woman, a Texan whose parents are El Salvodorean and an Argentinian. The rest were a delightful bunch of men from Argentina, Chile, Britain and  Austria. Among the Chileans, there were a few locals from the Puerto Natales area, but also some who had come from a thousand miles away, which is a tiny distance for Chileans, powering down the longest sliver of a country in the world, to be there. Many spoke good English. Some spoke about the joy of getting out of the rat race. What they all shared was a genuine enthusiasm for this project, which was completely infectious. Everyone quickly put up tents in the garden and organised their tools and materials and then indulged in a long drink of mate tea to prepare themselves for the job.

 

Now what follows is a digression on the subject of Mate….

It is an extremely important pic-for-blog-3drink for South Americans. Without it, the entire continent would probably come to a standstill. Argentinians and Chileans love drinking it and are mildly addicted to it. Brazilians drink it cold. Bolivians and Peruvians chew it constantly and Uruguayans can be seen walking down the road with a flask of it, drinking it on their way to work. It is more effective than coffee in keeping people awake and alert and putting them into the right frame of mind for expending energy and constructing windmills.

Ricardo begins every day with a drink of mate. He spends an hour every morning drinking it and listening to the radio before having his breakfast. There are many people who drink it as a substitute for breakfast. It tastes a little bit bitter but is very pleasant. I have yet to develop an addiction but as addictions go it is probably quite harmless. It can also be passed around in a ritualistic fashion, like other recreational stimulants.

There is, it seems, nothing better than a drink of Mate to fortify the body as well as clear the mind. Back in the days when Patagonians only ate meat and virtually no vegetables, Mate tea was an important dietary supplement. It was something learned from the native people. But for many years the new arrivals didn’t know how it was cultivated and all attempts to grow it failed.

The Jesuits found that the only way the seed would germinate was if it had passed through the stomach of a Toucan. Yes, a Toucan! That is no longer necessary nowadays. There would never be enough Toucans to produce the quantities required.  It has to be grown in soil that is red and it is made out of the leaves of a large tree, a yerba, which is a species of holly. The leaves are dried before being added to hot water. But that is not a simple matter of dunking leaves in. Oh, no. An island of dry leaves is created on the side to which you add a little hot water as you go along.

If you drink it socially there is a cebador who drinks the first one or two gourd-fulls, checking the temperature – the water has to be 80 degrees. If it’s too hot the tea will be too strong. You always pass your mate back to him or her and then she or he passes it to the next person, anti-clockwise. If you say thank you it means you don’t want any more.

Now, back to the windmill…

The ground had been prepared in advance by Ricardo and Sebastian and there were four hooks set in concrete. The team – a mixture of professionals and volunteers – quickly prepared the cables to be attached to the hooks. They also dug a ditch, which the hens were ecstatic about because it revealed a whole smorgasbord of worms, for the electrical connections to the house and started to assemble the pole and the counter-pole. In a matter of hours, they were ready to put on the blades and the counterbalance that keeps the blades rotating at the best angle.

Then they attached the counter-pole (I confess that I made that word up) to Ricardo’s car and started hoisting it upwards. What a feeling of excitement when the windmill started spinning. There was champagne and more hugs. Manuel produced a Patagonian flag and Paco blew into an improvised horn. There were photos and exclamations of joy and delight that rang through the moist Patagonian air.

That evening there was a singsong and a bonfire. Three of the men turned out to be really good guitarists. They passed the guitar around. Everyone sang or beat on the table top or played the bongos or whistled or tapped their toes. It wasn’t just one or two people. Everyone seemed to all know all the words of all the songs, all of the time and one song just led to another quite naturally without a break, which was extraordinarily impressive. A large bonfire outside was lit and an older, less musically-inclined group of people gathered around it. The festivities only stopped late into the night.

The following morning I was staggered when upon coming into the room, many of the Argentinians gave me and Sophie and all the other people not just a cursory greeting, not just a smile and wave, but yet another hug! Riccardo admitted afterwards to a grudging feeling of admiration for those Argentinians muy effuosos, or words to that effect. It’s true that Chileans tend to be chillier…ha, ha. But among the huggers were some Chileans too, so one cannot generalize..

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Altogether, I have not met such a bunch of laid back, charming people for quite a long time. They were just ordinary guys who had a talent for hugging, singing, playing the guitar, putting up windmills, repairing Ricardo’s German-made cuckoo clock, and also, as it turned out, for shooting and skinning rabbits! The same evening, two of them went out and within thirty minutes had killed twenty! It was that easy, apparently, with a torch to shine into their beady little eyes. The next day I watched as they skinned the rabbits, a simple and gruesome matter of cutting into the skin and then tugging it off as if it was an overcoat. Then they removed all the entrails, which gave me the idea of using the rabbit entrails as a means of attracting condors to photograph. I had seen a few circling around. Sure enough, a condor perched on a nearby hillock. It was raining by now and Jessica, Esteban and I crowded into Ricardo’s pickup to wait and see what would happen. The condor stayed in the same position for ages. Then it finally spread its wings and flew off in the opposite direction without so much as a backward glance. Within minutes it was high over the cliffs overlooking the house and we had to shovel up the rabbit entrails, a delightful task, and put them back with the others in a big box on a wheelbarrow.

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By now the windmill was spinning nicely. It is designed to be as user friendly as possible. Karen and Ricardo have been involved in a hands-on way from the very beginning. At least three of the people who participated had met Hugh Piggott in person and spoke of him with great reverence and raved about his house, a centre for research which is off grid and is entirely powered by the wind. His windmill is at least twice the size and he had underfloor heating..shh, don’t tell Ricardo, but then of course, he was the chap who invented it.

Every two years everyone involved in the organisations such as Windempowerment or in 500 RPS gets together to exchange their ideas and share their experiences of disseminating his designs. Hugh Piggott’s windmills are being erected all over the world, from Scoraig in Scotland to Africa, to South America, to Sri Lanka. He himself started teaching people how to do this in 2001. What was particularly good about their methods is the care that is taken making everything user-friendly. Karen and Ricardo weren’t just left with something they didn’t understand, or felt afraid to repair or maintain. Jon, Jonathan and Alexis stayed behind for a whole day to show them how to dismantle it and sort out potential problems. Nothing was rushed. Nothing was left unexplained and not demonstrated or tested. There is a clear manual, a recipe book in various languages with good pictures and diagrams, as easy as IKEA and you can investigate on line too.

The first thing Riccardo and Karen did with the power from the windmill was run their washing machine. Then they powered their TV to let their girls watch a film. The following day there was no wind at all. Hardly any ripples appeared on the sea and the blades barely quivered. Then there was a huge blast of wind came from nowhere and suddenly they started spinning like mad again and they could contemplate their next load or consider buying a dishwasher..

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Now, on windy days, we can watch soap operas from Turkey without the generator being on. Turkish soaps are highly appreciated here. They show young, beautiful, rich people in huge houses with swimming pools, talking about the usual soap opera themes, revenge, lust, murder, hospitals and accidents without moving their mouths too much so that it doesn’t look so weird when dubbed into Spanish and a multitude of other languages.

We can watch news reports about how the children of maids in Santiago are not allowed to use their employers’ swimming pools. About the attacks on ‘Easy Taxi’ offices, which have entered into competition with Uber taxis. Or about how gas cylinders badly used in people’s houses are causing explosions and fatalities. About how police are engaging in fraudulent activities, about the re-opening of the cable car in Santiago, the opening of a new tunnel in Santiago. Santiago, Santiago, Santiago, which, according to Ricardo, is a monster consuming all of Chile’s resources.

Sophie is having a great time. Her favourite evening activity is having a condor feather fight with Almendra! The feathers are so strong that they withstand a lot of bashing. She is also learning how to reuse wax from old candles to make new ones, how to make rhubarb jam and how to grow vegetables without pesticides, which involves a lot of weeding. It’s all very Steiner really, what with all that bread making and all! I am very grateful to Sophie because she’s great with the kids, a lot better than me. I like them a lot, but I have my limits. They don’t have a bedtime which means they’re always around unless they happen to conk out.

I’m also grateful because I’m aware that being aware from her friends for so long isn’t easy. It’s not easy for me either, mind you, but it’s by no means as awful as it is for someone of Sophie’s age. It was awful saying goodbye to the windmillers for that reason because there were a few young people among them, including a young Austrian, who occasionally verged towards the petulant, not understanding a word of Spanish, but then gracefully verged back again.

My Spanish is improving but is still hit or miss. The worst thing is not understanding Ricardo when he asks me as question, which he often does, about life in London, or even worse, about our plans to stay in Puerto Natales and finally go to Torres del Paine. He speaks very fast and my strategy of imagining the question he has asked and then answering it, can be quite woeful at times. Still, I have valiantly managed to cover quite a range of topics including the many cultural mistakes I made while living in Turkey. It’s comforting to think that this is not the first time I have put my foot into it in foreign parts…

But now for some better pictures of animals which I have finally downloaded from my camera.

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A southern right whale taken from the boat

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Sea-lions spotted from the top of a cliff

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An elephant seal

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Two southern crested caracaras!

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One crested caracara

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Chimango caracaras in the rain

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Yes, those pink blobs are flamingoes!

Silence of the Lambs

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We’ve been in Puerto Natales for the weekend while Sophie limbers up her brain for her Oxford Skype interview on Monday. It’s definitely growing on me. The sea front has a statue of people taking flight and wonderful views of the distant mountains.Coming from our isolated mountain retreat we’ve been pleasantly surprised at how nice it is to be among people again. It’s fun having people to look at on the streets enjoying a pleasant Sunday in the main square, eating ice-cream and going around on go-carts. Long summer evenings almost devoid of people are wonderful too. I love dusk.

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Then there are the tourists in the hostel to talk to. There’s something vaguely irritating about tourists ‘doing’ Torres del Paine, followed by Atacama desert, followed by ‘Machu Pichu’ followed by some other boring old Wonder of the World. Why do these experiences sound like a shopping list?

The thing about trekking that people always forget is that it’s exhausting. People don’t realise how ratty it is going to make them. The young girls in our hostel were a case in point. Their trek through the Torres del Paines almost broke their spirits, they said. They could hardly cope by the second day. They thought they were going to die. They didn’t appreciate the beauty of the scenery one iota. Now, looking at their pictures, they realise that they were in one of the most extraordinary places on the planet but did they appreciate it at the time? Did they hell?

Maybe it would be better to take the tour option after all? I don’t think we’re that fit. But I definitely want to see the Torres after being so near them for so long. I think mountains bring out the manic in people. There was talk of a couple arriving by bike from Punta Arenas. Now why would you do that when you can take the bus? I mean honestly?

Travelling is supposed to broaden the mind. Does it though? All the trails in Torres del Paine are heaving with tourists by now, who are all cursing their lack of fitness and are all i their innermost beings wishing they could go home and slob out in front of their flat-screens. The authorities must be crossing their fingers that nobody will set fire to his or her own toilet paper this time and cause a fire as happened a few years ago, which went horribly out of control. The vegetation here doesn’t regenerate very easily. It’s a very dry area and very fragile. I feel awful that it is the preserve of mainly Europeans and not Chileans. It’s very expensive to enter and staying overnight has become not only very expensive but also difficult to organise since the quota system was introduced to prevent overcrowding.

The thought of a crowded trail in Torres del Paine, reminds me of the time I went to a waterfall in Japan with thousands of Japanese who were admiring the autumnal colours of the leaves. There was something intrinsically ludicrous about there being quite so many of us shuffling along, but there was also something quite comforting about it too. We accepted the necessity of sharing the experience, as we did when the cherry blossoms came out and vast numbers of office workers gathered together to sit on huge blue plastic sheets and picnicked underneath them, and hardly anyone even bothered to look up.

At the same time as enjoying the many benefits of town life, I realise how much I miss my little lambs. I usually hear them demanding to be fed from my bed at the Estancia and I fancy I can hear their gentle baaing here. Then I hear them calling me at lunchtime and again in the early evening. We have a little ritual which involved me opening the garden door, which means they barge in – they’re not allowed to be there because they’d eat all of Karen’s plants – and then we all have to troop out again. Then they throw themselves at their bottles so enthusiastically I have to hold on really tight, gobbling up their milk, butting the bottle to get more out of it.

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I kind of miss feeding the chickens too who have such adventurous and fulfilled lives and in many ways are so much more rewarding to photograph than wild birds.

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We’re going back tomorrow morning and there won’t be much of an opportunity for further blogging for some time (thank goodness, you mutter) and my transformation into country bumpkin will be complete. I will forget how to read and write and I will cease to speak or think in long sentences, which ramble on and on with no apparent purpose and make everyone sigh and reach for their off switches. I will benefit from seeing more of the gentle country ways, such as when Riccardo castrated a young bull by herding him into a pen and tying up his balls tightly so that they would eventually simply fall off. It’s branding season apparently and we may be called upon to render some assistance

And then there’s the windmill to look forward to and Christmas and New Year and maybe, just maybe we will get to the Torres…

But the thing I miss the most is learning Spanish the immersion way.

In a way nothing beats the pressure of having to learn on the job. I had to learn the words for hole ‘agujero’ and ‘hoyo’ because I was busy making holes in the plastic sheets we were attaching to the greenhouse, and I had to learn the word ‘el gancho’ for the hook thing we were using for purpose, which I already half knew thanks to my app. Then there was the word for ‘screwdriver’ which I still have not yet learned and the words for ‘I hope this works and that it won’t be too windy tonight which go as follows: Espero que no haya mucho viente en la noche…’  De da!!!

But I know that no matter how hard I try, I will never speak Spanish as well as four-year-old Matti or her six-year-old sister, Amendra, not if I live to be hundred. I was feeling like Kaspar Hauser, remembering the wonderful Werner Herzog film based on the true story of a man who spent his entire early life without any human contact. Kaspar Hauser had to be taught how to speak, which he did, haltingly and in the film little children are the first to take him in hand. I was in the garden when the girls took me by the hand and said the word’ columpio’. I was completely mystified until they took me to the swing and make me swing them for many minutes. Or there was the time when they showed me a condor feather and said ‘pluma’ and again I understood..

Yes, it’s that simple, yet no matter how open you think you are to learning a new language, deep down you feel an irrational conviction that this new word or words being inflicted upon you represents a kind of aberration, a kind of deviance. You can accept it under certain conditions, on a kind of sufferance, unless it replaces the word in your language by being a whole lot more interesting. That doesn’t happen with words like ‘swing’ but it must have happened with the word for ‘baby’ which in Chilean Spanish is the word ‘gaugau’ a Mapuche Indian word, which obviously sounds a lot more onomatopoeic than ‘bebe’ and which is just about the only thing from their culture to have survived.  I heard this word during a soap opera involving the love-tangles of young Santiagans and it sounded so strange.

‘Darling, I hope you don’t mind but my ex- girlfriend is expecting my guagua quite soon.’

‘Of course, dear, and how did you make her so embarazada?’

‘Oh, I think it happened quite by accident.’

‘I see! Oh, well can’t be helped, I suppose. One more guagua in our little family is neither here nor there, is it?’

‘Thank you for being so sporting!’

‘Oh, de nada, dear!’

One thing from Puerto Natales I can take with me is a collection of short stories by a wonderful writer I have just started reading, Francisco Colane, whose name Juan has given to his guest house. Wow, what a treat! He’s like Jack London. He writes vivid accounts of what life was like in the Cape Horn area: raw, violent and unpleasant. He describes the slaughter of baby seals for their coats, the merciless plunder of natural resources. I can’t wait to get my teeth into it!

Hasta luego, or not so luego and a Merry Christmas to you all!20161202_082622

On being left in charge

 

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I was dreading the day when Sophie and I would be left entirely in charge but actually, so far, at least, it feels wonderful. Our hosts have gone to Punta Arenas for a whole four days and the French couple have also left to continue their journey northwards. I think they were sad to leave. They got to stay in the cabin, which is in a wonderful spot, looking on to the fjord, perfect for a young couple. In their two week stay they have created a set of steps in the garden, put in stones on the pathway and created the concrete foundation for a windmill, which will be installed in early December. Sophie and I simply lack any kind of really useful practical skills. I have made the dough for bread, cut up a lot of vegetables, scrubbed floors and cleaned and washed up a lot and tried rather unsuccessfully to construct a fence. But we’re not the kind of people who can immediately create a garden swing or put up a new irrigation system. We can barely chop firewood. Karen is an Amazon in that regard. She can wield an axe with incredible skill. I can chop up one log in the time it takes her to chop up ten. I’m pretty handy with the wheelbarrow, however. Keeping the woodpile stocked is a major job. Without the wood there’s no hot water, no cooking, no baking and no comfort of any kind. Every morning Ricardo gets up at a six to get it going. Then he puts the radio on rather loudly. One relief about being on our own is being able to switch the radio off and just enjoy the peace and quiet. We can hear the chatter of lapwings. An eagle circles above the house. An Ibis flies past with its weird squawking call. Swallows duck and dive. We’ve been here for ten days and already we feel like we’ve earned ourselves a real rest, which can only be achieved like this, on our own. Otherwise, with eight people to feed, plus several animals, there’s a lot to do. Huge amounts of bread and jam are consumed. Slabs of butter vanish within seconds, which is good because there’s no real refrigeration. Washing up after lunch takes at least an hour.

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On the other hand, the food is very good and very plentiful: breakfast, bread and jam and honey, or breakfast cereal or porridge. Lunch, a major affair with meat and vegetables (we ate two freshly killed geese yesterday in honour of our French companions) and tea at five with more freshly baked white bread and butter and jam and honey, or an omelette with freshly picked mushrooms. Once we’ve eaten the left overs we can go back to being vegetarians.

We have more responsibilities but they’re not too arduous. The sun is shining, enormous bees are buzzing in all the flowers and Sophie is standing on the garden porch practising Bach. I’ve done my morning chores and am feeling quite content sitting at the big table, tapping away. I’ve also been for my first swim, though it can’t be called that, my first dip into freezing water. Oh, but what a pleasure that was…but oh, how potentially risky…

Having spent so much of my recent adult life in a highly bureaucratic environment, when even taking students to one’s home for an end of term party was highly frowned upon in case they should be struck by lightning crossing Stroud Green Road, I thought I ought to carry out a proper risk assessment of our situation, which goes as follows:

Risk Assessment:

We are now five hours walk from the crossing to Puerto Natales. That’s where the nearest people are, I think, which means that should something go wrong we could land up in a spot of bother.

There is one vehicle here which doesn’t have any brakes. Sophie has been in this vehicle with Sebastian and she has told me that she couldn’t open one of the numerous gates in time for him and he had to drive the car right at it and crash right through it. Luckily the car is as strong as a tank. There is no sign of helicopters or private planes or indeed any kind of planes whose pilots we could alert with any distress signals, no chem-trails of any kind! There are some boats in the far, far, far distance of the fjord. There are also no carrier pigeons. There are five horses but we haven’t been introduced to them yet and my last equestrian experience was in about 2004. I could phone my hosts but they are on the other side of a very dodgy stretch of water, plagued by high winds and wouldn’t be able to reach us for hours, if not days, if not weeks.

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Risk number one: falling down a rabbit hole while going for a walk and breaking an ankle or a leg, then being stranded and slowly expiring of hunger, thirst and homesickness for Stroud Green Road.

Risk number two: being stung by a bee or bees. The bees here are humungous. I don’t know what species they are but I certainly don’t intend to mess with them. The whole garden is humming with them. There are a lot of bee-friendly flowers everywhere. Once, years ago in Bolivia, Sikander mistook a bees nest for a football and paid the price. Luckily there was a doctor nearby with an enormous syringe full of anti-histamine. When I was sick with hepatitis in Peru there was also a doctor nearby. Oh, those were the days..

 

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Risk number three: burning our toast on their Aga-type stove so badly we set the whole place on fire. There is however a huge fire extinguisher in the kitchen and the sea to run into on our doorstep.

Speaking of which, Risk number four: we get swept away in a Tsunami. Chile, I have just read in the ‘Wildlife Guide to Chile’ by Sharon Chester, who claims that Chile is very susceptible to extreme earthquake activity as the Nazca tectonic plate rubs against the Pacific plate. Apparently, the strongest earthquake ever recorded, measuring 9.5 on the Richter scale occurred off the coast of Chile in 1960. We are very near the shore line..

Risk number five: we cut off our feet with an axe while trying to chop firewood.

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Risk number six: we get mauled or eaten alive by a puma! Yes, there is apparently a puma about the place and thrice now we have seen the remains of a sheep, whose bones have been picked completely clean. But did it die of natural causes and then became the booty of condors? Who knows? Its skull had a tale to tell… Near San Diego there was an area called the Cuyumaca National Park where mountain lions roamed and we were told what to do if we were to encounter one: try to look really big and frightening and wave your arms around. In those days we had small kids so we were pretty concerned. Walking around with Sophie and the dog, Pluma, might lead to misunderstandings: ‘Look out, Sophie, there’s Pluma, sorry, I mean a Puma. Oops!’ Pluma, our faithful companion, is in fact a girl and not even a young one at that. She’s about my vintage in fact, but can run a helluva lot faster and is much better at catching rabbits, which she lives off. There’s no need to feed her or water her because she simply drinks water from the stream. Talk about a low-maintenance pet.

 

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Risk number seven: We get swept away by the wind. This area is famous for its winds and they can be treacherous. There’s often a lull before a really big blast which instils a false sense of security. Last night the wind was so strong it blew the greenhouse over, which was an awful blow for Karen. She has amazing green fingers and her vegetable garden is full of wonders. Now her tomato plants are exposed to the raw winds and the searing sunshine. It’s Monday afternoon and it looks as though Ricardo and Karen won’t make it over the water today. Good thing there are no tiles on their roof because they would all have been blown off by now! I keep expecting to see hens becoming as airborne as condors.

Risk number eight: Riccardo and Karen don’t make it back across the water for another week or more leaving Sophie and me to subsist off roots and to take up rabbit hunting, which apparently is much easier at night. There are at least three rifles in the house: one hanging above the fireplace in the children’s playroom and two more under the bed in the annex that belongs to Riccardo’s sister. I came across them while preparing the room for the influx of people who will put up the windmill. Neither of us has ever handled a rifle before but maybe now is a good time to start. To catch a rabbit, all you need to do is go outside with a light and you will have hundreds and hundreds of little beady eyes staring at you. There are so many rabbits here, you could make a fortune encouraging trigger-happy tourists to come and here and try to help relieve this part of Chile of its second biggest pests. It would probably attract a lot more people than bird watching. On the other hand, we would probably feel disinclined to pull the trigger knowing that we would have to skin and cook the blessed thing afterwards….ugh!! We would feel traumatised and it would add to our sense of alienation and dislocation in this far flung region so many thousands and thousands of miles from home. We are about to, or have already run out, or have never had much or indeed any in the first place of the following essentials:

  1. Yeast
  2. Corn for the hens
  3. Washing up liquid
  4. Vegetables, vegetables, vegetables, vegetables
  5. Meat….fish….lentils…..soup….cake…..biscuits….chocolate….vegetables…proper orange juice….humous!!! humous!! humous!!!!!!!!
  6. British TV….wifi….youtube….facebook…programmes with Dan Cruikshank.

 

Risk number nine: feeding animals all day long starts to affect us in strange somewhat sinister ways.

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Risk number ten: something very odd starts to happen to the clouds.

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On the thrill of washing one’s socks.

 

The trouble with being left to one’s own devices is that you’re tempted to deal with silly personal things and you tend to lose sight of the big picture. I was keen to wash some woolly socks instead of making progress with the fence. Washing socks furtively always reminds me of the time I set off for Munich on my own at the age of eighteen and met a young American traveller on the train. Since my parents had met on a train I thought he might well end up being the love of my life, so we exchanged numbers and a few weeks later met up. I was working as an Aupair girl in a small village outside Munich and it felt like a big adventure to troop around the Englische Garten in the bright spring sunshine with him trying to make suitably adult conversation, and then go to my grandparents’ flat to which I had a key, to eat Weisswuerstchen with Sauerkraut. They were away for the weekend, at least that’s what I thought. No sooner had we entered the flat than my American friend, whose name was Geoff, or Gregory, or Gary, or Grant, or Grandcourt or Ganymede or something of that sort, expressed a strong desire to wash his smelly and travel stained woolly socks. I was a bit disappointed expecting something a little bit more romantic, but I have since learned not to be surprised. Americans set immense store on the cleanliness of their apparel. While he was thus engaged in my grandparents’ rather pristine bathroom – I must add that my grandparents’ flat was a rather superior sort of flat in the Muenchener Freiheit, with floorboards that creaked as one walked across them and a lot of rather stolid and impressive wooden furniture – I set about attempting to cook the sausages, which was a matter of boiling water in a saucepan and plunking them into it. In those days I couldn’t cook anything at all, but I was very keen to master the art of making pancakes, much to my employers’ disgust. He was a Count (a Graf) and Counts don’t really appreciate the smell of burnt pancakes wafting around a house, which contains beautiful reproductions by Chagall. (Making conversation at the dinner table one day, I bravely asked him who Chagall was and was given a very bleak look, which has taught me an important lesson: never reveal your ignorance about painters to anyone, especially not a big cheese in an art publishing house, who is due to fly off to the South of France to negotiate a deal with Chagall that very week.) Anyway, back to Munich. Minutes later the door opened and in marched my grandparents, who had decided to curtail their weekend away for some obscure reason. The feeling of embarrassment on all sides was very great. I suffered the most. I was after all with a wildfremden Mann who appeared innocently enough brandishing his dripping socks, but at least he was an American with a strong sense of hygiene and not someone with whom I had been caught in flagrante. The only thing I can remember about him now was that apart from having a name that began with a ‘G’ he had a thick beard, which, I confess did put me off. I had yet to develop the taste for the hirsute. My grandmother didn’t know where to begin telling me off without offending him. She decided in the end on a policy of great restraint and directed her ‘Zorn’ at the softest target… the sausages. Taking a glance at my culinary efforts she exclaimed: ‘one never, eats Weisswuerstchen mit Sauerkraut!’ I have never been able to touch a Weisswuerstchen since without recalling that experience. Luckily, here I won’t have to.

Rule number one about being here alone: we must not set the place on fire. We must ensure that the ash has no burning embers in it and the wind isn’t blowing before putting in on the pile of ash, the ash mountain in the field near their house. I have had the experience of depositing ash during a blast of wind, to find the whole lot blown back at me..The landscape is full of the remains of fire-blasted trees from old tree clearances.

 

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We must ensure that the irrigation hose continues to deliver water. If blocked, we must hike half way up the small mountain behind the house to the spring, its source, and unblock its filter.

We must water the plants, all the vegetables, the young lettuce and the young spinach for an hour every evening in the garden and ensure that the greenhouse doesn’t become too hot by opening the door. If, on the other hand, it should turn cold and windy, we should close the door.

We must construct a fence binding young bendy pieces of wood around wooden posts to keep the rabbits out. My part of the fence is a woefully sad though heroic attempt.

We must continue to feed Petunia, the heifer three times a day on a big bottle of milk and continue to feed the lambs three times a day as well on their smaller bottles. It’s wonderful how eager they are and how they come running, thrusting their heads at the bottle, sending milk flying in all directions, bending their legs and wagging their little tails like mad, just as we’ve seen them doing in the Lake District. Petunia has become a lot more trusting. I can stroke her head now as she’s drinking her milk and she doesn’t run away from me as soon as she’s finished anymore, she lingers and prods me with her wet nuzzle.

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We must continue to feed the hens in the morning and feed the little chicks on left over vegetable matter softened in water. It’s a pleasure to watch their enthusiasm for their corn, pecking away with gusto, like those funny wooden toys. These hens and their cockerel are handsome, daring and fulfilled. They don’t just roam in their large garden but get to venture out in the surrounding garden and fields, like miniature dinosaurs, they are the masters and mistresses of all they survey, planting their feet, which are enormous in comparison with their size, with great authority. The hen looking after her chicks is exactly like the hen called Mrs Peppercorn I read about when I was a child. Collecting eggs in the morning feels like hunting for Easter eggs. My mother had come from a village. She had kept her own rabbits during the war and she knew about these things and was quite keen that we would have some sort of feeling for these things, even though we were growing up in Glasgow. I hope I will be able to pass on the satisfaction of going to McCrimmon’s the newsagents with its lovely black and white chequered floor and its jars of gobstoppers on a Saturday to pick up a Beano and a Mars Bar, or the feeling of picking up a bag of chips after a swim in the Calder Street baths…Aye, I really hope so…

 

On the lure of country living…

It is very satisfying discovering a nest of eggs in the long grass. We always leave one egg behind as a courtesy to the hen. In a way it’s pleasant being a very, very long way from cars and traffic and certain people, like our neighbour opposite, whose dogs have an amusing habit of hurling themselves against our fence snarling and growling ferociously as you’re trying to focus your mind on vaguely intellectual things, such as what to cook for dinner. It’s amusing to watch Ricardo drive his trucks around on the grass and on a barely discernible track, especially the one without brakes, that must be allowed to slow down of its own accord.

Karen, our host, whose lifelong ambition it was to live in the country, grew up in a small town in Central Chile. She decided to become a vet but preferred the challenge of dealing with wild animals rather than pooches, and thus managed to find an amazing job in Torres del Paine national park investigating the effect of pumas on the eco system of that region. Later she jumped at the chance of marrying Ricardo, who would be entirely happy tied to his farm and his land and his way of life were in not for the fact that he has four younger brothers, all of whom want their share of their inheritance, which is of course, the farm, without doing any work here. He has no money as such, just the land, which can’t be divided up very easily without it becoming useless. He sells wool from his sheep but not in huge quantities. The only way out is to make money through eco-tourism and then he can perhaps buy them out. But that day is a long way off. First he needs some infrastructure. That’s where we come in. In December they are going to be away for a whole ten days while they learn about how to erect a windmill. Then they will come back with fifteen other people to do so..

In the meantime though I have nothing but admiration for Karen. Her greenhouse blew down in the wind and only two days later she had improvised a new one out of tubing that was discarded by the salmon farm and washed up on a beach and the plastic panels from the old greenhouse..

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On wearing a Welsh baseball cap to avoid being mugged

 

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I don’t know why I was so paranoid about visiting Trelew. In the middle of Carrefour, I was asked where I was from by one of the most delightful older women I’ve ever met in my life. She welcomed us to Argentina with open arms. Nonetheless, I decided to adopt the ultimate of anti- mugging strategies. If anyone had attempted to divest me of my cash, I would have shouted. ‘Soy Galesa!’ and pointed at my cap and then attempted to recite the first lines of ‘Under Milkwood’ or I keep my pyjamas in a drawer marked pyjamas. If they had spoken to me in Welsh, and been more than a little disgusted at my inability to reply in that language, I would have corrected my initial statement to ‘Soy Galesa in mi corazon!’

There are fifty thousand people of welsh descent. It’s hard not to feel admiration for people who were prepared to leave their homeland and embark on a tough and uncertain future, thousands of miles away, in the almost certain knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to come back. The first group came in 1885 on the ‘Mimosa’. They came to protect their language and their culture which they felt was at risk from English cultural domination. They had scoured the globe for possible havens, considering the possibility of going to South Africa, before accepting the invitation of the Argentinian government to settle in Chubut.

Many of them must have felt their hearts sink, as they journeyed through the miles of semi desert, scrubland before reaching the river of Chubut.

Years and years of hard graft saw them transform this valley into fertile agricultural land by digging channels to irrigate the soil and make it productive. They kept sheep and grew wheat and other crops and the farmers who work this land now have a lot to thank them for. Aerial photos show a huge band of green land between vast areas of arid land. They even built a tunnel and created a railway to allow them to transport their goods to Puerto Madryn for export. They were lucky that the native people were kind to them and taught them vital survival skills such as how to hunt the rhea, an ostrich-like bird, that were once very common in Chubut with a weapon consisting of hard round balls attached to a leather rope. (One of Jorge’s prized possessions was one of these stones that he found on his father’s estancia.) The native people were exterminated by the Argentinian government, which saw them as an irrelevance.

The Welsh were not so unlucky. A group also migrated further west to adopt the lifestyle of gauchos.

Argentina demanded that they enlist in their army, which was against their religion and began to deprive them of their autonomy, insisting that they become Argentine citizens. Chile tried to claim their land but they fought back and finally pledged allegiance to Argentina. The Welsh language went into decline. The chapels were neglected and even the festival of Welshness was given up. But then, relatively recently, there was a revival, even a kind of renaissance. One could be a little cynical and attribute it simply to tourism, but nowadays there are many people in the area who are trying to learn Welsh despite not having Welsh roots, that there must be more to it than that. There is even a bilingual school in Chubut teaching in both Welsh and Spanish and remarkably enough parents are happy to pay extra for the classes that are taught in Welsh. There is such a feeling of pride. It’s cool to speak Welsh, it seems. If only the native people had fared better and been able to pass on their heritage.

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Sophie and I took the cap on an outing to Gaiman, a small town near Trelew and the epitome of Welshness in Patagonia. Gaiman is poignantly enough actually an indigenous name meaning ‘sharp rock’. What we noticed immediately was the smell of water and of lush vegetation. We were drawn to the river and it was relaxing to feast our eyes on trees, which were all planted by the Welsh. What was also really striking were the birds, flashes of exotic colours and shapes. It’s the birds that remind you more forcibly just as radically as the landscape that you are in a different hemisphere where evolution has taken many different paths. Having never been particularly interested in birds, I’m beginning to experience certain twitchings. When you’ve lived all your life in one hemisphere, you think a swan is a swan is a swan, or a swallow is a swallow. There may be some slight variations in the colour of the bill or the colour of a feather or two, but you’re so wrong. You see a little grey or brown shape and you think so what it’s just a lark, or something like that, but then you notice it has a bright red chest like the long-tailed meadow larks we saw on the Peninsula Valdes and you think, hang on a sec, why this crazy colour?

 

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You can’t visit Gaiman without having a high tea in any one of numerous high tea outlets. Having starved ourselves all morning, Sophie and I took the plunge and were presented with a plate full of slices of white bread with butter and two types of jam and another entire plate laden with cakes of various types, all very delicious and all very over-priced. We went to the museum in the house of one of the very early settlers and were impressed by its austerity and by the bleakness of its interior. A very enthusiastic young man, a descendant himself to judge from his pale eyes and pale skin, gave us a guided tour for only 15 Argentine Pesos each about 80p. He told us about the difficult early days: the flood from the River Chubut, which destroyed many of their houses and about the fact that many of them gave up the project altogether and went to Canada. The interesting thing is that nowadays scorn would be poured on them for doing what so many people are still trying to do: trying to find a brighter future for themselves and their kids, while protecting their heritage and passing down their language, which is a unique way of looking at the world.

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We found out that the penguin tours to Punta Tombo were all too expensive and too complicated.  We read in our guide book that you can see penguins from Rio Gallegos, so we opted for that. We were going to spend one night there anyway. But then things turned out a little differently.

The last person we spoke to in Trelew was another descendant of the original settlers. He was our taxi driver, a nice, friendly man, who picked us up from the Soberania Comodoro, transformed into a street like something from the wild west, by dust clouds driven by the wind. He didn’t speak a word of Welsh.

We travelled south by bus on the night of the giant moon. We could see it rising above the Atlantic as we approached Rivadavia Comodoro. It was so beautiful. We tried to take pictures of it through the coach windows. Very early the next morning, after a night of very little sleep and three films, one of which was An Eye in the Sky, which was very interesting and quite harrowing, we arrived in Rio Gallegos but instead of going to our hotel, we decided to go straight to Puerto Natales. We were told there were potential problems at the border, with people about to go on strike, or already on strike. Of course I only need to hear that word and I see those sloths again…so we leapt at the chance of catching the bus.

We had about nine hours to kill before out bus for Puerto Natales. We had plenty of time to worry about what we should declare. There are very strict rules about what can be brought into Chile. Thanks to plentiful expenditure of dollars, we no longer had an excess of them. We did however have some food. No fruit or vegetables of any description are allowed on pain of a hefty fine, or any kind of dairy products or wooden products. We were thankful that we had finished our honey in Trelew. With a twinge of regret, we threw away our one remaining leek, then the rest of our cheese, which had not really tasted of anything and the rest of our bread. We settled down to wait in a small café in the bus station. There was nothing to do except drink coffee, eat sandwiches and try to stay awake but as the afternoon advanced, so did my paranoia. Maybe I should get rid of our pasta too and our pasta sauce?  We had managed to cook for ourselves very successfully in Trelew. On the other hand, it was nice knowing that we were on the last but one leg of our mega journey. The service on this bus was also very good. We were given tea, already sugared and a snack and an information sheet with pictures showing contraband, which included pictures of wooden objects, such as wooden masks. My heart sank. Did I have something similar? Yes, I did. I had a little wooden bird. We chatted with the other passengers. Two young Brazilian men boarded at a small village called Esperanza. They were on their phones chatting to each other intermittently. They had no wooden objects lurking in their luggage. A lively Argentinian woman who was visiting her niece in Puerto Natales and whose grandmother is still going strong in Santiago at the age of 110, advised us to declare our little wooden bird, just in case the customs people got bloody-minded. She told me she was going to declare her mate tea to avoid any problems. I took a photo of Sophie holding the little bird as a final souvenir. It’s always better to be honest. Then I hastily changed my form from Nothing to declare to Something to declare.

The bus stopped at the Argentinian frontier and we all trooped out to have our passports stamped for exit. We got into the bus again and the bus stopped at the Chilean border and we all trooped out again, this time with all our luggage. Then it was time to go through customs. Two young men stood half watching a football match. I handed over my form and presented my bird. There was a moment’s pause.

‘What is this thing?’

‘It is a bird…made of wood from a tree, a long, long, long way away from here…which may have been infected with maggots, or other highly dangerous insects. I do hope you don’t mind if I bring it into your country but it was a leaving present from a very dear friend of mine, who made it with her own hands and..’

The customs official looked at it dismissively and almost immediately chucked it back. Then I picked up my rucksack and calmly walked off with it, unaccosted. Thank goodness for football. They were more interested in match between Chile and Uruguay.

Puerto Natales is just across the border. I wonder if Chileans feel a bit odd living in a country which is one very long thin sliver covering a desert in the north, more temperate regions in the middle and the cool areas in Patagonia. It is sometimes called the ‘stringbean’ of South America. It is the longest country in the world. The span is equal to one tenth of the earth’s perimeter. In contrast the average width is only 110 miles, with a maximum of only 217 miles!

Puerto Natales is obviously a really touristy town. You can tell right away because the bus station is a lot sleeker than the ones we had encountered. Thank goodness for long summer evenings. It was still light at nine p.m when we arrived. We found the tourist information office still open and someone available to give us a map and directions to the Hostel where we were going to spend the night and where we were going to finally meet the man who organised this whole workaway for us. His name is Juan. We had quite a hike from the bus station and since we had no Chilean money, we didn’t want to take a taxi. The bus driver kindly took us part of the way. It was very cold. There were benches on the pavements but I wondered who on earth would want to brave the cold winds long enough to sit on them. This was supposed to be summer but it felt much colder than even the coldest days in London because of the wind which cut through our clothes and shivered our timbers.

Finally we found the Hostel Coloane and Juan opened the door. It was nice to be in warm building with a warm welcome. It was a strange experience because we had been thinking about this meeting for the last three months. He showed us our room. We were ready to drop.

It felt a little alarming to be suddenly talking to him and for our plan to finally be realised. It was a strange sensation to put ourselves into his hands and to trust him. He seemed perfectly nice but he was only a link in a chain, the intermediary between us and our hosts, a Chilean couple living in the back of beyond, with whom we were going to be spending the next ten weeks! Now we were about to find out if we had made a mistake! It was very late by now and having provided us with a nice cup of Roibus, Juan told us we would need to be up very early the next morning to catch a boat across a stretch of water to where Ricardo would pick us up. We set off to get some Chilean pesos, buy some last minute supplies and find something to eat. We were starving. I deeply regretted having disposed of our pasta and our pasta sauce. Now, having finally figured out how to use my card to extract some money from a cashpoint, we bought exactly the same pasta sauce and pasta from a little shop opposite the hostel, that we had thrown away in Argentina.

A tall, lanquid American chatted with us. He told Juan it was his first ever experience of staying in a hostel. He makes enough money from doing adverts for Facebook and Youtube to enable him to spend six months of every year travelling. He has a Brazilian girlfriend who ‘looks after him’. It would be silly for her to be tied down to a job. It would severely cramp their style. He intends to spend the next few months in Cape Town, swimming with sharks..

What I hadn’t entirely realised in my enthusiasm for this plan to spend ten weeks in the Patagonian countryside was quite how remote it would be. The following morning, we were driven to the shore and waited for a small boat to come and pick us up and take across the choppy stretch of water to where Ricardo was waiting for us in his pick-up. What about the bird tours I wondered? There didn’t seem much interest in them. How well developed was this plan for eco tourism on the estancia? Would we be able to come back to Puerto Natales under own steam? There’s really something to be said for having your own steam. Being taken deeper and deeper into the wilderness brought back memories of Sikander and me hitchhiking in the US when we were picked up and driven deep into the forests of Oregon to spend ten days dredging for gold with a Vietnam vet and his young wife, who was our age. After ten days Dan, the Vietnam Vet, who kept himself going with a constant stream of black coffee and vituperative hatred of Jane Fonda, proposed that we try swapping partners. We declined.

How are we supposed to do this thing in reverse? Ricardo seemed like a perfectly sensible man, who spoke no English but didn’t seem to mind my Spanglish. Oh God, how I hate fumbling to express myself. It’s excruciating, sometimes. I’m no good at small talk in English and now I had to make it in Spanish. ‘Oh, look what a lot of birds!’ was about the best I could manage. One thing I am very good at is enthusiasm. ‘Que paysaje maravilhoso!’ or words to that effect went down quite well. According to Juan, Ricardo is determined to hang on to his Estancia and resist offers to buy it from neighbouring owners who own much bigger Estancias and are keen to make them even bigger. He wants to set it up as an eco- tourism venture that can be run by his daughters one day as a going concern. That will involve improving the infrastructure, improving the roads, creating gites, having a windmill built as well as the solar panels to provide more electricity. His daughters need to learn English, which is where I come in. But what can I teach them in ten weeks? Will we even get on?

In the meantime, Ricardo has to keep it running from day to day which isn’t at all easy considering the inaccessibility of the terrain. Ricardo goes around on horseback most of the time. Chileans apparently, don’t have much interest in coming to work for him. Hence the need for people like us, eccentric and slightly batty highly urbanised Europeans who fancy themselves on a farm and who are happy to come and muck in in exchange for food and a roof over their heads.

What was increasingly obvious as we drove further and further along a dirt track was that we had indeed entered a paradise for birds. Normally when you go to a birdy area in England, you feel fortunate if at the end of a long, cold wait in a hide you can focus your binoculars on some birds, any birds, which seem a very long way away. You are grateful for a glimpse of a Teal or a Widgeon or possibly, if you are very lucky, an Avocet but here it was like a scene from ‘Birds’ the movie, except the birds were all benign. Geese flew right in front of the car, as if showing us the way. Flocks of Ibis and flocks of white terns. We startled more and more flocks, rising in raucous harmony from the sides of the fjord. (Warning: this next bit may only interest twitchers..) The birds were so close, so extravagantly numerous on all sides, it seemed miraculous. Geese, geese and yet more geese and not just any old geese: ashy-headed geese and upland geese. Swans soared above the sparkling waters of the fjord, but not just any old swans: black-necked swans with their fabulously bobbly red noses. Now, a few days later, we have seen the black-faced ibis which have pink legs and orange-topped heads and the black-chested buzzard eagle and the chimango caracara, which is incredibly common and a southern crested caracara. We think we have caught a glimpse of a cinearious harrier. We’re not doing so well with our ducks but we have seen two white-tufted grebes. We have seen the black-crowned night heron. We’ve seen tons of southern lapwings, which screech at you as soon as you venture forth for a walk. We’ve seen a grey-hooded sierra finch, a Magellanic woodpecker, thorn-tailed rayaditos and a rufous-collared sparrow and that’s without even mentioning condors. We have not only seen one condor, we have seen not just one but several condors cruising together.

The birds of prey are particularly amazing. They are extraordinarily cool about being approached. They tend to perch in full view on a posts or on the top of a tree and only fly away when you’re really close to them.

Chile has in fact according to the many bird books that I have found in the estancia, 456 bird species. But can even this absurd enormous plethora of compensate for an almost total lack of contact with the outside world? It was obvious that we were entering an area from which escape with our huge rucksacks would be all but impossible. We would have to get on with our hosts at all costs. Not only are they separated from civilisation by the aforementioned stretch of choppy water but there is also the small matter of the mile upon mile of barely negotiable dirt track that meanders to their house. There is of course no internet, at least not until we have acquired Chilean sim cards. Luckily our hosts couldn’t be nicer. Karen is a very cheerful, hard-working, easy-going, down-to-earth woman. Ricardo, who is older than her, is also very nice, quiet and mild-mannered. Their two daughters, Amendra, 6 and Matilde, 4 are very sweet.

They are very good at playing together. They have to be because there’s nobody else their age for them to play with.

On the first day they showed us their hens and found that two of the chicks had drowned in the drinking water. They picked up the little corpses and carried them around with them for ages, stroking them and deciding where to bury them. Eventually they buried them in the garden close to where we were weeding. They sang to them and made a beautiful grave with flowers and stones, which they covered in mud.

They don’t go to school. It’s difficult to see how they could go on a regular basis. They just go to Puerto Natales once a week for a special school for children who live in remote areas, paid for by the Chilean government. I play games with them and sing songs: Head, shoulder, knees and toes or if you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands, or Old Macdonald had a farm and on that farm he had ten condors, e-i-e-i-o…

The house is small and old and pleasantly unposh. I had imagined something a lot grander with a lots of antlers on the walls and cannons by the doors. I guess I thought an estancia sounded vaguely posh and very big. I thought ‘latifundario’. I imagined huge barns full of sheep and masses and masses of horses and gauchos. How wrong I was. This was more ‘cold comfort farm’ except it is warm and cosy and there are no Seths or three-legged heifers and the views from the windows are stunning: snow-capped mountains encircling a fjord that stretches away into the distance and sparkles and twinkles on calm days and becomes ruffled and tempestuous on windy days.

Ricardo and Karen have a big solar panel which creates enough energy for lights in the evening. If they want to watch TV, they switch on their generator, which makes a really loud noise. They’re going to get a windmill in December, which will give them a lot more power, thanks to a German government sponsored initiative. Sophie and I are sharing a room with a gas lamp, which is very cosy but not very practical. Luckily we both brought torches with which we find everyday objects, such as our clothes..

As soon as we arrived we started helping out preparing dinner. They have a big midday meal with meat and vegetables and a smaller meal at five which consists of freshly baked bread and butter, jam and honey and washed down with tea. It’s really strange eating meat every day. They laughed when we explained about being vegetarians. They simply couldn’t understand the point of it. Was it because we felt sorry for the animals or was it because we’re simply insane? I told them I loved meat so it wasn’t a problem and it’s true, I do love meat. No hay problema! Para Sophie tampouco!

Misunderstandings

On the second day, Karen asked Sophie and me to collect wood for kindling from the tops of some trees on the top of the hill, or at least that was what I thought she meant. She gave us a sack each and we set off. The ascent was very steep. We saw flocks of birds, condors, which are immediately recognisable since their wings are splayed out like fingers, and got quite distracted and very excited since it was the first time we had seen so many together and they are spectacular sight. We kept climbing and it got steeper and harder to the point where I began to think that if she asked us to do this again, I would concentrate my efforts on trees lower down. Eventually we reached the summit and began to fill our sacks with dry branches from dead trees. There were quite a lot of them since there must have been some sort of storm which destroyed many of the trees. Then Sophie found a feather from a condor. It was incredibly long: an entire arm’s length. It was a triumphant moment. We finished filled our sacks taking care to only include wood that was dry. It took a long time, avoiding spines, taking care not to twist our ankles in a rabbit hole – which are a disastrous European import, completely out of control and eating up all the grass that the livestock need – looking for a less steep way down. The whole trek was exhausting but strangely exhilarating. The wind was blowing and I was hoping we might find more condors feathers to bring back to London as trophies.

When we came back we found the family and the young French couple all at lunch. They said they had been worried about us. Why had it taken so long? Of course I had misunderstood the instructions. We were not meant to go that far. We were very late. I told them that the whole experience for us of being in this landscape had a feeling of unreality, which was why I had leapt at the chance of climbing a small mountain instead of doing the sensible thing and finding trees a matter of metres away from the house. I tried to explain that I felt I was in strange kind of dream. Then I showed them the condor feather and they understood…

Time

I think one reason I decided to come here was to experience a different kind of time. I wanted to know what it would feel like to be in the same place, a beautiful remote place with nothing around except wind and birds and sheep and grasses and to be able to experience time passing in a completely different, meditative sort of way. Yet I have found that time weighs a little heavily. I can’t believe we’re going to be here for so long. It seems that we’ve been here for a long time already but it’s only been three days. Evenings can be so long and I’m restless..I’ve always been restless. How can I stop being restless? That is the questions. As for Sophie, I’m guilt ridden already at how little contact she is going to have with people her own age, apart from the French couple who are also working here but who seem to have absorbed some of the silence of this place. They have been living in a little hut perched on a hill some hundred metres from the house…

Day two and beyond..

On day two Ricardo, Karen and the kids went off to Puerto Natales and left us in charge along with Laura and Sebastian the French couple. It felt a little alarming. We were left with instructions for making a fire in the stove and baking bread, as well as feeding the animals: two lambs, a heifer, and chickens. We managed fine, making two rather humungous loaves of white bread. I also cleaned the floor, prepared lunch, and fed the lambs and the chickens. We had the French couple to talk to who were beginning to open up a little. After several hours, Sebastian finally admitted to being English in the sense that his mother is English but he has spent most of his adolescence in France. Laura, his girlfriend doesn’t speak any English or very little English, hence his reluctance to speak to us.

The next day, Ricardo and Karen rang around four telling us that they wouldn’t be able to make it back because it was too windy and the crossing would be too dangerous. They have plans to leave us in charge for more extended periods, quite soon. Gulp! Luckily there is an amazing dog here called Pluma. He is extremely smart and a great companion on walks. We had a better evening with Laura and Sebastian and in fact began to enjoy each other’s company, albeit rather cautiously. They are working their way around South America for several months. He is a stone mason and she is a gardener. They have good skills and are very nice when you get to know them. Sebastian thinks going to live in France when he was thirteen was great because he was up to no good in England and it kind of grounded him. He likes the fact that the French enjoy talking politics. He likes the fact French workers in the public sector have good security. On the other hand, he doesn’t agree that in the public sector people can’t get fired.

In between feeding the animals we went out for walks, which was wonderful. I have discovered that I’m a terrible wildlife camera person. I’m too much of a fumbler. I’ve decided to pride myself on being crap at taking wildlife photos. You will have to believe me when I tell you what I was trying to photo. There is a Magellan woodpecker on that branch, believe it or not. It has a bright red head and black body. Those strange blobs in the distance are Ibis. They have pink legs and make a lot of noise. That black blob in the distance is a condor. Maybe I’ll get better with time. I’ll certainly keep trying.

Coming here we have really discovered the power of the wind. The clothes pegs are extra strong to help you keep your clothes on the line in the face of roaring gusts. The wind makes it impossible to cross the small stretch of water that separates us from Puerto Natales. We’ve learned to live without electricity during the day and make a fire to heat water and bake bread. We’ve learned how to feed bottle feed lambs, feed chickens and search for eggs hidden in long grass by hens who are constantly trying to outwit us, and we have bravely tried to feed a calf, abandoned by its mother, which is extremely difficult: It keeps running away. We have swapped short winter days for long summer ones, but if anything it’s colder here than in England and it keeps getting lighter and lighter and warmer and warmer and the wind now seems to have dropped.

We’re learning so many things: How much bread it takes to cook bread, how the wind affects the efficiency of the stove. I have literally in all my life had to make a fire in order to boil a kettle. I’ve had to learn patience. You have to wait a long time for an oven to heat up sufficiently to bake bread. It’s not enough to simply build a fire and bingo. But the most challenging thing to learn by far Spanish: first of all words for really important things: cordero=lamb, , gallino=cock, conejo=rabbit ternera= heifer. I’ve finally learnt how to feed her. You approach with a bottle and speak in a severe voice holding out the dripping bottle of milk.  It’s a hilarious feeling traipsing around a field with a huge bottle of dripping milk and sounding like someone out of the pride of Miss Jean Brodie in order to convince a small skittish forlorn little heifer that you are her mother. I’ve also learned that there is nothing sentimental about the attitudes of our hosts to the wildlife. Ricardo has shot us a goose for dinner. In fact, we eat meat every day without fail. I didn’t mind the rabbit, or the sheep or the chicken, not one of his thank goodness, but now I feel sad about the goose. I heard the shot and saw the flock rise up into the sky in alarm, apart from this one goose that twitched and tried to flap and then was still.

I have also put my foot in it politically. Karen asked us what we knew about Chile before we came here and I found myself talking about my feelings about Pinochet and about how I had found out about it all through the film ‘Missing’ with Jack Lemon and Sissy Spacek about the 1973 coup. Karen shook her head sadly in response to what I was saying but from the other end of the table came Ricardo’s comment, also uttered sadly. ‘A muchos Chilenos gusto Pinochet mucho. Or words to that effect. Yo tambien creio que era muy bien!’

I said nothing. I had visions of being packed off back to Puerto Natales but Ricardo conceded that he was not too hot on derechos humanos and the moment passed. Sweep it under the carpet.

Karen has told me they are going to be away for four days in late November, as well as for a whole eight days in December…gulp!!

I don’t know how we will manage. Sometimes I feel a vague feeling of suffocation, a kind of anxiety, especially in the late evenings as night begins to fall. And now the weather has amazingly turned really warm! How did this happen? When we arrived we could easily believe we were near the Antarctic but now we sit in blazing sunshine, weeding the garden, hearing the hens clucking around us and the water of the fjord is completely still, like a huge mirror…we could be in the south of France in midsummer

Now, unexpectedly, we have the chance to go to Puerto Natales for the afternoon and this is coming with me. Maybe I will be able to send this off, and finally buy a sim card and then..

photos of the estancia to follow…I promise…

Dinosaurs!

 

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Trelew

There’s nothing the matter with Trelew, named after its Welsh founder, Lewis Jones, so that it means ‘town of Lew’ in Welsh. I had a Welsh baseball cap, which I had bought on holiday in Wales years ago and I was keen to see if people reacted to it and started accosting me in Welsh. They didn’t.  I can’t understand why Kako thought Trelew was so terrible. It’s a nice little town with lots of lively people of all ages enjoying themselves in the main square, eating icecream, walking around, taking their kids on trips in their cars without any car seats or seat belts. There is a distinctive squelching noise the car tires make on the asphalt, which is quite pleasant to the ear. Hardly anyone looked askance at us despite the fact that we really do look weird, being considerably taller than most of the women here, and everyone treated us with the utmost courtesy. Now that I’ve been in Argentina for over a week, my nervousness has gone. That was just culture shock. I know I can’t really blend in but for the most part I can be relied upon to behave in a sensible fashion apart from when I found myself giving my pin number to a cashier at Carrefour (she asked for it and I just did what she said because I was so keen to prove that I had understood her) or driving the wrong way up a one-way street in Puerto Madryn. Luckily the streets are very broad, there was hardly any traffic and another driver was kind enough to point out the error of my way.

We’re sitting in a small apartment on the Soberania National and wind is making the window frames bang back and forth and I’m still feeling really blue about Trump winning the election. It won’t go away quickly this feeling. It will just drag on and on and on. I must try not to think about it but it’s so hard because wherever I go, I feel I’m being followed by his sneer.

Trelew is actually nicer than Puerto Madryn, although PM is more overtly touristy. The houses look in better shape. The pavements are nicer. The gardens are also in better shape. Soberania Nacional is particularly pleasant as you would expect since its name means National Sovereignty. The grid system makes it easy to get around and we no longer need to rely on our map. We have sampled icecream and dolce leche, which is an Argentinian obsession. We have smoked a mate pipe and liked it. We have become used to the existence of dogs running loose in the streets and in some cases sprawling in the middle of the road of smaller towns. We have hopped on and off local buses and applied our wiles to ticket machines. We have exchanged several pleasant words with tourist guides and women selling loo paper in public toilets. We have shopped, cooked and eaten vegetables with lentils…

The best thing about Trelew is the dinosaur museum. We loved it. The largest dinosaurs in the world were discovered in Patagonia, it seems. 10% of all the world’s dinosaurs have been discovered in Argentina. There’s been a lot of competition to find the biggest dinosaur ever and to think of a suitably impressive name for it. Their size is usually measured in African elephants. Is it fourteen or sixteen elephants? How much difference in size is there between an Austroposeiden Magnificus, and Argentinasaurus Huinculensis or a Dreadnoughtus Shrani? Giganantosaurus Carolinii They have to have long names to correspond with their length.

Why did they grow to be so incredibly large here? Maybe a very large continent demands very large animals. Were the trees really so tall that they had to have super long necks to reach them and then the tails had to be super long to balance their super long necks. They ended up like humongous seesaws with four stumpy legs in the middle.

Why do we love dinosaurs so much? Because they remind us of a time when there was no Trump, no Putin, no Erdogan, no May, no Le Pen…….

Moreover, they existed very successfully for millions upon millions of years without threatening the existence of all other species and laying waste to their own life support system in the process. They might have had little brains but they weren’t that stupid! They didn’t sit around merrily sawing off the branch upon which they were perched. It’s true they never sent space probes to Mars, they never put a diplodocus on the moon, but when natural disasters happened to them such as floods or droughts caused by climate change, at least they had the comfort of knowing that they hadn’t actually caused them. Unless a few of the herbivores did actually think: we must try to fart a little less…

They would probably have continued until this day had it not been for that wretched meteor and we would have been nothing more than a harmless little furry animals scuttling around their massive feet, using their immense balls of dung to light our fires, if we had even evolved that far.

There’s no doubt about it, It’s extremely pleasant to think that the earth, our home, has a long, long history in which all kinds of amazing life forms flourished, which we could not have destroyed, even if we had wanted to. It’s comforting to of the earth’s history in terms of a year and us appearing only on the last day of that year. We were so late in coming to this party, and boy have we been turning the volume up.

Trelew museum is building an extension to house a replica of its own trophy dinosaur, the Titanosaurio gigante (Titanosauria) which was found in 2008 and is believed to be the largest of them all. Its femur bone, as you can see, is massive. It would have reached a length of 37,2 metres and would have weighed 77 tons. The museum has good background lighting and nice growly sound effects to allow you to lose yourself in this prehistoric world. It also allows you to touch an actual dinosaur bone. The place is not overrun with school kids. I only saw about five in total. In fact, it is almost entirely devoid of visitors, which for people accustomed to the mayhem of queues of the Natural History museum, is a bit of a blessing. But it is a shame as well because it surely deserves a lot more visitors. Surely all those tour buses busy shuttling people from the whales to the Welsh tea houses in Gaiman, could put in a little stop here from time to time.

After all, it boasts the largest dinosaur of them all.

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The man who found it was a farm worker, Aurelio Hernandez, who happened to be riding his horse around a Patagonian estancia 200kms or so south of Trelew when he spotted what looked like a dinosaur bone poking out of the earth. It took a few more years before the right team of experts could be assembled to excavate the area. Along with the original dinosaur they discovered the remains of six more, all in an unusually good state of preservation. They also discovered evidence of a very different kind of climate and vegetation. There were fifteen-metre trees for the dinosaurs to feast on. Unfortunately, little remained of their heads, which were too small and inconsequential to survive.  Does the fact that they had small brains mean they had no consciousness? Did they ever think to themselves as they sprouted into the skies: wow, and to think I only a few years ago I fitted into an egg!

The owner of the farm was interviewed: ‘I may not have many sheep but I have a lot of dinosaurs!’ she said coyly.

The most mind blowing thing with the Dreadnoughtasaurus, also discovered in Southern Patagonia was that it had not yet reached maturity. Scientists could tell it was still growing from analysing its bones. In fact, arguably these dinosaurs never stopped growing. Their growth rate only slowed down a little with age! Palentologists could see the traces of the immense muscles they would have needed. One vertebrae is one yard long! But it begs the question: did they reach their limit? They must have done. It was as if they were playing a game of logistics as one does when making towers with a pack of cards: how far can I go before collapse, or like Mrs Armitage’s bicycle by Quentin Blake who kept putting more and more things on it…

Was being so big really the only way to avoid predation. (Did they really swipe at predators with their tails?)  Apparently the only thing that could be done by the equivalent of T Rex, the Gigantosaurus, (there were no T Rexs in the southern hemisphere) was tear bits of flesh out of them and wait a very long time for the wound to become septic and kill them. Does that sound familiar? Seagulls again, which as we all know are descended from a type of dinosaur, ergo this pecking strategy is maybe not such a new strategy after all!

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This fossil is approximately as big as a person!

 

The next installment will cover the following: On pretending to be Welsh as a means of avoiding being mugged.

On taking tea in Gaiman

Will I ever be able to persuade my offspring to learn some Spanish?

A little gap will now ensue since once again we are heading on a mega journey of more than a thousand miles from Trelew to Rio Gallegos and then on to Puerto Natales in Chile…all by bus.