Thursday, January 27, 2000

Torres del Paine, Chile II

After a couple of days admiring Chile's Torres del Paine National Park from my rental car, it occurred to me that, with the sole exception of my left arm, I was no more tan than when I departed Sea-Tac.

I was in the land of fresh air, sunshine and precariously low ozone levels and by God I was going to have some color to show for it. I stuffed my carry-on backpack with sleeping bag, tent and cookstove. This left precious little room for cameras, food or a fleece jacket. But I perservered and eventually set off dangling clothing, cameras and tripod strapped on with duct tape and spare shoelaces.

The trail to the base of the Torres spires lies about five hours hiking in. If I'd looked more closely at my map, I would have noticed that 4.975 of those hours are devoted to relentless climbing. People who passed me were nice enough to ask how I was doing "Viejo y consado." Old and tired. Still, the skies remained clear and sunny and the top of my head turned a fine shade of pink.

Along the way, I hooked up with an amiably chatty Aussie hiker who convinced me to ditch my tent and hike up to the top for an overnight bivvie under the Torres' hanging glaciers. As soon as the sun passed behind the spires, it grew cold. We cooked dinner quickly under the light of our headlamps, and settled into our sleeping bags in a dubious shelter of a circle of rocks.

Patagonia is home to some of the worst weather on earth, with screaming winds and storms obscuring the mountains for weeks at a stretch. But for one merciful night, the skies were clear and calm and infinitely black, with the southern stars slowly circling overhead.

Monday, January 24, 2000

Torres del Paine, Chile

It's always an odd thing to finally arrive in a place you've dreamed of visiting for years. Like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, Chile's Torres del Paine stands as one of the world's singular places. I've long admired and coveted images of Patagonia's windswept mountains, and as I drove into the park after flying the 3,000 mile length of Chile and then driving six hours from Punta Arenas, I was not disappointed.

The weather was dodgy though, with howling winds and banks of clouds whipping in off the Pacific and squatting low over the mountains. With the sky still a dim twilight gray at midnight, I wasn't terribly optisimistic as I drifted off to sleep at the bunkhouse at Rio Serrano. But I set the alarm for 5 AM anyway.

All through the night, banks of lenticular clouds rolled out in the mountains' lee. In the morning, I was just about ready to hit the snooze button when I noticed a narrow band of clear sky along the eastern horizon. I sprinted to the rental car spilling gear through the parking lot, drove at immoderate speeds down the park's twisting dirt roads to find a viewpoint just as the first light of dawn hit the Cuernos rock spires.

The entire sunrise lasted less than three minutes before the sun entered thick clouds. And then I turned around, drove back to the bunkhouse and tried very hard to go back to sleep.

Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Arica, Chile

As my jet approached the city of Arica along Chile's northern frontier, I could hardly miss the plume of inky black smoke trailing across the Atacama Desert. On the chance that I might get a nice shot of junkyard buttheads burning tires, I drove back a sketchy dirt road.

Coming up on a phalanx of grim-faced men with machine guns, I concluded this was more than your average garbage fire. The day before, Chilean drug police had boarded a cargo ship and found themselves the nervous custodians of nearly nine tons of cocaine, worth something like $600 million. Rather than tempt fate, they opted to burn it quickly before it grew legs and wandered off on its own.

Avoiding sudden movements and with my hands clearly visible, I slowly walked up and introduced myself. Since my Spanish vocabulary is limited to drink orders and maternal insults, neither of which seemed like a smart idea, I was happy to find an officer who spoke enough English to understand my plea for permission to photograph the conflagration.

Dozens of police cadets were lined up in a bucket brigade tossing bricks of cocaine into a bonfire. I did a little mental math and realized each of the two kilogram bricks was roughly equivalent to a Seattle condo. Chile's armed forces aren't known for a sense of humor, and it looks like I'll be renting for the foreseeable future.

Monday, January 17, 2000

Santiago, Chile

I came to Chile in search of scenic wonders and an end to my winter pallor. I found instead a country in the final throes of presidential electioneering.

Given the country's tragic political history, it seems a minor miracle that Socialist Ricardo Lagos was running for president and not lying in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Atamacama Desert. I wasn't particularly worried about how things might end this day, but I also vividly remember my only other encounter with Latin American elections, particularly the bit when Haiti's Ton-Ton Macoutes opened up with machine guns on my rental car.

So I casually drove out of Santiago and headed for the beach. Just in case. But the day came and went peacefully, until at sunset, the streets filled with cars and trunks blaring their horns and throngs of supporters waving flags, celebrating a decisive victory.

All night, Lagos voters danced and celebrated in the streets in one of the most joyful and inspiring displays of patriotism I've witnessed. I'm still cleaning the confetti out of my camera bag.