09 October 2008 – day 7 - Thursday

Today we got up at 5:05am in order to make an early morning flight to the town of Punta Arenas, one of the Southernmost cities in Chile. The flight was pretty uneventful; Kathy and I powered up the laptop on the plane and looked at photos.

When we landed we met our new local guide, Julio, at the airport after we collected our baggage. We put on our jackets because we were warned that the temperature was 44 degrees Fahrenheit. It was a little chilly, but not excessively so. It didn't matter; we were in beautiful Patagonia, Chile!

Stepping outside the airport, the area looked unexpectedly barren. There were almost no trees. Patagonia looked like merely a vast pasture for sheep and cattle! I felt cheated.

We wanted to know: Where are all the trees? Julio said that they were all burned down, deliberately, to make pastures for the animals. Our hearts sank.

After getting on the bus, we looked around and saw a large strip of water. Julio identified it as the Straits of Magellan. Immediately, a song from the band Savatage (the other side of the “Trans-Siberian Orchestra” coin) immediately entered my head. The song is called “The Storm” and it's from the CD “The Wake of Magellen”. I haven't heard it in a very long time. I guess I've been away from my favorite music too long.

In the dark he heard a whisper, Asking him to understand.

In the desert look for water; On the ocean look for land.

And there in the waves was a man in his grave

And he saw in the night 'tween the flashes of light

And he could not be there

And all he had prayed or had given away

He now found to be wrong in the grip of the storm

And he could not be there

And all at once the heavens bled their fire

The anchor broke, the chains they flew away

And suddenly the waves were reaching higher

And in the dark I thought I heard them say

Could you keep our lives together

Safely back onto the shore

Could you grant this last illusion

Only this and nothing more?

The song running through my head was interrupted when Julio introduced himself. He is a very young vibrant and enthusiastic man, and very well educated. He said he used to be an English teacher, and his English was very good.

As the bus pulled away, he gave us a little talk about Patagonia.

Julio told us that the people of Patagonia feel isolated from the rest of the world. There are almost none of the conveniences of the modern world. There are huge sheep and cattle ranches but no electricity. There is one highway and that's it. There is no way to drive to the North, for example. Although these people are Chilean, they seem to identify more with Argentina, and call them their brothers.

Like Alaska, this region of Chile has very long days in the summer and very short days in the winter. It's very windy here all the time, and it's easy to see it from the shape of the bent, broken and abused trees.

They get snow here, but not huge amounts like Minnesota.

There isn't much to do in Patagonia, Julio said. The weather is often cold, crappy and rainy. That is, when it's not snowing. For those reasons, they have the highest rates of depression and suicide in Chile. It's a big problem. Also, their population is dwindling through attrition. Young adults often go to the North to big cities like Santiago for their education. But the weather, opportunities and education are so much better that they often don't return. They decide not to return, except to visit family on certain occasions. For this reason, the Chilean government has a program of incentives for people who stay, such as huge subsidies and tax breaks. When the people get a pay check, their salary can double because of the subsidies.

As the bus drove down the road, we spotted large birds like Emus and we asked about them. Julio told us they were called Rheas. It's a large flightless bird, much like a small version of an ostrich. According to Julio, the male Rhea goes around wooing females and getting them pregnant. The strange thing is, the females all lay their eggs in the same nest, and the male bird watches over the nest and incubates the eggs.

Because of the harsh climate, very few plants grow well here. Even Hay doesn't grow here. So consequently, there are no fresh vegetables. They all have to be flown in from the North. So vegetables and salads are cherished here, and are a luxury item. These are mostly meat-and-potatoes people.

There are no electrical lines, no telephone lines, no cell towers, no cable television and so forth. Still, I saw a ranch owner take a cell-phone call. It might have been a special kind of satellite phone or something.

Because of that, you have to be very careful out here. You can't just call for an ambulance or the fire department. Emergencies are very serious and life-threatening. Julio gave us an example. He loves to go kayaking with his girlfriend. Last time they went out kayaking, they got hypothermia and the nearest help was three hours of driving away. This is desolate country.

Because of the communication problem, they started making lots of public announcements on the local radio station, which is apparently called Magellan Radio or something. So every day at noon and six, you can hear strange announcements like, “The veterinarian missed his flight and won't be here today; he expects to be back tomorrow.” This set of announcements has become a tradition here and everyone in the area stops and listens to the radio at noon and six.

The countryside is dotted with thousands of sheep. I guess sheep ranches are one of the few businesses that prosper out here. So it's fitting that for lunch, we visited a huge sheep ranch. The food and drink were excellent.

The ranch owner was a very nice man. He talked after lunch and answered questions.

He said his ranch was 30,000 acres.

After lunch, we walked to a big barn

where there were huge bundles of wool.

Hundreds of sheep were corralled, awaiting the sheers.

We saw them sheering the sheep, and it was very interesting, especially because the animals did not squirm or complain while they were being sheered. The sheep rather seemed to enjoy it.

The sheering took only seconds—I'm guessing maybe fifteen—per sheep. Once processed, the sheep was pushed through a door into another coral, and it looked much smaller and whiter than before!

The sheering resulted in piles and piles of wool. The wool was collected from the floor in heaps and thrown on a table, where it was bound by more men.

The bundles were thrown into a huge vat that contained a man whose job was to stomp it down and compact it. I wouldn't want that job for anything!

After the sheering, we walked back to a school yard. The ranch is so big that it's a whole community, and they basically do home-schooling. So they had a special school-house, complete with a small playground where Kathy and I played on the teeter-totter.

The school itself wasn't bad; a tiny room with only two students. The problem was, they had had a problem with the wood stove and it had filled the classroom with smoke. I don't know how the teacher or the students could function in that smoke-filled room. I could barely stand it. I was seriously concerned about carbon-monoxide poisoning.

Afterward, the bus took us across the barren land to the town of Puerto Natales, and brought us to our hotel, Martin Gusinde.

After we checked in, we went on a short walking tour of the town.

We walked through a small park with oddly-sculpted trees

and an old rusted-out train on display.

The town was pretty small, but wasn't very touristy if you know what I mean.

Compared to some of the other cities, there was relatively little vegetation. I did see a strange plant that looked like a cactus with aloe-vera-looking branches.

Many of the shops were outfitters, geared toward mountain climbing and such.

Kathy and I walked around by the sea and took some photos.