el fin del mundo

It is about 2 degrees Celsius outside this morning in Ushuaia, Argentina. The sky is mostly clear, and we can see the snow-covered mountains stretched along the north side of town, and out over the Beagle Channel which defines the south edge of this, the southern-most city in the world. There are a few military bases further south and of course numerous research stations in Antarctica, but this is the furthest south ordinary people can work and play. In contrast to Punta Arenas, which was muddy and dusty, mostly plain, and not that interested in tourists, Ushuaia feels like a Banff or Jasper in a good way: compact with a main street or two hosting a variety of restaurants, tourist services, and outdoor sports stores, very clean, and the museums are actually open. This city’s advantage may be that it gets visitors through summer and fall who are exploring Patagonia or heading for Antarctica, and in the winter it is the base for people skiing on the nearby hills on the Argentine half of Tierra de Fuego.

***

We arrived here yesterday after five days/four nights on board the MV Stella Australis, a relatively small “expedition” cruise ship (capacity 210 but with 166 aboard for this last eastward trip of the season) that plies the channels between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, with multiple stops for passenger exploration of forest life, local history, and glacier activity. On board we were treated to several mini-lectures on these and other subjects, as well as documentary films. When we disembarked by Zodiacs (rubber boats), we were taken on guided tours through the forest, we hiked to amazing viewpoints up in the mountains, and got very close to several massive glaciers. We generally walked and hiked with the same group of fellow English-speaking travellers, although once we lost track of them and instead joined a group of English-speaking tourists from India who were quite enjoying the trip as well. At the end of each excursion, as we all gathered at the landing point, the crew had hot chocolate, and whiskey on the rocks ready for us!

We expected the highlight for us would be reaching Cape Horn and climbing the 160-step staircase to the top of the hill where the very-famous seven metre tall Cape Horn Memorial sculpture is located – an albatross in flight cut out of several layers of thick steel, with an extra giant eye to one side that guides our own eyes out to the vast Drake Channel that separates South America from Antarctica – 1000 km to the south. Indeed, it was the highlight – to stand at the very tip of South America was breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and a truly remarkable experience.

Along the way we also saw southern dolphins and South American seals, sea lions, and one big elephant seal lazily sleeping in the sun (and clearly not interested in lifting his head so tourists could see more than a big lump of blubber in the grass!), numerous types of birds, plants, and trees. We also had the pleasure to sit for each meal with friendly travellers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Switzerland, and one other fellow Canadian (originally from Russia), and to chat with others on hikes or back at the aptly-named Sky Lounge. With conversation, wine, and whiskey flowing freely, we rarely returned to our cabin before midnight. Our cabin was larger than we expected, complete with a floor-to-ceiling window to watch the scenery go by, the food was very good and plentiful, and the serving staff and tour guides were very helpful and professional. It was an outstanding trip that we highly recommend.

***

So here we are in Ushuaia (pronounced oo-shwhy-ah). Yesterday we stopped in at the “Museum of the End of the World”, located in a former bank, which offers a brief introduction to the former and current people living in the region, the role of explorers and the military in opening up the area to European exploitation and settlement, and the construction of the nearby prison. It also features the largest collection of stuffed birds in Patagonia, which helped us identify the ones we’ve seen over the past week.

At the edge of town is the second museum we visited, the former prison itself, in operation from about 1911 to 1947. It was built to house hard-core convicts and political prisoners – but constructed here to help establish an Argentine presence in the area (an instant “settlement” that the prisoners were forced to help build the infrastructure for, including parts of the prison itself). It is a huge complex, with 380 cells designed to hold over 700 prisoners. Some of the wings have been left as they were when the prison was closed, the rest of the cells hold mini-galleries highlighting the maritime history of the area, partially through an extensive series of amazing model boats all made to the same scale by one man. The displays describe the impact of missionaries, gold-seekers, and farmers had on the native population (now essentially extinct), the various waves of immigration from Croatia and Italy in particular, and aspects of daily life over the past century. If we had one complaint it is that there is far too much text – it was like trying to read a dense book one page at a time – they have everything they know about everything up on the walls, it would take days to read it all. We decided to pick and choose a few descriptions to read and not feel guilty about skipping the rest!

***

It was fascinating to see how Argentina views local historic figure Julio Popper. In Chile, he is characterized as a key organizer in the hunting and killing of Selk’nam people on behalf of sheep farmers who were operating in Selk’nam territory on Tierra del Fuego and complaining that the Selk’nam were killing their sheep. A photograph of Popper and several others pointing rifles into the distance with a Selk’nam body at their feet is used to illustrate this description. It’s a completely different story here – he is revered as an explorer and inventor, as a business tycoon who minted his own currency and printed his own postage stamps, and as a military leader who bravely held off attempts by Chilean forces to move into parts of Tierra del Fuego that Argentina had laid claim to. Under a copy of the very same photo the caption suggests the men were simply “posing” during an “encounter” with native people, and that yes, a few were killed or injured on both sides. Certainly no suggestion that he was engaged in what we would easily now describe as genocide.

***

We are aware that in some parts of Central and South America, Canadians are disliked because Canadian mining companies have contributed to contamination of drinking water supplies and the destruction of fisheries and forests. What we were unprepared for is what we’re associated with here in Patagonia – as the source of the region’s number one pest, the Canadian beaver (el castor canadiense). It seems that back in the days when Europeans were sending boatloads of beaver pelts from Canada to Europe to be made into hats, someone in Patagonia had the bright idea that they could raise beavers and also profitably sell the pelts to European hat-makers. What they didn’t realize was that the beaver’s home diet of maple trees was what made their fur so long and shiny. Gnawing on the skinny birch trees here did not result in the same quality of fur, and so eventually the ragged and unwanted beavers were released into the wild. Big mistake!

The beavers took their revenge by doing what they naturally do, building dams and causing damage to huge areas of forest – and they proliferated because they have no natural predators here. Our objection is that they are repeatedly referred to as Canadian beavers. We argued that they had been here for many generations and should now be referred to as South American, or Patagonian beavers. We felt it was time to stop blaming Canada for an historic mistake made by locals!

land of flamingos and penguins

When Deborah and I go for a long walk, we like to kick a post or railing or building at our turnaround point — there are a couple of signposts along the seawall in Stanley Park that used to regularly bear witness to this ritual. Now that we’re on the road, when we walk through cities, or hike on trails, we continue the practice and give a post or tree a gentle tap with one foot. What we have not done is think bigger – is there an endpoint from which we will be turning around as we tour Central and South America? When we were initially thinking about this trip, we decided we would plan as we went along, but would try to stay in warm places as much as possible. That went out the window when we realized the natural thing to do would be to head down to the southern tip of South America, and kick a penguin.

It’s not easy to find them this time of year – two days in a row our plan to see the large colony of small penguins on Isla Magdalena was thwarted by high winds and rough seas, so on the third day we changed plans and joined a bus tour of Tierra del Fuego to see a relatively new and small colony of King Penguins – a penguin one size down from the Emperor Penguin.

It was a long day – bus travel, ferry crossings, stops in small towns, and passing by a large flock of flamingos – and then finally, late afternoon, we reached the pinguinera, on the windswept southern edge of bahia Inutil (Useless Bay), at the mouth of a small river. It was utterly fascinating to watch them hang out – about 20 penguins were in sight, we’re told the rest were feeding in the bay. The ones you see lying down are preparing for the night – they’re secreting an oil for themselves and the babies underneath that will keep them warm when they later stand up to sleep. Penguins wisely set up their camp just out of reach of tourists – in a small clearing just across the creek so they are about 50 feet away in these pictures.

In addition to flamingos and penguins, we also saw lots of upland geese (pictured), wild llamas, eagle-like caranchas, and thousands upon thousands of sheep. It is the invasion of sheep farmers near the end of the 19th century, and their practice of hunting down and killing indigenous people who did not understand property in the same way as the invaders, that resulted in the near extinction at the time of the Selk’nam people, whose camp fires three centuries earlier had prompted Ferdinand Magellan to call this island Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire).

Near the end of the day we ferried back across the straits named for Magellan, at the only point in the Americas where the Pacific and Atlantic oceans naturally meet. It was dark and the nearly full moon was rising and casting much light on very cold looking waters.

***

The last couple of photos show some of the mud that crashed through part of Punta Arenas just a few weeks ago. We’re told there were several days of heavy rainfall, combined with a very high tide that resulted in a large portion of the commercial core being submerged in mud – in some places you can see the marks, in other places the mud is still caked or piled high. Many businesses were destroyed, a bridge was washed out, and it looks like the city has dug up the main street to rebuild the drainage system which was plugged and backed up with all the mud and debris.

***

We’re boarding a boat this afternoon for a five-day cruise through the islands at the end of South America which will take us right around Cape Horn and then back up to Usuaia, Argentina, the southern-most city in the world.

*(please note: no penguins were harmed during the preparation of this blog)

barbie and ken at lollapalooza

March 31, 2012

Mi amigos,

This was the last day of our third month of travel… it has gone so fast. We left our beloved Valparaiso on the 9:00 am bus traveling to Santiago, Chile. Valparaiso for the last five days started each day with very thick fog and we had to put on our jeans and light jackets… so different from the beginning of the month there.

When we arrived in Santiago about 90 minutes later, the sun was up, the temperature was about 20 degrees (quite lovely). We caught the metro (the equivalent of the skytrain, but underground) and lugged our luggage up so many flights of stairs I lost count … actually, Don lugged the luggage.

We found our hostel about two blocks from the metro station… they were ready for us, we dropped off our stuff and headed for Lollapalooza. This is the second time Lollapalooza has been held in Santiago, Chile. There is a lot of interest here for this kind of music festival.

As we were sitting on the grass on our towel (about 30 degrees now), we took note of our fellow festival enthusiasts. It was interesting to note, the crowd was between 18 and 28 years old or so, occasionally,  a child with parents and for most of the day we were the oldest enthusiasts there.  Later in the evening we noticed about six more older-types waiting for Bjork to perform.

It was so funny when, a few acts in, we were approached by a media outlet who picked us out of the crowd and asked us where we were from and what brought us to Lollapalooza and what we thought of the bands so far. The answers were easy and we had a great laugh about how they might use the clip: “hey we found some old people at Lollapalooza, they were from Canada…”

We then moved on to our favourite band of the day… Gogol Bordello….”Start wearing purple” is my song of the hour… as many of you know, I love purple.  Their whole performance was so much fun…they are like Cape Bretoners gone wild, complete with accordion and violin. They hail from New York City and while lead singer Eugene Hutz claims Roma heritage, the rest of the band comes from all over the world, including Chile. Again looking around at our fellow audience… we were astonished to find ourselves in the midst of hard core punk rockers… surprisingly dressed up like Barbie dolls, with their pigtails decked out in all kinds of colours, their very short shirts all a-sparkle and smiles outdoing the beauty pageant contestants…. they even had their Ken dolls with them… not what I was expecting.

Later we witnessed the band Cage the Elephant seemingly fall apart. Don has the first CD they made, which is reasonable music (this is Deborah writing) with their first hit Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked is quite good. Getting back to the band … the lead singer was either very sick, in a drugged state or inebriated. He didn’t have much energy and couldn’t keep up with the band, a big disappointment to the fans. Many of them left before mid-act, including us. There were five stages so it was easy to find more compelling performances.

When we were walking back to the second main stage, we heard Arctic Monkeys – with all the Chileans singing along. The Arctic Monkeys are from Britain and seem to have a huge following here in Chile. We were not very familiar with them and I found some of the music not that easy to listen to. Mind you, the Barbie and Ken dolls loved it.

The last act of the day was Bjork and the crowd went wild! I had not heard her music before, it is definitely different. I would suggest it is ethereal. She had a 10-women choir that sounded like angels themselves. Bjork on the other hand seemed to not have the same quality of melody, but quite distinct sound. Her lyrics were very intriguing. It really seemed like poetry set to music. I was with the crowd and really enjoyed it.

We chose to leave about half an hour before the end of the show as there were upwards of 30,000 people there and one metro station to take them all away. We were very fortunate and got on the first train that came by and made the connection as well and got home in about half an hour … efficient system at a reasonable price…the cost for each of us was $1.20. I don’t know why Translink can’t be as reasonable.

All in all, this was a great day for me, my first time at a Lollapalooza concert. It was also good to be back in Santiago, which is a very beautiful city, especially that day with the pollution high in the stratosphere so we could see the mountains surrounding the city, wonderful heat and later the moon beaming down.

Mucho gusto!

Lots of happiness to you all!

crashing waves and clutter

It wasn’t easy but we figured out how to get to and from Isla Negra, the location of Pablo Neruda’s quirky seaside home. Slightly off-season, none of the tour companies were running their day-trips to the famous landmark except one, and they wanted $200 each for a half-day run there and back, not including lunch! Oddly, Pullman Bus offered a daily ride to Isla Negra leaving Valparaiso at 1:30 pm, with service back to Valpo every 30 minutes, and for under $7 each, each way. We also decided not to rush things and to overnight at a hostel near the casa museo.

The house is really a series of rooms linked together by narrow passages and archways – and each room has at least one theme, sometimes two or three, somewhat linked to the shape or design of the room as part of a boat or train or wagon. The living room, for example, has the largest ground floor window to the ocean, and features a nautical theme – with a huge collection of ship figureheads (all female) and large sculpted figures including Admiral Nelson and a 3-metre tall wood carving of an indigenous warrior. The dining room also features a nautical theme, complete with a large wooden carving of Captain Morgan staring down guests from up behind the host’s chair.

Every shelf in a railcar-like library room was filled with model ships, many in bottles; the next two rooms were stuffed with collections of collections – butterflies, beetles, African masks, Asian carvings, paintings and more. According to our handy audio-guide, the railcar theme was an ode to his father, a railway conductor. A small den at the end of the original house was his favourite writing space, complete with a desk made from an old door salvaged from the ocean, a portrait of his wife at the time (Matilda Urrutia), and toys and other items from his childhood. One last room was added by the foundation that operates Neruda’s three house-museums in order to display part of his massive seashell collection.

As a poet, political exile, and diplomat, Neruda was a world traveler and it seems that during every trip he not only acquired items to add to existing collections, but started new ones. We wondered, with such an incredible clutter of collections, if there was actually any room in the house for Neruda and his wife, let alone the friends he was always entertaining. Perhaps one of the rooms contemporary visitors aren’t allowed into holds the answer – his private bar that also looks out over the ocean. Complete with numerous small tables and chairs, we could easily imagine retiring here after dinner or spending a lazy afternoon here watching the waves crash against rocks – heck, let’s be honest, we could spend a lot of time in this room!

We’re looking forward to seeking out his third house next week in Santiago.

As planned, we headed for the nearby hostel, a two-story wood-construction house that promises rest and tranquility. At about 3:30 am we awoke because the whole hostel was shaking, and realized we were experiencing our first earthquake. Later we looked it up and indeed it was a magnitude 5.1 earthquake, centered about 90 kms northeast of Isla Negra. No damage was reported.

Saturday we went down to the rocky beach in front of Neruda’s house and watched the waves. Below is a short video that doesn’t do the power of these waves justice – no wonder Neruda was fascinated by the ocean, and human interaction with it, although he himself was not a sailor.

We headed back to Vaparaiso late Sunday afternoon, and got home just in time to feel another earthquake, gentler but lasting longer than the first – we could see the leaves shaking on trees in the courtyard. This one was magnitude 7.1 and centered about 200 kms south of Valparaiso. A tsunami warning was issued (but soon withdrawn) for some coastal communities near here. Light and moderate damage reported near the epicentre. No wonder everything at Isla Negra is nailed down!

By the way, about a month ago Chile marked the second anniversary of a devastating magnitude 8.8 earthquake and tsunami with 30 meter waves that resulted in more than 500 deaths and as much as $30 billion US in damage. Eight former cabinet ministers and other officials are actually facing charges for their failure to inform people or order evacuations at the time.

isla-negra-sign

isla-negra-back

isla-negra-house

isla-negra-desk

isla-negra-bar

surrounded by art

One of the charming aspects of Valparaiso is the profusion of public/street art, some commissioned and sanctioned, much of it not-so-sanctioned but clearly left alone and even celebrated. Throughout the harbour area (El Plan) and up in the many hills, you can hardly turn a corner without encountering artwork on the walls, from small works to block-long murals, along with lots of tagging, political slogans, and stencil art. This fascinating and wild artistic expression covers walls, fences, buildings, sidewalks, and even the odd abandoned vehicle. Surfaces are covered in paint applied by brush or spray can, as well as in tiles and broken china.

Posted above is just a small sample of the scope and variety – there are actually several books available here that are filled with photos and descriptions. We invite you to also check out the pintada de la plantilla page form time to time – we will be posting more photos of stencil art throughout our travels.

On a slightly related topic, Don has just learned that a short film he worked on this past summer has been nominated for an award. He was part of a team of four students who were spending a week at the Gulf Islands Film and Television School on Galiano Island, learning about documentary film making. His team decided to investigate the story of a sea monster reportedly sighted numerous times in the Gulf Islands and elsewhere along the coast of North America. The 7-minute final cut was selected out of more than 140 documentary films made this summer by adult students to compete in the “outstanding achievement in adult documentary filmmaking” category at the 17th annual EyeLens Film Festival, April 21 in Victoria.

There is also a people’s choice award, based on the number or people who “like” the film and share the YouTube link – so if you have a few minutes, please have a look, like it (we’re sure you will!), and share the link through Facebook and e-mail. Here it is: In Search of Cadborosaurus, The Legend of the Deep.

under valparaiso’s spell

We fell in love with Valparaiso when we were near here (Santiago) for an Amnesty International conference in 2008. We decided then we would love to live here for 6 months of the year…. good weather times only of course. The winters here are full of rain…. more so than Vancouver and with incredibly strong winds (info from a taxi driver), so much that there is no point in using an umbrella … they all turn inside out.

Our last weather report to you was great heat day and night… things have changed. In the morning we wake up to either thick fog that engulfs the port and the city, with the upper hills in view … or … the clouds have come in and nothing is in view. Fortunately, it burns off and we get to enjoy the sunshine once again, though not as warm as last week.

We have been moved to the most sought-after apartment in our B&B with lovely views and this time a microwave. We got an incredible rate for the month, $700 (usual rate is $70 per night) so we don’t get breakfast, but as I love making breakfast it is no problem for us.  An interesting thing to note (weather again) is that the housekeeper put 2 wool blankets and a down duvet on the bed…it felt like we should be in the Alps or somewhere like that … I believe they think it is very cold outside.

One of our great remembrances of a few years ago was the Pablo Neruda house which we visited once again. Neruda was a prolific poet, winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. He also served as a diplomat, was elected to the Chilean Senate and ran political campaigns. At the time of his death in 1973 he owned 3 houses, all of which are now museums and cultural centres.

La Sebastiana, Neruda’s house in Valparaiso is quite incredible… views to die for, curved windows, wonderful collections of antiques and very interesting stuff.  Neruda was a man who knew what he wanted…. in 1959 he asked some friends to find a house for him… a little house in Valparaiso to live and write quietly. It couldn’t be located too high or too low,  be solitary but not in excess, with neighbours hopefully invisible – they shouldn’t be seen or heard, original but not uncomfortable, with many wings but strong, neither too big or too small, far from everything but close to transportation, independent but close to commerce. It must be cheap.

His friends, looking for a long time, finally found the house that met his requests. It was a frame of a mansion having been started by a Spaniard, Sebastian Collado, who died in 1949. He had designed the third floor to be a bird cage, thus the curved windows. Neruda, bought the 3rd and 4th floors as well as the tower, artist friends of his bought the basement, first and second floor as well as the grounds. It took Neruda 2 years to complete his home.

On September 18, 1961 the house was inaugurated with a grand party.  The invited were on a “list of unforgettable merits” those who helped transform the abandoned frame into the “La Sebastiana” as Neruda named it in honour of its first owner/builder.

Neruda and his third wife had a wonderful life there with many friends, artists and politicians alike gathering to talk and to enjoy each other. After he died, his wife never went back to the house… I believe it would have been too hard for her, too sad. Another factor was that Neruda died just two weeks after the Pinochet coup and unfortunately the house was looted.

In 1991 the house was made into a museum and restored to its past glory.  Don and I love the house; it is so cool, it is easy to imagine living there.  Of course, that would mean all of you would have to come and visit, so we could make it a place where people loved to talk and enjoy each other.

Till next time,

Felicidad todo
La-Sebastiana---outside

La-Sebastiana---view

marking international women’s day

Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate victories and progress in the struggle for equality and justice for women, but also a day to take action in support of the so many women and girls around the world who still face discrimination, repression, violence, and death, just for being female.

In our travels we have seen what this struggle looks like. In the small village in northern Ghana we visited, the gender roles were well defined – the women cooked and cleaned and looked after the children, all well out of sight, while the men socialized out front under mango trees and expected to be waited on. In Cairo, women were also expected to stay out of sight, and although it was wonderful to see so many women of all ages participating in the protests last year (and being part of organizing them), women have been completely shut out of the process of rebuilding Egypt.

Closer to home, we have followed with concern the slow collapse of the deeply flawed inquiry into missing and murdered women in BC, as police and other officials dominate testimony while women and Aboriginal groups continue to be marginalized or effectively shut out of the proceedings. This is clearly not acceptable and we encourage everyone to let the BC government know how they feel about this.

Here is Chile, it has been shocking to see how bus and taxi drivers constantly honk and whistle at young women on the street as they drive by, as if they think they are paying them a compliment. Last night we attended a government-sponsored International Women’s Day event in Vina del Mar. It was odd for us in a number of ways. The MC was male, and for the first 45 minutes or so, the entertainers were men, obviously well-known to the audience. The first singer was a young man in a tight white jump suit who shook his hips like Elvis as he sang, to the delight of the mostly female audience, a strange way to celebrate IWD! The singers were followed by a government propaganda film showing the current male president shaking hands with women in various work, community, and home settings, while information on programs for women was listed on screen. The film was followed by a male guest speaker, and then, more than an hour into the event, a women was finally invited up to speak (she was also well known to the crowd). After her, yet another man was brought up to speak and that’s when we decided to find a bus back to Valparaiso as it was approaching dusk.

What we need now is to find an event organized by women’s groups to offset last night’s male-dominated government event. Some militant banners and chanting would do the trick!

In the meantime, we invite our readers to take action in solidarity with women in the Middle East and North Africa through these Amnesty International cases highlighted for International Women’s Day.

Syria: http://www.amnesty.ca/iwriteforjustice/take_action.php?actionid=830&type=Internal

Yemen: http://www.amnesty.ca/iwriteforjustice/take_action.php?actionid=832&type=Internal

Iran: http://www.amnesty.ca/iwriteforjustice/take_action.php?actionid=828&type=Internal

IWD - Vina del Mar