It’s been really cold in Santiago lately. Yesterday and today we had maximum temperatures of 7 and 9 degrees Celcius respectively. If I die of the hypothermia tonight please know that I loved some of you more than others. I am wearing tights, pants, socks, jerseys and jackets under three blankets in bed right now, ya dig? I don’t remember ever being this cold; I guess the winter days in Kimberley come closest. Twelve years in Cape Town made me soft.
I also felt my first bona fide earthquake today, which is a big deal because I had begun to think that I would be doomed to a life of sleeping through and completely missing the famous and ubiquitous Chilean terremotos, which I had done on two or three previous occasions. I was working at the diningroom table, minding my own business on the eighth floor, when the walls started creaking. Then my chair wobbled, and kept wobbling, while the windowframes moved in that way that makes it look like it is actually the world outside that is moving, not the building itself. Probably both in this case, come to think of it. It felt a lot like when the stadium shook during that football match in Rosario.
The rattles and wobbles lasted for no more than 10 seconds and outside a jackhammer was hammering throughout the impressive ordeal, uninterrupted and as blasé as only heavy construction machinery can be.
[This is the view from my apartment, by the way. On a clear day, I should add.]
I’ve started walking roughly 10 kilometres per day. I have a job now so I spend most of my time on my ass in front of the computer, and life is now way too sedentary for my liking, especially when compared to life before Santiago, which was all about the fitness and the outdoors. It’s been a bit of a downer.
The best way to get to know a place is to walk it, so Santiago and I are becoming intimate friends by way of its streets. A lot of people live here. The metro is pretty much always sardines-in-a-can packed, the roads heave with traffic, there are orderly queues for the buses and trying to get through the foot traffic reminds me of netball training – step step peripheral vision dodge to the left pass on the right.
Great exercise, it’s only been a couple of days but my cheeks are already redder and my spirits already lifted.
Our second day in Ushuaia was another ripper. Tierra del Fuego was our top priority, of course, but we had also heard pleasant murmurings of a place called El Valle de los Lobos (the Valley of the Wolves).
If you are in Ushuaia … Do. Not. Miss. This. Hike. The entry fee is stupid cheap: if memory serves me, we paid ARG$10 (about ZAR20) and about ARG$80 (ZAR160) for transport both ways – you can probably also try to hitch it, I think the Valle is 11km from town. The vans leave from right in front of the tourist centre in town.
Seriously. I didn’t mission halfway around the world for you to not heed this advice.
Walking or hiking, after diving, is my second-favourite way to commune with nature. It’s meditative, cleansing, quiet. It’s about finding a rhythm and then spending some quality time with your mind while your eyes and nose and ears are fondled by the great outdoors. It’s euphoric. Tough hikes are good, but chilling here on the laid-back extreme of adventure, I have nothing against a mild amble through easy terrain. It’s not a competition, not for me.
Inevitably on any hike my over-active imagination needs something to do, and so I pretend to be Frodo, stomping through danger and uncertainty towards sure death on a mission that only I can fulfill, to a place that only I dare go, to save the world. I am a humble hobbit, with big feet, secretly amazed at my ability to suffer these wild conditions without complaining. I am a quiet hobbit, I don’t disturb anything around me. Dangerous animals let me pass unharmed, the trees don’t trip me up with their roots, butterflies send word to birds about my journey, the birds tell the eagles, the eagles inform the wizard.
I don’t say much to my companion on this journey, but we have each other in our sights always. We stop together for food and drink, take our supplies sparingly, share a few words about the position of the sun, the movement of the clouds, of what lies behind and what lies ahead …
It is my favourite way to be.
The Frodo thought experiment was never more appropriate than that day on the El Valle de los Lobos hike. The terrain is, in a word, Mordoresque. We began in a cool, wet forest with tall trees forming a distant roof overhead.
Then out to open land, surrounded by mountains, with ghostly branches poking out of boggy marshes.
The bright red peat, the mud and the little streams that became a river.
This river … I can’t explain it. The milky, light blue water looked like it was from another planet; I have never seen anything like it. Where could it come from? What could it be? Is it magic? Is the fountain of youth? If I splash this water on an orc, will it burn to ashes on the spot? Can it heal a fatal wound or does it reveal truths on the other side of consciousness?
Turns out this is what water looks like when it runs off a melting glacier … I don’t know the science behind the colour and the opaqueness but what I do know is that you have to see this to get just one glimpse of how many secrets remain locked up in the middle of nowhere, secrets that require traversing long distances and getting lucky and being curious.
And this was the payoff at the end of the hike, as if it required a crowning moment. … Oh man, what a day.
I had a Skype meeting with my parents that evening, because it was my dad’s birthday that day (or the next, my calendar seems out. FYI we are talking about a day in the middle of March now). Had to be back at the hostel by 5pm our time, no maybes. We were cutting it very fine so when we headed back from the lagoon I took the lead, this time more like Aragorn racing against time. Whereas I fell behind Nikki on our way in, now I was the one who had to stop every few minutes until she was back in my sights, behind me. I basically ran.
And took a wrong turn, through the forest. I ran down into the woods towards where I thought we were meant to go, and Nikki followed me … She expressed her doubts about the route once, to her credit, but to my discredit I ignored her and shouted something like “Please mama, I never get lost!” back at her while I motored on. “This is the way! I totally recognize it.”
It was only once we emerged from the forest and met the river, with no way to cross, that we started getting realistic about what was happening. I eyed our food. I eyed Nikki’s fleece jersey. It was getting cold. The sun was dipping. I looked at my bare legs. I tried not to catch Nikki’s gaze. We were lost and this was my fault. Felt more like Samwise Gamgee or one of the other idiot hobbits than Frodo or Aragorn in that moment …
We followed the river for a while, believing that surely, surely, it would lead to the path. But the river got bigger and nothing looked familiar, or, everything did. By now I had given up on getting back to the hostel on time. Furthest thing from my mind. Actually I congratulated myself on being a smoker, because I was the one with a lighter, so when (not if) we had to make a fire for the night I would be the hero. Yeah suck it, non-smokers, you need us. I was also the one with the flashlight. Boom.
I knew it would take days for us to succumb to starvation. I thought we could probably drink the water from the river. I wasn’t, however, confident that the cold or the darkness wouldn’t kill us.
Yeah. Those were some tense times. I reckon we were lost for about 90 minutes, no more. Eventually we just did the smart thing and walked back up into the forest the way we came down and we followed the arrows. As you do.
The folks were still waiting on Skype when I sat down at Yakush an hour or so late. Never been so goddamn happy to see anyone my life.
Have some more pictures, I am feeling generous. Precioussss …