Saturday, March 30, 2013

Escoba de Dios

Escoba de Dios

German drinking ramblers, deep gutteral tones and hearty laughs, drinking Qilmes at the next table at the El relincho campground - makes it hard to think. Reflecting in the highlights of our W trek...

A Rainbow followed us as we traversed the lower skirts beneath the massive two-towers of the Cuernos for several hours. The rainbow came out of the lake. There may not have even been rain at that point but the 100 mph gusts were lifting the surface layer of the water what seemed to be more than 100 feet into the air and raining it over us a 1/4 mile up from lake Nordenskjold. The wind would then alternately spin and pull tornadically into water spouts. We didn't witness it but the guided group we kept running into said they saw the waterfalls flowing backwards.

Thursdays sunrise had been beyond epic with brilliantly blazing low red cumulous contrasting crazily against the near black wind-whipped backdrop of eerie cloudscape to the south. I watched helplessly and screamed "Maureen!" as the tent violently ripped out of her hand in a 180 spin up some 20 feet in the air and out of sight over the low trees and  into the ravine. i was fairly convinced it would be shredded if it could even be found. It bounced some 700 feet upslope toward the cuernos. I couldn't see it and to scream at Maureen to direct me to it through the roar of the wind.

At the next table I find more distaction and can pick out the word kletteren, super canaleta, Torres del Paine. It is clear the Germans are crusty old aplinists and probably only a handful left in Chalten at the edge of the season as the days get shorter and colder. Crevasses are opening up on the glaciers from a long hot summer making some approaches extra gnarly.

We lost two tent stakes and Maureen lost a pair of socks but collected random clothing pieces that had fallen out while I chased the tent down, luckily it had hung up on some heather, but it was barely attached via a looped guy line. A bent pole and a dime size hole were all it suffered. Somewhat heart stopping as I grabbed it with more gusts pushing through. I had battled through near vertical thorny shrubbery in my Darn Tough socks that lived up to their name and saved my feet. I pulled the poles through and dropped it on the spot not wanting a repeat disappearance.

We later heard someone lost a tent in the lake and that two backpackers were blown over a 4 meter ledge and ended up in the hospital. As we hiked into sideways rain it seemed as though there were two competing storm fronts one blowing south from Lago Grey past Paine Grande and the other pushing west from Valle del Silencio.

For a couple hours we just had the wind and brief sprayings from the lake as it seemed the storms kept battling each other with wind at the frontlines- the rainclouds held in stasis just behind. we walked in a strange kind of shared eye born of the two fronts. The sun burned free from the edges at the apex of the storms that formed an ephemeral right angle of moisture and light ahead of us and allowed for the rainbow to blaze consistently behind us - I was amazed that it stayed for some three hours.

The last hour before the trail rounded into the valley that led up to the Torres Del Paine the rain from the front pushing west had won and the wind was no longer at our backs - but driving straight into us with endless bullets of stinging rain...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Torres Del Paine...

*** photos of the travels viewable via Instagram - bennettb

Cootra bus bound for el calafate is idling away as we sit inside the brand new terminal. The tv has a gesticulating preacher holding an open book, pages blowing in the breeze as he sermonizes on mute to the currently captive passenger congregation.

Two men, 60 year old plus that together make a good sized moose approached us. They had spent 8 days on the circuit, one half of the moose was now with a huge lump under his eye. "I took a spill on a steep pitch on the gravel, could have been worse." His hiking buddy says he was half an arms length from going over the edge. We had seen them leaving refugio our second day out.

The scowling Germans are here too. At Chileno Refugio, day four of our trek in the sideways rain and toppling gusts we found 30 people huddled in the cooking shelter. Unbenownst to us and many others the refugio with its still burning fireplace and workers inside had closed for the season the day before. Some 15 people were standing outside in the rain. I made an announcement that it would be nice if those who had been in an hour or more make room for those just showing up. A group of young Germans were all pinned to a table playing cards and laughing and were likely convinced I was merely being self serving. Maureen says each time we see them they scowl - in town yesterday, on the trail in the morning...

5 days hiking the W allows you to continually bump into the same people and now in town and on the bus everyone is looking familiar and going to el chalten for more trekking.

The Israelis are at the bus too, the ones we thought were a family that had cleared a space for us after my announcement at Chileno Refugio. Their are 5 younger women and a father son. The son was making rounds of tea for all of them and helping one of the shivering girls get warm. It was very touching how he took care of them. Three of the women appear to be a group. the oldest one who is now sitting in front of us is actually traveling solo and says they are family only by nationality. She is now educating us on West Bank/Gaza politics and her illuminating take on being an Israeli citizen. Her name is Michelle, an environmental activist from Tel Aviv, named after a woman in the Old Testament, a queen and king David cheated on her 12x. She too had a boyfriend named David but no longer, she doesn't want to have the same history.

"Occasionally something happens like the missiles last year but 99.9 of the time it's nothing. We just sit in cafes and drink coffee. Tel Aviv is very liberal, we are relaxed. 20 years ago there were suicide bombers but now the Arabs there are not poor with nothing to loose they have families and money so it's not so common."

"Rabin was murdered but he gave back A and B to Palestine and only kept C after the war  of 1967. So it is really only the little part on the West Bank were there is fighting."

Michelle served as a secretary during her mandatory 1 year and 9 month compulsory military stint but never met Palestinians or Jordanians until a joint enviro project funded by J and L (?) that brought people from the surrounding countries together to try to work on the same enviro challenges they each face like high demand for fresh water.

"If you serve in the green zone you get to meet Palestinians but as a secretary I didn't." Since she has travelled through Europe, India and now S.A. "I lived in a kebootz for six months for the project and it is bringing these different people together and bringing peace, it is working." Wiry, very open and talkative Michelle is quite inspiring and it seems most of her travel has been solo or related to being an activist, a stint in Chicago as a to work on enviro stuff, a coveted selectee and the only one from Israel, and there was also from Palestine, then she fought hard waving signs to keep a mayor from building a mall on a beach in Israel. Now she hopes to get a masters in international development to work with the infrastructure but was recently denied a scholarship to study in Portugal.

I eventually fall asleep to the hum of the bus as wind whipped clouds of Chile give way to gray cumulus and and patchy blue in Argentina. The three blisters all but forgotten, the exploding fuel canister at campo Italiano that sent a 10 by 10 orange fireball out of the cook shelter, and saying goodby to the Paine condors and guanacos, the avalanches sweeping down Paine Grande - the peak ascended only five times and all in winter because of summer's insane wind.

Maureen and I did eat Calafate berry ice cream and the legend is that you will return to Patagonia once you have eaten the berry. I would be ok with that.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Calafate to Puerto Natales Chile

Calafate to P. Natales March 17
Motorcycles full throttling through the dark streets, a hundred different barks from dogs in all directions and distances - I think I could accurately create a sonar 3D map from these alone. strange whirring police sirens, "Titaniun" thumping at a house party on the next block. A drunk stumbles through the backyard behind the tent plots we are staying at and jiggles a door quietly for several minutes until giving up and then it's a series of uncontrolled staggerings as he crunches over trash cans and metal piping on his way out if the yard. Haven't slept since 3.30 Am when all this woke me up.

Los Dos Pinos has locked the joint use kitchen for the night so the tent campers are locked out still at 6 am and I am hungry and we have a bus to catch soon. I imagine the must give keys to those staying in the cabins and dorms. The place is carelessly kept up, not based on need but perhaps only when a tenant complains. Overflowing toilet paper in the bathroom baskets, food left in the communal kitchen sink for a couple of days, seems they do as little as possible. I suspect they unlock the kitchen at 6 so they can save on electricity.

The grumpy stoic woman running it finally broke a smile after several very gruff interactions. The huge hood for the stove extends some 6 inches beyond it and down to a heigh of 5 feet off the floor which would be perfect if I was under that height like the women who work here. I have to grab a chair so I can stir our jambalaya of a dinner. I guess not much can be expected for 30 (6$) pesos per person a night. The wifi is good and the showers hot.

The tent camps filled up with three Long distance cyclists - two from the Netherlands, very tall and thin couple (father daughter perhaps) riding all the way down from just south of Santiago to punta arenas sometimes making as little ad 5 to 10 km per day if it is windy or as much as 50 if not. First 7 days were straight rain, all day and all night. Mostly super remote washboardy dirt roads. They met up with Willy, a German that started his ride in Cartagena Columbia 7 months ago. Willy is a smoker and has a llama skull mounted on his front fender.

They said since we are heading to puerto natales today to Be on the lookout for another Oregonian pushing a two wheeled cart. He started five years ago and is nearly at his goal in Ushuaia. 40 km a day he averages so several days he had gone further than the cyclists and they were playing catch up to him. It took The cyclists 5 days to cross for p. natales to calafate. It will takes us 5 hours - if the border crossings go smoothly.

There are two checkpoints apparently. The strict regulations against bringing fresh or even dried fruit. we have read the Chileans are tough and will often search and impose fines. This means we are gorging ourselves this morning on our dried kiwi, pineapple and dates as well as the fresh apples and bananas. Good thing the road is pretty straight or I would be throwing it all up. The bus driver stopped obligingly for his full load of touristas to get a good view of a guanaco family just off the highway but we were all too sun slothed out and a few lazily pointed there cameras at the windows from their seats.

The 9am rays are blasting through the windows, a kind of rolling greenhouse with a the passengers planted as varietal nationalities, at least 10 represented, Japanese to eastern euro and flowering out in expensive marmot, Patagonia and Berghaus jackets and expensive trekking boots. I imagine most will only do the day tours via bus in Paine despite the expensive kit. The average mean age is about 25, a decidedly different group from the Perito Moreno glacier tour with its run of infants to octogenarians. Strangely, the only sign taped ove the defunct TVs with several paragraphs of highlighted information in different colors is only in Hebrew.

The passengers are thumbing through music on iPhones, munching sandwiches and soon to be contraband apples, snoring, drooling on girlfriend shoulders, shifting endlessly in their seats, coughing, rustling plastic bags, reclining seats into knees, sliding window curtains to adjust the heat, tapping away on iPads or reading on them in Japanese, thumbing guidebooks. Totally different experience from Peru. Much wealthier breed of traveller and prices - at least in these launching points for the parks - tourists dressed as though they were in Jackson Hole and prices are on par and even steeper than what you would pay in the US. Especially with the shitty exchange rate we are subject to now. It will cost 40$ US to get into Paine national park for just one person.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Road to Ushuaia

The road to Ushuaia-
Little girl in pink pants and leopard hoodie shakes a pink haired Barbie as we wait for the Don Otto bus that left us in Trelew. After 45 minutes of gassing and cleaning it returned and we were officially on our way to Rio Gallegos, perhaps Ushuaia and the southernmost city on the planet. It is well guarded. 30 hours of bus travel - if they are on time as there are border crossings into Chile with possible luggage searches, a ferry to drive on to- to reach Tierra del Fuego.

The plains and the intermittent clouds and curtains of rain with cobalt blue skies remind me if Arizona, as do the rainbows. Only here you almost have nothing to break the endless flat swell of scrub, save a rough estancia road, an old metal windmill, a barbed wire fence, a cow, a puddle like a small handful of raisins swimming in a huge dumped out stockpot full of oatmeal. Massively, massively flat - 360 degrees of horizon flat. the upper story of the bus allows for views penetrating several miles, occasionally a massive downward sloping sink, a shallow sloped canyon and the view extends and the feeling is truly endless almost frightening-like looking into the vast expanse of the moonless night sky. So empty so lonely, a trillion shrub stars...

The clouds make it past the curve of the horizon and the effect is haunting, it doesn't seem possible that there could be anything else out there. Even air. Wyoming, Arizona, Utah, Kansas - combined they don't come close in the singular sense of vastness. After two straight days and one night of driving across the top of a giant table, the sea sometimes visible to the east but in all directions almost never is there a tree or a shrub greater than five feet, the swell of a steep cliff or hill is almost nonexistent - we finally reached some deeper and broader canyons at sunset. The canyons were quickly swallowed into the flatness again but to the west the low cumulus caught the orange and pink of the fading light, deep purple to the east.

The fixed monotony of the patagonian earth is heavily contrasted by the fluidity of the sky and forces the eyes upward to something non-static, something that exudes color besides drab brown and dark green. Shifts contrasted in the skyscape allow the usually slowed perceptions of clouds to rush like rivers. Two days in the Patagonian plains is teaching me a zen-like awareness of speeding time. My own time-lapse. As the dusky color was slowly dying we finally dropped into a wider canyon and some heavily wind-stressed trees near a tiny estancia -and then after a minute they were gone again. Some cone shaped hills appear.

Slowed traffic. Glad we are not at the front window again and on the left side of the bus, looking east and the side where the blazing rainbows popped in the afternoon sun -and thankfully impossible now to see the crash carnage on the right. No stops, no towns or cities from Trelew all the way to Comodoro Rivadavia some 6 hours. We arrive in darkness. The city looks like it survives on industry from a massive cement plant and like seemingly all cities in Patagonia it seems to survive because it connects a port town and has one of only two paved highways stitched to it.

On our way out the bus driver drove over something, a small car perhaps. A minute later the driver spun us into the Don Otto mechanics shop where three grease monkeys ran up. Now they are gunning the engine intensely. I suspect we will have to do a bus shift. The three year old that joined us here is making loud farting sounds. He plopped down in the seat directly in front of me, smacking the window and screaming, "Pee pee, mommy, agua!" Could be a long night.

We apparently got the all clear because we are backing out... Makes me a bit nervous because it was a hell of a slam we endured. Ricky Martin is grooving on the tv making it all seem alright. I am anticipating a second shriveled steak milanesa and canned fruit dinner that so far rivals airline food in the sketchy department. Maureen and I were looking forward to the massive ham and cheese sandwich but it seems those are reserved for the semi cama (bed)trips, not full cama, a step up in reclining comfort but a step down in food. Our bus was nearly two hours late so essentially our lunch was out first dinner.

As we roll out of Comodoro riodavia I am half expecting us to shed a tire and slide to a stop on the axle. Impossible for anyone to tell how bad the suspension may be with the wind and uneven road. Time to heed the advice of Fernando and utilizar al cintoron de seguridad.

Ringtone of the guy behind us is the bow chicka bow bow and rings nonstop - maybe he really is the smooth latin lover.

We made it about an hour and a half to the Caleta Olivia and we are now waiting for near an hour at the terminal. Dinner was served, better than lunch which wasn't too difficult a task. I caught the word mecanico from the last announcement so it appears they are trying to do a repair as we sit in the omnibus terminal. Malbec wine was a nice compliment, worth the extra hundred or so pesos for the extra food and vino tinto.

12.30 and they finally shut off the bus. Strong smell of gasoline and many tools clinking, thumping from the back engine compartment. Maureen comments at our good fortune of not booking a bus out of rio Gallegos in advance as we likely won't be anywhere near there when they all leave tomorrow. I can hear mecanicos shouting at each other. "Una hora, una hora." It's now been well over two hours since we parked here.

1.40AM and the bus was fired back up. High rpms for 10 minutes and I am getting worried about asphyxiating. Headache and blazing hot, zero airflow. Sprinkling outside. Tools clinking, doors slamming... Maybe? 1.50 and we finally back away from the terminal.

The morning sunlight cuts through the curtains. Outside the super-heated bus there is slightly more relief to the pampas but still not a single boulder or cliff anywhere. The shrubs have shrunk in size considerably and are now drab brown but mostly yellow with dried grasses. Sheep wander about. A size able lake in a shallow bowl looks to be natural. Difficult to gauge size and distance out here without anything that will betray a sense if scale. Still no trees or buildings. Nothing green at all. Supposedly the welsh who were the first euros to settle here in 1865 nearly died the first year and had to he rescued by the local indigenous. Not used to raising cattle or sheep or farming in such a dry expanse so different in climate from nearly perpetually wet Wales.

We are trying to estimate when we might arrive... 10am? Noon. We started more than two hours late, sat in the Trelew terminal for 45, dealt with mechanics somewhere south of Comodoro Rivadavia while they kept us locked in the bus for at least three... Way off the 6.30 mark, already after 9. I am headachy and anxious to be moving, still slightly nauseous. At least they turned the vents above back on. I opened the bathroom window slightly to get a taste of long forgotten fresh air. It was cold.

Flamingos, ducks and cows hang out in a roadside lake/puddle. Crawling across the seats in front if us wearing just a diaper and t shirt is the tiny three year old toothily grinning at us. Puffy cheeks and large dark eyes.

Perhaps the most striking observation about this landscape is that for nearly 30 hours of travel from north to south there has been hardly a single boulder or cliff, nothing but softer earth and shrub. How could it be so scoured clean? Truly a climber's worst nightmare. Broken in the east only by the ocean and to the west by the Andes there has to be hundreds of thousands of square miles of this nearly featureless terrain.

Little small ostrich/emu like birds, the first larger animal besides livestock and vultures have been spotted - a couple small knots of them just off the highway. Just saw our first gaucho on a horse at the outskirts to rio Gallegos... Only 4 hours late... But late enough to miss the bus to Ushuaia and there is not another one until tomorrow morning. We switch gears and opt for Calafate as the next bus is in just 1.5 hours thinking we can just go to Ushuaia from there...

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


The windshields of the upper deck overnight busses have both been cracked and heavily pock marked from stones flung by following less that 10 feet from the semi or gas trucks they are about to pass. The driver of this one into Patagonia has been routinely blowing through red lights. Granted, it is well after midnight with only delivery trucks  and other busses on the lonely highway through the sleeping towns. The A/C blasted for 40 minutes at 4 AM. long enough for Maureen to put on every layer including rain jacket and dry pack towel and as she finished the A/C shut off.

The driver slows for almost nothing, passes all except the dangerously weaving semi that we finally overtake at a toll booth. The attendant has the softest steps and shoes ever and floats through the coach like a ghost.

 When we left retiro in BA the attendant and driver were talking so fast and loud till well after midnight I would swear they were snorting meth. The trees that line the narrow streets smash and scrape into the high sides of the coach. I am betting that is how the windows crack. This trip we are riding the head of the arrow into Patagonia. The furthest forward seats up top- frente. Thank god no one has the seats to the right or behind as my socks smell atrociously.

These largo distancia drivers are way better than their US counterparts where I have spent several white knuckle nights being thrown forward by overreactive snappy break feet. The argentine drivers are smooth and creep and roll rather than slam and lurch. Through congested towns and stoplights they work smoothly through the gears. I try to imagine the ladder of progression to driving some of the gnarlier routes, some of the tricks to stay alert. are they only 6 hour shifts?

 A huge thump from the back and suddenly a howling baby...

As we rode the local 717 bus the driver was surrounded by ornate custom mirrors, fillagreed with feathery accents, over a dozen on the sides, above his head - and panels of them on the inside nose above the visors. He rocked out to some Latin rock music that could have been Heroes de Silencios, totally focused and tranquilo through the demanding traffic, passengers swiping magnetic cards, shuffling through gears...

Through the slightly parted curtains in the 6AM sunrise twilight I could see lightning flashes electrifying parts of the clouded southern sky. it could have been 100 miles away. It reminded me of looking at an opaque pressed white flower in glass if lights were alternately lighting up behind it.. Insanely flat barren plains and not a tree in sight, barely any bumps in the landscape. Not much changes quickly out here.

Rush of rattling wind from an oncoming semi that shoves us toward the shoulder and strange Doppler tweaked horn. The wind outside must be gusting at 50 mph given the bent eucalyptus that line the streets in the small cities we pass through. No trees on the pampas at all, just shrubs. I imagine the constant battle to keep the tires straight while bouncing from side gusts. There is often maybe an inch Of clearance from obstacles or cars while moving at 60 plus mph. Passing two semis at once... I won't mind being in the middle of the bus next trip, blissfully ignorant of all the double yellow crossings.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Cities and Scalpels

In Buenos Aires I had to guard 2 peso pastries from the incessant drips from the ubiquitous swamp coolers that were planted at nearly every window of every high rise throughout the sprawling city. A city so big it almost seems unreal. Escher-esque in its proportioning. Streets radiate from round plazas in the cardinal directions as well as the midpoints, challenging heavily the idea of easy-grided street travel.

We flew in at sunset, by way  of rough brown crumbling snow-tinged giants of the sculpted Andes. Then it was an hour of maddeningly flat plains (pampas) not unlike the Midwest, perfectly empty earth. Then it was a disorienting span of buildings, every square inch of street and high rise stretching to the sea and seeming to easily rival Los Angeles in orders of magnitude. Each region defined as if cut with a scalpel and placed side by side.

Looking out over the Buenos Aires cityscape is not unlike looking up at the heavens on a clear moonless night - the effect is a feeling of nearly complete insignificance which now feels strangely invigorating. The contrast of peaks to plains to city gave the feeling of three totally separate worlds, each seemingly unending, the edges clearly defined I felt miniaturized. I remember Travel writer Paul Theroux describing a similar feeling while training it on the Patagonia Express.

Buenos Aires had Tractor beamed us in with its overwhelming gravity like the sun to a speck of space dust, becoming our own  comet, swallowed on the humid heat and animal tango passion, digested for a couple days and a million lifetimes, the goal to be excreted from Retiro omnibus estacion and sling shot south again into the voids of waiting experience and through the raw and bleeding edge of dominion into wilderness, slough the suffocating embrace of concrete and the yoke of steel and petrol, the stifling purgatory of the modern.

As the brakes were applied, the wings folded down and the sun starburst through the gap for a split second. We banked over the Atlantic and finally headed west after flying due south all night from Miami and east for the afternoon for our landing at Aeroparque. We collected our burdens, nearly 175 pounds of "necessity", hailed a taxi and waded through the light traffic and haze-tinged golden sunset with over 10 million Portenos.

Ok, ok enough with the dramatics but that is how it begins to feel when treading through the not wholly unwelcome miasma of congested humanity of Mar Del Playa, burning exposed flesh on playas - or what argentinos call plaishas- Lonely Planet warns wading offshore and sandside will be armpit to armpit. But more like finger tip to finger tip now at the edge of the season... Theroux wrote that nothing is sadder than a beach tourist town out of season. Mar Del Plata still pulses with life, has its moments despite heading into fall. Many places have already been shuttered but middle and upper class Portenos dominate, very few international tourists.

All this while Patagonia beckons, flirts from behind the curtain of these bustling and vibrant cities with amazing pastries - only 2000 miles left - a of yawning cramped and lurching highway odyssey.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sergio From Toronto

March 6 2013
Sergio from Toronto
Finally we are inside South America after a false start leaving Miami. Towed back to the gate because of an engine misfire. Now we are enduring an 8 hour stay at Santiago International where we hope to be in Buenos Aires by nightfall.

Whilst waiting on the tarmac - and ultimately missing our connecting flight - we talked at length with an Chilean ex pat returning for a visit. He was one if those rare individuals that are easy to find instantly likable.

Sergio, now 60, had escaped Chile 35 years ago under Pinochet because "People were killing each other over ideas! Crazy." Sergio was a storyteller and knew when to pause, when to gently raise the the tone of voice for enhanced effect and draw you in deeper. He wore a black chapeau like a revolutionary from old Spain. "I love jazz and the blues. I travelled to St. Louis. Wonderful music, a whole street with great music." His eyes sparkled as he launched into reverie after reverie and shared with us not only his past but things we had to experience in both Argentina and Chile.

He stood obstinately in the aisle and made the bathroom goers and stewardesses work around him so he could keep talking to us. In Spanish the purser asked him to sit down as she wielded a tray of waters meant to appease the way-layed passengers. He did just long enough for her to make it by but grabbed a water from her out of turn because we were all the way at the bumpy back ass of the plane, in the third and second rows, and it would be several minutes and a few tray rounds before she made it back down to us.

In Buenos Aires the people are vampires! Restaurants will open at 10 at night and close at 10 in the morning. That is for eating, not drinking! But you will be very safe there. Like cities in Europe. No corruption like the small towns in the south of Argentina."

Sergio lived in Toronto. First a social science teacher here in Chile, then 9 years as a truck driver and the last stint as interpreter because he speaks French as well. "I love to camp, Jasper and Banff. but in the Rockies you have to watch out for grizzly bears- you will love Argentina. Very similar to British Columbia but no poisonous or dangerous animals. just some dAngerous people. Just, how you say, be aware."

One brother has moved back to Chile, one never left and two others live in Canada along with his sister, the oldest-  whom he says is the strongest person in the family. He is excited to meet up with the brother who lives here and another that is also visiting - and drink lots of wine.

"You know who else likes blues. A lot of blacks. That is something we do not have around here are many black people. Slavery was abolished here before Chile was a country so when they were freed they all left. They didn't like the climate. You find a few way north in Argentina."

Sergio is very laid back and soft spoken with his artsy hepcat glasses and roundish smooth but tan face and stubs of forgotten teeth which gives him a softer "s" sound. i later realize this is regional to Chile and Argentina - shuh for the double "l" and "y". Sergio eventually relieves himself of a ridiculously heavy-looking brown leather jacket.

"I love trains. The sound puts me to sleep and the chairs go back further. I cannot sleep on a plane or on busses. Not enough space. The train from British Columbia over the Rockies is amazing in winter and in summer, very different scenery but both beautiful. You know, they are building a train now from Chile and the west coast all the way over to the east coast. When Pinochet was in power he privatized  the trains and sold it off so our countries trains became terrible. In Argentina too so I never rode the train from Bariloche but I think now the train is finally running again to Viedma."

"You are not vegetarian are you? If you are it will be very expensive. You must eat beef - in the far south it is slow cooked over wood, medium rare, only flavored with salt. Incredible taste. In Chile you must eat empanadas." I asked home his favorite and he said without a seconds hesitation, "Beef!"

"I never smoked marihuana, just tobacco since I was 12. You know, my brother is a year younger and when he was 15 and my mom was doing laundry she found a joint in his clothes. She first told my older brother who was a cop. He said call the police to teach him a lesson. Our countries are different here, drugs are not tolerated. Oh, was crying when they hauled him off to the police station. He thought he was going to jail. My brother the cop took care of it but my younger brother, he learned. Now we all laugh about it. You know, things from the past, they are gone so you just need to laugh."

He told us he thinks many more people are choosing Cuba as a travel destination.  "I like Cuba. I have been many times. Very cheap to go there and its a three hour flight from Toronto. Raul Castro has said he will quit in 2018 but it will still say very socialist because they hate America so much. But hotels and things will become private. For years Americans come through Canada to visit Cuba. But next I want to go to Europe. It's becoming less expensive now."

Tango Lessons in Buenos AIres

Mr. and Mrs. Garrote and the Tango
He broke the ice with, "Are you Oregon State or Ducks fans?" I said I did not know which was which and asked what the mascot was for Wake Forrest which was their neighborhood. "The Demon Deacons... It used to be baptist..."

He worked for RJ Reynolds and recently retired. His laugh sounded like he was being garroted. His tongue would stick out and he would make a scary, raspy shuch-shuch-shuck sound. I held back talking because the guy just seemed the living representation of evil. I knew no matter what I said it would be edged with some sort of obvious disdain, judgement or condescension. I tried to remember the tango steps instead and Maureen's whirling, dazzling dominance on the dance floor even with just flip-flops- and the male tango instructor attempting to wrestle her into following mode.

We had found the tango lesson/dinner/show for 425AR a piece after some haggling. It conveniently happened to be directly across from the mildly sketchy black market money exchange "offices" of Florida street. I expected a high level of cheesiness and mediocre food, tepid performances - but all was top notch so I felt a little guilty sticking my tongue out and bulging my eyes when they asked us to take the "no obligation to buy" photo with the dance instructors/stars of the show.

Maureen enjoyed the bottle of Malbec we were entitled to as a couple. The photographer later made a special trip out to our table and said , "nice tongue." I said I had been told that before. Suckered in, so Of course we had to spend the 50AR for the image.

Before the show Maureen chatted and laughed with Mr. Garrote and his softer spoken and mousy but seriously southern-twanged wife and I tried to smile and grunt between bites of bread roll. Maureen confided later she would have cut me off had I tried to engage knowing I would have an edge.

He travelled the world for his employer, Brazil first and taught himself Portuguese. Then it was on to Argentina, Turkey, Greece... I tried hard to like the guy. "We were never union, nor was Phillip Morris, so I had to pay for my own cigarettes. My wife would tell me you are killing my grocery bill. I finally quit and probably smoked too much." He tried to soften this, some sort of strange guilt like the company was looking over his shoulder - with a story about his father smoking until he was 80 and Mr. Garrote's mom making him quit then -but it was because of the dementia.

Mr. Garrote was soft featured yet looked well worn. I found myself feeling guilty that I couldn't escape harsh judgement. He filled his glass with the Malbec to the brim as he gloated about last night's dinner that was $160 US at the city's finest steakhouse in the swankiest part is town that used to be the roughest part just five years ago. He got full value out of the 16 oz steak tonight as well.

Maureen asked if it was his wife's first visit here. She told the same one sentence response verbatim to what she had told the couple on the other side of the table when we were initially seated. We had met that couple earlier at the tango lesson. He spoke English, his family were citrus pickers from Fillmore, so he grew up with Spanish and English and now lived 9 months out of the year in BA. He had met his leathery Toronto female friend on a Canrnival cruise they both said was awful. "It was all old people, we were the young ones if you can believe it. The staff had no idea what to do with us because the are so geared to young people and families."

When Mrs. Garrote spoke again she said, "My husband was off traveling for years-so now I have a chance to go to these places." I imagined her practicing this in a mirror many times before she left, smiling at her latent good fortune and I found I could feel at least a bit of warmth toward her.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Not in Kansas Anymore...

Chasing a full moon across snow spotted plains beneath bruised clouds. Easy to imagine hearing tornado sirens and watching lightning flash across a flat world, tornadoes ripping through empty fields. Lights several hundred feet up on a microwave, cell antennae, water tower or grain silo looming over a few square acre town like Vona, Bethune, Levant, Quinter and Voda. Only Ford, Chevy and Dodge trucks covered in snowy mud streaks and Carrhearted farmers inside.

Endless semis ply the 70, most fearless in ice and blowing snow. Tiny Oil derricks swing in the flat expanse of fields, sparsely populating the plane like the scrappy leafless trees. Watching irrigation ditches, barbed wire fences, random round hay bales, tumble down barns and weeds poke up through the several inch deep blanket of snow. Several hundred feet of naked trees to possibly mark a property line or road breaks up the gentle maddening roll that makes perceivable distance all but impossible. Truck stops, speed trap troopers parked three abreast chatting over sunrise. Signs of highways commentating local fallen veterans.

At the Kansans border we stop at The ConocoPhillips station in Burlington The grout above the urinal someone had scrawled "Kill Mexicans." Inside the spacious travel stop a duck hunting video game and porno mags were main attractions. I found a few interesting travel folders attempting to sing the praises of I70 towns in Kansas. The 620-foot deep salt mine tours were shut for winter. Damn.

We stayed the night in The town of Hays. It sprouted on the promise of the coming railway line and in the 1869 to 72 it boasted of 33 homicides. We could still tour the Presbyterian church that helped “tame the town”. As that happened, most of the colorful outlaw residents moved to Dodge City where it was still exciting for a few more years. But Kansas makes no bones about commemorating the violent past. The "original" Boot Hill is here as were Buffalo Bill, James Hickock, Rattlesnake Pete Lanahan. The historic fort tasked to keep law and order opened at 9 so we had to miss it.

Maureen is having a windshield epic as they smeared and the washer fluid is frozen. Cars behind following too closely and the one ahead braking in the icy patches and forcing all three to get cozy. The travel gods are smiling though as it looks as if we are catching the edge of Rocky again just shy of Salina, the town that in 10th grade Maureen's mom road tripped to with her cousin.

Toll plaza woman asked if Smokey was sedated. She said a trucker comes through that has a cat that rides his dashboard and has made that his perch for the last nine years. Maureen and i thought-That can't be legal. Just jumped another time zone. Kansas City still digging itself out. Naked black trees clothed in blown snow. Counted at least a dozen cars from Denver to here in ditches just off the icy highway half buried in snow, owners walked off to wait for thaw. KC is claimed by Missouri though nearly half of it sits in Kansas. Strange.

I thought I had broken something when I leaned in to squeegee the windows as something fell and thumped at my feet. Just a huge chunk of ice from the wheel well. A snowman with squeegees for arms at the next gas stop. Passing the agriculture Hall of Fame... Freight trains, living fence row of Canada geese. Wind picking up, found the edge if the storm again in Kansas City. Record snowfall here yesterday of 8.4 inches. Beat the 1890 record by 6 inches. Just light snow now and the weather advisory will expire at noon...

Smokey is preferring to chill in the litter box today and when coaxed out drags the white crumbs across the car only to return a few minutes later and repeat the process. My camera bag I have rested in the center between the front seats and it has become a favorite Smokey perch allowing him to be raised up into the welcome morning sunlight that will only last an hour as we drive due east for several hundred more miles.

Blowing snow across the high way, giant green energy windmills spin. Cows congregate in mud holes punched through the snow. Random old farming machines. An abandoned farmstead with barns and sheds crumbling disappearing into the landscape. Icy patches, soft diffuse sunlight on sensuously wind blown skin of snow in the gentle rolling shady folds in the terrain, more hilly now. Blowing snow on the black highway swirls ominously like cauldron smoke...

Outside Blackwater Missouri: pro-life billboard of smiling baby- "your vote is their voice." Looks the same as Kansas but more scrappy trees, less farmland. Truck drivers seem to be more challenges. Semi parked on its side, one jackknifed in the median. Light snow falling but 32 degrees. Only 5 hours from Kansas City to Saint Louis. Distances seem to shrink out here. Almost no color anywhere. White snow, grey sky, black concrete and trees. vehicles and road signs muted by pallid sallow insipid anemic light, the Hazed blur through streaked windshield of the icy muddy muck that coats everything. More limestone scarps and twisty creeks than in KS.

Passed Ozarkland and bummed we didn't stop. Fireworks for sale everywhere. Buzzkill when I mentioned grabbing some. Passing Mexico and Moberly, Wellsville. Seen a handful of import cars finally. Maureen pointed out a billboard advertising "Hot and tasty butts". Two cartoon pigs for a BBQ place. Another one for an all you can eat $3.99 buffet.

Snow, grey skies, light wind and no imports to be seen in Germantown. We walked in the blowing wet snow to Flatland Rocks to meet up with the Maureen’s high school girlfriends form the wild days. Many Bud Lights and 3$ lemon shakers. Open mic night so local bands played renditions of Green Day and Foo Fighters. The singer with the broken wrist also had a very compromised voice. Small Midwestern town hotspot with the urinal window facing the bar at chest level, tinted to see out but not in. Cookie sat with us. He owns a bar in the next town over. Soft spoken but a towering seven and a half feet tall.

Despite the snow, Clinton County is quite warm - especially spending time with Maureen’s family. We scurry about organizing, loading, calling, canceling - tying up whatever loose ends we can before departure. Enjoy strolls on the Carlyle dam and through the cemetery, savor good home-cooked meals and hours of Euchre - a game my challenged brain may sadly never fully grasp having not grown up with it. A welcome respite before blasting off into the unknown with 200 pounds of gear, self supported for two months and now just 24 hours away…

Tom Eversgerd uses his counterweight balance scale that for decades accurately measured sides of beef.  Flying a few weeks ago we had 31 pounds of over-packing that needed redistribution into carry on luggage...
Lynn Eversgerd confirms the accuracy of the antique scale...