It feels as though I have been on vacation since Wednesday of last week! My parents came to visit me in Chile and took the opportunity to spoil me and my friends a bunch. I realized how different life has been for us here than it can be at home, and we got to visit places I had never been on my volunteer's budget (Mesita Grande for pizza in Natales, DA Hotel in Arenas, even fancy bars and sushi!). It felt great to have a little break before the homestretch, and at the same time it made me appreciate both ways of traveling and living more.
Allow me to explain. In my normal life in Chile, everyone talks about how fruit is expensive. A kilo of apples normally costs less than 500 pesos (less than one US dollar...also the legal minimum wage here is 34.000 pesos a day) but the accuracy of the claim is not the important thing here. What is important is that people avoid expenses out of necessity and custom, naturally seek simplicity in life, and just generally have less than people in the US and other places I have lived.
Given that I am already living with only the things I can carry on my back, I fit right in. My hand-washing of clothes in the shower and a general tendency to choose economical and practical over fancy have gotten me used to a different standard of living since being here. And for that I am extremely grateful, especially because many experiences here would not be possible if I was too picky (read: prissy) about my hostels and food and recycled clothes with holes in them. I actually startled myself in the hotel room by walking past my reflection in the full mirror. I hadn't noticed, but in the nearly four months since arriving in South America I had not seen my full reflection since my hostels, school, and home here do not have large mirrors. The one in my room is about 12x14 inches and held on my what appears to be old chewing gum...
The contrast between lifestyles was further highlighted by something very simple: our hotel's breakfast. Milk of four kinds, including chocolate. Cereals (three to choose from). Oatmeal. Real live toast. Yogurt. Fruit. Pastries. Eggs. The look on my face when I saw it must have been one of rapture, and I almost felt shy approaching it. After living simply for several months, the prospect of four choices of milk was daunting. I eventually chose chocolate.
Make no mistake about it...Chilean Patagonia offers adventure. Especially in winter. Especially in Torres del Paine. Especially with your parents. Because they had come so far to see me and in some ways to bear witness to the reality of my time here, I wanted to bring my parents on the pilgrimage to the most beautiful place I have ever been in my life. We rented a disel truck and took off toward the park to make a 300-km loop from Natales around the park.
It was certainly changed from the previous three times I went. Everything was ringed in frost, and the bright colors of fall were faded into white, gray, and a surprising purple of branches devoid of leaves. The truck performed amazingly, and I loved pulling it around the dirt roads leading to the entrance of the park. Everything was blanketed in thick fog, blocking most of the views but making it possible for the Cuernos del Paine to sneak up on you and jump out of it at random, impression-making moments.
At the midpoint of our loop, the farthest away from Natales we could be...I begin to feel the truck pull to the right a bit. I figure it was the road. We stop at the top of a hill and get out of the car.
"It smells weird," says my mom. I pass it off, thinking that we might be making the brakes hot or something. We walk to the mirador over the lake. The view is shrouded in fog. Damn.
On the walk back to the car, my mom gasps. "Our tire is flat!"
Of course it is. Chilean Patagonia has taught me even more than Italy did to let go of my little plans because they simply are. Not. Happening. Here, I am constantly searching for Plan B, Plan C, or Plan D...because having options is absolutely necessary. Plan B on Saturday was to poke around the truck for tools, a spare, and the manual. No manual. Plan C, poke around under the truck with tools, fails and leaves us covered in mud. The spare is stuck tight under the back of the truck with a chain. My dad is covered in mud.
Plan D: Walk down to the hotel and ask to use the phone. As I approach, I notice that the sign outside says, "Cerrado." Double damn. Plan E: Look around for someone to help. That guy over there with the wheelbarrow looks...friendly enough. I ask, with extreme politeness, if he can help us. Not exactly the friendliest dude in this part of Chile (granted, I have high standards from being spoiled by the friendliness and kindness of the people here). Please, man. Just come have a look at it. All in my best attempt at perfect Magallanes Spanish. Interpreting in the moment, from my dad to the man helping and vice versa.
We arrive at the truck, and he immediately takes the tire down with a quick twist of the wrist and a trick we would have never known (you mean that long stick cranks the tire down? What?). We happily take out the jack and go to raise the car.
It doesn't fit. Triple damn. Right. Plan F: grab the wheel-well and lift the freaking truck with our bare hands so the jack can fit underneath. "Still too low," says our new friend, and I translate. Plan G: Lift harder. Fuerza fuerza fuerza fuerza!
Tenuously, the truck stays. I fight off an image of it falling on our feet. We take off the broken wheel and try to put the new one on. Too low. We all hold our breath as we raise the truck an inch and a half more. I fight off another image of the truck slipping and the bolts flying off, hitting us in the shins...but the truck stays and the wheel is finally attached.
As we are saying goodbye I ask our new friend his name, wanting to know the name of another helper in Chile like the one who saved my purse from an armed robber in Santiago (in case you missed it, try this epicly long post: http://caminochile.blogspot.com/2011/03/left-with-nothing-but-neruda.html). Roman. Thank you.
After yet another brush with chaos in Chile, the weather cleared and the most beautiful sunset I have yet seen in Chile appeared over the Blue Massif. I literally ran about a quarter of a mile (envisioning myself as an agile guanaco in order to not twist both ankles) to take a few fleeting pictures, in one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life. And then we descended again into the fog, chaos catching up with us again and forcing a slow limp back to town. We were rewarded with the most stars I have ever seen in my life...with almost no light interference.
More circumstantial changes that mimic the coming and going of the weather here. If you don't like it, wait five minutes. The chaos will shift again and you will be humbled by your smallness in the face of Patagonia. But you will also find that you can change some of it, and occasionally outsmart the chaos for just long enough to move to the next challenge.