Author’s Note: I’m working on a new voice to start a collection of stories that flashes back to the old-style of travel writing and tells and describes the actual travel – not just the highlights but what the trip was actually like, and what it meant to the person taking it, written in a way that makes it feel like a story that someone actually lived. It’s a work in progress.
In Another Country
I NEEDED TO GET AWAY for a while. So after much deliberation, I got on a plane to Patagonia. I took the last flight out of the District and arrived in Punta Arenas in a tired, worn-down state. I had not slept much, on the plane or otherwise, and I had drunk quite a bit of wine. After I collected my bag I walked out into the main terminal. All around me people were speaking Spanish. A man came up and asked if I would like to hire a taxi. I told him I was taking the bus to Puerto Natales. He asked if I had a ticket. I said not yet. He told me I could not buy a ticket at the airport. I had to go into Punta Arenas to buy one, he said, and he would take me there for ten dollars.
I did not believe him. I went over to the information desk. The man there told me that I could buy a ticket on the bus.
“No problem,” he said, “Especially in low season.”
I asked him for a schedule. He licked his thumb and picked up a rectangular piece of paper. On it was the schedule. In one hour the bus would come.
I went upstairs to the restaurant and ordered a coffee. I paid at the register and then found a table by the railing. I could see over the railing and down to the first floor. There was a glass doorway and I could see the people coming in and out of the big, double doors, their bags dragging behind them, and I could see passengers in line at the check-in desks. I was happy to be off the plane. The waiter brought the coffee over. He almost tripped over my pack because the tent poles were sticking out.
“Where are you camping?”
I did not understand what he said. I had not spoken Spanish for several months. He stood there waiting for a response.
“Gracias,” I said, holding up the coffee cup.
He went back behind the counter. I held the bus schedule with both hands and leaned back in the chair and looked at it. It was a three-hour ride to Puerto Natales, where I had reserved a room at a hostel within walking distance of the bus station. My plan was to rest there tonight, have a big meal and buy everything I needed for the next five days. Then tomorrow catch another bus to Torres del Paine, another two hours north.
The bus to Puerto Natales was fifteen minutes late. I sat at the table by the railing until I saw it pull up to the curb outside the double doors. I hoisted my pack upon my shoulders. It was light with a lot of room to spare. Still, feeling the straps on my shoulders gave me the feeling of purpose, a soldier donning his armor. I was there and the trip was beginning and there was no turning back from the adventure that lay before me.
There was a line at the door of the bus and I stood in it. The porter came out and put all the bags under the bus. He asked where I was going and I told him Puerto Natales. He held out his hand and I paid the 8,000 pesos. I already had it set aside and arranged in my pocket. I climbed aboard the bus and found an empty seat by the window. Before the bus filled up and left, a woman sat down next to me. She was a lot older than me and I tried to talk to her in Spanish. I understood that she lived in Puerto Natales and had a couple kids. Then the porter came over and motioned for me to move seats. He pointed to one way in the back, next to the bathroom. There was a guy laying down across the two seats. I said goodbye to the woman and walked to the back of the bus. As I was coming down the aisle the guy laying on the seats sat up straight and moved against the window. I sat down next to him.
He nodded and we didn’t talk for a while. The bus pulled out of the airport circle and merged onto the main highway. I looked out the window. There was a low cloud bank on the horizon that looked like a distant mountain range, dark against the opaque sky. On the ground the green and yellow prairie stretched on forever, like an ocean, to the base of that cloud bank. In some of the fields there were sheep and they were marked and numbered in blue. The sky was grey but it was dry. I pulled my notebook and pen from my pocket and tried to write a few things down. I hoped that it would be a good trek and that the weather would cooperate.
I turned and said hi to the guy next to me. He spoke English well. He was from Costa Rica. Javier. He was going to Puerto Natales and then Torres del Paine as well. But only to Torres on a day trip. I told him about my rafting trip on the Pacuare River. He offered me one of the cookies he was eating and I said no, gracias. He was interested in the fact that I was a writer. After a while he fell asleep and I realized that I was very hungry. I took the snack bar from my pocket and unwrapped it carefully so as not to wake up Javier. It would have been weird to eat it in front of him after refusing the cookies.
I did not know the names of the towns we were passing. We passed a few of them that were very small. Then we came to a big town beside a lake. I thought we were going to pass it. But instead we turned left off the highway down one of the small roads. It was Puerto Natales. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know where I was going. But I had not said anything to anyone. I woke up Javier to tell him we had arrived.
The bus pulled into a long, angled parking spot in front of the terminal. The head of the bus stopped directly in front of the entrance to the terminal. Inside was a long hallway with a bunch of booths. The booths were owned by the bus companies. There were four or five of them that all took the same routes. Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas. Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine. That’s about it. I checked to make sure they were all the same price, then chose one at random and bought my ticket for the 7 a.m. bus to Torres del Paine, and for the return trip five days from now. I asked the attendant for directions to the hostel. I repeated them in Spanish as best I could.
I walked out of the terminal and, for really the first time, was on the ground in Patagonia. The sky was still overcast and growing darker in the early evening. I crossed the street and began walking through the town. Puerto Natales is a port town and a fishing town, right on the tributaries of the fjords and its streets were wide and it was very much a town and not a city. The houses were all different colors, sometimes white or red or brown or blue, and the rooftops all had their own colors, shades of green and red and blue. It reminded me of the colonial cities of Central America in that way with their bold colors and personalities. Only these colors were more bold than vibrant. I walked past the houses. The air coming off the lake was cold and crisp and clean. In the distance I could see the start of the mountains, where I would be going tomorrow. I could see the snow on top of the peaks. I turned the corner and came to the edge of the town and the waterfront. From there I could see the rocky coastline and the docks all lined up down the shoreline, seabirds siting on the pilings left from some of the old docks and other docks very new and functioning, and there were some big, wood-hulled fishing boats anchored off shore, white with a red stripe or white with a yellow stripe, the dark blue water underneath of them and extending way out into the distance towards the mountains. It was beautiful, and I walked along the water as long as I could. I heard the sound of the pack bouncing on my back with every step. I stood and looked out at the water and then turned back towards the hostel.
On the way I passed a little store and I went in. It was the definition of mom and pop, a small space with thick wood shelves, the household and food items neatly arranged on top. The counter was a large glass display case and I looked through it. The old man behind the counter watched as I scanned the store, as if I was taking inventory. I knew I could get better prices on the food at a bigger store, but I was curious to see what else they had. There were other supplies I needed, and other supplies I wanted. Behind the counter I spotted cans of propane and I asked the old man if I could look at them. They had a range of fuel canisters behind the counter. I bought two canisters and counted out the pesos on top of the glass counter. I put the two canisters in my pack.
My hostel was three blocks from the store. The door was shut tight when I arrived and I rang the bell. A man answered and welcomed me into the house. It was truly his house and he had converted the bottom floor into a multi-unit hostel, with a sitting area with tables and chairs for dining and then four or five rooms going back down the hallway. He and his wife lived upstairs. I was not to go upstairs, he said. He showed me down the hall to my room. I had reserved a private room for twenty dollars a night. When he opened the door to the room it banged into the bed. The room was not much bigger than the size of the twin bed, rectangular in shape with just enough room to stand next to the bed if you shut the door. There was a small skylight but that was the only interesting thing. There was no place to sit and no place to write and it felt like a closet. But it was only one night and tomorrow up in the mountains I would have all the space I wanted and more importantly all the space I needed.
I threw my pack on top of the bed and asked the man for directions to a grocery store. He gave me the directions. I told him I would like to stay here again, five days from now, and that I would like to leave a bag here while I was away. He was happy about it and left me the keys to the front door and to the room. I opened my big pack and retrieved my small day pack. I shook it out and opened it up – it had been rolled up and smushed into the bigger pack. I separated the money for the groceries and for dinner and put it into my pocket. I left the rest of the money behind, in one of the zipper pockets of my pants, buried so deep in the pack that one would have to be at the edge of his mind to look that hard for it. I was not worried about anyone stealing my pack. There were other tricks I used when I was worried about someone stealing my pack but this was a clean, well-lighted place with a good lock on the door and there were no maids and no other guests to worry about. Whether the money was in your pack or in your pocket you could never truly defend yourself against the most desperate of criminals but you could keep an honest man honest with the smallest of efforts.
I walked around the block and down into the center of town. The sidewalks were wide and people could walk four across without a problem. Lined along the streets were the small stores of the town, small markets and a hardware store and a couple outdoor adventure companies that arranged tours for tourists. The latter were all shuttered here in the low season and I walked past them down to the next block where I found a proper grocery store. The size of it suggested that I could find everything I needed in one place and that they could offer the lowest price. I picked up a basket and perused the aisles. From home I brought boil in the bag rice, energy bars, and packages of pre-made Indian food that I could heat up in boiling water. That would be my main meal each night. But I still needed a lot more food and I bought a bag of oats, two boxes of black beans, tea bags, apples, a bread roll, cheese slices, packets of tuna fish, and dried noodle soups. I passed down the aisle of wine and there were very good prices for a lot of the bottles. But I did not want to buy them because I did not want to drink on the trail.
When I came out of the grocery store it started to rain. It was not a good sign of things to come. I took my rain jacket from my pack and put it on over the pack and then through my arms, so I looked like a hunchback. I did not care how I looked so long as I kept dry. The rain came down hard and sideways and the wind blew it against the front of the stores. I pulled my hat down over my forehead so the brim would protect my eyes from the rain. It had been a cold rain and now it had become a hard rain and there were puddles on the streets and sidewalks. I saw a restaurant across the street with a wood-burning fire and big tables all around it. I went in and hung my wet coat on the rack and wiped my boots on the mat. My boots squeaked on the floor as I followed the waiter to the table. I could see the fire and feel its warmth. It felt nice to be out of the cold rain.
I ordered a half-chicken with mashed potatoes and dark beer. The waiter brought the beer first and then two bread rolls and I ate them both with butter and drank the dark beer. It was sweet and rich like caramel and it went well with the bread and butter. It was my last true, big meal and I wanted to feel fueled up and ready. I was not worried about eating too much. I ate the chicken and mashed potatoes and drank the beer and looked at the fire.
On the walk back to the hostel the rain continued to fall. I had hopes of buying a new notebook. I also wanted a tarp. Most of the stores were already closed and I was to leave early the next morning before they would open again. I had made a mistake in this regard. The hardware store was already closed and the pharmacy did not have tarps and they did not have a small enough notebook. I could always find a piece of paper down the road but I was concerned about the tarp.
Across the street I saw an open market and I went in and started explaining myself. I tried to describe a tarp. I did not know the Spanish word for it so I tried to use other words that I already knew. I asked the man if he had a toalla plastica I could buy, one that was muy grande. I used my hands to trace out a big area on the floor and show him that I wanted to put it on the ground. But all it drew was a blank stare. Eventually he went back to working on his vegetables. He was unloading a sack of potatoes into a bin. After he emptied the sack he took it over and placed it on top of a pile in the corner. There were many sacks and I went over and looked at them. They were made of polypropylene and most of them were in good shape with no holes or tears. I asked the man if I could buy a few. He told me I could take as many as I wanted, free of charge. I insisted on giving him a thousand pesos and did not relent until he agreed. I paid him, folded the sacks, and waved goodbye.
It was a ten-minute walk back to the hostel through the cold rain. I unlocked the front door with my key and held the sacks under my armpit. I stepped into the foyer and wiped my wet boots on the mat. I closed the front door and walked down the hallway to my room. I could hear my boots on the wood boards underneath. In my room I spread everything out on top of the bed. I had to close the bedroom door in order to have enough space to stand back and look at everything. I added the food I had brought to the food I had bought and organized it all together neatly in a dry sack. I took out the cheese slices, bread roll, and tuna to eat for lunch on the bus. I had another dry sack for my clothes. There were many layers of clothing and I brought at least two of everything, except only one rain jacket. I put them all in the dry sack and I rolled the top of it down like I was closing a chip bag and snapped the fittings together. Then there was my cooking pot, pocket rocket stove, the two gas canisters, my sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, and my tent and the poles, plus smaller necessities and safety measures like a first aid kit, extra batteries, lighters, mini flashlight, water filters, two pocket knives, emergency bags of rice, and extra twine. The carabiners and compass were already attached to the outside of my pack. There was a lot of stuff and part of it was because I believed in being prepared and part of it was because it had been a while since I cleaned out my pack. When everything was stuffed inside I closed the zippers on all the compartments.
On the far side of the bed I separated out everything I did not want to take on the trek and put it in the day pack. I kept out a change of socks for the morning. Otherwise I would undress for bed and then put it all back on in the morning. There was no need to overthink anything down here.
After everything was settled I went out of the room and into the hallway. Outside of my room was very cold and my bare feet were cold on the wood floor. I went into the bathroom, closed the door, and turned on the hot water. The man told me it would work until 10 p.m. It got very hot almost immediately. I undressed and warmed up under the water. I washed and dried and skipped through the hallway holding the towel up with one hand. I held my clothes in the other. In my room the heater was working hard in the corner and it was warm.
Lying in bed I had two heavy blankets on me and I listened to the rain pounding the skylight of my room. It was not what you wanted to hear the night before you go outside.
To be continued.