Monday, July 6, 2009

Torres Del Paine- beginning of Feb. 2008

Puerto Natales, like many other towns and cities I would visit later on, is a small, one-dimensional town. Or, I should say, that is the way in which it is perceived. There’s no doubt that the town’s character and economy are highly influenced by the huge tourist attraction near it: the Torres Del Paine National Park. I’ve heard it said that it is the second most visited national park in all of South America (trailing the Macchu Picchu, of course). I’ve looked for some corroborating evidence for this claim, to no avail. The park is really an amazing place, with calm and stunningly coloured lakes, black and violent mountains (they looked a lot the way I had always imagined Mordor, in Lord of the Rings, would look), huge granite towers, waterfalls, and most impressive of all: 6-7 glaciers, part of an enormous ice field.
It was very, very impressive. The whole place exists in a kind of contradiction- extremely organized on one side, with many rangers, paid campsites that include showers and stores, and even hotels and a souvenir shop in some of the camps. All this is opposed by the really violent nature of the place: deep ravines cutting into the mountain, very strong winds, the granite towers that have been eroded by years of snow and winds, fallen trees everywhere (it looks like in some areas there are more fallen trees than standing ones), turbulent rivers that would sweep you away in a second if there wasn’t a bridge over them (BTW, the water from the creeks tastes great! The best water I’ve ever had. It is a great feeling, to drink from a creek or lagune when you can see the glacier and the waterfalls that feed the creeks and lagunes up above you. It feels as pure as it possibly could), and that huge field of ice, that looks as if it's all been cut up into little cliffs...
I had mixed feelings about all the organization and “tamed” nature in the park. On the one hand, it’s hard to feel like you’re truly in a natural area when you have set paths you can’t stray from, you keep running into (a LOT of) people, there are rangers everywhere and built up bridges and campsites. It’s hard to imagine that there could be any danger within the park. But let’s face it: although some of my goals for the trip were “adventure” and “freedom”, I’m not the extreme, uncalculated risk taker. I wouldn’t go to a place like this without checking first about the risks, warnings and recommendations. And I probably wouldn’t go somewhere where other people haven’t blazed the trail before me. But I think that the problem for me wasn’t the fact that there was “nature taming”, since that’s the only way that us regular people can come and see nature in all its magnificence, but the extent of it. It just wasn’t as much fun as other hiking trips I had done before, no matter how beautiful it was (and it was without a doubt, at that point, the most beautiful place I’d been to). I wanted to go off trail, to do more than just wake up, walk a couple of hours according to the map and trail markers, eat, make camp where I knew I would, and sleep. I barely even stopped in one place to admire the view, just because I felt like it, instead stopping mostly in the designated panoramic lookout points. In short, I felt constrained by the frame that is the “Torres Del Paine circuit trek”. I would revisit that idea in later treks, especially the Cerro Castillo one.
Another thought I had while trekking in the park, which probably stems from that first one, or at least exists side by side with it, was about the concept of “nature”: the whole idea of looking at nature as a whole, as one body, a kind of pantheism that includes everything that is non-human. That kind of perspective is nothing new, but I tried to imagine how an ancient Greek (let’s say pre-Socratic, because that’s the best distinction I can come up with, even though I’m sure most post-Socratic Greeks weren’t much different in this than their ‘pre-‘ brethren) would have looked at this place. All that violence I witnessed would’ve probably been looked at as a perennial, giant struggle. Whether it would be seen as elemental struggle (wind knocking down trees= air vs. earth; rivers forging and shaping the canyon walls= water vs. earth; and so on) or a fight between the different gods that symbolize different sides of nature. Today I’d say the popular view is to look at it as the whole of “nature”, the animal, plant and rock world, in which the condor, the trees, the waterfall and the granite are part of the same system. I’m not talking about scientific perspective, in which the point is very much debatable, since every animal, plant and object is catalogized, named, and put in a separate group, while also talking about eco-systems and balance. I’m talking more about the layman(which I undoubtedly am)’s thinking and outlook. It’s possible that this outlook comes from the monotheistic way of thinking, the religious one followed by a secular one that also sees everything in the world as coming from the same source, with one set of consistent, permanent rules. I’m not sure if I believe in that unity. I’m not even sure if I want to believe in it…
Getting back to what actually happened: I walked about 100 KM, slept in a tent, ate a lot of rice, dried fruit and porridge (in fact, for 7 days, every breakfast consisted of porridge, every lunch of dried fruit, and every dinner of rice)- it was a great experience. The highlight of the trek was, undoubtedly, the third day: we spent the first four hours ascending, and ascending, and ascending (why is it that the hard uphill climbs in treks are always first thing in the morning?), on a rocky surface and against a strong wind and a bitter cold. But every time I looked back, the views of the valley behind me were more beautiful (I kept taking new pictures and erasing the old ones, every time).
We finally got to the top of the John Gardner pass, myself more out of breath than anyone in the small group that had formed, and my feet aching. The wins on top of the Pass was the strongest I'd ever felt (little did I know that that would change, handily, in less than a week), and we took refuge and rest behind a small, man-built wall of rocks. After I realized that cold would win out against tiredness, and it's a bad idea to stay there, I walked down about 10 steps, and my breath was, for the first and only time in my life, literally taken away. In front of me and below me, as far as the eye could see, the view of the Grey Glacier had opened up- an enormous field of ice, white, gray and blue, about 1200m (4000ft or so) below us. It is one of the most spectacular views I've ever seen, especially since it was the first real glacier I'd ever seen, and since it came as such a surprise, appearing within seconds, and after a fairly hard climb.
I did the trek with a couple of Israelis (it's impossible to avoid them, especially in Patagonia, where it seems like Israelis make up at least 50% of the backpackers) who were very good guys, but it seemed obvious to me that they were not the travel partners I was looking for... too much "I miss hummus", "do you know this or that guy" and “what did you do in the army” kind of talk- ask any Israeli and s/he’ll tell you that’s what Israelis talk about when they’ve just met. I just felt like all the conversations were obvious and predictable. I wanted to meet new kinds of people.
After the trek, I spent a couple of days resting (my body in general, but more than anything my aching knee) in the hostel in Puerto Natales. I should say a couple of words about it, since it was one of the best hostels I’ve been in. It was (I hope it still is) ran by a guy named Omar, who took care of absolutely everything by himself, and created an open, friendly and fun atmosphere with his charisma and enthusiasm. He’s a former mountaineer and mechanic who had had to quit both because of a back problem. The dinners together in the kitchen (I think there’s little doubt that the kitchen is one of the best places in a hostel. Whenever I come to a new hostel by myself, and want to meet people, the first place I go to is the kitchen. Also, offering to share what you’re cooking is a great way to make instant friends. There’s something about food, especially the sharing of it, that is as ancient and strong as any human ceremony), the conversations over Chilean box wine (which is surprisingly good, and oh so cheap) and the general international ambient in the hostel were a sign of things to come.
I had a calm, uneventful two days, and then took a bus to Calafate, back in Argentina.

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