Torres del Paine is billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. The national park is full of mountains and glaciers, after a long ride from Puerto Natales through steppe country bordering on tundra. Guanacos, rheas, black-neck swans and pumas roam the sparse lands right up to the mountains’ edges and the glaciers sit like a luminous blue warning that we might not get away with this one. And in the middle of summer, a mile walk out from the lodge will take you to the confluence of two differently-colored rivers while an extraordinarily cold rain soaks through your jeans.
There’s not much in Chilean Patagonia by way of population. Even the indigenous population didn’t spend much time there and their numbers were always few, because this is not a particularly hospitable land. For the most part, it’s all about sheep ranching on huge estancias that can have tens of thousands of sheep on tens of thousands of acres. It’s what I expect Montana or Wyoming are like: just plain ol’ wide open spaces. The sort of place that requires sturdy boots and a shearling coat, not to mention the Buff.
The Buff is a fabric tube that can be worn half a dozen different ways – headband, snood, scarf, bandana rag – and it turns out I already had one, bought in a moment of abstraction at the clearance sale at the National Geographic shop back in the spring of 2004. I didn’t bring it, which was a mistake, but I won’t make that mistake again. I bought one there, in a Patagonia flag pattern, and ordered a merino wool version which was waiting when I got home. But it’s odd that I was prepared for the trip fifteen years before I took it, and didn’t know it so I wasn’t actually prepared. But the new Buff is staying in my jacket pocket now.
And then, the whiplash: from wintry cold in Torres del Paine to over ninety degrees in Santiago. Not much to say about the capital city: it’s a world capital of seven million and we were only there for a day, so there isn’t much to add beyond “yeah it’s a big capital city.” Like maybe New York or Tokyo rendered into Spanish. But it was sweltering, which made for a good adjustment as we took a flight to Polynesia that could have easily been the San Francisco-Honolulu route. Only in our case it was Santiago to Rapa Nui – known to the West as Easter Island.
Easter Island’s permanent population is about 8000 now. The native population was as low as a hundred at the end of the 19th century, and there’s no 100% native population left; everyone is some percentage of mix, but you need at least some native blood to own property, which appears to be an attempt to try to make good on a couple centuries of exploitation. This is a recurring problem for me: much as I love love LOVE Polynesia, it’s always difficult not to feel like an intruder. It’s why I don’t object to staying in the containment zone in Waikiki – I’m willing to stay in my allotted space and let the locals make the money without needing to barge any further into their spot. Of which more later.
But Rapa Nui is most famous, of course, because of the moai, the huge stone heads that were carved as representation of ancestors who had passed on up until the 18th century. And at some point, not long after the time the first Europeans showed up, the Rapa Nui decided they didn’t believe in the ancestors any more (although overcrowding and scarcity of resources could also have been a factor). So when you walk around the quarry where all the stone was hewed, you see some abandoned moai that were never transported and that have been half-buried by the soil in two centuries, and some that are only half-carved from the stone. To stand there in a gray drizzle, gazing at a a half-emerged stone profile that will never be completed, is an unexpectedly poignant experience. You wonder whose ancestor this was meant to be, and what their life was like that they merited this sort of commemoration – and what happened to prematurely cut it off. And you contemplate everything that “losing my religion” actually entails.
Three full days in Rapa Nui is probably about enough to get the important bits. I saw the church, I saw the markets, I ate a whole pineapple in hand like it was an ice cream (they peel it and you hold the leaves like a stick, and it’s soft and juicy enough to eat it core and all). I saw and sympathized with the protest signs all around the resort, although a bunch of ragged black flags on sticks are too genuinely badass as decoration to convey a disruptive message. And I did perversely enjoy the experience of driving five minutes from the hotel to the airport, going through The Door, checking in at The Desk, going through The Security Checkpoint and then sitting out at The Gate before boarding a stretch Dreamliner on an airstrip once designated for emergency Space Shuttle orbiter landings. And then 27 hours home on three flights, and thank goodness for Global Entry. It takes me longer to get through the self-checkout at Safeway than to get back into the country. All hail Platinum Plus Preferred Citizenship.
So that was the big trip. Now we have to wait and accumulate enough leave for two weeks off, enough money or points for international business class round-trip, and enough of an idea of where we go next. But it’s entirely possible that this is my hobby now, and that everything I do in life is to kill time until the next free Rusty Nail in the VIP lounge waiting for my Dreamliner to take us to The Next Destination.
Wouldn’t that be something.