The Water, the Wind and the Ice of South America , Jan2009
We, the 15 transit passengers hailing from places as diverse as Asia, Europe, and Maryland USA , were brought close together in spirit in Argentina by shared calamity, when the American Airline managed to lose all our luggage as we passed through Dallas .
" Does this happen very often ? " I asked the good looking Airport ground staff . " Yes, every day! " he said " We handle 800 pieces of luggage per day, there're bound to be mistakes !" I was flabbergasted . Over 110,000 pieces of luggage are checked in and out of the HK Airport every day, yet we seldom lose a bag !
Hence the first item in the itinerary upon arriving in Argentina was to buy a toothbrush . Many of the grocery stores in Buenos Aires were run by Chinese , and Mr Chan, who worked in one such shop close to our hotel , was deeply alarmed by our plight. Mr Chan moved to Argentina from Beijing 10 years ago and sadly experienced only the negatives of life in South America. He was convinced police corruption was behind the loss of our luggage, and showed his sympathy in the best traditional Chinese way he knew, by piling us with food . I explained to him we would be travelling to Iguazu the next day and have no need for food, but to no avail . On the morning of the flight to Brazil the hotel desk clerk handed me yet another plastic bag holding this time half a water melon, some oranges and bananas , courtesy of Mr Chan. The plastic bag was my only luggage so I dutifully put it through the X-Ray machine as directed by the Airport security guard , lamentably my only reward for being a good citizen was irradiated fruit .
The Iguazu Falls National Park resides at the junction of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina, the main attraction being the Iguazu Falls . Taller than Niagara Falls and twice as wide, Iguazu Falls was short-listed as a candidate to be one of the new 7 wonders of Nature in 2009 . Indeed, the name Iguazu is derived from the indigenous Tupi-Guarani language meaning 'Great Waters'. The Park is home to a number of rare and endangered species of animals and is an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984 .
Saulo our Brazilian guide, told us the legend of Iguazu . The story goes that a Serpent God M'Boi fell in love with Naipi , a beautiful native girl, but she loathed him and tried to escape with her lover, Taroba, in a canoe. M'Boi was furious, he expanded his body to the size of the river , then slithered and squirmed to force the river to form new curves and the earth to split. The river spilled over the cracked earth, tossing Taruba out of the canoe onto the embankment. Naipi was about to smash into the ground below when M'Boi changed her into a large rock, so she couldn't run away. Taruba saw the transformation and was going to rush down to her when M'Boi turned him into a palm tree - forever rooted to the earth above the falls. This was M'Boi's way of revenge, separating the two lovers by an enormous waterfall, so they could see each other but never touch. To this day M'Boi is said to be still jealously watching the lovers from the deep waters of Devil's Throat, one of the most spectacular Falls in Iguazu. Although Naipi and Taruba can never be together, they manifest their love by forming a rainbow which starts from a palm tree on the Brazilian side of the falls and reaches over to the rock of Naipi in Argentina .
Looking at the awsome flow of waters , it is hard to believe there were at least 2 registered occasions ( 1934 and 1978) when the Iguazu Falls completely dried up . Saulo had pictures to prove it. Weather change and conservation was uppermost in Saulo's mind as his livelihood depended on the Falls. He was right to worry, for as recently as 2006 the Iguazu Falls dried up again for a short time when a severe drought hit South America .
The 2 days in Iguazu allowed time for the Airline to redeem itself, and after collecting our baggages we headed for El Calafate, a small town in Patagonia, to begin the hiking part of the trip.
The meeting with Claudio, a young college student who was to be our guide, started off badly.
Admittedly I'm one of the most pampered hikers in the world, having cut my teeth hiking in places like Nepal, Bolivia and Kenya, where I had porters carried not just my personal backpack, but my water and sometimes even my camera . I can carry no weight, because just hauling myself up the mountain is more than I can cope at times . Thus I was in hysterics when Claudio told us flat out there were no porters available . " But we booked specifically for porters beforehand from HK ! " I wailed. " There're no such porters in Patagonia, I've never heard of them. " I blew a fuse. " What do you mean there're no such porters ? " I shoved a receipt under his nose, "See, we already paid for them !" The Head Office confirmed the payment, and poor Claudio had to rush to procure the porters at the last minute .
After pulling a few strings, we got our porters . It was settled that a couple of sturdy fellows would carry the heavy loads and use short cuts to reach the camps ahead of us, while Jose, a city boy from Santiago who's barely out of high school, would carry my small backpack and walk close to me the whole way. Jose was on holiday visiting his brother in Calafate, and wanted to see Torres del Paine as he had never been.
My second sin was over-packing, and the bag I brought was too big for a man to carry. " Aren't we using llamas to transport the gears ?" " No, I'm the llama !" Claudio fished out a tattered smelly backpack of his. " This is for you to use .You can only take on the trek what can go into this bag , whatever else that can't be shoved in you'd have to leave behind ." Then he proceeded to throw out half of my clothing. " You don't need 10 pairs of socks !" He looked nonplussed. " But some of them are liners !" I protested ."You don't need all those earrings either ! " My guess was he's never met a Chinese woman before . My fellow country women had been known to scale a mountain in skirts and high heels .
The Torres del Paine National Park is in Chilean Patagonia, it was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 , Covering an area of 2,400 km2 , the paths in the Park are clearly marked and well maintained, and there are many refugios which provide shelter and basic services . Unfortunately its reputation as a trekkers mecca has resulted in crowded trails and unreasonable high prices in recent years .
We took the "W" route which is by far the most popular . It is named for the shape of the route on the map, and goes through the heart of the Park to the three most famous vistas – Torres del Paine, Los Cuernos, and Glaciar Grey. Each of the three shoots are usually done as a day trip.
The centerpiece of the park is the Cordillera del Paine Massif, a group of 3 giant granite towers overlooking a small lake of emerald green, high in the mountains. Most hikers opt for a day trip to see the towers , which was what we did .
The itinerary I got was a fairytale : " .....A GENTLE downhill leads to....... then walk a GENTLE slope along a river side....... then a final climb leads us to the Towers viewpoint. Estimated walking time 5 -7 hours round trip." I did not find the slopes gentle and the final climb turned out to be over a cascade of rocks and boulders the whole way up to the top. I was all done in. " What's the longest time on record for you to finish the trail with a client ?" I asked Claudio between puffs ." 9 hours 45minutes, that was with an elderly American couple." " Well, Claudio you're in luck," I patted him on the back " I'll break the record for you today ! Just for you ! "
The rooms in the refugios we stayed in all had several bunk beds, and always full. I am a very light sleeper ( bequeathment of years of hospital on-calls ) and dread snorers in dormitory-style lodgings, so I was pleasantly surprised there was not one snorer among all the immates, not even the big hefty Italian biker ! It was pretty good going until 3 a.m. one night when I was woken up by the guy sleeping in the bunk above me, giggling and gibbering in Spanish . I sat bolt upright in a fright before I realised he was sleep-talking !
The food in the refugios was atrocious, and meagre in quantity . One morning Claudio caught me scrutinizing the content of my bowl at breakfast . " I think I've been given a drop of scrambled egg " I told him pitifully. The meat was tough as leather and the bread crumbly and dry; my only solace was the Cerveza Austral Lager ( Patagonia beer brewed in Punta Arenas ) which came to be the mainstay of my diet in the mountains .
As always, beer makes me wildly brilliant . " I've solved the porter problem !" I announced out of the blue to my startled companions ." We can put up these huge balloons, attach the bags to them , and pull the strings along as we walk on, just like flying a kite " My mind was racing " And we can attach little motors to the backs of hikers and they'd be at the mountain top in a jiffy......."I had had enough of walking by this stage. " This balloon thing, I really don't know........" Claudio was being polite . " I guess you're right , " I crashed back down to earth " The sky will be filled with balloons and the bags will collide and split open, scattering underwear everywhere "
We experienced the ferocity of Patagonia weather at Glacier Grey. The wind whipped at me like a manic living thing, I had to walk half crouched , struggling not to be knocked over ; many times I was forced to a complete halt . " How much longer is it to the glacier ?" I asked Claudio. " About 2 hours ." " Your hour or my hour ?" I was getting smart . Then the sky opened up releasing sleet and hailstones , at which point I decided to turn back, leaving my hardy fellow trekers to soldier on. Claudio came with me ." You know what people say : Patagonia wind is the Big Wind you can see " I turned around and saw birds flying backwards and trees growing horizontally . " Now I know what the "W" really stands for, " shivering in my boots I had another epithany, " it's Windy, Wet and Wretched !" " But it could also be Wild, Whimsical and Wonderful !" Claudio evidently had deep feelings for Patagonia !
" Aren't you cold ?" All that Claudio had on was a T-shirt, a pair of knee- length pants and a windshield ." No, I love the cold !" Claudio said. " I'm part Indian ." Claudio was not boasting. When the first Europeans encountered the indigenous Indians they were astonished by their complete indifference to the bitter cold weather . They went about completely naked in the frigid cold and biting wind, swam in 48 degree F water, and either slept in the open or in simple wigwams, unclothed . A Chilean researcher claimed their average body temperature was warmer than a European's by at least one degree.
However, what I later learnt about the fate of the indigenous Indians after visiting Estancia Harberton and Estancia Viamonte broke my heart. These people experienced virtually every catastrophe that has beset similar groups throughout the world : victums of successive waves of sailors, whalers, sealers, miners, missionaries, sheep herders, soldiers and lumbermen , they were systematically massacred, poisoned and expropriated from their native soil , and some tribes are now extinct .
This is the story of the Fuegian Indians, the Yahgans and the Selk'nams (Onas).
Estancia Harberton was established in 1886 by the missionary pioneer Thomas Bridges (1842-1898) from England and is the oldest estancia in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. The missionaries including the South American Mission Society (SAMS, Church of England ), proposed to insure the well-being of the natives but instead exploited them as laborers. In 1886 Bridges was granted 24 miles of waterfront, all the land on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego worth farming and all the land traditionally occupied by the native Yahgans ( meaning " human beings " in their language ) by the Argentine government, on the assumption that he would use it to improve the condition of the Yahgans . Instead he set up his own ranch, enclosed his pastures with fences, and allowed no one to hunt or gather along the coastline without his permission, and made a huge fortune . He established his own colony of Yahgan workers, putting the once self-sufficient hunter-gatherers to toil on the land of their ancesters where they once roamed free .
In 1892 Bridges wrote : "Since 1886 I have been settled with my family in Tierra del Fuego as a colonist among the natives and dependent chiefly on their labour, and we have done very well.....We find the natives work well and happily when assured of adequate reward. They shear our sheep, make fences, saw out boards and planks of all kinds, work well with the pick and spade, are good boatmen and pleasant companions. We find their labour profitable, more so I think than we should find that of any imported labour. "
For all their hard work, the Yahgans were not paid wages as was the missionary custom , instead they were given food for themselves, but not always their families. Traditional way of life was denigrated at every turn. The Yahgan nakedness offended the sense of modesty of the Christians and they were put into clothes which promptly made them sick. The Yahgans traditionally lived by the sea, and the water and rain on the naked Yahgans kept them naturally hygiene, while the fire at their camp dry them out quickly and kept them warm; but the humidity of the clothes and the dirt which was difficult to clean led to flu and diseases ; futhermore they were forced to leave their shelter that nature cleaned, and made to live in houses where dirt constantly accumulated. The scarcity of their natural diet of seal and guanaco which were overhunted by the conquistadors also predisposed them to diseases . The Yahgans perished rapidly .
The Onas lived throughout the interior of Tierra del Fuego .The name Tierra del Fuego literally means " land of fire " , supposedly came about because the early European explorers saw the countless columns of smoke from the Ona bonfires . The Onas lived in nomadic tradition, the main source of food was guanaco, supplemented by other small rodents. After the Westerners came they penetrated Ona territory, killing local animals and took over land to build large estancias for sheep herding. Animal life on the island became scarce , and the Onas, who had no understanding of private property, hunted sheep for food. The ranchers retaliated by paying bounties for dead Onas . In 1878 General Roca, the minister of war in Argentina,waged an ethnic cleansing crusade to rid Patagonia of Indians . Soldiers were rewarded for each pair of testicles they brought back from the Indian hunts. This gave impetus to a British ship to set up a firing squad and gunned down an entire Ona community a few years later, to clear the way in their quest for gold . The number of the Ona population dropped like a stone.
Estancia Viamonte was founded in 1902 at the request of the Ona Indians, who came to Lucas Bridges , son of Thomas Bridges, for shelter from the advancing world.The family stroved to help , but it was a matter of "too little, too late" . In 1974, only 100 years after the first European settlement was established on Tierra del Fuego, Angela Loij, the last full blooded Ona died . The last Yahgan man ,Felipe, passed in 1976 . Both the Yahgan and Ona civilization have been erased from the face of the earth.
The European superiority and racism lied behind the rationale of genocide : in making the Indians sub-human it created a divide between " the civilized us " and " the savage them ", and was thought enough to justify the unjustifiable . Charles Darwin was adamant the Indians were the least civilized race on earth and were cannibals; Voltaire thought the Indians were lazy and stupid ; Bacon asserted Indians were degraded humans, while Hegel scorned their physical and spiritual incapacity . Indians were taken to Buenos Aires and to Europe where they were exhibited in cages, like animals. Sadly, such ideology and racism used to justify the exploitation of the natives during the times of the Spanish colonialism continues today , more refined and discreet, but just as effective and cruel. From the time of the conquest to the present day, the indigenous have been, and continue to be, marginalised and persecuted by the mainstream European monetary culture , and during times of economic hardship, they are always the exploited of the exploited.
Were the Yahgans and Onas savages as they were portraited ?
Thomas Bridges documented what he could of the Yahgan language and found it had a larger vocabulary than the English language . Both Yahgans and Onas had elaborate rituals that they live by, particularly concerning births and burials , and ceremonial initiation rites for both boys and girls ; while they did not believe in a Supreme Deity, they had their own story of creation and good and evil spirits that lived among the tribe. The Onas impersonated the spirits in their story- telling and were perhaps the only Amerindian nation to have a theater tradition . All Yahgans were named after the place they were born, the place that welcomed them to the world . The geographical name is perhaps the most indicative of their relationship with the land, no indigenous Indian has any concept of ownership but live in symbiosis with his environment . As one Mapuche Indian put it as he surveyed the land fenced off by a big foreign coporate landlord, the aftermath of a spate of landgrap in Patagonia : "Is the snow private ? Is the wind, the river private ? We don't want to own the land, we just want to live as a community in our territory. " In the clashes of cultures it is inevitable the more peremptory hegemonical culture would destroy that which is different .
Back on the trail, at just about the time I succeeded in training Claudio to respond with: " It is exactly all my fault ! " to my every complaint, which were many : the cold, the rain, the food, the hike, the loss of one of my earrings............. it was the end of the hiking trip and Claudio was poised for his revenge. He wanted back his backpack. " How am I going to carry all my stuff back to Argentina ?" Claudio was all grins. " I've for you a black garbage bag to hold your stuff in!" This was probably the happiest moment for him in the whole trip, and the reason why I re-emerged in Argentina a geniune bag-lady !
The Perito Moreno Glacier was the next stop. Located in the Los Glaciares National Park, it is less than two hours by bus from El Calafate and was named after the explorer Francisco Moreno . Due to its accessibility, it is one of the most important tourist attractions in the Argentine Patagonia. The terminus of the Perito Moreno Glacier is 5 kilometres wide, with an average height of 74 m above the surface of the water of Lake Argentino . It has a total ice depth of 170 metres . We walked the walking circuit which allows both faces, and the surface of the glacier to be seen, and witnessed the devastating effect of global warming as chunks of the glacier broke off to fall into the sea every 10-15 minutes for the whole 2 hours we were there .We finished the tour with a bottle of wine in the Visitor Centre , then got ready to fly to Ushuaia, and from there onto the Antartica .
I've always found travelling in South America interesting, and this trip did not disappoint. I've secured the receipe for Pisco Sour, tasted the Calafate berries in the wild, learnt to say "Shit " in classical Spanish, colloquial Chilean, and colloquial Chilean Claudio style . The only thing left to say has to be the very first line of Spanish I ever learnt : " Hasta la vista !" Movies can be very educational !