In Patagonia

Protest on the streets of Pucon

MY A-Level English reading list featured a lot of the usual suspects – Shakespeare, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and some Philip Larkin poetry we perhaps did not take as seriously as we should have done.

Somehow managed to cobble together a decent grade without reading all the books in full – could not begin to tell you anything about Lawrence’s The Lost Girl – but one more modern addition to the list had me hooked.

Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill, the tale of twins spending their entire lives together on a Welsh hill farm through much of the 20th century, was devoured and pretty much guaranteed to be my choice of essay come exam time (although had some pretty exhaustive answers worked out for Hamlet and Passage to India which suited most questions).

And while ignoring the stuff which would have come in handy to pass exams, went searching out more of Chatwin’s work.

Don’t try this at home kids

Which took me to his travel book In Patagonia.

Sorry to say, remember very little about it except its unusual structure – a series of sections, some just a single paragraph – and could not find my copy when moving out of my flat before this trip.

But it did plant Patagonia in my head as a place that needed visiting.

And having spent most of the last fortnight heading south through its amazing landscape spanning the Chilean and Argentinian borders which we have been criss-crossing, it begs the question of how it took me so long to get here.

It is increasingly remote (averaging two people per square kilometre across the southern extremes of the continent) and wild as we have battled bouts of torrential rain and cold, but it is spectacularly beautiful.

The sheer distances involved have meant some long drive days, often on some less than user-friendly roads which at least have served to shake us awake to savour the extraordinary scenery passing by the truck windows.

Every corner seems to open up another remarkable view of snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, lakes and rivers while the most recent border crossing carried us back into Argentina and an instant change to an arid, rocky desert landscape. 

The dominating feature looms over Pucon. And an interloper

At least it was dry.

Well, it was arid right up until we stumbled across another vivid blue lake, complete with icebergs – the source of which is next on our places to visit – and we found ourselves face to face with more towering mountains above the town of El Chalten which has seen us exploring its trails, bars and waffle houses.

But that’s what’s happening now. What have we been up to since dodging the anti-government protests in Santiago?

Eyes cleared from tear gas and opened to the extent of unrest which has left huge scars on the Chilean capital – and would continue to pop up as we retreated to the countryside – we got out of town early in the morning, the truck rather fuller with the arrival of five new inhabitants.

Their first experience of truck life was one of the longest drive days to date, albeit on some of the smoothest roads as we headed to the lakeside town of Pucon.

Anyone not paying attention could easily have awoken from a nap to think we had emerged in Switzerland, courtesy of the alpine scenery and the type of tidy little town you would expect to find in ski resorts. Sort of a smaller version of Banff in Canada.

The one thing you could not miss – bar the ice cream parlours and cake shops lining the main street as it swept away from the lake near our campsite – was the snow-capped volcano looming over us which meant various photo stops for anyone out hunting for that night’s dinner.

Cheese, wine and steak – the South American diet

A group of us got as far as the supermarket, loading up on wine, cheese and probably a bit too much meat – we ended up finishing it for breakfast – for an impromptu barbecue back at camp.

The onset of the cold which had been threatening for a few days prevented me from spending the next morning throwing myself down rapids on a body board and an evening hot springs visit, but was not enough to stop a trip into town which yielded cake, hot chocolate, ice cream and a pair of Homer Simpson Havaianas which just refused to stay on the shelf.

The cold did not stop me joining the hike up the volcano the next morning. A decision based on common sense ruled that one out, although those who made the journey and slid back down through the snow came back glowing. 

Literally in many cases, courtesy of a few missed patches with the sun screen.

Not that it looked like the sun was going to be a problem from our perspective back in town with the entire volcano blanketed in cloud and invisible from down below.

On a clear day…

Right up until we wandered into a coffee shop, came out again half an hour later and it was bathed in clear blue sky.

Not that we were looking too closely, our attention taken by what was going on at ground level as the protests which had been such a key part of our Santiago stay crossed our path again.

This one was on a slightly different level.

The march of maybe 900-1,000 people through the main street, stopping outside the municipal offices for 10 minutes before heading off on its merry way, was more akin to a carnival than the running battles of the capital.

There was little shouting or signs of trouble – police either applauded or videoed, filming me at one point, but kept their distance as the crowd kept up a relentless, catchy beat on whatever they could find to hit.

It made for an interesting way to while away some time following the crowds.

They have a series of demands but the uniting call seems to be Dignidad Para Todos – Dignity For All. Which seems a fair request.

They were back in the evening, blocking the junction with the main road near camp. We wandered up and into the crowds for a closer look as they let cars through if the driver got out and danced for them.

And who can fail to appreciate that as a way of solving unrest?

Especially in countryside this beautiful.

The evening shift takes over the protest


Welcome to Chile

HAVE spent many evenings in bars over the years, a fair few of which have ended in bizarre circumstances and tears.

The details of many of those nights remain hazy – partly because they are, partly to protect the innocent. And the quite possibly guilty.

But our first evening in Santiago produced a fresh interruption to an evening’s drinking.

We were showered, freshly laundered, enjoying a few beers and welcoming new arrivals – who officially join the truck tomorrow as we bid farewell to two existing truck mates, part of the reason we headed in to a troubled city – as we waited for the evening’s barbecue.

It was all going so well, considering we were pretty much confined to barracks by the escalating anti-government protests on the streets around our hostel.

And then there was a thud on the roof above the bar.

Clearly visible through the open skylight was a streaming canister of tear gas.

Our hostel the morning after

Like to think it was the journalist in me that opted not to run but head towards the scene for a closer look, but not sure any of us fully realised the extent of what was going on.

Right up until the point we were ushered out of the bar to another part of the hostel and we were introduced to the effects of tear gas.

It is another experience ticked off the list and not one that will be trying to recreate anytime soon.

Basically, imagine cutting onions and, just to make sure you felt the full impact, rubbing them in your eyes. All while a nasty taste develops at the back of your throat.

And up your nose. While your eyes burn.

Thankfully, our exposure was minimal and with hostel staff on hand to spray something helpful on the affected areas, the effects did not last long – although think it was more behind the discomfort in my eyes the next morning than anything drank the night before – and we were soon getting on with the evening’s festivities.

The entrance to the subway at Plaza Italia, the heart of the protests

But it was a clear reminder we are in a city and country that has become a powder keg over the last month since a group of secondary school pupils began a fare evasion campaign against proposed price rises on the subway system.

That campaign – and the subsequent crackdown by the authorities – sparked a programme of civil unrest which has seen subway stations burned down or badly damaged and the protests spread to wider grievances against the government and President Sebastian Pinera.

Pinera has declared a state of emergency but the protests show little sign in subsiding and neither does the response to them.

Last night’s protest, which is all over Chilean CNN on the TV behind me and reports say involved up to 1.5million people in the Plaza Italia a few blocks from us, was described as largely peaceful.

That’s largely peaceful as in a university building a couple of hundred yards from us burning throughout the night, the church over the road being looted and the streets being littered with rubble and graffiti.

With the odd stray tear gas canister from the police thrown in.

We checked out the damage the morning after as the aftermath of the protest became a tourist attraction.

All very sad as you can see the skeleton of a very attractive city. Those of our group who have been here before spoke highly of the place and it does look pretty once you look beyond the damage.

Chile is no stranger to internal issues with the military dictatorship under Augustin Pinochet which ran the country for much of my youth from 1973 until 1990.

Honouring the disappeared

Sorry to confess, bar a couple of songs by Billy Bragg and U2, Pinochet’s eventual house arrest and lack of trial in Britain – and a former colleague’s mix-up with former Argentina scrum-half Agustin Pichot in a match report – plus tales of people disappearing and some pretty awful press collaboration with the ruling Junta, cannot claim to know too much about it.

Which is why this morning’s visit, prior to wandering around to view last night’s fallout, to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights to colour in some of the gaps was very welcome.

Not easy, certainly uncomfortable but very informative.

Have been to a few museums and memorials of difficult history – Auschwitz, Rwanda, Ground Zero, the Jewish Uprising Museum in Warsaw – and always come out with head spinning and trying to process what we have seen.

They are always tough going, but recommend them for anyone travelling to understand the world they are heading through.

Beyond the undoubted horrors of the dictatorship – topped, like those previous examples, by the powerful wall of pictures of the dead and disappeared which forms the centrepiece of the exhibits – two major issues came to the fore as relevant to today.

First was the way the press backed the Junta with false stories and propaganda to excuse their actions (before an independent, radical press played a key role in the resistance).

The road from the border

Inexcusable and no wonder my profession struggles with its reputation.

But also a signal to the dangers of certain powerful figures decrying anything they do not like in the media as fake news. Asking the awkward question is journalism, anything else is just PR and propaganda (to misquote Orwell).

And the tale of the opposition to the regime and fight to find out what happened to the disappeared echoes throughout the protests we have seen close up – no wonder people feel so strongly about the power of public opinion and their right to express it.

We can only hope they do not have to come close to the depths of those dark years before finding resolutions which will enable this city to get back on its feet.

The trouble has spread throughout the country, but there was little sign on the road to Santiago – which we were still unsure about taking a few days ago – which took us from Mendoza across a high pass through the Chilean border via a spectacular road down a ribbon of hairpin bends.

Soccer Dog

Sort of a South American Alpe d’Huez.

Our three days camping in Mendoza, reached by a bush camp which saw our team win the truck quiz, was fairly relaxed with a fair amount of wine and steak – normal service was resumed – both around the campsite with a footballing Labrador and on a day in town which started as a tasting and ended with rather more than a taste.

And we got clean – both us, our clothes after a couple of weeks without laundry that left several of us rationing underwear and Spongebob, a group effort taking apart and tackling every part of the truck.

All to head into the issues of Santiago from where we head off to the relative peace of the countryside.