I left Paraguay on a bright morning, the last in a series of bright mornings. Summer was coming. The mangos were ripening and Asuncion was getting warmer. The warm weather, after a spell of rain, brought on a kind of frenetic activity. The city was more awake. The cars sped by faster. The colorful birds in the park were chirping louder under riotous clusters of vines and torn banana leaves. The flowers were blooming brighter. Passion flowers strung over walls like Christmas tree lights and huge clusters of bougainvillea spilled out over the streets.
The apartment was empty; we had either sold or given everything away the day before and the white walls of the place mocked the life we had created there as something unsustainable. The chipa vendor drove past in his car with his loud speakers announcing his product and the sound filled the empty rooms with permanence. Here was a feature of Asuncion that would last long after my own contribution had faded.
My phone wouldn’t work, so I made a run down to the taxi stand. The driver brought me back to the apartment one last time to pick up Gina who was waiting at the curb with the bags and a patient expression. Driving through traffic on Esubio Ayala Avenue, I talked to the driver about the last two years. I told him I’d worked all over the country. I told him about the little Guarani I knew. I told him about some of the classes I’d taught and listened to him talk about the life of a taxi driver in a city that knows little tourism, where the streets are too narrow for the volume of traffic and where there are no traffic lights or stop signs at most intersections. But these things had become normal for us and we didn’t bother to mention them. Rather we talked about the details of our lives and the weather. I watched the rugged avenue of car repair stalls and shattered, oil-stained sidewalks spin away as we made our way to the bus terminal.
After waiting in vain many times for buses that were cancelled or hours late, I was happy to see ours pull into the station on time. We boarded and watched in awe as the city’s Carmelitas neighborhood drifted under our windows for the last time. The branches on the lapacho or teju trees slapped at the bus’s extra high roof. The street widened to ruta 9 and we passed the necropolis of unfinished and abandoned apartment blocks that marks Asuncion’s boundary with Loma Pyta. Next to this ghostly city of open window frames and grass-covered streets, the Mariano Shopping Mall stood, flashing its McDonald’s sign like a counter argument. In minutes, we were over the Remanso Bridge and out of Asuncion. Down the river, the city stood like a mirage in the heat haze of the afternoon for a moment and was gone, covered by the jungle-like copse of the Chaco as we came down on the other side of the bridge. In a few minutes, we were at the Argentine border and it was like Paraguay hadn’t even been just past the Parana River. It was just northern Argentina, rolling up from its pampas to meet Brazil and the rest of the humid, river-sundered continent.
At night, we crossed the Argentine Chaco, until it grew blanched and salty and lifted up into the Atacama Desert where we crossed into Chile and the town of San Pedro and flung our tent down for the first time. Returning from our desert excursions only to cook food and talk about the kindness of the local dogs, who are over-eager to be employed as guides, or at least protectors. One of whom was a Labrador with close-set eyes and an ever-wagging tail who ran behind our bikes so far into the salt desert we had to flag down a car to take him back to the shade and water of San Pedro when he started showing signs of exhaustion.
In San Pedro, we also met Sergio, who drove us out to see the flashing desert stars and the canyons surrounding the town. He was upset that we weren’t able to stay longer, but understood when we told him we had saved our time for Patagonia. “Those people are ridiculously hospitable down there,” he told us while cooking us dinner and giving us 5 dollar bottles of high-end spring water from his restaurant. It seemed if Patagonians were to be more hospitable than this man, we would be lucky to make it out without gaining a few pounds.
From San Pedro we continued down to La Caldera, chosen as the next best thing to the Parque Pan de Azucar, which Sergio had told us had been closed by landslides. We got off the bus in the grey early morning that comes to beach towns, the sand and salt and sound of gulls in the air. The wood on the homes was all weathered and grey. The dogs smelled like dead fish and followed us down the empty sidewalks. There were no window lights. The town looked empty save for the occasional sputtering neon sign.
We went down to the water to find a place to stay. As we passed a gas station, a man in a small bus called out “hey, are you looking for a hotel?” We told Mario (as it turned out his name was) that we were looking for a hostel. He told us were to find one and then added that he left from this place at this time every morning for the Pan de Azucar Park. “It’s not closed?” we asked, confused. “No, it’s not closed,” he assured us and we slung our bags down and climbed onto his little bus, leaving our dog pack escort smelling each other in the pre-dawn gas station parking lot.
There are a lot of small fishing villages outside of La Caldera and we stopped at most of them to pick up kids bound for school in the next town of Chañaral. While Gina and I dosed, the kids got on their school bus, glanced at the two foreigners and their giant bags, shrugged and went to sit at the back of the bus. Drifting in and out of sleep, I couldn’t help but to wonder how I would take it if one morning there had been an aged and bearded man sleeping on massive backpack seated in the front or my school bus, but these kids didn’t seem to mind and when we let them off, they said goodbye to us like we were a normal fixture in their lives.
We didn’t have water or enough food for camping, so Mario took me to the grocery store. As I shopped, he followed me around making suggestions. Saying things like “that’s not going to be enough to drink,” and “don’t forget to get plenty of beer!” When he saw me pick up a 6-liter bottle of water he smiled and said “good idea,” like he as waiting to see if I would remember to bring water to the desert.
Both Sergio and Mario and been right. Pan de Azucar was closed and it wasn’t. There was no closed gate, no park ranger turning back cars, but the cabanas and huts were all empty. After the landslide that had closed off a lot of this area, everything looked abandoned. Windows were glazed over, announcements flapped dryly in the wind and the sand was drifting over the parking lot we pulled into. A dog, who may have eaten some bad algae, saw us and tried to stand up, flopped over and then tried again. Mario told us that he’d be coming back the next day at 6 pm. We thanked him and sleepily stepped down from the bus and pitched our tent on the beach. Some fishing boats bobbed in the bay and some other campers greeted us and told us they’d been here three days and we were the first people they’d seen apart from the fishermen. The sick dog tried to stand up again and failed, falling back over into the sand.
In the empty park, we went swimming in the frigid waters, inspected tide pools, caught massive red-purple crabs and watched them flail around, trying to pinch something and we climbed up the rocky outcroppings to talk about the ocean, which I hadn’t seen in years. The Pacific, even down here. The same ocean north in Lima, lapping against Miraflores in the fog, in Panama City sloshing the wrong way through the Canal and in San Francisco cresting and falling under the bridge, drying on the shores of Angel Island. The gargantuan properties of the ocean were indicated by signs on the beaches which warned against swimming and the heavy pull of the receding tides on my ankles, cautioned me from going in any further than the shallows where I fell into the waves like the sick dog struggling to stand on the beach.
Camping on the beach makes everything wet. I woke the next morning damp and sand-matted and made coffee on the camp stove, holding my hands over the blue flame. There were no bathrooms and no trees and we both wandered far away into the foggy morning before coming back to the camp and washing our hands in the ocean. As our water reserves dropped, it occurred to me that if Mario didn’t come back in the evening, I had no idea how we would get out of the park that we were miles into. To take my mind off this, I suggested a walk and we walked far out onto the rocky outcroppings where the long strands of seaweed tangled against the swollen remnants of fishing boats and dead urchins.
At 6:30, Mario’s bus drove back into the camping area, we brought our large bags back onto his bus and it was like we had never been there. The fishing boats bobbed in the waves out on the bay and the fog slid back over the tops of the cliffs dampening the succulent plants that grew there, tenaciously in the sand.
We took a series of buses down into Santiago and, after camping for a week, relaxed in the city for a while before taking a flight to Punta Arenas in Patagonia.
I knew that Torres del Paine was a fantastic draw for tourists, but I hadn’t expected the crowds that
began the moment we disembarked at the tiny Punta Arenas airport. As most of the people headed to the park were younger, almost no one seemed to have a plan. We all stood on the curb of the airport, waiting for a shuttle to come, waving frantically at the buses that passed by without even slowing. As the hour grew later, the crowd grew as more flights came in but no one procured a way out of the airport. When a small van-sized shuttle pulled up before the backpacked mass, people ran and through their bags quickly into the open trunk to reserve a place. We watched all this from far away, resigning ourselves to wait until the crowds thinned out before trying to get on anything.
Once we left the airport, we went to the Punta Arenas bus station to take a bus to Puerto Natales, which was what everyone else was doing. The bus station was packed full of the same people who had all been at the airport. We managed to wrangle the last two seats on the next bus set to depart and when we arrived at Puerto Natales, the backpackers scattered in all directions through the town, looking for accommodations and camping supplies. Within a day we were all in the Torres del Paine Park with our camping gear and dehydrated food.
Gina and I camped for seven days in the park, waking up every morning to hike to the next camp site. Some of our hikes were short, less than five hours. Others were long, over eleven hours. The problem with camping in Patagonia, even in the summer, is that it is cold. Once we stopped moving, the cold settled into our bones and the only thing to do was to climb into our sleeping bags. Every night we were in the park, we went to sleep before it was dark, but we were only a few thousand kilometers from Antarctica at the summer solstice and the sun didn’t set until around 10:30. Even after midnight, deep twilight blue currents still ran through the sky making it difficult to discern morning from evening and we woke early most days to the sun already full in the sky and though it was bright, the wind often carried away much of the warmth, making walking imperative to regenerate heat after a brisk morning coffee.
We climbed up in the park and soon the misting rains turned to snow which pecked at the verdant life of the park with the sound of something effervescing and at times it seemed the snow was not falling down but that we were rising through the trees, up to the snow white peaks above the glacial lagoons and the foraging grey foxes.
We came out of the forest onto the mountains on the third day and stumbled through snow-covered scree and frozen mud. Under a canopy of thin, leafless trees, we set up camp, continually brushing the snow off our tent throughout the night, kicking our feet back and forth in our sleeping bags to keep the blood flowing through our cold extremities. At dawn, I forced myself from the warmth of my sleeping bag into the cold damp of the tent. Lifting the flap, I saw how we had been buried in snow. The white forest floor rose and fell in peaks where tents had been set up the evening before. I packed up the tent, knocking off the snow with frozen hands and we made for the John Gardner Pass.
The snow had erased all signs of the trail and we bumbled through waist-high drifts looking for the orange markers. When we climbed above the tree line, there was no trail, only a white mountain ahead of us that we had to cross to come down into the forests nurtured by the snow melt on the other side.
We walked in a line, buffeted by wind and snow, stepping over frozen rivulets where streams of water still ran just beneath the ice. We hoisted ourselves onto rocky outcroppings and stepped down into the tunneled footprints of those climbing just ahead of us. At the top of the pass, the wind was calm and Glacier Grey fanned out like a spectral field before us. A blue like that of an eye with a cataract glowed in the fields of ice beneath our feet. The sepulchral light rose into the sky like a graveyard spilling its immortal contents into the heavens. Between the ice crags, the light was turquoise, at the bottom, where it mixed with the earth, it was cerulean and where it met the snows and opened to the sky it was teal-white, like the faint blue of milk riven with chemicals; titanium white.
In the afternoon, we came down over the pass into temperate rain forest. The thunder of the breaking glacier followed us down the mountain and the streams of melt water soaked into the loamy soil and carried little rocks down the hill side. In places, the water collected in crystal pools, reflecting back the immensities of green and blue that surrounded them. The beauty of this Magellanic forest was such that I continually wanted to lie down among the ferns and be forgotten by the rest of the world, but the cold was such that we kept walking, and by the end of the day, we had walked nearly 13 hours. For the first night since we had begun camping, I slept until dawn.
When we came out of the park, we went back to Puerto Natales to pass a day before going down to Tierra del Fuego. In Puerto Natales, we walked around in the evening, searching for the town that lay beneath the touristy veneer, the town on the Ultima Esperanza Sound patched together with corrugated metal, crackling paint, car parts, dog fur and rampant flower gardens spilling out of their wooden fences and running down the grey, windy streets in purple and red streaks.
One night we passed Central Restaurant. The letters that made up the sign were hanging from skewed angles. The place looked half-abandoned, but the light and warmth escaping from inside proclaimed that it was open, at least marginally.
Inside there were a few small tables with institutional chairs pushed up against their red and white checked tablecloths. A menu on the wall announced the five or six dishes that could be purchased plus beer and wine. A high bar blocked the way back into the kitchen supporting a cash register and the restaurant’s proprietress who leaned against it. Seated next to the bar was a middle-aged man drinking a glass full of warm white wine. A radio speaker hanging up in the corner of the room played top 40 songs neutralized by a blanket of static.
We ordered beers and sat down next to the heater, listening to the crisped songs issuing from the radio and the slow talk of the proprietress and her customer. As if waiting for us to acclimatize to this oasis of quiet no one spoke to us until we had finished sipping our first beers and ordered another round. Then slowly, we were invited to join the conversation at the bar. We talked about Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, but we also talked about our families and the places we had come from, not only the US, but also Paraguay and, 1,000s of kilometers away, Asuncion, back beyond the tangled Argentine border at Clorinda and the Remanso Bridge back to where I had passed the last two years listening to green parrots squawk from the shaggy branches of mango and avocado trees. I thought of the drone of unmuffled motorcycles and the electric call of the man who passed through the neighborhood nearly every day offering to buy used batteries and scrap metal, the rasp of his voice resembling the galvanized things he wished to buy. I heard the sound of the number 6 collectivo trundling up our street in its heavy desiel woosh. Here in this impossibly cold summer evening, the near-tropical warmth of Asuncion was behind me. I thought about the old apartment, probably still standing empty, filled with our memories and the expectations of these previously unknown places.
I declined to order another beer and walked back out into the grey evening streets, the wind blowing down from the mountains, crowning the town and the end of the continent.