December 25, 2004

another one bites the dust

northern patagonia

One more year almost down the hatch. How are my friends out there?Somewhere I know there is winter, there are naked trees and frozen lakes, new babies, work, commutes, but so far away I can barely imagine any of it.

It doesn't feel much like Christmas with the hortensias in bloom, no jingles or pine trees in sight, and (in lieu of a turkey dinner) a lamb bbq this afternoon. American consumer madness has begun to make its way down here, but if you stay clear of the mall (one town over) there is not much in the way of frenzy. Me, I spent my extra dollars on phone cards. thank god I am not licking envelopes, but in the spirit of it all I am sending a Christmas missive of my own.

I have had a fortunate year and feel the need to celebrate a little that I remain in one piece. I plan to stay til the american summer. The plan is to travel during this excellent summer weather and write in the chilly months afterward. I have gained momentum with my project, recovered my ribs and lung capacity, become known in the mountains where I work, and rented a sweet little cottage (with spare bedroom for GUESTS) to make it all worthwhile.

I just returned from another trip to Patagonia for research. This time I went with an American photographer. We took a trip up to a glacier with a local guide, Lolo. He built the trail he built with his own hands, it's worthy of any in Rocky Mt. National park, with carpeted forests of moss and giant southern beech, thick sections of bamboo, a rushing clear river and southern beech. To give you an idea, the forests have the look of Japanese triptych, with whimsical fanning branches.

We never made the glacier. Snow fell both days we camped above treeline. My boots fell in the fire and suffered 3rd degree burns, as a result they shrunk, massacred my ankles on the hike out, then needed emergency "surgery" (via penknife) to refit. I am officially Bad Luck for anyone I travel with. We were able to have a good look around though, and ran into a wild huemul (a deer, endangered species) and a condor. We climbed a nearby ridge and saw the ripple of valleys in the distance, their blue-green snaking rivers and vast expanses of nothing.

People are the best part of these trips. Lolo lives with his sister and elderly parents in an elfin cabin visited by almost no one, it is so remote. His mother Odelia, age 85, puts on stacks of jewlery and her best dress for a visit, then sits and holds your hand. Guests are so scarce in these areas that hosts can tell you stories of ten years worth of visits-the time the German came and we traded chocolate bars and hard salamis for hand knit slippers and quartz crystals. My visit will be the story of "the time we installed the first shower." It was in a stall outside, and functioned with a bucket and very little water pressure. To shampoo my hair I had to bend over. I am sure they'll work out the kinks.

On my last visit I ran into a local who almost fell off his horse giving me the customary kiss hello. He was known as rarely sober. During my stay he turned up missing--his horse saddled and trapped on a raft mid-river (with a pulley used to cross the Puelo, a wide river with heavy current). They sent out divers and organized a search but have decided he has drowned. He is the most recent in a series of drownings, almost every family has lost someone, every crossing has a cross and plastic flowers in rememberance.

With the coming of the first road to the region this place is undergoing massive change. Seeing it first hand, I can imagine what the world was like for our parents or grandparents once and why they so mourn the changes. Every time I return, the footpaths I once walked into the mountains have become gaping sores of gravel (see pics combo and combo 2--taken of the same hillside 6 months apart). With the sense of isolation and community changing in great strides I have plenty of work left to do and will do my best to figure out what it means and to put it into words.

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