Saturday, January 29, 2011

Chaiten: Part 2

By Zach W. Watson

The next day we awoke to sunshine. The ominous volcano smoked behind the city.
La Jefa told us about the house of the German, a beautiful old house, the kind you take your shoes off before entering. It was completely split in two and remained in the rubble somewhere along the river that now split the city into two.

CNN described Chaiten around the time of the eruption as a giant ashtray. This was an accurate description. Three years later, ash still piled up on the banks of the road. A playground lay buried under the ash, the slide never reaching the ground.

We climbed into the second story of a house with no roof that now sat at ground level due to the height of the reservoir of ash. Alex sat on the bed, still made with sheets, and Mike took a picture. The frame of the house still remained erect, along with a triangular wall with a single window.

The next house, I sat on my knees and peered through the top half of an opened window. The living room was filled with ash that raised the old furniture nearly to the roof, with arm rests and end tables barely peaking out.

These were people’s homes, people’s couches, people’s knives and forks, people’s broken windows, left to disintegrate, abandoned but not forgotten. The city waited, as a constant reminder, for the next eruption. As much as the people wanted to rebuild their city, on their own without help from their government, it could be destroyed again.

The government has good reason to resist the funding of reconstruction. The volcano still smokes, and just recently, last February, seismic activity in the area warned of another eruption.

As long as the people remained and had such a strong resolve, they will live there solely, and against better judgment, because it was their home. The government has a responsibility to its people. Maybe the government shouldn’t rebuild the houses and the stores, if the people want to live there, knowing that their lives might be destroyed again, they can rebuild the city. But it’s a governmental duty to provide water and electricity to its people, which Chaiten has been without for three years.

They can reinforce the dam to protect their interests, but they can’t provide basic utilities. This was one of the few places I have been in all of South America that doesn’t have utilities, and for a country as advanced as Chile with means to help, it was a shame to see these people struggling as they did.

We found the German house along the orange, iron-rich river. The second floor stood, mostly intact, supported by a wall, above nothing but a colorful mosaic sitting above a rusting kitchen sink. The house leaned on the single wall, making it weak and ready to collapse at any moment.

I saw in the distance an orange roof surrounded by razor wire. It was the detention center. We snuck in through an open window, climbing onto an unsteady desk. An abandoned cup of mate sat on top of the file cabinet that held all the information on the inmates, and above it, plastered to the wall, the likeness of Michelle Bachelor Jeria, President of Chile, presiding over the scattered papers, the lifeless computer on the rotting wood desk, the myriad of personal property left all over the jail and the rest of unlit Chaiten.

The rest of the jail was in the same state. We moved onto the school.
We entered the gymnasium. Tiles scattered on top of the dirt floor. Dark and rusting, the aluminum roof creaked in the wind. In the corner on a wall, dark red enamel letters read: “Chaiten no Morira.”

The survival of the municipality has nothing to do with the people’s resolve or governmental aid, but whether that bitch they called Volcano Chaiten will spew ash, rocks and molten lava again.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chaiten: Part 1

Zach W. Watson

We had no idea what lie, secretly, under the clouds when we arrived in Chaiten. We learned, on our ferry through the fjords and bays from Hornopiren, that three years earlier the town of Chaiten was destroyed by a volcano. That was all we knew.

We could make out grey roads and wet eaves through the beads of water on the windows but nothing more. The rain came down hard, and we needed booze if we were going to make it through what seemed to be a possible wet night of camping.

We pulled up to a small store, the only open store in town, and were greeted to the sounds of a loud diesel generator and a sweet store owner named Ana, affectionately referred to by her young female employees as La Jefa.

It turned out La Jefa had a vacant house with no furniture, which fit nine gringo bodies. She invited us to sleep there and then invited us to cook inside her house, a room behind her store with a bed, a four burner stove, an oven and a wood dining room table. Her previous home, which she proudly referred to as her home, was destroyed during the eruption.

We settled in. Mike stirred our sausage-Bolognese sauce, as Ana showed Alaena, Ben and I pictures from when the volcano erupted. The ash in the air, that day in April, 2008, slowly moved its way down to the quaint little tourist town, covering the town in a layer of ash.

Ana, her employees and the gypsies ate in her tiny little apartment/house, exchanging jokes. Ben told all of the girls that worked for Ana that he and Mike were gay together. Matthias then complained to our new friends about Mike’s cooking, which everyone enjoyed, and we all drowned ourselves with wine except for Ana, who didn’t drink, only chain smoked cigarettes.

The townspeople urged us to go to the disco in town, where they all worked and La Jefa owned.

Why would a small town, recently destroyed, in the middle of nowhere, have a disco? I thought. We all thought. But they did have a disco, and it was no joke.

It stood as the link to the old town, when life was lived and not struggled for. The disco was a place where the inhabitants could forget about their ruined houses and ruined schools and a beacon symbolizing a life that can still be lived and a fun that can still be had despite their unfortunate situation. Hope was not lost in Chaiten. It may be dim, but those burning strobes of the Mega Disco can be seen illuminating the sexy moves of its inhabitants on a Saturday night. If they abandoned the disco, a retreat, a symbolic beacon, they would be abandoning their struggle to remain a municipality.

We went to the disco.

We hopped in the back of Chulo’s truck. Chulo worked on the river reinforcement, the only project the government paid for. They were trying to prevent the river from flooding during the next eruption, probably to protect the ferry dock and the road, both linking the north of Chile with the south.

We fed Chulo spaghetti, so he took us to the disco. The truck dipped and swerved over bumps and potholes until we arrived at an unlit home, firewood neatly stacked outside the carport.

“Is this it?” I asked

“I guess so.” Someone replied as we all laughed.
Chulo told us to jump out and that we had arrived. We stood outside in the darkness until the door opened, and we followed one of the small girls from supper. She lit a candle, barely revealing a red wooden bar and a few bar stools, leaving the rest of the giant hall in dark shadow. It felt like an antique macabre theatre. We were early.

I walked to the other end, deep into the darkness, and had a seat on what seemed to be a sofa. The soft light of the candle quivered slowly, crawling across the stools of the bar, teasing the bartenders with its ambiguous light, and obscuring Ben, who slouched over a small piano. His fingers began to participate with the iridescent actions of the candle.

From the darkness of my front row seat, I watched the barmen, who were unaware of the very own performance, dance. They shelved bottles and counted glasses to the out-of-tune strings pulsing from the long bristled fingers of the silhouetted entertainer, who made Amélie’s comptine d’une autre été inch towards my seat, flowing like a river under the right-angled arch that divided the dance floor and the bar room, separating me from what seemed to be a play being performed for only my delight. The candle flickered, languidly, exhausted by the actions of the oblivious performers.

But then the play ended when the generator roared and the voice of Fergie clambered out of the speakers and the strobe light lit and the red, yellow and blue lights crossed the dance floor in patterns. The dark theatre hall from the nineteenth century transformed itself into a fist-pumping dance club from the twenty-first century.

We drank all night in that club. We waited for the crowds to show, but no more than twenty people filled the club that night. Alaena asked them if it would fill. They said it was pretty busy on New Year’s.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Comfort Shmumfort

By Jacob Mccown
Editor's note: Jake is the newest member to the Gypsy Train. He was found by the banks of Hornopiren, wet and dirty. This is his story.

0545. My cell phone alarm abruptly ends my Rhiana love fantasies, and I roll out of the bed to start my morning routine. I stumble into the bathroom and try to aim as best as I can with my “party favor”, but can only aim as good as my morning grogginess allows me. I then wipe down the off target drops, brush my teeth, get dressed, and hurry to work. I come home around 4:30, consume my work out supplements, and head to the gym. Two hours later I’m home preparing and eating dinner. After dinner I mindlessly get on the internet or watch T.V until I am quite tired and return to my love dreams with whatever lucky celebrity it ends up being that night.

On the weekends I usually hit the beach or participate in something active, and in the evening, I get together with friends to enjoy some beverages and head downtown to chase skirts. This was my life, and I had no complaints. I had good money, good friends, and good times. There was not much to worry about except something inside of me rejects a comfortable life and comfortable routine. This voice inside of me cries for places, people and things that are unknown and wild to me. This voice or call to the wild and adventure is not only prevalent inside of me; it exists in tons of like minded individuals. I knew there was people like me, that yearn for exotic places and have no concern for tomorrow. Until I left the military, packed up a backpack with gear to live on for a few months, and left the U.S, I hadn’t met any of these like minded people.

After a week and a half of travelling on my own in southern Chile, I was in a very traumatic river rising accident. Life at the moment was not fun, in fact; life was very cold, wet and miserable. Just when it seemed like only a miracle could make the day get better, the clouds parted and the sun broke through. Just on the horizon a golden chariot came floating my way! A nice group of clean-cut and shaven young people jumped out smiling at me and waved me aboard. That’s the way I like to remember it anyway. In reality, I was sitting soaking wet on the pier, when a 20 ft bus came putting its way my direction.

“Hey what’s up man? The fucking river rose on me last night it was horrible! Where are you guys headed?” I said.

“Wow. That sucks. We’re headed south.” Alex, the driver, said.

“It’d be really cool if I could hook up with you guys and head south.” I replied.

“Yeah sure, why not?”

That’s the story of how I came to be on the bus known as “The Gypsy Train”. Everyone on the bus had been planning and dreaming of adventure. Alaena, Alex, and Zach, the owners of the bus, all gave up their taken-for-granted comforts of home and ventured into the unknown, just as I had.

The past three weeks aboard The G-Train we have been running into people that have been giving up their securities of home, a lot of them to an extreme. We’ve met Middle aged people who gave up prominent jobs, altered their vehicles for travel, and waved goodbye to their lives as they knew it. A man from Chicago, Illinois, gave up his upper level job at Motorola, educated himself on the mechanics of his motorcycle, equipped it for travel, and set off on his adventure. We met him in Chile Chico, Chile, ten months into his projected three year multi-continent excursion. We have met bundles of whiney Israelis, who after their mandatory military service almost second-naturedly travel the world.

Travelling the world and going to places unheard of before, with locals who don’t speak my language and refer to me as “ El stupid, gordo gringo,” is the best thing to ever happen to me! Along the way I have met awesome people with adventure in their eyes, who are living proof that following your dreams and living life the way you want to is a very tangible and real possibility.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Clandestine Gypsies

By Alaena
We pulled into Hornipiren and watched the ferry pull out. As they were scheduled sporadically , there was not another for two days. We reserved our tickets and after a two day hike in a muddy forest I found myself back at the port.
“It’s 143 000 Pesos. Either buy the tickets, or leave. Hurry up and decide because there are people waiting”
I looked around at the queue of awaiting passengers in the cramped cabin that serves as a ticket office for the ferries from Hornopiren to Chaiten, before turning back to the young lady behind the computer in disbelief.
My patience, which had been slowly ground down over the last half hour, deserted me.
“Do not tell me to hurry up. We have been waiting for 2 days for this boat and today, an hour before the boat leaves you told us it is 100 000 pesos (200 dollars) more than we agreed with your colleague when we reserved the tickets”.
I swallowed back the lump in my throat and gave Zach, who had been standing by me, bearded and angry, a teary look.
“Let’s do it. We don’t have a choice” he shrugged.
Heated argument had lowered the supposed ticket prices from 200 000 Pesos to 143, still a steep rise from the promised 117. I assured her we only had six passengers and she tapped away on her keyboard for what seemed an eternity, eventually selling us the tickets for 126 000 Pesos.
We emerged from the office triumphant, tickets in hand and ready for stage 2; smuggle two passengers onboard.
The plan was already set in motion. The bus was in the queue and Zach, Bernadette, Ben and Tegan were wondering around town. The plan should have been executed somewhat like this;
-          Step 1: Tegan and Ben return and hide in the storage space under the bed as their names are not on the tickets.
-          Step 2: Zach and Bernie come back 15 minutes later in order for it to appear as though there are only 6 people on the bus at any one time.
-          Step 3: we drive onto the boat and have our tickets checked
-          Step 4: Passengers vacate the bus one by one. Tegan and Ben are slyly set free.
We could not know it yet but things were not to go as expected, especially for the only one adamantly opposed to the whole ordeal, Matthias. The first sign of trouble came when one of the employees told us to put away our stove and coffee as we would be the next to board, half an hour ahead of schedule. This unexpected stick in the wheel snapped us out of our caffeine-fuelled rejoicing.
“Just run, Alaena! Run!” Shouted Mike, as he and Alex put away the drying tents. I sprinted up the hill towards town, realising more with every step, the futility of this exercise. They were nowhere in sight. I ran back to the bus. There was only one thing for it.
“Matthias, we have to get under the bed right now!”
Matthias stared, wide eyed. “ NO, Why me?”  he shouted looking terrified. “I’m so high, Goddamnit! This is the worst thing you could make me do!” Matthias had recently befriended two Chileans who had amicably shared their potent hash.
Alex was driving and the tickets were in Mike’s name. It was the only option. We jumped under and the lid was closed over our heads, plunging us into darkness. “I fucking hate you guys. I fucking hate you guys,” Matthias whispered gently in my ear. “Our life is in Alex’s hands. If he misses the boat and drives into the sea we will die”.
“It’s okay Matthias” I assured him. “We put our lives in to Alex’s hands every day”. This seemed to calm him down a good deal and we giggled about the film-like drama we were living. We were being smuggled in a cramped dark space on a bus, on a boat with people shouting outside in a foreign language. It wasn’t long before he slipped back into the old mantra. “I fucking hate you guys”.
Mike’s whisper was a welcome diversion. “Alaena, we need you out here to talk to these guys. We are going to do a swap. Be ready.”
I waited, tense and ready to leap out, listening to the muffled voices. The lid opened and light rushed in. I jumped out past Tegan who was ready to take my place. Mathias feebly lifted his head “I want to leave too”. We apologised weakly and pushed the bed back into place.
Finally things were going smoothly. Tickets were checked and we were leaving port with 6 visible passengers. People wandered off the bus and we set Tegan and Matthias free. Matthias slowly crawled out and curled up in the foetal position on a seat, panting.
“I fucking hate you guys” he repeated, driving home his earnestness. His face was flushed, his eyes glazed over and his chest heaved with the heavy breathing. “I’m so high.” He stared into nothingness refusing all offers of food and drink. “I just want to lie here on the bus where it is safe”.
This he did. Tegan and Ben spent the boat ride as fugitives from the power crazed Captain who marched around the boat shouting at people and demanding tickets. “This is my boat and nothing gets by me” he explained loudly to a group of Dutch tourists. “If someone is hiding a bike on this boat, I will find it!”. He assured us he would check how many passengers left on our boat on the way out and wrote down all our passport details.
After the 10 hour ferry ride through some spectacular landscapes of fjords and islands and furtive note passing to the two clandestine passengers, we finally arrived. It was with great delight that we watched Tegan and Ben casually stroll off the boat under the Captain’s eyes. We picked them up along with seven newly recruited hitchhikers and the Gypsy Train struggled into Chaiten through the pouring rain.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Via Sur

By Alex Mehlin 

We left Puerto Montt with a bus full of provisions, high ambitions and hope. One thousand kilometers, two ferries, two hikes, one smoking volcano, one abrupt run in with a stump, ten species of violent flies, 16 hitch hikers, 100 glaciated peaks, a million waterfalls and a billion trees later we safely arrived in Coyhaique.

The Carretara Austral starts in Puerto Montt and runs south to Villa O´Higgans covering Chile´s Northern Patagonia. The rual Ruta 7 established in 1976 as an effort to connect Chiles most remote communities spans 1,240 km or 770 miles. Most of the road is a combination of gravel and dirt, characterised by pot holes, washboard, falling rock, puddles, wind and rain. Hardly populated the region is inhabited by only 100,000 people 50,000 of which are located in Coyaique.

The land north or Coyhaique is highly protected, national parks and private reserves butt into each other pushing remote human habitation to small towns built around a Copec gas station, a phone and electricity. Food is hard to come by when it is available Hanta Virus is a concern, carried by rats that infest the mossy jungle forests of Northern Patagonia, we have been warned of the danger by every and any Cofac ranger. According to our medical book, Bugs, Bites and Bowels, if infected 50% of patients die. We are extremely cautious. 

Beyond the silly dangers of viruses, running out of fuel, freak brake downs, violent storms and unpredictable roads it seems that Patagonia is not the wanderlust extreme adventure it once was. 

Southern South America is a funnel catching any adventure hungry tourist with a fat pocketbook and spewing them into Patagonia. Every day we pass hoards of touring cyclists, elderly couples in rental cars, hitchhikers of all shapes and sizes, overland companies and Argentinians and Chileans taking advantage of their holidays.
The road has become kind of a whose who of the South, since the majority of travelers are all going south, destination Ushuaia, we see them all on the road. The Gypsies are a bunch of colorful, outlandish and loud bunch dominating the road. For a while it became the vogue to ride on the top of the bus, going 20kms getting 360 views of epic terrain according to Zach, ¨it is the only way to ride¨. 

In our phase of roof top transport we became a memory in every one we passed photo album of Patagonia. It is not uncommon over a glass of wine or tank of gas for fellow traveler to say they have heard of us. Hitchhikers proclaim we are best hitch they have ridden. People get so attached to the idea and ease of the bus it is hard to remove them from the bus once we have reached our daily destination. For this we have made a magic number of 11 Gypsies. Once you are on you get to keep your position as long as you would like or we allow you. We will bend our Gypsy count under extreme circumstances such as, short rides to town or extreme weather where we feel bad for the soaking we soul who litter the ruta sur.

Due to the nature of the terrain; shifting glaciers, dense jungle like forest, sprawling peaks crawling fjords and vast plains there are only a handful of established hiking routes. We have discovered that they are all going to be highly used. Patagonia summer only lasts for 3 months before the winter sets in and everyone is scrambling to check off Torres del Paine and Fritz Roy the two quintessential Patagonia hikes.

Outside of the popular parks, short day hikes beckon us to explore the ever changing landscape. These hikes are much easier for the Gypsies since they take little preparation and only a days effort. Beyond hiking it is impossible to not to appreciate the land. Every night without any effort we set our tents to backdrops of some of the most impressive scenery in the world.
In a land where every thing makes you feel  small we will be pushing south capturing, living and enjoying the moment always keeping in mind that it is fleeting. In the back of our minds we know that next season we will be off in a new land and another wave of tourist and will trudge the rugged remote beauty that is Patagonia.    

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Once upon an Italiano

A short film by Benjamin Peter Jones