South America 2011-2012: Crossing Paso Guzman
Trevelin, Argentina (3 nights) & Futaleufú, Chile (5 nights)

I bid El Bolsón goodbye as Lorena La Linda's boyfriend takes me to the bus stop. SHE's the calm beauty I've had a hard time not admiring when not otherwise talking about music or learning how to make bread with her. HE's one of the artists who would normally be showing his wares at the market. It turns out, though, that he is also one of the few direct victims of the fires south of town by Lago Puhuen. The house he's been renting has burned down along with half of his belongings. Seven houses in all are claimed to have gone up in smoke from the arson. For now he's setting up camp at the hostel, literally living in a tent outside while he should be enjoying his best time of the year to make sales at the seasonally-burgeoned artisans' market.

I'm let off at the inconveniently located office on the south side of town. This is just one of the many downsides of the fully-privatized bus systems found in Latin America. (A lack of organized information for each city's routes, schedules, and locations is even bigger.) When the bus arrives, anyway, I casually remark to the driver that I'm guessing it's about two hours to Esquel, right? Nope - almost four, I'm told. Oh. Well, this is what seat-of-the-pants, no-guidebook travel gets for ya. The kilometers will nevertheless soon fly by as I take an upstairs seat at the very front of the double-decker bus. With the wide sheen of glass just before me - and no seatbelts - at least there'll be no question as to how I'll die: With a view!

And a view it mostly is, if not exactly when we transition out of the greenery and large lakes near El Bolsón to the barren wasteland that comes next. I'm shortly wondering if we're technically in the Pampas... until some mountains begin to reappear. Whew. Mostly treeless, these chunks of rock and dust grow in size as we near Esquel. They alternately take on impressively bold hues of gray, black, red, and orange in impressive sweeps as a number of blazingly green (and obviously planted) trees suddenly begin to appear on the highway for the last dozen or two kilometers to Esquel.

Although everyone I've spoken with previously has sufficiently dissed Esquel as not worthy of a blink, it turns out to be a nicer city on initial blush than that by a good measure. Moreover, the cabins built like Swiss chalets, not to mention the prominent buildings of stone, seem to be in good nick. The nearby mountains that serve as a ski area don't hurt, either, nor does our passing the oldest steam train still in action in the Americas. IT goes by in the other direction, chug-steaming away with about five cars stuffed with tourists hanging out its aged windows.

Other tourists, meanwhile, have stopped at a junction to get out of their cars and take pictures of it. Yes, this is thee famouse Trochita - or The Old Patagonian Express as it's called by Paul Theroux in the eponymous book. It's kept running due to the good works of some local locomotive fanatics, soon perhaps to extend its line again beyond its current 20km track. Running on narrow-guage rail, it was supposed to be part of a much larger system that took advantage of leftover rail materials from Europe just after WWI. The idea was to get everything on the cheap for North Patagonia as Europe rid itself of unwanted stock from the war and modernized... for its next one!

In town I switch to the local bus and quickly bid Esquel goodbye. It'll have to wait to be seen why this was where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up back when... later. I'm not THAT interested, just respectful enough to not want to completely disregard the place's charms. Some skateboard-laden boys shortly hop onboard as well, then a handful of other tourists, before we quickly cover the 25km or so to Trevelin. This takes place on the best road I've seen since Bariloche, for what that's worth. I jump out in the center of town, a roundabout with a plaza in its middle, before walking about 10 minutes over to my next hostel. Although supposedly the most Welsh of towns around - and I'm no one to dispute this, certainly - I can only verify that it mostly looks like a reasonably-cared-for country town. All the roads outside of the main one are of dirt, true, but there are some solid-enough looking old buildings that seem to have been around for a while.

I guess what sets the place apart is that it's one where you can have high tea in the shadow of some impressive peaks. Indeed, I'm here mostly to get a bit closer to those via the national park Alerces. That's the idea to take advantage of this pitstop while getting ready for my upcoming hitch over to Chile. That'll only be about 30km and I don't know how many days away.

In the interim I'm fortunate to latch onto another great hostel, this one run by a couple who have moved over from Bahia Blanca (downcoast from Buenos Aires on the Atlantic). It turns out that, coincidentally, C is a musician in search of a larger community of the same. Girlfriend J, meanwhile, seems to run the more practical aspects of the operation. This includes the dishing out of the somewhat complicated "hows" related to transport in the area. When she finds out I have a trumpet, though, it is she who insists on some live music and I'm happy to oblige. I soon find out that she shares a lot of my taste in music - which includes my playing - so I soon take a solemn vow to find a way to stuff this beauty into my backpack - if only her boyfriend wasn't so damnably nice. As always, the best ones are taken. The story of my life.

As to the others in the hostel, this is a far cry from the folks in Bariloche and El Bolsón. For one thing, outside of two Dutch women and an annoying Israeli who are around for the first day, almost everyone belongs to Argentina - and in a family way. Dunno why this is, but a change in dynamic isn't a bad thing - especially if I can hitch a ride to the park somehow in the process. I've already found out from J that, outside of getting up at the crack of dawn, THAT looks to be a difficult thing to arrange with local transport. Hmmm.

Fortunately one of the families comes to my rescue. The husband D, sporting a beret that threatens to throw a sizable shadow over his entire body, is as happy to have a guest to shlep to the park as I am to have a ride. It doesn't take long to understand how this electrical engineer from BsAs is typically caught up in the big rat race that is the capital, though: For a good while of the ride he insists on keeping the conversation to the topic of careers both his and mine for far too long. But eventually the park wins with its beauty as the center of yapping. Whew.

And it certainly merits the look we're giving it. Crystal clear lakes and rivers are framed by craggy peaks topped with snow that should stay unmelted throughout the year. It's too bad that the road is a thoroughly dusty affair, yes, but I console D in noting that perhaps it's THAT which keeps the numbers down from accessing this park lying along the Chilean border. Each car passes the other in clouds of ancient ash, prompting any random person strolling down this lakeside drive to immediately cover in a huddle underneath any spare clothing.

Soon that person is me as well, right about when I get left off at the hike to Laguna Escondida. We'll meet up again later so I can thankfully also receive a ride home... but first I wanna do this hike and get an overview. I first hunt around for the inconveniently-located park ranger to sign in then, after finally managing to be able to do so, make my way up with the few other handfuls of folks of like mind. We're all interested in the promised views on the way to the sleepy waters of a lagoon.

As per the usual this is a steep affair, though it's also happily quite short in its doing. Tabanos are scarce to be seen, too: Of the four that decide to bother me, all find their lives terminated on the receiving end of a now-expert slap against the side of my head. Would that their guts didn't make such a mess sometimes... And then I'm there at the lagoon, shortly watching the numbers of us visitors grow from a few to a dozen. This I do while munching on my small collection of goods artisanal (purchased on the day before from Don Cacho in Trevelin: salami, (Swiss) cheese, and raspberry jam on (completely non-artesanal) wheat crackers).

Such belly-rific satisfaction eventually leads to a hike down again, this accomplished with three Argentine girls studying mathematics of all things. We briefly exchange some words on topics I haven't broached in many years, then get down to the more-appealing business of taking in the marvelous view. Eventually I leave them behind on a steep downslope, regaining the road to make my way to the Pasarela de Arrayanes. As for getting around to signing back OUT at the ranger station... oops. Maybe in a bit, if I remember. To be fair, with numbers like this - and hikes like that - one really has to doubt the logic of the sign-up sheet in the first place. I wonder what it would take to actually get a rescue party formed.

1.5km down the road later, meanwhile, I come to the Pasarela - a walkbridge - over the Río Arrayanes. There the lookout is similarly no less than marvelous, plus I find out that an arrayan is actually no less than a madrona. How about that - just like what we have in the Seattle area. They're no less beautiful here, though, so I happily take to the easy trail and make the loop through an "interpretive forest" that is bounded to all sides by swimmingly-clear waters. Along the way, too, I get to listen to pods bursting from the heat in bushes found plentifully along the way - sometimes literally sending their contents into the air - while otherwise hunting for the random cherry in season that no one else has found somehow. All the senses are getting their due.

In my lone conversation of this tourist-laden circuit, meanwhile, I learn of some local history from a couple of dawdle-strolling Argentine gentlemen. Their tale mostly centers on the concerns of a developer that wanted to jam a five-star hotel in the park. The current thinking goes that, after his ideea was rejected, some funny business occurred - which resulted in the burning down of the original arrayan-log lodge from the first settler in the area. Who knows? But we all DO know what's possible with the deadly combination of vengeance and money.

Back at the pasarela I fortunately run into my carhost family again. Thus it is that I can casually cool my feet in the water and take a nap before we regroup to head out. Now all that remains of this perfect day is to both survive their spoiled child and the ride home - which I barely do, to be frank.

As to the former, I get to witness how my benefactors' offspring insists on eating her way through everything and anything that can be fried or processed - while complaining of ever having to use the slightest bit of effort. The walk to and from the car is an agony to her that can only be solved by another donut or ice cream cone. Her incessant pouting is just the icing on this cream-stuffed cake topped with french fries.

For all this I can't help but think of the fat girl in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as I struggle to bite my tongue, naturally, but I successfully do so somehow. (I put the resulting large piece of flesh in my pocket for reattachment later.) Meanwhile, this girl's name - Milagro (miracle) - properly suggests the most-likely backstory. Only THAT can possibly explain why her parents put up with her nonsense, bending over so backward to effectively become her aides-de-camp on her inevitable path (already successfully on the way) to obesity.

Perhaps it is as compensation in this parental futility, then, that we drive back to town at a ferocious (if calmly-executed) speed. THIS finds us passing everyone else in sight, all done at increasingly ridiculous speeds well over double the speed limit. Thus it is that I'm more than happy to find an excuse to jump out at the gas station on the edge of town. I'm thankful for the ride, yes, but equally if not moreso thankful to still be alive.

The next day I shortly debate whether to stay longer in Trevelin. I now possess a park pass good for another day, I note... but my Argentine pesos are running short, too. More to the necessary point, I realize that I'm only too enchanted with all-too-unavailable hostess. Hmm - THAT probably is a good reason to move on in and of itself, before I make trouble! So I decide to take the late-afternoon bus out of town, resulting in my settling in for some extended reading - I now add Ian Fleming's Casino Royale in Spanish to flit through while taking my time to savor the ongoing El Amor En Los Tiempos De Colera - and even more trumpet playing for this beauty called J... and her again-damnably-nice boyfriend C. And so it goes.

And so it goes, too, that I get on that late-afternoon bus to Chile. I'm picked up on the road out of town and settle in for the bumpy, dusty ride to the pass, Paso Guzman. The mountains grow in stature - even if the road doesn't enough to earn the grand name of a "pass" - and we hit the border in over an hour. Our busload of Argentines and Israelis dumps out for the necessary controls as I chitchat with the lone Anglophone aboard outside of myself, a Brit with a winning smile named Kate.

Again the border crossing is sufficiently perfunctory, meanwhile, even if we do undergo the most modest of searches. Regardless of that, my treasure chest of salami, cheese, jams, dried mushrooms, tomatoes, and god-knows-what-else sails through without detection or a hassle. Technically they should all be okay, I believe, but it's nice not to have the conversation in the first place. It helps that I only have to pull out the shirt that rests on top of my opened bag. I'm cleared without more ado.

I then take to waiting at our next bus - they don't cross the border, apparently - which sits against the barrier that divides the two countries. To this boredom I can only think to pull out the trumpet. Maybe THAT will win the taciturn driver and purser over. It does as they finally manage to smile. Even some of the Israelis deign to finally take note of my existence as a bemused Kate snaps a couple of shots of the idiot traveling with a horn. The 10km to town on a paved road which comes next, meanwhile, perhaps serves to highlight the growing difference in wealth between the two countries I am exchanging temporarily.

The relative cuteness of the upcoming town Futaleufú makes the rest of the transition complete. Kate and I quickly bid adieu to the Israeli contingent - all trying to hitchhike in pairs down the Carretera Austral - before we find a kind of boarding house willing to let out beds. There are no hostels in Futaleufú, but this'll do far better than the place across the street we were each recommended - at about ten times the price. We next take on the simple thing of exchanging money, but with less success. Apparently the only cash machine in town doesn't like VISA (Mastercard works, though). Crap.

So, when things turn to failure, might as well turn to... drinking. Well, that's anyway how we find out that the small stores in Chile DO offer far more variety for their size than their counterparts just over the border. They fortunately take Argentine pesos, too, so we buy a bottle of pisco sour to chat the night away sufficiently back at our room. That'll come to the sufficient dismay of our dour host, a stumpy woman whose face reads much disapproval in two foreigners of opposite sex randomly showing up at her door for lodgings. Her husband, however, shows not a care in the world when Kate hits him up for ice for our drinks. (I get to ask the woman of the house for a reload of the same and this goes less well, as expected. Ha-RUMPH!)

The next day sees Kate take a stab at the local rafting on the famous river as I make my way around town. I decide on much more pedestrian things, like practicing my trumpet a bit. This good behavior, however, is only rewarded by my breaking my camera. This happens as I put the trumpet back into the case, not realizing that the camera already has dibs. Here I receive further - if unneeded - proof that steel indeed DOES out-strong plastic. The screen cracks ever so slightly in one corner, giving me hope if only momentarily after the crunching sound, but I soon find that that is enough to render the thing essentially inoperable. Crap.

From here forward, then, I'll have nothing to look at as I shoot away - or will until I can find a reasonably-priced replacement (which won't be in this town at the corner of the world). As a first stab at my new reality, I use poor Kate as a first model in my improvised method of snapping photos by merely holding the thing level and pointing hopefully. She suffers through a few more shots for a good cause - my last shot with the still-usable viewscreen was of her in our crudely-constructed room - thus allowing the above shots to be used as a suitable before and after version. It certainly doesn't hurt that she makes the writeup look good (again, see above).


It doesn't take long, either, to also discover that the ferry service I'd hoped for up ahead in Chaiten is a lot poorer than I expected it to be for high season. It's also now the case that my funds will be limited to the cash I have on hand to get there, too. THAT apparently won't include my emergency $50 bill which has a tiny tear in it, unacceptable to the banker who looks at it for all of three seconds. Shit!: This is gonna be close, moneywise!

None of this stops me from trying out the one cafe with espresso in town (which I'll rate as an "Eh!" while noting that the proprietress could use a lesson in client relations as well as barista training). Nor does it stop me from looking for the one person making artesanal foods for sale in town. This latter exchange of money for goods goes far better than the coffee one: I both buy some of her crudely made juices repeatedly (cherry, grosella, quinda, rosa mosqueta and membrillo) AND promise to bring each of the unlabeled, medicine-chest-styled bottles back for reuse. She even makes some wheat bread (apparently THE great challenge in South America) which I plan to grab a loaf of before I blow town. These types of opportunities can be few and between in the land of sugared-up juices and exclusively white bread.

In the evening Kate returns from her successful rafting; we walk out into the darkness later with her fellow raftees to celebrate with some drinks. Shortly somewhere down a dirt road out of town we manage not to fall as we finally find a lonely bar by the river recommended by her guide Julio. He's perhaps the right person to trust in such matters, however, a highly competitive white-watersman who's both placed third in last year's Fu' kayak competition AND taken his kayak over a 25m waterfall. A 42m drop is next, this Peruano insists, and his palpable excitement in trying to being the best in his sport is pleasing to see. Hope he survives! Not that I have the least envy in all this outdoor activity, no sirree. No, the famous Fu' will not be seeing the likes of me - not with my interest in whitewater rafting long ago disappeared for no particular reason. Outside of fear of death and/or cold water, anyway.

In any event, Julio's far more interesting to listen to than the Aussie from this same group. She's of the kind who assumes the position of veteran traveler, to the point that she has meticulously researched the journey to know where each dollar might be saved. I only briefly take up the challenge in the form of "Why bother?", weakly putting forth how the effort far outweighs the savings, not to mention the lost serendipity. But in the end my only question (to myself) is why she's not in Bolivia with the rest of the penny-pinchers, bragging over piss-tasting beers about the most recent cheapest-meal- or room-ever... plus how they wheedled and bargained to that end. Zzz.

The next morning Kate is off, taking her neck crick from being only on one side of a raft for hours with her. Ah - ANOTHER reason why I don't raft anymore, as if I needed one. More importantly, I'll quickly miss her bright and casual company - especially as I may be stuck here for a bit. The bus to Chaiten is broken down. Whatever the number of days, I'm now reduced to exactly the limited funds of what I have left in cash to add to the pressure. So... why not go for a long walk?

Indeed, it's free... and it's also very long, I eventually find. Which isn't what I figured on. But at least the five hours of tramping in the sun treats me with more than mere dehydration: I see the Fu' river from various angles, take in a variety of mountain vistas, plus get to startle a park ranger who wonders what the hell I'm doing a few hours from town on foot. I think I've interrupted his siesta, more importantly, but the practically wordless exchange between myself and his shocked-looking family is somehow oddly pleasant.

From his place I soon find the almost-hidden, elusive pasarela (suspension footbridge) back over the river. This is the very one I've been told to keep an eye out for after passing by the old one room schoolhouse and the two puenticitos (little bridges). I almost miss it, but after I cross decide it's the right place to see and eat my store of fruit. I entertain an odd jet-black creature, I think a ferret (try to find him in each of the shitty pictures above!), as I lunch nearly under the footbridge, then practice shooting it with my camera with no viewfinder. I'll let the results speak for themselves... crap! I really DO need another camera.

Next I gingerly pass by a couple of free range bulls, each staring me down with questionable intent before I next encounter a loose horse in the road. These are BIG, FREE animals. Deep... breath. But it's only after I make my way up and over the steep and sizable hill after leaving them behind that I encounter a car on the flats back to town - exactly the third in about six hours. It honks and the driver inside asks if I want a ride: Duh, YES! This handily avoids the last thirty minutes in the most boring part of the day's trek.

Back in town, a swim in the Espelon River comes next naturally. Once again I take a wrong turn, however, and surprise the guy working at the uncomfortably hot sewage treatment plant in his speedo underwear. He's as surprised to see me as I him, but he points me the way and in another twenty minutes I've found a cold stretch of the river to remove my caked layers of dust and sweat. I just don't necessarily feel so great about the brown muck I'm standing on in it to do so. We're UPriver from the sewage plant, right?, I remind myself hopefully.

By now my only remaining mission in Futaleufú is to elicit a smile from my still-dour hostess. Unsmiling and still giving only one-word answers, she's definitely a tough one. All my compliments about how nice the place is (ignoring the fact that my room is made from OSB wood, replete with construction writing still uncovered, or how every step creaks a board that can be heard across the street) and how her cooking smells good (which is actually quite true, even if I don't recognize some of the hunks of meat). Hmm - a puzzle indeed!

That first night spent chatting late with Kate over pisco sour has soured her plenty and seemingly for good, but with Kate's return to Argentina things might improve. Or not: my first evening alone only brings forth a comment from my new mother superior that I shouldn't dare to bring any women back to my room late at night. I refrain from telling her that Kate and I had actually just met on the bus an hour before stepping into place. Meanwhile, drinking and playing scrimmage next door with the remaining raftees at their improvised hostel allows for no such thing.

Then... success! The next morning I finally am deigned a smile when I eagerly eat her homemade jam. Whew! Lunch the next day should seal the deal,I figure, and I earn a raised and potentially appreciative eyebrow from that. Interest in her homemade empanadas the next day earns me a resounding NO to buying and sampling some, however... until the next day she plops two on my plate at breakfast on the house. Next, after watching me play the trumpet out in front of her house she remarks that I've now been with her long enough to be like a son. This is what four hard days of work gets you. Next thing ya know she's smelling my coffee and I might have to slap her hand! (When I finally check out I find that she's thrown that copious lunch on the house, too.)

Meanwhile it seems like the bus mayhem that has been clouding my immediate future is abating in slow measure. The word is now out that the bus has upgraded from being not fixed to a hopeful maybe. I'm regardless determined to leave on Saturday, bus or no - my money's about gone. If there's a bus I'll catch the Saturday ferry to Chiloe at Castro. If I'm forced to thumb it and otherwise make do, then I'll shoot for the Monday ferry to Quellon. The latter LOGICALLY feels the smarter entry point, since it's at the bottom of the island and all, but that'll be pushing my cash to the limit or possibly pinning my hopes on a machine existing in Chaiten that'll actually work. Right.

But for the present I'm still in Futaleufú with the other strandees, now passing on the possibility to hang out more with the ex-raftees to drink and play cribbage. Maybe that's because I learn the rules and win the first time I play, a nice streak of beginner's luck to stop on indeed. In actuality, though, I'm more kind of liking the idea of a bit of detox to get in some writing and play the trumpet. Now that I have my own room - perhaps equally due to Kate's departure as much as my apparent unwillingness to drag in prostitutes or whatever else my host might qualify as "no good" - it seems a good idea to take advantage of it. This trip has almost completely been dorm-bound.

What I ACTUALLY get up to, however, is putting in a couple more short hikes in the area. One takes me to an overlook of the town, and that only after a mere 30-40m minute hike up a moderately steep hill. I stand next to a tattered Chilean flag as the town is illuminated in the late sun's glow. It really IS a helluva setting, I find myself thinking from such a remove. And that is true both beyond and in spite of what the scatter-brained (apparently Swiss or Bavarian, we'll never know) violinist said to Kate and I on night #1. Here is ample proof that that guy was frankly an idiot, not to mention a bit babbling and disoriented: How could he not take note of the gorgeously steep mountains and azure rivers that nestle this town in so brilliantly?

The other hikelet, meanwhile, takes me along the Riío Espelon for an hour or so. It's a nice if dusty road-ramble until I find a nice turnaround point, one from which I can sit by the river and near the last pages of Casino Royale. (Here let me say that the producer-powers-that-be of the movie really DID follow the book quite faithfully outside a bit of the ending.) I'm MORE pleased to register that this little tome will now be DEFINITELY staying behind. More weight begone! Not by coincidence have I finally resolved to upgrade my backpack after fifteen years unindentured servitude. (The next one will be a hair larger, with means for open access to all contents, with a detachable daypack. Yes, I'm finally jealous of myfellow travelers. Moreover, I might even have to buy an e-book and an iTouch while I'm at it and jettison this heavy laptop!)

As for the Fu'-town itself, there's only a little to say before parting. A pleasant spot all around it is, even if it's rather tough to get fruit and vege without ample evidence of rot or bruising. That's what isolation and a no-crude-produce border control begets ye. In the same vein, almost no traffic passes through this corner of the planet, which is nice. It meanwhile looks like most of the houses are new enough to allow for some eye-pleasing construction, which is the general rule. The older shacks are still here and there, true enough, but almost all buildings have adopted the charmingly ramshackle style of plank siding that will serve well to promote cutsiness (and thus tourism) in the future. This even extends to the wooden garbage bins being put up on every block.

Looking about the rest of the pueblo, the plaza-under-eternal-construction will be quite handsome indeed. It'll further lend to that rusticity that us simple tourists eat up - or will, should they ever finish it. It's over a year past due and construction isn't exactly bustling on it. As to size, currently the town is only about a 4x10 grid. Beyond that lies only a small number of houses trailing away toward the river, but I can only wonder how long this compact and tidy layout will survive.

Overshadowing everything is the ever-present talk of damming the mighty Fu' for Santiago to reap electricity. Fortunately that's still a looming unknown what with the opposition it it. The government would have already done it some time ago. Meanwhile more isolated places, like those found further down the Carretera Austral, should be so lucky. They ARE doomed, it seems. So it's not for nothing, then, that rafters one and all don't idly talk about getting their river runs in before they are gone. I wonder what the salmon think for their part... while hoping that this scenario doesn't lead to anything like what happened in the movie Deliverance. It, too, started with the premise of a canoe run on a river to be soon damned: Please let there be no "Squeal like a pig!", I say... or rivers merely squelched like a stuck one in agony.

Anyway, that's it for the Fu' and yours truly's time in it. No, I don't finally cave in and raft the thing because here I am and there it is. I really can't summon the interest. That I'm still healing the arm (what would paddling due to the recovery, I don't know) and tight on cash seals the deal. I'm nevertheless happy to now have a small feel for the place. And that's good enough, generally comprising all that I really want to get out of each place I go to.

So that's how things stand as my now-friendly hostess gives me an alarm clock for my 5 a.m. wake-up and... I stay up most of the night regardless. A kind of folk-i-fied karioke session has picked this very night to go until la-a-a-ate into the evening. The way sound travels in the closed-in environment of town, it could be coming from anywhere, too. Not that I would dare complain against a late party in Latin America: THAT would be in VERY poor form indeed. The drumming of an increasingly-heavy rain that drops throughout doesn't help in giving a proper white noise cover for a good sleep, but eventually I do manage some zzz for the long day ahead.

Thus at 5 a.m. the alarm faithfully croaks; I get up, noticing that things are awfully dark out there. Sigh. I listen as the rain drones on... and eventually realize that there is no electricity. Crap! This requires me to use the illumination of my iPod's screen to wander about the place, it vainly trying suggest music when all I want is its light. It only stays lit for several seconds at a time as I look about the room and hopefully leave it devoid of any of my belongings. I don't feel so sure, but the possibility of a fixed bus outweighs everything.

So I walk the wet and blackened streets of town to where the bus should eventually come, hoping I don't blunder into a deep puddle or quick-running river of water trying to let gravity guide it home to a drain. A dog lunges out of nowhere once to give me a heart attack, naturally, but I've learned to make some vicious and snarling noises myself for these all-too-numerous run-ins with the free-roaming bastards. Seriously, I really wonder how long it takes for them to fully revert to being wolves. I think we'll all find out before long in Argentina and Chile if this habit of feeding them without fixing their reproductive means keeps up. Their numbers are GROW-ing.

At the Continental Hotel (HA!) I wait for the bus, watching the infrequent motions of lights tracing the sky at intervals to suggest where a lonely vehicle must be traversing the burg. Eventually a pickup truck pulls up nearby and squelches its lights, finally leaving me with company if only of a dubious sort. Then a few disembodied flashlights slowly approach to draw near. A re porteña voice asks "Para el omni ac´?" - to which I say "Sí, supuestamente." Then they leave only to come back five minutes later. At 6 a.m. on the nose the bus shows up...

...and twenty people miraculously appear from all sides to get onto it. I am frankly astonished how they materialize. More importantly, everyone is both wet and heavily-baggaged. Eventually, however, we get everything stored into the back of the bus or within it, and our chariot of fogged windows pushes out into the dark. Over nearly four hours we'll only briefly pause a few times. We let out the guy in the seat next to me somewhere between nowhere and somewhere, then drop off several more folks in the crossroads that is Santa Lucia on the Carretera Austral. Here it's worth noting that, what for traversing such a grandly-named thing ("Carretera Austral" can be translated as the "Southern Highway"), it's every bit the same quality of bumpy dirt road that has gotten us to the cruce of Santa Lucia. The scenery is no less than spectacular throughout, true, but smooth and comfy it ain't.

Indeed, all of this lushness immediately starts upward, right from the edge of the road: We are closed in by mountains to all sides. Our path is merely a cut through this verdant paradise of green, following along both white or blue rivers that are engorged. No, this is not bad at all (when we can see it), plus there's the more that comes in the form of glaciers and lakes which add to the beauty. Maybe this DOES earn the grand name after all.

Anyway, that's the general look of things as I take in the growing morning light such as it is seen through the windows... until each time I wipe them yet again. Fogging them completely agains requires only several minutes, naturally, what with the continuing rain. The driver is doing this as well with his windshield - when he isn't yawning. We pass a vehicle, one that has been run head-on into a ditch with an equally-sleepy looking driving grinning foolishly, but we don't stop to help him and there's NO one else out on this lonely road. Out driver redoubles his yawning, but in the end Chaiten won't be denied. Finally a last twenty minutes on a newly paved road is happily purchased at lightspeed and we arrive at the sea. On to Chiloé!, I say.

A PARTING PHOTO: Here's a nice example of plank construction, ubiquitous to the Lakes District (not Patagonia as much as they like to publicize it) found on both sides of the border:

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