I have been in Chile since last Sunday (Oct. 10th), first few days in Punta Arenas, at the bottom of this skinny country, jumping off point to Antarctica, and since last night in Santiago. We had the good fortune to be in Chile as the 33 miners, trapped for 69 days, were rescued in a most dramatic and simultaneously monotonous way. It was riveting and emotional. For the Chileans, it seems to be one of those national galvanizing moments in history when a people may seize an opportunity to move a giant leap beyond a painful recent history and redefine themselves as a people and a nation. During these last few days, the world’s eyes were focused on Chile, and Chile did very well, a model for all nations whose people often work in brutal, dangerous circumstances. (China, were you watching?)
Punta Arenas is within the Chilean part of Patagonia. Windswept is the first word that comes to mind. Compared with Ushuaia, which is the most southern town at the bottom of the Argentine part of Patagonia, Punta Arenas is relatively flat, not protected by a range of rugged mountains, as is Ushuaia. Nothing stops the wind coming across the Straits of Magellan.
We had the best view from a hotel room window I have ever seen. Photo below right.
We stayed in the dumbly named “Casino Dream” hotel, which is mostly casino and not much to dream about, although it is a new (2009) 4-star hotel, reputed to be the best hotel in town. It could be … but not until they work out some serious staff incompetencies. Regardless, our panoramic view of the Straits of Magellan and the mountainous ridges of Tierra del Fuego across the way, made any problems pale to insignificance.
While in Punta Arenas, I gave a reading at the University of Magallanes, to a group of students and professors from the English program. It was held in the American Corners section of the university library.
My theme was geography as ontology, how place functions in narrative, and as an illustration, I read the arrival in Hawaii section of The Common Bond and then, in contrast, the coming home section of the new work, Blossom.
It was a small but intensely curious and involved audience, one of the most comforting and engaging readings I’ve ever done.
Before leaving Punta Arenas, on a flight delayed two hours, having us reaching the hotel in Santiago after 11 pm, we had an opportunity of go aboard the National Science Foundation’s research vessel and ice breaker, the Nathaniel B. Palmer. Pictures below. We were treated royally by the crew, were able to see virtually the entire ship, and even fed American donuts and chocolate cake from the ship’s chef.
My sailing days were done in warm, tropical seas, and freezing my ass off aboard an ice breaker does not appeal to me, but in terms of the research capabilities of this vessel, I was gobsmacked impressed. We got a thorough explanation from both the nautical part of the crew and the scientists aboard. The series of photos below are described in the lines below each photo, and they can be enlarged by clicking on them.
Finally, a pair of photos of Punta Arenas, where the high temperature in mid-summer seldom climbs above 10-12 C. During our time there, the highs were around 8 C, the lows 1 – 2 C. Imagine this with a constant 40+ kph wind. People chose to live in some of the most forbidding places. Our hotel “Dream” was the tall glass building by the water in the center of the picture. The Palmer is just visible docked on the far right.