My Journal 03-12-17: WWOOFing in the Patagonia

by | Apr 12, 2017

March 12, 2017

Walking out the main doors of the Punta Arenas airport was a little bit of Deja Vu: Hit in the face with the cool, crisp, clean, humid air of a temperate coastal environment. It was reminiscent of Juneau, and I liked it. I actually missed it.

The past month of Spanish classes were good – well worth it and gave me something to start with in language and general comfortability in South America, but at the same time felt like I was in some kind of purgatory – not traveling, not working, not doing exactly what I “wanted” and in a strange place. I was nervous going to the airport. Then, sitting at the gate for my plane to Santiago, I did a 10-minute meditation exercise with the Headspace App and was left with an amazing sense of calm that I haven’t had in a while. At some point, something clicked- a sense of excitement and adventure for what’s to come and a sense of calm that everything is going to work out. Maybe the bus is late. Maybe I can’t connect with the WWOOF farm immediately. Maybe I have to spend a little more time or a little extra $$, but it’s all part of the adventure, and stressing about it doesn’t help anything. I feel oddly content with the unknown in front of me despite the fact that I have no idea where I’m going, I don’t have any cash, and I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight.

The land here feels old and rugged, albeit flat. I can imagine harsh winds and storms whipping, unobstructed, across from Atlantic to Pacific. You can see it in the scraggly trees that manage to grow a few meters out of the tundra, their leaves/needles as sharp as the wind that bends them at an angle, whithered like Ethan Fromme. A mixture of small sheep, cows, and Guanaco roam pastures beside the road, giving credence to the habitability of this place and the mix of native and colonizing peoples that have affected it.

Since arriving in Puerto Natales, I had a pleasant walk in the sun downtown, past a mix of hostels & disheveled houses, pleasant but perhaps feral dogs, and a smell in the air quite familiar and reminiscent of Alaska: The smell of fresh earth on salty air. It reminds me of Haines a little bit, but flatter. I searched around downtown for wifi and an ATM, finding a cheap burger/pizza joint whose wifi didn’t work, followed by a coffee shop that didn’t take a card, and then when I came back with cash she was hopping on a motorcycle and said she’d be back in an hour. I ultimately found a pizza place where I chatted with a nice Dutch couple hiking the W. I managed to work out staying with the mother of the farm owners tonight, and tomorrow we’ll head to the farm and see how it goes!

 

March 14, 2017
So we didn’t get to the farm yesterday – too much wind for the ferry to run. But it worked out well. I got a cell phone SIM finally, and the best decision of the day was going to the little coffee & books shop that I had gone to the day before. I met two really cool travelers: a guy from the Czech Republic and a recent college grad from Colorado. Both had been traveling for the last 5-ish months, and had hitched down the Careterra Austral and crossed into Argentina by foot. Seeing how they were traveling made me think I’ve been doing it all wrong, but also made me excited and encouraged for being a little more adventurous myself. We went to a talk at a Hostel with an attached restaurant/bar, Erratic Rock, and I met the cousin of a guy I worked with in Juneau. The small world experiences just don’t stop.
March 17, 2017

Happy St. Paddy’s Day from Estancia Mercedes in the Patagonia – perhaps the least Irish place in the world. Well, the farm and climate are sort of indicative of Ireland at least.

Wednesday we finally made it to the farm. We drove down to the docks, where a tiny ferry nosed up to a glorified boat launch and loaded our tiny SUV and an 18-wheeler on board. After offloading, we drove 35 km to the estancia.

It’s freakin’ gorgeous. I can’t believe this place actually exists. It’s like Hobbiton. It sits right on the edge of the water of a gentle, stony cove, replete and endless supply of the most perfect skipping rocks to ever exist. The road to the farmhouse cuts within 5 feet of the water’s edge. There’s a corral, with a small cabin where Fernando, the farm’s worker who has been there for the last 15 years, volunteers, and any of the brothers of the family that live there. 100 yards past that along the shore is the main farmhouse, living area, and rooms for tourists that they host throughout the summer.

The first day I went with Hernan, the dad of the family, to chop firewood first, and then repair a few areas of the fence. I feel like – or more than feel like – I actually don’t understand just about anything that anyone says to me or to each other unless it’s spoken slowly and directly to my face. It’s more isolating to be with people and not understand them or be a part of the conversation than it is to be plain old alone in the woods. They’re super nice and welcoming family though. It sounds like their family basically founded Puerto Natales, having been here since 1908 and started the town’s first general store.

I like the ritual and pace of the days. wake up at sunrise, stoke the wood stove, heat up water, have coffee/mate, sit and watch the sunrise, then head off to do work around 9. Work until 12 or 1, have a big meal, then work the rest of the day until 5 or so. Dinner is something small, bread and butter or something like that. Ther’s TV, but only a couple fuzzy channels. There’s radio, and the closest wifi is about 15 minutes away in a station for the Chilean Army. It’s peaceful, and besides the dim light of a fishing boat passing in the distance, there’s no other sign of humanity.

Today I finished chopping a bunch of wood in the morning, then went with Hernan to rebuild the posts on a section of the fence by the entrance to the farm. It’s not hard or complicated, it just requires steady, consistent, patient work.

 

March 19, 2017

There’s a lot of time spent on the farm just sitting around and having casual conversation – shootin’ the breeze. The unfortunate and frustrating thing for me is that my comprehension is so bad that I can’t take part in them. It’s only if someone is talking directly to me and even then I don’t get all of it the first time.

 

 

I’m sure it’s annoying for them and it’s frustrating and isolating for me. I want to wake up one morning and just get it, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work that way.

Tomorrow we’re going out to build a shelter for the cattle out somewhere pretty far. I’m looking forward to the adventure, but the fact that I basically won’t be able to participate in conversation makes it feel perhaps a little less fun.

 

March 20, 2017

Today we’re heading out on the equivalent of a fox hunt. Except instead of foxes, it’s feral cattle that have been left to breed for a couple of generations. They’re called baguales, and their hunters are bagualeros. I had no idea I’d be doing anything like this when I signed up for this farm, but I think it’s going to be an amazing adventure. This farm was written up in National Geographic Magazine about 2 years ago for an epic herding effort of baguales, and now I’m going to do the same, I think. I was told I need a knife – not to cut stuff, but to protect myself in case I come face to face with a wild f***ing baguale. Sebastian, the oldest son of the family and seemingly the heir apparent patriarch, had an uncle who had to face up with a  bull in a field and lost his teeth and almost lost a testicle. Or rather, he did lose it and they put it back for him. My job on this trip is basically camp mom (sorry to be following historical gender norms on this reference readers) – cooking, getting water, helping cut down trees and build stuff – which is fine with me considering I’ve only ridden a horse once and my second time is about to be in the “farmlands” (that’s a loose term, there’s nothing domestic about the land or anything in it) of Patagonia. I’m sure going to have a story or two to tell.

 

March 21, 2017

So I’m sitting in this bush shelter on day two of camping, cooking up huge slices of beef from the ranch, drinking mate with pisco-flavored water, and I’m realizing that I’m having as real a Chilean experience as someone can get. Today was a little frustrating – I was on my own with not much to do and feeling like the little kid left behind while the big kids get to go out and do fun stuff, a feeling I’m familiar with as the youngest child, but it was good in its own right. I still wish I could f***ing understand what everyone was saying. That would make the experience complete.

 

March 23, 2017

Early morning. The goal: get back to Mercedes with the wild baguale. When we got mounted up, I was told I’d be guiding one of the pack horses, which was a little disappointed, as I hoped to be able to take some photos on the way back, and with my riding experience, guiding a horse and riding another one through varied terrain would demand all of my attention and energy, and hands. But the others were either guiding a more untamed horse or pulling along baguales – we had 3 of them – so really I should get over myself and realize I had the easy job. Rodrigo told me to wait on a hillside while they gathered the cattle. 2 hours later I was still waiting. It turns out the baguales got away from them and they spent most of that time running them down again.

Guiding and riding initially was pretty stressful: my horse, demure and even sluggish on the ride in, was excited to get back to the farm and to keep up with the pack, which made it more difficult to ride and hold the pack horse’s lead at the same time. Eventually, I got used to it, and also got over myself.

I think that’s the most important lesson of this experience, not letting myself get in the way of enjoying my present moment.

After a few hours and a number of stops to let the baguales catch their breath (you try getting pulled by a nose ring for 3 hours and not get exhausted), we arrived at Estancia Mercedes. After we got back, I had a bucket shower in the Elf tub (this tub was so little, I was like Will Ferrell trying to take a shower on the north pole), a beer with the others, and a nice meal that Angelica had prepared for us. It was most welcomed. I was so tired, I passed out at 7:30 pm and only woke up for a little bit because of the dogs and finished The Alchemist before sleeping straight through to 7:30 am.

I breezed through the Alchemist during this trip and absolutely loved it. It was the perfect moment to be reading it. Maybe it’s true: when you’re on your path to your destiny, the universe conspires to help you achieve it. I needed that book during a time of self-doubt and a lil’ loneliness.

 

March 24, 2017

A day off. Sebastien left early to return to Natales. Apparently, he’s married with a kid on the way – things that I might have learned earlier if I spregenze’d da Espanol mejor. Breakfast was followed by a short kayak, followed by a big lunch with relatively a lot of wine, some hammock reading, meditating, speeling, pan, tortas, more pan, editing photos, and now catching up journaling. I’m going to miss the silence and tranquility of this place.

 

March 25, 2017

I’m sitting here, another morning, watching the sunrise and sharing mate. It’s one of my last mornings, so maybe I’m feeling a little wistful. It’s a clear day and the sun has slowly eased up to light up the mountains across the Gulf in front of Estancia Mercedes, but the sun has not yet cleared the hill to our east to shed direct light on us. Silhouetted still, the mountains to the south cut into the pastel blue and yellow sky with marine haze adding another layer over it all.

Fernando has a way of holding his mate and cigarette at the same time, cupping his mate with the cigarette held between 2 fingers. The smoke from the cigarette mixes with the steam of the mate, and both shroud his bearded, deeply-lined face that shows the character of the life he’s lead as a ranchero, or gaucho.

 

March 26, 2017

It’s my last night at Estancia Mercedes, and it’s definitely ended on a high note, thankfully, given the ups and downs I’ve experienced. Today I fixed a bunch of fence posts in the morning, then after lunch went with Angelica to look at fungi and lichen in the woods. “Turismo de la lupa”, or magnifying glass tourism – paying attention to the small things oft overlooked.

The family loved my photos – I’m going to give those to them as a gift as well as a card and maybe frame one for them.

I need to remember this place. The tranquility, off the grid. Slow pace. The mate, big lunches, and simple things.

Tomorrow is back to civilization then off to Torres Del Paine and beyond. I’m still wondering about how I’m going to travel and what my end date should be. My 5-year college reunion looms in my mind as a deadline, but it seems like I’ll be rushing it if I shoot for Lima on May 31/June 1. Lots of research to be done. And really, am I going to rush these experiences so that I can go get drunk at Holy Cross for a weekend? It would be great to see some classmates I haven’t seen after almost 5 years in Alaska, but I have a feeling that what I’m doing now is more important.

About The Author

JKev

Born a New Yorker and raised a New Englander, I always dreamed of going west after college in search of adventure and the outdoors. I found it in my new home in Juneau, Alaska during a year-long volunteer program after graduation. A year came and went, but I wasn't ready to leave the great white north. Four years later and still in Juneau, I decided to take another leap of faith and start Landscapes on the Run: Sustainable Adventure Travel.

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