This blog entry about the events of Friday, December 24, 2010 was originally posted on December 30, 2010.
DAY 8 (CHRISTMAS EVE): “I’m Chris,” said a young, blonde outdoorsy North American guy at Base Camp, a combination tour office, information center, camping equipment rental store, and recycling center in Puerto Natales. “I’m the expedition guide here on the Base Camp side.” We were in the building next to Erratic Rock, the popular American-run hostel I’d moved to, across the street from the Plaza O’Higgins. Chris was leading the daily three o’clock information session for anyone in town wanting to learn about trekking in Torres del Paine National Park, which many believe conveys the quintessential southern Patagonian experience in a short period of time.
In the room with me were five Americans (including my new friend John), three Germans, one British guy, one Argentinian, one Indian, one Romanian guy (with a French passport), and about a dozen post-army-service Israelis who were planning to trek in the mountains of Patagonia instead of going out for Chinese food and a movie on Christmas.
“Does anyone know what I mean when I talk about ‘The W’?” Chris asked the crowd.
“George Bush,” joked the elderly German man.
What he was referring to was something we all already knew: that ‘The W’ was THE trekking trail to do in the park, named not after a former American president but after the letter W, because of its shape; the trek goes up one valley, then backtracks and loops around into another valley, and then backtracks and loops around into a third valley so that on a map you are drawing a cursive letter W.
“There is no right or wrong way to trek in Torres del Paine,” Chris informed us. The combination of trails of the W, and the longer “Q” circuit (also named after a letter shape) could be mixed and matched and done in any order one desired — although Chris mapped out, in great detail, his suggested five-day trek that would draw the cursive W from left to right, leading up to the actual Torres del Paine ("Towers of Blue” in the indigenous Tehuelche Indian language) rock formation for the grand finale at sunrise on the last day. Chris gave us tips on camping, food, and keeping dry (i.e. just anticipate being wet all the time so get used to it).
“There is no weather report,” he told us. “Locals do not talk about the weather. Tourists talk about the weather.” Patagonia’s summer is as unpredictable as a bingo draw, so it was advised to pack for all four seasons as one might encounter all in a single day. It may not get freezing in the summer, but it was sure going to be cold with the wind chill factor, with winds up to 185 mph.
“I’ve seen a fully grown man, fully packed, lifted off his feet and thrown,” he told us, saying that’s the worst of the problems in the park. “[No matter how hardcore you tell your friends you are for trekking here,] Patagonia is not that extreme. [There is no danger of altitude sickness.] There are no big animals, no poisonous spiders, no poisonous plants, no angry land owners...”
“Yeti?” someone joked.
“Yes, but they only really come out on Fridays,” he countered.
The rental center was open at the end of the talk, when everyone dispersed to get supplies and provisions — preferably from the local mom and pop stores at Chris’ suggestion, instead of the big Walmart-esque UniMarc that was destroying the local economy of such a small outpost town. As exciting as it was to get ready for a Patagonian adventure, it was also Christmas Eve.
“This is going to be epic,” John said. “It’s starting to feel like Christmas, it smells like Christmas...”
“Yeah, it smells like a fireplace,” I interjected (as it did).
“...I’m where I want to be, everything’s coming together! Merry Christmas!” He kicked his heels up in an Irish jig. We went shopping at the local stores for spaghetti, pasta sauce, soup, oatmeal, dried fruit, sugar, cinammon, coffee, plastic bags, peanut butter, trail mix, and the all-important rations of M&Ms, Milky Ways, and Snickers bars. “We just bought five days worth of food for thrity dollars,” he said excitedly.
Exciting yes, but I was more excited when John wrote down his name and passport number on a sheet of paper at a travel agency when we were sorting out our post-trek bus tickets in opposite directions. “Your name’s John McClain?” I said with amazement, seeing the alternate spelling of Bruce Willis’ character in the popular action franchise Die Hard — the first of which takes place during a Christmas party. (Coincidence?)
“Yeah,” he said with grief at the hackneyed recognition. Not surprisingly, he heard every John McClane joke all before. In fact, once he put Bruce Willis as his Facebook profile picture and got tons of friend requests from complete action flick-loving strangers.
DIE HARD REFERENCES ASIDE, I was in fact getting in a festive mood earlier that day when I wandered town that sunny but blustery day, whistling “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” to myself. Puerto Natales is like many small South American seaside towns; there’s a main cathedral, a Plaza de Armas, playgrounds with swingsets, a municipal building, shops, markets, laundromats, packs of seemingly social stray dogs, and restaurants were locals can get the three-course menu del dia for five bucks. (It was estofado de vacuno [beef stew] that day.) The difference between this town and others is that it’s on the fringe of the Patagonian wilderness — with the scenic albeit windy Seno de Ultima Esperanza and the boats that float on top — which has inadvertently caused it to be transformed into a Western adventure seeker town, with tourist-catering restaurants, bars, souvenir malls, and gear stores selling The North Face and not as much “Patagonia"-branded gear as I thought there would be. That’s not to say the locals didn’t take over their town when it came to Christmas, with local kids posing for a nativity scene in the downtown area (picture above), as a woman sang carols accompanied by a less-than-enthusiastic little guitarist.
“JOHN McCAIN?” MY FATHER ASKED, citing the name of the Republican presidential candidate-turned-back-to-US Senator when I called the parents that Christmas Eve evening using Skype for iPhone.
“No, John McClain,” I answered, emphasizing the L. “Like in Die Hard.” I wished them a Feliz Navidad as they were off to family dinner, over the hostel’s WiFi connection. John did the same using my phone, reluctantly amazed at new technologies, much like his Bruce Willis counterpart. Talking to my parents in a cozy environment fit the mood; Erratic Rock was the little American socially-conscious commune in town, founded by the uber-friendly Bill “from the great state of Oregon” (who had a good sense of toilet humor in the faulty bathroom), where tourists and volunteers of any nationality could chill out, use the WiFi, warm up to the house cat, or watch It’s Always Sunny... in Patagonia (on DVD).
The environment was so welcoming that they even hosted a Christmas barbecue (Christmas is traditionally celebrated on the night of Christmas Eve in many parts of South America), a party where they invited all their friends, both international and local. Christmas tunes (Charlie Brown, Mariah Carey, etc.) filled the big room back at Base Camp where a Christmas tree was set up indoors, and a full lamb was roasting outside in the backyard. A church bell rang in the distance.
“Oh, Jesus is born!” an American said sarcastically as he cut another piece of meat off to serve to the next empty plate.
The lamb was complemented with fried meat-filled empanadas, a light salad, and mashed potatoes served up fresh by the maestro Bill himself. And because it was also Friday, there were also two big loaves of homemade challah for the weekly Jewish seder. (Jesus was a Jew anyway.) (Holla!) Most people washed it down with cheap Austral beer, but John and I decided to go a little classier when we went shopping earlier.
It was a merry old time, chilling by the tree, making new friends, greeting everyone a “Feliz Navidad,” and stuffing our faces. “Want to see something that will completely turn your appetite?” John asked. He pointed to the cat on the chair behind me, licking its own privates.
I met many people that night, most significantly for the sake of the upcoming entries: Felix from Stuttgart, a patent attorney; Simone his partner, a physical therapist also from Stuttgart; and Florin, the animated Romanian with a French passport from the session earlier that day. John and I had met him in the travel agency when trying to figure out our tickets after the trek, and after seeing his difficulty in getting reservations for four nights in the park’s refugios, we invited him to join our dynamic duo — making it a dynamic trio — so that we could not only enjoy each other’s company on the trail, but split any of the rental costs of camp cooking equipment three ways instead of two.
“This is definitely the most unique Christmas I’ve ever had,” John raved, drinking his wine.
“Well that’s why we came,” I told him. There were no terrorists trying to take over like in the Die Hard movies, but unique nonetheless.
In a semi-drunken stupor, the two of us decided to make our mothers happy and head to mass. I poured the rest of the bottle of wine into our two plastic cups — “plastic to keep it classy.” “Okay, bottoms up,” I said, raising my cup to his for one last shot of vino tinto. “Let’s go to church!”
There was no midnight mass as I would have thought; the night mass started earlier so we only caught the tail end of it — not that we could completely understand all the Spanish in our state. John had to keep himself from smiling so as not to expose his red wine-stained teeth and lips. “If God exists, I’m his fault,” he jokingly admitted.
Afterwards we wandered the church and town to take some photos, and then head back to Base Camp for a nightcap of festive gluwein and some more challah. The Christmas spirit continued the next morning when Bill made us omelettes for breakfast wearing a Santa hat, all before we all took the two-hour shuttle at 7:30am to go into the national park.
If that was the ending of one of the most unique Christmas Eves I’ve ever had — especially since I shared it with a guy named John McClain — it only meant the most unique Christmas Day was yet to come. Yippie Ki Yay, mother fucker...
When I posted on Facebook that I’d met a John McClain, my friend Julie told me that she might know him from college, and that I might ultimately already be one degree connected to him on the Facebook. Facebook confirmed the connection; it really is a small world after all.
Next entry: I'm Dreaming Of A Grey Christmas
Previous entry: 25 South
A White Christmas is coming up. Stay tuned…
Posted by on 12/30 at 02:50 PM
thanks for the Fun Fact shout out.
Posted by on 12/30 at 03:19 PM
I just noticed that on the “Skype for iPhone” picture, there’s an “ET” behind me. It’s ET phoning home.
Posted by on 12/30 at 06:03 PM
Erik, booby, i’m your white knight
Posted by on 01/01 at 06:33 PM
I'm Dreaming Of A Grey Christmas
THE GLOBAL TRIP GLOSSARY
Confused at some of the jargon that's developed with this blog and its readers over the years? Here's what they mean:1981ers: people born after 1981. Originally, this was to designate groups of young backpackers fresh out of school, many of which were loud, boorish and/or annoying. However, time has passed and 1981ers have matured and have been quite pleasant to travel with. The term still refers to young annoying backpackers, regardless of year.