|A few hours
away in Chile, and there is nobody - empty river banks and empty ‘miradors’
(vista points), as well as empty trails. When you do meet someone walking
the path to the park, they are carrying an axe or wearing a ‘Parque’ (Park
Ranger) shirt. In the Park itself we saw no one, and heard only birds.
The heart of
this Natural Zone, remote Hornopiren National Park is an earned pleasure.
The entrance fee is free, but you are going to walk a long ways. The old
saw “it was uphill both ways” started here. You park your vehicle at the
Park Rangers House to begin your trek. For a couple of Kilometers the walk
is pastoral ranch terrain, but then the walk gets very serious. I have
been told, mountain bikes can climb anything you can do on foot, but this
walk/climb to the park makes me doubt that statement. I can’t really imagine
any vehicle making it to the entrance (unless you carried a bike). Traveling
on horseback seems improbable. Fierce vertical drops combined with narrow
bridges over rivers, gravel and mud (and this is just TO the entrance),
make trekking the only sure means of getting there. Once inside the Park,
huge Alerce trees surround you with their presence, similar to California
Redwoods (Sequoia). Temperate rainforest is another world. Like a freeze-frame
epic fight between the plants for sun and root space, nothing moves. Every
surface is sprouting something. In this silence, the sound of unseen wings
bounce through the trees. There is a form of bamboo called colihue cana
that makes dense jungle-like mats between you and the sound of the never-too-distant
Rio Negro. You hear the river, and the cascadas but getting to, or even
seeing them, is not easy. There is a smell of blossoms in the forest breaks,
where you can see the surrounding peaks still holding small pockets of
snow. The last snow fell on December 9, 2005, 11 days before the official
beginning of summer. Evenings get cool quickly even after a hot day (temps
in the high 70’s). If you are on a day trip, it is time to head back, when
the afternoon breeze begins to cool things off.
will never be the huge draw like the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, with their
millions of visitors. It will always be personal, giving you the sense
of being somewhere beyond photography or description. You will never see
it all… but you may have all that you see… to yourself.
the place we were drawn to by the rumor that there was a Lodge at the “end
of the world.” Stepping out of the car, and seeing the volcano looming
over me, a forest-clad mountain just in back and then snow capped jagged
mountains behind them and hearing the rushing waters of the Rio Negro,
well, we decided to stay.
the nuts and bolts of life in a foreign land come down to language. We
were prepared (at least in our own minds) to live and prosper in Spanish.
We had spoken Spanish in many places; Mexico, Honduras, even the USA and
now, finally, the “blackbelt” form of Spanish spoken in Argentina known
as “Castellano”. We had acquired a certain confidence even with (dreaded)
phone calls from strangers. The locals speak a version of the tongue that
defies comprehension outside of the very local area. Modismos (slang) are
words and phrases like an “in joke” understood by everyone for so long;
folks just think that is the way the language should be spoken. We had
experienced the modismos that make up so much of the conversations here
- how hard could the castellano of neighboring Chile be???
And so our
There is a
familiar pattern to all foreign travelers - group think, or rather, group
listening will improve comprehension. “Another pair of ears” is always
going to assist imprecise language skills. In the debriefing period afterward
or in moments of time constraint - like ticket counters - everyone gives
his impression of what was said. “He said go to Gate 11 and turn left”.
“No he said if you have gotten to Gate 11, you have gone too far”. “No,
He SAID there is no Gate 11, here, it’s in the other terminal”. And so
The worst moments
of this pattern besieged us as soon as we entered Chile: we were back to
telling people to speak slooowly. We noticed there is a pronounced rhythm
to the language, almost like it was being sung with ebbs and flows of emphasis,
peaks and valleys of mumbles and clarities. People’s mouths were definitely
out-of-synch with what was being said to an almost “Kung-Fu” movie degree.
We listened intently - took mental notes of words actually recognized -
struggling to grasp the context of those words - and were often forced
to make the person repeat everything from the beginning. Often the second
version is more concise, phrased as you would speak to a child - a very
slow child. Embarrassing as this process was, it often yielded nuggets
of information totally missed in the previous presentation. With 3 pairs
of ears (focused and cunning) we often found the correct directions; after
which, we felt a great pride and self esteem, something not felt since
the 3rd grade.
So, when my
new neighbor came over to ‘Meet and Greet’, we paid special attention to
every word. We had moved to an incredibly beautiful, but very rural - even
remote - area outside of town (Hornopiren) not even on most maps
in the States, and unlike traveling where you make a lot of superficial
‘friendships’, we were going to know this guy for a long time if things
worked out with the government, and the economy.
His first words
were not reassuring, he was telling us his name and we weren’t getting
it, until the third try. I tried leaning toward him thinking I just wasn’t
hearing him clearly. He began telling us about the former owner - who did
something “Very Bad to a horse”, and it really scared the neighbors - or
maybe he (the former owner) just didn’t like horses. We were comparing
notes between us (trying not to break the flow of the narrative) and it
was always slightly different versions colliding instead of merging.
about a horse who liked his flowers”…”No, he (the former guy) really didn’t
like the horse - and there is something about a cow as well”…”What the
heck is a balas? Or is it balsas”…“isn’t that a boat?”… “Wait a minute
balas (thank God for Franklin translators) are bullets! I think he shot
a horse - that stinks! … “And a cow too?... In little less than 10 minutes
we had achieved communication, and all of us beamed proudly - even our
new neighbor- who’s name we still hadn’t gotten. We had gained a ‘beach-head’
in Chilean Castellano.
In the ensuing
days, we sat on our porch that faced the Andes and asked this kindly ‘thin
as a rail’ caballero (gentle man, literally though ‘horseman’) about his
family, and history in the area. He mentioned sons and grandsons but not
his wife. I had gained a little more confidence, so I asked about the wife…
I should back
up to say, our neighbor was lending us his sheep to do some much needed
grass mowing on the Lodge grounds. The sheep appeared every morning and
he came every night to put the animals in a shed. We were told by our new
friend, he had to put them up to protect them from “Pumas” (mountain lions).
were surprised to hear there was any sort of large carnivores in the area
because there is very little wildlife in this pristine, very remote, mountainous
area. Tiny deer called “Pudu” are supposed to be seen occasionally - but
the reports sound almost mythical. There are No Bears, No (full-sized)
deer, even the giant Hares we had spotted in other Patagonia locations
were absent. So, “Pumas” was kind of a shock (“What next, Yetis?”).
with a smile and a new very deliberate, vocal pacing, began the story of
his coming to this area 5 years ago…the terrible road to our house was
evidently a huge ‘upgrade’ over what they had in those days. The other
neighbors, were either pioneers with several decades here, or the sons
of the pioneers, and evidently a ‘cliquish’ lot, so he had spent a lot
of time with his family…(He had lost his ‘thread’) “And your wife?” I said
helpfully. “She was here” he replied, gaining speed as he told his story.”She
was here…and you know the medical service in Hornopiren was (either very
bad, just ‘witch Doctors’, or non-existent)…(now a torrent of words started)
and her hand was gone, (he gestured to show us on his own wrist where the
loss had come to)…she was bleeding(got that)…Doctor said she should go
somewhere else (probably Puerto Montt-the big city several hours of bad
road and ferry away from Hornopiren). He was going to take her (he is really
gaining speed as memory of the tragedy comes back to him)…but something
about the weather and not having some means of transport (people here walk
to where they have to go. We live 6 Km from Hornopiren and our neighbors
routinely walk to town, sometimes everyday.) She couldn’t be expected to
walk with her hand gone…SO…(he gestured widely with his hands)… We were
in a state of shock.
She lost her
hand? I asked. “Si” he replied. I turned to the ‘other pairs of ears’ and
said “Huh?” “Something about an accident” the wife ventures. “The wife
lost her hand”.
We had missed
a lot in an important story about something… “Amigo what happened to
your wife’s hand? Is she still here?” I made the immigrant’s worst mistake
- I asked more than one question at a time. “She’s gone”, he said. “She
lost her hand to here (Descriptive gesture)…and then we just lost the thread
entirely. He spoke so fast and gestured as if there was an audience in
the surrounding mountains, so sometimes I couldn’t see his face, and lost
all visual cues, recapping the whole story of the amputation…the incident…(and
perhaps a warning from previous conversations)…bleeding very bad…Doctors
Too far to
walk…Pumas…lost her hand…can’t expect her to stay here (after that). So
she is not here (obviously).”She is gone then?” I ask, totally lost.
“Si” he replies. “What did he say?” asks the wife. Something about his
wife lost her hand and Pumas” I reply. “ Pumas got her hand?”… “Si-Pumas”
he says with a smile.
are the previous articles that Doug wrote for the magazine:
To contact Doug
To Magazine Index