Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sailing the Patagonian Channels

Long time no update. I've been on a Navimag ferry for several days, and to be honest when there's nothing to do all day but drink cold beers up on deck in the glorious sunshine, my memory is impacted somewhat! I'll see what I can remember…

Back in Puerto Natales, I pottered about, enjoying good coffee and egg mayo and cucumber sandwiches in El Living Café, run by a British woman. For food, I worked my way through several absolutely delicious seafood meals in El Maritimo until their service became so atrocious that I had to boycott the place on principle. It really is the Fawlty Towers of restaurants.. What can be screwed up, will be. I don't mind waiting for good food for as long as it takes, Slow Food Movement et al., but I don't like waiting for attention, particularly not on every single occasion it is requested. Hmph!

More importantly, I had my boots fixed (the large hole in the side sewn up), though I think this is a temporary measure until NZ when I'll bin and replace them. They have served me well, they are very comfy, and have the Karrimor Union Jack all over them, even the eyelets for the laces (Irish Mark was saying to me that he has every respect for Karrimor but he'd just never ever buy their gear because of the flag!) but they just aren't waterproof enough for me to truly love them to bits. A couple of extra holes punched in belt too, and bag fixed. £3 for the work. In the UK I'd probably just bin everything rather than fixing it, so there are benefits to being in a place like this. New boots though cost as much as back home, so I'd rather wait till Christchurch or somewhere where I can have a conversation with the vendor rather than "WANT THIS, PLEASE. IS GOOD? THANKS" which is probably all my Spanish would stretch to!

I also invested, after holding off for a while, in a mate set. That is to say a mate mug, the metallic filter straw, the lightest thermos flask I could find (why did I not foresee this requirement for the one the COLTies bought me?), and the all important Yerba mate tea. Two brands of tea - Taragui and Pipore, which costs almost twice as much. 500g pack of each. The mate mug was hard to find - they're not as mate-obsessed in Chile as in Argentina, so I eventually pick up one in a touristy shop. It's wooden, almost like a hollowed out apple with a reasonable hole up top. Back at Residential Dickson, Flor explains to me how it all works in her motherly way, bombarding me with Spanish that I smile blankly at. Firstly, one can't just use the mate cup, you have to condition it. This involves, apparently, filling it with a spirit, or milk and leaving it to soak for 24 hours. Milk??? I pop across to the local corner shop, ask for milk, she asks me what kind, I explain what it's for, and she poo-poos the idea of using milk. Pisco spirit is apparently the thing. Okay, so I head back with a bottle of pisco, fill the cup up and leave it in the corner of my room.

Clambered up a small hill called Dorothea near by town with Michelle, a German guide from near Frankfurt.

Looking down over Puerto Montt

At the top, with condors circling high above, after meeting a French chap called Benoir who is on the Navimag boat (yay, my first boat friend!), we enjoy a nice view of the whole of Puerto Natales, though unfortunately not many of the mountains slightly further away, as the weather's not great. What is though, is the wind - one can throw a large stick off the cliffs in front of us and a fraction of a second it soars over your head as the blasts of air running up the cliffs carry it away. I wonder whether the same would work if I jumped off. Decide not to test this theory.


Soon will be leaving Puerto Natales. I've mixed feelings about the place. It's quite small-town - the clothes shops look more like charity shops, there are no music shops at all (heinous). On the other hand, it's very gringo-touristy - lots of hostels, bars, quite chilled and easy to walk around. I've got my "usual places" set up - El Living, El Maritimo, and Roberto's Pub, funnily enough with two of the three run by Brits. I stock up on wine and beer at the nearest supermarket - SuperMix. Strangely, Chilean wine isn't as expensive as one would imagine back home. Bottles of decent reds cost about £3.50 in the supermarket - I don't think these would be more than a fiver in UK supermarkets - Casillero del Diablo, Errazuriz etc. I pick up three different Merlots and a Cab Sauv, plus two six-packs of Crystal beer. With this plus three litres of water in the Camelbak, I don't think I need to explain any issues I had trying to pick my pack up.

8th - Boarding
Today is the day! Apparently one can check in from 1pm, but Oscar suggested coming along at about 7pm, as the Navimag boat is due into port at about 4pm, and takes 5 hours to turn around, so if it's late, he'll know by then. I lunch at El Maritimo, and feel betrayed by the worst service I've had so far. It wasn't especially busy, yet I waited 15-20 minutes to get given any attention, even with repeated requests to the waitresses. Then I had to keep reminding them to bring my beer, ask three times for pepper, they screwed up my order, and made me wait ages to pay too at the end. No tip. I think the problem was that my favourite smiley waitress wasn't there. Anyway, I'm now so annoyed with the place that I cancel my plans to have a big yummy final meal there this evening, and go to El Living instead, for lasagna and the local Bagualles beer, named after some mountains around here.

I meet a Spanish guy called Roberto who will also be on Navimag (2nd boat friend!), and we discuss mate tea. The café actually has a book all about the finer technical considerations of mate, which makes good reading. One can have milk with mate. This strikes me as a truly horrible idea. Mate is essentially strong bitter green tea. Can you imagine putting milk in green tea? I certainly cannot. There are lots of etiquette considerations too. The person serving the mate round is in charge of positioning the metal straw, it's very bad form to stir the cup up yourself. If they are a pro, they carefully rotate the straw round and pour hot water on different parts of the cup in order to maintain strength. I just fill 'er up to the top and get on with it. I'm sure my mate powers will improve with practice. Also if one says thank-you when returning the mate cup, it means you don't want any more. Not an issue with most people I offer it to - after a suck then grimace there are not usually many subsequent requests!

So the Navimag boat, "Puerto Eden" turns up mid-afternooon, but due to the strong winds is not able to dock. On first attempt, its anchor gets caught on a buoy. After untangling, it goes out, loops round and tries again. I think it's all going well until it carries on past the dock and sails straight out again! What is going on? It's bad for us because we're going to be delayed, but worse for those stuck on board, especially those who have plans to, for example, head straight off to Torres the same day as coming in. This is a serious ferry we are talking about here, and the wind, whilst strong, isn't *that* strong.. Finally it docks early evening, and so we'll be boarding at 11 onwards.

She's blowing some..

I have a very pleasant surprise when Tony and Marcia, the Perthian Aussies I met in Huaraz in Peru, are apparently on the same boat as me! I thought they were still in Bolivia or somewhere, but apparently they've just come off Torres - a near miss for us up in the mountains. I also meet a nice Korean girl called Jina who has just come from the South Pole, and has a frost-bitten thumb! What a cool injury! I get my mate going and offer it round, to grimaces all round as they suck away on the bitter cup!! Hurrah!

And then it's time to board. I'm in 102, Oscar having switched me at the last minute from 101 because the three Spanish girls I thought I would be sharing with are in fact 3 kids. He's a good lad, is Oscar! I'm now sharing with a young German couple called Bjorn and Chrissie, and we'll have a spare bed, which is good, as it's damn cramped! After partially unpacking all over the spare bed, then wondering off, I return to find a British girl called Clare has had to move all my things. Oops, she was bumped into this room at the last minute.

The room has two bunks, a small gap in between, with a window facing sideways, a basin tucked in one corner, and lockers that don't close properly, and hence rattle if the boat wobbles, in the other. We have a "private" bathroom for our room, just along the corridor, with shower, toilet and washbasin. The shower is surprisingly good, but the lock for the door is a bugger. Just past is a door out to the deck. We also have a steep staircase down to the social area on level 2. Then the majority of people are below, on level 3, going outside to get down there, where there are rooms for 20 people (!), with beds that are less than 6' long and wooden ends such that anyone remotely tall cannot stretch out. Plus they have all the cargo and livestock there! I feel lucky to be up here! The only better cabin than ours is the one with en-suite bathroom, though given the apparently dodgy pipework (our sink glugs away the whole trip), and the risk of things backing up, this does work both ways!

All the excitement over, it is 2 or 3am by the time we get to bed. Unfortunately breakfast the following morning is not shifted in line with our late departure, so it's up for an 8:30am start (the ship should leave at 6am or thereabouts, assuming they manage to load the cargo, as they are still unloading)! Marvellous!

9th - Out to Sea
First day on board! I wake up to the gentle vibrations of the boat that will soothe us for the rest of the trip. We all head down to a crowded dining room / social area. Strangely, breakfast is not staggered, unlike the other meals that are ordered by cabin, with the benefit that we don't have to eat with the peasants down in cattle class (heh heh heh). So always lots of congestion and queueing for breakfast, as there is not enough capacity for everyone in the dining area (we soon learn to ignore our allocated slots and just eat when we feel like within the serving window - works much better). Breakfast consists of (every day!) a piece of fruit - unripe pears, ripe, bananas, apples, one type per meal, cornflakes with milk, cheese ham and dry bread, and a small bowl off scrambled eggs. Washed down with tea and this horrible powdered juice that they seem to "enjoy" everywhere down here.

We have a brief talk about the route and plan for the next few days, then we are released until hitting a glacier later in the day. Periodally we receive announcements about the channels we are going through - Última Esperanza Fjord, Sarmiento Channel and the White Channel, of variable width, though usually fairly wide. The weather is quite cloudy and cool. We divert off route to see Glacier Amalia. I thought I had seen enough glaciers for one trip, but what made this one so special was the calm deep green of the lake in front of the glacier, covered with ice debris that had broken off from, the whole scene enclosed with whispy cloud. Very scenic.


We debated who was going for a swim first

Lifeboats at the ready

In the evening, beers and wine flows, and we enjoy a very depressing Chilean film called Machucha about life under Pinochet after about half an hour of messing round with the DVD player and sound system to get the vocals working. You'd almost get the impression that they don't show movies on this boat every single day since its inception many years ago.

Incidentally, one feature of this boat is the announcements. They're never prefixed by a status, so you never know whether they are announcing the sinking of the ship or a blockage in the 3rd floor toilets. All broadcasts go everywhere, so you can be having a snooze in your room listening to "after finishing your meal, please return your tray to the corner" every 5 minutes. Becomes kinda annoying. They do announce interesting things to see as we come upon them ("if you look on the left, you can see whales" etc). Needs different introductory jingles so you can decide whether to come out of your snooze to listen.

Lunch and dinner were fairly similar to breakfast - with different food most days - salmon steak (nice), meatloaf (not at all sure about that), steak (tasted better than it looked), spag bol (not great), lasagna (didn't get to eat this, they'd substituted it for more salmon for some people for some reason). Jina has brought 10 bottles of Korean Chilli Pepper Paste with her, she's down to 3 but still generously offers it round to help wake our taste buds.

Bjorn and Chrissie giving their best "catalogue" smiles

Sunsets all round

10th - Puerto Eden
Today we have a horribly early breakfast so that we can disembark for Puerto Eden early.

The Puerto Eden boat approaches Puerto Eden

The Navimag ferry dwarfs the village

Tony couldn't be parted from his morning ration of dry bread

The village is tiny, with an ever dwindling population (LP from a few years ago says 300, Footprint last year says 180). The village is home to the last surviving "pure breed" Kaweskar tribespeople (7 of them I think). Yesterday we had a rather melodramatic flowerly documentary about them - apparently the "evil white man" with his "shallow society" is destroying them by trading with them, building hospitals, and educating their children - they were far happier without all of this. Some have even married outside of their pure race. How can this be allowed? Anyway, all sounds rubbish to me, and given the general attractiveness of mixed-race people, I'm firmly of the believe that there won't be such a thing as a pure-race person in a few hundred years. I'm doing my best to assist with this process of course ;)

Cloud hangs over town

The shop. Note in the small print the value of the shop - £26!

The village is a bit like Tortel - stretched around a small coastline, with wooden walkways running its length. Houses are mostly wooden and well-constructed, with lots of the "fish-scale" wooden cladding about. Given that this boat is only running every two weeks at the moment, everyone is out trying to sell post-cards and bric-a-brac to us. We have already paid £3 for the privilege of disembarking, so I don't feel too bad about not buying anything. If nothing else, is good to take advantage of the only opportunity to stretch our legs off-boat.

Can I pay by card?


Chile have designated Tony's hat a national treasure

Jina makes friends

I should mention that today the weather is gorgeous - blue skies, sun and no wind. Actually feel quite hot walking round Puerto Eden, but it's perfect sailing weather, with a gentle breeze from our sailing, and we hit open sea and the notorious "Gulf of Sorrows" mid-afternoon, when supposedly everyone throws up! They are selling sea-sickness pills on board, and two hours before the gulf there is an announcement advising people to start popping them. So, along the Messier Channel, we passing through Angostura Inglesa, Bajo Cotopaxi and the San Pedro lighthouse. The good weather continues and when we hit the gulf, we are fine. There is a slight swaying motion but nothing that will cause major issues. In fact it probably adds to our enjoyment of the disco in the evening, or at least provides us with an excuse for the occasional stagger, as opposed to blaming it on booze!

1. See no evil

2. See no evil

3. Errrr… See no evil!

Mr Blue Sky!

Let's hope they don't snipe back

Let this be a warning

In the afternoon we have the highly-appropriate movie March of the Penguins. Before it starts I make several attempts on a Morgan Freeman impression, but it just can't be done. I think the issue is with me not being black, I just don't have the timbre in my voice-box. At night we end up on deck, admiring the stars, though I can't see Comet McNaught. Southern Cross is there though, pointing to the North Star sitting right on the horizon.

11th - Whale Sightings!
Today we have nothing to do, so I don't know why our breakfast is scheduled for 7:30am! Ouch! We enter the channels zone - Ana Pink Bay, the Pulluche Channel and North and South Pérez Channels. These channels are all very wide, which means we don't get to see much on either side, which is a shame, but there are some impressive mountains on our right, presumably with the Hielo Sur behind. Along the Brieva Strait and Peñón Blanco, past Melinka, and the Corcovado and Ancud Gulfs.

The bridge

Navigational stuff

In the afternoon we have numerous sightings of whales, though none very close to the boat unfortunately. Near enough to see them spraying water high out of the sea though, which is very exciting. The amusing phenomenon up on top deck is of the phantom sighting. All it takes is for one person to point with their arm, exclaim, or rush to the side, and suddenly half the passengers are rushing over to see what they may be missing. At various times on the trip we sight sea lions, dolphins, and whales.

Dolphins run under us

The conversation soon ran dry leading to the infamous 4-way bookoff

The evening brings an event of particular interest - the Bingo party. Outrageously we have to pay £1 for each card, but as there's nothing else to do, what choice do we have?! None of the prices particularly appeal - a large (heavy!) framed explanation of different knots, cheap wine, or Patagonia hats and t-shirts. What's more amusing is that anyone winning has to do something horribly embarrassing, like dance in front of everyone, or in Tony and Marcia's case, pass a ripe peach back and forth five times between their necks without using their hand. I have not laughed so much in quite some time. Especially when the marshal woman asked them to stop and they just carried on! We drink late into the night, and when we arrive at Puerto Montt at (?) 3:30am, I decide it's probably time to call it a night.

12th - Dry Land
Up early again, big queue for breakfast which I skip, some chaotic packing then we disembark. I'm very tired! The Navimag terminal is at the edge of town in a horrible area. Later I realise that this is fairly characteristic of the whole town. Tony, Marcia, Jina and myself troop off to find a place to stay. The beauty of being in a group is that you can divide and conquer to find hostels, with one person caretaking bags. We end up succumbing to the rather pricy, but very nice and particularly clean Pacifico Hotel. Those who know me will understand how much I tried to fight this decision, but in the end the group won out. We knew it was clean by the rooms not being quite ready when we arrived, though we could go into them, then had to wait for thirty minutes whilst the girl cleaned the bathrooms! Not something you want to scrimp on, but still! At Jina's suggestion, I shave off my beard. It takes a long long time! Without scissors, I hack and hack away with a very blunt blade. After a fistful of hair I am left with a marvellous military moustache!

Tally-ho! Sorry if this gives anyone nightmares!

I demo this, but am suggested that it should go, and so it does. Strange sensation. Smooth! No hair to run my teeth through. Stroking my chin whilst contemplating doesn't have the same elegance to it. It was necessary though. Tony appears later and has done the same. Being blokes, we don't notice the change in each other, then Marcia yelps "you've shaved your beard"!

One funny thing about being on dry land - several times during the day I thought I could feel the "ship" rolling under me - it's like my sense of balance hasn't quite adjusted to being on a first surface, and in case you're wondering, no I haven't touched a drop since leaving the boat!! Other people have felt it too!

After some wandering around the rather grim town and enjoying a bit of internet access, Jina and I try some cappuccinos (horrible and sweet), salmon tacos (too salty), cake (too dry), ice-cream (not very tasty). This town is just not pressing my buttons! The main issue as I see it is the traffic - all the main streets have stacks of buses and cars running along them - they could really do with pedestrianising at least one or two of the main streets. They also seem to have huge numbers of large supermarkets - there are about 4 within 100 metres of our hotel. There are a few big malls too, with foodcourts! Woooo, we're back to civilisation! A snooze follows, then out for dinner together at Angelmo, a fishing area a few kilometers out of the centre, past the Navimag terminal and red-light district. There are lots of exciting small eateries in covered alleyways, but the hard-sell is annoying us, so we find a more "comfortable" place by the water. Marcia and I have fried conger, Jina has abalone with mayonnaise, and Tony seafood soup. Despite being the most expensive dish, the abalone is pretty horrible, so I help out with some conger. No beer is required - soft drinks all round!

13th - Up to La Serena
Up at a more leisurely time than Navimag would ever permit, usual breakfast of bread, tasteless cheese and ham, and, at extra cost, eggs, then send Jina off at the bus station. A bit of surfing back at the hotel, then taxi to the airport. Puerto Montt really is not very attractive. No lounge at airport, and I forget that my corkscrew (with built-in penknife) is in my hand luggage. Bugger. Flight is delayed a bit taking off, giving me 10 minutes to connect at Santiago. The tragic consequence is that I have to walk briskly past the first Starbucks I've seen since.. err… Lima?? I must say though, it's good to be back on aeroplanes! I'm back in my world!

Into La Serena, and sure enough, as I suspected, my bag didn't make it on to the flight. Never mind - I try to hitch into town because without bags I may as well have some fun, but a bus ends up picking me up then not charging me. Kinda the same I suppose. The town seems quite laid-back, and the skies are clear as the sun is going down. I think it's going to be nice here...

P.S. Happy Valentine's Day! I'll be celebrating it by romantically spending the day in the LAN Office trying to get the useless buggers to change my RTW ticket! Nice!


Unknown said...

Hola chico, Great report. Like the way how you write and if I may say so you really got a very good eye if it comes to take nice photos. And i guess it`s not because you got a fancy camera.....I think it`s amazing how you change with or without hair in your face.:) Wish you all best very best, stay safe and enjoy it all. maybe we meet again and then you can be my guide for London.....beso y aprazo :) michelle :)

Anonymous said...

At sea, the beard looked happy at last. Ewan MacColl, scurvy ridden shanties, big woolly jumpers and all that.

Do all Korean birds have a Sergeant Major fetish? I'm not letting you into my house again if you turn up like that.

Despite the shock, I'm enjoying the read. A welcome break at work from the endless andrenalin rush of my chosen profession.

Sam Crawley said...

Damn you anonymous posters, show yourself!

Anonymous said...

Bring me a bottle of Pisco, I want one of those old fashion ones, they were dark pitch black and had the shape of a face.