02 March 2011

Punta Arenas

I took a bus from Rio Grande to Punta Arenas. Norma, who runs the Club Nautico, knew of an agent in town that sold tickets at good prices. By taking a bus I figured to save my knees a few days of difficult riding into the wind across the Chilean ripio. From Punta Arenas I had the option of flying to Santiago on a cheap Chilean flight, or looking around the port for a freighter headed to Valparaiso. I picked up two bike boxes at a bicicleteria, cut them down to size, and packed up the bike and gear to leave Rio Grande.

It was a more than six hour bus ride with long stops at both the Argentine and Chilean customs at San Sebastian. The bus was hot and sweaty and dirty and full of European backpackers. It now felt extraordinary to cover such a distance in a single day. I had become used to looking at maps and calculating bicycle distances and to ride to Punta Arenas would have been at least three days on gravel and sand roads and into a brutal headwind.

I thought the bus would make the ferry crossing at Porvenir but instead, after following the coast from Rio Grande, we continued north across the ripio to the ferry at Punta Delgada. I saw again the route it had taken me two days to ride. Commerson's Dolphins followed the ferry across the Strait of Magellan, streaks of black and white in the water and then leaping through the surface and back under. At 5 feet long and 100 lbs these dolphins are some of the world's smallest and because of their coloring are also known as the 'skunk dolphin'. They were exciting to watch. When I had taken this ferry two weeks earlier I had not seen them.

But I could not travel by bus and this one trip was enough. The distances are too long in Argentina and it makes for too many hours sitting and looking out at a landscape that for a passenger must be monotonous. To ride that same landscape though is interesting and exciting, and all the subtle changes of topography appear to the touring cyclist and he experiences them slowly, sometimes very slowly because of the wind, and he enjoys them. Riding on the bus made me long to get back on the bike and it is with renewed enthusiasm that I will approach the Paso Los Libertadores over the Andes between Santiago and Mendoza.

Where we were let out near the centro in Punta Arenas there was a crowd of old ladies handing out fliers for their hostals. I had the name of a hostal that had been recommended to me but I needed a taxi to get there with the two bike boxes and I had no Chilean pesos. A number of backpackers were looking to come with me since they spoke no Spanish and heard me communicating with the old ladies. I made a deal with little, old Veronica that if she would pay for my cab ride to her hostal I would stay there and told the backpackers they were on their own. It was their own fault they showed up on a continent unable to communicate.

Veronica's hostal was actually her home and she had put bunk beds in two of the rooms to function as small dormitories. There was nobody sleeping on the other bed in my room but down the hall in the other room was an old German man. He was sitting at the dining table and by the evidence of the beer cans had been drinking all afternoon. He didn't speak any Spanish and wanted to talk with me and after I put my boxes in my room I sat down with him. The German's english was broken and difficult to understand and he had no shoes on and his feet stunk horribly.

He told me about his life in Germany working illegally in an insulation factory and saving as much money as he could for this trip across the Americas. Working with insulation meant your body itched and the German demonstrated by scratching his chest and arms frantically. Did I understand? Yes. I did. He talked about places he had been in the United States but he had them all mixed up. The German was certain that Tampa Bay was in New York state and that Denver was in Mississippi. I tried but was unable to convince him otherwise. The smell of his feet became too intense and I excused myself and went to bed early. I was fortunate not to be sharing a room with him. 


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