Monday, March 10, 2008

Cruising the Carretera

Last November, our family and my parents rented a minivan to drive around Southern Chile. It was a coastal, cultural, family adventure more than anything, with lots of seafood markets and restaurants, sight seeing in several larger cities, with clean, decent lodging, and mostly paved roads. I think I took a shower every morning. A great way to travel, especially with grandparental support with the kids. So civilized.

We just got back from our second trip this year to Chile, this time in a tent. Just the four of us. Meaning, no help distracting Maite from attaching her crying self to my leg, no one to pull Lucas' attention away from rearranging the camp fire with a stick, no extra person to watch the kids when they waded into the river. Some of you might think "what a great, wholesome learning experience for the kids, and family bonding to boot!" Others of you will say, "Sounds like a nightmare! I'd never do it". It was an amazing trip in many ways, but, --I'm not going to lie-- the phrase "I'm just not cut out to be a father", was muttered on more than one occasion. During trying moments when Lucas, for the umpteenth time, refused to do what we asked of him, or there was no escape from little Maite's cries, we thought "How do other parents handle this? How do they deal with such behavioral problems?" The answer, of course, is that most parents don't take their four year-old and two year-old on a two week camping trip into the wilds of Chile. We had the theory that our kids would get better at this camping thing with a little practice. What happened, in fact, is that the whole family eventually learned how to better coexist, peacefully and playfully. Somewhat, anyway.

Kids or no kids, southern Chile was just as glorious as ever. We entered Chile in a tiny town called Palena, and from there drove north. Very, very slowly. But with scenery like this, who wants to go fast? Sharp rising, tree-coated mountains, a ribbon of gravel road that winds through valleys, a tumbling river either on our right, or our left, lakes nestled between mountains. . . Chile gets greener, wilder, and less and less populated the farther south you are. After days of driving on the Carretera Austral (literally "southern road", referring to the road that extends into Chile's most southern area) the beauty didn't let up. Here and there we come to small settlements -- they get called "towns" if its lucky enough to have a school. A town has really hit the big time if it has it's own gas station. In other words, be frugal with your gas, and fill up whenever you can.

One evening, we stopped at a tiny mountain lake, after driving on a truly pathetic "road" for about 30 minutes or so. It was getting dark so we discussed camping on a homestead at the edge of the lake. The place was abandonded, but had trees laden with fruit, and a grassy area where someone had camped before. The owner and his wife and grandchildren appeared (I have no idea how they knew to show up at just that moment) and we asked permission. The man had grown up on this very site, which, until just last year, could only be reached by foot or horse. The little "road" was less than a year old, and the locals were ecstatic. Now they were just waiting for the electricity lines to reach them. "What century are we in, again?" I asked Luis. It is astounding to think of living in such isolation, where to attend school or go to a hospital means many hours on a horse. But there are many, many people who live this way in rural Chile.

In our second week on the road, we drove through Pumalin Park, which is 742,000 acres, owned and managed by Doug Tompkins, American conversationist and business magnate. Much to the consternation of many Chileans, this park cuts a huge swath right out of Chile's middle, stretching from the Argentine border to the sea. Tompkin's policy to leave the land as untouched as possible means we don't see the typical half cut trees, gravel pits, little shacks every few files. Here in Pumalin it's just deep, dense, gloriously untouched green. Huge leaves overflow, at the edges, into the narow, gravel road. The effect is lovely, otherwordly, so unlike Argentina's systematic raze of all trees within 100 feet of the roads.

Luis and my appreciation of this trip directly relates to the lovely camping spots we found, the remote roads, mountains, and stunning vistas we encountered. A memorable trip, for Lucas, and, increasingly, Maite, is about how many airplanes/helicopters/boats/roadwork machines we sighted. They were most impressed with the small airplanes tanking up with water to fight the forest fires, both in Argentina and in Chile. They loved the ferry rides, three all together, including a six hour journey with mountains, small inlets, and fishing boats on all sides. They saw a helicopter up close, and played inside of a parked motor grader.

Besides all things mechanical, they were drawn to every and all bodies of water. We routinely camped near water, meaning our children were usually wet, and frequently buck naked. A few times, we rented little cabins with kitchens to give ourselves a break. These nights turned out to be more work than rest, however, because we bathed the kids, (they love lakes, but hate showers) washed clothes and camp gear.

Leaving the Carretera behind, we ventured past farmlands, passing through unattractive, shoddy little towns, devoid of the natural beauty of their more southern counterparts. In fact, few Chileans towns I have been in can be described as pretty --interesting, yes, authentic, absolutely --but it's the views of the volcanoes, the mountain lakes, and the coast, that keep us coming back. Please note that I am referring to Southern Chile here. Central Chile is a very different kind of trip, its' attractions more city and vineyard oriented.

My feelings were mixed when we got back to Neuquen. I was pleased to unpack, sleep in a bed, not put up the tent. See the cat, and eat our homegrown tomatoes. Sad, though, that our trip to Chile is behind us now, and that the next big trip will probably be the last, for a long while --back to the U.S. The next time Lucas helps thread the tent poles, and Maite helps arrange the sleeping bags, it'll be in the Northern Hemisphere. Good thing that the U.S. is beautiful, too, because a future without mountains, rivers, and trees --now that would be depressing. Not nearly as exotic as southern Chile, but we'll take it.

For pictures of this adventure, click here.