‘I passed through three boring towns’ was the start of a chapter that changed the way I thought about travel writers yet again. It helped that I would visit them after I read the chapter. Both visits were stopovers of a kind. One by commercial jet, the other by ship seeking shelter from two cyclones that seemed to merge just to scare us off.
I had found In Patagonia in a shop in Buenos Aires in late 1995. I was living in a hotel on Avenida de Mayo just a stone’s throw from the Casa Rosada, the Presidential Palace. Carlos Menem had just been re-elected and there were almost weekly protest marches on Thursdays. Once, a firework cannister was directed at me for watching the passing flag, banner and placard waving throngs from my third floor hotel balcony window.
The very angry social reform marches usually assembled in the Plaza de Mayo park in front of Menem’s Palacio Presidencial from where they headed towards the Palacio del Congreso. More precisely, the destination was the park in front where I often sat during lunch while watched by a very different cast, that of Rodin’s The Thinker. This angry route was my daily commute for nigh on two months during which I also explored huge tracts of the capital on foot. I was working mostly alone with a large workstation and a large three-dimensional seismic survey. I was processing the raw data to yield images of the subsurface. Too many work days were twenty hours long, several even longer than that. So I often cat-napped on the floor while waiting on the machine to demand responses from me. The other days found me in front of the machine for twelve or fourteen hours excluding the time I took to wander to book shops or coffee shops or walk the streets.
So there I was, in Buenos Aires, having left my wife to her work while looking after three kids at home for two months. I had a finely honed skill that had no value to the society that educated me. So I travelled the world putting myself to work wherever I could. I had worked with people who knew my skills and several successful projects parleyed into a backlog of projects.
The angry striking workers rankled me. Unfairly perhaps. I had just spent my fortieth birthday doing this work away from home and friends. I even received a fax from a friend on the day with a facsimile of a twenty pound note. The ironic message telling me to spend it on having some birthday fun made me smile yet wistful. Happy sad.
Then there was the sad story I read in over breakfast coffee in Buenos Aires of the woman who noticed a door that wasn’t closed properly. The newspaper reported that she got out of her seat to pull the door handle. The door burst open and she was sucked out of the plane that was climbing after take-off. That the ‘senior stewardess hadn’t realised what was happening otherwise she would have stopped her’ was a mark of the standard of journalism that made me doubt the veracity of the story. The report also said that the trainee’s body had not yet been recovered.
Somehow this was reminiscent of the myth of DB Cooper, the unknown pirate who parachuted from a 727 with a sack of ransom money. And yet, there was the article naming the flight and the airline. I had a friend in BsAs who told me that many newspaper articles were codes for other stories that could not be told.
Argentina was still getting over their Dirty War (1976-1983) and the ‘death flights’ by which enemies of the junta were cast alive into the Atlantic ocean. Enemies included human rights activists and relatives of already disappeared people. The protests of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo attracted global attention and my friend told me that some of them got disappeared too. Then in 2005, many years after I last visited BsAs, I read that their murders were confirmed. They mothers were identified by DNA collected from the many mass graves that dot the coast where many bodies were washed up.
I wish I’d cut it out and kept that story of the stewardess and the door. I did cut out another story I read in the airline magazine of the same airline. I stuck this one in my work diary. It concerns a truck driver who collected garden gnomes. It had a photo of him and his gnomes. I guess the story was one of a series designed to add interest to each of the airline’s destinations in the massive country that is Argentina. There aren’t many people who realise that it’s the eight largest country in the world with a population density as sparse as New Zealand.
So when reading of Bruce Chatwin walking In Patagonia, you need to factor in the scale. It’s a huge country and Patagonia is itself massive.
I also liked the adverts I saw for traditional Welsh biscuits ‘hecho en Argentina’. I had already spent most of the previous year in Patagonia when I read Chatwin’s accounts of Trevelin and Port Madryn. I so wanted to visit them and the ski resorts of San Carlos de Bariloche too where so many Nazi’s had hidden for years. These visits were never to be.
My next and adventures in Argentina were all offshore or on Tierra del Fuego. I had read of Chatwin’s Patagonian walk by the time I got to Rio Gallegos, one of those three boring towns he mentioned. Our plane stopped there for a short while before continuing south across the Estrecho de Magallanes and to Rio Grande.
Our departure was delayed for a military flight. I was seated at a window and had a full view of an entire removal ceremony for the the several soldiers killed a few days before when their Lama helicopter crashed into a mountain hidden by thick fog. The mix of uniforms and the flag draped coffins suggested this was an inter-military border patrol mission that had gone horribly wrong.
We left Rio Gallegos and flew the short hop across to Rio Grande, a place known from the Falklands conflict as the base for the fighters that carried Exocet missiles that British forces had difficulty stopping. Having just seen the funerary rights in Rio Gallegos, imagine how I felt as the plane descended from thick cloud and began a very long approach to the runway from the west. We flew so low that I swear I could see the whites in the eyes of a few cattle I could see below us. And after we landed, I was driven across to the heliport from where we were whisked off to land on a geophysical survey ship near the mouth of the Straits of Magellan. I admit I was happy to sleep that night in a bunk in a metal box that’s called a cabin.
I had wanted to visit, of all places in Chatwin’s book, Estancia Harberton. I did get to Ushuaia and ate a meal somewhere in town while waiting for a plane to BsAs. But there was no time to follow the 35 km walk along the Beagle Channel that Chatwin made. Captain FitzRoy and Mister Darwin had been through here too.
What attracted me to Estancia Harberton was Chatwin’s story in Chapters 61 to 64 which feature FitzRoy, Darwin, Twain, Poe, Weddell and Jemmy Button. A Fuegian, Button was kidnapped by FitzRoy, brought to Britain and educated in boarding school and returned to Tierra del Fuego. Darwin liked him but on seeing Button revert to Fuegian standards, by Chatwin’s explanation, Darwin began to see mankind was descended from the apes. I don’t know what evidence Chatwin had and without corroboration, perhaps this is more about Chatwin than Darwin. Button lived long and angry enough to massacre settlers in their church and eventually watch his Fuegian people succumb to smallpox.
Estancia Harberton is where Thomas Bridges lived and collected local language words in 1890s. Chatwin asks ‘What shall we think of a people who defined ‘monotony’ as ‘an absence of male friends?” He lists other words like fuel that was a synonym for something burned and it was also their word for cancer. 130 years later, it seems a cruel expropriation that Bridges could name the tribe’s language Yaghan after a place because the Yámana tribe had no word for their own language. Yámana itself has many meanings and I would have thought that Bridges being English and speaking English, and having allowed us Irish keep Irish as the name of the language in English, that Yámana could have been given one more meaning. Or is this double-Dutch?
In Patagonia remains a brilliant read and that we only got a decade of his writing before his untimely death robbed us of the inspired pennings of a great storyteller.
It seems today, 2020, that there may be no more native speakers of Yaghan.