Poison, Penguins and Pinochet
April 16, 2012 — Dean Henderson
Our second Andesmar bus is again late at the Bariloche bus station in the foothills of the Argentine Andes. We arrive at the station well before the 9:00 AM departure time but the bus doesn’t show until 10:30. A German student and her Argentine friend are taking the same bus so we commiserate together.
Turns out the driver had to wait in line three hours for some $6/gallon gas. We have seen several long lines at gas stations. Energy will be a big issue here in years to come, since Argentina has few energy resources. Exxon and Shell run most of the gas stations here.
At 11:00 we are finally on the road. The trip up and over Paso de Cardinal is breathtaking. We weave our way around azure blue lakes through dense spruce forests dotted with alpine meadows. It reminds me of Alaska. They serve lunch on the bus. We stop at Argentine immigration, then twenty kilometers later at the Chilean border.
The Western downslope is steeper. This part of Chile, known as the Lakes District, is much greener than the Argentine side. They get the rain. The farms are smaller and more productive, a legacy of land reform which was carried out by President Salvador Allende- the first democratically-elected Marxist in the world, who was later overthrown by the CIA and Anaconda Copper.
Everyone has a garden, a few animals and a pile of firewood. Young Chileans are hitchhiking. Vendors are selling food at the bus stations. There is a more working class feel here. It’s as though we’ve left Europe and entered Latin America.
Puerto Montt is a compact town set upon a bay which leads through fjords to the Pacific Ocean. Salmon farming is the new game here. We get a hotel two blocks from the bus station, which fronts on the Bahia Puerto Montt. We buy deep fried potato/pork pancakes and ice cream from street vendors. Restaurants are still expensive so we buy tuna, veggies, bread and chocolate at the supermarket and eat in our hotel room. At $22/night, it’s a slight budgetary improvement over touristy Bariloche.
I sleep myself into a coma and dream that United and American Airlines have written me letters explaining that they’ve known I’ve had cancer for years, but did not tell me so they could extract frequent flier miles from me and blackmail me in numerous other pernicious ways. When I awake I am thinking about baby birds getting kicked out of their nests.
My South Dakota nest is now being used as a toxic waste dump for Round Up-manic farmers yielding million bushel/acre corn and getting their picture in the paper for it. Is this the real reason I became a nomad in the first place, knowing at some gut level that I had to flee the oncoming leukemia/cancer epidemic that has become the curious hallmark of my hometown? Did I start smoking to compensate for the fact that I had escaped this cesspool of poison, while others had not? Had I felt that, unable to convince them of the danger, I had left them behind, abandoning them to the corporate reaper?
Should it not be one’s birthright to be able to return to the place one was born? Yet in my case this would be a slow death sentence. Not just a physical death. It is not only the soil of central South Dakota that has become toxic. It is also the mindset. There is mass denial concerning the continued dumping of these poisons and a chilly response for anyone who dares broach the subject. As such, I do not feel welcome in my town. I am an unwelcome messenger. I shake their smug self-assuredness. I make them uncomfortable. I haunt them with truth. My birthright has been robbed by the cattle- trampling my Snake Creek hunting and trapping grounds into a muddy cesspool of shit.
So I sit in the Café Real in Puerto Montt, Chile at the far end of the earth. Here at least I get little news from the belly of the beast, where the disgraceful money pit generally known as the election of 2008 offers us a choice between a weak Obama and Hillary Clinton – the Bilderberger insider on the Democratic side. The Republican give us either a virulent upstart Baptist preacher turned fascist named Huckabee or a fossil loyal to the military-industrial machine named McCain.
Am I bound to a semi-nomadic existence by the pain of being robbed of my birthright? It is a pain I am able to forget only if I keep moving, like a groundhog flushed from its burrow forever by a record Missouri River flood, like a mountain lion caught in a load of hay bales out of Montana that ends up in Nebraska. We are refugees of industrial madness. More importantly, we are survivors.
This truism is what keeps my faith solid as an Ozark bluff, ancient as the bedrock of that ground-down limestone rock we now call home. And maybe that is why we call it home. At age 42 and now visiting my 42nd country, I must admit that I miss our little casa perched on that big rock. Am I just getting older and tired or have I found my new home- where the water is pure, the air is clean and the neighbors are humble and kind. Just like it used to be where I grew up.
We take a bus south. After one hour it drives onto a ferry, which takes us across the Canal de Chacao. This waterway connects the Golfo de Ancud with the here badly misnamed Pacific Ocean. This part of Chile is a labyrinth of fjords and islands dotted with a patchwork forest of more species of pine than I have seen anywhere in the world.
It is fifty degrees at midday in the height of summer. Forests of the giant alerce tree- close relative of the sequoia- have been mowed down in favor of eucalyptus plantations. The health of the environment is not a strong point for Chile. Still, we see a couple of sea lions and a colony of black-necked swans during the crossing.
The bus rolls off the ferry and we are on the island of Chiloe, where people have a distinct culture and belief system from the rest of Chile. The town of Ancud yields a half-crazed overexcited woman awaiting us at the bus station. She runs the Hostel Austral, where I had planned to stay anyway. It has gone from $17 to $30 in a year. I talk her down to $22 and we follow her there.
We set up a penguin tour for later today and walk downtown. The batteries on our new digital camera are already fried. Give me an old 35mm any day. At least I won’t have to listen to certain friends and family insisting that I catch up with technology anymore. We eat a lunch of minced ave sandwiches, yoghurt and plums on the Plaza de Armas, which displays statues of the various witches and warlocks which form the cosmology of Chiloeans. Some real live brujas come by wearing gypsy skirts and aggressively beg for money for their apparently abandoned children.
At 5:00 PM a guy in a taxi pulls up and takes us out to the rocky Pacific, where we board a small boat with a couple from Santiago. The boatman navigates rough waters to get us close to big rocks loaded with Magellanic and Humboldt penguins. The clumsy goofy looking creatures bring instant smiles to our faces. There is a colony of colorful cormorants with nests built on the sheer faces of the rocks. While penguins fall down in the background, giant kelp tangles slap against the rocks and flightless geese swim by. It is magical.
The innkeepers of Chile are of similar mindset to those in Australia and New Zealand. They leave half rolls of toilet paper and offer not even a small bar of soap. One shared bathroom serves the entire hotel. They cram as many beds into a room as they can since the charge is always per person, not per room. There is one difference.
Down Under, the hotel owners were absent. Here the owners usually live downstairs. But except for collecting the 10,000 peso nightly fee, they don’t do much of anything, leaving the real work to an indentured boy and an equally exploited maid. Checkout is at 10:30 or 11:00. In Ancud the rules include “no eating in your room”, and “no putting backpacks on the bed”. All this luxury in a room that feels like the floor will cave in and for $22/night.
In a word these people are a little too white for me- one step removed from the absentee penal colony hair-cutters, but still too white. This kind of crude middle-class profiteering does not occur in Nepal or Thailand or Ecuador or Guatemala. These darker-skinned more hospitable people seem to lack the lizard brain merchant mentality that haunts the Aryan (alien) race.
There is always soap in Cambodia. There are towels and satellite TV in Vietnam. In Bolivia the pilot light on the shower stays on ALL DAY! These are some petty tight-ass un-giving people who occupy this Southern Cone.
As if she needed to add an exclamation point to my cynical thoughts, the lady selling completos (a glorified hot dog with all the condiments- another dear commodity in these parts) on the return ferry double-charges me.
Today we sit in the park along the waterfront and feed a beautiful dog some bread. Chile’s plethora of strays serves as an appropriate collective metaphor for the nation. Middle-class Chileans buy cute puppies then abandon them as they get older, much as Pinochet abandoned those in need during his fifteen-plus years of military rule.
Pinochet rewrote the Constitution to read like some medieval manifesto, which aided and abetted the oligarchy. Even today some parts of the original Constitution have not been restored.
We go to a mall. Chile is full of these monstrosities. I notice a book titled The Ten Families Who Control Chilein the window of a bookstore. It is a recent book, not an old one. Despite the land reform of Eduardo Frei and Allende, the oligarchy still holds the reins here. This explains why Concertation Party President Michelle Bachilet – an agnostic single mother in a country of extreme social conservatism – was unable to sign Chile up as a member of the Hugo Chavez-engineered Banco del Sur in December 2007.
Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil joined Venezuela in this historic signing, which attempts to replace the fraudulent IMF international banker cartel with a real development bank for the South American continent.
Still, Bachilet is a socialist. Her father was killed by Pinochet’s henchmen. She herself was tortured. Her election signals big change in Chile. Allende is now a hero to all. Pinochet has been totally discredited. Even the fascists bailed on him after it was found that he had stolen millions from Chile and hid it in Swiss bank accounts.
But much like the strays in Puerto Montt’s parks, most Chileans lead a hand to mouth existence on the mean streets of Chile’s fling with neo-liberal free-trade capitalism. Bachilet is, in one sense, just another in a series of dogs. She does what she is told. In the end she sides every time with monopoly capital.
In Chile there are a few rich and many poor. The middle class is shrinking as prices rise on everything from the gas pumped at the Esso station directly behind me, to the food sold at the French Carrefour supermarket multinational in the mall, to a phone call from a locutorio owned by the Spanish conglomerate Telefonica.
Chile is in the same downward spiral as the US, though here people seem even less aware of it. They are eager to shop, to grab whatever material goods they can before some financial calamity sends the pesocrashing again. The whole world is beginning to feel like a giant metropolis full of hungry strays, each on their own to navigate the icy treacherous waters of international capitalism.
There is one place in Puerto Montt where those icy waters seem far away. Chilean coffee is mainly Nescafe. Most places it runs around a dollar. But in our newfound safe house a cup as strong as you want can be had for $.20. A huge order of fries sets you back $.75. Salchipapas (French fries with cut up wieners) are $.60. We go to the shack each morning where we join manual laborers in getting something to eat.
It is a family-run kiosk. This morning one daughter upgrades us to a large salchipapas. Yesterday a different daughter didn’t charge us for one coffee. The day before yet another daughter ran us down a block away when she noticed that we were struggling to carry our hot coffees. She brought bigger cups and smiled. Their parents have taught them the Allende way. We have not felt this vibe anywhere else on this trip. The magic shack has soul. We reject the path of fear of the Illuminati capitalists and their brujas.
We choose the shack of faith and love.
Despite a huge billboard dedicating a road improvement project to Salvador Allende, I feel that many people have either forgotten what he stood for or – in the case of younger people – never knew him in the first place. The reactionary ghost of Pinochet hangs over this southern city. We will take a night bus to Santiago to see if things feel different there.