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on the rocks

The streets were slippery in the rain.  My battered red sneakers slapped against the gray concrete in a steady rhythm, and I twisted my wet hair back behind my ears for the tenth time. Dawn was red this morning. The trees of the park outside the hostel’s front door blocked most of the sky, but from where I sat in the window seat I could still see the purple and red furrowed clouds through the branches. Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning, I’d murmured to myself, and now, three hours later, the colorful sky had faded to the same gray as the streets on which I ran. I followed the road that wound along Puerto Natales’s dingy waterfront, passing beached wooden fishing boats and elaborate shrines painted in white, some erected in memory of Natalinos passed on, others in honor of saints and heroes of local folklore. Beyond the boats was the rocky beach and beyond that, the water of the Ultima Esperanza Fiord. To my left, colorful houses made of corrugated metal, scrap wood, and wire blurred and blended together in the soft morning light. It was about 9AM and only the street dogs were stirring. A skinny terrier rummaged through an open garbage bag. A black mutt with a shepherd face ran beside me for a minute, wagging his tail and looking up at me hopefully, begging shamelessly before giving up and moving off to sniff between the legs of another shaggy white male who was marking fence posts across the street.

I left the last couple of houses behind and changed my pace slightly as the paved road gave way to gravel. Natales is a small community, a collection of slightly shabby buildings clustered in a rough half circle extending outward from the waterfront. Beyond the houses the land is hilly and brown and empty, dotted with scrub and thin grass, and about 150 km away, in the middle of the grass and the crap and the scrub, sits the jewel of Patagonia, the Parque Nacional de los Torres del Paine. The park is the main attraction of the region, and every year draws hundreds of thousands of hikers, climbers, and sight-seers from around the world. During the months of January and February, the town explodes with activity; buses form convoys, restaurants put out feeding troughs, and hostels install revolving doors. Few people spend more than a week here. Most cruise through on tight schedules: one day of kayaking, two of hiking, then get them to the airport on time. This is where I landed when I got off the Navimag ferry. That was six weeks ago. I knew little about the area when I arrived, but after ten days hiking in the park, I knew I didn’t want to leave. As it happened, the hostel where I stayed when I got out of the park was looking for help to start immediately. I took a night to sleep on it and then started work the next day.
The erratic rock hostel is a hub for the adventure-seekers, a house of buena honda (good vibes) and good people.  Bill and Rustyn are the owners (“backpackers, not businessmen”), US ex-patriots, originally from Oregon. What they lack in organizational professionalism, they more than compensate for with their willingness to service the backpacking community. Only four years old, the hostel has built a reputation for itself primarily on word of mouth (“tell your friends, not the guidebooks”), particularly for its comprehensive park-information sessions and killer breakfasts. In a country where desayuno is typically a cup of instant coffee and a piece of bread, the rock’s spread of cereal, yogurt, cheese, jam, homemade bread, omelettes and cowboy coffee wins grateful smiles morning after morning. I work and share a room with Kat, a student from northern Cali, who’s studying abroad in Santiago and spending the last month of her summer break working down here at the rock. Our job is to bake the breakfast bread, keep the hot coffee coming, make reservations, answer questions about the park, sell bus tickets, rent camping equipment, do the shopping for the hostel, cook lunch for the staff, and to keep putting out the vibe. I love it. I get a free room, free food, and I’ve started my own mini-panaderia, baking and selling cookies out of the hostel kitchen. The baking keeps me busy during the days, and the extra cash will help to extend my trip, one peso at a time. The atmosphere is chilled out and the people even more so. Everyone who walks through our door is excited, either with anticipation of hiking to come, or exhausted and euphoric with the hike they’ve just completed. It’s a revolving door, but each spin spills a fresh batch of positive energy into our day. There are 15 beds, but we often have guests and friends sleeping on couches or crashing on the floors. It is Laid Back. Overachieving, type-A Susan has taken a while to get used to having a job where it’s okay to take a nap on the window seat in the afternoon, but hippie Susan digs it.
I ran until the wind started to pick up, driving sheets of water from the beach onto the road, then turned back towards the town. A shopping bag blew past, a white plastic parachute, until it dipped too low and ensnared itself on the spikes of the barbed wire fence on the side of the road. Plastic bag graveyards stretch on either side of Puerto Natales, unused land that’s littered with bags that have been blown off the streets and caught and shredded in the low scrub brush and fencing. “Chilenos se encantan bolsas. ¡Bolsas, bolsas, bolsas!” Chileans are infatuated with bags, George, the owner of the supermercado tells me. George and his wife Marina run the Proa Norte, the small market next door where Kat and I do some of our shopping. The daily shopping missions are what remind me that I’m living in Chile. There’s no such thing as one-stop shopping – buy fruits here, buy meats there, some days you can find tortillas at the place around the corner, buy the yogurt at this one but not on Wednesdays, get bread from the panaderia and when you see peanut butter or brown rice, buy the entire supply because who knows when there will be more. Food comes in bolsas. Jam, mayonnaise, yogurt, olives, spices, cereal are all packaged in plastic or cellophane or foil bags. My favorite store is the fruit and nut guy’s place. He sells top quality dried fruit and nuts from a tiny stall along the main street, and keeps his outdoor speaker system cranking with Deep Purple, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd, and Jimi Hendrix. George and Marina’s place is the store where I spend most of my time, popping in to buy tomatoes and avocados for lunch, coming back an hour later for icing sugar so I can finish the frosting for my sugar cookies. They never remember my name but they know my face and they joke with me in Spanish. Some days I can understand them and joke back, other days I smile and shrug and shake my head. Chileans speak a fast, slang-ridden, mumbling version of Spanish that can be almost indecipherable. I win small victories in communication here and there, like the day that I hunted down potting soil AND high-efficiency light bulbs by asking for help and directions from various shop owners. Most of the time, in the hostel, I’m speaking English. Our guests are from the US or Europe, though we get a lot of phone calls in Spanish. Negotiating anything over the phone in Spanish wins double points, because there are no helpful hand signals or body language to aid comprehension.
Wet, tired, and sweaty, I push open the hostel door, setting off the wind chimes that hang overhead, and wish buen dia to the two Germans and the Aussie who are sitting on the couch watching “Fargo”. It’s the third time in two days that someone’s picked the film from the hostel’s extensive collection, but I still pause to watch Steve Buscemi being fed into a wood chipper, and catch my breath. It’s good to have a routine, good to unpack the rucksack, good to have some stability. It’s nice not to feel like a homeless person, to recognize faces and to be a source of local information rather than another confused, slightly-lost backpacker asking for directions. I run, I write, I cook and bake, I meet people and answer their questions, and I read on the window seat. There are worse ways to spend a month and a half, I reckon.

(so you see – this is what i’ve been doing and why i’ve been so behind on the blogging. i’ll do my best to catch up soon.)

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