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rollin’…rollin’…rollin’ on a river

I went a little bit photo-crazy on the Navimag cruise. I couldn’t help myself – everywhere, everywhere, islands like floating mountains, cliffs sparkling with countless ribbons of water, blinding white and blue glaciers hanging from black peaks, rainbows, dolphins, sunsets…my friends laughed at me because I would bolt my lunch and dinner and then race back to the top deck with my camera. “I don’t want to miss anything!” I’d shout over my shoulder. The sound of the boat’s engine was a deep, reverberating hum, an unending “om” that I could feel in my bare toes when I walked on the decks. The vibrations made my skin tingle and hum, and the gentle movement of the water lent a certain rolling softness to the days. I spent hours on deck, lulled into a state of compulsory meditation. The landscape rolled by slowly; islands and archipelagos were obscured, then revealed, peeled back in layers of green, gray, and gold, from soft green lumps to steep, rocky knots to floating mountains capped with ice and snow.  Waterfalls appeared as silvery ribbons among the greenish-brown plants and gray rock.  The channels closed in around us and we watched sea lions splashing around the shorelines; the channels widened and dolphins made occasional appearances, waving their tails as they streaked past the bow of the ship. I loved the feel of the water underfoot, loved wandering around the decks after dark and in the early morning, loved the constancy of the water.  This was the longest I’d ever been on a boat, and the soft roll of the waves rocked me, embraced me, held me in sway.
This was the Navimag, not a luxury cruise. This was a four-day ferry ride with beds and a bar. Our meals were uninspiring, but filling, and were served on blue trays in the small cafeteria. My bed was a cozy upper berth within the labyrinthine lower cabin, with a soft, narrow mattress and curtains that could be drawn closed. The public address system crackled and popped with announcements throughout the day: movies, informative lectures on history, flora, and fauna of the Patagonian channels, and approaching points of interest along the way. The staff member in charge of announcements was a young German woman, and her careful delivery of messages in first Spanish, then English, then German became a subject of hilarious imitation. I’d been skeptical of taking the trip at the start. Though not fancy, this definitely wasn’t the sort of thing I’d normally do – it was expensive, and it was touristy. The Patagonian coastline is remote, inaccessible by road: the Navimag is the only option for those wanting to explore the 1500km stretch between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales. Touristy or not, I wanted to see the Patagonian waterways, so Angus and I shelled out the cash and set sail.
The landscape was my drug; my companions were my intervention.  They pulled me back from the edge, kept me from floating away in a rapture of pastoralism, made me laugh.  Our loose group of compatriots from the curanto grew to include Marc the French photographer and Ben the Australian. We’d stand together, leaning over the railings to search for whales, or they’d drag me away from the bow to sit in the sun on the back deck and drink beer and play cards. In the few moments when I wasn’t being mesmerized by the scenery or laughing with Angus and Clementine, I watched the other passengers. There were two hundred other passengers on board, all ages, all backgrounds, all tourists. This was a people-watcher’s paradise, better than an airport, where an observer must guess at personalities and histories in brief, passing encounters. On the ferry there was time to watch relationships develop and personalities emerge, and there were opportunities to talk and to interact. I was fascinated. These tourists were as deep and nuanced as the scenery.  What stories! What marvelous degenerates! We travelers, we social dropouts, we who opt out of normalcy in pursuit of pleasure, adventure, inspiration, acceptance, adrenaline…we all have our reasons.

In spite of the two hundred other people making the journey with me, I felt an incredible sense of intimacy with the environment.  Other than one tiny settlement that we passed on day three, we were the only people for miles and miles and miles.  No Carnival cruise ships rock these waters.  No commercial fishermen ply their trade, no pleasure yachts offer three-hour dinner cruises.  We saw one or two private fishing boats, and a lone yacht under sail. The channels and their treasures seemed to exist only for us. The weather changed, grew colder as we pressed further and further south into the uninhabited heart of Patagonia. On the afternoon that we passed the Pio XI glacier, the skies were the color of steel, and the wind tasted of ice. The third largest glacier in the world, Pio XI is eight kilometers of ice flowing slowly from the mountains to the sheltered waters of the channels, massive, mind-blowing. I stood on the deck with the rest of the passengers, and listened to the deep, rumbling voice of the ice as it settled and cracked and flowed. Huge white-blue icebergs floated on the still water, small only in comparison to the massive glacier face. Elbow to elbow, my fellow travelers and I were awed, all whispers and smiles. Marc leaned close to speak in my ear. “Everyone is so quiet.” I shook my head. “What is there to say, what can I possibly say in the face of all this?”
Later that evening, the glacier growing smaller in our wake, Angus, Clementine, Jerome, Marc, Ben and I drank pisco sours with glacier ice. Even in our glasses, the ice retained its voice; it cracked and popped and snapped and hissed until it sounded like we were drinking rice krispies. The sound of the ancient ice mingled with our chatter, our French and Spanish and English and our laughter. And the tourist ship rolled on through the night, a tiny floating hive of humanity, a speck in the sea, southward bound.

More pictures of the curanto, the cruise, and a photographic preview of blog entries to come…

1 comment to rollin’…rollin’…rollin’ on a river

  • what you are doing is great susan. its very real, honest and articulate….not at all like you ;) didnt know about your dot com till just now. very impressed.

    are u ‘back home’ now? im going back to nz from australia on monday…daunting :)

    hope u are very well, and looking ahead to your next adventure….i only get down when i stop looking forward. thats one of the reasons i dont take many photos (…) :)


    more from me soon
    from angus xoxoxo

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