Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A town of one

There are big towns and there are small towns. Each town has its own feel and this comes from a combination of the place where the town is, the community/ history of the town, and the visitors own personal attitude/ experience in that town.
The pure physical location of a town can very much dictate its characteristics. A town on the ocean with plenty of food will be very different from the same town out in the middle of the desert or high up in the mountains. A town that is surrounded by fertile land will have a different sense of time than a town that exists solely for tourism. What that feel of the town is will be based on the history/ community.
The personality of the town comes from the collective experience of the people in there. How long has it been there? What type of organization is there in the town? How do people interact and do they welcome visitors or do they see visitors as space aliens who can only negatively affect them?
Then there are the visitors. Your attitude upon arrival can have everything to do with how you come to be in that place. What do you expect to find? Are you just taking from the place, or do you have something to share? Do you plan on leaving the place with the attitude that you would like to go back and be welcomed or has it been a long day, you can't communicate with people, and you just get off on the wrong foot?
Of course, I use the word "town" as if it were an entity it itself. It isn't. Each person is their own person, but as a traveler you tend to make generalizations about places base on what you experience. This isn't fair, but it happens. Just read any guidebook and you will see these types of generalizations made about anyplace. Its what we do as humans (west coasters vs east coasters, democrats vs. republicans, men vs. women).

On the southern part of Carretera Austral, there is a section towards the end where they haven't built a road. The government runs a free ferry that travels the 20km or so through a fjord. There is a time schedule for this ferry, but we were so far removed from the concept of time (and getting that information seemed difficult) that we just knew we would show up and take the ferry when we could. Because of the stranded dog episode, our day was getting a bit late but we hoped for a 4 o'clock ferry which would deliver us to the other side by 4:45 which would allow us 2 hours to drive the final 100km of the Austral into Villa O'Higgins before dark. Upon arrival, we found out that the ferry didn't go until 5.
Leaving at 5 would mean either a) driving in the dark in the pouring rain (did I mention it was 40 degrees and raining) or b) finding a place to camp somewhere along the way. We made a at the beginning of this trip to not plan on driving in the dark (we have only had to do it 3 times) and camping in the freezing rain sounded kind of not fun.
The town where the ferry leaves from is called Puerto Yangay. It is an ex-military outpost in the bottom of a glacial valley with snow capped peaks guarding over it. There are 5 government houses and a cement ramp that goes into the water where the ferry picks you up. There is a small kiosko (café/ warming hut/ store) that relies on business from people waiting for the ferry. In the Summer months, she can get 500 travelers/ day but in the Fall she gets 2 (that's us). 
We went inside to get some Nescafé, homemade empenadas, and to warm up by the fire. We talked about what to do. Should we just go for it and see what happens on the other side of the ferry? Or should we attempt to hunker down here for the night and play it safe. With her typical smile, Megan asked the women who runs the kiosko about places to stay and the woman said there were none. She also said a bunch of other stuff, but we didn't really understand through her thick chilean accent. The closest town, Tortel, was about 30 km back on the road and we didn't want to go back there. This town also has a reputation (and I get back to the "feel of a town" here) for being not so nice to travelers. We had heard it from a motorcycle guy we ran into and we had heard it from some police we met ("they mix their gas with water- it is a nice place to visit but don't stay there")
We decided not to go for it and we decided we'd talk to the woman again about our options in Puerto Yangay. Maybe we could find a shelter to set up our tent under. That'd be better than camping out in the rain.
It turns out that the woman had told us before that we could stay in her house (one of the run down government houses). Her daughter and husband were not in town (they were 120km north in the bigger town so that her daughter could go to school). We asked how much and she looked at us like we were crazy. Why would she charge us?
So we waited around until 7 (when the last ferry crosses) passing the time and slowing down a bit. I went for a walk around town (this took 5 minutes) and tried to hike up to the weather tower but got bogged down in moss and swamp. We shared some Maté (the local tea) with Ines (the woman) and played with the ferry dog.
At 7 we went up to her humble house. She has no electricity but she does have a great wood stove and we watched as she baked bread for the next day. We chatted about this and that and about how she is the only inhabitant of Puerto Yangay. Sometimes some police stay at the military camp and the boat people live on the ferry but they rotate out every 20 days so she really is Puerto Yangay.
When the fresh bread came out of the wood fired oven, we put strawberry preserves on it (which she grows in the summer) and that was dinner. Yummy!
The point being that the town of Puerto Yangay is unique. It is in a very remote location, relies on tourism for it livelihood, and the entire feel of the town is currently dictated by one person. We approached it with open minds and time to spare and the town gave back to us. That's one aspect of traveling that is so great, the times when things don't go as planned but work out for the better.

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