Reflections on Patagonia

Cucciolo is the name written across the top tube of a 1940s bicycle in the window of Ramos Generales, a panaderia cafe in Ushuaia, Argentina. The bike dons a cucciolo motor, from the earliest motorcycle days. Stump footrests have replaced the pedals, but everything else about this little puppy (which is what cucciolo means in Italian) is bicycle. Prison pajamas in bumble bee colors and long-john style down to the box weave and flimsy little cap hang flatly against the wall and stop the bike in its tracks. Against the black and yellow stripes leans a shovel. A long toothy saw, rusted and rough to the touch, fences in these antiques wherein tripacks of Cape Horn beer crop up within the frame like flowers.

It's taken me almost three years of living in Patagonia to make it down to Ushuaia, self-proclaimed southernmost city in the world: population 60,000, in case you're wondering how much it takes to make a city. I came here to meet up with Serkan on his trip and we've been reunited for a couple of days after we parted ways in Santiago, where I headed north to visit family and friends for a few weeks and he--more responsibly--headed south to start working and find us a flat.
I have missed him madly, but even so I found leaving this time sadder than other previous times. Maybe it is the family growing, kids growing up and new babies on the way, or that all of my friends are starting to make families of their own. Or maybe just that I have grown into the idea of having a family. For years I didn't know how to have a family. Now I feel it surrounding me in a way that I could easily describe as cozy, comforting.

Even though I haven't actually been to my new home in Puerto Natales yet, I am starting to feel back to normal here. It's always strange to arrive to Punta Arenas again. And every time I do it, I'm perplexed and exhilarated, simultaneously feeling at home yet light years away. This time I am here with my husband, so I need probe no further. And yet...

There is something beyond that fact that welcomes me home, but I can never quite pin the feeling down. Is it where I've come to grips with all my past sadnesses and let them go? It was the first place I visited when I started traveling in South America, straight to the farthest point possible. But it just as easily could have been Machu Picchu, the salt plain, the jungle or the desert if it weren't for the weather. It was March and, so, autumn. I'd chosen to travel on March 17, St. Patrick's day, you know, for good luck. The Patagonia season ending, my trip beginning. The distance, the seasons, time flipping over on itself--all of it is somehow symbolic, which I of course don't need to say.

So I still don't know what is so welcoming to me in this utterly inhospitable landscape? This desolate beauty so far off the grid. It toughens you a little, increases everyone's sense of loneliness, so while the buildings are wretched and the people usually unreliable, a sense of community pervades. Happiness is easy. Life is simple. And joy just is. Fleetingly, sure, but so are our moments--our presents. In more developed places happiness tends to be complicated, as it often assumes that we have to get such and such thing before we can be truly happy.

The pampas on the three-hour busride home from the airport are utterly barren. Yet pink flamingos fish gracefully in rain lakes and boggy puddles. Lovestruck caiquenes (Upland Geese) pair off and mate year after year--unaffected by the violent winds. Trees can't grow on the plain yet a random mix of cameloids and big exotic birds abound.

As much as I sometimes whine about it, I also love coming back here. Somehow it represents freedom. Freedom from what? I suppose it's something like freedom from myself. We're the only ones who truly have the capacity to commit ourselves to bondage. We are our own captors. The prison pajamas stare me down, their pattern mirrored by the teeth in the saw, the spokes in the bicycle wheel and the window reflecting passersby back to themselves. Sometimes they see through the display, and our eyes may meet before one side of the glass looks shyly away--beyond it all and out to the sea.


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