Thursday, April 5, 2012



“Cuando pienso en ir a cualquier parte, pienso en ir al Sur.
Asocio la palabra Sur con libertad; siendo muy joven, compre
el libro South de Sir Ernest Shackleton tan solo por el titulo.”
Paul Theroux in Nowhere is a Place: Travels in Patagonia

(“When I think of going somewhere, I think of going South.
I associate the word South with freedom; when I was very
young, I bought the book South by Sir Ernest Shackleton
only for its title.”)

          My impetus for writing about Patagonia was (and is) a personal one.  Ever since I came to the United States, I have been intrigued by the American fascination with Patagonia.  People will ask me – as soon as they learn that I am from Argentina – if I have been to Patagonia, and then, proceed to share with me their desire to visit the area.  The question brings a chuckle to my lips:  “Patagonia? Why would you want to go there?  Nobody goes there,” I’d like to say but I try to be more diplomatic and find out the reasons for their wish.  Often people will talk about Patagonia being the end of the world, a mysterious land.  Some will mention the books by Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin as inspirations and, as a matter of fact, Chatwin’s sojourn has prompted several people to repeat his trajectory throughout Patagonia
One such person is Adrian Gimenez Hutton, an Argentine lawyer, International Fellow of The Explorers Club of New York and president of its Argentine chapter.  Gimenez Hutton went to Patagonia for the first time in 1974.  Since then he has made more than thirty trips, some by sailboat.  In 1996 he read Chatwin’s In Patagonia and found it fascinating for its narrative style: the marriage of fact and fiction, the personal anecdotes juxtaposed against the larger histories.  When a friend and fiction writer commented he believed the entire book to be a work of fiction, Gimenez Hutton disagreed with this analysis and the idea to replicate Chatwin’s journey was born.  And so, twenty years later, Hutton embarked on a search for Chatwin’s characters and places, attempting to corroborate his findings, chronicling his chronicle.  This year in January, Hutton published the book titled La Patagonia de Chatwin (Chatwin’s Patagonia), exactly ten years after Chatwin’s death. 
Gimenez Hutton concluded, after his journey and a meticulous reading of In Patagonia, that Chatwin didn’t lie as much as he invented a style of travel writing that reawakened the interest for the “travel novel” as Hutton calls it rather than a “travel book.”   Chatwin’s subjectivity and prejudices provoked a widespread dislike of his book among Argentine readers.  Yet, Hutton believes, many of his enemies today have benefitted from Chatwin’s writings which created a flow of “chatwinian pilgrims” (in Hutton’s words).  Furthermore, Hutton doesn’t agree with the accusations made against Chatwin and his superficial use of history in the book which he sees as part and parcel of his style and not as a result of chauvinism. 
Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, authors of Tourists with Typewriters,  employ the term “trickster” to refer to Chatwin.  They contend that in In Patagonia, “the reader is continually shuttled between alternative modes and registers, so that the hybrid work that accumulates from these various stylistic fragments starts to resemble … a contemplative picaresque elegy or a rollicking pastoral adventure." As a result, travel books like Chatwin’s, Holland and Huggan argue, act as “catalyzing agents” of travel rather than as substitutes.  I am certain that Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express also acts as a catalyzing agent, although his long railroad journey cannot be repeated any longer, at least not in its entirety.  Most of the railway lines in Argentina do not run anymore.  Unlike Chatwin -- whose impetus, ostensibly, for the journey is the search for the origins of the piece of brontosaurus skin that sat in his grandmother’s dining-room cabinet – Theroux embarks on his journey for the sheer sake of going somewhere.  He is a firm believer in the axiom that what matters is the journey, not the arrival, and explains: “Feeling cheated that way by other travel books, and wondering what exactly it is I have been denied, I decided to experiment by making my way to travel-book country, as far south as the trains run from Medford, Massachusetts; to end my book where travel books begin.”  This explanation appears as a clear reference to books like Chatwin’s, published two years earlier in Great Britain and on the same year in the United States.  He adds: “I had nothing better to do.  … Looking for something else to write, I found that instead of hitting nails on the head I was only striking a series of glancing blows.  … I studied maps and discovered that there was a continuous track from my house in Medford to the Great Plateau of Patagonia in southern Argentina."  Curiously, however, only two chapters out of twenty-two, the last two, are about Patagonia.  The other twenty relate his journey starting in Medford, as he notes, and passing through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, and Buenos Aires before boarding the “Lagos del Sur”  (Lakes of the South) and the Old Patagonian Express.    
During that train ride, at dinner that first evening, Theroux is seated at a table with a soldier.  Striking up a conversation, he learns that the young man is going to Comodoro Rivadavia, “an ugly place” as he calls it.  He explains that, being in the service, he has no choice of where to go but he can’t understand why Theroux wants to go to Esquel (the town where the railway line ends).  Trying to dissuade him from going, the soldier exclaims “Forget Esquel.  Forget Patagonia. They’re ugly.  I’m telling you, Buenos Aires is the place to be."  The young man’s comment summarizes what most Argentines – or at least what most porteños, as the inhabitants of Bs. As. are called – think about Patagonia.  We don’t go south of Buenos Aires when we plan our vacations, unless we are going to Bariloche, “the Switzerland of South America” as it is known.  We go to Mar del Plata and the other beach resorts south of Buenos Aires on the Atlantic coast.  Sometimes we go to the hills in Cordoba.  And if we can afford it, we go abroad.  But PatagoniaTierra del Fuego?  There is nothing there. 
Chatwin described it as “ a desert [with] a low thicket of grey-leaved thorns which give off a bitter smell when crushed." Darwin found it irressistible and, in his book The Voyage of the Beagle, explained “why, more than any of the wonders he had seen, these ‘arid wastes’ had taken such firm possession of his mind."  Theroux, on the other hand, found it to be nothing, to have nothing: “You might at first mistake it for a fertile place. At the horizon there is a stripe of rich unbroken green, with the bumps of bushes showing. In the middle distance it is greeny yellow, paling to a bumpier zone with patches of brown. Up close, you see the deception: these sparse, small leaved thorn bushes create the illusion of green, and it is these dry brittle things that cover the plain. The thorn bushes are rooted in dust, and the other bushes are lichen colored and nearly fungoid in appearance. There are not even weeds on the ground, only these bushes, and they might well be dead. The birds are too high to identify. There are no insects at all. There is no smell."
My question then: why are British and North Americans especially fascinated with it?  I suppose the answer is manifold.  First, we must remember the Welsh immigration to the area in the 19th century, the best known being the 153 Welsh colonists who landed there off the brig Mimosa in 1865.  Chatwin explains that they were poor coal miners who left Wales after a failed independence movement and a ban on Welsh in schools.  Looking for a piece of earth “uncontaminated by Englishmen, [t]hey chose Patagonia for its absolute remoteness and foul climate; they did not want to get rich.  The Argentine government gave them land along the Chubut River. … And when they did reach the valley, they had the impression that God, and not the government, had given them the land.”  As a matter of fact, the Argentine government gave land to many other similar groups of Welsh and other groups who settled in the area and still live there.  
As far as the Americans go, probably the best known would be Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to whom Chatwin devotes several pages in his book.  Chatwin’s historical facts have been argued but the fact still remains: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived in Patagonia; they built log cabins; they robbed banks; they made friends.  Robert Leroy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, felt that the area around Cholila, where he settled, was identical to parts of his home state, Utah, according to Chatwin.  And Martin Sheffield, an adventurer from Texas, believed that Patagonia was an extension of the Old West.  The Americans arrived after the Welsh, at the beginnig of the 20th century.  The Dutch also settled in Patagonia at the turn of the century.  They were actually Afrikaners who left South Africa when the British took over.  Chatwin describes them as very religious, very conservative, many of who went back to South Africa when the Afrikaners came to power. 
Another reason, I suspect, for the great interest in Patagonia is its remoteness.  Chatwin, Theroux, Darwin, Gimenez Hutton, and many others speak of its “far-off, unseen-land” quality, comparing it to those other remote places: Xanadu, Mongolia, Timbuktu, some real, some mythical.  When Paul Theroux arrives to Esquel, the end of the line for him, and walks around the town, he ruminates on his surprise to find himself still in the world, albeit “on a dot at the lower part of the map”, referring to Patagonia as “nowhere”.  
To add to its mysterious quality, Patagonia sports its own “lake monster: Nahuelito.”  This creature, whose length has been variousy estimated from 15 to 150 feet, lives in the Nahuel Huapi lake, near Bariloche.  It has been sighted by scores of tourists and locals who have described it as a giant water snake with humps and fins, as a swan with a snake’s head, as the overturned hull of a boat, as the stump of a tree.  Reports of its sightings date back to 1897 and expeditions to find the monster have been mounted as far back as 1922.  Martin Sheffield, previously mentioned; Dr. Clemente Onelli, director of the Bs.As zoo; and others have been involved in the mystery of Nahuelito.  In 1960, an article in Newsweek wondered if Nahuelito was not the Loch Ness monster gone astray.  A third theory bandied about wonders if Nahuelito could be the result of nuclear experimentation by German scientists during the Peron regime in the 1950s.  Whether fact or fiction, Nahuelito has become a media star and the possibilities for explotation have not escaped the local population’s notice: Nahuelito t-shirts and posters are common sights around the resorts. 
And speaking of clothing, is it possible that another reason for Patagonia’s allure lies in the fact that a very successful line of sports and outdoor clothing is named after it?   Although I haven’t as yet read everything ever written about Patagonia (my research uncovered many more books than I expected – some dating back to the 19th century), I must confess that – so far – the puzzling question that gave rise to this paper has not been answered, at least not definitively.  And I turn the question to you, what is it about Patagonia that attracts you and fascinates you, North American and British traveller?

Author's note:  I wrote this essay a number of years ago.  Since then I have decided that I would indeed like to go to Patagonia and see what all the fuss is about.  A few years ago I went to the Lakes Region on the Western side of Patagonia and visited Bariloche, San Martin de los Andes, El Bolson, and other towns.  The experience was unforgettable.  Now I want to go to see the wide, empty plains and get to Usuhaia, the Southernmost city in the world.  

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