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Archive for February, 2010

“Ok. I need some shade. Aren’t you hot?!” Artemis asked. It was the afternoon of Day 5 on Easter Island, and we were laying on the glorious Anakena Beach. I still couldn’t quite believe I’d really found my way to this one-of-a-kind place, a mixture of Polynesia and South America, with mysterious moai statues I’d read about as a child. I’d spent the earlier part of the week horseback riding courtesy of Pantu (aptly described by the Lonely Planet as the Charles Ingalls of Rapa Nui), snorkelling, washing down tuna ceviche with pisco sours, trying out the various flavours of homemade ice cream on offer, and doing awful touristy stuff with Artemis, who was also on the previous week’s Patagonia trip with me and just happened to be on the same flight to the Island on Sunday. “No,” I answered from under the sarongs I’d layered over myself for supplementary UV protection. “I’m cooling myself off from the inside out by thinking that this time last week I woke up in a cold damp tent and had to crawl out into the wind and pull on a wetsuit that had been sitting outside in the rain all night.” Just thinking about it made me shiver.

It was Artemis’ last day on Rapa Nui, and having met her over pisco sours at la Kaleta, my gracious hostess Irena had promptly invited her over for a farewell asado. I never would have guessed that I would have only 2 degrees of separation from someone on Easter Island, which has a population of about 4000 and is one of the most isolated places on earth (5 hours flying time from Tahiti in one direction and from Santiago in the other, with nothing but the beautiful blue Pacific in between), but Irena’s husband Ivan is involved with the same UN organization my dad used to work for, and although the two of them never crossed paths, my dad’s former colleague Ekrem is very good friends with Ivan and Irena, having been to the island for work 4 times over the years. Ekrem just happened to be visiting my parents in January at the same time as me, and when he heard I was going to Rapa Nui, he kindly got in contact with Ivan and Irena, who, lovely hospitable people that they are, offered me a place to stay for the week.

I’d had my first asado with Ivan and Irena the day I arrived. Their daughter-in-law Claudia came in on another later flight, and we were all up until the early morning hours enjoying each others’ company, and of course, eating. With all 3 of their sons home from mainland Chile where they go to university (Walter Francisco, Ivan Alejandro, and Patricio), and their 3-year-old granddaughter Penelope (Walter and Claudia’s daughter), Ivan and Irena had a bustling household. I did my best over the week with my meagre Spanish, and they helped fill in the blanks with some English, and in Irena’s case, a little French.

Artemis speaks a fair bit more Spanish than me, so the night she came to the asado, between the two of us, and with some miming, we were able to entertain the family with stories of the wilds of Patagonia, El Commando (aka Robert, our trip leader), and Guio Sympatico (“nice guide”, aka Jaime). Artemis and I had been comparing notes, and I’d learned a few things I hadn’t known, like that on the first day of hiking she had gotten left behind and only found her way on the trail by following the bloody handprints I was leaving on the rocks. All hilarious in hindsight. With Walter, who has an archaeology degree, we discussed theories of how the moai came to be in their current position (I always liked the alien intelligence one best, Artemis liked the one that they came flying out of the volcanos in their present form). Walter and Irena were kind enough to bring out some spearheads and tools they’d found at various sites for us to touch and look at.

Friday Artemis headed to the airport, and I decided to give surfing another try for the first time since Bali. I signed up with one of the instructors offering lessons just across from the beach for an hour long clasje de surf. It was just enough to remind me that I really do suck. Watching how fast the two boys (7ish and 10ish) in my lesson improved did not make me feel better. A pisco sour and an ice cream did.

Saturday morning I hiked a couple of hours up to the crater rim of one of the island’s extinct volcanos, and to the nearby ceremonial village of Orongo. I went back to the house for a long siesta (one of many that week), and then that evening we packed up the vehicles and went to camp by the ocean. Everyone but Ivan Alejandro came out to sit by the fire for awhile, but only Irena, Patricio, his girlfriend Cata, and I spent the night. It wasn’t howling wind or rain or cold that kept me awake this time, but an army of small non-biting but irritating ants that somehow found their way into my tent in the dark.

In the morning Irena went to collect shells for jewellery-making, and Patricio (Pato), Cata and me went to catch our breakfast. Thanks to Pato and Cata we enjoyed some fresh grilled fish, then entertained ourselves by flying a kite, splashing around in the makeshift pool the rocks by the shore made, and generally trying to stay cool. By midday, the ants were all dead, presumably of heat exhaustion in the closed tent. Ivan, Walter, Claudia and Penelope came to pick us up later in the afternoon, and after a stop at Anakena, we went back to the house for a farewell asado, which Ivan Alejandro already had well underway. By this time I had given him the nickname El Hombre de l’Asado since it was the third one he’d presided over that week. I have a feeling that name might just stick.

Yesterday morning after one last ice cream, it was time for sad goodbyes at the airport. As Irena, Claudia and Penelope each put a farewell necklace over my head, I thought back to all the laughter and fun we’d shared, and how lucky I was to have made these new friends on this unique island. I remembered how often over the week I had wished I knew more castillano to communicate better with Irena and her family, even just to be able to tell them in no uncertain terms how fabulous they are. An hour or so later, as I was walking across the tarmac to the plane, I heard someone yelling my name. I looked over to the other side of the fence, where Penelope, sitting on her mama’s shoulders, was madly waving and blowing kisses, my last glimpse of Rapa Nui as I climbed the steps and disappeared through the aircraft door. Friendship I was reminded again, as I have been so many times this year, has a language of its own.

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The last things Peter said to me when we said goodbye in Coyhaique were “cuidate amiga” and “buy yourself a sweater”. This was good advice, because the weather in the lakes area was even colder than on the Fu. If the Fu trip was about adrenaline and bursts of energy, the Lakes trip was about stamina. Our group was a lot smaller: myself, Rob who had also been on the Fu trip, and Artemis, a New Yorker who had never been tenting or kayaking before. Our guides were Robert, one of the company owners, his son Robinson, Jaime, a Fu guide on his first Lakes trip, Maria, and Juan.

On our first day, we hiked 2 1/2 hours to the first camp, then because the wind off the glaciar and waves were too strong to kayak to the second camp, we dropped our bags, did the Tyrolean traverse across the river, and went on a rainy 4 hour hike to Lago Fiero over slippery boulders. The next day we got up early and paddled to the peninsula camp, unloaded our gear, and paddled on to the glaciar itself. The wind and rain picked up that night so much so that I was doing high sides in my tent for hours to keep it from blowing away with me in it, Artemis woke up with a creek running under her tent (keep in mind this was her second night in a tent – ever), and Maria’s tent was crushed by the kitchen shelter. The next morning I happily offered to share my tent with Maria for the rest of the trip for the extra warmth! The wind didn’t let up, so we restaked our tents and spent most of the afternoon resting in them since paddling to our next trailhead did not seem like a good idea.

The next day we paddled and hiked to our final camp on Lago Cachorros, the most beautiful of the three. The weather was starting to improve by this point, and our last day was sunny for our 7 hour hike up the ridge. On our return, we were greeted with a lamb asado thanks to a second Robinson who’d ridden in on horseback. After all these asados I’m wondering if I should change the name of my blog to “Meat, Play, Live”.

The next morning we were up at 5 am to start the long journey back to Coyhaique – 4 hours of hiking, a 1/2 hour of paddling, and 7 hours of driving. I wasn’t sorry to be awake so early, because it was the only time on the trip the skies were clear enough to see the southern hemisphere stars. By this time, Robert’s hurried, commando-style leadership was grating on me more than a little, so I was just as happy the trip was coming to an end.

Still, I really enjoyed the week of camping despite the weather, and although the scenery was not as exotic to me as the Fu because it reminded me so much of the Canadian Rockies, it was a treat to spend some time in it with virtually no other humans around.

The next day in Coyhaique I happily ran into Victor from the Fu trip, who I almost didn’t recognize without his kayaking gear, and we had time for a quick catch-up lunch before I headed to Balmaceda for the evening flight to Santiago. The next day I was back at the Santiago airport to catch the flight to Easter Island….

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“What is this?! A peeyama party?!” exclaimed Juanito in comedic high pitch as he burst into the treehouse camp gazebo where most of us had been laying around the fire on sheepskins and mats, eating, sleeping and talking for hours. Juanito, who is the Peruvian whitewater kayak champion, had been schooling some of our tripmates in eskimo rolls that day, and did not get to the camp until just before dark, while the rest of us had made the hike in the morning. After a soak in the hot tub, we had sought shelter from this year’s cold, wet Patagonian summer in the only enclosed space in the camp, and since our guides kept bringing us food and drink there really was no reason to move. The next day we woke up to snow on our pillows, ate breakfast, dressed in green garbage bag skirts which led to an impromptu can-can, hiked back down the hill, changed into our swimsuits, took a zipline halfway across the river just below a class VI rapid, dropped into the freezing water, swam for the eddy, climbed up the rock to get into the stone hot tub, jumped off a cliff back into the river and repeated the previous two steps, got changed, ate lunch at the cave camp, climbed a rock, rappelled down a 100 metre cliff, got into another hot tub, ate supper, drank more wine, and went to sleep in our shelters overlooking the river. A typical day on the Futaleufu.

About 3 years ago, I went on a two-day rafting trip on the gorgeous Pacuare River in Costa Rica. It was from my guide on that trip that I first heard about the Futaleufu in Chile, a legendary and even more stunning river so I was told, and I made a mental note to try and get there some day. “Someday” arrived two weeks ago when, after a few hot sunny days of wine-tasting and touring around Mendoza, Argentina, I headed across the border to Chile to start the adventure.

Several months earlier, I’d received a full colour glossy brochure from the rafting company and was so taken with the spectacular photos of the river and landscape that I hardly bothered to glance over the details of the trip itinerary. The seriousness of the whitewater we were about to experience didn’t really begin to dawn on me until the first day’s safety training, and repeated references by one of the company owners to the Fu as the “Everest” of rivers. I was soon to experience the difference between running a series of Class IIIs and one Class IV on the Pacuare in low water, with long floats in between, and running a series of IV+s and V+s one right after the other in high water. (For those not familiar with whitewater terminology, rapids are rated on a scale of 1 to 6 with 6 being unnavigable). The extent of safety training on my previous rafting trips had been reminders to keep our hands on our paddles’ T-grips, and a couple of practice “get downs”. Training for the Fu started with a two hour paddle in sit-on-top kayaks in a headwind to make sure we all had an idea of how currents and eddies affect the boats, and a “flip-test” into the freezing water. No sooner had we clambered shivering back onto the rafts than our guides ordered us to jump back out for the swim test to make sure we could get ourselves across the main current and into an eddy. This was followed by several practice “highsides” where all hands dive to the high side of the boat as a last chance to avoid a capsize. As Peter (actually Pedro, but there are so many Pedros in his family he’s always gone by Peter), our head guide sternly instructed us, “You have to do it all the way. You might be high-siding for your life.”

Every day during the week on the Fu I went to bed and woke up with a knot in my stomach in anticipation of the activities to come. The rafting was one thing, but there were plenty of other things to terrify me out of the water, mostly involving heights and ropes. The day the canyoneering was cancelled because the water was too high, I spent the afternoon on a horse galloping through the countryside, and that was about the only thing I did that week that didn’t scare me.

We had a nice little group of 6: Rudy, a Torontonian now living in Dubai who spent the entire week shivering, Alexander, a US Army Major who always had a hand out to help his raftmates back into the boat, Gerry, a 74-year-old “company doctor” from Aspen whose last fulltime job was as CEO of United Airlines, his friend Amy, a former New York City corporate dynamo and reality TV show star now living in Aspen, and Rob, a physician from Timmins, Ontario and veteran of many river expeditions, including some in the NWT. Also along for the ride were Victor, who divides his time between Northern BC/Alaska where he guides river trips, and Belize, where he owns a lodge, Rayno, our videographer, and our very handsome, competent and cool river guides, Peter, Juanito, and Abner.

The week ended without any flips or swimmers, and with a few fears conquered – when it came time for me to do a Tyrolean traverse across a river on the Lakes of Patagonia trip (next post) I didn’t even flinch. Thanks to Victor and Rayno whose kayaks always seemed to bob up in front of our rafts mid-rapid with cameras rolling, there is some great video footage I can’t wait to see again – like of Peter totally calm as our raft surfs a wave in the middle of a rapd (fun in a kayak, not a good idea in a raft). With professionals around I got a little lazy with the picture taking, but here are a few:

This little post doesn’t come close to capturing what an amazing trip this is, and I do really hope to repeat it in 2 or 3 years’ time. Anyone want to come along?

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