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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 41, December 28, 2002
Patagonia: Land of the keen, where men wear performance uberpants
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Cafe Ars

Back in Santiago and we discovered that, what with all our changes of plans, we were actually flying South on the same day as Sally and Owen, the friends we had planned to meet for new year, and quite possibly on the same flight. We emailed them, so they didn't think we were stalking them and wound up having a beer in the moderately amusingly named cafe Ars (oh for a terminal e) in Santiago airport.

And then we flew south for our winter, again on Lan Chile, which may just be the world's best airline. Seriously, it's way better than BA or anything the US has to offer. It's quite a cool flight actually, esepcially as you cross the Patagonic ice cap (number three in the world according to 'Ice Cap and Glacier' magazine). As, like most ice sheets, this one is extensive, flat and very cold, 10,000 metres up really is the best way to experience it. it's also the best way to ensure it doesn't last much longer - air travel is the fastest growing source of CO2 - and anyone with half a brain knows that there really is no such thing as green tourism if you fly long haul. Actually, I say this, but really there are plenty of people who are perfectly clever who choose not to believe it. And if you don't believe me try serving up this fact at a dinner party in Islington or Notting Hill.

Interestingly, at the moment the patagonian ice fields are unique in the world in that they are actually growing. But before anyone in the Dick Cheney Fan Club (aka Friends of Dick?) seizes on this as irrefutable proof that global warming actually causes snow, it's likely to be a fairly ephemeral phenomennon. At the moment temperature changes have raised precipitation levels down here, increasing snowfall. But eventually temperatures will rise enough for the ice sheets here to start melting like the rest.

Anyhow, greenery aside, we'd headed south because Mendoza just didn't feel like Christmas. I think I realised this when I saw the girl in hot pants wearing a santa hat. Patagonia, on the other hand is cold. Very cold, in fact, and even though we arrived almost dead in the middle of the austral summer it was a chilly 5C with snow on anything above a thousand metres. Down here, it hardly ever gets much above 10 C. The town we flew into,
Puerto Arenas, is described as an atmospheric old gold rush town.

Which sounds cool, but in another, more accurate way, it is simply a rather average place with not much to do and a dearth of restaurants, which was exciting for about 12 months a century ago. Although it did have some nice plastic reindeer and a few evergreen trees which made us feel somewhat more christmassy. But this was more or less cancelled out by the 20 plus hours of light you get per day in these parts.

This lack of obvious (or for that matter, well hidden) attractions is why PA is currently fighting a bitter campaign to keep the airport at Puerto Natales a couple of hours north closed: if PN's airport reopened nobody would ever come to PA. Actually that's not quite fair, the only people who would come would be people fascinated by the second most southerly city in the world and those willing to do a six hour round trip from PN to see penguins.


Euro-keen

So we left PA, though not before finding a rather groovy and terribly old school Italian restaurant tucked behind the utterly unrepossesing facade of the local italian society, itself a legacy of Latin immigration in the late 19th century. Puerto Natales is a much more interesting place. For starters, it does the austral wood and tin shack look (a bit like Rekyavik, but with a lot less ozone) with rather more panache than PA. It also has quite a few espresso bars including one run by an ex pat english guy, full of UK copies of the Face and Esquire. Which is pretty exciting after several months of having to read Los Ultimos Noticias in Spanish, looking up every third word.

Anyway Natales is kind of weird after northern Chile - it is a total tourist town. The kind of place where the natives would rather speak good English to you than have you try and communicate in execrable Spanish. Actually Speaking of speaking in English it's also one of those weird Eurotastic places where you have the odd phenomenon of loads of groups of people (Germans, Dutch, Danes, etc) all communicating in their second language, English. The upshot of this is hearing English everywhere with a hint of Tony Blair about it (massive over use of the word 'guys') and loads of jokes that either lose something in translation or sucked in the first place.

It's also nothing like the travellertastic places in Peru or Bolivia. Patagonia is far, far too expensive for them. Quite the opposite: this is where high achievers and adventurous types go on holiday. And it shows: down here in the cold, far south the wind is keen. But its keeness is as nothing compared to this lot - around town, you can practically smell the keeness in the air. It smells like merchant banker and management consultant and recent INSEAD grad...all out to show that they can play as hard as they work! One nice thing - because there's only 4 hours of night, you can legitamately call anyone who starts bragging about getting up at 5am a twat.

What a performance

The most visible manifestation of this keeness is the sheer weight of performance clothing around town. Owen and I were sitting in the coffee bar in our hotel looking out of the window at this parade of ubergarments. Indeed, in PN, there is almost no fabric to be found in this town which does not outperform a regular fabric in some way. Germans in ultrafleeces, Americans in ceramo-gortex, French in nuclear winterproof gators and high performance hats. I mean, what the f-k is a high performance hat- We even saw a pair of sprightly oldsters in high performance trousers with high perfomance kneepads, leading us to spectulate that the trousers may be used for a rather more adult sort of perfomance

Still, no-one is immune. Owen shyly opened his fleece to reveal the label, revealing the word 'performance' on the label: and, I too had to admit that upstairs I had a pair of socks whose astonishing capabilities owed something to the American space programme.

The 'mainstreaming' of performance consumer goods is worth an essay, if not a book, in its own right. This is beyond the modest scope scope of this diary, but, even here it merits a few paragraphs.

Sometime between 1990 and now - presumably when I wasn't looking - high performance objects took over the world, or at least the mid-upper income bracket part of it. I am old enough to remember back to the 1980s, when Mr T still had integrity and the only high performance products were cars with big engines. Then a couple of things happened. One key moment was undoubtedly the invention of the Land Rover Discovery: this made it cool for the middle classes to do their shopping in something that could also be profitably used for rounding up sheep. True, posh off roaders have been available for decades, but the Discovery achieved mass appeal, without, crucially, compromising its...performance. Next up was the mountain bike. This made people realise that a 'performance' product could in fact be functionally superior to its predecessor, in this case the faster but far flimsier racer. Then there was the discovery of the fleece. Not so long ago, I wasn't that keen on fleeces, but really, to slag off fleeces is a bit like saying you think telly is bad: there is no point and everyone in the whole world who can afford one has one. Undoubtedly, there were a whole host of smaller developments, but it was these three, combined with huge advances in the manufacture of pointless fabrics that look kind of cool, which set the stage.

The other thing that made performance clothes perform in a commercial sense is they make you look kinda sporty and active, even if your idea of exercise is stubbing a fag out in a beer can. Plus, they all sort of go together, so, if you kit yourself out at Blacks (or, if you're a sloane, at Rock and Snow), no matter how bad your taste, you'll look kind of OK. Interestingly, the keenest wearers of performance clothing are not the Germans, nor the Americans and certainly not the Brits. It is...Mon Dieu... I'd actually rather expected that if I saw any frenchies, they'd be arrogantly hiking in Prada or Christian Lacroix. Mais non -they even buy those stupid vanadium permformalloy (trademarked by someone, I'm sure) walking sticks which are completely unnecessary unless you are actually walking on an iceberg. I even saw a French guys wearing performance Alice bands to keep his hair off his faces. I'm afraid that these fall into the manbag category. That is, nice idea, but they look so unf-ckingbelievably stupid and unmanly they will never ever catch on.

But is performance stuff any good? When put to the test, does it perform? Well, sort of. Take the fleece, for exampe. It's warm, as well as being a very good use of old plastic coke bottles. But it's not waterproof. Then you have the gortex overcoat. This is not warm, but it is very waterproof. So, you can wear you performance gortex overcoat over your your performance fleece and be warm and dry. Or you can just buy a Barbour which has been doing the same thing since about 1900. A while back, guy was extolling the virtues of his performance trousers to me ( not that kind of performance) pointing out to me that they dried very quickly compared to jeans. True, but jeans also take quite a long time to get wet. Interestingly, this is also how you spot the locals. For some reason, people who live in these places - even the ones who can afford titanium underwired hacking jackets - seem to make do with jeans and sweaters.

Still, the need for garments and other sundry objects which demonstrate performance shows no signs of letting up. You can now get a performance towel, performance flashlights and even portable performance personal digital assistants (PPPDAs). Like regular PDAs, but dipped in yellow rubber. I expect it can only be a matter of time before somebody invents performance toilet paper, with a ceramic microfinish to guarantee evverytime one wipeability and an intersheet carbon nanomesh to ensure, that, even in the most extreme defecation situation, your finger will never, ever go through.

Torres del Paine in the Ars

Like everyone else we were here to go to the Torres del Paine national park, the jewel in the crown of southern Chile's remarkable landscapes - and, to test our performance tent (guaranteed to perform like a tent up to 6000 metres). It's weird, but down here, where the Andes are much, much lower than in the north; well this is where the real secnery is. Here is where you get vast spikes of rock and really cool Lord of the Rings type mountains. It's also where you get loads more snow.

But if you want that take a look at the pics. The people are far more amusing to write about. As I say to a manor woman, keen, high achieving types (memo to management consultants on holiday: leave your corporate baseball cap at home - down here nobody gives a toss that your work for McKinsey and besides, it clashes with your performance bandanna). But the two groups who really stand out the Americans and the Germans. The Americans were all pretty nice - most Americans outside of America are - and, my god, were they pleased to be there. They practically bounded up to you like puppy dogs, slathering you in bonhomie. Interestingly, within the first few sentences, every single one will disown their current administration and the (now long overdue!!) war on moustaches as well as the mooted war on untrustworthy Korean types. 'Not my fucking president' is something of a lietmotif amongst Yanks down here. Though, of course, you have to remember (as one Ameican told me in Indonesia), that every American you meet abroad is an exception. For every cheery liberal in Patagonia there are a hundred bush boostrers back in Texas who know damn well that Islam is the new Communism.

And for every cheery liberal in Torres del Paine, you also have a miserable German. What is it with Germans - they travel to some of the most beautiful and remote places in the world. And then they are unhappy. In Torres del Paine I can only put it down to the fact that the hiking isn't really very difficult. We're talking Lake district standard, a alk in the national park. I can only think that the Germans were upset that their 40,000 Euros of Berghaus wasn't really getting tested properly. The chirpy Americans, on the other hand, were much more 'can do' about this. Many of them were running the Torres circuit, thus ensuring their ultratrek trousers were really put through their paces.

OK, so the Torres do not merit the clothing a lot of folk wear during their during their visit - unless of course they climb them - but they are rather good. On the most torresy side, they look like Gaudi's Cathederal in Barcelona. And on the other, they are a magnificent ring of razor sharp peaks, with a few massify bits and a butte or two thrown in for good measure. In fact they look much more lord of rings than LOTR. So its director's NZ patriotism aside, why didn't they film LOTR here?. Well probably because as Jane pointed out, it was midsummers day and it was snowing.

The Torres del Paine national park, while very beautiful and the kind of place you can hear Glaciers avalanching at night, etc. has some of the worst weather in the world: it rarely ever gets above ten degrees down here and you can get snow at any time of year. But those who holiday down here wouldn't have it any other way. For that is how you prove just how keen you are. Nobody who owns an underwired Gortex bodysuit is actually going to holiday somewhere nice and sunny are they?