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.
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
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
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
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?