I prepared for the worst possible situation for the crossing on the notorious Straits of Magellan. Horror stories of massive swells tossing the ferry around like a toy while passengers toss their morning breakfast overboard. I had my tie downs easily accessible and placed an anti-seasickness patch behind my ear. The last time I can remember tossing my cookies on a boat, I must have been ten years old. And I’ve been on plenty of rough sails since. But this is the Magellan Straits.. A rider I’d met last month had a bout with his stomach. Besides, my good Dr. Bruce had offered them as a good sense of security and I’d been carrying the tiny patches nearly 30,000 miles. Besides, ferry company never gives a definitive sailing time. The jaunt across the straits could take two or three hours, maybe more, depending on weather and sea conditions.
I arrived at the terminal a bit later than the requested 1-hour departure and therefore had a half-hour wait to purchase tickets. Most of the cars, bicycles and other motorcycles were loaded when I rolled Doc down the ramp. Finding a secure spot to attach one of my tie-downs was easy. The second took some ingenuity. When I asked the driver of a large truck if I could use his bumper to lash down the bike, his toothless smile and thumbs up meant Doc was secure and solidly grounded for the one-hour trip to Porvenir, Chile on the island of Tierra del Fuego.
I looked up to the passenger deck and saw three faces grinning down at me. My new Venezuelan friends. I thought I’d be on this ferry yesterday. But unfortunately I was dragged out a bit late the night before by the owner/chef and waiter of the restaurant I dined at and couldn’t get out of bed in time. As such, it was good fortune. I ran into three riders from Venezuela who were riding aimlessly around the streets on a couple of Suzuki V-Stroms and a Yamaha TDM. They all had tires strapped to the back of their bikes and were looking for a place to install some of the new tires. I offered the information on the ferry crossing for the next morning and promised to meet there their early after explaining that there’d be no way I’d repeat last night’s curfew-breaking binge. I also gave them the sobering news that just a few days before I rolled into Punta Arenas ten travelers died in a hostel here in Punta Arenas — all of them foreigners. The conditions of some these hostels are atrocious. The materials used in mattresses, pillows and furnishings are perfect fuel for fires. Many times there’s no ventilation and travelers are packed into bunk-rooms.
My hostel, the Fitz Roy, run by Torres del Paine ex-guide Misael Perez Villegas, provided simple, but clean and comfortable accommodations in an older house just a few blocks from the main drag in Punta Arenas (Lautaro Navarro 850). Particularly interesting were the science and geological posters that covered many of the walls depicting different cloud types, flora and fauna — it was a veritable lesson in nature and wildlife. The music Misael had playing for us as I had my last pancakes and eggs (a treat and different than the usual toast and jam) was familiar. He was playing an obscure track from an equally obscure album by the late ex-Pink Floyd member Syd Barret. The CD played on. I had to ask him about this. He was a fan of obscure and collectable music. Sad that he couldn’t make the upcoming Roger Waters concert the next month in Santiago. But we talked about bootlegs from different eras and he mentioned an old-BBC radio show in which he discovered that included David Gilmour and Syd Barret. We could probably talk and listen to music for hours. But I had to finish packing and move on to catch the ferry. Just when I lashed my last dry-bag onto the bike Misael came running out of the house with a CD in his hand. He had burned me a copy of the BBC show and offered to me as a regalo (gift) to remember. Once again the kindness and camaraderie of the local people warmed my heart. A quick hug and a handshake and I was on my way to the ferry.
So with my patch and my bike tied down I climbed the stairs to a reception of hugs, cheers and pointed questions about why I was late. Did I repeat the fateful events from the night before? None of my new friend’s spoke English. They all lived south of Caracas and were at the tail end of a month long odyssey from Hugo Chavez country. As I write this post the inevitable memory lapse sinks in. Seems with every kilometer and every new face I meet, I find it harder to makes sense of the jumble of names and places spinning around my brain. The faces I never forget. But the names. Damn. Or is it old age? The youngest member of the group had a face not unlike Hugo Chavez. Quickly I learned that an ongoing joke complete with facial and hand expressions would be saluting Hugo.
Our conversation quickly switched to the politics of our respective presidents. They weren’t fans of Hugo and I expressed that in our country’s 200+ year history we had some great presidents. I explained that unfortunately our incumbent leader would unlikely make that list. That’s when the elder of the group and owner of a small chain of fashion stores divulged his disappointment that Chavez had declined an invitation by current Argentinean president, Kurchner to visit the grand Perito Moreno Glacier. That is disappointed that there would be no chance that Chavez’s plane would crash and thus forcing Venezuela into choosing a new leader. We laughed about politics and yet through my limited vocabulary I understood well his convictions. He explained that in a relatively small town in close proximity to his that during a rally for Chavez prior to his most recent reelection a team of camera toting television and newspaper reporters eagerly reported on the massive turnout. My new friend was intimately familiar with this town and its residents and realized that he didn’t recognize a single person attending the really. Seems the supporters and the crew of reporters were shipped in by several busses. But it sure looked good on the TV.
But underlying our conversation was the serenity of the sea and the seemingly stillness of the air with the occasional albatross and other sea birds drifting above our ship. The straits were calm. The wind non-existent. And the skies a deep blue. Perfect. I imagined an easy ride after the ferry landing to the Argentinean border and then onto Rio Grande and Ushuaia. The entire route to just north of Ushuaia would be ripio – a combination of that gravel and dirt I’d become so intimate with over the last couple weeks. But no fears. It was perfect riding weather. Once again I imagined where on the globe we all drifted as the ferry chugged across sill waters. Too often it’s easy to forget exactly where you are when traveling. It’s just another day. But gas, ride carefully, find a hotel, eat, go to sleep, wake up, and do it all over again. The towns, roads, weather and faces all blend into a continues stream of images or frames of a long movie without a primary plot line but rich in characters, colors and subplots. But here we were crossing the infamous Magellan Straits only soon to be landing on the island of Tierra del Fuego, the southern most plot of land in the world in which you can drive to and where more than 500 years ago the great explorers of the time discovered this route as a safe harbor from the harsh and dangerous waters of Cape Horn, just a scant few hours south.