Musings at DAWN. Hard as that may be to believe.
Monday, Nov. 8—5:58am
Patagonia would be a GREAT place to be bald. When I got back from the bus trip and the walk to the waterfall (going was harder than coming back; going I walked into the wind. Coming back, it felt like there was a huge hand pushing consistently on the back of Rusty’s jacket; we call this power assist) and I tried to comb my hair. It’s been long decades since my hair was so tangled that I had to start at the bottom and work up a few inches at a time to get the knots out, but that was the only technique available to me this time. If I started at the top of my head, I could make it about half an inch before all forward progress was arrested by epic knots. And (a) my hair was squeaky clean and (b) I had it in a ponytail. I mean—dang.
Then I went to the bow to see what was going on in the world. I was there long enough to film a 12-second video (which became a three-second video of my shadow, hair flying around my head like demon possession) and had to immediately return to my comb and start the process again. Both times, I took a LOT of hair with me.
Oh. I see. Patagonia is helping. It’s TRYING to make me bald. Ahhh. I’m here to learn.
Just the little time I spent outside has pinked up my forehead. I’m now very sorry I didn’t bring any sunblock. The Nordic princess who runs the ship’s store is very sorry that she’s out, but would I like to buy a penguin necklace or a globe of semi-precious stones? She’s tiny, blond, and very upset for me. She must have to stay inside in Patagonia; this wind would whip her off her feet and she’d be in Antarctica before we would. And she can’t go buy more sunblock because we’re in our bubble—our strange, amorphous bubble that won’t allow us to go into Puerto Natales after sunscreen but WILL allow local guides to board busses with us and show every single one of us a map of the region, one (or two) by one (or two) during the long bus ride. What an odd bubble.
The passengers are beginning to grumble about wearing masks. We can take them off to eat or drink, and we don’t have to wear them outside. So we spend hours unmasked with each other. Now there’s grumbling. Since we’ve all passed at least three COVID tests, and since it’s been five days now—and every morning we drop off “wellness cards” at the front desk that assure the authorities that we have no COVID symptoms—can’t we drop the masks on the ship?
I asked “Dr. Rita”—an elfin woman who has that name printed on her masks. Actually I didn’t ask, figuring that she couldn’t tell me if there was a chance that the mask provision would be lifted. Instead, I told her that one passenger’s opinion was that I felt pretty safe about being maskless, and could she pass that on when the staff had its Lift The Mask discussion?
She looked at me, her masked mouth clearly not saying a lot of things she thought, and said that it was a decision that would be made by corporate headquarters, not by anyone on the ship. And then she shut up. Which was probably smart of her.
She told me that on an earlier trip, she’d been part of the hike-through-Torres-del-Paine group and a 90-pound woman had been blown off a ridgeline by a gust of Patagonian wind and broken both of her arms. So take THAT, sunscreenless Nordic princess in the gift shop!
Her sister-in-body is the Lindblad diver on this trip, whose name I can’t remember. But she’s tall and has long, rippling blonde hair and absolutely no hips or ass. I know I have a hip obsession; I KNOW this. What do we covet, Clarisse? I’ve never had snaky hips and I look at women who fit into their tiny leggings SO beautifully and I am wracked with envy. Wait—where was I? Right. The diver is this incredibly thin blonde beauty. I assume that once she it’s the water, the dry suit vanishes, her tail unfurls, and off she wriggles, back to her oceanic kingdom. She looks like Darryl Hannah in “Splash,” except she has leaner hips.
She was part of yesterday’s “recap.” This is apparently A Thing on Lindblad tours. Everyone gathers for booze before dinner and the naturalists do little presentations on what we saw that day—and on what THEY saw that we stupidly overlooked. The mermaid did an astonishingly fascinating ten minutes on the kelp forests that she and her second, Adam, had dived in back in the Hyatt Fjord. We were watching a Nat Geo special with the speaker live and in front of us to whom we could ask questions.
But OH MY GOD, I was right. The mermaid said “Are there any questions?” and a hand shot into the sky. “Yes, sir?” “How deep do you dive, how deep does kelp grow, are you using a wet suit or a dry suit, do you use oxygen or a special fill?” It seemed VERY clear to me that what this guy really wanted to say was “I DIVE, TOO.” She endured it with good grace.
Although I mock that guy, I also understand. There’s a tremendous longing to want to make the naturalists LOOK at you. To know who you are. To become something more than just another guest on just another journey, endlessly asking about nitrogen fills in the scuba tanks. There are a cluster of lesser naturalists who don’t push as much air in front of themselves when they walk; they’re quite approachable. But the ones who have been doing this for years have already somehow attained a rock star persona. I find myself wondering if I can ask Eduardo SUCH an astute question that he will think “Who is this clever woman? I must induct her into the inner circle at once.” Tua, the celestial navigator; same deal. Tommy the Nat Geo photographer. I seem to want to earn attention from the older, white-haired men. Undoubtedly says something about me.
I do NOT want to earn the attention of the mermaid. Her hips are TOO SKINNY. She would look at me as a gross, over-larded landlubber with neither magnificent, sequined tail nor flowing chiffon flukes.
So last night we heard from the mermaid, and Alex her dive assistant—although Alex spoke about the puma the hikers saw on their three-hour trek through the wind tunnel. (“No, it was awesome!” they all lied.) (They are all bald today.) The puma photos were gorgeous. I have cougar envy. Madalena (Portuguese, cute and young, “Call me Mada”) talked about how Torres del Paine was formed, which was interesting but not as clear as the explanation I got from young Diego the local guide with his map in the bus.
But the surprise hit of the evening was Dennis, the absent-minded professor. He’s our botanist. He stood up to tell us about the plants we’d seen on our stroll to the glacier the day before, and he was CHARMING. So funny and witty and down-to-earth. “Here’s a photo of the grasses on that rock slide. I don’t know what kind of grass that is. I could look it up, but I had more important things to do. Like count the number of spots in the carpet. Grasses are overwhelming.” So now I love HIM, too—but it’s a little different. I already KNOW I can’t ask a question astute enough to earn his praise or admiration, for my interest in botany is…well, I have no interest in botany. So I shall gaze upon him in delight and from afar.
We’ve left Puerto Natales now (and its reliable internet connections) and are heading for the Kirk Narrows. There are apparently two ways in to Puerto Natales by ship; one of them is the White Narrows. We came in that way; two huge rocks on either side of a narrow channel; we had to wait for the slack tide before navigating it. I was singing Wrapped Around My Finger as soon as I saw it. You know the line—“Caught between the Scylla and Charibdes.” They have to send the navigator through on a Zodiak first, to make sure the tide is absolutely slack so we don’t get dashed upon the rocks on our way through. (Although—wouldn’t you want the navigator ON THE SHIP during the transit?? Is he supposed to sit in the Zodiak and watch, saddened, as his ship goes down since he wasn’t on board to—oh, I don’t know, navigate??)
This morning we’re going through the Kirke Narrows; the second way in (or in this case, out). Lucho told us gleefully last night that this narrows is EVEN NAROWER and lined with evidence of the ships which didn’t make it. “So breakfast until 8:30, potential death via the Kirke Narrows at 9, and then a presentation at 9:30.”
Today we’re moving from Puerto Natales to Karukinka, so there are no opportunities to irradiate my forehead; we’re on the ship all day. We have three presentations. Tommy the photographer will tell us about going up Mount Everest with a camera around his neck. (Tommy and I have discussed Argentinian and US politics; I think he’s charming and not at all intimidating.) Then Mada will tell us about…something. Can’t remember what. And later this afternoon, Tua will tell us about navigating in Polynesia with no compass in his canoe. Tua intimidates and fascinates me. I want HIM to think I’m awesome. Like a child tugging at Mommy’s hem. I have to perpetually remind myself that I AM just another passenger. There is nothing I learned as a “critter copy” writer for five years at National Wildlife that will impress Eduardo or Tua.
Horribly, I get Eduardo and Tua mixed up. So embarrassing. It’s like seeing Pete Townsend and addressing him as David Bowie. For fear of this, I just smile and nod a lot. And try VERY hard not to ask the mermaid what kind of fill she puts in her tanks.
(I mean, even I know you don’t need a nitrous fill if you’re not going very deep—and these divers are filming KELP, for fuck’s sake. It needs sunlight to grow. We’re not tracking through the Laurentian Abyss, here. Come on, buddy. If you want the mermaid to like you, try something else.) (We all have our crushes. I get it.)
I’m not sure, but I believe all this water—trapped as it is between these alien-landscape upthrusts of massive, short mountain ranges—is part of the Magellanic Straits. And Puerto Natales is the capital city of Ultima Esperanza because of these two narrows that must be navigated to get here. But the whole region is such a maze of fjords that I have to wonder: Why try so hard to get to Puerto Natales? Did they get trapped in here and couldn’t find the way out and just said “Fuck it—let’s build our new paradise here in the wind tunnel?”
So, this landscape. I posted a caption in an all-photo blog entry last night; this will be repeat info for anyone who saw that. We’re at the tail end of the Andes down here at the bottom of the world. Zillions of years ago, there were mountains all down in a spine to the tip of land (which, I gather, we’ll be seeing). Then over the eons, various elements got to work on the mountains. Wind, obviously. Water, and there’s plenty of it. Plus the crushing, corrosive influence of ice, in the form of glaciers like massive landscape-altering bulldozers. Coming through, here—step aside. And now the horizon is dotted with mountains—towering, stony, obdurate edifices, rocky escarpments, battlements of stone. And they’re sitting there surrounded by huge plains and endless waterways and the flat path leveled by glaciers that are long gone. From where I’m sitting in the library observation lounge, I can see nine of them—some close enough to see the forested sides, some so distant in the mist that it might be my imagination, save for the occult calligraphy of snow incised into the peaks. This creates an utterly unknowable and alien landscape. It’s mesmerizing.
Well—that’s not true. Someone knows it. It’s knowable…God knows, there are charts and maps and graphs, and navigators safely out of harm’s way in Zodiaks. it’s just not easily comprehensible to the innocent viewer from over-paved North America.