Michael B. Keegan Traveling Fellowship
Christmas in the Middle of Summer
December 23, 2007
As the sun beats down on the pavement of Buenos Aires , where my friends and I have just sat down to escape the heat with drinks at a café in shorts and tank tops, I have to try hard to remind myself that it is the holiday season. While I am definitely not used to having a white Christmas growing up in California, with summer having started here two days ago it seems strange to think about big family dinners and mistletoe. Tonight my friends from Manna Project in Ecuador and I are headed up to Cordoba , Mendoza and over to Valparaiso, Chile this week to spend the holidays together. I thought I would send a quick update and holiday greeting to everyone before we head out.
Upon leaving from GAIA in late November, two friends and I decided to head south and see some more of the diversity and natural splendor that Argentina has to offer, and to visit some contacts we received during the course. On a whim we decided to save some money and seek adventure by hitch hiking. Having never been hitch hiking before (and obviously not doing it when I am traveling alone, you can all rest assured), I decided to go along with it. After a few days back in Buenos Aires for some much needed time to reconnect with the real world, try a tango class, eat meat and visit with friends, we hopped on a bus out of town. Once we hit the main route south, we stuck our thumbs out and off we went. Our luck was really strong for the first two days and we got picked up within 15 minutes both days and taken really far south by very nice truck drivers, camioneros. Meeting these guys was quite an experience. Many of the men we talked to had gotten into truck driving because they felt they did not have any other option for finding work in Argentina, but almost all of them had developed a fondness for the freedom of the road. While it was hard at times to hear their stories of separating from their families, it was a pleasure to hear stories and observations from people that spend their lives traveling around the country. In the true Argentine style, the camioneros were incredibly friendly and hospitable, opening their trucks and their lives to an Ecuadorian, Brit and Californian found on the side of the road. One man even took us to meet his daughter!
Unfortunately our luck was not always so strong and the hours on the side of the road and in gas stations began to take a toll. On day four of hitch hiking in the early morning hours we reached Rio Gallegos, the southernmost city in continental Argentina. Road weary and ready to go see something other than gas stations and open highways surrounding by nothing for kilometers, my friend Ben and I decided to abandon our initial plan to reach the "end of the world" in Tierra del Fuego. Carlos continued on south and we hopped on a bus the next morning to El Calafate, hoping to get a taste of Patagonia. We saw some amazing dramatic landscapes there, including Perito Moreno, a 250 square kilometer advancing glacier that is the world's third largest reserve of fresh water. From there we headed to the town of El Bolson, a culturally diverse and progressive community in a valley surrounded by snow capped peaks two hours south of Bariloche in Patagonia. We had been hearing about this place frequently from people in Buenos Aires, as it is known for artisenal beer and chocolate, its beautiful natural setting and has a tendency to experiment in natural and alternative building.
El Bolson not only lived up to, but exceeded our expectations. Ben and I enjoyed the local culture (particularly the gastronomic aspects), met some very interesting fellow travellers and visited a few ecovillages and farms. At CIDEP, the Centro de Investigación, Desarrollo y Enseñanza en Permacultura, we participated in a natural building day and met many people with interesting contacts in the natural building world. There was one American builder living in Chile, working in places all over the world, including the U.S. who had some great thoughts and suggestions for me. The last stop for Ben turned out to be a small farm founded by a young American in the Rio Azul Valley, as he decided to stay there and volunteer in the garden and construction for a few weeks. The farm is still small, but the work they have done in natural building, and permaculture gardening was impressive. The founder, Alex Edelson, is only 25 years old but has lived all over the world and had a wealth of knowledge in natural building to share. His dedication and knowledge were truly inspiring to witness, and he has given me many ideas and inspirations for my future travels. Sadly after four days, I had to say bye to paradise and hop on a bus and get back to Buenos Aires to find my next adventure.
Since I have had many people ask me about the perception of the U.S. that I have encountered during my travels, I will take a minute to share my experience so far. While I have not met many people who like America right now, I have been fortunate that people have been very respectful of me and willing to get to know me as more than an American. Maybe this is because I in no way respect or associate myself with our current government leaders, but I have definitely had some interesting political and social discussions in South America and have never felt judged or threatened. Surprisingly, people have wanted to talk more about the "governator", our dear California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, than President Bush. People always love the lure of Hollywood (and judging from the terrible selection of movies that I have sat through on buses this past week, I fear that many people here consider the Terminator series to be top quality cinema). Considering the political history of the countries down here—Argentina having been operated under a military dictatorship until 1983 and has a well known culture of corruption—maybe they are not in a position to really criticize. In general, it seems that people buy completely into the material culture of the U.S., not viewing that very culture as being one of the main causes of all of the political and social problems in the U.S. For example, I saw my first Hummer yesterday in Buenos Aires . And they wonder why we have gone to war over oil? But I also have seen plenty of graffiti expressing much more violent opposition to the U.S . and its political leaders down here.
Pictures of the trip south will have to wait for now, but I will let you know when I get them up on my website. My next update will be from Chile, where I am headng with plans to meet a diverse group of people over the course of a couple weeks, from architects working in sustainable design to people working on urban ecological projects and hopefully learning about the indigenous traditions of the Mapuche people. Happy Holidays to all!