Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Real Travel

My Spanish is improving.

It could have only gotten better, I suppose.

It is still a very utilitarian form of the tongue of Pablo Neruda that I employ.  I can go to the ferreterías, the hardware stores of Chile, and get through the multiple transactions involved (more on this below) without falling into the abyss of mutual incomprehension that so often plagued my earlier efforts in Valdivia.

It helps that these commercial interactions are so ritualized.  In the wide-open arena of conversation I am still an awkward player at the very best, though I have my moments of triumph when I can struggle through a little small talk with someone giving us a lift into town.

Now that we have left behind the practicalities of Puerto Montt and set out on the grand adventure that brought us to Chile, I'm struck how much the real travel is what occurs when you're preparing for something else, just like that old saw about life being the thing that happens when you're planning for what you think you're going to do.

The hardware stores here, like the wonderful Weitzler of Puerto Montt, are confusing dens for a visitor.  Most everything is behind the counter, so there's no browsing to see what might be on offer.  You have to ask for things by name - you know, in Spanish.

And then there is the way that the three floors of the larger store are divided into an array of sub-units, each with its staffed counter selling one class of goods - plumbing supplies, or hand tools, or fasteners, or whatever.  It's a picture of inefficiency to those of us who have been trained to expect US-style commerce.  The counter selling plastic sheeting will be out of favor, its two staff leaning on their elbows, bored, while the poor sods selling power tools are swarmed by a pocket of customers, each seeking their attention.

After you get to a clerk and order the things you want, you go to the caja to pay, and then to the empaque to pick up your goods.  If you're buying something big, you might have to go to the bodega out back.

Elias was my partner on these missions, and we'd come back to Galactic with a great assortment of odds and sods for a boat heading south: galvanized thimbles, plastic mesh to make deck containers for our shore lines, dielectric grease, acrylic to make the galley portlight double-paned, bungie cord for Elias' slingshot, a blowtorch to help the Perkins come to life on cold days, fifty meters of line for our crab pot, heat-tolerant fiberglass insulation to pack around our heater chimneys.

We searched for these items in stores where all the other customers knew the drill, knew where to go and how to ask, and if we came out of a store with two or three items from a list of ten we felt pretty lucky.  And then we'd wade through the streets of Puerto Montt to search out the little specialty shops that might fill out our haul before hopping on the Chinquihue bus back to the marina.

It doesn't sound like much, but these forays were a perfectly unstaged look at daily life in Chile.  Throughout it all we would never deal with someone in the tourist business.  And that, I would maintain, is the difference between tourism and travel.  In the short holidays of the former, it can be incredibly difficult to interact with someone who isn't in the business of dealing with foreigners - hotel clerk, tour guide, waiter, taxi driver.

Leaving Puerto Montt gave us an incredible lift of spirits, just as we knew it would.  An hour of being on your own boat, with your family, sailing to somewhere on this aqueous globe that you've never seen before - an hour of that goes so far to making the effort and expense of boat work seem worthwhile.

The endless sunshine of our February in Chiloé is gone, replaced by the more dramatic weather of autumn.

The barky set out to the south with a few obvious additions on deck - crab pot on the stern, replacement hard dinghy forward of the mast, and shore lines clustered around the granny bars.

The dinghy doesn't have a name yet, though there is a strong contender.  More on that soon.

Now that we're away, we're quite keen to get south - it will be the rare north wind that doesn't see us traveling.

All of the sailors in Puerto Montt who had come from the south seemed to agree that one of the great sailing adventures of the world lies before us.  We're heading to the Global South!  The southernmost towns in the world, all of the legendary destinations - Torres del Paine, the Land of Fire, the Falklands and South Georgia and Antarctica.

Many of those places we won't visit, but some of them we surely will.  We really have no idea how long we'll be staying in the south, though I proposed one idea to Alisa - maybe we should stay until the boys can speak Spanish.  That should give us a good year.

Meanwhile, we've stopped in the little port of Quemchi, on Chiloé Island, to find a welder to make us some oarlocks for the new dingher.  When we pulled in last night the local armada station hailed us on the VHF to quiz us about our intentions and various details about the boat.  This sort of thing is routine in Chile, where the armada has complete authority over all vessel movements in the country.  It's very easy to put up with as a visitor if you just think of it as a part of the cultural experience, though I'd find the same intrusiveness from the authorities completely insufferable in Australia, where I consider myself at home.

The good part, though, was the reaction I got from the armada officer.  I came back to his hail with "radio Quemchi, aqui yate Galactic, adelante," delivered in my best imitation of a Chilote fisherman's booming radio voice.

The armada officer couldn't keep the chuckle out of his voice when he told me to go to channel 14, already.  And in a funny way, that made my day.  He could understand me, but his laugh told me just how silly my accent must sound.

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