Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Apathetic cruising and a vanishing culture

It is probably testament to what we have done over the last six weeks that the Navimag seemed underwhelming. On the face of it, three days cruising through the Patagonian fjord land should be something to really savour. However, after hitting the heights of Antarctica and Whale Sound the Navimag seemed a little pedestrian.

The Navimag is a ferry that runs the route once a week between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales (and vice versa). The ferry weaves its way through small channels between the mainland and the island archipelago. It carries a 150 strong contingent of international backpackers and a cargo of sheep and cattle (that after three days squeezed into trucks smell ripe). We had been warned that the food was lacklustre and to take plenty of wine onboard to fuel the quiet hours. As it happened, the food was actually pretty decent and the bar wasn’t as expensive as you might imagine with a captive clientèle. The ferry runs a series of lectures and films to explain the route and the Kaweshkar people. However, with my broken Spanish and their broken English the films and lectures became more of a burden than an education. As a consequence, we had plenty of time to catch up on backdated blog entries and photo editing that had taken a back seat whilst we were enjoying Patagonia.

One interesting element of the three days was a brief stop in the hamlet of Puerto Eden. This small village of a couple of hundred inhabitants is only accessible by boat and is home to the last dozen or so fully indigenous Kaweshkar people. The Kaweshkar have inhabited the Patagonian fjord land for several thousand years and until the 1950s followed a nomadic way of life, in small family units diving for shellfish and hunting sea lions. They would spend 80% of their life in canoes and designed them such that they could keep a fire running constantly within the canoe. They wore only loose sea lion skins and swam naked in the icy waters for up to an hour at a time diving for mussels and scallops. These people were as hardy as they come. Nowadays there are only 12 or so pure bred Kaweshkar living in a small township within Puerto Eden. They are no longer nomadic and like many aboriginal groups have fallen foul of the temptations of alcohol. Western culture has overwhelmed this small group to the extent that there is only one surviving person that speaks their native tongue. It is sad to see but unfortunately it seems inevitable that the Kaweshkar will go the same way as the Ona and Yamani people in Tierra del Fuego.

We are now in a small town above Puerto Montt called Puerto Varas. This are os known as the Chilean Lake district for obvious reasons. The town itself is like a diluted version of a Swiss or German mountain resort. Every corner seems to play host to a Strüdel maker or chocolatier and the houses have a distinctly Alpine feel. Tomorrow we will be making our way back across the border to Bariloche in Argentina before crossing back a few days later to Pucon. We are due to get to Santiago on the 25th in time for our flight to Easter Island on the 26th. Both of us are very excited about seeing La Isla de Pasqua. In the meantime, Happy Easter to everyone at home. Have a great few days off!

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