Saturday, April 02, 2005

The Penguins of Punta Arenas

I slept in until 8, at which time I was treated to a shower that started off luke-cold and gradually got warmer. The cold water felt like they had an iceberg on the other side of the wall and it gave me the kind of headache you get when you stick your head into a barrel full of ice. Don’t ask, it was one time in college.

We just barely made it out to the dining room for breakfast, even though they’re probably not hard and fast by the 10 am closing rule here. Just after 10 am, the hostess walked out of the door for their attached house, which I was standing right next to reading a science project on El NiƱo’s affect on penguins in the area. It has got to be some grad student’s well-planned scheme to be paid to come here for two consecutive years. Anyways, she informed us that the park was extending its season and we could book a tour out there today. Bueno. I mean, we’re not expecting many of them, but it’s not like the penguins keep a calendar in their little penguin nests that says when the season ends.

I emptied my bag of the postcards and trinket I bought yesterday, a 2-inch tall penguin made of Lapis Lazuli (found only in Chile and Afghanistan), with a marble belly and bronze flippers and beak. I call it my “Blinguin.”
I got gold from my beak to my flippas
We walked down to the correo (post office) to mail off a few postcards. There was a little confusion as to how many stamps we wanted, but we worked it out. A total of 40 stamps between us (2 per card). We strolled over to the Plaza de Armas and took a few pictures with the status of /link/ Hernando de Magellanes. A few kids were climbing on it and a dog was lying nearby /link/blog (of course), but it was workable. No sooner than we got the last one, then a herd of people surged into the park and surrounded the statue. None seemed to take photos, just stood around it. Then they walked off just as quickly. It’s about 1300 at the plaza. Since it’s Magellan’s monument, the compass rose has been incorporated into the surrounding area. What’s weird is that the shadow is pointing due south and is the full height of the statue, maybe longer. The sun is about 45 degrees in the sky, but very much not overhead. But even so, the heat from it nevertheless reminds me that the ozone layer in this area is almost non-existent.

We walked even farther south to the restaurant /yelp/ Remezon. The decoration is much better than a generic restaurant, but the local area is kinda shady in a “take a cab here at night” kind of way. They’ve got a decent sound system here that fills the air with some catchy Spanish-language (obviously) songs, but I can’t tell what genre. We split a quesadilla ceviche, but the interesting meal is the main course: Castor Grillado…grilled beaver. It came out in three thumb-sized pieces, but was gamy enough to slow me down so much that Kacey finished her meal before I finished my third piece. My jaw was a little sore from all the chewing. I had cut them into small pieces to swallow, because the meat was so stringy that I couldn’t swallow just part of a bite. If it were an action movie, this would be the scene where the larger chunk of meat is holding the smaller piece by its wrists as it dangles over the abyss that is my throat while begging not to be let go. And…scene.

I’ve now dined on the flesh of /link/ my alma mater’s mascot. Go Tech! “I’m a beaver, you’re a beaver, we are beavers all!” Tastes like steak, by the way. The bill was $34,000 on a hand written receipt (the menu with 5 items was also hand-written). I think when things don’t have prices that they are either cheap or quite expensive. The beaver was $14,000 alone. We then made our way down the shore line road, and then we walked back to our hostel, stopping at a crossroad that ran to the water. The hills of Tierra del Fuego were a dark purple across the dark water that was smooth as glass. One large red barge and two smaller ships were just sitting there while a fourth vessel crossed between them. At that same dark-hued place was a red and yellow playground set that concealed a death trap. You know those spinning wheels? It was made of wood and metal but falling apart. If it caught you while spinning, you’d be in a world of hurt. Anyways, this pinwheel playground was really eerie and surreal as the fog obscured the view of the hills in the distance.

Back at the hostel, we boarded the bus (mini-van, actually) to Seno Otway with a French Polynesian at 4pm. We were in the backseat, which was good in retrospect. After no more than 6 minutes into our trip, it nearly came to an end as a car nearly (we’re talking inches here) hit the front corner of the van. Our driver braked hard and the folks in front of us were thrown forward (no seatbelts) and would have suffered the most damage if the car had actually hit our right side. We dusted ourselves off and rolled on.


We arrived at /link/ Seno Otway about an hour later. We walked about a quarter of a mile over a wooden boardwalk to a platform overlooking the beach. No penguins. Though what we first thought were some penguins turned out to be branches, rocks, and other inanimate objects. We stood around for 15-20 minutes but didn’t see anything except some ptarmigans, so we started walking over to the next viewing tower. The whole area is full of abandoned burrows and nests, covered by the kind of plants that can survive such and unfavorable climate.

Before we arrived at the next tower, I looked back at where we were standing with the half-dozen other tourists who were lucky enough to get in two days after the season ended on 31 March, only to see a penguin standing behind them! It looked like the penguin came out of its burrow to people watch. We snapped some photos and I noticed that everyone else was still fruitlessly watching the shoreline. My good deed of the day was going back to them and letting them know that there were, in fact, still penguins here. Or at least one penguin. We left them there when the penguin went back into its burrow. Kacey climbed tower one with the camera, I went over to tower two. The boardwalk was like an elevated superhighway crossing over all sorts of penguin pathways. There were mud condos on the banks, and grassy holes in grassy knolls.

Then I noticed a penguin about 50 feet from Kacey, who was looking in a different direction and might have had a berm in her line of sight. Which raises an interesting question: How do I tell her without scaring the penguin? After about 30 seconds of signaling and binoculars, I jogged over to her and she to me. Just before we got to each other, we scared away penguin #2. As we were looking for it, penguin 33 appeared near where I was. Kacey kept her eyes on it while I outflanked it behind a berm. When I re-established visual contact, she moved forward and we got a few more photos of the penguin before it to returned to its home.
This is what it looked like...not our photo.
Keep reading to find out why.
We were nearing our return time and it was starting to sprinkle down rain. We barely made it to the little lodge before it started pouring down. Drank some water and had cookies, but they didn’t help the headache that was beginning to build inside my skull. On the way out of the park, we didn’t see any of the sheep or emu that we saw on the way in. they’d all been replaced by cows and rabbits. If the rabbits had been penguins, this would have been an awesome success, but just seeing penguins, plural, in the wild was enough to make us smile.
Cute, no?
Back in town, we ate dinner at /yelp/ La Luna, where I had a locally brewed Austral beer to chase my spicy Chicken Pili Pili and rice. Dessert was a house specialty which consisted of ice cream, fruit, and those dehydrated marshmallows that come in Lucky charms cereal. My headache is now accompanied by a tender throat, so I’m pretty much out of it for the rest of the night. Maybe all the smoke has given me a headache, but the air seems cleaner here than in Santiago. Before we left La Luna for a rainy walk home, the waiter gave us a little flag with our bill so that we could mark where we were from on a map on the wall. There were maps of Europe so full of flags that they were stuck into other flags and not the map itself. No one from Suriname had a flag posted, which seemed odd for being on the same continent. Otherwise, it was straight to bed.

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