Travel Stories

On Talking with Strangers
in Patagonia During the Election (Part I)

A man may only learn when he has determined that there is something he needs to hear and he doesn’t yet know what it is. So he travels—knowing that every perspective is a distortion and that the truest way to see the world is to see it through many eyes—to hear it spoken in many languages.

And so, on election day I rode a bus from Puerto Natales, Chile, across Patagonia’s steppe from where sheep browse on the scrub, to a place where the steppe rumples itself at the foot of the Andes and guanacos raise their heads suddenly to watch you pass, and then, finally, I stood before the mountains in the glass nose of a catamaran that pitched and fought the waves of Chile’s Lake Pehoe.

The coxswain drew back the throttle to soften the impact as the hull slapped down hard on a trough and then nosed dully into the wave that followed. One wave after another swept up onto the plexi-glass overhead and water seeped around the caulking to drip on a mound of hiking packs stacked in the nose of the boat. My father is a pilot. He raised me with a tough stomach in small planes that pitch and roll in turbulent air and still the eggs from my second breakfast recalled themselves suddenly to my attention by swirling wrong side down in my gut.

Waiting for the catamaran, I had ordered those eggs and then laced my fingers across my belly to ponder life’s choices. The wall of the coffee shop flexed into the back of my chair and a gust peppered the window with water blown from the lake. Within a minute, the wind had blown the window dry then coated it again with a fresh blast. A Canadian couple blew through the door and sat themselves at the next table while the wife recovered from a fluster over having her glasses blown from her face. Then we shared the brief familiarity of strangers who have staggered against the same wind and, on discovering I was American, they noted that it was election day in the U.S. and they commended for my consideration the Canadian system of government where elections last three weeks—or four at most.

When we had crossed the lake, the crew lashed the catamaran to its moorings and I struggled up the dock with the other hikers whose breakfasts, I could see, had also recalled themselves to their hosts in similar fashion and then, needing more time to ponder my life choices, I huddled in the Refugio Paine Grande and ate a lunch of lamb stew over pasta. They served the pasta-boiling water, with floating croutons, as a sort of soup and as a dipping sauce for our crusted bread and, after the cold ride, I tried and then I failed to recall why my people are accustomed to waste a thing so nourishing—so plain and comforting.

I travelled to Patagonia from my home in Washington, DC because I needed to watch our election from afar. And I travelled from an almost literary need to find an objective correlation for my disturbed country and for its government—a government I have served in some capacity for over a decade. Such distance is both a comfort and a terror because, if you can ever see a vague thing clearly, it becomes, at once, bigger and smaller than it might have been. But, once you have seen the terrible thing, and perhaps even seen something wonderful in the terror, you can get on with the task of living your way through it—knowing that what is past cannot be undone and that it may be changed only by adding to it.

As it happens, I had observed the past four U.S. elections from four different continents and each time I learned something I would have missed had I sat in front of a TV with my friends in DC.

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