Deane Rink - December 17, 1996

    From: Deane Rink, Punta Arenas, Chile

(Deane is Video Producer and leader of the LFA 2 field team.)

A Few Words from From Chile

Where would we be without AGUNSA? At the mercy of the Chilean maritime authorities, babbling English to a Spanish-speaking world. AGUNSA is Agencia Universale de Sud America, the customs broker hired by NSF to expedite all marine- and Palmer-based science logistics that transits to the Antarctic Peninsula through Chile. When a scientist has to ship tons of oceanographic equipment or lab gear to the Polar Duke or Palmer respectively, AGUNSA sees to it that the shipment is on time, not delayed by red tape... The AGUNSA people all speak English to some degree; indeed, their favorite words are "No problem" or "Don't worry" when a first-timer frets about equipment, computers, clothing, etc. AGUNSA maintains an office near the port and a large concrete warehouse at the head of the Punta Arenas pier. The warehouse has forklifts, pallets, "Hazardous Material" labels, and a clothing room. It is from the latter that our NSF clothing issue for the Peninsula is handed out.

Unlike McMurdo, the emphasis on Peninsula clothing isn't warmth, as much as it is water-repellent ability. The Antarctic Peninsula is affectionately known as the "Banana Belt" because the temperatures in summer rarely dip below 10 degrees Fahrenheit. But with warmer temperatures comes more rain, more cloudiness, and the ever-present Antarctic winds. So we get two types of boots, both waterproof, and Gore-tex outerwear that protects the polar fleece innerwear from soaking. We get gloves and mittens made of rubber or neoprene, and no heavy down-stuffed parka like those associated with McMurdo or the South Pole. Once again, as with McMurdo, I am impressed by the quality and condition of the clothing issue, and by its cleanliness and professional maintenance. If one is to be miserable in Antarctica, it is not because of lack of adequate equipment.

The first part of the LFA 2 video crew had a day and a half in Punta Arenas before the Polar Duke set sail. Scott, my cameraman, and I hit the streets to explore this once-important, now respectably-decaying, austral port city. The first thing we notice is the elegant stone architecture of the buildings surrounding the central square. These edifices might just as well be in London or Paris. They remind us that Punta Arenas was formerly a critical city for world trade. Poised at the tip of South America, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans converge, it was once the focal point of the great clipper ship routes that were so necessary to the development of the West Coast of America. These elegant buildings were the customs houses for England, France, Russia, the United States and others, representing substantial national investment in Euro-American western expansion. Then came the excavation and opening of the Panama Canal, and the clipper ship route around Cape Horn became too long, too expensive, too dangerous. Punta Arenas, indeed all of Tierra del Fuego, went into rapid economic decline. Today, it has but one pier, and services fishing vessels who ply the Southern Oceans, the Chilean Navy ("Armada de Chile"), cruise ships to Antarctica, and the occasional research vessel like our Polar Duke.

As we wander away from the central district, the architecture changes dramatically, and we begin to get the impression of true poverty. Packs of dogs, mangy and undernourished, roam the streets endlessly, and have become such a constant problem that the garbage pick-up sites are not on the sidewalk, but are large metal baskets sitting atop 6-foot-high poles, out of canine reach. Paved sidewalks and streets give way to dirt and rock, the first hint of how different this city must be during the chilly austral winter. And houses are no longer stone, not even wood or adobe. The dominant mode of construction in the poor sections, the outskirts, is that of corrugated sheet-metal -- sheds, really, that one might find as garages or toolsheds or storage units in the poorer sections of the rural American South, but here they house families, with the smoke of wood fires belching out of their stove-piped roofs, rusting hulks of 20-year-old cars sitting in their dirt yards, all fenced in so the bambinos will not crawl out where the packs of dogs might have at them.

Back in city central, the streets are teeming with people. It is high noon, a week before Christmas, and the stores are all open and competing with one another by blaring seasonal music out onto the streets. School girls and boys, all in the traditional blue uniforms of parochial schools everywhere, walk in packs, headed to places like the "Cafe Salvador Dali", where strange pizzas, disco music, and soda fountains await. The girls giggle when they spot us, obviously "norte americanos", mistaking us for rock stars or MTV producers. We are under the watchful eyes of the carabineros, Chilean military police who stand on major street corners with impassive expressions and loaded machine guns. But a scant hour later, these same downtown streets are deserted and the stores are closed. It is a two hour suspension of business, once siesta, now a tradition that permits working mothers to go home and fix lunch for their kids, that allows businessmen to gather in bars and restaurants to discuss politics, or the fortunes of the local soccer club. It also allows these same stores to remain open until 9 PM every night (at least in austral summer, when it remains light until 9:30 or 10 pm). The evening meal in this most European of South American countries will not even begin until the stores have closed, and could easily extend, given the unhurried pace of life here, well past midnight.

At 3 PM, the businesses re-open, and we head back to the AGUNSA warehouse to determine the fate of our editing equipment, which has been shipped down separately via commercial air freight. We are informed that it has arrived safely from Port Hueneme, California, all six boxes of it, and now sits in Warehouse Four awaiting Customs' stamp of approval. I must trust their representation, as I am not allowed to inspect it until it clears.

It is our last night ashore, and we go to the world's southernmost Chinese restaurant, the Golden Dragon, for a final terrestrial meal. At least ten other people from the Polar Duke are already there, whooping it up. When the Duke sails tomorrow, it will be its own alcohol-free zone... The waitresses at the Dragon have seen all this before, as half of their business probably comes from wistful departing sailors. While we are eating our sweet-and-sour pork "Cantonese Style," (which tastes to me like hot-and-sour chili pepper madness, yet very tasty), three members of the Korean Antarctic Program file in, all wearing their red sailor jumpsuits. I wonder what interest Korea might have in the Antarctic, but fail to find out, as my Korean is about as good as their English. As item after item of "Chinese" cuisine arrives, it becomes clear to me that the Golden Dragon's success has to do with how seamlessly it has blended eastern cuisine with hispanic foods and taste buds. The only thing I can think of to compare it to are the Cubano-Chinese restaurants found on Manhattan's Upper West Side, another example of immigrant culture enriching the national crock pot.

Since we are to sail the following day, but late in the afternoon, it is possible, indeed mandatory, to do one last nightclub crawl. These dance clubs don't open till midnight, and run until dawn ...Just another transcultural close encounter of the surreal kind. By 3 am, we are tucked away in our shipboard bunks, about to tap dance with a different mistress, the infamous Drake Passage.

Back to Field Journals Menu Back to Deane Rink's Journals Deane Rink's Journals