Wednesday, March 16, 2011

In the Municipality of Cape Horn

A penguin waddled ashore on the waterfront at Puerto Williams, the biggest news in town since the fire truck was called out the night before and all the kids raced after it on their bicycles.

You can’t call this village sleepy—navy men, wilderness trekkers, ferry workers, crab fishermen and round-the-Horn sailors come and go all the time. Still, the sign that welcomes you to the municipality of Cape Horn—the cluster of islands of which Puerto Williams is the capital—reminds you that just 2262 people live here. Some days the most striking sight is the number of cars marooned along the streets with flat tires, remnants of tow ropes hanging from their axles, or the fresh snow on the high mountain peaks just across the Beagle Channel in Argentina. Wood smoke rises from cylindrical metal chimneys, and a grandmother comes out her front door for more firewood wearing a thick white sweater and Crocs that match her bright orange house.  
But when word broke about the earthquake in Japan and the tsunami that might be traveling across the Pacific, even this remote corner of the country suddenly felt connected to the organized, all-reaching presence that is the Chilean government. The TV emitted regular updates as the alert turned to an alarm. A wire-mesh barricade went up across the road that leads to the docks and wharves along the channel. Fishermen moored their boats one behind the other offshore, all facing west, the direction from which the wave would come if it came. Volunteer firefighters put on their uniforms and reported for duty.


Not that everyone took the threat seriously. When Patty Pusaki, whose B&B we were staying in, called the ferry office on behalf of some guests who hoped to leave for Punta Arenas the next day, she was told that if the boat couldn’t run from its regular wharf, maybe the passengers could catch it by her house up on the hill.

Of course the much-vaunted tidal wave was nothing but a bump by the time it reached Chile’s southern tip. But the tsunami alarm underlined the fact that for all its frontier isolation, Puerto Williams is very tightly tied to the rest of the country. Perhaps because Argentina is so near, perhaps because the two countries have squabbled for so long over the bleak bits of land in these parts, you see the mark of federal Chile everywhere on the island.

The naval base and the administrative offices that oversee various aspects of life in la Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena take up much of the town. A prominent hill nearby is called Cerro Bandera after the huge metal national flag erected there during a standoff with the Argentinians. And unlike in remote corners of Peru, even the empty gravel road that runs from one end of the island to the other is properly graded and signposted, its bridges strong and square, precise signs indicating every tenth of a kilometer exactly where you are.

When the time came for us to leave Chile, we got a last glimpse of both the casual and the official aspects of this far-flung municipality. The town’s one ATM breaks down regularly, so we had to visit it several times before we had the cash to go. Then we went down to a tiny, signless wooden kiosk by one of the wharves to buy tickets for a tour boat that runs daily from Puerto Williams up the channel to Ushuaia, Argentina.

But no one was ever there. Finally we asked a navy man walking by who sent us back up the hill to the port captain’s office. There an officer with a beret and a bemused expression told us that boat had been cancelled for today but that if we called the office in Ushuaia and told them there were two passengers here, maybe they’d send it over. He found the phone number and tried to call himself, and when he had no luck he directed us to go to a house on a nearby street corner and bang on the door.

He grinned. We went. The house, like many others in town, was small and shabby and the key stood in the front door lock. There was no indication any sort of business took place there, but we knocked and eventually a man who looked like he’d just gotten up opened the door and said sleepily, “Pase.”

We went into his living room and explained what we were after. No, he said, that boat wouldn’t run today, but we could take another boat from the west end of the island. No, no need for tickets. Just give him our names and passport numbers, and then at 3:00 we should wait in front of this building here for the van that would take us to the boat. He showed us on the map.

When we got there a couple hours later, we discovered why he sent us there: it was the regional office building, though it was locked and empty when we arrived. Two local passengers and Patty’s yellow lab stood with us in the entryway, one of the locals explaining that we’d go through exit procedures here. He said the police, immigration and customs officers used to have to take the hour and a half drive down the island every time the boat left, but this year they’d decided that wasn’t necessary. Sure enough, before long the officers strolled up, unlocked the building, checked our passports and gave us our exit stamps.  


So we got in the van and rode along the gray channel through our last scrap of Chile, past weather-bleached tree trunks draped with pale green lichen, past southern beeches just beginning to turn orange. The van driver had to honk several times at rough-coated cows who stood in the roadway and stared. 

At Puerto Navarino, we stopped at a yellow wooden building marked “Armada de Chile” that had tricycles in the entryway and round-faced kids running around. Then we put on our life jackets and walked down the narrow wharf to the little Zodiac moored there. 



And accompanied out of national waters by the required pilot boat, we headed across the channel to Argentina.


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