Some of my fondest memories are from the streets of Buenos Aires. Stepping down boulevards with red brick houses, cobbled alleys, and iron wrought gates. Watching the tango in dark halls, I was struck by how beautiful dark, curly hair was and how deep brown eyes can be. I loved the accent, full of lolling, almost Italian-like shush sounds. After two years there, my accent was full of them.
Argentina is one of the most magnificent places to visit, which I say with complete subjective bias. I love it there. I love the wine, rich and full bodied, I love the beef, rare and tender, I love the landscape, arid yet lush.
I’ve not found any writer who depicts Argentina as beautifully, funnily, and accurately as Bruce Chatwin. Of my once-home city, he writes:
[Buenos Aires] kept reminding me of Russia: the cars of the secret police bristling with aerials; women with splayed haunches licking ice-cream in dusty parks; the same bullying statues; the pie-crust architecture, the same avenues that were not quite straight, giving the illusion of endless space and leading out into nowhere.
Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia stands as one of the 20th century's greatest pieces of literary nonfiction, and also one of the most contentious. Some credit it for revitalizing narrative nonfiction, giving a breath of life to what had become the relatively predictable world of travel writing. Others criticize that he inflated stories or conflated events, marring the concrete lines of nonfiction. Regardless, if you haven’t read it–Do.
Though it’s changed some since he published this description in 1977, a lot remains. Pie-crust architecture still lines the boulevards and bullying statues stand proud in city parks nearly 50 years later. Buenos Aires is beautiful. The whole of Argentina is beautiful; the coast, the pampas. But little compares to the staggering beauty of Patagonia.
Approaching via desert shrubland, the landscape tastes sweet on a dry summer wind. The smell of canelo tree’s jasmine-like flowers floats past like fruity perfume, blended with woodsmoke and livestock. Once up in the wooded regions of Patagonia, the scent-scape shifts. Wet earth, growth, decay, even humid air is caught beneath the canopy
In summer, the Patagonian climate is similar to British Columbia. Usually days range from about 10°C to low 20s during the day, dropping into the single digits at night. The sun climbs slow and early as adventurers around the world do their best to climb slowly towards the needle-toothed mountains. It sets late, after dark meat and darker wine temper weary walkers back to rest.
At one point in his journey, Chatwin remarks: “I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.”
Funnily, surrounded by such stark and moving landscapes as the glaciers and the cliffs, Chatwin hardly acknowledges them. Instead, it’s more of a backdrop to delightfully idiosyncratic people he meets. But when he does describe the natural world, it’s simultaneously expansive and minute.
I climbed a path and from the top looked up-stream towards Chile. I could see the river, glinting and sliding through the bone-white cliffs with strips of emerald cultivation either side. Away from the cliffs was the desert. There was no sound but the wind, whirring through thorns and whistling through dead grass, and no other sign of life but a hawk, and a black beetle easing over white stones.
At one point Chatwin’s even swarmed by Andean condors, the world’s largest flying bird. Now, I’m not Chatwin. He likely would feel it’s superfluous to tell you that these endangered birds live up to 70 years old and scavenge the Patagonian steppes for guanaco carcasses. But I think it’s incredibly cool. I’ll also tell anyone who’ll listen about the importance of guanacos, a wilder and larger relative of the alpaca, as a keystone species in maintaining the native grass and shrublands of Argentina.
But, then again, this mad smattering of animal facts likely may be the exact thing that’s keeping me from getting the E.M. Forster Award, as In Patagonia did. If you can’t tell, I admire Chatwin a good amount. Most of all for his famed departure from his work as a staff journalist to follow his dreams as an adventurer. This was the letter sent to his boss, from Lima:
I have done what I threatened
I suddenly got fed up with N.Y. and ran away to South America
I have been staying with a cousin in Lima for the past week and am going tonight to Buenos Aires. I intend to spend Christmas in the middle of Patagonia
I am doing a story there for myself, something I have always wanted to write up.
To stray from the familiar into what was then the edge of the world, what one Buenos Aires writer called, “just emptiness – a back alley where different cultures swirled about and rather a boring place,” was no small feat. From that back alley, to extract all his experiences, all the vibrant conversations of that adventure and wring it all out into a renowned piece of writing; that is what I call travel.