Big feet

From Santiago, Chile to Puerto Natales, Chile

In the early sixties my grandfather who was a machine operator applied for a job in Patagonia. He and my grandmother had just returned from The Congo where my grandfather worked on a ship sailing up and down the Congo stream from Kinshasa (Leopoldville at the time) to Kisangani (Stanleyville at the time) and back again. By the time they returned to Belgium they had 4 kids. My grandmother was fed up with all the adventure and longed for a place to call home. My grandfather reluctantly said goodbye to his dreams of living in Patagonia and got a job as a teacher instead.

When I was a kid I listened to endless stories about that time. The story about how they almost moved to Patagonia always ended with the same question. Did I know Patagonia actually means big feet? As the years went by, fewer stories were told and more and more details were left out. Right before I left the only thing that remained was the question of whether I knew Patagonia actually means big feet. I like to think that was all he thought I needed to know about Patagonia, the rest was for me to find out.

Somehow the story about Patagonia nestled in my brain. It is a fascination with the road not taken. Intergenerational Fear Of Missing Out. I looked at the map of Patagonia, an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle of land, ice and water. Is that a lake or the sea? I still don’t know. One day I was cycling along what I thought was a lake when a dolphin did somersaults in the water. A dolphin? In a lake? In the next town I was told that that was in fact the sea and that what I thought was a dolpin was actually a tuna.

I let my eyes travel over the map and was intrigued by the names. Bahia exploradores, Rio Baker, Villa O’higgins. Patagonia itself was named by Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people that his expedition thought to be giants, hence the big feet. Like Stanleyville and Leopoldville naming a place, a river, a mountain or even a continent is a theft cover up. To name it is to claim it. And while looking at these maps fuels the spirit of adventure in me, it is a gruesome reminder that exploration and repression are 2 sides of the same coin.

The struggle for land and nowasays more valuable freshwater continues to this day. The soutern Patagonian icefield is the world’s third largest freshwater reserve. This area is shaping up to be one of the geopolitical arenas of the future. In a country where privatisation has become the default doctrine, everything is for sale.

Villa O’Higgins has that end of the road charm that makes you want to get out of there as soon as you arrived. There is quite literaly nothing to do and the dusty streets, all 8 of them lead to nowhere. There is no local life. The whole comunity merely seems to exist to cater to the needs of whomever is passing by at any given time.

Villa O’Higgins is the end of the Carretera Austral, a road built during the Pinochet regime to connect these small far away comunities with the rest of Chile. From the North to the South this road runs along majestic rivers, fairytale forests and small farms. Whenever smoke is coming out of the chimney you can be sure to receive a warm welcome. The center of any patagonian house is the woodstove. If it is raining, and it often does in Patagonia, a place at the woodstove to dry your clothes, drink some tea and to bask in the warmth of the fire while sharing stories seems to be all that you need. That and the knowledge that Patagonia actually means big feet and that this is only part of the story.

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