In a recent essay in The New York Times — a big spread in the Sunday Travel section — Paul Theroux argues for the value of travel, even in “turbulent” times and places. “To be a traveler in such circumstances,” he writes, “can be inconvenient at best, fatal at worst. But if the traveler manages to breeze past such unpleasantness on tiny feet, he or she is able to return home to report: ‘I was there. I saw it all.’ … Invariably this experience — shocking though it may seem at the time — is an enrichment, even a blessing, one of the life-altering trophies of the road.” 1 That Theroux’s continuum of travel experience ran so readily from “inconvenient” to “fatal” seemed to me somewhat alarming — for I’d recently learned, through “such circumstances,” that there was “unpleasantness” that one was not enriched, or “blessed,” by seeing.
Indeed, almost every sentence of Theroux’s article, even those about revolution and disaster — or as he puts it, “the bungling and bellicosity that constitute the back and forth of history” — seems euphemistic and alarmingly breezy, centered around the pleasures of travel and the perspective of the traveler, rather than focused on the potential terrors of a conflict zone. And so, of his time as a “sightseer” in Sudan, he writes, “Along with oppression and human rights violations, I found hospitality, marvels and a sense of discovery.” No doubt Theroux, from The Great Railway Bazaar on, has been not only a tireless traveler but also an avatar of “I was there” journalism. But after my own recent experience as a “sightseer” — and after being taken hostage in Patagonia — I had to wonder whether he was steering people into trouble. So I am here to disagree; I want to make an argument for staying home.
Torres del Paine National Park is not a place where one would expect to find trouble. Located in the Magallanes province in the Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine is a wild landscape of subpolar forests, glacier fields and granitic cliffs, where the penguins outnumber the people. Certainly for most of us who had traveled to this far southern region — the park is at 51 degrees south latitude — the revolt came as a surprise. To be sure, I’ve never been a timid or overly cautious traveler. As a professor who regularly conducts research in postcolonial or “developing” countries, I had fallen asleep to the sound of gunfire between PKK “terrorists” and the military in Turkey, been caught up in riots in South Africa, journeyed in Egypt with armed guards just months before the revolution, and had recently visited Iraq. I was used to military checkpoints, land mines, airport closures and sudden shifts in schedule.
But I had gone to southern Patagonia to have a break — to enjoy the remoteness, to revel in the glorious landscapes. After a couple of weeks in northern Patagonia researching the impact of water privatization, I had decided to head south with my mother for a vacation. I wanted to forget for a while the troubles of the world — even as Tunisia and Egypt were erupting in the riots that would lead to the revolts of the Arab Spring — and this wilderness park near Antarctica sounded like a good place to do exactly that. Here in what the Lonely Planet guidebook calls “South America’s finest national park,” where “trails meander through emerald forests, alongside and over roaring rivers, past radiant blue glaciers, azure lakes and up to jaw-dropping lookouts,” I planned to relax. Here I expected to find rest, not riots.
My expectations were over-optimistic. Imagine bands of protestors surrounding Yosemite or Yellowstone, waving black flags and blocking the exits with burning tires. Imagine the lodges of Yosemite and motels of Yellowstone running short of food and gasoline and the tourists in the parks beginning to panic. And imagine the press somehow remaining oblivious or uninterested, even as thousands are being held against their will and people are ending up dead. 2 Imagine all this and you’ll have a sense of what was happening in January 2011 in southernmost Chile, where a populist movement blockaded the roads and closed the airports, trapping tourists in a national park popular with Americans and Europeans. The effects of the protest even extended to ice climbers in Antarctica, who wondered whether it was better to face impending polar storms or fly back and brave the Patagonian unrest.
On our way into Torres del Paine, my mother and I began to notice signs on cars and houses: No al Alza del Gas. No Rise in Gas Prices. This was our first clue that there was trouble in the Patagonian paradise. The press had been keeping quiet about the strike, we would later learn, in an effort to protect the tourist economy in the prime South American summer season. In fact, in recent years Torres del Paine has become internationally recognized as an eco-tourism retreat that attracts the rugged yet well-heeled set. Its popularity and prosperity owe in large part to its discovery by European and North American adventurers and mountaineers. In 1972, the French-Canadian mountaineer Yvon Chouinard made the region an upscale brand name with the creation of his Patagonia line of high-performance clothes (he felt that the name would conjure “romantic visions of glaciers tumbling into fjords, jagged windswept peaks, gauchos and condors“). In 1977, the British writer Bruce Chatwin sparked readers’ fascination with the publication of his bestselling In Patagonia. Later that year an Italian mountaineer donated land he had purchased in Patagonia to the Chilean government; this bequest came to define the current boundaries of Torres del Paine National Park. In 1978, the park was designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
Lonely Planet captures the aura of the park’s most popular hotel, the Explora: “With otherworldly luxury, this elite retreat spoils sophisticated travelers taking a stab at adventure. You’ll find baskets of trekking poles, not umbrellas, in the lobby, spa treatments and ivy-league handsome guides poised to take you down the trail.” 3 Lunch at the Explora will set you back about $80, so this is not a place where the locals eat, let alone book the three-night package deals for $3,000. In fact, most tourists have little contact with the local populace; they fly into Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas and are picked up by hotel vans and driven straight to the park, a multi-hour trip. Some visitors fly charter to avoid the drive.
On a professor’s salary and retiree’s benefits, my mother and I could not afford the Explora; but even the cheapest place, at $186/night, wasn’t cheap. Our first two days were a Lonely Planet idyll of trail hiking and glacier viewing. Then, during breakfast on the third day, we noticed that some guests were being urged not to check out of the hotel. “No, you better stay here, it’s safe,” the owner of the Hosteria Pehoe told a family of three from Iowa. “The airports are closed. Stay and enjoy the view.” While my mom and I had toast and coffee, the family from Iowa, along with some other guests, grew agitated. Since the hotel had no Internet or television, the owners were our only source of information — and the increasingly angry tourists began to demand the news. Only an Argentine tourist seemed blasé. She turned to me and shrugged, “This happens every other day in Argentina.”
During the next few days, we learned that a protest group, the Citizens’ Assembly Magallanes, had effectively shut down the province. The Citizens’ Assembly was protesting a 16.8 percent rise in the price of natural gas, which was used for heating, and the privatization of a regional gas-and-oil company. 4 The president of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, had earlier eliminated a subsidy for natural gas, claiming that Magallanicos needed to pay the “true cost.” But with gas prices rising around the world, the prospect of an unregulated market in a remote and chilly place, where heat is needed 365 days a year, was understood by the locals to pose a serious risk. “To us, it is a life or death issue,” one protestor said. 5 And with unionized workers at the gas-and-oil company losing their jobs, few other employment alternatives were available. A region-wide shutdown quickly materialized — and we tourists were, we realized, the “negotiating chips.” 6
Escape from the Park
By the fifth day, my mother and I could no longer afford to stay in the hotel at Torres del Paine. Budget backpackers, mostly college students, had already begun fleeing by foot. At the same time, we realized we were short on gasoline for our rental car; with only half a tank, and no supplies left in the park, there would be no going back once we had started. Anticipating roadblocks, we left in the middle of the night; but as we cleared the park entrance we were surprised to find no obstacles. We pushed ahead along the washboard-rutted dirt road. Had the whole thing been a hoax? But then, just ten kilometers from Puerto Natales, we found a driverless semi-truck jackknifed across the road. On one side of the road the land dropped down into a chasm, on the other side it sloped up into a mountain.
“I can make it, Mom. Get out!” I said quickly, hardly even thinking.
“But the car will tip!” she cried, even as she got out obediently.
Indeed, as I gunned the gas and headed up the slope, the car’s wheels left the ground. My mother immediately ran forward and tried to push the car back down. I stopped in a panic, fearing I would crush her, then quickly realized it was impossible to go back. So I hit the gas and made it out, clearing the truck by inches. My mom, usually the stoic Swede, cheered me. “You did it!,” she said. We drove on, feeling like Thelma and Louise, until, five kilometers later, we hit another roadblock. This one was manned, with three semis blocking the road, surrounded by tent communities and a port-o-potty. Black flags, fashioned out of plastic trash bags, were hoisted everywhere, as was the ever-present blue-and-yellow Magallanes flag, a symbol of the region’s separatist tendencies. 7
“Mom,” I said, “Go out there and act old. Tell them you need your medicine.” I was banking on the instinctive Chilean respect for the elderly. “I’ll take my hat off to show my gray hair,” she agreed, approaching the protestors. Before I knew it, my mother returned. We were going to be allowed to get through. They even offered us tea while we waited for a police escort.
In Puerto Natales (pop. 19,110), shreds of burning tires were smoking in the streets; tourists were wandering aimlessly, toting luggage. We got a room in a cheap hotel and prepared to wait out the strike; some tourists slept on mats at the school. The Red Cross supplied sandwiches and chili. My mother and I watched the Tunisian revolt on CNN as we listened to horns honking all night long: people were driving in circles around the tiny town, once the meatpacking center of Patagonia. Every time the horns got louder, we hoped that the strike had been resolved.
The next day, the hotel owner told us tourists that we needed to go to the “military school” and “get on a list” to be evacuated by the Chilean military. The protestors, we were told, had made a deal with the Piñera government: they’d trade a planeload of tourists for food and oil. But when we arrived at the military school, all was chaos: more than 1,200 people were trying to leave the region, and an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 tourists remained scattered across Magallanes. Meanwhile two lines had formed, one for Punta Arenas , another for Calafate, Argentina. When I told a volunteer that we needed to get to Santiago, I was sent to the Punta Arenas line. “We have to get you out of here,” the person in charge told me, “Chile is going to send in the Army. And then it will get ugly. All you tourists have to go.”
As we waited we got a crash course in Chilean politics. We learned that Piñera was threatening to invoke the National Internal Security Law — Ley de Seguridad del Estado — a 1975 law passed during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet that had never been repealed. This would put the Magallanes region under martial law, which for many Chileans still evoked terrible memories of leftists being rounded up and tortured and imprisoned. An assemblyman from Punta Arenas, Dalivor Eterovic, summed it up in a local newspaper: “The logic behind the application of this law makes no sense. This could only be thought up by a government led by Sebastián Piñera, which is an authoritarian, violent, right-wing government. … He did it on Easter Island, at La Araucanía, and now he wants to do it in Magallanes.” 8 The Chilean band Inti-Illimani Twittered a warning to protestors: “The government doesn’t rule out reinforcing the police contingent in Magallanes … [to bring about the] ‘pacification’ of Magallanes.” 9 In the meantime, Pinera’s popularity was plummeting; from a high of 63 percent, after the world had watched him greet the trapped miners being freed from the Copiapó mine in August 2010, his approval ratings had sunk to 41 percent. 10 Hastily he began to fire his cabinet, and a major “reshuffle” was announced, with several resignations in one day. 11
Back on the ground, at the military school, I began to feel the urgency of escaping. I knew that we had more to fear from the national government than from the protestors, since the government had the capacity — the military — to cause real havoc. I also felt responsible for my elderly mother, who was diabetic, and running out of medicine. Explaining this to a volunteer, I got us on the priority list for the military bus to the airport. Some who didn’t make it onto the bus opted to walk the 15 miles to the airport. We later learned that they weren’t allowed on the plane because they were not on “the list.” My mother had noticed that one man’s feet were bleeding.
After the 45-minute flight south to Punta Arenas, I asked a volunteer how to get a plane to Santiago. “I don’t know,” she said, “You’re on your own now. The airport here is chaos.” In fact, the airport appeared to have been abandoned and looted. The restaurants were closed, the toilets overflowing, the vending machines emptied out. Trash was strewn on the ground and the tables were covered in gunk. No flights were arriving or leaving that day; there was only one military bus to take people to town. As travelers were pushing to get on the bus, my mother expressed doubt that we would be able to return to the airport the next day. I asked the bus driver how we would get back; he shrugged. Somebody suggested that we could hitchhike. Instead, my mother and I decided to stay in the derelict airport, though this meant that we would spend the next 24 hours obsessively weighing the risks of drinking water from the bathroom tap even though we had been told not to.
In a true grab for personal territory, I discovered the heating vent and claimed the floor space around it; at least we would stay warm. Others slept in their sleeping bags, already staked out in a queue for SkyAir or Lan Airlines, hoping to be first for a morning flight. One couple set up a camp stove and cooked the remains of their backpacking stash. They asked my mother to join them, but she politely declined, making me worry about her blood sugar. We had only a few saltines and some dirty cheese, which had fallen out in my backpack, but I hoarded them for her. As my mother slept, I passed a panicky night, watching her to be sure she was still breathing.
The next day, behind an abandoned U.S. embassy banner, we found a fresh-faced young man who helped us to arrange a flight to Santiago. (Those who had not stayed at the airport would not make it out for several more days.) On the plane, a doctor started checking people to be sure they would not die during the flight. One man was forced to deplane because he was having an asthma attack. Another woman was having heart problems, but she was cleared to fly after the doctor checked her pulse. Luckily, the doctor didn’t look closely at my mother. The next day, we were back in the United States.
The day we left Patagonia, the U.S. embassy official told us that tourists had started to provoke fights with the protestors. Frustrated vacationers had gathered in the main square of Punta Arenas, chanting, “We just want to be tourists. Queremos turistear!” 12 Some had even shouted racial slurs. The embassy staff was worried that the situation was becoming unstable. Personally, I tended to side with the protestors, who were in fact the politest protestors I had ever met. Some had offered us the local tea, a communal yerba mate drunk from a gourd, others had offered us rides, and everyone wanted to apologize for our troubles. In contrast, some of our fellow tourists were behaving quite badly. I’d heard one man yell, “You people don’t know how to run a country. I thought it was a first-world country here, but it’s like any damn third-world country.” Even the former executive editor of Backpacker, Thom Hogan — whom one would expect to be an intrepid traveler — wrote on his return, “Torres del Paine may be beautiful, but in visiting it you’d be rewarding people who don’t much care about you as a tourist. They just want your money. Or your body to use in negotiations with their government. Simply put: Boycott Southern Chile.”
In retrospect, you can view what happened in southern Chile from multiple vantage points — and from each you can make a legitimate claim upon the narrative territory. Thom Hogan apparently hopes that Torres del Paine will remain a pristine environment where the wishes of tourists are catered to, no matter the situation of the locals. This isn’t surprising, given that Backpacker styles itself as “your source for gear reviews, outdoor skills information and advice, and destinations for backpacking.” The magazine’s ethos seems to be that you can go anywhere, so long as you’ve got state-of-the-art GPS, a minus-30 sleeping bag and mountaineering boots. (Indeed, we heard stories of people trying to walk the 30 miles from the park to Argentina using their GPS — it was that kind of crew.) In the pages of Backpacker, wildernesses are understood as landscapes to experience, sans people but with nifty gear.
Unlike us tourists, the local people were not so well outfitted. They had to make do with trash bags for flags. But they were ready to raise their trash-bag flags and fight to maintain their heat through the winter — to have a decent life. They were the products of a tradition of union solidarity, guaranteed subsidies, social safety nets. Piñera, representing the new generation of privatization advocates, believes that citizens should carry their weight and pay the “real” cost of gas and oil — even if it’s the state military that enforces this free-market mechanism. This conflict between public and private is of course at the heart of a struggle that has been brewing around the world for decades. In Chile, even the water has been privatized, under the same logic that people must pay its “true cost” — i.e., whatever the market thinks it’s worth and can get. But what happens when people cannot pay?
For me, the political situation that I had so unexpectedly confronted in Chile has been a jolt. The Magallanes protestors refused to let me have my vacation; put another way, they refused to let me cease my education. Indeed, it seems increasingly clear that the places where one can take a vacation are fewer and fewer; instead we’ve got places where we can get an education, precisely about increasing economic inequity. According to the World Bank, inequality within countries worldwide has been increasing for the past two decades. (Ironically, this owes partly to privatization policies enforced by the World Bank.) And with this inequity inevitably comes unrest. Paul Theroux claims that the waves of protest now rolling over many parts of the globe are part of the natural “back and forth” of history, that they have happened “throughout history”; all that is required is that we travelers carry on and be flexible. But Theroux ignores the fact that the very category of middle-class tourist is relatively new, and flourished strongly as part of the mid-century pax americana and postwar prosperity; he also ignores the fact that the number of people on the planet who are downwardly mobile or desperately poor is rising sharply. For many millions this is not the natural “back and forth” of history but a one-way ticket.
So I do not agree with Paul Theroux. On the contrary, I would argue that the tourist is an endangered species, threatened by a potent mix of dwindling energy resources, a withering middle class, and the rising inequality that is fueling instability, protest and terrorism. As for me, I know that I cannot afford another vacation package that includes a military evacuation. It turns out that unrest has a surcharge: the short flight had been free, but there were the extra hotel nights and the fees for changing airline tickets. (American Airlines would not waive the $400 fee because they “had not heard about” the shutdown, practically implying that I was fabricating it.) In Egypt a few months ago, stranded tourists had to pay for their military transport home. But what happened to those who could not afford it? Yet even for those who can still afford it, the special status of “tourist,” the expectation that one will be separate, protected and pampered, seems to be fast receding.
The week after we left Chile, the conflict was resolved with a temporary three percent increase in gas prices, rather than the proposed 16.8 percent. For some Magallanicos, this $40-a-month savings will make the difference between freezing and surviving the winter. The details of the plan, it was determined, would be sorted out later. One local blogged, “The history of this is not yet over. But we are pleased that the tanks didn’t roll. At least this time.” 13 Back home, nobody had heard about anything unusual happening in Chile, aside from an earthquake that I had missed. Like American Airlines, some seemed skeptical about my story since it had not been on the news. And as I’ve watched the Middle East and North Africa continue to boil over, I keep thinking about the tourists who might be trapped. How many Americans were stuck on a cruise on the Nile, holding signs that read, “We just want to be tourists”?
Everyone wants to be a tourist, after all. As Jamaica Kincaid once wrote, “Every native of every place is a potential tourist, and every tourist is a native of somewhere. … Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives — most natives in the world — cannot go anywhere. … They are too poor to escape the reality of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go.” 14 Because of such disparity in wealth and opportunity, the tourist has always been an object of envy. The tourist has always been separated, in a metaphysical sense. But these days, the tourist is also potentially one step away from military evacuation, or worse, often without knowing why, or being able to afford it. As for me, I’m learning to appreciate the landscapes of my neighborhood and the pleasures of my own backyard. The next time I need a vacation, I will stay home.