A Letter from South America: Beautiful Moments, Part II

This is the second in the series of four articles about a trip to Chile, Argentina, and Brazil made by Lisa (2019) in November 2013.

Several hundred miles to the south lay the tiny town of El Calafate. There, the mountains were shorter and less self-assured, while the planes covered in hard yellowish grass replaced the perfectly blue lakes surrounded by abundant vegetation. The wind was tearing away at the peaks, the grass, and any human being too careless to attempt going outside. Pink flamingos, seemingly shivering, trotted on the very edges of cold and prickly lakes, on the surface of which surreal restless icebergs were mercilessly pushed around in circles. Suddenly, a spontaneous ray of sun came as an unpredictable change of scale from an intimidating minor to a fundamentally happy — if not serene — major. The dark clouds no longer seemed to dominate the scene, rather, they were a grim, but picturesque Wagnerian frame to what unfolded below. All of a sudden, I noticed joyfully red cows, covered in wool that seemed as warm as that of a bear, which were enthusiastically consuming grass only a few inches away from the hotel window, while little orange hares happily dashed around. The hostile mask of a coming storm couldn’t conceal the liveliness of the scene, which reminded me of Stravinsky’s ballet scores.

Perito Moreno – an enormous glacier in the Parque nacional Los Glaciares – was nothing short of a wonder. Encountering it – for I wouldn’t describe this as a passive act of simply “seeing” — produced a combination of shock, awe, admiration, and, oddly, deep respect. It must only be its faraway location that is to blame for there having been no school of painting inspired by it. Tall, majestic, and – interestingly – very modest, perhaps, due to being named after a human, it was beautiful. And, it was blue. Perfectly, incredibly, infinitely blue. This was not the blue of the sky, nor that of a Barilochean lake. A blue that can’t be fully understood neither in a photo nor in a painting.

It was blue proper, the blue of a mystery, unexplainable, complicated, and resonant. Though Kandinsky’s maxim of color being the keyboard, the eyes – the hammers, and the soul – a piano with many strings holds true in most of the cases, it is hopelessly off with Perito Moreno. This color couldn’t have been described in terms of a single note or a chord. Probably, the only piece of music that could express it would be Rachmaninov’s chaotic, yet poetic “Symphonic Dances.”

If Bariloche is the heaven of sunrise, El Calafate is one of the night. There, darkness fell sharply and quickly. The lonely light of the hotel’s windows must have resembled that of an unusually big lantern from a distance. The wind was howling its half-mad song of cruel love to the mountains, while the sunburnt and tired pampa struggled to make itself comfortable for a cold night’s sleep. Here darkness was close; darkness was primitive. It was all around, for miles and miles and miles. And, then, there were the stars, vivid, bright, and – oddly – no longer foreign. They were different from what I was accustomed to seeing, yet they reminded me of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. It was not the shape, nor the color, but the mood, the dissonant and slightly painful harmony, as well as the brightness of a mystery that made it resemble this painting. Standing in the lonely plane, looking at the starts in the freezing wind was a moment to remember. Yet, so was what followed. Drinking warm tea from gorgeous British cups late into the night at the bar of the hotel Eolo, I would allow the eye to wander from wall to wall, remembering the sensations of freedom and beauty, and – staying true to the cliché – feeling calm and oddly, incredibly happy.

They say that if one eats a berry of Calafate, the plant the town of El Calafate was named after, one is bound to come back. I don’t know if this legend can be trusted, yet – what I can certainly affirm, based on serious research that produced extensive experimental evidence – is that the slightly bitter Calafate jam is extremely, wonderfully delicious. It feels like a valid reason to come back, along with the prehistoric beauty of the landscapes and the strangely warm impressionism, surrounding any visitor, brave enough to walk outside, and stand up to the mineral poetry of the wind only to experience a Moment.

Down the valley, several more hours of driving to the south, lay the Torres del Paine National Park. The rule of geometrical progression of impressions continued to hold true. Here, the Torres, two towering, fundamental mountains visible from everywhere autocratically dominated the landscape. If Wagner’s Walhalla was to exist on Earth, it would have probably been found here, high up in the mountains, between the majestic, yet menacing peaks, seemingly haunted by the shadow of a storm cloud even on the sunniest of days. To the left of the Torres were two oddly nameless mountains. Lightly brown, nearly orange on the bottom, they were colored in a mixture of dark red and even darker black on the very top. There was no line, no distinction, no warning, one color just quickly became the other halfway up. This couldn’t have reminded anyone of Earth. The character of these mountains is simply too stiff, too reserved, for the observer to believe in their realness even possessing a reasonable geological explanation of their eccentricity.

Below, on the planes, there were hundreds upon hundreds of guanacos, animals resembling a mix between a camel and a vicuña, with fur the color of an araucaria trunk. They roamed the surroundings freely, outpacing the cars that are hopelessly slow on the gravel roads. In the course of a couple of days we spent in the park, we saw quite a bit of their life. We watched a male guard his herd of at least two dozen females, at times engaging in heated polemics that almost always ended in spitting. We saw the young playing, and the old sleeping, mothers teaching their offspring to walk, and large groups coming together to calmly consume fresh green grass, enjoying the view.

And, there were birds, the true masters of the national park’s territory. Caracaras chased us right back into the car, as soon as we accidentally came close to a place of their nesting. They threatened, screamed, and bat their wings in a terrifying way, a technique that worked effectively even against creatures ten times their size. Yet, there were also condors, decidedly different, majestic birds, no longer pursuing happiness or searching to establish their right to freedom, seemingly having accomplished both. The beauty, the grace of their flight, the perfect line, the choreography, the pure expression of a dark silhouette, cutting through the perfectly blue canvas of the sky is worthy of countless pictures. We saw small condors taking on the air, trying on the sensation of flight, closely followed by an attentive parent. Surprisingly, even their very first moments in the air were filed with an innate inexplicable grace, which made watching them quite simply captivating.

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Categories: Arts & Culture

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