They call Puerto Natales "Ultima Esperanza" or "the last hope." At first is sounds like a desperate situation, but I will be calling this my home for a little over a month and am thrilled to do it. This place is the portal back to Torres del Paine, a jumping off point to head north to Calafate and El Chalten, and a hub to get down south the the last city before all that's left is the sea and Antartica. Aside from that it's a cute little town. It's small and easy to navigate. There is a gorgeous view of the water and the mountains...and at night the clouds get painted pink and red and gold just before the sun sets. The sky is big here and wide, it almost feels like it spreads forever, and like in Easter Island, I can watch the weather as is rolls in and rolls out. I like this town. It doesn't feel like the last hope, it feels like renewed hope, and it's really starting to feel like home. That's a nice feeling...home. I also found a family here. They are an welcoming bunch, and within a matter of days I've gotten myself uncles, and brothers and sisters. Last hope? Nah, more like a welcomed rest.
I have another goal during my time traveling, which includes that ellusive thing called finding my life's purpose. It's no small feat. I have some ideas with how I might want to spend my time and energy, but I have yet to figure out how to tie them together or to find out if they are things I actually enjoy in practice. Possibly, part of that is the idea of one day opening my own little bed and breakfast on some small corner of this globe. Which part of the globe is still a big unknown. I also am not sure how I would actually do dealing with and cooking for a new batch of strangers every day. It sounds like it could be fun, but really, how would I like it?
I am getting my first trial run at parts of it. Granted I don't have to worry about the business and finance end of things but I am getting my hands dirty with the other parts. I am doing a work/trade thing in a hostel here in Puerto Natales. It's a fun place called Erratic Rock that you could say is a landmark here. Bill is the guy in charge and sets the tone for the hostel. He offered up a position here indefinitely for food and board assuming that I agree to be the house cook. That would be for all the folks that work here and at base camp next door (where they have a bar and rent gear). I very happily agreed...they hadn't tried my cooking yet and were taking a very bold leap of faith.
Another part of my responsibility is to welcome people as they come in, answer any question they might have about the town and the park (having been there 2 times now, I feel adequately prepared to do that), answer the phone if need be, run to town and do errands, clean-up a bit, and make breakfast if Bill has to be out of town. All in all, it's a pretty sweet gig. I like the work, I like the people, I like the place and it's nice to pick the brain of people who are coming and going about what should or could be next.
I've been put under the wing of Julie. She will be here for the entire season and has the responsibility of running the place when Bill it out. I love her! She is super friendly, easy to get along with and willing to teach me anything she can. We spend a lot of time together, cooking, cleaning, and generally just spending time here in the house. When the weather is pleasant or the sun promises to make a show of sunset we've climbed on to the roof or walked down to the water to get a good view. I consider her my sister here and have really enjoyed having that connection. Julie did a world trip last year, and decided to come back here for a longer time to really get to know it. This part of the world does that. I've posted a link to her blog HERE as well. Be impressed it is written in Spanish, French(her native language) and English...all of which speaks fluently and flawlessly.
It's inspiring me to be around people who can flip back and forth so easily and reminds me how important it is to learn this language. It's easy to speak in English most of the time, especially with so many Americans, Australians, British, and Europeans (Germans, Dutch, Austrians, etc.) who speak English better or more easily than Spanish. But I have made a few attempts to force the native Chileans to speak to me in Spanish only and help me practice. It's no easy feat....they flip to English easily too.
As for the cooking...well, that's been an interesting situation. They haven't thrown me out yet, so something must be right. I share this responsibility with Caleb, another volunteer/intern and we either work together or switch off days. Trying to cook for a big group is no easy task. It's still hard for me to wrap my head around making the right quantities...and of this crew we don't have one small eater. We've got me, and well, let's be honest, I easily east for someone twice my size. Then there is Bill and his brother Paul, who runs Base Camp (the combo bar and gear/rental shop). It's uncanny how much those two sound like each other. If you just hear them talking and can't see them, you can't tell which is which. Then there is Koen, a fun kid from Holland that speaks english with such enthusiasm it's hard not to get excited about even the most mundane things. He's 20 or 21, and being that age eats like nothing I have ever seen! Then we've got Caleb and Veronica, both intern/volunteers. Caleb is from Virgina and has all that aura of a artist musician. Vero is from Argentina, warm, welcoming and friendly like I've learned to expect to from this culture. The last of the regulars is Carla, who runs one of the travel agencies here in town and happens to be Bill's girlfriend, and Carla's dad. Every once in a while Scott, Matteius, and Mauricio will join too.
So far I've tried my hand at making homemade gnocchi with a vodka sauce, black bean burgers, lentils, zucchini and pumpkin soup, shephard's pie, chicken and veggie stir-fry, lasagna, summer salad and zucchini bread. It's all been eaten...and for the most part the all turned out pretty darn good. On day's like today I get lazy and just run over to the Proa Norte (the local grocery store) and we have a sandwhich day. Everyone seems to like that too. Me especially....there are hardly any dishes!
I wasn't long into this gig when I was told that Bill would be out of town for a couple days and that Julie would also be leaving to go to the park with her sister who was coming down so they could do the trek together. So...you're saying you are leaving me in charge after 4 days?! Damn, THAT is trust. So, I was to be getting up early to turn on the old school gas heaters and stove (which my first attempt left me with some burned hairs), open the blinds and doors, turn on some pleasant morning music, start the coffee and hot water for tea, and when the first batch of guests came down the stairs I was making omletes and cutting up the homemade bread. In the afternoon and evening I was checking people in, taking payments, making reservations, selling bus tickets to the park, answering questions about the park and town...all in all, having a great time. This is fun!
When Bill got back he set me loose to go exploring. So I had a second chance to go back to the park as the weather had been unusually sunny and clear and to get over the border to El Calafate and El Chalten. I wasn't about to say no to that. So with complimentary bus tickets in hand and a free place to sleep in Calafate I was gone to explore knowing that I would have home to come back to after my little trip.
I didn't realize just how much this really did feel like home until I got back. First of all, I got off the bus and I knew where I was going. I passed familiar faces on the street...and then I walked in front door to, "Hello Kiddo! Welcome home!" Yeah, that's nice. I dropped my stuff, started a load of laundry and helped myself to food in the fridge.
Even on downtime I've found it's easy to spend my time. When alone, I walk around town down to the water, read in the park, bike around just to bike around, yoga...and when I have company, sip matte at base camp, set up the slackline and try to walk it and get some coaching from Koen on how to climb.
Bill has warned me to keep my passport hidden or he might steal it, and I'll be stuck here the whole season. But they have made this feel so comfy the problem is that I don't want to leave. At first it was just going to be for a couple weeks, then one more, then one more....and finally I made a promise to myself to leave after the first of the year. I have a flight to catch from Bariloche and that will let me spend Christmas and New Years here with my adopted family at the last hope, and right now, I can't think of too many other places I'd rather be. If I won't be home, this is for sure the next best thing.