Lost in Translation

A World Biosphere Preserve gets Closed by Strikers, and with Tourists held Hostage

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Warning: this is a long, complicated story. It is a true story. A story that wasn't heard by the world as it happened. And it's a story that anyone who travels for photography needs to hear. It's such a long story I'll have to leave out the parts about the line cop and the joke that got an otherwise serious Chilean FBI (PDI) agent to laugh out loud.

January 2011

In case you haven't noticed, I've been quiet lately. For good reason: I got stuck in the middle of a strike in Chile that restricted my freedom to travel to zero and focused my energy on keeping myself and my workshop students safe. 

I know of no other way to put it: I and thousands of others were held hostage. I know that's a word imbued with a lot of power and emotion, so I don't use it lightly. The organization behind the strike that triggered the whole chain of events I'm about to cover was careful enough not to use the word "hostage" in their public statements, but they did have a publicly stated goal of "shutting down tourism" and "using the tourists as a negotiating chip." So I ask what word would you use for the situation where travelers in a region have their freedom to move highly restricted by a group whose stated goal was to shut down tourism? In reading the following, remember that one definition of the word hostage is "A person held by one party in a conflict as security that specified terms will be met by the opposing party."

Onward to the story itself.

The end of my Patagonia workshop turned out to coincide exactly with the onset of a political strike action in Southern Chile by the Citizens' Assembly Magallanes (Asamblea Ciudadana de Magallanes, in Spanish, usually referred to locally as ACM). Not just any political action strike, but one that shut down an entire district (state) of Chile. The group itself is unelected and calls itself a "people's committee."

My workshop was in Torres del Paine National Park. Torres del Paine is a World Biosphere Reserve and the crown jewel of Chile's National Park system. Because Paine is so far South, most people visit it in the December through February period, the southern hemisphere summer, just as my group did. Within the park itself are any number of dramatic views for a photographer: Gray Glacier, the Cuernos (mountains, seen above from afar), the Towers (glacial-carved rock), and much more. 

As we headed out of Argentina into Chile we had heard about some planned "protests," but nothing that indicated it might be anything more than the usual small protests, work slowdowns or the short-term stoppages that seem to happen regularly in South America. I was stuck in traffic for an hour just before Christmas in Buenos Aires because of a street protest by telecommunications workers, for instance. The on-the-ground info we were getting from our local sources didn't seem that much different from that kind of short-term disruption, so we carried on into the park.

I should say right up front, we had a great time in the park, even though the weather never really cooperated to give us that spectacular sunrise/sunset we were looking for. Torres lived up to all its claims to fame: delivering wind, rain, sun on every great view, sometimes simultaneously. Despite being a relatively small park (927 square miles), you can't really cover it in the five full days we had, and everyone was yearning for more by the end. A nice way to end a workshop, or so I thought.

Two days before we were to leave we got the first reports that something more serious might be in store for the protest. The owner at the place we were staying (Hosteria Las Torres) is well connected with all the political structure in the region, and she had heard the first rumblings about "shutting down the park." At that point, things were still in rumor stage, and we had no real information to act on. 

The Web site of Radio Polar published a message from the ACM that they would call an "indefinite regional strike" and "total paralysis" of the region if meetings with their regional repreentatives in Santiago did not work out in their favor. By the night of the 11th, the day before we were to leave, we heard the first coherent information of something severe enough to possibly change our schedule: apparently the meetings did not work out in the ACM's favor and the roads would indeed be blockaded. Two members of the Chilean equivalent of the FBI were seen at our hosteria and talked with the owner that night about what was going on and what they thought might happen. Their recommendation was actually that we not leave early, which had been our original plan, but stay put. (As it turned out, that would have been bad advice, and I wouldn't be writing the full story of what happened to me yet if we had.)

So you need to know the following: the usual way out of the park when you've come in from Argentina is hundreds of kilometers down Ruta 9 through Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas, then fly out of Punta Arenas. As you might already have figured out, there aren't really any alternative paths (other than to go directly to the Argentinian border and backtrack four hours to El Calafate, Argentina, the closest airport in that country). The word that we got was that the protesters would try to block the border area crossing at Cerro Castillo where we had come in, and probably also somewhere before the airport at Punta Arenas. As it turned out, that was accurate information, though there was more we didn't know. 

But before we get further in the diary of our story, we need to address the reason for the protest itself.

The basic gist goes like this: the government has been subsidizing residential heating gas prices here in Southern Chile by 80%. To put that in context, people in Southern Chile pay about the same rate a month for natural gas (US$45) as do people in the heartland of Chile, but use eight times as much (source: Christian Science Monitor). Subsidizing energy also discourages conservation, which really needs more attention in this country. The government announced plans to reduce the subsidy to the gas company (GASCO), which intended to pass on a 16.8% hike to customers, or about US$6 per household a month. GASCO gets its supply from ENAP, a government owned energy agency.

The Magallanes region of Chile is somewhat unique. It's the long sliver at the bottom of an already slender country that hugs the Pacific. But it's not a "connected" sliver. Chile's road and train infrastructure basically stops at Puerto Montt, far north of Patagonia. There's a seasonal road and ferry connection, but the mindset of the nation seems to be that Chile ends at Puerto Montt, and in many ways it does. It's a two hour flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, or a very long boat ride to Puerto Natales. The usual way to get between the two areas in a vehicle is by crossing over the Andes into Argentina, heading south, then crossing back into Chile. So in terms of transportation, Southern Chile is isolated. In terms of population, it is sparse: the Magallanes district is said to have less than a quarter of a million residents, with the majority in Punta Arenas.

In their infinite wisdom, some locals in this district put it in their sights to "cripple tourism" until the government capitulated and restored the old natural gas subsidies. While this region produces most of Chile's native natural gas (and has a plentiful coal supply), Chile imports almost all of its gas from other countries (supposedly 93%), and prices have increased worldwide recently as you may have noticed at your local gas pump, whereever you're reading this. Thus, Chile's spending on energy subsidies will grow without some relief. A familiar problem all over the world. Plus Chile's energy programs are already reportedly US$4 billion in deficit, due to both mismanagement and subsidies.

The protest started in earnest about the time we entered the park, but with only minor, sporadic disruptions and demonstrations. On January 11th, the first big rally and blockade in Punta Arenas was tried, with deadly results. Two women were killed by a trucker trying to get through the protesters, and four additional people were injured, including a young child. 

But let's get to the real story: on January 12th the ACM decided to move towards full disruption and establish road blocks throughout the region. It's still unclear to me just how many of those blocks were made and where, but I know of blocks at Cerro Castillo, two between Torres del Paine and Puerto Natales, and three between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. Blocks were also established on a stretch that Argentina uses to get goods and people between their area North of the Straights of Magellan and South (they have no road crossing of their own). Hundreds of Argentines visiting or transiting Chile were also trapped. This included people on the nearby island of Tierra del Fuego, where treaties permit Argentines to cross Chilean territory on the island and the mainland. Obviously, those treaties were violated by the ACM, putting the central Chilean government in a pickle.

We didn't have a lot of good choices. With most of the group scheduled to fly out of Punta Arenas the next day, we had to make an attempt to get out of the park and to the airport. We had decided to take a back route out of Torres that isn't normally used by foreign tourists (Rio Serrano), mostly because the main route is now paved almost the entire way and this back route is dirt road for a very long stretch (it's actually very scenic, especially when coming into the park). Already as we came out we could see impacts of the strike: we were the only bus on the road. In fact, we saw only three vehicles at all, which is eerie in a park that is so popular (think Yosemite). Along the part of the road near Lago Pehoe, we saw a number of groups of hikers sitting at the side of the road waiting for the buses that usually serve the park. We stopped at one group and heard their story: they had been doing the trek around Paine, came out at Pehoe and expected the buses to be running but found that they weren't. In other words, they were stranded. When we got to the park border station, it was clear that they were prepared to stop traffic into the park, though there wasn't any traffic. No cars at all. I think they were surprised to see any bus at all moving, let alone getting to the park station headed out.

Our journey continued without incident until just a few miles north of Puerto Natales, at the small airport North there (Gallardo Airport). 

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Cars raced to block the road as we got there. Apparently they were at the airport to try to keep officials from getting in and out, and hadn't seen or encountered any other traffic yet. The "coordinator" of this block—she had a clearly marked custom printed ACM identification tag that identified her as a blockade coordinator, amazing what a trip to Staples and a desktop printer does these days—came over to talk with us and tell us that we wouldn't be allowed through. When we debated this point with her, she informed us that if she let us through we'd just encounter a bigger blockage a few kilometers away. So we sat and debated amongst ourselves a bit. A few minutes later, the people at this blockade got in their cars and sped off, opening up the road. This was what we were hoping would happen: that these blockages wouldn't be 100% maintained and that maybe, with some stop and start, we could wend our way the 170 miles we needed to go (at this point, we had covered about a third of it). 

But the coordinator was right. A few kilometers away we hit a big blockage that used three big rigs to block the road. So we sat for a bit, hoping that this, too, would pass. Eventually, another coordinator came over to tell us the news: this was a permanent barricade, no vehicles would be allowed to pass until the government restored the subsidies. "But we have a solution for you," he said. "You may take your luggage and bags with you and walk through the barricade and get another bus to pick you up on the other side and take you into town, but you must choose to do this soon. We can't guarantee that you can pass later." 

To put this in context, we're sitting in a bus about 8km from the edge of town, 10km from hotels. And this is a town of less than 20,000 residents, and the only town of significance between the park that we left and Punta Arenas. We knew that park officials wouldn't let us back into the park and that the border crossing behind us was blocked like this (and there is no close Argentinian town on the other side). We had already considered the "chain of buses" idea, and our local contacts had already been trying to set that up. There was only one clear choice: accept the "solution."

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Unfortunately, this early in the strike, no one wanted to seem to anger the strike leaders, so we weren't able to get a bus to meet us on the other side of the blockage. So we walked. It took over an hour. During that time, we were passed by 125 vehicles going either direction. One stopped and helped us. One. So much for Chilean hospitality. I should also point out that the average number of passengers in all those vehicles headed to the blockade was less than two, including buses, vans, and vehicles that could have held many. The folks doing the protesting aren't much into conservation. (And yes, I'm that analytical: I was counting people and cars that passed us as we walked.)

The walk—with all our bags and equipment at least half of the way—was probably almost 10k in total distance. I was lugging something over 80 pounds, all total. We had two people in the group that were having problems. Indeed, you're going to see that my photography basically stopped for awhile, as I was much more worried about my group and their health (both physical and mental) than I was about photography for quite some time. One of my students had been sick earlier in the trip and now appeared as if he might be getting pneumonia. He was clearly crippled in his ability to do this strenuous hike (remember, we're carrying all our gear: camera backpacks, laptop bags, duffels, suitcases, you name it). The other just was straining under the heavy load of multiple bags. Fortunately, our one hospitable Chilean had a pickup, so we just put our sick passenger, one of our guides, and all our bags into the truck and continued our hike into town. By the time we got there, we got another small bit of hospitality: the hotel we had hiked to is a sister of the one we were going to use in Punta Arenas that night and agreed to just exchange the reservations and payments that had already been made. We had a nice, safe place to stay the night, and it even had decent Internet service, which I obviously started using to research everything that was going on. (My local guide worked the phones and visited friends in town to do the same.)

That research told me we weren't likely to be going anywhere. It was clear that this was the start of a major, organized protest (remember those coordinator badges?) and that one of the goals of it was to shut down the park and hold tourism hostage, if not tourists themselves. While it was clear that the government was holding meetings with the protesters, it was also clear that the government's position was not to capitulate. One press report told of Pinera, the current Chilean president, wanting to let the protesters stew in their own pot. This refers to the fact that the Magallanes district is not self-sustaining. If cut off from the world, which was what the protesters themselves were accomplishing, it would eventually run out of gas, food, and other supplies.

There was only one problem with Pinera's tactic: tourists were getting stuck. It's difficult to get exact numbers, but I have some idea at this point: thousands. The estimates I've seen have ranged from a low of a couple of thousand to as high as five thousand. Given that I personally counted 1200 in Puerto Natales (more on that upcoming), I'm inclined towards the higher end of that scale than the lower.

Let's define "stuck" for a moment, as it is important to the story. In Natales, those 1200 (I'll get to the count method in a bit) were either staying at the few local hotels and hostels, camping somewhere around town, or by day two camping at the gym of the local school where the Red Cross set up a station. Being at a hotel with both cable television and Internet gave me access to pretty much all the news there was. As it turned out, the best source of news was the Web page of the cable outlet (Radio Polar). Updated regularly throughout the day, it became clear that they had a reporter on the streets of Natales who was talking to everyone (local government, local strike organizers, the Red Cross, tourists, and more). It was also becoming clear to me that the story was purely local: outside of the Magallanes region I could see no reports of anything happening in Southern Chile. Yet there were two dead, four injured, dozens arrested, and thousands of stranded tourists, including my own group. Heck, during the crisis three Chilean government cabinet ministers resigned; even that didn't make the outside press. In the local press it was shown that the carabineros (police) were in riot gear, arresting dozens of people, and that hoodlums had attacked and damaged firefighting vehicles. Smoke from as many as 20 or so fires was filling the air in Punta Arenas and photographed by those that were there. (After the protest ended, local reports tell that the road itself was damaged in over 120 places, mostly by fire.)

By the morning of the second day I felt that this was a major enough story brewing that I started doing a few "more active" things.

First, I started working my contact list to get to the right folk at the New York Times. Yep, I thought this was a page one story (still do, and the Times missed it completely, despite a correspondent on the ground trying to help them; so much for "All the news that's fit to print."). Since I had Internet access and my iPad with numerous publication apps on it, I could see what the NYT, Wall Street Journal, NPR, USA Today, and host of other sources were reporting as news each day. And as things escalated in Puerto Natales, I could see filler stories hitting the World pages of the "news press." Hey fellas, there's something happening here. [Yes, that's a song reference. Look it up (last four words). It's relevant ;~]

Okay, at this point, we're bedded down in a hotel in Puerto Natales when we should be many miles south in Punta Arenas. Most people have flights out of Punta Arenas. There's still some hope that the protest will resolve itself as we go to bed and that we can then just get out with a tiny bit of delay and hassle. We check out of the hotel in the morning while waiting for news. The protesters and government are in talks. The hope on our end is that an agreement is reached, the blockades come down, and we just pick up where we left off with only a small delay. We've already arranged for another bus that's here in Natales, full of gas and ready to take us out as soon as the blockades lift (the local guide we hired is actually 100% local: Carlos lives in Natales, and he frantically worked his contacts for both news and options). 

Unfortunately, the news wasn't good, so it's back to checking into the hotel. We're now off the map. The tour has officially ended, as has all our prepaid vouchers. If you read the fine print of any tour agreement, you'll find that strikes, disasters, wars, and all kinds of things that can disrupt a trip mean that all bets are off: your costs are no longer covered. It's at this point I have to make another decision, but it's an easy one for me: I opt to pay the costs of the group staying in Puerto Natales another night (that came to about US$1500 after we negotiated a number of discounts). When you're in a group and the situation goes off the chart, the one thing you want to do is preserve the group. If you don't believe me, just remember what happens in any horror film: those that wander off meet the monster. It's actually that way in real life, too. If you look at most disaster/hostage situations with groups, groups usually survive, individuals don't. The larger the group, the better. 

Because of costs, we had at least two people that would have opted to leave the group at this point (something that would have turned out to be a big mistake and delayed them further). I know better. We hadn't hit the point where total anarchy occurs and everyone should be looking out for themselves, plus there is leverage in numbers. You never separate the group except as a last, desperate resort. And when you do separate a group under situations like this one, you can expect that this decision will have poor consequences for at least some members of the group.

But it was at this point that attitudes shifted within the group (and not just ours, I noticed it with others staying at the hotel and other tourists I met in town): we were no longer just being disrupted, we now all felt like our freedom to make choices and move around at will were gone. We were hostages. 

I tried to override that thinking by setting up shop in the hotel's conference room and doing image reviews, Photoshop lessons, and more, but it was clear that no one was thinking "photography" any more as the situation got tenser, and eventually I gave up trying the "take their mind off things" route because it just wasn't working. Our guide and I asked everyone to start calling their embassies and make them aware of the situation. Indeed, Rob and I suggested this to every tourist we met. As it turned out, a good plan. 

As much as some people think government agencies are jokes, I can assure you that the US State Department is not. If you haven't read the Wikileaks documents, you should: the US State Department is doing quite a bit of observation, gentle leverage, and sometimes outright pushing behind the scenes. Amazingly for a government agency, they actually seem to be doing the job that they've been given, and fairly well. This isn't the first time I've seen that first hand, I suspect it won't be the last. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

That night I'm sending massive updates to the New York Times. Basically ever shred of information I can dig up, including information about the Red Cross station that's been set up and the number of "hostages." There's some hope of resolution. There were talks between the government and protesters again during the night, and as I went to bed things looked promising: instead of a 16.8% effective price hike, there was a 3% hike offered instead, which is less than the current Chilean inflation rate. The negotiators for the protest group seem to have accepted that, but it needs to be ratified by the group itself. 

Which brings me back to the protesters. Most Southern Chileans are poor. [Okay, a big edit here. I've left the wording of my original story because they are indeed poor relative to the group I was leading, which I think is relevant. However, my local contacts in Southern Chile have all tried to correct me on this. As one writes: "most Southern Chileans are better off than their counterparts in the North. You do not see shanty towns in Punta Arenas. There is higher employment, better salaries, and lower crime. There are fisheries, sheep and cattle raising, lumber, and other industry. There is work for those who want it, unlike parts of 'the North.'" I stand corrected. Still, my point was in context. Some who've complained about my article and that I look down at the poor aren't going to like this addition, but I'm going to leave the original wording intact.]

The median income down here is low, so even the US$6 month increase originally proposed would hit most of them hard. Thus, there's strong consensus within the local community that they need to force the government to back off the increases. This solidarity shows itself through black plastic trash bags. The organizers of the group selected this as the "flag" for the protest, so you see black plastic trash bags flying from car radio antennas (see pictures above), homes, store fronts, and in one case I saw, even a real flagpole. Black bags are everywhere. In fact, they are so ubiquitous that it's rare to see a vehicle without one or store that isn't flying one. 

Moreover, it appears that almost everyone has bought into the notion that "tourists are our one negotiating chip." Thus, there's this weird tension going on everywhere you walk. Everyone knows their livelihood is dependent on tourism, but everyone knows that keeping new tourists from arriving and the existing ones from leaving is their only bargaining chip. We had some interesting "debates" with maids and servers at the hotel. [One of my local contacts makes a point that I didn't in the original article that is relevant here: "There was a lot of local threatening that the tourists never saw. Anyone who didn't keep his business closed and didn't show a pro-strike flag could expect reprisals—maybe a scratched car or a broken window." Actually, I did hear about that, but chose not to mention it in the original article.]

Almost no one I speak with realizes that long term impacts they are generating for the tourism industry here (let alone the short term). They also seem to think that we tourists are wealthy and can manage a bit of monetary disruption better than they can. On the other hand, as you talk to the stranded tourists you get another story completely: "I'm never coming to Chile again and I'm going to tell everyone else to stay away." There's a connectedness to all problems, and that connectedness eventually comes back to bite you in the butt if you ignore it. The US and Europe have been pretty careless about banking and debt, for instance, and we all know how that played out and continues to impact us. But the Chileans here don't get the fact that they've essentially destroyed tourism in the area for a long time to come. Witness:

So on the morning of the 15th everything starts coming to a head. The Red Cross in town has registered over 800 stranded tourists, the foreign embassies received so many calls from stranded tourists that they together put pressure on the Chilean government to act. That action turned out to be a complete evacuation plan, but a complicated one. People are stranded all over. There are people in Punta Arenas that can't get out because they can't get to the airport (which is operating mostly normally, partly because it's also a military base). There are people in Puerto Natales who can't go anywhere due to blockades on all exits from town. There are still people in Torres del Paine who are stranded. And there are people walking and in at least one case biking out of the park to anywhere.

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Small part of the line that snaked through the gym and out into the halls at the Red Cross center.

For those of us in Natales the solution was this: the Red Cross would register people and prioritize them. The military would provide three buses, a cargo truck, a 737, a 20-seat Otter, and unarmed personnel. These vehicles would be marked with Red Cross IDs (though driven by the military) and a prearranged agreement would let them through the blockades. The protesters at least seemed to want to avoid violence and escalation, so it appears that they accepted this plan without protest. The cynic in me says that they agreed to it because part of the plan is that they'd get new hostages to make up for the old. In other words, what's happening is that as the military moves those of us in Natales out, they are moving others from the park in. The numbers we're hearing are that there are over a thousand of us in Natales to be moved out, and two thousand from the park to be moved in. Yeah, even if I were a militant protester that sounds like a good deal to me ;~).

We were asked to be at the Red Cross station at the school by 9am. We were also asked when we got there to chose a plane to Punta Arenas or a bus to El Calafate as our means of exit, and to get in a line to register for that. This is when it became clear to everyone how many people are stranded. Because the lines were long and filled the school at both ends (gym and main hall) and the Red Cross only had one computer, they eventually asked for volunteers with computers to help compile the database. That's how I know the count, as I volunteered (and still have some of the data on my computer I need to erase). Since this handful of new volunteers were fast typists (I easily type over 100 wpm, even with numbers), we made fast work of the lines. At this point we knew there were around 600 people who wanted airlifting out to Punta Arenas, and an almost like amount that wanted the Argentina bus option.

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One of the reasons for collecting the data again (most of us had already registered with the Red Cross) was to try to set priorities. As we registered people, we were asking about children, elderly, health issues, and more, trying to get a sense of how to prioritize who went out first. As it turns out, there were probably about 200 high priority cases in the Punta Arenas group (you can't evacuate children without their parents). Our highest priority was someone who had a recent kidney transplant and was going to run out of his critical drugs if held very long. The fellow with pneumonia in my group was also highly prioritized.

Once the data was collected, we had an almost four hour wait in the gym for the next step, the arrival of the military and buses. Originally scheduled for 3pm, it was more like 3:30 before everything was in place and the process of evacuation started. This consisted of calling prioritized names out, getting their bags and placing them in the truck, then loading people standing room only into the buses. By 4:30 the first convoy of three buses (and about 100+ people) headed off from the school and out of town towards the barricades.

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It wasn't until the buses came back more than an hour later that we knew for sure that the plan was working, so the second wave of priority cases was off an about by around 6:30. Meanwhile, the first batch of tour buses had arrived to take the first wave of priority cases to El Calafate in Argentina. I didn't see when that batch of buses left, so can't report the time line there. The third round of the Punta Arenas evacuation included my tour group. I think that was partly because some of us had volunteered to help, partly because we had local contacts with the Red Cross, and partly because we were one of the first tourist groups to be "captured." Because the military didn't want to fly at night out of the small local strip, that meant we were in the last bus convoy to get out on the 15th. We left the school sometime after 8 pm (it gets dark around 10 pm). 

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Driving out of town in a Red Cross convoy was an interesting experience. We were heckled and celebrated and serenaded by protesters along the way. We were followed by a group of protesters in vehicles burning up more gas (oh the ironies). And we were allowed through the barricade to the airport. (I'm using the word airport loosely. The field is one paved strip just long enough for a 737, there is a two room terminal, as there are almost no scheduled commercial flights using this airport (another political story for another day). It does have a full tower and basic night lighting, though. 

As we arrived at the airport, the plane came back from Punta Arenas to pick up the people from the previous bus convoy out of town. This is a slow process. In all, in 7 hours of operation, approximately 350 people were convoyed out of town and eventually put on the plane to Punta Arenas. That left at least 250 behind (who were yelling and screaming at the Red Cross and the military as we left and it was announced we were the last to leave on the 15th). But remember, the estimate was that as many as 2000 people were about to join them. Indeed, as we pulled into the airport, we saw a convoy of seven buses coming from the park back to town, and as we passed the barricade I counted twelve new buses and vans on the park side of the barricade that had newly arrived.

The military was friendly and cooperative, by the way. I think they were enjoying actually being forced to do something, even if they did need to leave their weapons behind (no one I saw on either side in the entire operation had weapons, apparently because they don't want to even give the appearance that violence is possible; on the other hand, the guard station that these military were drawn from was on the outskirts of Natales and on Ready status in case trouble did arise). When it was our turn to get on the plane at last light, the Air Force personnel actually asked for everyone to gather in front of the plane for a picture for their scrapbooks. Thus resulting in the weirdest boarding of a plane I've ever seen. 

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The flight to Punta Arenas was uneventful (and yes, the Chilean Air Force does all the safety announcements the commercial flights do). 

Yet things were still not over for our little crew. Remember, Punta Arenas is also part of the protest area. Thus, the airport is shut off from the town. We were met at the airport by the Vice Consul of the US Embassy at Santiago, who had flown down, and told us that there were six barriers in the 22km between the airport and town. Our only real choice was to get in line for a LAN flight out of Punta Arenas on Sunday, then bed down in the airport for the night. I and a few of my group managed to get a couple of hours sleep on the floor (indeed, others had to wake me in order that I didn't miss my flight out), but many didn't manage to sleep. So I continue my record of being able to sleep through anything when need be (current best: sleeping on a bus with a goat in my lap and a carrier with chickens under my feet).

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It was at Punta Arenas that I started to see the rest of the disruption that was going on (silently for the most part). For example, I was put on a flight that was coming in from the Falklands and continuing to Santiago. That flight wasn't able to clear customs because customs agents couldn't get to the airport, so I had to clear customs and enter Chile a second time. Wait a second, what? That means a US$140 payment, amongst other things. Well, that took some explaining, and now I have a Void stamp in my passport (along with my US$140 back). 

What the heck managed to allow me to do that? I showed a letter that I had sent our guide to obtain for all my group (we all have one). It's signed by the Gobernador, which we all bastardized to "I've got a letter from the Gubernator." (For those of you who know nothing of California, that was Gov. Swartzenegger's nickname.) This strange document basically certifies that we were held against our will and is signed by the local governor (Gobernador). It's amazing how that letter got us on flights, rescinded fees, and otherwise got us out of Dodge. Not all the hostages got one, as you had to walk to the police building across town to get it, and not everyone knew that the local government was willing to put the whole thing in writing. The Gubernator letter, along with my Chilean Air Force boarding pass, are two mementos that go in the scrapbook for sure. 

From Punta Arenas, it was mostly just grunt work to get home. Flight to Santiago, hotel in Santiago overnight. Flight to Buenos Aires, sit in the airport all day (though the United employees who saw my Gubernator letter immediately upgraded me on my flight). Overnight flight to Washington DC where I was met with a plane that needed to de-ice for four hours before I could get my last leg home. But home I was, and checking email and my private site, I can see that everyone else is pretty much where they're supposed to be and safe. So I can relax now and talk about the story from a bit more of a distance (I will say that the story impressed the gals at my pharmacy today—I'm wondering now if I should bring the Gubernator letter on dates? ;~).

Meanwhile, the protest ended late yesterday (January 16th) with an agreement between the government and ACM. Basically, everyone will pay 3% more for natural gas except for those who can prove that they are poor, in which case they'll get higher subsidies (i.e. their cost for gas will go down). But that still won't bring much happiness to the 3000 or so tourists who got stranded in the region. 

If you're thinking beyond the basic story I presented, you'll have already anticipated the next part of this article. A few clear questions come to my mind:

  • Why wasn't this an International news story? I fed all the information and photos to the New York Times from the very beginning, and they didn't write one word about 3000 stranded tourists, 3 Chilean ministers resigning, 2 deaths, a Chilean Air Force airlift operation, or any of the other details that happened. Not a word. CNN? Anderson Cooper doesn't seem to be interested in the story (I got a form letter reply). The only International news agency that even began to cover the story was the BBC. They got it late (1/15), they got it wrong (several completely inaccurate bits that seem to have come from government or official sources, who appeared to be trying to downplay the situation), and they had no on-the-ground reports. If you really think that you're getting "news" from your news outlets, think again.
  • Why didn't the embassies issue a travel advisory? Apparently, a couple did. I'm still trying to track them down [I've since found the German warning and the Dutch warning]. But the US embassy did not post on their site despite knowing that not only were there stranded US tourists, but more US tourists coming. [I've since found that the US Embassy posted a warning on a local tourist site!, but not on their own, which is where we're supposed to look. Perhaps if the news media actually thought this was a real story they'd think to ask someone about that. {Update: As it turns out, the warning on the local tourist site was copied off the US Embassy site. I wasn't aware of the process on these things, and it's a good thing to know in the future (though it wouldn't have helped us): apparently warnings are first posted as a Warden's Message, which you find by clicking on the Citizen Services tab. They don't make it to email warnings or to the main advisory pages until they've been approved by Washington. This means that before you enter a country, you really need to check out the Warden's Messages, as they might contain useful information that is not yet completely official. Didn't know that. Thanks Thomas for pointing it out.}] 
  • What does this mean for tourism in Chile? I'll have more to say about that in a bit, but according to local sources in Punta Arenas, they believe that the strike had a US$4 million impact on tourism in just two weeks, and tourism is a main source of income for the locals. A large number of the trapped tourists were Northern Chileans, too, so even within their own country there's going to be a backlash, I think. But if the area is poor and you shut down one of the main sources of income, just how much poorer do you think the area will get? As it turns out, just the amount extra I personally paid on this trip would have heated over 500 homes for a month under the 15.8% increase. 
  • Will this repeat? Short answer: yes. The citizens of Magallanes discovered that by shutting down the park they can get the government to back down. So the whole thing simply waits for the next thing that the majority of citizens dislike before we get a repeat of the park shutdown. Example: from the US Embassy Santiago Web site a year after I was held hostage: "A series of large-scale protests are taking place in and around the cities of Aysen and Coyhaique.  The protesters are blockading some of the main roads in the area." You see, once the tactic works once, it'll be used over and over until it doesn't work. I'm aware of four such "blockade" tactics used in Chile starting with ours in early 2011. So the answer I wrote back in January 2011 has turned out to be prescient.

So now we get to the political part. After 9/11, American photographers and outdoor enthusiasts looked for "safe" and "reliable" locations to visit in the world. The Middle East, parts of Africa, parts of SE Asia, and others started to seem unsafe. South America looked safe and stable. I'm here to report that Chile is no longer on that list. Given that a large contingent of Chileans who are dependent on tourism just pissed off thousands of tourists and cost them tons of money, who's going to recommend you spend any significant time in Southern Chile any more? Not me. And, yes, I know that those involved in the strike are involved in tourism. One strike leader apparently owns one of the local restaurants and bar here in Puerto Natales (Indigo), I couldn't begin to count the number of taxi cabs that were at the barrier, and I counted ten tourism buses with black flags made of plastic bags (the emblem of the protesters) that were headed towards the blockade (with only a driver). None would stop to give my group a lift into town while we were on our 10k walk. The ACM threatened reprisals to anyone that helped the tourists.

You might ask where were the police. We saw some at each blockade (I saw three blockades, but was completely stopped at only one). So I guess the government of Chile would say "they were monitoring the situation." Apparently the military wasn't to be used unless looting or other violence ensued, and even when it did, the overall action was relatively small. According to Chilean law, the military can't be used unless the government invokes the "national Internal Security Law"—a form of martial law declaration—which they did not.

From the "allchile.net" site: "Stay out of Punta Arenas and all of the southern Patagonia Chile region until the regional strike has been resolved." From the one BBC report on the story: "Several foreign governments have advised their citizens not to travel to southern Chile". I'm going to go further: just stay away from Southern Chile, period. If someone wants to shut down their own livelihood in order to continue to receive subsidized heating oil so they can wear t-shirts indoors all winter, they aren't really much interested in tourists. That may seem harsh, but in talking with hotel and restaurant employees and other locals, they don't seem to get that the US$6 a month they're trying to avoid cost the stranded tourists that supply their livelihood thousands of dollars. Word travels fast these days. I've already cancelled plans for a future Patagonia workshop [I later did a workshop in Patagonia, but we kept the Chilean part totally limited to our friends in the park; we did not go to Natales or Punta Arenas at all, as we used to, and we spent no money outside the park before retreating back to Argentina.] 

I'll remind those of you wanting to photograph Patagonia that the Argentinian side is just as beautiful (if not more so), and at the moment, somewhat friendlier to tourism. But all of South American is less reliable than it was. The tour company I use has pulled out of trips to Bolivia. There have been disruptions to trips to the Galapagos (Ecuador). Argentina is prone to short, disruptive transportation strikes (there was another 12-hour one at the domestic airport this past week). And now a part of Chile shut down a park and stranded tourists for much of a week. South America is now off the list of "safe and reliable." I repeat: South America is no longer a reliable and non-disruptive tour destination.

Beyond that, Torres del Paine here in Chile is getting overbuilt. We now have three 100+ room facilities in the park that continue to expand each year (in addition to many smaller ones and all the campgrounds, which have also expanded), which is putting quite a large load on the few trails and viewpoints of this relatively small area. When I first came to Chile over 15 years ago, Torres still felt wild and raw. Today I'd guess that there are more people on the trail to the Towers each day than there are on the most popular trail in Yosemite (probably Nevada Falls).

In the original article I wrote: "Obviously, I didn't like being a hostage. I'm not going to give the same folk have another shot at me. I suggest you stay away, too. 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*. For years I've proudly had a Southern Chile Patagonian flag flying in my living room. I've now taken it down."  I need to modify that statement a bit (and clarify something):

I don't believe in rewarding people who use such crude and brute force tactics. Therefore, to all those that have asked me about Torres del Paine I've said the following: the folk in the park that own and run the various hosterias there were actually very friendly to the tourists and (mostly) against the protest that led to the blockades. That, coupled with the beauty of the place means that you probably shouldn't avoid Torres del Paines. But the blockade participation was nearly universal in the two cities South of the park: Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. I do not believe in rewarding those people and those areas with further visits. Thus, I've adjusted any future workshop itineraries to more strongly emphasize the Argentinian Patagonia and restrict the Chilean portion to those hosterias in Torres del Paine that were on the tourist side. [Again, in my subsequent visits I've put my money where my pen is and avoided Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas.]

I have one final thought. During the whole time we and other stranded tourists were trying to get out of Chile, we kept meeting people coming in. For example, all of my group met people at the ticket counters in Santiago where LAN Airlines was not warning people who were trying to get boarding tickets to Punta Arenas that they would be flying into an airport that had no food or shelter and where they would be stranded! (The adjacent military compound was offering some modest food and drinks to stranded tourists.) I encountered 14 such people over the course of two days of exiting Chile, and I know others in my group that encountered many more. 

Every time we'd tell them that they didn't want to fly to Punta Arenas, they'd say "but LAN says everything is fine now." Well, LAN, everything was not fine until something like 17:00 on 18 January. Yet LAN was flying planes of tourists into the airport on the 15th, 16th, and 17th. That's morally corrupt. And probably legally actionable well beyond the "refund my ticket" level. So, given that observed behavior, I need to also say this: Boycott LAN. Don't use them if you do go there (the alternative is Sky Airlines, but in my revised workshop schedule, we'll be not using Punta Arenas at all and thus completely avoiding LAN). 

If you're planning a trip to Patagonia that includes Paine, think carefully. Think about what happened to 3000 or more tourists in the first two weeks of 2011. It will happen again, almost certainly. If you still want to go, make contingency plans. Southern Chile is no longer a 100% reliable destination.


Okay, I know that too many of you can't resist and will send me an email asking about the line that got the PDI agent (Chilean FBI equivalent) to laugh, so consider this bonus coverage. It happened as our evacuation group was lining up for the picture in front of the military jet. Most of the tourists about to escape had smiles on their faces, but the two PDI agents accompanying us were stone serious and had that "I'm a special agent and never smile" look on their faces. Those that know me know that I'm not afraid of throwing a punch line out into the wind and seeing if it flies. Which is what I did. Just as people were getting into their "poses," I said loud enough for the two PDI agents to hear: "okay, everyone practice showing the camera their gang sign." The PDI agent turned to look at me and couldn't hold his stern look. He laughed out loud. The tourists around me didn't really react, but I made the agent laugh, which was my goal. I really don't like it when FBI agents don't smile (I hope that's in my file at the FBI somewhere ;~).


Postscript: it appears that three words really generated inflamed responses from others to my story. My use of the word "hostage," the flip comment about "t-shirts", and my suggestion to "boycott". Let's examine each for a moment:

  • Was I a hostage? I actually asked readers for a better word than hostage for the situation we were in (right there in paragraph 2). No one managed to give me one. It appears that some are offended that I used the word because I wasn't held at gunpoint or locked in a cage. No, I wasn't. I had rocks thrown at me and my freedom to move basically taken away, and I was used as a negotiating chip. I guess that's not enough for some. Others suggest that I was just inconvenienced. Right. Let's turn the tables for a moment. Let's say that the city was Fairbanks instead of Punta Arenas, the park was Denali instead of Torres del Paine, and the road blocked was the Parks Highway (and train) instead of Ruta 9. Just how outraged would the world be that a few thousand tourists from other parts of the country and world were restricted to the hotels in Glitter Gulch for four days and needed a military airlift to get out? Right. The hostage word would certainly be used.
  • The t-shirts. Actually, the whole comment about thermostats: I actually checked 15 thermostats in Puerto Natales while I was there, in stores, homes, hotels, wherever. That's because I was curious about the demands based upon my previous experience in the region. The lowest thermostat I found was set to about 74°F, most were set between 78-80°F. Many who didn't like my comment actually went so far as to say "who is an American to lecture someone else?" Fair point. Not like we Americans didn't waste a lot of energy along the way. But it's 12°F outside right now and my thermostat is set to 66°F (normally it's at 64°F, but when it's really cold and windy, I have to raise it up a bit due to some minor leaks in my house). But even then, the comment about Americans isn't really pertinent. Waste is waste. One thing the Southern Chileans rejected in the previous round of talks was conservation and energy efficiency plans. Fortunately, that was in the final agreement, so there's progress to be made. 
  • The word Boycott. Well, you don't have to boycott Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas, and LAN if you don't want to. If you think I'm wrong, fine (and I won't say "I told you so" when the next strike cripples the area and you're trapped as I was). But people reading my site might wonder why I removed the 2012 Patagonia trip from future workshops. I simply didn't believe in rewarding behavior that holds tourists hostage (there's that word again: and again, the ACM directly targeted tourists as their negotiating weapon). I didn't put Patagonia back on my workshop rotation until I could come up with an itinerary that allowed me to avoid those that held my previous group hostage, simple as that. 

Yahoo finally carried the story as the strike ended. That story appears to be a small rewrite of something that was on a local Punta Arenas news source. Note the US$4 million lost tourist business estimate just during the course of the strike itself. Compare that to the government's first offer to the protesters made on the first day: that US$4m represents 111,111 household heating years that could have been paid for. The strike turned out to be economically irrational on top of everything else.

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