The way Bruce Chatwin talked about Patagonia in his book In Patagonia had some similarities to the way I remembered it, but his perspective largely differed from mine.
In his book, Chatwin used his own story of finding another piece of the skin of the great sloth and other stories that he had heard from the people in Patagonia to describe the history, culture and lifestyle of Patagonia. As a result, I found that he focused more on the life of the people than the nature, which in my own personal experience in Patagonia, was Patagonia’s greatest mystique, attraction and defining characteristic.
I was in Patagonia for my fall break last semester and it is definitely one of my favorite places on Earth. Before I read Chatwin’s book, I had the expectation that his experience and his writing would allow me to imagine that I was once again in the beautiful landscapes that I will always remember, and that I miss once in awhile while living in the city of Buenos Aires. The flashbacks were few and far between his stories, though very much welcomed.
To be fair, I should not have placed such an expectation on a book that was first published 40 years before I embarked on my own adventure to Patagonia. After all, everyone perceives, time, geography and people differently, and that was no more evident while reading this book with my own experiences in the back of my mind.
Things change with the bids, just as they do with us.
But first, the things that I enjoyed about the book, which largely related to the similarities to my own experiences. I was very happy to see the photos of the Perito Moreno Glacier in the book, a sight that I had also had the privilege to see firsthand for myself, and that the Glacier had largely been unchanged between then and now, a pleasant surprise given the exacerbation of Global Warming between over time. It was also interesting to read about the abundance of sheep, condors and Guanaco (a cousin of the llama), which has also persisted through these past 40 years. It was also somewhat comforting to know that the mood and climate of Patagonia has largely been unchanged: uncertain, wild and challenging, yet it is all these characteristics that leave a profound and lasting impression on any individual that has ever been there.
Patagonia! She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go.
However, I was disappointed about his emphasis on the people instead of the wilderness. Perhaps to Chatwin, what left a greater impression on him were the interactions he had with the people while to me Patagonia’s landscapes and wilderness has forever carved a place in my heart. While it is true that Patagonia consists of many different types of people of different nationalities and personalities, perhaps it is because of the difference in time, I found the people in Patagonia more homogeneous than described in his book. Then again, I also only visited a minor part of Patagonia compared to Chatwin, and people may be more willing to converse with a middle-aged man from Britain than an Asian who barely looks like he’s out of high school. That describes the other perspective that I gained from the book: people perceive the same place differently depending on what they have had the privilege of seeing, touching, feeling and who they have had the privilege to talk to.
Alas, above all, one thing undoubtedly holds true: being exposed to such magnificent displays of nature makes introspective and reflective on the state of their lives. I will always hold Patagonia fondly in my heart, while Chatwin is more ambivalent about it. But both him and I have both been profoundly impact by it. Chatwin reflects on language:
But the concepts of ‘good’ and ‘beautiful’, so essential to western thought, are meaningless unless they are rooted to things. The first speakers of language took the raw material of the surroundings and pressed it into metaphor to suggest abstract ideas. Language as a system of navigation. Named things are fixed points, aligned or compared, which allow the speaker to plot the next move.
While to me, I am simply left speechless and breathless by the beauty of Patagonia, it at the same time made me realized how insignificant I am, and how much more of the world there is left for me to explore and consequentially, marvel, and be at a loss of words for.