Stijn Streuvels

stijn_streuvelsHet was een koude tocht, en de slechtste tijd van het jaar voor een reis, voor zulk een verre reis.”

De trip doorheen Zuid-Amerika waaraan ik een maand en een half geleden begon is allesbehalve een koude tocht. Terwijl het weer in België alle kanten uit pingpongt kneep uw dienaar er even van tussen. Maar aan alle mooie liedjes komt een eind.

LijsternestSoms, heel soms, om gewoon een nieuwe riedel aan te vangen. In die zin gaat het op maandag 15 februari rechtstreeks van Zaventem naar Ingooigem. Dankzij Passaporta verblijf ik twee weken lang in het Lijsternest, het voormalige woonhuis van Stijn Streuvels. In één zucht van de pampa’s van Patagonië naar de kleitkoppen van West-Vlaanderen. Het programma bestaat erin me te verdiepen in het werk van de Vlaamse schrijver, maar ook om zelf aan de weg te timmeren. Project X, zeg maar. Watch this space…


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In defense of bull fighting.

Animal cruelty is wrong. Cruelty against animals, that is. We frown upon, or happily ignore what our parents’ generation did to cats, cat’s tails, frogs, birds nests, its inhabitants, dogs… I won’t get into cattle. Suffice it to say, we probably all have or had an uncle who did go into cattle.

non-formal dress bull fight

non-formal dress bull fight

I recently saw an opportunity to see a bull fight in an actual arena. Whereas Spain has banned the, I want to say, practice, some of its Latin American cousins see or hear no evil. So what’s wrong with giving our hoofed friends a fighting chance? More of a chance than the slaughterhouse, that is. Lined up, upside down in chains, as they are, waiting for the buzzsaw.

Half a bull will choose the arena. And by half, I don’t mean one that’s already hacked in two.

The glory

The glory

The glory… The dust, as the slightly crooked forepaw taps the ground before a charge. The thrill of skewering any of the soft bits of the beast’s tormentor. Pierce or be pierced. The glory, the gore. If you have the stomach. Or four.

But naysayers claim hunting for sport is wrong, as is the ballet of death performed upon the mighty bull. That killing animals is wrong when it has no function. Sort of like nudity in movies, but I’m drifting off.

These days most humans can get all the necessary nutrients from the part of nature that doesn’t scream at some point before landing on your plate. If you’ll accept that as a scientific fact then, arguably, eating meat becomes a mere pleasure. The things we do for the taste of bacon, say. It’s a lesson I haven’t yet fully internalized personally. Did I mention bacon?

I didn’t go to the bull fight. All things being equal, the game does seem heavily rigged in favor of the human. I could muster a lot more respect for a man in spandex fighting a tiger with his bare hands.

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 07.49.33So instead I went to Machu Picchu. Someone asked the guide if the Incas performed human sacrifices. “Yes,” the man responded, and I swear to the Sun God this is true. “But only when it was necessary. For instance when it was dry, or when it rained too much.” You know, functional human sacrifices.

The place is absolutely mind-boggling by the way, but I’m drifting off again.

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2016-01-16 09.22.12The observer always influences the observed. The harder you endeavor to pinpoint the speed of, say, a subatomic particle, the less likely you are to know where the heck it is. I’m cutting corners here, but that’s about the gist of it.

Sooo, metaphorically one might argue: the nicer and more authentic a place, the more tourists it attracts, and hence the less authentic it becomes. With every busload prices go up, locals move out, and all you’re left with is cargo pants, backpacks, and hostel libraries with seven copies of the “Da Vinci Code”, endlessly repeating the exact same nineties playlist regardless of whether you’re in Dahab or friggin’ Spitsbergen. That means Four non Blondes, the Spindoctors, Chumbawamba, you name it. Oh, and “The Unforgiven” by Metallica. You know, with the dramatic acoustic intro.

As the blasé added-value-seeker (don’t call me a tourist) ventures out, North, South, West, and, what’s the other one? and pats himself on the back for not doing what everyone else is doing, all he does is ruin more and more perfectly nice towns, laguna’s, lookouts, and other hidden gems.

Potosi isn’t exactly off the beaten track, but when the French lady scouring Uyuni for a place to stay threw a blank when I mentioned where I was going, I couldn’t help but gloat. Just a little bit. In addition to ruining the world, one travels to learn about oneself. Turns out I’m an asshole. Just a little bit. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go get myself a close shave at the local barber shop. I bet you no one’s ever thought of that.

(As for Potosi, the place is absolutely drop-dead, eye-watering, wet-your-pants gorgeous.)

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The thin line between irony and auguring.

4297357401_97b14e670fOnly a few years ago, not so long after the death of Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte, Chile opened its museum of memory and human rights. It’s an important part of a nation seeking justice for past wrongs, of how the truth is unearthed -often literally, reconciliation achieved between former adversaries.

The Museo de la Memoria is an imposing edifice, its geometric single-mindedness proportionate to the enormous task at hand. You can’t miss it. Due to clumsiness on my part -Google was not at hand- I did miss it. As, to my surprise, did most Chilenos and Chilenas I interrogated, I mean asked. A few shrugs here, a false lead there. So much for ‘memoria’. Visitors were a mix of well-to-do nationals and foreigners. In defense of absent masses, it was a weekday and, you know, workers be workin’.

The years, starting on that other September 11th, 1973, were dark indeed. But how tenacious a plant is justice. How much effort has been expended to find out what happened to whom and where. No matter what the regime did to its opponents; kidnap, torture, kill -buried in mass graves or thrown in the Pacific Ocean tied to steel beams, what goes down must come up again. Bodies were exhumed, (rather quickly miss-)identified and years later exhumed again to be properly investigated with all the modern means at the government’s disposal. That task, over 25 years after the reestablishment of democracy, is ongoing.

allende-chile-coup-1973-stadium-200x148Weirdly a lot of people supported the junta. The well-offs did anyway. Law and order. A bit of discipline for the greater good. 12.000 people corralled in a sports stadium cum improvised concentration camp. Summary executions, you name it. Who are these people, I wonder? Today, I mean. Is it the elderly man with the meticulously maintained half-moustache and fine watch -the kind you never really own but merely pass on the next generation- sitting in the metro opposite me? The Audi driver at the crossroads? The lady in the black skirt and expensive sunglasses?

What fickle beast is democracy. How easily disturbed. Ears pricked up to the snapped twig a couple of bosques away. On the run at the first whiff of a predator. In this case, the United States. The museum doesn’t mention their role in the overthrow of the left-leaning Allende government. But ask any Uruguyan, Argentinian, Chilean citizen -I did- and they will tell you: “The Americans fucked us over.”

Bygones I guess. Recent US administrations have been solely guided by the advance of democracy and the universal application of human rights. Ahem.

Belgium went through a similar phase in the seventies and eighties: Left-wing militants and criminal gangs widely believed tied to right-wing security-sector elements cooking up a stew of fear and instability. Every so many years new investigations are announced to fill in the details but efforts, on a par with the relatively mild Belgian brouhaha, languish. And yet, questions remain, and as long as the dead have living relatives, and relatives of relatives, the search goes on. Thus is the way of the human spirit. 2016-01-08 14.57.06As indeed evidenced by the indigenous-inspired murals found all over Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile (probably some of the most de-indigenized Latin-American nations, but the only ones I’ve visited so far… watch this space). The one pictured above sits right across the street from the Museo de la Memoria. Signifying the thin line between irony and auguring, I guess.

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2016-01-05 16.04.51The lady with the big sunglasses steps inside the corner restaurant. The evening sun streaming in from behind lends her an aura of mystique, glamour even. As she gets closer the image frays. Another step and the sun gives way to the eatery’s strip-lit interior. The lady, teetering, makes her way over to the counter to beg for food.

Puerto Montt, Chile, a texture-lover’s dream-come-true. The wooden side-panel houses are nothing if not picturesque. Lime-green jostling with pink and brown, chipped and cragged. Always cragged. Over there, where the road comes rolling down the hillside like an oil leak. Over where the man takes miniature steps, carefully nurturing the small plastic bag with the yellowish liquid under his nose as if his life depended on it. Down below, the giant cruise ship hogs the bay.

The lady stumbles out, hot free lunch in hand. She’s mumbling something, but the Simpsons are playing on the TV, and the announcements in between are so loud I can’t smell my food, which is bountiful. ‘Fox +’ reads ‘Fox más’ in Spanish. I’m learning something every day. The new X-files are premiering at the end of the month. I can’t wait.

The sun’s almost gone now, but there’s enough light so you can see the volcano in the distance. It hasn’t roared in ages, but the houses remind one of what the earth can do. Always cragged, sagging. There’s only so much a thing or a person can take before so much becomes too much. On the opposite side of the busy crossroads the lady lies down on a knoll that should be sidewalk to take her dinner. She laughs, randomly pointing at cars and trucks and busses, and a limping dog.

I left my space-towel in the hostel in Bariloche. The kind of fabric that dries real quickly. You know in space, no one can hear you complain about stuff like that.

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No really, I love it here.

2015-12-31 16.24.08I was planning to write a blog entry every day. Seems I’m somewhat lacking in profundities to describe the insane beauty of this place. Big mountain make me feel small and insignificant? Sure. Mas o menos. Today I was confronted with the thing I guess mostly guys do when they get to the big thing. We try to get on it. Climb the hilltop. Bridle the horse. Tame the shrew. There’s something phallic about most male thoughts. Think about it… See? Told you.

To naysayers, I say: well, nothing. We need naysayers to keep amazing countries semi-affordable by staying the heck away. Thank you. I’m not being cynical by the way. My brain has mostly shut down. The part that isn’t thinking about climbing stuff at any rate. Which, I’m thinking now, is probably why it took me a while to get into the trip. I needed a perch. A couple of highs and lows to look back on.

The highs: This will sound weird to the ears of folks who know me a little -a very selective people person- but wow, I’ve met some fantastic humans. The sixty year-old Brazilian statistician who bought both his daughters a plane ticket -any ticket anywhere- every year because he wanted them to travel and see the world (as he was doing himself). The Chilean mechanic who hopped into his old Ford for a tour of Patagonia because, why not? The Uruguayan widow flying far and wide to outrun the unspeakable grief of losing a spouse to cancer. I thank all of these and other beautiful souls for accompanying me, however briefly. For what is life, if not a series of encounters? From a furtive glance on a bus, to those sticking with you for a lifetime.

The lows: Expectations, expectations expectations. I venture scientists could draw a graph, with a rare sweet spot between preparation and expectation. The more you prepare, the higher the probability of dashed expectations. Then again, I’d be the first to challenge said boffins: yours truly prepared jack. And still there’s the nagging sensation of missing out. Without it, maybe we’d still be living in caves. Perhaps this, combined with the desire to get on top of the thing, is why we sent those guys to the moon? Naysayers will ask: what good did that do? The expression is: I’m over the moon. Not on it.

I’m three weeks in now, and mucho past expectations. In the moment (albeit reflecting on the moment, hence your reading this. Thanks, by the way). I should have brought my hiking shoes. Stop. Let’s try that again. I’m going to Chile tomorrow. I biked myself to within an inch of my cojones today. I’m going to sleep like a baby. Yes! Goodnight.

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Argentina, I love you.

But you only want me for my money.

Maybe the nonchalant traveler in me took you for gratis. I mean granted. We started out so well, with an Excel sheet and a plan. A good plan. Thus many days here. Visit such and such. Tick tock. But travel does more than rhyme with unravel.

And I wish that dog quit barking already.

The problem is Patagonia. Too beautiful for its own good. She knows it. Gasp in awe at Perito Moreno glacier for instance. Zeus himself couldn’t have thrown anything from the sky to produce the unholy rumble heard as giant sheets break off and crash into the frisky water below. All of mankind’s cocktail ice produced to date, gone in a second. But the bus won’t pick you up for another five hours, and the pricy cafeteria nearby only serves soda. And humdrum sandwiches. I’m sure about the humdrum part anyway.

What is that dog barking at?

A week of running up and down every beautiful street of Buenos Aires, likewise Montevideo, and a day in the national park of Ushuaia proved too much for my achilles heel. For the time being, one hopes. Literally hamstrung. Okay, almost literally. My activity options are tragically, blissfully reduced. There is simply too much to see and do. For a price, you understand.

Back to business. And by business I mean the misguided adventure that is hitchhiking/bussing north from the end of the world. And hanging out in random places. Like this refuge for manic-depressive canines that doubles as a hotel.

No, I didn’t do the W on Paine del Torres. Next time, I promise. When I’m actually equipped for hiking. God forbid I read a guidebook prior to sailing off to different continent for two months. In stead, I was invited for dinner by Punto Arenas’s chief of police. I drank the best pisco in the land. Or so I was told. Then again, my Spanish is rudimentary. For all I know he could have been saying: “Shit-for-shoes, stop staring at my wife”.

Almost out of Patagonia now. By the skin of my well-orthodonted teeth. Route 40 is as spectacular as advertised. I see those poor guanacos, Argentina’s idea of a llama, stuck in barbed wire along the road in various stages of decomposition. They mostly hop over gracefully. Away from, or towards cars. It’s all the same to them. Hence ‘guanaco’ becoming Argentinian slang for flipfloppers.

I eventually did the sensible thing about that barking dog, by the way. Lobbing a large object in its general direction. Miraculously it did the trick. Who knew ‘cinder block’ was Spanish for ‘shut the hell up’? I’ll be back here. When I’m rich. Not in Hotel El-Disco, mind you. (It’s actually called that. Look for it in Los Antiguos. Actually, don’t.)

No, I won’t cry for you, Argentina. Excuse me, I have something in my eye.

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