Patagonia: at the Tip of the World

September 26, 2018


I recently came across an article titled Picturesque Patagonia – a Cruise Along the Southern Coast of Chile in the April 2018 issue of International Travel News, a publication that is based in Sacramento, California. This is a monthly foreign-travel magazine that covers everywhere in the world – except the United States. In August 2018 it published its 510th issue so it must be doing something right.

Dramatic granite peaks in Patagonia – Courtesy of International Travel News, April 2018

As I scanned the article I quickly realized that the writer, Marvin Silverman from Carmel, California was concentrating on Patagonia (at the southern tip of South America). This brought back memories because a number of years ago I read The Old Patagonian Express, a terrific book by Paul Theroux.


Theroux’s book takes a totally different approach: he concentrates on the journey, not the destination. Patagonia is simply an end point or, as Paul Fussell, of The New York Times Book Review says, “Starting with a rush-hour subway ride to South Station Boston to catch the Lake Shore Limited to Chicago, he winds up on the poky, wandering Old Patagonian Express steam engine (‘a kind of demented samovar on wheels’), which comes to a halt in a desolate land of cracked hills and thorn bushes.”

I had read Theroux’s book years ago and decided to reread all 404 pages again (I purchased it at Barnes & Noble) – just to see if it was as good as I remembered it. Yep, it was even better because this time I had favorite chapters that I was eager to read again. For example, Mr. Thornberry in Costa Rica is still as hilarious and annoying as ever. Theroux is ready to rip his hair out as Thornberry delivers his monologue: “Stream over there.” “Look more houses.” “Pretty girl” “Lanterns” “The hours passed,” writes Theroux, ”while Thornberry rattled on without letup.” I think what makes this so funny is that we can all relate to it. Who hasn’t been trapped in a long plane, train, bus or car trip and been driven crazy by a fellow traveler?

Paul Theroux, author of The Old Patagonian Express    


A stunning contrast to the Thornberry tale is the Latin American soccer game Theroux attended. “I had read about the riots, the chaos,” he writes. “The game was a shambles; it ended in confusion, fights, litter. I spent the whole evening trying to memorize details, and I knew I would never go to another soccer game in Latin America.” His description of his soccer adventure in San Salvador is very scary – but it makes for spellbinding reading. 


Theroux’s visits in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with Borges, the famous blind author whose works have become classics is simply wonderful – two people who are totally on the same page. When they go to out to dinner, Theroux writes, “The restaurant was full this Good Friday night – and very noisy. But as soon as Borges entered, tapping his cane, a hush fell upon the diners. He was recognized and – at his entrance -- all talking and eating ceased.” The talented Borges is a hero in his own country and beyond.


Finally, I reread Silverman’s piece on Patagonia and was stunned to see this description of Cape Horn because all my life I’d heard that this was one of the most dangerous sailing spots in the entire world. He writes, “We anchored off Cape Horn at the bottom of South America where scores of ships have been lost over the years in dreadful storms. But there I was: sitting on the deck of the Orion on a beautiful day with calm seas and no clouds.” The Argentinean pilot tells him later that the Horn “gets only 20 to 30 days a year like this.” Talk about good luck!  

A sea of ice, with National Geographic’s Orion in the distance – Courtesy of International Travel News, April 2018

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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