PICTURE POSTCARD PERFECT

Santiago was the living contradiction. The city centre as modern and well presented as any European city and its outskirts of shanty towns full of struggling people. The prevalent air was of a bustling city, not unlike any other of the world's capitals, but one could sense an undercurrent of their history, their present. I couldn't help but become embroiled in a sense of their violent history. How easily does hate and bitterness subside? How would I feel if a family member had been kicked and beaten, held by the neck and head, dunked in buckets of excrement and blood? How would I feel if my father had had electric currents zapped into his genitals, knees broken or, at worst, tortured to death? It was the military class. They were the upper class. Power class. I would contemplate what power meant. The correlation between power and the extent of a human's value in dollar terms. Surely it couldn't be that simple!? I thought of those Chileans who had migrated to Australia and wondered what situations each and every one had been through. Untold stories. I pondered as to where the final blame lay. I knew I would never know, never solve anything, but I wondered about Pinochet. I wished I could know him, to understand what made him tick. I wanted to know about the US's involvement, the CIA's, the way international banks entered the picture.

The resultant canvas had so many unpainted areas. Cross-hatched or sketched in. An outline here, the grey-scales of fact there. History was such a difficult area for me to believe in. Generally, I had a great distrust of "history" books. One person's perception, another's lie. I decided to continue to do what I did best .... to observe, to travel, to feel.

"I bear no argument with tomorrow, but yesterday provokes me." P.K.

Rob Hoelper was an American traveller who I'd met in a small town in Bolivia, and had intended to meet up with in Cordoba in Argentina, but hadn't. By pure chance, out of hundreds of hotel possibilities, we'd chosen to stay in the same hotel in Santiago. He'd also managed to be there two days before I noticed on the lodging register that he was there. Rob was a traveller, first degree. A professional. For the past ten years his lifestyle had been to work the six months' of summer painting houses in the opulent area of Carmel, in California, and then spend the next six months of the year travelling to the exotic far corners of the world. We decided to head in to Southern Chile as travel partners. The overnight train: First class or economy.

Our carriage was nearly empty, so we are able to pull out the sleeping bags and construct makeshift beds. Sub-zero temperatures by midnight meant that we exposed only our noses and mouths to the outside world that night. We rocked to sleep with the train's motion and were out until the shuffling arm of the conductor interrupted proceedings next morning. A hand from within my cocoon produced the necessary train ticket and we were told that there were still a couple of hours to go.

"Travelling on a train is like life .... hopefully we can stay aboard till the last station." P.K.

Above my head, on the window, in a fanned arch above where my head had been, were the iced remnants of my last night's breathing. The whole window was frosted over, but there was the extra artistic swirl that my warmed body and breath had created. I scurried my gloved hand back and forth across the glass to create my window. The "vista" was "wunderbar". Immediately invigorated by the cold, and forgetting the few aches from bedding down on second class wooden seats. A piece of newspaper to clear the complete window.

The silent scene outside was perfection. A snow covered volcano in the background, small houses surrounded with orchards or vineyards, pines and rushing rivers, picture postcard perfect.

We pulled in at a country station. Below the embankment on which we were perched I could see a milkman, his cart full of those large metal milk containers, so memorable from my childhood, being slowly pulled down the greened street by a big hairy horse.

A Clydesdale I thought! The white coat and cap happily darting in and out of gates calling "leche, leche," as he went.

To the right a fairytale forest. Varigated leaves of birch, oak and cedar. A thousand different shrubs and endless patches of wildflower. I joked to myself .... "these people are way behind Australia, they seem to know nothing about how to pollute!"

The lakes district, as it was known, was probably the most all encompassing beautiful place I'd seen. A nightmare of unrealistic calendar photos. Quaint farmhouses, pristine clean streets, simple beauty. We disembarked at Villarica.

Immediately inspired, we decided to walk to, and up, one of these cones of perfection, these volcanos capped in snow. We figured it was a day up and next day down. But, alas, the "law of diminishing returns" came into effect again. The further we walked, the steeper and more slippery it became. Even though it was a glorious day, there had been ample water on the ground in the days previously. Dusk was closing in and we knew that the disappearing sun would mean rapid drops in temperature. We hadn't reached the refuge hut we were headed for and had no real idea how much further it would be. Previous walks had taught me not to continue on at a whim or hope or faith, if there was no absolute need.

We chose a small clearing a short walk from the track and quickly gathered wood for a fire. Heat equalled comfort, hot drinks, and on this night, the gourmet delights of a Keelan spaghetti mix.

Both of us had plastic sheets, good sleeping mats to insulate us from the cold of the bare ground, and sleeping bags rated for sub-zero temperatures. We found the most even ground possible and, with the placement of some selected long-leafed grasses, shrewdly prepared our nests. Even though the sky was completely clear, we quickly assembled a verbal plan of attack in case of bad weather. This meant storing everything that we wouldn't use during our sleep, back in our packs; then using them as a wind break at our feet, from which end a slight breeze was blowing.

By eight o'clock we were starring as some strange human larvae in our sleeping bags. We traded stories and philosophy until we faded. At three a.m. my dreamscape had included occasional and minute speckles of water falling. Some time later my consciousness was dragged back to earth as intermittent droplets tapped out a sparse rhythm on my plastic ground sheet. When the first wholesome drop "struck" my closed eyelid, I knew it was time to open eyes and do a weather check. The stars had disappeared! The smell in the air was drowned with water and I knew that a deluge was on the way. I just lay there, my mind fighting, at first to go back to sleep and hope that it was just a passing cloud, and secondly, to come to grips with the intense cold outside. That it was inevitable that I would soon be baring my bottom to the bite. Rudely interrupted by what was now a paradiddle of drops, I called to Rob, it was time to move. Oh well, life is but a dream!

With military precision aided by our pre-planning, we moved swiftly to set up our new "dry-dock" camp. With packs and mats and plastic we constructed a near waterproof cabin and proceeded to pass the hours as comfortably as possible. A short break in the heavy downpour enabled a further reshuffling, unfolding of sleeping bags and putting on caps and gloves so that the hours to daybreak seemed to pass quickly.

At an ungodly, but daylit, hour of the morning, the rain subsided long enough for us to pack, eat and set off. Upward to the "refugio" (alpine hut). With every step it seemed that the gradient increased by one degree, the scenery more spectacular. Rain bulleted to the ground, producing a sparkler-like spray on the water sheet across the track. It was pouring at a furious rate, and now that we were at the snow line, the rain gradually became light hail, eventually snow. Our bodies worked hard to maintain a steady pace, engines running on the euphoria produced by a realisation. The perplexed power and beauty of that mountain track and its surrounds.

The unnerving crunch of a freshly laid ice paving was interspersed with muddy puddles to freeze our toes into submission. Hours passed. We were both getting high on the crackling fresh air, faces softened and cheeks reddened by several hours of frozen water face washes. Our alpine environment. Snow caked and awkwardly balancing on the arms of trees; sculptural snow banks; the softened undulations of snow covered fields.

What we had envisaged as a brief walk, became a lengthy six hour push. My mind would wander with the weather. Moments where the sky seemed indiscernible from the ground, with rain landing at an unrelenting rate, would mean that I'd recluse beneath the visor of my rain jacket and set up rhythmic thoughts. Breathing would become a subliminal fourth track on a live recording. Feet sloshing at the bass, arms pumping and causing mid-range synthetic on synthetic frictional rhythms, staccato thoughts overlayed to complete the melody, the composition. Whenever I was walking in strenuous conditions, I always reminded myself of that Zen quote which suggested, "to aim only at some future goal is shallow, it is the sides of the mountain which support it, not the top." A favourite thought; walking companion of strength.

A mountain hut, log fire, dry clothes, hot drinks. Classic scenes! The suspect weather had us peering out onto what we had now labelled a "miserable day". Experience from within and beyond.

The night roared with wild noises. The winds were gaining force, hail and snow falls caking in our windows. We cooked our evening meal whilst maintaining, at the least, our lower halves inside our sleeping bags.

We laughed at the scene of that morning. Perched under our makeshift tent and me wondering why, after so many walks where I carried the extra weight of my tent "just in case", I'd decided it wouldn't be needed on this walk. A miscalculation on walking time.

Intense conversation would subside into the silent ponderings produced by the mesmerising glow of the fire. I would follow particular jets of flame, watch the demise of a particular splinter or fend off the occasional glowing projectile. And just as dreaminess had seemed the order, a statement by one or the other would bring a scurry of words, a line and another time lapse of conversation.

What had been intended to be a leisurely overnight walk was now changing in its focus. A special brand of sleep affiliated closely with rigorous mountain walking saw us through the night. Subconsciously, we had been aware of the winds subsiding at some point in the night. But now, in the opening hours of daylight, the winds had resumed, gusts of hail had begun whipping the sides of our refuge hut and the sky had, once again, joined hands with the ground. Big grey bubbles would whirl in and out of the pines. Rob had heroically been out and cleared two of the windows, scraping off the icy concoction of hail, sleet and snow, with a rusty piece of steel he'd found.

The whole day was a perfect example of a "stay indoors" in front of the fire day. Even though we had calculated our rations for a shorter period, we had included a new can of milo chocolate into our supplies, so we consumed the molten brown liquid almost continually the whole day. We would stay an extra night. An easy decision.

At around midnight that evening, I'm awakened to silence. My bladder was complaining about the excessive amounts of thick brown liquid it was having to deal with and, consequently, I would have to venture outside to the toilet. I wasn't really tired, anyway, as I'd managed more than my fair share of sleep during that day. I dressed completely; thick woollen socks (my eternal gratitude to my grandmother who had knitted them for me), with leather boots, long thermal underwear top and bottom, my now dry jeans and jumper, wind jacket, gloves, scarf and thick woollen beanie. Prepared and ready for a major expedition into the elements, to the toilet!! Rob rustled a bit and mumbled something about "brave man".

The front door was opened, leaving in front of it a white mound of firmly stacked snow. The wind had dropped completely and I could already see black spaces between the white bubbles of the clouds. I torched my way to a small clearing and looked up. We hadn't even seen the summit for the entire walk, and had really had our best views of the mountain from the distance on the clear day we'd started our walk.

But there it was. The blackened sky opened up above me to reveal the softened white chin of the summit. A cloud passed by to reflect and reveal an orange glow, a reflection of the still active insides of the volcano. Smoke discernable. Continually wafting from the top, appearing as if some angry snorting giant before me.

My sword in hand now, I was ready for all oncomers, and relieved.