The End of the World and Beyond

After leaving Bariloche, Argentina, I made my way south through Patagonia en route to my final destinations: Tierra del Fuego and then Antarctica.  All of these locations had held my imagination and fascination since childhood: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica.  Such exotic and adventurous places, and I was finally on my way to explore them.

Journaling in Los Alerces National Park

I had visited some of the areas around Bariloche on the weekends during my working stay on the farm.  These included Nahuel Huapi, El Bolsón, Esquel, and Parque Nacional Los Alerces.  All were beautiful places to explore the outdoors, as well as sample the wonderful brews of the area!  One slight disappointment was taking a taxi all the way from El Bolsón to El Maitén (about 45 minutes) in order to do a ride on the Patagonian Express, an old steam train, only to learn that it wasn’t running that Saturday despite what the website said.  And there isn’t much else in El Maitén, so I just had to wait a few hours for the bus.  It served as yet another reminder to always take schedules and information in South America with a grain of salt.

Now though, it was time to move on from Rock’s Heim Farm.  I hugged Cris, Alex, and Fran goodbye tightened up my backpack and walked out that dirt road I had walked in on three weeks before, and walked along many times in between, to wait at the bus stop.  I went back into Bariloche, had a bit more to eat and picked up some gloves and a head warmer before heading to the main bus terminal.  Soon, I was on another long bus ride south through Patagonia.

Bus ride through the Patagonian steppe

We zigzagged back and forth between the rugged, snow-capped, forested mountains and the dry shrubbery of the Patagonian steppe along Route 40.  As usual, I had reserved a seat in the front of the upper level of the bus so I could watch the changing landscape ahead as we travelled.  It also allowed me a bit more legroom than other seats.  After almost 24 hours, I finally arrived in El Chaltén, in the southern part of Argentinian Patagonia, in Los Glaciares National Park.  As the bus drove along the shores of Lago Viedma, I could see the mountains that make this area a prime tourist destination.  The imposing Fitz Roy and the craggy peak of Cerro Torre, which from my particular vantage point at the time, looked like a mountain dreamt up by a fantasy writer.

Patagonian Forest near El Chaltén
Lago de Los Tres at the base of Fitz Roy

El Chaltén is a town that is only about 30 years old, and was founded purely to support the growing tourist industry of Patagonia.  As such, I personally did not like the town much, as it did not seem to have any character to it other than to cater to backpackers and hikers.  However, it is a pleasant enough town that suits its purpose well.  And more importantly, the hiking in the area truly does live up to its well-deserved reputation.  The first afternoon, I did an easy hike to a nearby waterfall.  The second day, I did the more demanding hike to El Lago de Los Tres.  The frozen barren landscape, dominated by Fitz Roy standing over us, was breathtaking.  Especially when I walked around the frozen lake to get a better view of a glacier, I saw the glacier, and the runoff from the frozen lake, fall into another lake below, radiating a brilliant turquoise color.  The full day hike through a variety of different terrain (deep forest, barren mountain, scrubland, river beds, lakesides) allowed my mind to wander and appreciate the grandeur of creation.

Perino Moreno Glacier

That night, I took another bus, to the nearby, and large, town of El Calafate.  The main attraction I went to see in El Calafate was the Perino Moreno Glacier, an amazing wall of ice, with active movement that could easily be heard (if the other visitors were considerate enough to keep their voices down, which was much rarer than it should have been). More impressive, there was a regular crash of an iceberg being calved into the waters below.  I was fortunate to see one calving happen right in front of me, as I just happened to stay at that particular overlook for a little extra time. Later in the afternoon, I enjoyed a glass of whiskey cooled by a chunk of glacier ice.  Then, upon returning to El Calafate, I had an amazing evening out with some new friends from the hostel.  It included a giant meal at a parrilla (an Argentinian steakhouse) full of amazing meat and wine, and then ended up attempting to dance at a local dive bar where I was the only non-Argentinian there (excerpt for a Brazilian who was now living and working in El Calafate).

Swinging in Puerto Natales looking at Torres del Paine

Despite the hangover, the next morning, I was on another long bus ride.  This time crossing the border into Chile to the town of Puerto Natales, and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.  This national park is the poster child of Patagonia, full of rivers, lakes, fjords, mountainscapes, forests, and glaciers.  Many travelers come here to hike the “W”, a 4-day trek through the park that forms a “W” on the map.  Upon arrival in Puerto Natales, there was a bit of chaos.  There had been heavy rain for the past few days which overwhelmed the water system of the town and there was no running water, and many businesses were closed.  Additionally, some of the trails in the park had been closed, including their adjoining campsites.  I had no idea if my reserved campsite would be available the following evening when I went hiking into the park.  Luckily, I had heard from many people that sites are not allowed to just turn people away for obvious safety reasons.  Because of this, I felt comfortable going ahead with my planned trek to the towers that give their name to the park.

Torres del Paine

I packed relatively lightly for my overnight trip to Torres del Paine, and was thankful I did so.  Many people were doing the “W” trek or the even longer “O” trek which was opening that day, and had the full packs including all of their gear.  Luckily, I was renting my tent and sleeping bag directly from the site so I did not have to carry it with me.  At the start of the trek, it was far more crowded than I would have liked, but as the day wore on the lines began to spread out and I was able to hike alone with my thoughts for the majority of the time, again through ever changing landscapes. Along the way, I noticed signs put up by AMA, a nonprofit group that helps with some of the areas around Torres del Paine.  I had actually applied to be a volunteer to help with some of their conservation programs.  Unfortunately, they did not get back to me to confirm my acceptance until shortly before they needed me, and by then I had already made other volunteering plans, so I could not participate.  However, it did seem like they were making an impact in helping maintain some of the trails and signage around the park.  While I think I liked the hiking around El Chaltén slightly better than the admittedly small region of Torres del Paine I witnessed, I could still appreciate the incredible vistas and natural beauty of the park.

Campsite in Torres del Paine

Throughout my week travelling south through Patagonia, all of those hikes, and camping, and experiences reminded me of my enjoyment of the outdoors throughout my life, especially all the times I visited national parks.  The concept of the national park has been called America’s best idea, and I can definitely understand that sentiment.  Maintaining the majesty and beauty of these places for future generations was such a novel concept 150 years ago.  I am lucky to have been a beneficiary of that spirit of conservation and owe it to future generations to preserve such beauty for them as well.

El Fin del Mundo

This was reinforced all the more over the next couple of weeks.  After finishing my time in Torres del Paine and Chile, I ventured south again.  Crossing the border back into Argentina and going to the island of Tierra del Fuego and the city of Ushuaia.  Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and calls itself “El Fin del Mundo”, the End of the World.  While getting to the end of the world was a great experience in and of itself, I had a reason for being there.  I had hoped to do some exploring around Tierra del Fuego, but this unfortunately did not happen, as I had one day to do some travel planning and get some final supplies before my next big step: going beyond the end of the world to the bottom of it… Antarctica.

“Fog”bow over ice bergs in the Drake Passage

As luck would happen, a couple of people staying in my hostel were going to be on the same ship to Antarctica.  I felt better about the trip, because from what I had heard and read, I expected the ship to be full of retirees.  My new friends, Andrew and Jason, were expecting the same, but we would turn out to be greatly mistaken.  This expedition was geared towards the adventurous types with camping, kayaking, snow-shoeing, and mountaineering all included. This attracted a much younger and more active demographic.

Night before kayaking

The 11 days aboard the Ortelius were amazing, mostly because of the incredible group of travelers I met and shared such an amazing adventure with.  Many long nights were spent in the “Krill ‘em all” bar (named because this ship actually took Metallica to Antarctica to perform a concert there for a select group of fans and researchers) enjoying the society of such fun and interesting human beings.  I am not going to spend much time talking about the surreal and magnificent environment of Antarctica.  Instead, a couple of my shipmates have put together far more expressive videos that convey the experience far better than my empty words ever could.  Therefore, I will include links to those videos at the bottom of this post.

I will simply state that the vastness of the place was enveloping in a strange comforting sense.  Looking around at the pristine white and gray (not including for the smell and stains of penguin droppings!) gives the sense that you have been dropped into a dream world.  It is a place that you feel a longing to be a part of, but intuitively know that you are a stranger, not meant to be there.

Chillin’ with a Penguin

The crew and guides of the ship were obviously dedicated to maintaining the magic of this special place.  You could sense it when they spoke to you, when they gave talks throughout the trip, when they guided you out into the white wilderness.  I learned how the early explorers suffered and died there, how they often made horrid impacts on the local wildlife, how only slight changes in the temperature have completely changed the ecosystem due to different algae and plankton that have taken over different regions only because of a 1-degree change in average temperature.  The areas we visited and observed vast colonies of Gentoo penguins used to be populated by Adélie penguins a few decades ago, but this change was due to the aforementioned temperature change and resulting disruption to the food chain.  It seems minor, but it is just an example of such changes going on around the world that we don’t yet fully understand.  I also learned that our expedition guide, Sebastian, had founded a nonprofit with a small group of friends: Fundación para la Conservación del Patrimonio Antártico.  They advocate for the historical significance of the area, working to help maintain some of the sites, as well as trying to promote dialogue amongst the different stake-holders in the region.  This was yet another amazing example that I’ve seen throughout this journey across the world of people taking responsibility for something they care about and making a positive impact in their world.

Fellow I-L-L-
-I-N-I that happened to be on the ship! Oskee-wow-wow!

After the week and a half flew by much faster than expected, and we crossed the Drake Passage with a melancholy pall as we soon had to say goodbye to wonderful new friends, I prepared to end the South American and Antarctic chapters of my adventure.  The past three weeks or so, travelling to the end of the world and beyond, and seeing such awe-inspiring examples of God’s beautiful creation, impressed further upon me the fact that these wonders absolutely do need to be protected.  Less than 2 weeks after the events of this blog post, I found myself in the examination area of the wildlife hospital at the Australia Zoo (more about that endeavor coming soon!)  While standing there, I noticed a quote on the wall that is attributed to the Audubon Society and perfectly sums up my feelings about my time in Patagonia and Antarctica:


A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his father, but borrowed from his children.





Fundación para la Conservación del Patrimonio Antártico

The organization founded by our expedition leader to Antarctica.  It seeks to preserve and promote the heritage of Antarctica, and foster better cooperation and preservation, especially regarding Argentina’s role in the Antarctic.

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition

A coalition of NGOs working around the world to focused on conservation of Antarctica.

AMA Torres del Paine

An organization focused on conservation in and around Torres del Paine National Park in Southern Chile.  They run volunteer programs that allows visitors to come and help with the conservation efforts in a variety of roles.  This was the program I had hoped to participate in, but due to a structural overhaul of the program this year, they were unable to confirm my acceptance until after I had already made other plans.

Global Penguin Society

As the name suggests, they are dedicated to the survival and protection of the world’s penguin species.  Penguins are the iconic animals of Antarctica, but they live throughout the southern regions of the Earth.

Concervación Patagonica

An organization dedicated to getting more of Patagonia protected as national park lands.  They also have volunteer programs for visitors to come and participate in.  I looked into these, but the timing did not quite work with my schedule.

The National Park Foundation

The charitable arm of the US National Park Service.

Website with ways to get involved directly with the US National Park Service.


ANTARCTICA COMPILATION VIDEOS BY MY SHIPMATES Video by Daniel Moorefield ( I show up at the end of the video, demonstrating why I never made it as a pitcher… Video by Marcey Lietta  Video by Vedat Mihmat









Special Needs, Farming, and Argentina

After a far too festive going-away celebration and one more day helping at the center in Taltal, Chile, I boarded a bus for a long day and a half of travel to cross from Chile into Argentina.  While looking for volunteer opportunities to replace my original plan for September and October, I used a website called IVHQ (International Volunteers Headquarters) that organizes volunteer opportunities around the world.  Through them, I found a program in Cordoba, Argentina working with special needs adults.  It seemed like a new challenge and quite different than my previous experiences.

Choripan night in the volunteer house (picture via Jenny!)

On that Sunday, I arrived in Cordoba and was taken to the volunteer house in a small town on the outskirts of Cordoba.  Upon arriving, I met a group of volunteers from different countries (Mexico, Switzerland, Ireland, Canada, Peru, New Zealand, and the US) who were working in a variety of projects related to the program, some with child-care, some with construction, some with the elderly of the community.  It reminded me a little bit of a “Real World” type situation (and has given me an idea for a new reality show!), but, more importantly, it was yet another opportunity for cultural exchange, as well as many fun memories over the next two weeks.

After a day for orientation and logistical items, Tuesday was my first day at my placement: a small center named Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World).  In total, the center has about two dozen patients with the majority of them in their 30s and 40s, although there were a few older as well.  As far as their abilities, there was a vast range.  A couple of the patients seemed to be very high functioning, at about the level of a 10 or 12-year old child.  These patients often helped with many tasks and interacting with the other patients.  They would often be the ones to pour and serve the mate (the traditional Argentinian tea) during breaks.  Others were more at the level of younger children, and others were almost completely uncommunicative, with little to no motor skills as well, including a couple of patients confined to wheel chairs who could not communicate at all.

Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World)

Over my time with the center, I got to learn about the personalities and eccentricities of each of the patients.  One was a woman who was like a toddler just learning to speak in that her most common phrases (in Spanish) were “How are you?’, “And you?”, and “Why?” It started as annoying, and then it became something I just adapted to, and, now, weeks later, it has become something I kind of miss hearing.  There was another gentleman, suffering from Down Syndrome and unable to speak, who hugged anyone and everyone whenever he first saw them, and loved to dance during the free time when music was played, and people could socialize rather than having any set activity.  However, he could also have horrible temper tantrums if he was unhappy about something.  There were a couple of patients that could be a little bit dangerous: one woman that would aggressively pinch people if they were close and not paying attention, another woman that would roughly shove people, and a man that would sometimes hit other patients.  All of this made each day a challenge, but completely worthwhile.

Drinking mate is a huge part of Argentine culture, even among the special needs patients

What really got to me, though, was the weight of the situation in general.  There were many times, especially in the first few days, that I was close to tears as I saw things like a 71-year old man working on two-digit sums as part of his lessons or a grown woman crying because she wanted to continue drawing but it was time to stop.  As difficult as those types of things to see are, it was nothing compared to what more I learned from the staff.  I had noticed that many of them wore tattered clothing that was barely staying together, and I wondered about this condition.  Then I learned why.  Many of the patients had been abandoned as children and have lived in a government-run “orphanage” for most of their lives.  Many of these patients had been tossed aside, same as the rags they wore.  As easy as it may be to do otherwise, I need to withhold judgement of their families, because it may in fact have been their only legitimate option.  Rather, the judgement lies with you and me, all of us, those of us who continue to maintain a society in which people can be cast aside as little more than stray animals.

Break time outside. As usual, everyone was amazed by my height

It is moments and experiences like this that introduce me to the unsung heroes of this world.  Incredible human beings like Caro and Vicki and Maria and Simi and so many others that strain their patience each day and then treat these patients with the love and respect they should receive but are denied by this cruel world we have created.

Baking activity at the center

The activities ranged throughout my time there.  Sometimes, a few of the higher functioning patients would help in the kitchen and help bake treats that would be served as snacks and refreshments for the other patients.  Other times, there would be gardening outside or small handicraft projects to engage the patients in active and productive tasks.  Almost every day, as I noted earlier, there would be free time for music and dancing.  The smiles on the faces beamed as they danced to both traditional and popular dance music.  Occasionally, the staff would pull out small drums so that the patients could play along, or plug in a microphone to have a bit of a karaoke session.

Since many of the patients lived in what are basically government run orphanages, they often did not have much more than tattered clothes

Meanwhile, during that time, I also was able to learn more about the fellow volunteers I was living with, who were working on their own projects.  Since I did not work the other programs, I only learned about them from the periphery, but not nearly enough that I could share much quality information.  However, it was inspiring to meet these people who had decided to pay out of pocket to come to another country in order to make a difference in some way.  Some of them were on gap years from school, or other similar long-term travel (like myself) and others took their precious vacation time to serve others.

On my first night in the house, I stayed up late speaking with a young woman, originally from Mexico, who had just finished high school, and was taking a gap year. She had thought about going back to Mexico to help with the recovery from the recent earthquakes, but had decided to follow through with her plan to come to Argentina.  I could sense the desperation in her of wanting to do something meaningful but not feeling as though she truly was making any difference at all. All I could do was tell her my philosophy that, often, all we can do is persevere and do the best we can.  The world can be a horrible place, but even if we don’t change the world, as long as we have not allowed its cynicism and fatalism to change us and convert us to join in the hopelessness, we will have won our own personal battle.   It was a conversation that took me back to my time as a high school teacher, having many long conversations with a young people still trying to figure out their place in the world and the path they would take through it.

My going away dinner on the patio

After two far too short weeks, it was time for me to move on from Cordoba.  My last day at the center, I found myself becoming emotional yet again.  However, it was much different this time.  When I started at the center, my emotions were based on pity for the situation these people were living in.  However, as I prepared to leave, I did not feel pity.  Instead, I realized that I had come to view these patients beyond just their disabilities, but as people I was going to miss.  They made it even more meaningful by making a small poster for me as a thank-you gift.  It was yet another humbling experience that I did not deserve.

The next morning, I packed up my stuff and was soon on a bus for a 24-hour ride to northern Patagonia and the small city of Bariloche in the lake district, where I was going to spend about 3 weeks working on an educational farm.

The gang of piglets running around the farm

After the long bus ride, and another local bus ride, and then walking down a side gravel road, I had arrived at Rock-Heim Farm.  I met the owners, Alex and Cris, and then their long-term helper, Fran, who I would be sharing the guest house with.  The guest house was a nice simple dwelling, only heated by a wood-burning stove.  The next morning my work would begin.

Sometimes, I would help with animal care, feeding and watering chickens or rabbits.  Alex or Fran took care of the other, larger animals: the sheep, hogs, and the small herd (only 3) of Jersey cattle.  Most of my work was spent cleaning up the farm and making repairs following the damage from the winds and snows of the winter.  Or working the ground of the small gardens to prepare for spring planting.

The farm was small and not focused on much production, but rather to serve as an example of farming practices, plants, and animals, for visiting school groups. This was obvious to me as, coming from a farm background, much of what was done seemed extremely inefficient to me, but since it is done on such a small scale, it makes a bit more sense to me given their goal of education.

Beautiful landscape surrounding the farm

I enjoyed working outside and being able to go for small walks in the afternoon, or going to some of the surrounding areas on the weekends.  It was also nice to be disconnected for a while, and enjoying the simple lifestyle.  I would go into the town of Bariloche when I needed to perform an online task, as well as sample the various cervecerias (micro-breweries) as Bariloche seems to be the beer capital of South America.  (When I was in college, I considered studying abroad in Argentina, but never followed through.  Now that I have sampled the beer, wine, meat, and chocolate, I have come to realize how big of a mistake that was!)

Sheep shearing season

While I was there, we only had one school group come by, but Alex told me more would start coming later in the season, especially in the fall.  Another was actually scheduled to come the week after I finished there.  Growing up around small/medium sized farms, focused on production, it was great to get a different experience.  In my opinion, the experience reinforced the concept of specialization and how large-scale operators are much more efficient at meeting the food needs of a growing population.  But it also gave a good perspective in trying to maintain a balance and sustainable practices, which even the large-scale farmers should try to emulate, since we only have so many resources available and must make them last as long as possible.

Exploring near the farm with my hiking buddy, Morsy

Regardless of the “organic vs commercial” farming debate, one undebatable positive aspect of what Cris and Alex are doing with their small farm is the educational outreach.  Far too many people are too far-removed from their food.  They only see it in the super-market, and their knowledge of farming is only from media consumption (TV, movies, books, etc.).  It would be great if all people could connect with and learn more about agriculture first-hand.  After all, agriculture is the foundation of civilization.  If humans never developed agriculture, we would likely still be living as primitive hunter-gatherers.  Therefore, it is important for all of us to better understand the practices and challenges of agriculture.  (I am obviously biased in this situation, but deal with it!)

After about three weeks working on the farm, in the shadow of the Patagonian Andes, it was time to move on yet again.  I said my farewells, hugged Fran, Alex, and Cris, and got on the local bus to Bariloche to take another long bus ride down to the wilds and beauty of Southern Patagonia.


For more information related to special needs:

IVHQ – The organization that I went through to get the special needs placement in Cordoba, Argentina

Un Lugar en el Mundo – The adult special needs center I worked with in Villa Allenda, on the outskirts of Cordoba

Here are some links that provide lists of other special needs organizations:

For more information related to my placement on the Patagoinian farm and agricultural education

Rock-Heim Farm – The farm outside of Bariloche where I worked for three weeks.  Focused on education and sustainable farming

Workaway: How I found Rock-Heim farms.  A website to find lodging, and possible food, in exchange for work

WWOOF: The same basic concept of Workaway, but focused on small organic farms around the world.

Agriculture in the Classroom: An organization that works with national and state departments of agriculture, farm bureaus, and other farming related groups to promote agricultural literacy in K-12 education