Disconnected in Patagonia – June 2010

One of the fundamental qualities that many travelers, including myself, find most thrilling about their journeys is the ability to truly disconnect from their daily routines.  It used to be that one could jump on a plane or hop in a car and simply unplug from the nagging responsibilities of everyday life.  Over the last ten years, however, the escapist qualities of travel have become much more elusive.

Prior to attending business school in 2002, I took a six-week journey to Asia where I backpacked through China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, and Cambodia.   Having received my first blackberry (a huge brick that vibrated with tremendous force) a year earlier, I had become used to being tethered to work at all times.  I also carried a cell phone (a huge brick that vibrated with tremendous force) that further connected me to the worlds of work, family, and friends.  While I left both of these gadgets at home while in Asia, I constantly found myself checking my pockets when I thought I felt some slight vibration that would have normally signaled a new email or call.  I started to realize that these phantom events weren’t unlike the types of feelings that recent amputees experience when they first lose a limb.  My digital devices were like appendages that had been removed but yet still seemed to exist in my subconscious.

In early 2010, I decided to leave my job and take a sabbatical to explore new opportunities.  This was a direct result of the massive changes that the financial crisis caused at my company, AIG Capital Partners.  Enough ink has been spilled on the events at AIG, but suffice it to say that I learned during the credit crunch that it’s no fun to work at a company that is the poster child, right or wrong, for all of the flaws of the capitalist system.

I decided that I needed to embark on a journey that would serve as a sort of detox from the trauma of the AIG implosion.  For me, there is one place on earth that can fulfill this need.   Ever since I lived in Argentina for a year in college, the country has retained a very special place in my psyche.  It was in Buenos Aires that I learned Spanish and discovered a passion for international travel, foreign affairs, and the excitement of discovering new places and cultures.  I guess it’s my “happy place.”

Unlike previous journeys where I restricted my movements to the bustling streets of Buenos Aires, this time I was looking for solitude and ample time and space for reflection.  Patagonia has always been the type of place that has attracted people who are looking to escape from the wider world.  It is known for barren windswept vistas and strange characters that are seek to live off the grid amid sweeping empty swathes of countryside.   The region was immortalized by the travel writer Bruce Chatwin in the 1977 masterpiece “In Patagonia.”

With a copy of “In Patagonia” in my backpack, I set off for a city called El Calafate, which is home to Perito Moreno, a stunning glacier that is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.   I spend a day trekking across the glacier with a pair of crampons firmly attached to my hiking boots.   I was reminded that the tremendous power of nature when my group was over the center of the glacier and a flash storm blanketed our group with high winds, ice, and rain.  As the sleet pelted my face, I happily realized that no iPhone app was going to keep me dry or make sure that I would arrive back to terra firma.  Rather, I needed to depend on the sureness of my own steps.

Next, I ventured to El Chaltén, a hamlet of 332 inhabitants that is known as the “Trekking Capital of Argentina.”  The entire purpose of the town’s existence was to claim land for Argentina during a border dispute with Chile in 1985.  There is no cell phone service and while my hotel had WiFi, I could only get a reasonable connection if I sat right on top of the wireless modem.  Without these distractions, I spent entire days hiking in the mountains and sat reading beside the fireplace during the evenings.

Finally, I concluded my journey in a city perched at the southern most tip of South America on Tierra del Fuego.  In Ushuaia, I walked among thousands of penguins and sampled beaver carpaccio and hedgehog for the first time.  My advice: try the beaver, but skip the hedgehog.

I once told my boss at AIG that if everything went downhill and he didn’t see me in my office, he should know to look for me in Argentina.  While I made the comment in jest, when the time came to make my exit, I knew a priori that needed to go to Argentina.  I also knew that somehow I wouldn’t suffer from phantom cell phone rings and blackberry vibrations this time around.  When you really need to disconnect, it is possible to put mind over matter after all.


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