Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The contradictions of Region XII

We've had a good wander around town and seen the extent of the "gas strike". Other than hostals, the only thing open is a pharmacy, a net café and of course  the petrol station (for reasons I will get to). All outdoor shops, grocers, launderettes, bike shops, restaurants and bars are closed. Which is a bummer when we'd hoped to spend the day cleaning clothes, stocking up on supplies, and generally renourishing ourselves.

The mode of protest involves groups of flag-waving vehicles patrolling the streets with horns blaring, and presumably enforcing the town-wide strike. Unfortunately the one guy in our place with good English is not in today either, so we've found what we can from the internet. 

And this is where it gets interesting. The issue is about the reduction in state subsidy for domestic fuel in the southern region, building on a general tension between south and main part of Chile with some vague tones of independence thrown in. But the specifics are a reduction in gas subsidy from 80% to 60%. To an outsider that sounds like from almost free to still a pretty good deal. The locals feel however that as the Magellan region has gas reserves, gas should be and continue to be virtually free here.

It's hard to imagine every single shop, travel agent, bank and even post office in town feels so very strongly on this, so you start to get the impression there is more purpose to the horn-blaring cars than just creating noise. And of course, they need petrol themselves to keep driving their 2 tonne pickups around the town all day.

And so on the face of it this is a town now entirely centered on a tourist industry that depends on the area of outstanding natural beauty to the north - Las Torres del Paines. But yet everyone of these bohemian / outdoorsy / organic eco establishments has its sign or bin liner up supporting the cause for free fuel, at least superficially. This is unlike any other outward bound tourist town I've seen that at least displays a veneer of wanting to attract the "green" dollar. Perhaps veneer is just it.

There's no doubt free fuel influences habits and infrastructure to a deep level. I'm sat writing this next to a fierce gas fire sat in the corridor of our hostal, under a skylight of thin corrugated plastic and thin wooden walls. In an town where almost everyone wears fleeces and gortex jackets just walking from closed shop to closed shop. It all seems so odd to us, coming straight from "frozen Britain" the temperature - around 13°C is pleasant, and we had to request both here and our hostal in Rio Gallegos that they not light the heater in our room - rather surprised they would be so keen to burn fuel for our minimalist room rate. (Presumably there's a similar subsidy over the border).

Hopefully shops will reopen tomorrow and we can restock and head on towards the park. Only the roads to the park are blockaded against buses and tourist traffic! Have to see what they make of a tandem.