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Along The Watchtower

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Exciting times at the end of the world

THIS is coming to you from the end of the world. Well, almost.

I’m in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost town which lies 4,817km from the icy continent of Antarctica, as part of a documentary film project.

Getting here has been quite an adventure in itself.

Imagine flying 30 hours over four continents and waiting in transit in five airports for another 10 hours.

And then touching down in a place where the temperature varies between 1°C and 3°C in winter.

Punta Arenas, which means “San­dy Point”, is the capital of Magallanes, Chile’s southernmost region named after the Portuguese explorer who is credited by history as the first man to circumnavigate the world.

The region is part of Patagonia, which straddles both Chile and Argentina at the tip of South America and stretches between the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.

This remote, rugged, wind-swept land is rich in human history and also well known for its diverse species of wildlife surviving in the harshest of environments.

Punta Arenas is the biggest town in the region with a population of 147,000. Before Ferdinand Magel­lan’s around-the-globe journey, Patagonia marked the limits of the known world.

The first contact between natives of the area and European travellers happened in 1520 and the crew members were awed by the exceptionally tall natives.

Magellan described them as patagón, thinking they were giants, but they were most probably from the Tehuelches tribe who were taller than most Europeans of the era.

Besides the Tehuelches, many other indigenous tribes used to live in Patagonia, including the Aónikenk, Yamanas, Kawéskar and the Selk’nam, who have now become extinct. Some of the natives were taken captive and brought along on the ships as they crossed the strait which now bears Magellan’s name, into the Pacific Ocean for the first time on Nov 28, 1520.

Magellan named it “Mar Pacifico” because it was so calm, but more recently in 2008, climate scientists suggested that the El Niño weather phenomenon might have helped the first journey around the world.

When El Niño occurs, the waters of the equatorial Pacific become warmer than normal, creating rising air which changes wind and wea­ther patterns.

The effects can be elsewhere, including drought in the western Pacific and more rain in Peru and on the west coast of South America.

Tree-ring data indicates that this could have happened in 1518, 1519 and 1520. Punta Arenas started out in 1848 as a penal colony but thanks to the increasing marine traffic and growth in trade along the west coast of both South and North America, the town soon grew in importance and population.

A gold rush and the introduction of sheep farming attracted immigrants from Spain and other parts of Europe – England, Italy, Germany and Croatia.

Punta Arenas is one of the locations for the filming of the documentary, which focuses on a young Malay man captured as a slave after the fall of Malacca in 1511.

Because of his intelligence and proficiency in languages, he was taken to Lisbon and became a trusted aide of the explorer during the journey which started out with five ships and 260 crew members.

But after three years, only one carrack, the Victoria, made it back to Spain with the last 18 of the crew.

An exact replica of the Victoria, built along the strait some 7km away, was an obvious choice for shooting. What surprised my three colleagues and me, though, was that the replica of the ship was built by hand and completed in 18 months – largely by one man, with the help of two local carpenters.

Cartographer Juan Luis Mattassi, who has now turned the copy of the ship into a rare tourist attraction, was equally surprised and pleased about the documentary project.

He said he had been fascinated by Magellan’s journey since young and when he got his share of his grand­father’s inheritance – 1.6ha of land along the Strait of Magellan – he decided to quit the mapping business and build the ship instead, using his lifetime savings of US$200,000 (RM800,000).

Of all the people we met, Mattassi was the only one who knew where Malaysia was. He hoped to visit the country soon as he was familiar with the story of the Malay slave, referred to as “Henry of Malacca” in the records. But then again, Malaysia is so distant and rarely makes the news in Chile.

The next expected big story would probably be Proton’s re-entry into the South American country later this month.

Proton Holdings Bhd expects to sell about 80% of the 1,280 cars planned for the Chilean market this year and the vehicles are expected to arrive in Chile later this month.

It won’t be the first time, though. Proton was in the Chilean market before but exports ceased in 1988 after it sold almost 3,000 units in four years.

To meet the demand for compact and family cars in Chile, Proton is hoping to market its left-hand drive models of completely built-up units of Preve, Exora and Saga.

The Preve is expected to be sold at US$17,000 (RM68,343).

The re-entry of Proton to Chile comes four years after Malaysia and Chile signed a free trade agreement (FTA) in 2012.

Under the FTA, Proton would get a 6% import duty exemption.

Proton CEO Datuk Abdul Harith Ab­­dullah was quoted as saying re­cently that Proton cars would be dis­­­tributed by Andes Motor, a subsidiary of the Kaufmann Group, which sells buses, trucks and luxury cars.

Hopefully, Proton does well in Chile, the longest country in the world, stretching along 4,270km.

It is also the narrowest with an average width of just 177km, with one of the widest ranges of climates, ranging from Mediterranean, alpine, tundra and oceanic to polar.

And there are at least 2,000 volcanoes, including 500 that are active.

Such an exciting country. Got to come back soon but not by the same, 40-hour way, though.

  • Media Consultant M. Veera Pandiyan likes this line from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: Love is so short, forgetting is so long.


Tags / Keywords: M Veera Pandiyan , columnist

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