Lost in Patagonia

Five years ago today, I embarked upon an adventure.

It wasn't until my bus dropped me off at a bend in the road in the middle of Patagonia, and I was the only one to get off, that I realised this wasn't exactly a tourism hotspot.

Now I really had left Gringoland, that tourist-friendly urban face of South America. This was the real Patagonia: a land of soaring peaks and glacial gorges, raging rivers and impenetrable forests, howling storms, desolate plains and lustrous lakes. The uttermost end of the Earth.

I began walking, past the last artefacts of human habitation - the odd ramshackle hut and rusting farm machinery. My only living companions the seemingly feral groups of cattle that weaved their way between the beech trees. Before long I'd reached a river crossing, where pleasant gurgles mingled with the ominous buzz of mosquitoes. Sudden stabbing pains indicated an involuntary blood donation to the local ecosystem, despite layers of repellent that made me smell like an incident in a chemical factory.

By late afternoon I reached the campsite, or rather I reached a sign with a picture of tent and the word 'Campo'. But no tents. Maybe my fellow campers were just behind me? So I occupied a desirable riverfront location and
waited for company. None came. I crawled into my sleeping bag wondering: is this trail closed? Or have I got lost?

Doubts grew the next morning when I awoke to the sound of hooves. I opened my tent to find a gaucho (cowboy) outside, mounted on a gigantic brown horse.
He looked agitated. Hespokeveryquickly. In Spanish. I think.
I smiled dumbly, "Lo siento, yo no comprendo."
He wore the exasperated familiar to parents of small children everywhere and repeated his question a bit louder. But he might as well have been explaining how differential gearboxes work. I was baffled. And slightly concerned that what he might actually be saying is: 'Get off my land'.

Tension rose. I noticed the pistol on his hip. Suddenly, a breakthrough! A word I recognise; he's looking for his cows! And I point him towards the nearby creek. He beams happily and canters off to find his charges. Leaving me to wonder why locating cows was never discussed in any of my S
panish classes.

I packed up and hit
the trail again. This time the direction was up. Several hours and an ice-choked pass later, I was sitting on a precipitous ridge beneath the titanic basalt turrets that give Cerro Castillo - 'Castle Mountain', its name. From my rocky throne I surveyed the glacier and the raging river far below. My own private Patagonia. Population of my kingdom: 1.

That night I camped beneath the mountain's formidable walls. It was colder here, more exposed, with only wind-stunted trees for shelter. By dusk the skies were battleship grey and the wind was gusting, but I easily fell asleep inside my sleeping bag's warm cocoon.

At midnight, my cosy tent became a haunted house. I awoke in absolute primeval blackness, a shrieking wind battering my flimsy walls as the tent-poles creaked and groaned. And then the rain came. I finally fell asleep and dreamt of a galleon in a storm.

By dawn, it was obvious the tent was one strong gust away from catastrophic structural failure. So much for a lie-in. I packed hurriedly, made myself weatherproof and quickly dismantled the tent before the weather did it for me. I had breakfast hiding amongst stunted bushes. The glamour of adventure tourism.

My way out involved a treacherous climb over boulders slick with rain, high above a mesmerisingly beautiful turquoise laguna. The final icy pass was so slippery it resembled walking up a bobsleigh run.

At the top I drank in the view, on the other side I looked down a precipitous scree slope.
It was very steep. It reminded me of That Slope, the one I recklessly mountain biked down in New Zealand. The one where I learnt that when crashing, it's always best to try to steer into something soft.

I consulted my guidebook, hoping to find mention of a secret shortcut or a magic doorway to a taverna with an open fire, but it was unequivocal: descend the scree to a bare rocky ridge. No mean feat, the gale-force wind and loose scree underfoot conspired to make me wobble like a jelly in an earthquake. And it was a long way to tumble.

Despite being wind-blasted by rain, hail and grit, and several heart-stopping slips, I reached the ridge, where a new problem became apparent. Out here, there wasn't much to distinguish path from wilderness, and I was relying on the presence of cairns. Unfortunately, the cairns were becoming ever more tumbledown, until now they had become indistinguishable from random trailside rubble. My trail had petered out and my only map looked like it had been hand-drawn from the space shuttle through

Lost in the sheeting rain, with team morale dipping, I crouched behind a boulder for an emergency chocolate break. Despite the water dribbling off my nose, I was soon laughing at the ridiculousness of my situation.
What's that?
The chocolate must have granted me superpowers; beyond - I saw footsteps in the mud, heading down the valley. I decided to follow.

The footsteps led down to the treeline, and into a dead end. There, the footsteps became random and erratic. I recognised this pattern: it's called being lost. I looked around nervously, half-expecting to find skeletons of long-lost backpackers.

Good sign: no bodies; if they got out - so could I. Now too tired to climb back up the valley, my rudimentary map did 'suggest' that somewhere in the spooky misty forest ahead lay a path back to civilization. So be it.

The subsequent log clambering, stream wading, mud squelching and bush-bashing were exhilaratingly terrifying. Each footstep was taking me deeper into the wild, either I found this path, or I was really, really lost.

What was I doing here?

When I finally stumbled across that lonely trail 20 minutes later, I'd found my answer.
I was writing a new scene in the screenplay of my life.
I threw off my pack and celebrated ecstatically.
Make sure your life makes a great movie.

You have no influence: how to use it

Where do policies come from?

Does a sweaty government minister abruptly wake in the middle of night exclaiming "We must do this!". Or are they contrived by a panel of senior politicos as they draft their election manifesto? Or perhaps the cabinet has a suggestion box, and every week one is drawn at random to be enacted. Or maybe a conversation on a Mediterranean yacht is transcribed into a memo a few days later, and then amplified into draft legislation by a gaggle of mandarins eager to impress their boss.

It's a serious question - where do the ideas that come to shape our world actually come from?
The public - or the political elite? Which would you prefer?

Consider the recently launched Robin Hood Tax campaign. The basic idea was elucidated by Yale academic James Tobin, who proposed adding a levy on currency transactions to deter speculation. That was 1972, since then the idea has marinated and evolved in the minds of various economists. Some governments have even talked about enacting it into law, but only if everybody else does it.

So where do policies come from? Say you think the Robin Hood Tax is a great idea, how would you get it into law? Perhaps one day you'll find yourself on a sunny yacht with the Lord High Chamberlain, you get on well, you have a chat, he likes the cut of your jib, he just loves your new idea... a few weeks later, it's on the order papers.

But more than likely, you're outside the inner circle. It's a small world, but not THAT small. You're still too many hops away from the high and mighty. No waterside pow-wows for you. Know your place, citizen.
Most individuals have no influence.
And yet, collectively, individuals have huge influence. Together, we elect governments.
So policies come from us, after all?
Not quite.

Voting in an election is like choosing which door to walk through. One door might be safe and sturdy looking, one might be slick and slimy, another might be downright scary. You pick your door and enter. You do not get to position and decorate your own door. Slightly inflexible, but them's the rules.

So how can you use your choice to further the prospects of something you believe in? For instance, you could ask your prospective MP if they will support the Robin Hood Tax. If they say yes, vote for them. If a majority of your fellow constituents agree, you have your representative. If not, no-one really cared. It must have been a half-baked idea anyway. Get over it.

So there's two challenges: first, you've got to convince the majority of your fellow electors this is an issue worth caring about. Talk about it. Individually, tweets and blog postings are insignificant, they won't change the world, but they might get your friends thinking. Who might mention it to a relative, who tells their partner, who...

The second challenge is holding your representative to account once they're elected. Here again, social media can help. If they renege, ensure every mention of their name is accompanied by #RHTliar, let your fellow constituents know they've been betrayed. These days politicians are very sensitive about their personal brand; they know if it's sullied, they'll be out of a job.

And if, collectively, you can get enough of the MPs to keep their word... job done.

Social media offers you the chance to say to politicians:
We'll decide on the ideas, you just implement them.
If you want it to, it might just work.

All your opinion are belong to Us

The BBC's Virtual Revolution documentary contained a fascinating relation: the Chinese government pays a massive astroturfing army to massage public opinion on Chinese blogs and message boards. They're known pejoratively as "Wu Mao Dang" - 'the 50 Cent Army' - because that's what they're paid for each pro-government posting they make.

That's the carrot. Here's the stick. A blogger called Tan Zuoren started asking questions about why so many schools collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake. A lot of Communist Party buildings survived. Shoddy building standards? Backhanders? He was jailed for 5 years yesterday. Don't ask questions, comrade.

A friend suggested, in the spirit of Swift, that the Chinese should outsource their astroturfing to the American public. The US could then pay back its foreign debt, 50 cents at a time...
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