AMA volunteering in Torres del Paine

Trip Start Oct 17, 2012
Trip End Mar 27, 2013

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Flag of Chile  , Patagonia,
Sunday, November 18, 2012

Originally, we had hoped to volunteer at Conservacion Patagonica after being inspired by the movie 180degrees South (seriously amazing flick, go see it if you haven't yet). However, they are super selective about who is accepted and only accept a dozen or so out of the hundreds of applicants. So, not being biologists or versed in the area of native flora and fauna and land restoration, we were not accepted. Luckily, we found another opportunity in Patagonia with AMA. This was a great runner-up opportunity for us as they are located in Torres del Paine national park where we plan on doing a ten day circuit hike.
The program charges close to $15 per day for 3-4 meals and an amazing private camping area (bring your own tent). We were supposed to take an employee bus in but we missed it getting stuck in El Calafate. Still we got a free ride (thanks to Erratic Rock hostel) on the morning bus. We arrive a day late and ready to get to work maintaining the trails. But instead we meet the other volunteers, set up camp, and get to know what will be our home and neighbors for the next two weeks.
The routine:
Each day we wake up around 6:30am to have breakfast (bread with butter and marmalade and sometimes cereal) and start work around nine. Lunch (various stylings of meat and potatoes) is 12-2, followed by work then "once" (tea with bread, butter, marmalade) aka snack time when you finish at five, followed by dinner (yet a different version of meat and potatoes) at seven. After dinner we hang out in the only warm area available, the hotel lobby and watch the fox and horses run around on the front lawn. Oh ya... There is a big expensive ($500/ night) hotel at the front of the park. The hotel, and almost half of the park, are owned by one of the five richest families in Chile. These five families together basically own Chile. AMA, the volunteer program, is also owned by this family. From what we can add up, they started the organization strictly for the tax break and have had little intention of it actually doing much. We are only to work on their land, which is plenty and has some of the most traveled trails on it, however they don't supply you with enough tools to actually do the work. So some of the volunteers are doing silly projects like building wasp traps that don't work at all, recycling paper into virtually unusable paper, pulling weeds in a garden that is already in full bloom, or making Eco bricks out of plastic bottles and trash (it is illegal to build with these bricks in earthquake riddled Chile). Womp womp. So we are paying one of the richest families in the country for the privilege of working for them on their land, and they haven't bothered to buy shovels, nails, wood, etc. This is the most frustrating part about being here, and we consider leaving early. But we don't. Everyday we look around the breathtaking beauty of where we are and try to enjoy just being here, whether we are making a meaningful contribution or not.
We did get to do some work though... We spent days rerouting streams, marking trails, and making a new one as well. Even doing this we were frustrated though-- we didn't have enough tools for everyone so, inevitably, some would just be watching, plus we didn't need that many people or that much time anyway. Urg, I'm still annoyed with the disorganization of it all... But there was a time we got to spend the night at the next Refugio (Cuernos) with just two other boys so that the four of us could finish that far end of the trail over a two day span. And we got the work done in just one afternoon, so we had time to hike the French Valley in our spare time! Another day Kendra got to fix a bridge using some recycled wood, nails, and a bit of rope. Not the sturdiest but our goal was to make things better, not good (because we didn't have the means of doing anything properly). By the end of our two weeks, we were in better shape than when we arrived. Days of hiking 10k with logs and tools on your shoulders might have actually been good for us.
Plus, Lydia got to see a puma and we got to meet some interesting people... We ate every meal with the park / hotel staff, but also had a group of about ten of us (all English speaking) that were working together. Most of them younger and richer than us, and with some misguided sense that they should all be the project leaders. We felt old around them, but they were all friendly and good company after work hours. We also got to work with the national park rangers (CONAF) in the mornings, which was the favored daily activity (possibly because it felt productive even though it was easy). We would go out to the entering tour buses and translate the CONAF speech for all of the tourists-- basically, "don't start fires, pick up your trash, stay on the trail, be prepared for wind, rain, snow, and sun."
The weather warning is legit, too. We had snow, rain, hail, blazing hot sun, and tornado like winds. Mid day it was like 90deg and by night it would drop to about freezing. As we tried to fall asleep the winds would pick up so that we were sure a tree was going to fall on us or that our tent would rip wide open. But somehow we survived all of that, and actually, I miss it.
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