My wife was insistent. She wanted to see penguins, in the wild. It didn’t matter that we live twenty minutes from a zoo. She wanted to see them in their native habitat. So, together with our ten month old daughter Allegra, we traveled to Chile, to the Straits of Magellan, to see pingüinos.
Fifteen hours after leaving San Francisco, we landed in Santiago. Chile is a ridiculously long, narrow country stretched between the Andes and the sea. We had flown more than 6,000 miles. Los pengüinos were still 2,000 miles away.
To reach the penguins it would have been easiest to take another flight from Santiago to the very bottom of the hemisphere, to Punta Arenas, the largest, southernmost city in the world. But there was a rumor that the state owned passenger train that runs south from the Chilean capital was about to be discontinued. It would take us only 600 miles, to the city of Temuco, less than half the distance we needed to go but this was a chance we might not have again. The line that once ran to the north of the country had slid off the rails more than a decade earlier.
“Let go to the station,” I said to my wife. “If they have tickets, we’ll take the train.”
The Estación Central in Santiago is an old wrought iron barn with six tracks. On one stood a steam engine. The overall look of the place made me unsure whether it was a museum piece or something that actually still puffed its way somewhere.
Tickets were available for that evening’s sleeper. Seventy five dollars secured a deluxe bedroom. We climbed aboard.
The dank smell of aged mildew filled the Pullman car. The rich, dark woods and green, velour, nail-head upholstery conjured up Agatha Christie. A porter showed us our room.
The edges of the two facing seats were worn down into a thin jade while the backs had somehow retained their original emerald color. The carpet was threadbare, the double framed windows cracked and yellowed. The lamp fixtures appeared as though designed shortly after the domestication of electricity.
The train jolted out of Santiago at 8 p.m., exactly on schedule. Through our open bedroom door, across the narrow corridor, and out through the windows on the far side of the train, we watched the distant ridge of the Andes turn orange, then gold, then rose and finally disappear in a cloak of violet and darkness.
Our daughter stood on the edge of the seat, her head draped out the rattling window like a Labrador. A waiter appeared to ask what time we would like to be seated in the dining car. He poured us two pisco sours, the margaritas of Chile. Quite quickly our sense of balance and the sway of the train became one.
There was one other couple in the long dining car. Lace curtains, etched fixtures, and the parquet floor hinted at the art moderne elegance now retained only by the tuxedoed staff. We ordered roast beef and more pisco sours. Our soup sloshed back and forth as the waiter made a great show of presenting the wine. He swayed like a violinist, assuring us this was the only way not to spill. We ate slowly and quietly, handing off Allegra to the waiter, the chefs and the other couple. Unlike American restaurants where a young child is likely to be greeted with sneers, on the train and in every restaurant in Chile, our daughter was swept up by strangers who were happy to play with her as we ate. For desert, the waiter brought us coffee and flan. Outside a world entirely black passed by at 50 miles per hour.
Back in our room, I lay down with our daughter in the cozy bed that had been made up from the two seats. My wife clambered into the upper berth. Allegra wasn’t sure what to make of this bed that lurched, jerked, and slid from side to side and back and forth. She burrowed her way into the nape of my neck, her breath tickling my skin like the gentle puffs of a tropical breeze. Soon, she was deep asleep.
Silently finding my way in the darkness, I stepped on the sink and hoisted myself into the upper berth.
“What are you doing?” my wife hissed.
“What do you mean, what am I doing?” I said. “I’m coming to visit you. I’m your husband.”
“And what about our daughter?” she said in a way that suggested I had forgotten the child sleeping below us.
“She’ll be fine,” I said. “She’s dead asleep.”
“No, no, no. Get back down there. Right now. She could fall on the floor. She could fall out the window!”
“She’s not going to fall out the window,” I said. “She’s fine. And the window is closed.”
I attempted to pull my wife close. She pushed me away. I nearly tumbled to the floor six feet below.
“What are you doing?! She’s perfectly safe. Relax. Do you know what a room like this would cost on Amtrak?”
“Even Amtrak doesn’t have rooms like this,” she said.
Rebuffed, I climbed back down. In the few seconds I had been gone, our daughter had taken over the entire twin bed. She lay there, fast asleep, warm and slightly damp, like a huge mound of dough left to rise, showing no inclination to move.
“We’re supposed to be on vacation,” I seethed.
“Go to sleep,” came the response from above.
An opportunity for romance was slipping away. The train rolled on.
I teetered on the sliver of mattress left by our little girl, unable to sleep. Counting penguins didn’t help.
“But we’ve never had a bedroom on a train before,” I said.
“Make a note,” my wife said. “Now GO-TO-SLEEP.”
I rolled up the blanket and tucked it in around Allegra. She had only just begun crawling. Short of a derailment, she was not going anywhere.
Quietly I stepped on the seat, then the sink and launched myself back into the upper berth. I slipped under the thick, heavy, Ferrocarriles del Estado de Chile comforter.
“What are you doing?” my wife asked.
“What do you think I’m doing?” I said. “I’m your husband.”
“Is that so,” she said coyly as she put her arms around me.
At 8 a.m., twelve hours and six hundred miles after departing Santiago we arrived in Temuco, the gateway to Chile’s stunning lake district and the end of the line. The train had long been in the station when the porter awoke us. The night, punctuated by the train’s motion, had passed in an instant. The penguins, however, were still 1,400 miles away.
Days later, after eight hours on busses, a two-hour flight, and a 90-minute trip in a mini-van, we arrived at the penguin colony, las pingüineras, 30 minutes before dusk. The landscape along the Straits of Magellan was completely unforgiving. It’s a bleak, storm swept place where the outline of Tierra del Fuego forms the horizon. Our small mini-van shook from the constant buffeting of the wind. I wrapped Allegra in three layers of clothing, put her in a baby sling, zipped both of us inside my jacket, and stepped out into the 50-mile per hour wind. Instantly, she began shrieking and would not stop. She had traveled for more than a week, to the very bottom of our hemisphere, to the 53rd parallel, without complaint. But of this wind she was having none.
Watching our ordeal, the park rangers invited her to stay behind in their small, warm, wooden hut. Allegra, who a moment before could not be comforted, was thrilled. We had come to the end of the earth to show her penguins in the wild, but now we plunged into the wind without her, walking the final mile out to the penguin colony by ourselves.
There, 50 small Magellan penguins waddled back and forth from the sea to their hutches. While the wind exfoliated our faces, the penguins seemed to be having a gas, rolling in the surf, playing follow the leader in their little black and white penguin lines. Within minutes we were absolutely freezing. Meanwhile, our ten month old was blissfully happy, eating cookies next to a warm fire with four attentive park rangers.
“It would have been easier to go to the zoo!” I yelled to Nina over the wind.
“What?” my wife yelled back.
“The zoo,” I shouted. “We could have gone to the zoo!”
She put her lips up to my ear.
“There’s no train at the zoo,” she whispered just above the wind.
We spent 30 minutes watching the penguins then turned to leave, our faces coarse and dry from the wind and cold. It would be a long trip home. More than 8,000 miles. But we knew a fine night of sleep waited for us on the train back to Santiago.
A version of this story first appeared in the October 4, 1998 edition of the Sunday Chicago Tribune.