Riotous Adventures Filming in Chile

Dr. Robert Ballard is the Indiana Jones of the Alien Deep.  He’s on the hunt for the world’s oldest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.  Using tactics and technology developed over a 50-year career, he is on a quest to uncover the lost history of the ancient world.  Who were these earliest of mariners and how did they live and die?  How did the ocean and maritime culture help build those civilizations? The journey will take him deep in the chilly depths of the Mediterranean, to Hawai’i, and home to the mainland of the U.S. He may find not just ancient wrecks but modern ones too, that he hopes prove his assertion the Alien Deep holds more treasure and history than all the world’s museums combined. The following comes from production journals from Alien Deep.

By Jennifer Shoemaker

Most people who have visited southern Chile would probably say they best remember the scenery – the knife-edged glaciated peaks and stunning fjords. My biggest memory is the smell of burning tires mixed with the aroma of roast chicken. It’s a strange combination, for sure, but it fits the equally unusual story that goes with it.

My colleague Justin DeShields and I were in Punta Arenas, Chile, filming a research vessel as it prepared to depart for the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. The small city is a key supply and launch point for expeditions to the Antarctic.

Our first night in Punta Arenas, Justin and I had just arrived at our hotel when we noticed a car with a black plastic grocery bag tied to the car’s radio antenna like a makeshift flag. Its owner cheerfully honked the horn as it cruised past us down the road, prompting another hotel guest to remark that the local team must have won a soccer game. A moment later, another car passed, also with a black plastic bag.  Soon, more cars flying plastic bags arrived, the honking grew louder, and we began to suspect something more was up than a soccer victory. The next morning, as we were driving out to the port to meet the ship and starting filming, Justin asked a local what the bags and honking were about.

Justin’s Spanish is far better than mine, but it is still definitely a bit rusty. He did manage to piece together the story, however. The government had, we were told, reneged on a promise to keep natural gas prices down in the region. Prices were poised to jump 17%, so local activists were organizing a protest.

I know nothing about natural gas prices in southern Chile, or Chilean politics for the matter. But given that Justin and I were both bundled in down jackets and wool caps on a mid-summer day, it was pretty easy to see how important heating fuel must be. Clearly, the price of natural gas was a big issue. We were about to find out just how big.

That afternoon, protesters set up a roadblock of old car tires on the road to the airport. Later that evening, they set the tires on fire. Wisps of black smoke curled into the sky as we drove back to the hotel.

The next day, more roadblocks had sprung up, including several within the city limits. We had to detour down a back road to get out to the port to film. On our way back to town that evening, we encountered larger barricades. Instead of an angry mob, though, the scene at the roadblocks was that of a party. Women stood around chatting and preparing food, and kids and dogs played. Except for the odd element of the burning tires and the fact that they were standing in the middle of a major road, it could have been a picnic.

By the next morning, however, the atmosphere had dampened. Overnight, a car had tried to drive through the barricade. Two people had been struck and killed, and several more were injured. Roadblocks now closed off all roads out of the city.

The airport near Punta Arenas was still technically open – planes were still landing and taking off – but the ten miles of highway between the airport and town were blocked. The few travelers who hiked into town from the airport arrived bedraggled and soot-stained. At our hotel, a team of would-be Antarctic mountain climbers paced the lobby. Their once-in-a-lifetime – and likely very expensive – adventure was slipping away.

Even the back roads through town were now barricaded. We had to park and walk out to the port, hauling our camera equipment. The protests were creating an even more dire problem for the research ship. Trucks carrying a month’s supply of food for the expedition couldn’t get through to deliver it to the ship. The captain decided to leave port the next morning and rendezvous with a boat at sea, passing hundreds of pounds of food over the railing.

Justin and I couldn’t resupply, either. The grocery stores had no bread and little of anything else. We pulled into a gas station only to find the pumps shut down. Gas supplies had run out.

Back at the hotel, we received worried emails from co-workers. Word of the regional “riots” had reached the U.S., and they urged us to try to get home. I looked out the window. A car cruised by waving a sign made from a painted bedsheet. A man rode past on a bicycle. A couple of stray dogs raced the beach, tails wagging. From where I was standing, the word “riots” sure seemed a little extreme.

At dawn the next day, we hiked out to the port to film the ship’s departure. I was envious. They may have been heading out into some of the most notorious, iceberg-laden seas on the planet, but at least they were going somewhere. We were stuck.

Our plane flight that afternoon was still on schedule, but we couldn’t possibly drag several hundred pounds of camera gear the ten miles to the airport. Justin, always up for a challenge, suggested we take our rental car, our best smiles and our broken Spanish to the first roadblock and see if they’d let us through.

We stopped by the rental car office to explain what we considered perhaps an overly optimistic plan. To our surprise, the desk agent asked if he could come. The game was on.

We skirted a couple of half-hearted barricades before arriving at the first major roadblock. Dozens of people and tractor-trailers blocked the road. Our rental-agency friend left us at the car and went to chat up the protesters. He returned with a broad grin.

“You’ve got a camera, right?” he asked. “Get it out! I told them you were a National Geographic film crew.”

I admit that I had no idea how we would be able to air any footage we gathered of the protests. But hey, there was a chance. We also had thousands of dollars worth of rented camera gear that was due back in Washington, DC the following day. So while feeling just a bit bogus about the whole thing, I took a deep breath and pulled out the camera.

Sure enough, now that we were “media,” all doors instantly opened.  Cars were moved and people cheered. Our friend told us he had decided to stay there at the barricade and hitch a ride back to his office. We were on our way.

We made it about a mile before we came to a second roadblock. Justin shrugged his shoulders, climbed out of the car and strode over to the protesters. I grabbed the camera, and we made our way through the crowd chatting as best we could with our embarrassingly inadequate Spanish. Miraculously, trucks moved aside, people waved us through, and we were off again.

The third barricade, another half-mile down, looked like a full-blown party. Justin, getting into the spirit of things, jumped out with a big, “¡Hola!” and we were surrounded by families, working men, and dogs. Again, the gates parted.

I honestly can’t remember how many roadblocks we ended up navigating, but it could easily have been a dozen. It became an intoxicating blur of smiling faces, smoke and chatter. I do remember Justin striking up a joking conversation with a man and then telling me that he had traded me for the man’s wife. I recall sharing gourds of yerba mate with generous people at several roadblocks. And I remember a particularly cheerful woman grabbing Justin by the neck and planting a major kiss on him.  At the last roadblock, with the airport tantalizingly close, men roasted chickens while a guitar player strummed and sang. The chicken smelled delicious, even through a haze of tire smoke.

Despite the seriousness of their cause, these protesters were also clearly having a seriously good time.  So were we.

We rolled into the airport with an hour to spare. It had taken us over three hours to go ten miles. Other than a few ambulances we had passed on our journey, we may well have been the only vehicle to make it through that day. And before we could even download the footage back in DC, the protests had ended with the government agreeing to a much smaller price hike.

If there were indeed riots, I never saw them. Instead, I saw a community of politically- engaged people rallying to a shared cause and enjoying each other’s company. That the rallying happened in the middle of the highway, shutting down an entire city, was I’m sure a huge inconvenience for many. For us two very lucky people, however, it was anything but. It was a chance to share a laugh around a fire, a sip of yerba mate, or even, in Justin’s case, a kiss. It was strange and hilarious and enamored us both forever with Chile. I dare say that for us, at least, it actually was a riot.

Tune in to Alien Deep: Wrecks of the Abyss Sunday at 8P. And don’t miss the four back-to-back premieres starting at 7P.