Saturday, August 14, 2010

It's Always Sunny in Patagonia

For most of my life, I have lived and worked outdoors as a self-employed tree trimmer, an itinerant field geographer in the Chilean Andes and the Falkland Islands, and as a guidebook writer all over South America, if mainly in the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay. Maybe my inability to work in an office - other than my home office, where I look onto the garden and walk the dog whenever I care to - is a personal shortcoming, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. A lot of the work I do on the road in South America may be formulaic - updating hotel rates and bus schedules, for instance - but it also gives me the opportunity to revisit places, like Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (pictured below) or Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, that many other people see only once in a lifetime, if that often.

But that outdoor life sometimes comes at a price, as I learned recently when diagnosed with a melanoma on my nose - excessive exposure to the sun, especially in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, where the hole in the ozone layer has exposed the populations of cities such as Punta Arenas and Ushuaia to dangerous UV radiation, can be hazardous. In Chilean Patagonia, in fact, the regional government has placed “semaphores” indicating the degree of solar radiation, and has even recommended keeping children indoors between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Fortunately, in my case, it was detected very early, and the surgeon who will remove it next Tuesday gives me a nearly 100 percent chance of full removal. It will, however, oblige me to spend nearly six weeks under virtual house arrest - no exercise, not even walking the dog - as skin grafts on the nose are notoriously sensitive to moisture and movement. For the rest of my life, though, I will have to be regularly rechecked and take special precautions, such as wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen whenever I am exposed to sunlight.

While I am not excessively worried about a recurrence, it’s worth stressing that anyone who visits the Southern Cone countries, or any place where the sun shines brightly, should take such precautions. In Patagonia, while the ozone hole may increase the risk somewhat, the fact is that relatively low temperatures usually mean that locals and visitors are usually wearing long sleeves and trousers, so that the face is the major concern. In cities such as sunny Santiago (pictured above), the risk can be even higher, so cover as much as possible, and walk in the shade whenever feasible.

High altitude and tropical latitudes are also a risk. In the early 1980s, as I worked on M.A. thesis on llama and alpaca herders in Chile’s Parque Nacional Lauca (pictured above), a couple Australian tourists came to my research site at the village of Parinacota (pictured below), some 4,392 meters (14,409 feet) above sea level at a tropical latitude of 18° S. Their ill-advised decision to sunbathe on a warm day, in thin Andean air with nearly direct solar rays, burnt them like lobsters and could even have been fatal; also suffering from altitude sickness, they soon left for sea level. I have no way of knowing whether, in the intervening years, they may have developed melanomas, but that world-class sunburn could certainly not have helped.

1 comment:

Katie said...

Wayne, I'm sorry to hear that you were diagnosed with a melanoma, but I'm glad that you caught it early.

Thank you for bringing this issue to people's attention. The sun here in Argentina is very intense. I am fair-skinned, and I have always burned very easily; however, it takes just a few moments of exposure to the strong midday sun here to produce a mild sunburn. I am very careful to use sunblock or some other form of protection when I'm out in the sun.

Best wishes for a complete recovery, and thanks again for raising awareness.

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