Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Buenos Aires

We`re back in Europe now, in the Air France lounge waiting for the connecting flight to Amsterdam (excuse the a<>q qnd other mixups; French keyboqrds!
Bueos Aires was a great alternative to Patagonia: dirty, busy, and exciting. We got there on Good Friday, qnd would have gotten the wrong impression if we hadn`t stqyed until Tuesday. All weekend, we couldn`t get over how quiet qnd relaxed everything was. We wqndered into great museums, strolled through markets with greqt stuff (buying some of it too), We had heqrd horror stories of how stressful, smelly and dqngerous BA was, but we found it delightful. We wandered thgough La Boca, saw some great museums, and thoroughly enjoyed the weekend

And then it was Monday, a normal working day after the Holy Week holidays around Easter when everyone leaves the city. The buses zere belching smoke, the taxis couldn`t move through traffic, qnd everyone seemed to be in a hurry. Not much time for tourists now. Two tours we tried to take (of the Congressos parliqment building qnd the Recolletto cemetery) didn`t materialize for unexplained reasons. We mqde one last visit to a parilla criolla restaurant for massive haunches of meat, which kept us up at night trying to digest it.
It was clearly time to go home. So we did.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Day 9: End of the World

Jeff and the others are attempting to climb up to a glacier today, but I`m taking it easy and getting ready for our departure tomorrow for Buenos Aires. I also need to find a nice (fun) restaurant for tonight, our last night all together.

That end of the world thing (fin del mundo) is getting kind of grating. I have seen the gallery at the end of the world, the bar at the end of the world, restaurant at the end of the world, the end of the world museum, beer brewery at the end of the world (EXCELLENT beer! Try Beagle beer if you get a chance).

The glacier walk was a great morning trip. We drove up to a small ski area (one lift, one slope). No snow now, but we took it up to save some walking then. We continued up to just below the glaciar. A bit of a huffy-puffy climb, but worth it. The last bit required real climbing, which we didn`t really want to do, but we reached the snow (pictures to prove it, promise!). The rest of the day was lazily seeing Ushuaia. You don´t come down here for the city, however. It`s the scenery all around that makes it worthwhile.

Day 8: to Ushuaia

The next day we had breakfast in their lovely kitchen and went for a walk to see the beavers.

Get this: some goof in some Argentine government thought it would be a good idea to import them and start a fur industry. They abandoned the scheme, but not before the beavers were firmly installed in the country. These people we stayed with can´t keep up with their construction/destruction. We saw dam after dam. They destroy trees, cover up good pasture land with water and generally are a pest.

Back in the van, we headed for Ushuaia. Every day, since we left, the landscape has been different. Steppes, mountains, lakes, water everywhere or land everywhere. Amazing. We rolled into Ushuaia around one and found it another goldrush dump. The place has grown from 10,000 thirty years ago to more than 60,000 today. Building is done in any style in any way, and not always finished. What the people have made is generally as ugly as the scenery around them is beautiful.

When Annie and I decided on this hotel way before Christmas, it had a beautiful Internet sight with soothing quiet music, advertised its restful harmony, etc. Amazing photography. The place is at the heart of the strip, and yet again we slept with ear plugs and a closed door. It`s so noisy at the end of the world!

We took a boat into the Beagle channel and saw sea lions and a colony of cormorants. Penguins continue to elude us. Sometimes we see them bopping up and down in the water, but they´re hard to fix.

For dinner we headed off to a Parilla - one of those restaurants where you have a couple of lamb carcasses roasting in the window. We ate like horses and had a great time. It was so noisy, but in a nice family kind of way. There appear to be tons of Argentine tourists here for the Easter holidays.

--> Now about the dogs. They`re everywhere. They belong to no one and everyone. They at first seemed sad, but when you get used to it, it appears sort of fun. They sometimes hang out in little groups - I saw one with a lab, a furry little thing and a Jack Russel type hanging out together, and this morning, when I went to give a little white dog some leftovers from our BBQ last night, he only half ate it - he was distracted by a buddy across the street. If you can get over the nasty back story (in Puerto Natales, the mayor has put poisoned food out for dogs, who then die in agony - along with any child who also happens to fancy what s/he finds) they`re adorable and demonstrate pure dogness. You can pet them, they`re not scary, and at their best, they have a certain joi de vivre about them. They always seem to sleep where there are people - like bus stops, in doorways. And they`re not as skinny as the working dogs we saw at the estancia.

Day 8: To Tierra del Fuego

We got up at 6 to leave early for the estancia (ranch), but Jeff couldn't find his passport. We were all set for plan B - separating and spending the rest of the day in the police station, when we saw Guy coming down the stairs with his backpack. We both jumped up at the same time and almost ran him down: Jeff and Guy have the same backpack (I got two almost identical ones at two different IBM conferences), and it occurred to us together that Jeff had put it in Guy`s backpack instead of his own. Yup, that`s what happened! All`s well that ends well.

We then had a had a long ride across the Patagonian Steppe. Hard to imagine a place with that much nothing, but so beautiful. We stopped at the Straits of Magellan for a ferry. A place that for so long had been a geography class test question now was in front of us: a real river-looking thing.

We crossed the border into Argentina, and had paved roads again (Aaaahhh!). In Rio Grande it was almost impossible to find the right road (hard to believe, since there is basically one road in from the North and one road out to the South, but no signs). Finally some man whom we had asked before and bumped into again - going the wrong way - showed us the way out of town and pointed us in the right direction. Rio Grande is notable for it`s big trout sculpture, and a large memorial to the Heroes of the Malvinas (Falklands) War.

We finally arrived at our estancia in the middle of nowhere a round 6 p.m. We were greeted in French by a very chic woman and served a cup of tea in a lovely pot with china cups. I could have hugged her. Tea until then had been a bag tossed in lukewarm cup of water, almost as an afterthought. The whole thing felt like we were in a Martha Stewart spread. Lovely furniture, gracious hosts, table beautfiully laid. We ate with the owner and her son and daughter who help her run the place. Slept like a log with the window open, no noise, and sheepskins on our feet for warmth.

Day 7: To Punta Arenas

In the morning, we picked we picked up a duffel bag full of now-clean laundry and headed out to Punta Arenas. We finally arrived, after another bumpy trip and gorgeous scenery, in a town that again had a goldrush feel, but more of a real city than Puerto Natales.

We split up and we went to a museum that could have been in any big European city. There was an exhibition of winning entries from a competition for young talent, and it was great to see local approaches to art. Plus the rooms where beautifully decorated in a Victorian/Colonial style. Super opulent and very glitzy. It was built by English ranch owners when this was a big cattle-producing area for Europe. That all ended when the Panama Canal ended.

We each bought an alpaca sweater for ten bucks each, and those goofy hats with the ear flaps - they`re a real lifesaver when the wind howls, and you don`t really care how you look! Our hotel in Punta Arenas was a nice example of a sort of twenties architecture that you see a lot here - left over from the glory days before the Panama Canal ruined everything for them. However inside it was a riot of colour and decorated to within an inch of it`s gaudy life. Again, noisy, but we slept, though not for long.

Day 6: More Torres del Paine, and back to Puerto Natales

Next morning we did some more touring in the park. We saw tons of guanacos, a sort of llama - beautifully gentle looking creatures that are curious and not too skittish. Beautiful big eyelashes. We stopped to look at a lake, and two semi-tame foxes emerged from the bushes to beg for scraps. Kind of sad, that even in a place this remote the wildlife learns to beg from the visitors, but also kind of cool to see foxes this close up.

We drove back to Puerto Natales over more bumpy, bouncy roads.

Annie and I finished with a massage in this cute hippy kind of place, owned by one of Lucie`s friends, back in Puerto Natales, while Jeff worked on this blog, then lost what he did because the timer ran out at exactly 30 minutes and I wasn`t paying attention. Oh well. Then another big meal of king crab and scallops at Darrio and Lucie`s, thanks to DarriĆ²´s mother. These are the local specialties, so cheap and delicious. The hotel we stayed in that night had no windows, but was still noisy.

We have this theory that because populations are so sparse and spread out here, everyone makes as much noise as possible to compensate. Also, working hours appear very fluid, so there`s always someone working (Darrio worked till 1 am cleaning hottubs before we left - one of his jobs).

Day 5: Parque Torres del Paine

The morning started slowly (we had to wake up the hotel guy to make our breakfast), but quickly picked up. The Park is magnificent, and we saw a glacier and what they called an iceberg graveyard. Large chunks of ice from the glacier at the far end of Lake Grey float down to the other end of the lake near a sort of pebble beach. I found a set of guanaco teeth in the sand. It started pouring rain, so we squelched back to the van and headed for a waterfall. We picnicked in the van overlooking a lovely lake. The wind was too strong to stay outside the van for long. The sandwiches would have been ripped from our fingers.

--> A quick aside on the weather. We have been pretty lucky. They don`t talk about the weather here so much. Forecasts are laughed at, since it changes so quickly. We`ve had wind, rain, sun, cold and heat, sometimes in the same hour it seems. Aside from the morning walking to the glaciar cemetery and one bit in Puerto Montt, we haven´t had all that much heavy rain. Every day a little, but no big deal. In fact, we have had more magnificent, sunny days than bad ones. We count ourselves very lucky. Temperatures are generally around F 50 / C 10.

The wind is an amazing thing. It blows a lot, and hard. When you buy an outdoor jacket, you sometimes ask what all those zippers, clips, velcro patches, buttons and string pulls are for (at least I do). When you come to Patagonia, you discover them all very quickly. We were constantly tugging, pulling, snapping, adjusting, etc. to keep rain out, heat in, then heat out, etc.>--

Walking to the waterfall, the wind was so strong, we had to hold onto each other. Seriously. I have never seen wind like that, on the North Sea, English Channel, or any mountain I`ve been on. Apparently it is always like that there. The sun came out and we managed to walk about 4 km to a view of the Quernos (horns). The path was brilliant and easy, the distance nothing when you are constantly being treated to a new and amazing view. We got almost underneath the biggest mountains and goggled at the glaciers.

The path is lined with bushes that look lush from a distance, but actually are covered with 1.5 cm long thorns. When you brush against them, you feel nothing. They only sting if you try to reach inside the bush (not recommended).

That night we had a rousing dinner, with lots of laughs, and trying to dim the sound of the giant Coke machine in the dining room with us (we were the only guests). Guy and Annie are great fun, and we laugh all day long. It is great to go through the country with Lucie and Darrio. They`re easy company on a trip and we never have to wait for them, or constantly look out for washrooms or anything horrid like that.

Day 4: Approaching Puerto Montt

Sunday at 6 a.m. we got a wakeup announcement saying we were about to pass through the White Narrows (Angostura White) - 80 metres wide at its narrowest (we figured the boat had to be around 30 metres wide . . .). We slipped quickly into our clothes and out of our bunks and headed towards the bridge. Absolutely speechless from the beauty of it all. The captain and his second guided us through what looked like it was certain to have a Titanic ending without looking away from the water, just calling out headings to his assistant. We were meant to dock at around 9 am. But . . . after approaching the dock, there was too much wind. So we circled the harbour till about one o`clock. Trips to the bridge were cancelled, and the captain guided us towards a dock. With great pulling and shoving from tug boats, they got the ship tied up to the dock. Quite exciting, and apparently quite common. They were obviously late back to Puerto Montt for the next trip, and the next two sailings after that were cancelled. The main ship is being repaired, and they need this replacement for the "normal" run.

When we got to Lucie and Darrio`s house finally - much kissing by all and sundry at the arrivals terminal - Darios mum had prepared a meal for us: filled avocados and a cornmush cooked in corn husks. Delicious, but heavy - especially since we`d already eaten on the boat! (This is fun: the Chileans call meatloaf a German BBQ - that`s what we ate) The whole experience was like being in a film or TV show: Northern Exposure, eg, or something else that plays in Alaska, or in a goldrush place or something unreal. Tons of colours everywhere, a stove that has seen at least 100 years! and everywhere the sea and a howling wind. (It was so windy and the places are so makeshift, that Guy woke up one morning to a howling gale and saw the tin roof lift off over his head.)

After a stout lunch and a couple Pisco Sours, we took off that very afternoon (or rather evening - we were on Chilean time) for the park Torres del Paine (pie-nay), a distance of about 160 km. The road was there, but just. We forget what it is like to ride on unpaved roads, spoiled as we are in Europe and North America. There are MANY unpaved roads down here. We bumped along from one pothole to another, and finally, in the pitch dark, ended up in a hotel from some Klondike time warp. Very cabin-y, feeble windows you couldn't´t open because of the howling wind. Toilets that would flush, but not paper (if you see what I mean), all very casual and thrown together. But we slept, and woke to a great day.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Day 2-3: The Boat

The people have been so nice and friendly - almost as though they´re so glad anyone has come to see them so far away!
On Sunday, we flew to Puerto Montt to join Guy and Annie and the boat. We hooked up with them at the airport just as we had planned. We stayed at a lovely hotel - though the city was a dump. On Sunday we walked to a great fish restaurant right on - over - the water.
We dutifully went to the boat on Monday morning, only to hear that it would be delayed till 11 that night (it was supposed to leave at 4 p.m.). So instead of hanging around horrible Puerto Montt, we rented a car and went to see the Orsono volcano - the weather was incredible, and instead of the usual rain and strong winds, we had lovely sunshine. Jeff and I took a "collectivo" to the Budget office - great fun - it´s a small bus and slows down to about 30 KM for you to jump out at your stop - wherever that is! We drove up to Puerto Varas, which is 100 times prettier than Montt. It was founded by Germans, and many buildings look straight out of Bavaria. The volcano was spectacular, and the trip around the lake amazing. We started driving up the volcano towards what was promised to be a ski area. But the road was not finished, and the ski area not started. Still, we got a lot closer to the top.
We made it back for the boat, only to hear that once we were on board, we wouldn´t be leaving till 8 a.m the following day. There were loads of horses being loaded on (sad to see, since they woulddn´t be leaving the truck where they were packed in for 4 days) and the most amazing heavy equipment. The boat (called Puerto Eden) is fine. Not like a cruise ship, but an adequately equipped ferry. We have our own cabin, with Guy and Annie next door.

Three times a day we shuffle along in the galley area for OK to good meals, and pretty good wine. They organize films and talks on the area to pass the time. We usually don´t opt for those, but hang out on deck (well-padded against the wind, rain and cold). We watch out for whales, seals and penguins. We saw them all, but the sightings were few and far between. Still, the last time I saw a Blue Whale it was hanging in the Smithsonian Institution.

Jeff did see two films, because they were Chilean and probably the last chance to see them. One (Mi Mejor Enemigo - My Best Enemy) was about the almost war in Patagonia in 1973 (who knew?) and the other (Machuka) was about upper-lower class struggles in Pinochet`s Santiago. Both worth seeing.

They let passengers on the bridge except during docking and at night, which is pretty cool. We can see where we are, follow progress on the maps, check out the sonar and radar, etc. It´s also drier and warmer than outside.

Early the next morning we enter the open ocean part of the trip. We were warned, so we dutifully get up to take our seasick pills at 4 am. We don´t have much trouble, but many people do. The dining room is pretty empty, and we don't see Guy and Annie all day. They spent 20 hours in bed! That evening we entered the fjords again. The captain slowed down to a crawl so that we would reach the Angostura Inglesa (English Narrow) at daylight. It can't be traversed in the dark.

This was the day to visit Puerto Eden, a very remote village with the last pureblood Karawasek indians. There are 10-15 of them left, depending on which pamphlet you believe. One of them joined us there to travel to Santiago to work on a dictionary. He was one of 4 people who still speak the language fluently. It's hard to think of how they live out here, with one boat coming by every week, but no other contact (except for telephone, radio and Internet).

After Puerto Eden, we made a small detour to see the glaciar Pio XI. Magnificent! A blue wall spilling off the coast into the water. This is one of the few glaciars anywhere which is actually growing instead of receding. That makes it interesting as well as stirringly beautiful.