Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Learning Spanish in Buenos Aires

If you're in BA and want some Spanish lessons, here's the place:

De Boca en Boca

My former Spanish tutor (and associates) have created this Web site and are creating their own Spanish school. Now that I'm back in BA, I'm taking some more lessons with my former teacher while I wait for my gear to get sent to me from Tacoma. He's fantastic. If you need to learn Spanish, you won't regret going to De Boca en Boca.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Change of Plans

On the way to El Chalten from El Calafate If you've been reading South American news, you may have seen that Patagonia has been getting some nasty weather. In addition to the impact of the eruption of Chaiten, this has served to put a real damper on the movement of vehicles, both airborne and those whose wheels are constantly in contact with terra firma. Let me bring you up to speed on what I've been doing and where I've gone. I put together a timeline of events by which to update my travel map and I'm feeling lazy, so I'm just going to use that timeline to update you, rather than writing a full-blown, fancy blog post.

18th — took bus at 8:00 AM from El Calafate to El Chalten
— arrived at El Chalten around noon and did day hike
— spent the night at Rancho Grande hostel

19th — woke up and did day hike
— at 5:00 PM, took bus back to El Calafate
— hung out at America del Sur Hostel, slept on sofa, and showered (at 3:00 A.M.)

20th — took bus at 4:00 AM to Río Gallegos
— arrived at about 8:00 AM
— left at 9:00 AM for Puerto Madryn
— arrived at Comodoro Rivadavia at about 9:00 PM
— got stuck here all night because of snow and road closures (guy in bus seat behind me on the bus was snoring, so I went into the station and slept on the floor—it was hard, but I slept a couple hours, went back into bus at 5:30 A.M. and slept a bit more)
— bought ticket to get from Puerto Madryn to Buenos Aires (decided I wanted to get away from this mess)

21st — left at 11:00 A.M. for Puerto Madryn
— arrived at Puerto Madryn at 6:00 PM
— left for Buenos Aires at 9:00 PM

22nd — arrived in Buenos Aires at 3:30 PM

Mt. Fitz Roy in El Chalten, Argentina As you can see, I didn't go to Bariloche, didn't hitchhike the Carretera Austral, and didn't spend more time in Patagonia. Multiple highways to Bariloche were closed (Bariloche had gotten about four feet of snow, I was told), the road north from El Chalten was closed (I was going to hitchhike that direction to get to the Carretera Austral), and things were a general mess.

So, here I am, back in Buenos Aires. I'm hoping to get my Brazil visa replaced and get all my stuff which had been stolen and An exciting bus ride to Puerto Madryn, our bus driver passing other traffic on a narrow, icy roadwhich I have now repurchased with insurance money mailed to me here from the States. I already saw a few of my old friends my first day here. I'll plan on spending some time with them and maybe even taking a few more Spanish classes with my old tutor to make use of my time here.

I hope to be out of here within less than two weeks. The plan is to visit northern Chile and Argentina—the Atacama desert and whatever else strikes my fancy—then continue north. I may visit some friends in São Paulo, but then I'll plow ahead with my planned course—Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, then down the ol' Amazon River.

Hiking toward Mt. Fitz Roy with the Andes in the backgroundMt. Fitz Roy and surrounding peaks One of my hiking buddies in El Chalten Mt. Fitz Roy and surrounding peaks The Andes The town of El Chalten    The Andes Waterfall near El Chalten Waterfall and stream near El Chalten  Mt. Fitz Roy and surrounding peaks

Buses stranded overnight at the station in Comodoro Rivadavia due to road closuresBetter weather as we head north toward Buenos Aires

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Update from El Calafate

Flamingos, nature reserve, El Calafate Two nights ago, a couple folks from England told me that there were some flamingos in the reserve close to the hostel, so I knew I had to try to shoot them before leaving. So, yesterday morning, I hiked down to the reserve, hopped over the closed gate, and shot some birds, despite the fact that my four-legged friend who had followed me from the hostel kept trying to chase them off.

I got back around noon and that gave me a late start getting out of town. I stuck my thumb out at 1:00 P.M., but it was 2:00 before I got a ride. Moreover, my ride—Daniel—could take me only to the place where highway 40 heads north to El Chalten. He kept going East to Río Gallegos. It didn't take long for me to realize I had made a potentially significant judgement in error. It was now mid-afternoon—the sun goes down by 6:00—it was really windy, it was really cold, there were hardly any cars going by, and I was in the middle of nowhere.

Southern Caracara, nature reserve, El Calafate I soon decided that I would catch the first ride that would take me to either El Chalten or back to El Calafate. Before long, Carlos, traveling around Patagonia for about a month on business for his company in Buenos Aires, picked me up and we headed back to El Calafate. My feet had to share the floor with three gas cans that he carries because of the sparseness of gas stations in these here parts. He gave me some cookies and we talked about the weather, both here and in other parts of Argentina, and about our travels. He agreed that things could've gotten nasty for me.

I was a bit sheepish walking back into the hostel after leaving only hours before, but they graciously took me back in. Carlos ended up staying here, too. He agreed with what I had told him—it's a wonderful hostel for a great price.

This morning, I got an earlier start. I figured more folks would be leaving a bit earlier in the day. Between 10:00 A.M. and 1:30 P.M., three cars pulled over. None of them was going to El Chalten. Being a wimp and not terribly dedicated to my cause, I headed back to the hostel. I was cold, hungry, and had to pee. If I were really a hard-core hitchhiker, I would've just peed at the side of the road. Granted, this isn't Rio de Janeiro, but I don't think anyone around here would've been terribly concerned.

A little while later, it started snowing.

I decided that I would rather feel like a failure temporarily than to keep standing next to the road freezing. I don't think here to El Chalten is a particularly high-probability route for hitchhikers. In the summer, my chances might have been better. As my good friend Brian T. would have advised me, I have given myself permission not to hitchhike this segment—I'm still not particularly happy about it, though. From El Chalten, I'll see how it looks.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Road Less Traveled

Sunrise in Río Grande When I began this trip, I decided that I wanted to visit smaller towns, talk to locals, and get to know the culture, the things that tourists don't really do. Well, thus far, I've been only partly successful. Staying at hostels, I've spoken mostly English since taking three weeks of Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires. Also, you don't meet too many locals at hostels. At the rate I've been going, I will never learn the language past a first-grade level. Something had to change.

I figured that if I'm stuck in a vehicle for hours on end with a local, I'll have no choice but to practice the ol' Español, unlike hanging out in a hostel or riding on a bus, where I can speak English or just not speak. Besides, 99% of travelers down here take buses everywhere, and I like being different. So, starting last Friday, I began hitchhiking. My first goal is Ushuaia to Santiago—fifteen-hundred miles, as the crow flies, and probably closer to two-thousand the way the Jaybird flies. I outlined my first jaunt, which took me from Ushuaia to Río Grande in another post, so I won't rehash that here, but let me tell you about the rest of my first leg, which took me from Ushuaia to El Calafate.

Hitchhiking, Day 2

Sunrise in Río Grande Leopoldo had told me to get up early and show up at YPF, the local gas station where cars and—more importantly—semis fill up in Río Grande. There, I could catch a ride with a trucker going to Río Gallegos. The lady at the hostel verified what he said, so I got up at an ungodly hour, and, for the first time on my trip, I saw the sunrise—it was almost exactly 9:00 A.M when its nearly six-thousand-degree-Kelvin surface peeked out over the Atlantic. The guy at the station said that I was too early. The truckers leave between 10:00 A.M. and 11:00 A.M., so, since I wasn't in a hurry, I just shot the sunrise for a few minutes.

I was standing near a truck that had probably a dozen cars on it, parked next to the VW dealer, across the street from the gas station. The driver got out of the truck to go into the cafe, and, as he passed, he made some comment to me about taking photos. I just smiled and nodded, as though I knew what he said.

After shooting the sun for a bit, I went into the cafe at the gas station to get something for breakfast while I waited. That cafe would become my best friend. When the friendly truck driver left the cafe, I pursued him outside. He was friendly before, so I figured I'd hit him up for a ride. He had driven the cars down from Buenos Aires for delivery here, to Río Grande, so he had to go all the way back to Buenos Aires, right through Río Gallegos—perfect. He told me he had to unload the cars and do some paperwork, but if I wanted to wait, I could go with him at 12:00 or 12:30. That sounded good to me, so I headed back into the cafe to read for a while. He told me he would have to swing into the station to fill up before leaving, so I couldn't miss him.

Reading a book in the YPF in Río GrandeJust past noon, I walked out to his truck to check in. He updated me on the situation. The paperwork was delayed and he wouldn't roll until 3:00 or 4:00. No problem, I still had over one-hundred pages left to read in my current book, Best Travel Writing 2006, so I went back inside and kept reading. I also ordered lunch—the beauty of being stuck in a cafe all day. To top it all off, the cafe had WiFi, so I did some work on my laptop—check mail, edit photos, surf, all the usual stuff.

I couldn't see his truck from the cafe, as it was obscured by the Volkswagen dealership, and not wanting to get left behind, I went out of the cafe at about 3:40 to get an angle where I could apprise the situation—i.e., make sure he was still there. The problem is that, to see something, there has to be some mass to reflect the photons of light, and, in this case, there was no such object. Photons were bouncing off the dealership, off rocks and gravel, off people, but not off of an empty car-carrying semi. I had just wasted six hours of my day sitting in a cafe. No problem. Could've been worse. If I'd been standing out in the freezing rain for six hours, then I would've really been annoyed. I was still rather annoyed. I will not quote myself here.

At this point, I walked up to a truck in which were sitting two caballeros. There was no trailer behind the tractor—they were probably just waiting for a load of products. Keep in mind, Río Grande is an industrial city. The government waived taxes in this province, so business here has boomed. I asked them what is the best way to hitchhike out of here. He said I should walk down the road a ways to the roundabout and go from there. That's the edge of town and everyone who leaves goes that way. I thought that sounded like a brilliant idea, so I set out.

I bumped into a girl walking along the sidewalk when I got near the roundabout and stopped her to verify that what I was up to was on target. She pointed out that there was another roundabout another ten minutes ahead and that was probably the one I wanted, so I continued.

Once I arrived, I decided that must be the spot, so I dropped my bags and stuck out my thumb. Within about twenty minutes, a pickup stopped and I asked if he was going to Río Gallegos. He said some stuff I didn't understand and waved for me to get in. I tried to make sure he was going to Río Gallegos, but he just waved me in. I threw my bag in the back of his pickup and got into the cab with my shoulder bag.

Jose Torres, born just over a half century ago, works in the petroleum industry for a French company called Total and was on the job. I didn't get exactly what he was doing at the time, but he was headed north, so I didn't really care too much. On the street, Jose wouldn't strike you as a genius, but he did own four homes and rented them out—one in Punta Arenas, Chile, and the other three in Río Grande. Jose moved from Chile, where he was born, decades ago for work here in the bustling industrial capitol of Tierra del Fuego Province. He was headed to the first of four borders on the way to Río Gallegos, where he apparently had some petroleum related business. He would drop me off at the border where it would be easy for me to get a ride with a truck. Sounded good to me.

Jose was almost impossible to understand. He talked fast and his enunciation was horrible—at least to a foreigner just learning the language. His Spanish was the craziest I had heard yet.

About half-way into the brief one-hour drive, Jose pulled over. I wondered if this was the part where he killed me and dumped my body after emptying my pockets. He walked around back. I figured he was just making sure my backpack was secure, but he didn't touch it. He took a big plastic bag out of the bed of his truck and set it on the ground next to the right rear wheel. He then took a few small cardboard boxes and other items out of his bed and stuck them in the bag—the bag had already been almost full. A couple cars drove by. Jose stood there. For a second, it looked like he was faking taking a leak, just to throw off the passersby. After the cars had sped past, he walked back around to his door, got in, and we left, the bag sitting on the side of the road behind us. I didn't ask.

We arrived at the border and I thanked Jose for the lift. I went inside the usual customs building and handed my passport to the border agent. No problem. Then I went back outside to wait for my next ride. Trucks and cars came trickling through. After asking probably a half-dozen truckers if they had room for a passenger and being rejected, I asked the border guard who was outside what the deal was. All the trucks had empty passenger seats. He explained to me that the companies insured only the drivers and if there were an accident and the passenger were killed, the families could sue the driver. The drivers had a reasonable aversion to carrying strangers.

Thankfully, a younger driver pulled in and I convinced him to take me. I explained to him that I had been asking drivers to take me and had kept getting "no" as an answer, despite the trucks having free passenger seats. He told me that we probably wouldn't make it to Río Gallegos that night because the border crossings close at 11:00 P.M. I said that wasn't a problem, because at least I'd be on my way to Río Gallegos.

I was excited to be moving again and to be in the cab of a big truck for the first time—it's a nice view from up there. Diego, like Jose, was tough to understand. When speaking to Leonardo, if I didn't understand something, he would repeat it and even use alternate words that I would be more likely to comprehend, besides the fact that he spoke more slowly and intelligibly—I think he knew that he had to speak on a lower level to be able to communicate with me. Leonardo and I discussed the presidential race in the U.S., the weather, and some topics about local things. With Jose, and now with Diego, I was a bit lost—the conversations were much more limited. I did catch a few things, however. Diego has been driving trucks for seven years. He lives in Buenos Aires in a house with his wife and his daughter, who just turned one only days before. He also listens to all kinds of music. He introduced me to some new Latin music. I'm always after a new album for my Latin music collection, and now I'll be picking up a few more.

The drive between Río Grande, Argentina and Río Gallegos, Argentina, is a tough one. Here's the sequence: cross the Argentina border, drive a short distance, cross the Chile border, drive on rough dirt and gravel road for a couple hours (in Chile now), hit pavement (finally!) and drive a while longer, stop and wait for the ferry, get on ferry for forty-five minutes, drive some more, cross Chile border, drive a short distance, cross Argentina border, drive another hour. Voilà! You're in Río Gallegos! Keep in mind, I did this same thing in the opposite direction in a big tour bus when going to Ushuaia from Puerto Natales.

That's the easy way to do it. The hard way is showing up at the second-to-the-last border crossing after 11:00 P.M. Since Diego and I left the first border crossing around 7:00 P.M., we didn't make it to the one after the ferry until late—they were closed. This despite the fact that Diego is a bit more aggressive than the other truckers—we were zipping around sharp corners on a washboarded, dirt road, and we passed several other trucks (I must admit that for a good part of the trip on the dirt, I was contemplating jack-knifing in the back of my mind).

For a trucker, showing up after the border is closed isn't a big deal. They just park, crawl into the sleeper, pull a blanket over themselves and sleep until around 8:45 the next morning so they're ready to get their passport stamped when the office opens at 9:00. In my case, I sat in the passenger seat for about eight hours and nearly froze to death. On the upside, I did get to listen to Ricardo Arjona's album Quién dijo Ayer about fifty times, as Diego likes to let the stereo play quietly while he sleeps. Thankfully, I really liked it, so that helped pass the time. I swore never again to allow myself to endure such discomfort and bitingly cold temperatures. It was a long, miserable, sleepless night.

Hitchhiking, Day 3

Stopped just shy of Río Gallegos by protestorsWe made it through the border checkpoints with no problem and were rolling along nicely when we saw smoke in the distance and vehicles parked on the highway. I thought there had been a bad accident, but soon discovered that it was merely petroleum workers protesting low wages. In the States, workers who want more money either go to the boss and simply ask or do this thing called striking where none of the workers shows up for work until their company agrees to increase their wages. In Argentina, the workers simply pile old tires across the road and block traffic. Then, they scatter other tires along the side of the road and set them on fire, creating trails of black smoke stretching across the countryside for miles—a very effective technique for getting your company to increase your pay, I'm sure. The problem was, I'm not sure where their payroll department was—probably at work. Interestingly, the police didn't do anything about the roadblock. Two cops in bright orange vests were just pacing back and forth near the scene.

Diego boiling some water for his mateDiego took this opportunity to light his gas stove—in the cab of the truck—to boil himself some hot water for his mate. He didn't use a traditional gourd, but I guess that's secondary. Also, for the first time, I saw someone take their yerba—the plant used for mate, think coffee grounds—from a sealed pouch not unlike that in which coffee comes. Although I hadn't seen it before, I suspect this is a common way to buy one's yerba.

A disgruntled motorist protesting the protestors near Río GallegosBefore long, the protestors decided to allow traffic through. I was anxious to see if I could make it to El Calafate today, so I was relieved to get rolling again. Diego dropped me off partway into town and said I should—what else—look for a ride at a gas station/cafe where trucks were filling up. I offered to buy Diego breakfast, but he declined. I think he just wanted to boogie. I thanked him, grabbed my bags, and hopped out of the tall cab to the concrete far below. He pulled away and I walked across the road to the station. I asked a couple truckers there about getting a ride. They said the best thing to do would be to wait at the police checkpoint on the outskirts of town. This worked before, so it sounded like a good idea.

Looking for my next rideI went to the bathroom, got a quick bite to eat, and set off down the road. After maybe a kilometer, there was a shoulder where cars could pull over, so I began to exercise my thumb. One guy pulled over and gave me a ride about a kilometer. That was one step closer to the checkpoint. The problem was that the trucker had told me that the checkpoint was about twenty klicks away—I still had a ways to go before even getting started—and El Calafate was 300 kilometers away.

I was getting on a roll. It didn't take long for someone else to pull over—a family of four in an old Ford pickup truck. The husband told me they were going part way to El Calafate—about half way, as it turned out—and would be willing either to drop me at the police checkpoint or to take me as far as they were going. He said it was a tossup as to which would be better. Based on my new philosophy of going as far as possible whenever possible, I decided to go for it. He said it would be about a one-hour ride.

My ride from Río GallegosMy memory is short. After a few hours of riding in the back of this pickup truck, I was frozen virtually as solid as an ice cube. My feet were numb. My thighs were numb. I couldn't take it anymore. I was about to jump. I kid you not. Hopefully, my end would be a quick one. I had to keep reminding myself that the longer we drove, the closer I got to my destination. Again, there's a sunny lining in every cloud—or at least in some of them. In this case, the old Ford had problems. Not long after we started out, a long line of cars formed behind us. I figured we were just following someone who was driving slowly—I was facing the rear, so it wasn't immediately apparent to me what the deal was. After a semi passed us, I turned around and saw that we were the slow car in front.

Every so often, this old pickup would slow down for no apparent reason, almost like it had just run out of gas. Then, once it was about to come to a complete stop, it accelerated and kept plodding along, like nothing had happened. After maybe a half hour, we pulled over. The man got out of the truck, grabbed a combination wrench out of his toolkit in the bed, walked around to the front, popped the hood, and began to fiddle. I could hear the idle changing. I guess he had just improved something. Not sure.

My room in La EsperanzaWe set out again. After another twenty minutes, or so, we climbed into some hills. Toward the top, the truck began to give up the ghost. This time it wasn't going to be able to keep going. He pulled it off onto the shoulder just before we came to a complete stop, the engine resting in silence. I was elated. I could stand up and get the blood flowing in my extremities again. I could arrange my body so the sun was striking it. Hopefully, I could thaw out some before we continued. After we were parked on the shoulder, the husband tried restarting the engine—no dice. I wondered if it was flooded.

The husband stepped out of the cab, grabbed his toolbox out of the bed and walked forward again, popping the hood, and fiddling with the engine for a few minutes. Then he tried restarting it. As the engine cranked, I wondered if it would start before the battery died. Before that terrible moment came, he quit trying. He stepped out of the cab again, but this time crawled under the bed and began—well, I figured he was removing the fuel filter to clean it out. Just a guess. Whatever it was, it must've worked—or the flooded engine had had time to recuperate on its own. Regardless of the reason, on the next attempt, the engine came back to life. Great! Now I get to freeze again!

Back on the road, headed West, more freezing, more anticipation of the end, nay, longing for the end.

I know this will come as a shock, but, after a nice long run of probably a half hour, the truck sputtered and we pulled over yet again.

The kind Argentine señor opened his door and came around to the back of the truck, to the passenger side this time, reached into the bed, and pulled a bottle of Coke out of a plastic bag that had been next to where I was sitting. He passed it into the cab to his wife. She put her hand out the window a minute later and handed me a sandwich she had just made—ham and cheese. The bread tasted fresh. The sandwich was followed by a plastic child's cup filled with my favorite beverage. I thanked her profusely.

I paced back and forth in the bed over a distance of a mere few steps, but it felt good to move. I almost spilled the Coke due to the fact that I was shaking. After I finished the sandwich and Coke, I hopped out of the bed onto terra firma, hoping my abused legs wouldn't collapse under me. I returned the empty cup to the wife, thanked her again, and declined a refill. Hands in pockets, I took this chance to walk around a bit more and thaw as much as possible before resuming the torture.

I asked the husband how much farther—twenty kilometers, said he. Remember, he had said this trip would be about an hour. I desperately hoped his estimating had improved over the last two hours.

Within about a half hour, we arrived in La Esperanza—an aptly named destination, considering my condition. I thanked the husband and wife for everything they had done. He said the gas station—YPF—would be a good spot to find a ride. After spending only a few minutes there, I decided I would be better off walking about half a klick to the road leaving the tiny town in the direction of El Calafate. By this time, I had warmed up, but after about an hour of looking for a lift, I was getting cold again, despite the fact that the sun was out. I decided enough was enough.

I walked back to the few buildings defining the town center. I had hoped one of them was a hotel, and it was. My plan was to take a hot shower, get some dinner, and get a good night's sleep. I had one to make up.

After getting a room, I cranked up the gas heater and crawled into bed with all my clothes on. I would wait for the room temp to rise to a comfortable level before showering. It was 5:30 P.M. Although I woke up a couple times, I was pretty much in a coma until 10:30. I got up then and walked over to the restaurant that was a part of the hotel—the restaurant and rooms were in three different buildings. I went back to my room with a sandwich and bottle of Coke and worked on my computer until about 1:15 A.M. A shower could wait until morning.

Hitchhiking, Day 4

El Calafate, Lake Argentina, the Andes I got up at around 9:00, not wanting to get too terribly late a start, while potential rides came and went. After a wonderful shower, I packed my bag, paid for my room, and headed back to my spot. Within only twenty minutes, or so, a small Peugeot pulled over. The driver got out while still on his cell phone. In between words, he asked, "El Calafate?" I replied in the affirmative. He had to throw a thing or two into the hatchback space from the back seat to make room for my backpack. There was an older man in the passenger seat, so I got in back. Within sixty seconds, we were rolling.

After he got off the phone, I thanked him for the ride. He lived in El Calafate, and, not surprisingly, worked in the tourism industry—El Calafate is, after all, merely a launching point for exploring a small section of the Andes, specifically Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park.

This particular hitchhiking segment was interesting because it had been quite cold during the night and the roads had ice on them. We passed two vehicles that were no longer on the road. One, a pickup truck, had rolled and was upside down next to the road. The other, a mid-size van was also on the side of the road. It didn't appear damaged, but did appear to have involuntarily left the roadway based on its location. What makes this interesting is that we had been driving at about 170 kph. In English, that's just over 100 mph. Although his Peugeot seemed to handle quite well, I was still concerned about making it to El Calafate.

After passing the second vehicle off to the side, we slowed down some. I felt a bit better about matters then.

Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park, near El Calafate, Argentina Long story short, we made it to El Calafate, all bodies in tact. We dropped off the old guy, I hopped in front, then we drove to another part of town, and parked near what I presume was the driver's work place. He pointed me toward a building only a hundred meters away, or so, and told me I could get information on hostels there. I guess he knew what kind of place I wanted to stay in!

The people at the info center gave me a map and marked it with several dots. I specifically had asked for a hostel that had WiFi. The first place I went to was expensive, didn't come with breakfast, and didn't have WiFi. I walked probably less than a kilometer to another place. By now, I was toasty, as my pack is heavy, and I'm fat and out of shape. I walked into America del Sur Hostel and asked if they had WiFi. I told the gal at the front desk—Mariana—that's all I cared about. She told me that they do have WiFi. She then added that the price is $3,000.

In reality, the price is only 30 pesos—about $10—and includes breakfast. They also have WiFi, my main prerequisite. It's a very nice hostel and has an incredible view over Lake Argentina and the Andes. The staff is wonderful—both knowledgeable and super nice. I highly recommend this hostel if you're coming to El Calafate.

The End, Hitchhiking, Phase One

Sunset over the Andes, as viewed from the hostel, America del Sur Well, I did it. I made it alive and in one piece—albeit a bit the worse for wear—from Ushuaia to El Calafate a dedo (by finger). After a freezing night in a semi and a couple freezing cold hours in the back of a Ford, I now have a cold. I'm coughing and my nose is running. I've been taking it pretty easy here, sleeping in some, and just trying to get some extra rest—at least aside from going on a little trek out on Perito Moreno yesterday. I think I'm getting a bit better now, and am preparing to leave for El Chalten. My first hitchhiking exploit was a success and I look forward to continuing the push toward my first big goal—Santiago. Wish me luck!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Goodbaia, Ushuaia

Tierra del Fuego National Park Ushuaia, Argentina, is on the island of Tierra del Fuego near the bottom of the continent of South America. It claims to be the world's southernmost city, although Puerto Williams also makes that claim. Puerto Williams has barely 2,000 inhabitants, including navy personnel, so—well, you can make up your own mind. Puerto Williams is located a few miles to the southeast, just across the Beagle Channel.

I stayed at Antarctica Hostel, owned by a fine chap named Cristian who also owns limehouse Youth Hostel in BA. This was the nicest hostel I've seen. Chris built it from scratch, so it ought to be nice. The staff was excellent, too.

During my eight days in Ushuaia, I visited the prison museum, hiked in Tierra del Fuego National Park, went horseback riding, hiked up a hill behind the town for a non-existent view, and took a boat trip out in the Beagle Channel. I also did a fair amount Tierra del Fuego National Park of relaxing in the hostel, both on my laptop and with a book.

Just a few years after Ushuaia was incorporated, the government began to send hard-core criminals there. The initial inmates were chosen because they had certain skills, so that they could build up infrastructure prior to the arrival of your average, unskilled, murderer. The prison is now used as a museum. I spent four hours wandering its cold, concrete halls. It houses myriad displays of interest, like the history of the prison and its inmates, the history of the railroad they built, and other, unrelated things, like maritime history, and a few art galleries. There was also an original, untouched, Tom in Tierra del Fuego National Park prison wing—very cold, rundown, and spooky. Cost was 35 pesos—about $12. It's located about one block from Antarctica Hostel.

The staff at Antarctica Hostel can arrange a variety of outings, including a horseback ride, an off road adventure, a boat trip, or a trip to the park for some hiking. I got picked up in front of the hostel in a mini-van and taken to the park for a ride on the railroad that the prisoners built to haul lumber from the forest back into the town. It used to run all the way between town and the park, but now is just in the vicinity of the park. The ride lasts about and hour and has some informative dialogue piped over speakers. It also passes through some Tierra del Fuego National Park beautiful scenery. After the train ride, I hiked around for a few hours, taking photos of the park. The van took me back to the hostel later in the afternoon. There are various times of the morning you can catch the van, and it leaves the park at several different times in the afternoon. Nice flexibility. The round-trip ride cost 40 pesos—about $13. The purchase of the train ticket covered park entry. It's 20 pesos one-way, and 50 pesos round-trip. Not sure about the math they're using.

A few days later, I got picked up in front of the hostel for some horseback riding. I went on the four-hour ride—rides of two, four, and seven hours are available. It started Tierra del Fuego National Park outside the park and went into the southeast corner. We galloped several times and ended up riding along the water front after coming down out of the hills, where we had some gorgeous views overlooking Ushuaia. They fed us a sandwich and offered us some coffee at the half-way point. The four-hour ride cost 210 pesos—around $70—and included the ride to and from the horse parking lot—er, ranch.

I met and hung out with some great guys in Ushuaia. Back in Puerto Natales, I had met Ezra and Pablo, brothers who were originally from Utah, but currently living in New Tierra del Fuego National Park York. They had hiked "the W" in Torres del Paine and met Tom, from England, during that hike.

Unbeknownst to me, Tom had come to Ushuaia and was on the boat trip in the Beagle Channel with me, but we didn't meet at that time—we only saw each other. The next day, we were on the same van going into Tierra del Fuego National Park, recognized each other, and ended up doing some hiking together. I learned that Tom knew Ezra and Pablo from Torres del Paine, so that was a fun connection. Tom and I had lunch the following day, but didn't see each other again, unfortunately. He's a lawyer and his girlfriend works for the UN. He'll be spending his time working in Holland for the next couple years where his girlfriend works, in The Hague, but he might even move to the States Ezra & Pablosometime down the road. He clued me in on a great train ride from D.C. to New Orleans that sounds great. He had taken it while visiting the States previously. Made me want to do a bit more traveling back home!

I stayed in the same room as Ezra and Pablo back at Erratic Rock and we discussed the possibility of taking a boat around Cape Horn. I was excited to find some other guys who wanted to take that same trip. Unfortunately, that didn't work out.

After Puerto Natales, they traveled to El Calafate and El Chaltan, then came to Ushuaia. We spent dinner together at a nice parrilla in Ushuaia our last night there. Sons of Mexican immigrants, Ezra and Pablo split their time growing up between Mexico and the States, their parents having obtained dual-citizenship before the kids came to be. Their parents were devout Mormons in Mexico and carried that on into the States. Laura from Holland - Horseback riding in Tierra del Fuego National Park Now, however, only the mom attends church, with the dad going only occasionally to support her when she sings in the choir or gives a speech—the normal method of "preaching" within the Mormon church.

"All religions are flawed," posits Ezra. "I'll definitely raise my kids in the Mormon faith," chimes in Pablo, although he doesn't disagree with his older brother. "All religions basically teach morality," Ezra continues. He figures it's not that important which one you choose. "It seems pretty harsh for God to condemn someone for picking the wrong one." We all agree that, although we feel disappointed by our  respective religions, we would never switch. I add that I got sick of years of jargon and the regurgitation of the same thing endlessly. It didn't feel real to me.

Horseback riding in Tierra del Fuego National ParkI felt at home with Ezra and Pablo. It was sad to say goodbye. Their trip will end in twelve days. Ezra will move from Buffalo to New York City to begin a new job in finance, and Pablo will finish college in upstate New York. I wish them the best.

Today began a new phase of my trip. I got up at my usual leisurely time of get-up-sometime-after-I-wake-up. After showering, I fixed my usual breakfast of four scrambled eggs and a bowl of cereal. I topped it off with a few swigs of Coke. You  can't beat Coke for breakfast. If any of you reading this are investors, you should buy Coke. I am single handedly causing a rise in their stock price. Paying for my room and packing my bag followed. I said goodbye to Chris and Mariana—one of the staff—and grabbed a taxi to the outskirts of town. I was shortly reminded why I'm not in sales—I can't take rejection.

My current goal is to hitchhike from Ushuaia to Santiago. After that, we'll see. There are two roads leaving Ushuaia. They merge into one at the edge of town. The taxi Horseback riding in Tierra del Fuego National Parkdropped me just past that point, at a police checkpoint. I dropped my pack and my shoulder bag and stuck out my thumb as the first vehicle came through the check  point. Nothing. I figured I'd better get used to this. Chris, the hostel owner, shared with me that he once waited for a ride for sixteen hours (!) when hitchhiking. Within minutes, a semi pulled over. I grabbed my shoulder bag and briskly walked up to his cab. I opened the passenger side door, only to find out that he was just going a few klicks down the road.

Back at my spot, I continued my ritual. Take off my sunglasses to appear more friendly, stick out my thumb, lower arm, replace sunglasses. After about a half hour, a silver midsize pulled over.

Horseback riding in Tierra del Fuego National ParkMy first goal had to be Río Grande or Río Gallegos, both within striking distance of Ushuaia. El Calafate would be way beyond the realm of reason.

Leopoldo was going to Río Grande.

Leopoldo is a middle-aged lawyer who lives in Ushuaia. Divorced, he has two daughters attending college in Córdoba, where he got his law degree. One of them is studying law, like dad, and the other, medicine, like mom. Every weekend he drives to Río Grande, a couple hours from his home in Ushuaia, to visit his girlfriend of thirteen years. He says he likes it this way. He explains, "It's much less complicated," making me laugh.

When I got in the car, he was playing a CD of Strauss. Very nice. Leopoldo enjoyed his tranquility. I complimented him on his choice of music. With this, he raised a finger in the air and got a little excited. He ejected the classical aluminum disc and grabbed another CD off the dashboard. Karen Carpenter. "There's a kind of hush all over the world, all over the world you can hear the sounds of lovers in love. So listen Tierra del Fuego National Parkvery carefully, get closer now and you will see what I mean (bu-duh-bu-pa), it isn't a dream (bu-duh-bu-pa)..." Leopoldo definitely loves Karen Carpenter. Ya gotta admit, though, it's hard not to melt at that buttery smooth, angelic sound.

After maybe an hour, we pulled in to a small town on the banks of Fagnano Lake called Tolhuin, named indigenously, and containing a mere 9,000 inhabitants. Parking at a panderia—a store that sells bread—we entered, and Leopoldo bought a shot of coffee for himself and, against my grumblings, a Coke and sandwich for me.

Along the roadside were signs every so often with some number of kilometers printed on them. It started with around 3,050 km near Ushuaia and the numbers shrank with the passing rotations of the odometer. If you followed the signs until you got to zero, you'd be in Buenos Aires. I will eventually end up going more than 3,000 km, but thankfully that won't be for a while.

Southern Caracaras in Tierra del Fuego National ParkOn the road again, it wasn't an hour more before we arrived in Río Grande. As we pulled into town, Leopoldo pointed out a gas station—YPF, common down here, sorta like BP at home—where trucks refuel and said that's where I should look for a ride in the morning. A few blocks farther down the road, we pulled up in front of a hostel. Although not as nice as Antarctica Hostel—and without breakfast—they still charged forty pesos. I'll live with it.

A few hundred kilometers farther north, a bunch of Spanish I didn't understand, some extraordinary countryside and guanacos, some good music, and a free lunch. I'd say my first day of hitching was a success.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Update from Ushuaia

Port of Ushuaia My original plan was to take a boat trip to or around Cape Horn, since that's the bottom of the continent, and I can't really see coming all this way, and not going all the way, but I'm a bit late. The tourist season is over and so I'll have to call it quits here—almost at the bottom, but not quite.

By some accounts, Ushuaia is the world's southernmost city, but by others, the award goes to Puerto Williams, in Chile, not far from here. Regardless, I'm pretty close to the bottom. Ushuaia is on the southern coast of the island of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, and its original claim to fame was when the Argentine government began to use it to store serious criminals at the beginning of the 20th century. It's an island, after all, and so, like Alcatraz, is a tough spot from which to remove one's self—perfect for bad guys.

Walking back from Martial Glacier The ride here from Puerto Natales, Chile, took about thirteen hours and cost 28,000 pesos, or about $62. I got on a bus at 7:30 in the morning about two blocks from Erratic Rock and we headed South. About two hours later, we met a bus coming from Punta Arenas. They were pulled over on the shoulder, and the bus I was on crossed over and pulled off onto the same (left) shoulder, nose to nose with the other tour bus—kind of funny. Those of us going to Ushuaia (or somewhere along the way) got off our bus and got on the bus coming from Punta Arenas. The bus we had been on continued on to Punta Arenas.

We drove East to Río Gallegos, then South to the Strait of Magellan, which we crossed in a ferry, putting us on the island of Tierra del Fuego. Before reaching the ferry, we had been driving on a gravel road for a few hours. The gravel continued for a couple more hours. A view of the city from the edge of town with a fisheye lens Eventually, we cashed out of Chile. A few minutes more on the bus put us at the entrance to Argentina—border crossings in Latin America are called frontiers. Entering Argentina put us back on pavement. The day all blurs together, but after not much longer, we pulled into a bus station and those of us continuing to the bottom got on smaller buses—twenty-passenger vans. Think going to the airport. As we arrived in Ushuaia, we stopped on a couple different side streets to drop people off in front of their houses. It was sort of amusing and we discussed this amongst ourselves in the van as we bopped around the city. After a few such excursions, we pulled over next to a curb in a nondescript part of town. I don't think Ushuaia has a downtown. This may have been a main street, though. Not much of a bus station, but we had arrived.

Ushuaia is definitely in a nice setting I'm staying at Antarctica Hostel and it's one of the nicest hostels I've ever occupied. The showers are huge—showers at some hostels are hardly big enough to turn around in and the shower curtain just ends up sticking to you—the rooms are nice and have heated floors, there's a huge common area, WiFi, a large and fully equipped kitchen, and a great staff. Chris, the owner, is from Buenos Aires and initially spent a few years down here getting things going and doing much of the remodeling work himself, but now spends more time back in BA with his new wife than he does down here. His staff handles things quite nicely, however, and will help you with anything you need, including ideas of where to go and what to do and see.

Ushuaia just after sunset They booked me on a boat tour with Patagonia Adventure Explorer and it was really great. We toured out into the Beagle Channel for around four hours and motored around the main lighthouse that guides boats coming into Ushuaia. We also saw Cormorants (think flying penguins), Fur Seals, and Sea Lions. What a kick! Made me want to go to the Galapagos—we'll see about that. Anyone have a short term software project they need done?

The tour cost one-hundred-thirty-five pesos—around $45—plus a six-peso tax at the port—another $2. The weather wasn't the best, but could've been much worse. It rained for a few minutes during the trip, but everyone happened to be inside the boat at that point. Hot drinks (coffee and hot chocolate) and cookies were provided and were much appreciated after being out in the cold. The mug warmed the hands and the liquid warmed the body. We also stopped on another island and did a brief guided wilderness trek.

Contemplating life at sunrise Speaking of which, the guide was outstanding. As we putted along with the Fur Seals following the boat, leaping out of the water, and as we hovered around the rock covered with wildlife, he explained in gross detail the genus, species, family, and physical details of the creatures we were spying. Gave me horrible flashbacks of high school. At least I think I must have studied some of this stuff back then. Now that I think of it, I probably didn't study it too much, although the teacher may have tried teaching it to me. The words genus, family, and species do ring a bell, but not much more. I guess the difference is that I love learning stuff now, whereas I wasn't much into learning when I was in school. Odd how that works.

The tour guide showing us some details of Patagonia during the boat tour Another thing I should mention. There was a rock which formed a small island jutting out of the water. It was chock full of the Fur Seals and Sea Lions. The smell on the upwind side of the rock was not the same as the smell on the downwind side. I'll leave it at that.

Yesterday, I got a cab ride up to a ski lift in the Martial Mountains behind the city, and hiked, slipped, and slid my way up to the top of the lift—the hike was on snow and ice—where I got a stunningly disappointing view of the city, surrounded by Beagle Channel and myriad mountains. Almost shockingly, I made it back down to the bottom of the lift without falling. Old tennis shoes aren't really the ticket when walking downhill on ice.

Lighthouse in the Beagle Channel I walked back down the mountain road and came across an excellent viewpoint about halfway down. I could see almost the entire town along with the water and surrounding mountains. Then, when I got to the upper edge of town, maybe a mile farther along, I walked right by—er, stopped at—a really nice plateau next to some big building, overlooking the entire town. Super duper view.

So, here's my travel tip. If you want to hike up to a glacier, get a cab ride to Martial Glacier (bottom of the chair lift) and hike up to the glacier. If you just want a great view of the city in its setting, have the taxi take you only about halfway up the road to the glacier and drop you off at the viewpoint. The cabbie should know what you're talking about. Then snap your shots, enjoy the view, Sea Lions and Fur Seals chilling out and walk back down to the city. At the edge of town, on the right side of the street, hop over into the clearing—assuming some new building hasn't been stuck there—and get some more great shots of the beautiful scene. Then, make your way back through town to Antarctica Hostel, to a restaurant of your choice, to the waterfront, or just wander aimlessly, investigating a cool, new city.

I'm still planning a couple more outings while here—taking the world's southernmost train, and visiting the prison museum. I'll let you know how those go. Then I'm off on an entirely new adventure—hitchhiking from here to Santiago. At least that's the idea. We shall see about that.