Sunday, December 28
17:01 – I’m sitting in soft sand, just finishing my dulce de leche ice cream and looking across the bay to the peninsula Valdez where I can just make out steep white cliffs plunging hundreds of meters down into the blue sea. The beach here is flatter, wide and muddy, and almost completely full of people sunbathing, playing soccer, and swimming. I walk along the sand until I get tired of the crowd, then make my way up to the sidewalk which is much quieter, even just a few meters from a packed beach. I listen to Neil Young as I stroll in and out of the shadows of low trees lining the street.
I spend a quiet afternoon in Puerto Madryn. The town seems nice and quiet but unremarkable – what I saw of it – and I think the main attraction is the nature preserve on the nearby peninsula. I didn’t have time or energy to take an excursion there today, so I contented myself today with a walk along the shore to an ecological museum. Afterwards I meet Caroline, a friendly French girl from my hostel, to swim in the ocean. The water is chilly and a little murky, but nice enough. It’s good to swim in the ocean and taste a little saltwater.
23:45 – I paint a little medallion given to me by the hostel owner. They’re making a mural here out of painted cards and using them to cover one of the walls in the stairwell. While I paint, an overly friendly Argentine guy tries every trick in the book to get me to kiss him, and I try every trick in my book to deflect his advances. Eventually he gets the message and goes off, sulking. I paint a little while longer before I crawl exhausted into bed to sleep off the rest of yesterday’s bus journey.
Monday December 29
9:49 – just a few more minutes to let my tablet charge, then I’m headed for the bus terminal. This is the big one: Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos, a trip of 19 hours, followed almost immediately by another trip of 12 hours from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia. I get the feeling that long bus journeys are a kind of rite of passage for backpackers. If that’s true, I’ll be more than qualified to join the ranks of the initiated by the time I reach Ushuaia.
I shop and pack my food carefully. Traveling as a gluten-sensitive person isn’t such a challenge if you have access to a kitchen or a choice of restaurants, but bus journeys can be tricky. The food provided on buses is almost never gluten free (it’s usually sandwiches) and this isn’t the kind of place where you can make a fuss because some bus company didn’t take your obscure dietary restriction into account. I can pack my own food, but that comes with its own set of problems – there aren’t a lot of foods available here that are compact, filling, cheap, don’t need to be refrigerated or cooked, and are also gluten free. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on gluten free bread were my staple when I was road tripping around the west. Power bars are a good option too, but hard to find here in Argentina. So for this journey I settled on enormous quantity of oranges (they fill half my small bag); my favorite brand of gluten free rice crackers; boiled eggs; dulce de leche; and a stoic resolve to meditate and think about philosophy if I run out of food before we get to Ushuaia.
11:19 – I spot what looks like sagebrush in the scrubby vegetation covering the flat plain we’re traversing. My brain almost tricks me into thinking I can smell it. The scenery here reminds me so much of parts of Nevada, and it makes me remember trips with friends or alone, smells of sagebrush, dust covering my car… Good memories, but they also make me a little sad. Will I ever live there again?
I secretly hope the bus will have to stop soon so I can hop out and smell the sage.
11:40 – I get my wish. We make an unplanned stop at Trelew, apparently to change buses. I don’t smell any sage, but I do meet a girl from California and a pair of twins from Italy named Elisa and Elena who are dressed exactly alike – same leggings, shoes, shirts, scarves, fanny packs, same haircut, same ponytail… After careful study, I see that Elisa’s earrings are little orange dice while Elena’s are silver beads. I wonder if they coordinated earrings too for their trip and just forgot to match today.
12:33 – after about an hour, we all realize that this wasn’t a quick stop to change to a different bus – we’re going to be sitting here for a while. Rumors fly – some people say the next bus is coming in 10 minutes, others talk to ticket agents who say nonchalantly that they lost contact with the bus hours ago and have no idea where it is. I think about the 3 hours’ time I have to make a connection in Rio Gallegos and feel the buffer zone of transit time slowly slipping away. All the other passengers on our original bus are stuck at the terminal too. It’s interesting to observe that no one is queuing at the bus counters to complain, yell at the employees, or demand upgrades or refunds. I think that sort of behavior is more common in the US, perhaps even the norm, but from what I’ve seen here, this sort of inconvenience is borne more with resignation than outrage. Sometimes the bus is late. Sometimes it doesn’t come. Sometimes the driver just forgets to turn on the radio. In many aspects of life here, there is less of a sense of entitlement to special treatment as regards customer service than in the US, where the slightest delay or abnormality can be met with disproportionate indignation and outrage. I think I like it better here, even if it means no one is plying me with free bus passes or seat upgrades for my trouble.
14:36 – the transfer bus finally arrives. I see the driver buying DVDs for the long bus ride from a street vendor, which I think is a good sign that this bus is the real thing – no more random stops to switch vehicles. Within a couple of hours we’re rolling past more low scrubby plains stretching out as far as I can see.
16:30 – one of the bus drivers distributes sandwiches packaged the way you get them on airplanes. I peel the bread apart and take as much as I can off the ham and cheese and fold them onto the rice crackers I brought. It’s not as filling as bread, but it’s enough.
18:07 – we pass a little gorge and I see that we’ve been traveling over a large plateau that rises maybe 400 meters above the surrounding countryside. This explains why it’s been hard to see the horizon, and why I kept feeling that we were passing through hills though the landscape is flat. As we pass the gorge I can see far, far into the distance, out to where the landscape fades into a grey blue before it meets the sky.
19:30 – we descend from the plateau into a country of low sandy hills covered in the eternal dusky green scrubby vegetation. Trees are scarce except where there’s groundwater in a low ditch. Ranch fences border the road and there are a few sheep here and there.
19:53 – the ocean?! I thought we were headed due west out into the plains! After we pass a few signs I see that we’re picking up passengers in a coastal town called Comodoro Rivadavia, surrounded by sculpted sandy cliffs that come down to meet the sea.
21:43 – I change seats to join the American girl and group of Italian travelers headed for Calafate. We talk and look out the window as the bus heads down the coast. This seaside road is beautiful, still dry and dusty like the plains we crossed before, but here with patches of sand and bunches of ocean grasses meeting the sapphire sea. The wind blows so strongly we can see it push the waves back as they roll in and kick up clouds of spray into the evening air. The sun begins to set and the clouds start glowing fluorescent orange and red as we make another stop in a coastal oil town.