Ushuaia: Day 3

2 January 2015:
9:23 – seven minutes until I’m supposed to meet Diego, a couchsurfer from Ushuaia whom I’m meeting for a hike today, and the bus company’s office still hasn’t opened. I’m going to have to leave to go meet him and return together to buy tickets for Puerto Natales.

10:15 – Diego and I wait for a while decide that the office isn’t open today. He very helpfully calls a few travel agencies around town who can make bus reservations, trying to help me plan a route to Puerto Natales in Chile tomorrow. One company in town has places available. On the walk over I tell him about changing my plans and heading to Puerto Natales in Chile instead of El Calafate in Argentina, and how a friend convinced to go to the Torres del Paine national park to hike. “Estoy emocionante!!” I’m excited!

11:24 – buying bus tickets has taken an unusually long time, so we ditch our original plans to hike a summit in the national park and decide to walk to the glacier closer to town instead. Along the way he tells me about his work in casinos and in the national park.

14:38 – we reach the bottom edge of the glacier, which is covered in snow and looks pretty much just like all the other patches of snow on the mountain. It’s been snowing for about half an hour and the wind is fierce. We’ve climbed 800 meters in the past couple of hours, staying warm with the effort but feeling the bite of the wind through our jackets when we stop for food or pictures. Ushuaia is bitterly cold today – only about 6 degrees centigrade. Though I dislike being cold in general, it feels kind of nice after about eight months of summer temperatures. Somehow it didn’t really feel like January before.

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The views of the mountains are beautiful. Wild, hardy mountain grasses and mosses line the ascent. The glacier begins just above the vegetation line. Further up, broad slate-line rocks cover the peaks of the mountains. When I turn around, I can see the majority of the town of Ushuaia and the bay laid out below.

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22:01 – I spend another slightly uncomfortable evening with my Couchsurfing hosts. We eat dinner together after a little while and I give them a thank you drawing, alfajores, and a magnet in the shape of Nevada as thank you presents. It’s a shame I never managed to connect with them, but I decide not to overthink it. Sometimes it’s just bad luck with Couchsurfing.

I’ll be up at 5 tomorrow to catch my bus to Puerto Natales.

Ushuaia: Day 2

1 January 2015:
14:20 – I pause to eat hard boiled eggs and raisins on a little stone wall holding up the trail. I can’t stay long – the wind is blowing now and even with my down jacket I get chilly quickly. As soon as I start moving again I’ll shed layers the way I did at the start of this hike, a walk of a few kilometers along the edge of a bay that extends into the Tierra del Fuego national park. I’m within sight of a clear, turquoise bay lined with little flowering bushes and a variety of trees – I think aspen or beech, mostly, and some firs. The dark earth is lightly covered in a bed of yellow oval-shaped leaves from the fall and dead branches. There’s not much undergrowth in the park so the woods have a pleasant open feeling.

My hands start to get numb and I move on. The lake I’m heading for is still a few kilometers away.

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14:45 – I’m waiting for the bus back to Ushuaia from the national park. While I wait I sketch the snow-capped mountains on the other side of the lake. A man stops and shyly asks if he can take a photo of my drawing.

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I’m loitering by the parking lot when I spot an enormous black bird of prey circling the lake with slow, powerful wingbeats. Its wingspan must be nearly two meters wide. Its head is white and after a few minutes I realize that what I thought was the sun shining on its back is actually white feathers lining its shoulders. It’s a condor – not a rare animal to see in the park but an exciting spot nonetheless. It circles majestically, and conveniently, in front of a peak called “el condor”. The bus arrives just as the bird disappears from view.

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23:56 – I’m walking back from the bar where I met a friend from the states to get some advice on hiking Torres del Paine. The sun has just barely set, and the sky is still light in the west – it’s nearly midnight! The longest day of the year was just a couple of weeks ago and there are only a few hours of true darkness at this time of year.

Back at my host’s house, I’m a little uncomfortable again. Couchsurfing is often a gamble : sometimes you connect and make a friend for life, other times it’s just a bit awkward or unremarkable. I’m still surprised at how very difficult it is for me to converse with my hosts. All three of them work in the tourist industry in Ushuaia, so I thought it would be easy for us to talk, especially as my Spanish is steadily improving, and I assume they’re used to talking to foreigners – but I can barely understand them when they talk to me and not at all when they talk to each other. There’s a skill to knowing how to slow down, speak clearly, and use short sentences when you talk to someone who’s not fluent in your language, and for whatever reason, these guys don’t have that skill. I don’t blame them for it, though it does surprise me. Maybe they’ve never hosted someone who doesn’t speak Spanish well before. In any case, our interactions are strained and awkward. I do my best to be a good guest in spite of the language barrier.

Ushuaia: Day 1

December 31, 2014:

10:31 – sitting by the bay in Ushuaia waiting to board a boat. Marco, one of my Couchsurfing hosts, had an extra space on a boat tour he leads daily that goes through the Beagle Channel. I look out across the clear water to the green forested slopes of the steep mountains where they plunge into the sea.

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The boat tour takes us towards some of the islands in the bay, first to a small island where there’s a colony of sea lions. I’ve seen sea lions before, at the wharf in San Francisco and in Cabo Polonia in Uruguay, but never so close. The sides of the island are so steep that the prow of our boat nearly touches the rock next to a sleeping animal. We’re maybe three meters away from them. Looking back now, I’m surprised I couldn’t smell them, but at the time I was enchanted at being so close and didn’t think about smells. They lie in heaps piled on top of each other, snorting and burping and sometimes snarling at one another. Our guide tells us that most of them are female and most are pregnant. We take photos in silence to avoid disturbing them while they sleep.

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The weather improves steadily as our boat heads east toward the end of the little archipelago where a disused lighthouse looks out toward the Atlantic Ocean. The guys running the boat break out mate and beer (they actually have what looks to be a little keg on board) and blast ska music. I chat up three friendly Brazilian guys who spent a summer working at a ski resort in Tahoe some years ago and we reminisce about Nevada.

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We round the end of the archipelago and glide back west along the channel, over what I’m told are unusually calm and beautiful waters. We pass another island where cormorants are nesting, and like the island with the sea lions we get very close. I’m able to see young chicks begging for food and adults diligently adding sticks to their nests stuck in cracks in the rock.

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As we continue west, the sun comes out – another rarity in Ushuaia – and the clouds clear from the tops of the mountains surrounding the town. There’s snow on the mountain tops and we can see where there’s a little glacier tucked along a slope. Someone spots dolphins on our left and we stop to look. They’re tiny – maybe a meter long – and shy, surfacing 10 meters or so from the boat to breathe.

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We stop at another island covered in rich green grasses. Our guide takes us along a careful walk, pointing out flowers and grasses of interest. We see hawk-like birds called caranchos. One of them squeaks a high pitched, melancholy cry. “That one is hungry,” our guide says. We find chauda berries, called devil’s apples. “Don’t eat those while you’re in the park, they make a good laxative.” We spend a while examining a llaleta plant, which is a hard mound of small, tightly clustered leaves that looks like moss growing over a lumpy rock, but is actually hard layers of a plant heaped up over hundreds of years. We find one about half a meter in diameter that is probably 150 years old. The plants only grow a few millimeters per year.

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The sun is out fully as we return to the boat and our guides are fanning themselves and sunbathing with their shirts off. I’m still shivering a little in long pants and long sleeves – they’re not used to the comparatively warm weather here. Everyone is happy and relaxed and we sit on the boat enjoying the sun and speaking little. Ours is the only tour today so there’s no rush to get back to town.

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22:10 – I’m drinking fernet and coke nervously. For New Years’ I go to an asado with my Couchsurfing hosts. As an introvert I find large group interactions, especially with people I don’t know well, inherently draining and sometimes stressful, but I still enjoy being around people in general so I decided to go for this one.

Maybe it wasn’t the best choice. I can have a conversation with an individual in Spanish, but a big group conversation is too advanced for me, and I’m not able to follow the rapid Spanish conversation at all. I feel incredibly self-conscious sitting at the table trying to figure out what to do with myself while everyone around me talks and laughs and drinks. I feel isolated. I don’t want to leave – that would be giving up, right? – but I feel more and more uncomfortable as the night goes on. This is one kind of situation where I find myself completely lost – I have no idea what someone less introverted and socially anxious would do. Am I supposed to give up and leave? Do I interrupt everyone and insist they speak English? Do I interrupt the person next to me and make them talk to me instead of the group? I can’t figure out how to feel more comfortable without being rude. I drink more fernet.

Eventually it’s midnight and the conversation pauses for a few seconds and we say cheers.

An hour or so later, the asado is ready. Being drunk only makes it harder to speak Spanish when I get the occasional opportunity to talk to someone one-on-one. This combined with a couple of hours of social anxiety makes me almost unable to string together a sentence. I try to enjoy the slow-cooked steak and sausage. I grab a taxi back to my hosts’ apartment while they head to the national park for a party. I should have pretended to feel sick and left hours ago, I think to myself. I wonder what it’s like to be an extravert.

Epic four-day bus ride through Argentina: Day 4

Tuesday, December 30
4:30 – dawn. I look out woozily at the sunrise and take some pictures from inside my dream state before falling back asleep.

7:03 – another province crossing, which means another stop to check passports and documents. Yesterday we crossed two provinces – Chubut and Comodoro Rivadavia. Now we’re entering Santa Cruz. As far as I can tell, there’s still a possibility that I’ll get to Rio Gallegos in time for my next bus, but every time we stop I get a little anxious.

9:50 – against all my worries and expectations, we arrive at Rio Gallegos with an hour to spare before I have to catch my next bus. The bus drivers distribute migration forms for Chile, and I realize we’re going to pass through the southern tip of the country on the way to Ushuaia. I feel a little dumb for not realizing we would pass through Chile; they are strict about fruits and vegetables so my enormous supply of oranges will get me in trouble at the border. I trash them and now I’m down to half a bag of rice crackers to last me the next twelve hours.

11:10 – Chilean border crossing. A group of travelers on our bus must have gone grocery shopping in Rio Gallegos. They have a shopping bag full of cucumbers and carrots that they’re peeling and eating quickly outside the hut that houses the border officials and security line. On the other side of the arch displaying the Chilean crest, I can see guanacos grazing in the field.

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Chile is strict about food crossing its borders. There are piles of apples, a peach, and a jar of honey abandoned by other travelers in little corners of the border crossing hut.

12:16 – we cross the border and I’m in a new country. Under the arch a grey fox loiters waiting for scraps of food and looking elegant and sleek like all foxes do. Back on the bus, we pass rolling hills covered in the same low vegetation I’ve been seeing for the past few days. There are few trees. I see lots of guacanos in the fields (they are of the llama family but light brown in color). I also see a huge ostrich-like bird that I think is a Rhea, surrounded by fuzzy awkward looking chicks, and lots of sheep.

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12:56 – we arrive at a terminal where a ferry waits to take our bus across a narrow channel of water. Oscar, my seatmate on the bus, tells me that here the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans mix together. We’ve reached the end of the continental landmass and are heading towards the islands of Tierra del Fuego.

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15:00 – I’m meditating when I feel the bus turn around. We’re probably 10 kilometers down a gravel road through picturesque farms and countryside, and now we’re heading back the way we came, back toward the direction of the ferry crossing. I ask Oscar, who used to live in Ushuaia and made this crossing many times, if he knows why we turned. He shrugs, not concerned. I relax a little too. Maybe it’s the mediation, or maybe I’m finally starting to get it through my head what it means to be outside the US, to be in a place where things don’t always happen on time down to the second, where sometimes the gravel road floods and you take a different route and arrive a few hours late. It happens and you shrug and don’t let it ruin your day. I guess I thought this was already my philosophy – don’t let a change of plans ruin your day – but it’s more challenging to apply to travel, when you have bought tickets in advance or made reservations or have to meet someone at a certain time.

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17:20 – border crossing back into Argentina. This one is weird. Instead of the usual desk with two border agents seated next to each other, this time I get my exit stamp from Chile and get told to get back on the bus. I assume I’ll get the Argentine entry stamp later and try not to fret about it – we drive for a few kilometers and stop at a different building for the Argentine migration. It’s raining now and the gently rolling green countryside reminds me of Ireland, especially with the rain.

19:15 – Rio Grande bus terminal. They have a bowling alley for some reason. I say goodbye to Oscar. He spent the last leg of the trip telling me about his life in Jujuy, where he lived on an Indian reservation for some time, and teaching me some words in Quechua, an indigenous language. My favorite is “uj”, the word for one, which sounds a little like “oof”.

220 kilometers to Ushuaia. I go back to reading Richard Harris’ biography of Che Guavara.

20:51 – we pass a large body of water surrounded by mountains. It’s beautiful, and reminds me of Tahoe. I think again for the thousandth time that Reno really is one of the most beautiful places I’ve lived.

22:15 – we arrive in Ushuaia and I hop a taxi to the house of some Couchsurfers where I’m staying for a few days. They’re three guys who work in tourist agencies around town, and from the second I step in the door they treat me more like a roommate than a guest. I’m sleeping on a big comfortable mattress on the floor of the living room and after we visit for an hour or so I curl up exhausted under the blankets and pass out.