El Fin Del Mundo
(Sorry! Long entry...)
The final leg of my journey toward the end of the world, otherwise known as Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), set out from El Calafate at 4am on Thursday. The plan was to take a 4 hour bus east, switch buses south for another 10 hours, and then take the final 3 hour bus to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. There, I had a very important mission: to get myself on a boat to Antarctica. More on that later.
For once in my world of south american transport, everything went ALMOST according to plan, but of course with a few aventuras along the way. First bus, no hitch. But on the second part of the journey, we had to travel through Chile for a bit of 2 hours, which necessitated going through FOUR border checks. Argentina customs-Chile customs-Chile customs-Argentina customs. Note that the Argentinian and Chilean customs people cannot even be in the same building together, the hatred is that strong (usual land wars), so they build two separate buildings at each border, making us poor travellers go through the one hour process four times. The rules are that you cannot bring fruit and vegetables to Chile, even en route, which is followed in a ridiculously strict way if only to simply piss off the Argentinians…hehe. This poor French couple had just bought bags and bags of fruit and had to enlist our help in hiding it in our clothing. Imagine a bus full of old ladies with bananas and apples in their sweaters.
The landscape looked more and more menacing as we continued. No more guanacos. No cute roadrunners. Just barren mountains. We finally drove until we could drive no more, that is, until there was water in front of us. What water, you ask? The infamous Strait of Magellan, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and was actually not discovered by Magellan but rather by his surviving crew of 18 men. (Do you like how I insert historical tidbits in fun paragraphs, just so you continue reading? I´m so clever.) We drove the bus onto a large ferry boat, along with 3 scary looking trucks (I asked in a very important way about weight limits and the captain pinched my cheek) and set out across the strait. The 3 meter high waves made for a rocky ride, but the gorgeous dolphins somersaulting next to us made it awesome. We finally arrived on the other side, drove through a snow storm in the dark, stopped at a weird pastry shop with beavers playing with a hose in the back room (what the…) and arrived in Ushuaia at midnight.
Ushuaia is set along the icy Beagle Channel and is completely surrounded by spectacularly white mountains, with a large port holding huge European cruise ships carrying wealthy people to Cape Horn and Antarctica. Up until 1947, it was home to a jail where many criminals, including political prisoners, were sent to suffer in the cold. You can still visit the old Presidio, creepy. My hostel was set on Avenue Antarctica Argentina (noone owns Antarctica....definite political play on words). Let´s talk about Antarctica for a bit.
In the world of backpacking, there is always a slew of mysterious rumors flying around… mysteriously. Exhibit A: Before arriving in Bariloche, an adamant Brit named Kip (why would I believe someone named Kip??) told me that I could take a 10 hour fishing expedition completely FREE of charge. Unless that is, I caught a fish, in which case I would have to fork over $250 US. Upon hearing this ridiculous story, I excitedly added fishing to my itinerary even though I have no interest in it with the plans of throwing back any fish caught before Sir Captain had a chance to see it. When I arrived in Bariloche, of course no free fishing, ma`am. Sigh. But I´m an optimist, right? So when I´m told in hushed tones in a dark corner of a hostel that I, cheapskate backpacker girl, can get to Antarctica, I know that finally only I, Silvana Joseph, have the scoop. This is purely underground knowledge. So here´s the plan, man. There are two ways of getting to Antarctica on the cheap. One: get a standby ticket on one of those $5,000 cruises. Someone always cancels. You then take a $900 15-day cruise with a lot of old people who have been researching snowboots their whole lives. The second? You contact the Chilean navy who will escort you to Antarctica and won´t even make you scrub the deck. Well, both of these sound great. A cruise is preferable but I know the chances are slim, so I prepare for the Chilean navy experience by recruiting two Canadian mountain boys named Clayton and Peter (!) to escort me onto the Chilean navy ship. The deal is that I charm us onto the boat and they provide us protection as only Canadian mountain boys can do (I don´t know what that means). We talk about this in a very excited way but we make sure not to tell anyone, because from this point on, everyone is…competition.
So what did I do my first two days in Ushuaia? I ran from tourist office to tourist office, trying to get us standby tickets to Antarctica. Which do not exist of course On to Plan B! I acquire the email address of the Chilean navy (the whole navy has ONE email address?) which bounces back, leaving me to wander around hassling every person dressed in a navy uniform and/or costume. No luck. What would you do at this point? Well, first I had some chocolate of course. And then I went to the only place that could give me comfort during this hard time. The Isle of the Penguins. Woohoo! We set out on a 1 hour bus through entirely dead forests (the gusts of winds are too strong for the trees) to arrive at Haberton Estancia, an historic ranch with access to the island. We got on a speedboat and cut through the icy waters to arrive at the island, where all the penguins were waiting for us with open…wings. They were so cute…waddling around…. swimming… looking all cute…you know, doing what penguins do so well. I wish I could tell you some facts about penguins but I actually wasn´t paying attention to the guide, they were just so damn cute. We crawled around the island taking pictures and then crept along the nesting grounds where all these stupid tourists kept trying to pet the penguins. And then it was time to go. They waddled goodbye to us and we sped off. I got to talking to our guide Luis who leads protests in Cordoba against the American companies that have been seizing farmers´ lands with the aid of corrupt local police factions…very depressing but important to hear. Unfortunately, I´ve heard this type of story one too many times from the locals in the last 2 months.
The next day, I went to the National Park with Olivier (France) and we hiked along the still lake, chased the hundreds of rabbits everywhere, took a nap on the pebbly shore, and then climbed small green hills where the rabbits dig their holes, which wind their way along dead forests and black lagoons. Absolutely gorgeous. The following day, I went with Eyal (Israel) to the Museo del Fin del Mundo to get our passports stamped with the official “End of the World” stamp, which is indeed very official and may get me banned from several countries. And other than that, I guess there´s not much else to do in Ushuaia. But a beautiful town and definitely worth the journey.
I calculated that I had taken over 70 hours worth of busses down here to Ushuaia and that it might be worth it to spend the extra $20 and take a flight back north. I was lucky enough to get a flight out that week (they say that the first thing you should do in Ushuaia is get a flight out of Ushuaia) and arrived in WARM Buenos Aires at 2 in the morning, with my taxista flying down the street at 70 mph, “skillfully” avoiding city buses and small children who shouldn´t be out. Ahh…Buenos Aires.
I had arrived just in time for the 30 year anniversary of the military coup that had seized the country on March 24, 1976. This coup (which was by the way supported by Kissinger and the US govt, in the name of “regional security”) led to the atrocious years of terror during which an estimated 30,000 Argentinian citizens, everyday people, were made to “disappear” by the government. This is the central part of the Argentinian identity….hopeful but eternally distrustful of government, wary of what the future holds. In observance of this sad day, there were demonstrations all day at Plaza de Mayo (where the head of government is located), by various orgs including the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (You may have heard of Madres de Plaza de Mayo, who protest in the plaza every Thursday in memory of their disappeared children). I watched a radical org covered in head rags and carrying bats burn down dummies of policemen in the plaza and the more hopeful Movimiento Popular lead songs about el Peronismo and Che Guevara. Politics aside, it was a very emotional day, even for us outsiders. A news team came to interview me (why me, why me) and I`m hoping that my Spanish mess made more sense than my famously dumb newspaper quotes back home. (October, 2002-- “I think literacy is…good.”) That night, we all went out on the town and got home at 7am, and a few hours later I caught a bus to Santiago, Chile.
Yes, Argentina is complete. What a trip! It´s time to start exploring the rest of this incredible continent.