Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year in BsAs

When we came to Buenos Aires we had an idea. We wanted to crew on a sailboat that would take us aaaall the way to the coast of USA, or at least the Caribbean. We had our successful crewing experiences rosing up our imagination, and we had no doubt we would find our boat in such a huge port that is Buenos Aires. Well, after about two weeks of visiting marinas spread out on the shore of Mar del Plata, of looking online and talking to people we discovered the following: Buenos Aires is not on the route of world-cruising yachts, and seldomly does anybody sail out of here anymore. There are a few boats that stop over on their way to Ushuaia, but that´s the other way:) There are lots of marinas, but they are all private and closed to visitors. We learned that most of the sailing traffic that does leave the area goes as far as Uruguay or the south beaches of Brazil at the most. The commercial container ships are out of the question - there are too many ¨safety¨ barriers. This means - no boat for us.
We shall now head directly north, to the North of Brazil and see what it looks like there. Perhaps we can get to Trinidad or Venezuela and try to find a boat there again... Sailing friends of ours from Costa Rica sent us a letter with loads of useful info, and it looks like Trinidad and Tobago is the place to be for us. It is too far to think about right now, but at least our route is chosen for the next little while: through Brazil, not around it.
Now, an update on our whereabouts in the city. Since our last post we have moved, and this is how it happened: One day we met with Pablo (Pablo and Julieta), we went to see a drum performance, Bomda de Tiempo (Time Bomb). It is sort of like the drum-circle on Mont Royal on Sundays, only they charge admission and there is a drum orchestra playing. It is a mix between a jam percussion session, a dance hall and a concert. We were having a beer before heading to the show when Pablo asked us if we would like to live in their house while they go for a vacation. ¨We will be gone for three weeks, and if you could look after the house in the meantime, we would be very grateful to you¨, he said. ¨Well, uhmm¨ we did not know what to say for a moment, ¨yes, we would like to, very much!!!¨
So this is where we live now, in Julieta and Pablo´s house. It is located in the historic La Boca neighbourhood, which has a feel very similar to Saint-Henri, the neighbourhood where we lived in Montreal. There are tourists strolling on El Caminito one block away from the house and the proletariat has beers on the sidewalks and mothers shop for groceries one block away. The two worlds collide and mix right at our doorstep.
The house has its own blog and the photos there truly show the spirit of the place. This is a kitchen, for example: The place is huge, there are six rooms (three of them are workshops), two bathrooms and two staircases leading to a terrace on the roof with lots of plants. We are living in our own room, which is built as a house of its own on the terrace! Our duties as house keepers are to water the numerous plants in the morning, feed the shameless black cat Vicente and feed a turtle that roams around on the terrace.
There is one more person living in the house - Augustin. He is a painter, he works selling paintings on the touristic commercial stretch El Caminito one block away from the house.
We moved in a few days before our hosts were due to depart, so we got to know them a little better. They are both artists, Pablo is a silversmith and Julieta is a painter, their respective art blogs are here and here.
We will stay here until our hosts come back, and then we will pack our bags once again (leaving out the warm clothes) and head out into the heat...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Buenos Aires

We have spent only one week in the city, but so many things happened to us that it feels like we’ve been here for much longer.
Maxi and his family received us with open arms. It will not be far from reality to say that his parents, Jorge and Claudia, took us in as their own kids. They invited us to stay with them for as long we need!
The very night that we showed up, Maxi took us out to a dance. He participates in a community dancing group. They dance Murga, a traditional Buenos Aires dance with roots in Brazilian culture. The group danced out in the park for the community for a few hours and then we all piled up in the back of a pick-up and went to a kindergarten graduation party. The group was asked to dance for the kids. We watched them dance there too and walked home with our friend way past midnight.The next day Maxi took us out to a rock concert, in a pleasant art center called ¨Ana Pavlova¨. The evening felt very much like the ones we passed at ¨Shizo¨ in Montreal – small space, about 50 listeners and young musicians playing good music until late.
Before coming to the big Babylon, we contacted a few CS hosts, not expecting to stay with Maxi for a long time. Although we already had a place to stay, we still wanted to meet the good-hearted people who accepted our requests. The first on our list were Julieta and Pablo, a couple living in a huge artistic apartment in one of the neighbourhoods of the city. Their home amazed us: every single square foot of surface in the house had not gone without loving and creative attention of the couple: colourfully painted trim, lots of paintings on the walls (both by Julieta and Pablo), and plants, lots of healthy growing plants… We accidentally stayed overnight, for the conversation and the company emanated a very good vibration.
We left their house early in the morning, heading to meet another CS person: Mago Daniel. He is a professional entertainer, he works as a clown, magician and a juggler, depending on the occasion. He had a shaven head, and a goatee. He met us in his house a bit before noon. We were sitting in his impossibly dirty kitchen with cockroaches running all over the place. ¨Hi, I am Mago Blanco Planetario¨, he said, sat down at the table and had a vegan breakfast while lecturing us on the benefits of a vegan diet. He poured us a cup of herbal tea sweetened with a special herb Stevia, NOT SUGAR, which is a deadly poison, according to him. George had to fish out a small cockroach out of the cup before sipping on the delicious (and healthy) brew . We spent a few more hours in the bad-vibe circus house and then navigated our way back to Maxi’s family through the crazy but well-organized metropolis which is Buenos Aires.
Maxi makes gnome-looking dolls in the sparetime. He has a good eye and the gnomes (duendes in spanish) turn out each looking very different from the other.The family is doing a little renovation in the house, so we offered them our help. ¨Can you lay a wooden floor?¨ Jorge asked us. ¨Yes,¨ we said. So, for the last two days we have turned into semi-professional floor-layers. We spill glue on the concrete and stick the exotic woods parquette down, it looks like it is turning out good so far :)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Puerto Natales - Buenos Aires

After a few more relaxing days in the house of the welcoming La Familia, it was time for us to travel again. In the morning we made our way to the exit out of P. Natales. The sun was shining but the wiind was very strong - it was impossible to stand on one spot.You had to struggle against the wind, sometimes falling forward when the wind weakened and sometimes taking a few steps back not to fall over when the gusts were strong. We must have looked like two drunk persons hanging out on the side of the road. After a few hours of this we got tired. Nobody was stopping, so we decided to walk, thankfully the wind was pushing us from behind. We leaned back into it and walked. As it usually happens, about 100m into the walk, a car pulled over and gave us a lift to the turn-off. A few minutes of wating there and an empty tour bus took us across the border and deposited us in Rio Turbio, Argentina. Good bye, Chile!
A truck took us from Rio Turbio to Puerto Santa Cruz. It was a 6 hour ride across the empty pampa. The trucker talked and we had a good ride. Daniel dropped us off at a YPF (he went 20 kms out of his way to do it) on the ruta 3 when it was already dark.
We camped out in the pampa. In the morning, the usual routine got us 900 kms closer to Buenos Aires, we went to sleep outside of Trelew. A quick rest from the road in Rawson and back to la ruta. Next day we started out late, around 3. A few long rides and then a super-long ride with Gustavo. He was heading straight to BsAs and we covered over a 1000 kms that day. This is the scenery we have observed for the three days it took us to cover the emmense distanses of the pampa.
Gustavo was a very good driver: he drove prudently, listened to good music and had a laid-back attitude towards life. The first day he drove until 3 am, smoking cigarettes and listening to Papos Blues.
The second day looked little different from the fiirst, but the scenery changed: the pampa ended and fields of wheat were rolling out on both sides of the road. Gustavo stopped in one small town, bought meat and vegetables and then he cooked an awesome dish - ¨colchon de orvejas¨, which is meat stew with vegetables. Oscar, Gustavo´s compañero, pulled up iin his rig to join us for the meal. We ate and listened to the two of them chat about things the truckers always talk about: who went where, where are they going next, how many kms each of them covered yesteday, the strange sounds the motor is making recently...
Gustavo drove us to his house on the outskirts of BsAs. The neighbourhood he lives in is considered a dangerous one, there are mounds of garbage blocking some streets and the burnt-out carcasses of cars are eternally parked along the curbs.
We had a chat with Gustavo´s family and had a chance to check internet at his house - good news was in stock for us. Our friend Maxi (whom we met in Cusco), was inviting us to stay at his place for the weekend. We called him, got the directions and were sharing a beer wth Maxi and his family some 30 minutes later.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Ushuaia to Torres del Paine

Having hitched out of Ushuaia with sublime ease (a first car pulled over) we reached Rio Grande in a pleasant company of an aged couple. They dropped us off on the other side of town.There we had to shiver in the cold wind for a few hours before a few short rides to the border. There was zero traffic at the border. Thankfully, the complex was equipped with a heated ¨waiting room¨. There were two french girls waiting for a ride there already, so we joined their company. We boiled tea and chatted with them for a bit, enjoying the warmth of the shelter. When a truck would pull up to be inspected by the customs officer, one of the girls would go out and talk to the trucker. After a few trucks, they got a ride, and we, following their example, got a ride with the very next one. Our driver Cristian was a classical Argentinian trucker. He had bouncy curly hair and a wide smile. He owned his own truck (a rare thing here) and was in love with his machine. The ride was long and the scenery beautiful.¨Watch out now,¨ said Cristian, ¨there is a big pot hole somewhere soon on the road¨. Having said that, he got absorbed by our conversation when, all of a sudden, he gripped the wheel tightly and said:
¨Get ready here it comes!¨
We hit the pot-hole dead-on, full speed. Things leaped at us from the dash board: papers, toothbrush, mate cup, everything. There was a big storage space above that also emptied out: wires, radio, a cell phone, a heavy log book... ¨I told you there was a pot-hole here somewhere...¨ said Cristian, laughing. The floor of the cabin got covered with the mess. Having fished out his cell phone, Cristian said: ¨don´t worry picking things up, I was gonna clean the rig tomorrow anyway.¨ The whole incident gave us about an hour and a half of laughter and chuckling after, the truck-drivers never shunning from discussing anything in depth, for as many times as they find it entertaining. ¨That was a good one, Cristian!¨ we would say for the tenth time and the cab would fill with laughter, rolling through the rain in the night pampa.
Cristian dropped us off at the crossroads in the middle of the pampa, already on the mainland, in the middle of the night, strong cold wind hawling. We had nothing else to do but to set up camp as soon as possible and sleep tightly until the next day.
In the morning the rides came fast and easy and we rode into Puerto Natales in the afternoon. We had CS connection there, and that is where we headed. Familia Seguel Albornos received us with open arms. They have embraced the project of CouchSurfing and are hosting about 15 people DAILY. We rapidly integrated into the big and ever changing family and rested for a few days before heading to the park.
The Park.
National Park Torres del Paineis located about 150 north of Puerto Natales and there is no better way of reaching it than by – you guessed it – hitch-hiking. We hitched out of town in the morning and arrived to the entry gate with a truck loaded with firewood. The entrance fee is an astounding 15 000 pesos ($30), which we had no desire to pay. So we climbed the near-by hill and observed the surroundings of the ticket booth. The most likely way around it seemed to be across the river, only we did not know how deep it was. The water was very blue and it could easily have been over our heads. We were devising a strategy of circumnavigating the building when a guanaco appeared on the rock.It stopped and looked at us. Then it gracefully trod down the slope and headed for the river. It paused a bit at the water´s edge and forded the river. The water was shallow, only reaching up to its knees. That was a sign!!! Guanaco showed us the way! We had no doubt now about what we should do: we shall ford the river just like the guanaco, and walk to the bridge under the cover of the low bushes.
We went down to the river, rolled up our pants and crossed at almost the same place as our animal guide. We were careful to stay in the cover of the vegetation not to be noticed from the guardhouse. Having crossed the river, we decided not to advance any more that day, so we made camp on the little island, enjoyed the view of the towers and went to sleep early.We woke up precicely with the sunrise (5:19 am) next morning, packed up quick and proceeded with our ¨infiltration¨. We had to scramble on all fours at one point – the bushes were that low, but we made it with no problem to the bridge, and once we were on the other side, we were in the park. High five!
We hiked 50 kms of trail in the next two days – something we are not particulary fond of at this point of our trip – walking with backpacks on a trail just does not seem that appealing to us as it used to. The trail was very busy – tourists from all over the world, clad in the latest fashionable gear trod up and down. When we greeted them, many did not even acknowledge our presence. Oh well.
There were a lot of red berries growing alongside the trail – the delicious heathberry was beginning to ripe.Anastasia saw a description of it in a book earlier. We did the one hour test (a hand-full of berries in the mouth and then wait for an hour if a stomach ache appears) and found the berries edible. The good thing for us was that the throngs of tourists did not know what the berry was – the bushes were full of it. They were taking pictures of it! Ha-ha! We filled our mouths by a handfull under concerned glances from passing trekkers.
We camped for two nights in the park. We did the most straightforward route possible, connecting with the road in only two days. As we walked onto the road, we stopped to check our map to determine which way we should hitch to get back to Natales. As we were examining the map, a rental car pulled over.
¨Are you guys heading to Puerto Natales?¨ Asked a white-haired driver in pure English.
¨Yes we are!¨
¨Would you like a ride?¨
¨We would like a ride very much, thank you for asking!¨
¨Get in, then!¨
Jeff, the driver, was from Calgary, a geologist specializing in petroleum. His friend Farook was also from Calgary, a medical practicioner. We had a very pleasant chat with them, enjoying speaking English for the first time in a while. We stopped for scenic photos a couple of times on the way and they dropped us off in the front of the supermarket in town. We got some groceries and headed to the familia, admiring how effortlessly we arrived into town. This, in our understanding, was a perfect ride: We were only thinking about it, and it was all it took to materialise it. No waiting, no thumbing, none of that. Moreover, the conversation was good and everybody felt good after we parted. Per-fect!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Direction Home

We have spent almost two weeks in Ushuaia. The first week we were thoroughly relaxing in Ana´s home, not really thinking about anything.
One day we have learnt that a famous hitch-hiker and a writer Juan Villarino was in town. He and his girlfriend Laura have succeded in getting a ride to Antarctica. We found out when their ship was due to return to the port and went to the pier to meet them. As we were watching people walking out of the port reception, we saw a familiar face - Romina! It was a third time we meet her! We were chatting when Juan and Laura walked out. We greeted them, shared our almost-cold-by-then mate and chatted for a bit. We agreed to meet that night.
Later that night while sharing some beers, Juan and Laura told us about their Antarctica experience. Amazing photos and lots of impressions. Wow. Right now they are on their journey to Greenland! After a few hours of talking, Juan and Laura`s friends Aki and Leandro arrived. They did not join in the conversation, but got busy in the kitchen. A few hours more and they invited us all to the table. It was a feast! The food was all vegetarian, a tough thing to pull off creatively in Ushuaia, but they have masterfully succeded! It was our first truly vegetarian meal in a while.
Our spirits were high when we left the house that night.The days were passing by one after another but we were not getting any closer to what we should do next. We would make up our minds about looking for a ride to Antarctica only to reject it and decide to leave town a few hours later. I don´t think we have ever been so undecided in all our lives! Well, after about ten changes of mind, four days of arguing for and against, we have agreed: no Antarctica.
In our last days in Ushuaia we explored the magnificent landscapes around - forests, glaciers and beaches. We camped in a beautiful lenga forest near the glacier one night and another night on the beach, witnessing amazing sunsets and walking amongst the delicate southern mosses and low wind swept bushes.This is where the glacier was 40 years ago - now there are only a few snowy patches left here and there. The tourism office in town still sends tourists to see the ¨Magnificent Martial Glacier¨ - that is no longer there.Delicate mosses on the way to the ¨glacier¨ - the short green leaves you can see are hard as a rock! A view from our campsite some 400m below the glacier.
Playa Larga, on the other side of the bay from Ushuaia.
We are officially starting on our way home now! Direction: north!!!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Вписка, or Argentinian Hospitality, Unlimited

Вписка (vpiska) is a Russian slang word that is also a whole concept. Vpiska is first of all a place. It may be a house, an appartment or any other dwelling. A particular place can be called a ¨vpiska¨ when a traveller gets invited to stay there, free of charge. Couchsurfing is a world-wide network of vpiskas, for example.
I mentioned in the previous post that we got invited (вписались) in Ushuaia. I would like to share with you what actually happened in more detail.
When Anastasia went to the bathroom at the gas station that morning, she met Ana, the gas station attendant. ¨Come see me inside after you are done in the bathroom, I have something to offer you,¨ said Ana. Anastasia came a few minutes later and Ana asked her: ¨How long do you think you will stay in Ushuaia?¨
¨I don´t really know yet,¨ said Anastasia,¨but probably about a month, may be longer. We will look to rent an appartment or something.¨
¨Look,¨said Ana,¨why don´t you come stay at my place? I like you two. You are clean, you smile, you seem trustworthy. I live in a two-room house, I live alone. You are welcome to stay with me as long as you want, a week, a month, as you wish. There is a kitchen you can use, computer, internet, hot shower... The only thing I don´t have is a bed for you, but there is floor space.¨
¨Wow, thank you very much, it is very kind of you.¨ said Anastasia, ¨But the thing is that there are actually three of us. We were thinking to rent the place with another traveller. He is french, he is working in a restaurant here, he also hitched to here from Canada.¨
¨Ok, no problem, bring your friend, too,¨ said Ana. Wow!
We agreed to meet her at the end of her workshift and then go to the house. She wrote down her address and a phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to us, just in case.
We went to see Jonathan at his new post as a waiter at a trendy restaurant downtown. He looked funny. He was wearing a clean, impeccable waiter attire. Red shirt and black pants, with a black waiter apron. A white towel across his arm would have looked classic. What stood out were his dusty, road-beaten shoes! Looking at his feet you immediatly understood that it was a dressed up vagabond serving you, nobody else!
We showed up at the YPF gas station at the agreed time, with Jonathan in tow. Ana then called a cab and we piled in. The house was only a 15 minute walk, but uphill, and a pretty steep one. ¨I usually take the cab home,¨ said Ana ¨I get tired after work and I don´t feel like walking home.¨
We arrived at the house in a few minutes. In was located on a steep hill. Young Lenga trees grew all around the house. There were no city noises audible here, we could only hear the multitude of birds chirping in the tree canopy above our heads.
The house was indeed small, but layed out well, with just enough space as was necessary for every room. We set our bags in the corner and Ana said: ¨if you would like, I have three (!!!) extra mattreses, you can use them.¨ The mattresses she had were of finest quality, two single ones and one double size! The double size one was brand new.
So this is where we live now, in Ana´s living room. We fry eggs in the morning, listen to music on Ana´s computer and drink mate. Sometimes we open the door and fresh cool air fills the room.
The sun goes up early at this time of year here (it is already light at 5am!), and the birds wake up with the sunrise. Today we woke up to the birdsongs outside.
Yesterday, Ana gave us a cell phone to use while we stay in Ushuaia. ¨I have three (again!) of them, you can use this one, you just need to buy the SIM card¨. So now we have our own phone number, it has been a while!
THIS is the spirit, THIS is the hospitality, THIS is the way! We feel strangely elated these days, unsure of what we have done to make the universe fulfill our ¨request¨ so soon and so, well, easy.
The thing is that the night before, when we got into town with Carlos, we were walking back to the truck stop from the internet cafe. We were discussing what we were going to do here. We did not know. We did not know how long we want to stay here, we did not know if we want to find work or not, if we want to get busy right away with looking for a ride to Antarctica, if we want to rent a place to stay... We did not know, so we decided to leave it all off until the morning. May be things will sort themselves out without any forceful action from our side. May be our path will become obvious to us when it will need to be.
We said outloud into the dark night, waiting for a bus at an intersection: ¨It would be good if we find a house to stay in. That would be very nice¨. We REALLY said it, I am not writing it just to add a lyrical effect to the story!
Well, the Great Spirit, God, Gods, the Universe, call it what you like, must have been listening.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The End of the World (aka Ushuaia)

We greeted the morning on the other side of the river from Los Antiguos, Argentina. The sky was clear and it was promising to be a sunny day. We boiled water to make tea and took our time to pack up camp. When we were walking over the bridge we saw something moving in the water below. ¨Grass?¨, no. ¨Salmon!¨ Huge fish were swiming below us. There were at least ten of them, about 50 cm long, swiming against the current, remaining in one spot, dark moving shapes.
We walked to the end of town and assumed our usual position, with one thumb out of four pointing towards the sky. Half an hour passed before a young beautiful mother stopped. She was driving a big truck with three young kids in the back seat. She was really friendly and her kids too. ¨Where are you from?¨ asked the youngest of them as soon as I plunked on the seat next to him. ¨Ugh, Russia, I guess¨. ¨Where is that?¨ followed an immediate question. How do you explain to a three-year-old where is this land called Russia? In Spanish?
The girl dropped us off a few clicks down the road, at the police post. ¨This is where everybody hitch-hikes from¨, she said. This is where we got stuck for four hours. There was a steady flow of traffic towards Perrito Moreno. Moreover, they all came to a stop to be questioned by the policeman on duty. We could overhear the conversation:
Policeman: ¨Where are you heading to?¨
Driver: ¨Perrito¨
Policeman: ¨Ok, you may pass.¨
There was no other settlement or a turnoff before Perrito, but nevertheless, ALL the drivers gave us the hand signal that they were going only a few clicks further, turning left (or right) very soon. After a few hours it became entertaing. We could hear the driver yell ¨Perrito!¨ to the policeman and then show us that he was turning off soon. In four hours of observing this phenomenon we came to a conclusion that if you want to meet some insencere people, your best bet would be to go to Perrito Moreno, Provincia Santa Cruz, Argentina.
On the fourth hour a car pulled over. Two young lads were inside. As soon as we got into the back (it was a kind of a sedan converted into a cargo van), the driver offered us a beer. The passenger handed us a thermos. What a clever way to keep beer cool on a warm spring day!
The guys were cool, they listened to good music and the 67 kms to Perrito passed fast. We passed a few of the shameless liers on the way, they were sadly and slowly putting along, staring blankly at the road ahead of them.
We walked through Perrito, only stopping in a convenience store to refill our supply of bread. On the exit of town we met a man hitch-hiking. He was wearing black clothes, had about 50 years of age and had three crosses hanging from his neck. ¨I lived 22 fuckin´years in Alaska, man!¨ he told us with a heavy Spanish accent, three minutes into the conversation. ¨I ran into some problems with the law there, so now I work on this ¨estancia¨ in the middle of nowhere in Argentinian pampa for three years now.¨ We wished him luck and took our place 200 m behind him. He took off in under 20 minutes with a truck. A few vehicles passed after , but we guessed that they were infected with the ¨Perrito¨ syndrome: there was nowhere to turn off to for 120 kms, but the people were only going ¨around the corner.¨ We went to sleep outside of Perrito Moreno that night.
In the morning a road engineer pulled over. ¨I´m going to Baja Caracoles, 120 kms further¨ he said. Alejandro was very intelligent and he told us about the indigenous people who inhabited the plains 8000 years ago. He presented us with a skin scraper of the Pre-Welcho period which was uncovered during the road construction, under his supervision. ¨I have a whole lot of arrow heads and spear heads at home, have this scraper as a present from these lands, ¨ he said with a smile. He said that sometimes the excavator pulles up a mummyfied skeleton from the ancient burrial ground while digging for the new road. Then, the whole construction process has to come to a stop and wait for the archeologists to arrive and assess the site.
Alejandro dropped us off at Bajo Caracoles. What a hole. We got stuck there for three days, two nights. The traffic consisted of four or five tourist vehicles going by in the morning and then only the construction trucks, going only 30 kms further. The tourists mostly did not notice us, only some of them making sorry grimmases and driving by with their back seats perfectly empty.
We would limit ourselves to saying that the highlight of our record-breaking three-day wait at Baja Caracoles was a sighting of an armadillo crossing the road. It was strolling along at a leasurely speed. At the sight of it, we sprang up to our feet, glad to be woken up from the desert lethargy. We ran up to the animal. It got scared (naturally) and bolted as fast as it could. To us, it was a matter of leasurely jogging to keep up to its pace. It would run across the desert as a tank, maneuvering around the bushes of pampa grass as a war machine. It was keeping a steady course towards its hole. As soon as the armadillo reached it, it dove in and dissapeared from sight. We sighted and returned to our waiting spot, on the side of the empty dirt highway 40. It was only a few days after that we learned that armadillos are notoriously easy to catch (even easier than porcupines) and that their meat is delicious. We missed out on a feast that day.

On the third day a tourist couple pulled over. They were elderly doctors from Buenos Aires and they have been all over the world, including Russia (in ´84). They rescued us from Bajo Caracoles and deposited us in Gobernador Gregores. There, we had a shower at a gas station, did laundry and bought bread and cheese in a local supermarket (all things unheard of in Bajo Caracoles) and camped out for the night.
In the morning the ride to Puerto Julian came fast. The man worked for the mining industry and was in charge of the safety at the mine. As most miners that we met, he was not into talking. We passed the three hours in almost complete silence, which was only interrupted by him slowing down for us to take pictures of guanacos and ostriches grazing in the pampa.
He dropped us off at the service station on Ruta 3, the bloodline of the country. The sight of freight trailers rolling by filled us with joy. There was movement, after all! As we were walking to the take off spot, a tuned-up car pulled over. We ran up and plunked on the back seat. The regular questions and answers were exchanged and we roared off. The driver put on some ¨punchy-punchy¨ on (electronic music, his own expression) and we dissapeared into the emptyness of the pampa.
The guy dropped us off at the road-side gas station near Piedra Buena. There we waited for a bit to be picked up by the most silent drivers of all. He drove a black Honda Civic, with six gears. He asked us a few questions before getting absorbed by the driving. His cruising speed was 160, peaking at 183. He drove good. He slowed down to 140 when he saw guanacos grazing on the side of the highway. ¨These are dangerous,¨ he said, ¨they can jump under your wheels and then you are dead.¨
He dropped us off at the turnoff to Rio Gallegos. The crossroads was in the middle of nowhere so the only thing we could do was to start walking towards Rio Gallegos. Almost every vehicle that passed us honked, but it was not untill half an hour later that one of them came to a stop and gave us a lift to town. We walked throught the outskirts of the wind-swept town and camped out amongst some chimneys, weirdly constructed in the middle of nowhere, some of them already falling apart without having ever been used.In the morning, the icy wind had us almost frozen solid when a truck put its four-ways on and hissed its breaks. We ran up and found ourselves in the company of Carlos ¨El Mono¨, the most classic trucker we have ever met. His animated face indeed resembled that of a makaka, his huge smile stretching from ear to ear, revealing his bad teeth. He had 32 years of trucking experience and he was a happy man. He joked, told us trucker stories and served us mate all the way to Ushuaia.
We arrived to Ushuaia late, around 9 pm. Carlos parked at the YPF (a gas station) at the entrance of town. The sun was only beginning to touch the horizon, so we had time to find the internet cafe and send a message to our friend Jonathan Mouette (cristened Johnny in Ushuaia). Carlos offered us to camp in the shade of his truck for the night, which was exactly what we did. In the morning he invited us to come have mate with him before we leave.
I was chatting with Carlos when Anastasia showed up, smiling broadly. ¨We are doing ok,¨ she said. Allright, I had no doubt about that but it was a slightly strange thing to say, with such a glowing face. The thing was that while Anastasia went to the bathroom at the gas station, she met Ana, a gas station attendant. Ana invited us (including our French friend) to stay at her house for a MONTH, free of charge!!! No wander Anastasia was smiling like crazy!
We had a good mate with Carlos and wished him happy trails. We then headed to town to meet Jonathan. After we reunited and exchanged the latest news, we headed to the YPF, to meet Ana, who was getting off work. She guided us to her house and made us feel at home in her small house on the hill, in the middle of the Lenge grove.
Now I am writing these lines on Ana´s personal computer, sipping on a beer, late in the night, sure of my abode for the next few weeks. Who would have thought that life would present us with such a wonderful gift in Ana´s welcome at this culminating point of out trip? Life is great and the horizons amaze us, every one of them being grander that we have ever imagined. Ja!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Cutting Off Balls in Patagonia

Getting out of Coyhaique was so typical that it is not even worth describing. The adventure began after the postman on duty dropped us off 50 kms down the road at a turn-off to Puerto Ibañez. We were not heading there, we were taking the long road around Lake General Carrera (or Lake Buenos Aires, depending on which side of the border you are looking at it). We did not spend 5 minutes at the spot before an overloaded 5 ton truck pulled over. The main feature of the load was a small JCB tractor. Around it were piled a variety of things one might need for road construction: buckets of grease for the tractor, scaffold and lumber, a ton worth of ready-mix cement mix, cement mixer and a bag of potatoes.There was no room in the cab but Luis and Jose pointed to the tractor seat: ¨Get in!¨
It was a perfect ride. Luis and Jose were on their way to Guadal to repair the main plaza of the town. They were not in too much of a hurry and they stopped to check out the road-side brooks for salmon a few times. They would both get out, run to the river, toss in their hooks and wait a few minutes. ¨No salmon here! ¨ Luis would say. We would all rush back to the truck, hop in and roll until the next fishing point.Luis was driving through his homeland and he knew all the vistas. He would slow down in front of waterfalls and beautiful mountains for us. One time the truck came to a stop before a huge waterfall. Jose jumped out, ran like a mouse to the base of the falls, posed for a second and ran back.After a few hours the two friends decided to make some room for us ion the cab. They hawled all the stuff out of it and we fitted in. The rest of the way we spent listening to Luis` stories. He had something to tell about every kilometer of the road. We were soaking in the local stories coming from the local person obviously enjoying telling them - that was the essence of our trip, travelling, listening, learning, observing.
We parted ways with the friendly crew at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere at 1:30 am. There was nothing at the intersection of the two dirt roads except for an awesome shelter. It had a solid metal roof, a flat concrete floor and three sturdy walls. It looked like a bus stop, only it had enough room inside to put up two tents side by side! The walls were covered my messages left by generations of people who camped there - half of them were in Hebrew. We pitched our tent and fell asleep.
Next morning we got a short ride to the nearby Puerto Bertrand almost instantly. There, we only had to wait 3 minutes before Patricia and Juan-Carlos stopped for us. They were touring the area, heading to Tortel, our destination as well! The couple was super nice, they were in no hurry and stopped whenever they wanted to take photos.After some 6 hours of driving we arrived to Tortel. Well, this village is unlike anything else we have ever seen. Remember Riverdale form the ¨Hobbit, There and Back Again¨? Tortel was just like it. It was built on the shores of a misty fjord. The buildings and the boardwalks were entirely of cypress, bountiful in the forests around. All the structures were elevated on stilts above the inter-tidal zone, and climbing up the steep marshy hills around. Boardwalks connected the houses. The coolest thing about Tortel was that there were no cars in town – all vehicles HAD to be left on the huge parking lot at the entrance, some ways away from the actual settlement. You would then walk through the welcome gates and dive into life without cars.According to the friendly lady whom we met shortly after entering the town, Tortel has more than 10 kms of boardwalk. Wow. There are lots stairs to climb, too.
The town was mainly inhabited by younger people – we have not seen an old person during our 4 hour stay there. As the same woman explained to us, walking on the boardwalk with lots of stairs is not the same as walking on firm ground. With time people develop spine problems, as the wood is a little too springy.
After exploring the town, our drivers (you may even say hosts by now) invited us for an awesome lunch of fresh-caught fish at the only restaurant in town. The fish was delicious and we left Tortel in an elated state of mind.
Patricia and Juan-Carlos were heading back to Chile Chico the same day and invited us to come along with them. That was super cool, we did not even had to hitch to get back! The ride back was tiring for all. After three hours of driving, when we finally arrived to Cochrane, our hosts told us that they were too tired to continue on to Chile Chico at night. We agreed that it was not a prudent thing to do. So they went to look for a hotel, and we were eyeing up empty lots that we drove by. Patricia and Juan-Carlos walked into one hotel and emerged a few minutes later. ¨Listen, said Patricia, ¨we would like to pay for a room for you. We know that you have no problem sleeping outside tonight; by I would not sleep well knowing that you are somewhere out there. Please accept our invitation.¨ This last sentence convinced us and we gratefully accepted this generous offer. The night on a soft bed, a shower and breakfast in the morning were a refreshing change from our usual routine.
On the leisurely drive back Juan-Carlos noticed a road sing that read: ¨Balsa Baker – 1 km¨. (A ferry across the river Baker – 1 km) ¨Would you like to see the ferry? ¨ he asked us. ¨Sure, ¨ said we, ¨we are in no hurry¨. We drove down to the river and saw the ferry. It was a big steel raft that ran across the biggest Chilean river. The current was so strong that the ferry needed no motor to cross it: the ferryman simply adjusted the steel cables that attached to the cable running from bank to bank in a certain way, skewing the raft this way or that. Short front end and a long rear end made the raft drift across to the other side in a matter of minutes. Taking the same ferry were some farmers, on their way to tend to their cattle. ¨Would you like to come along to castrate some year-old bulls? ¨ asked one of the farmers. Patricia is a veterinarian and Juan-Carlos is a rodeo rider, so their eyes lit up with anxiousness. We have never been to a ranch, so we wanted to go, too.
We got off the ferry and followed our new friends down a trail, which later disappeared and we were just driving through some hilly pastures. At one point, the hill became too steep so we had to abandon our vehicles and walk the rest of the way. The ranch consisted of a small house, some farm sheds and a corral. In the corral, some thirty young bulls were hoarded together. Our farmer friends carried all the necessary tools for the castration: some lassoes, a veterinarian kit and some 16 beers. Some more men were waiting at the ranch. As soon as we came, the job began. The process was easy: A calf was let out into the bigger part of the corral. Men were swinging their lassoes above their heads. The objective was to lasso the calf in, bind its legs, put it on its side and cut off the balls. Instead of a dull job, these men turned the process into somewhat of a competition, or a game.The coolest was to throw the lasso under the calf, binding its legs and making it stumble down. The others would then run over and bind the legs, pulling the hind legs further behind to open its belly. The veterinarian would then come up, cut the bag open with a sharp knife and cut off the testicles, one by one. Some disinfecting spray and the calf was free to go.The second coolest thing was to throw the lasso over the horns. The calf would then kick, throw and bend its back. The men would then get very excited, running up to it, grabbing it by the horns and trying to bend it to the ground. Some calves were tougher then others and would chase the men around, trying to punch them with their heads. Men would ran away, yelling and having the most fun.
The third coolest thing was to get the lasso on the calves neck.
After some ten calves were done, Carlos, the owner of the cattle, offered George a lasso. George turned out to be a born ¨gaucho¨: he lassoed in four calves: two over the horns and two over the neck. Yeea-haaa!
After all the calves were castrated, an asado followed. A two-month old lamb was especially killed for the feast, a traditional asado of the region. Men congratulated each other on the job cleanly done and were chatting about hay prices and cattle in general.
After the carcass of the lamb was eaten, the people began to leave, and so did we, continuing on towards Chile Chico tired, happy and with full bellies.
Patricia and Juan-Carlos changed their minds about going to Chile Chico, deciding to go to Coyhaique the way that we came with the truck the day before. So we parted with them late in the afternoon on the same crossroads with the shelter. It was raining and we decided to camp under the same welcoming roof for the night.Next day greeted us with sunshine and we easily hitched to the border, crossed into Argentina and camped out near the river, on the other side from Los Antiguos.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Capoeira and Mate in Coyhaique

In a few hours after our last post we successfully connected with our CS host Claudio. He treated us to a thick fish soup at a restaurant of his aunt and drove us to his place to drop our bags off. In a few minutes after we entered Claudio´s house and met his grandmother Lina (a woman of 85 years of age, remarkably agile for her years) our benefactor was off to his work. He is an Emergency Room doctor at a local hospital.
We respectfully exchanged a few phrases with Lina and went to follow up on Fidel´s invitation for a mate in his store. In the following two days we learnt A LOT about mate, mate drinking traditions and the history of the region in general. Fidel is a master of his field and he kept loading us with information, clearly enjoying sharing his vast knowledge of the subject. Here is the recap of what we retained from the hours of listening:
Yerba mate (llex paraguariensis) is mostly grown in the northern provinces of Argentina and sipping on a steep brew of this chopped-up grass is a crucial part of the Argentinian identity. In the Chilean Patagonia the Argentinian influence is very strong, as the first settlers were arriving in the region from across the Andes. During the slow travel across the Argentinian territories the colonists picked up the local traditions. The most obvious of those traditions in today´s everyday life are the gaucho dress style and the mate drinking.
An essential part of drinking mate is sharing it. If you are offered a mate it is a first sign of welcome and hospitality in the homes (and trucks:) of the region. There is a simple but an important protocol in sharing mate and here are some of the most important points:
-When sharing mate with a group of people, the gourd always travels counter-clockwise (opposite to the northern tradition of passing a joint ¨to the right¨).
-The gourd is to be handed and received with a right hand, with the bombilla (the straw) pointed at the receiver.
-The receiver is only to thank the cebador (the person in charge of the serving) when he had his fill of mate, thus indicating that he wants no more. If you say ¨thank you¨ in the first round, you will lightly offend the offerer and will not be offered the gourd the next time around.
-Rejecting an offer to drink mate is a bad idea. In doing so you will miss an opportunity to meet a good-hearted person and an easy-flowing conversation. An offer of mate is a first sign that you are accepted. A little later will come an offer of food and finally of accomodation.
Mate has an energizing effect, similiar to that of a strongly brewed tea, coffee or a mild toke. Truckers are famous for drinking it as it keeps them awake during long night-time hauls across the pampas.
We spent about four hours in ¨Casa del Mate¨ that time. Fidel gave us a tour of the shop: At least 7 different brands of mate, pots and pans, hats and pants, bombillas and gourds, axes and knives, even horseshoe nails were sold in this place.
It had a strange but a pleasant feeling: It looked like a souvenir shop, but was widely popular with the local farmers as well. After the tour Fidel put on the kettle and served us mate until we had to thank him while returning the gourd. When we walked out onto the street we were so pumped with the brew that we had to keep our hands from shaking mildly and our eyes turning wildly in all directions.
We stopped at a grocery store to pick up some supplies for cooking pizza for our hosts and headed home. As soon as the pizza was out of the oven Claudio came home from work and we shared a delicious meal. After our road diet of bread and pasta this veggie-loaded, cheese-topped pie was a feast to our poor little constricted stomachs.
After the meal we started talking and Claudio mentioned in passing that he is a practitioner of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian ¨game¨. An essential part of the game is the rhythm provided by the drums and the Berimbau. We hopped on the subject and Claudio´s eyes cought fire in a flash. In a few seconds he was rigging up his instrument to demontrate the music to us. We had the honour of filming this impromptu kitchen musical piece, please enjoy here.Claudio played with passion for about half an hour, loosing himself in the rythm, with a broad smile on his face. We went to sleep in the small hours.The next morning we were woken up at 7 am by Claudio. He was free until noon before going to the hospital, and he was eager to show us the surrounding areas. We had a quick but big breakfast, hopped into his Toyota and were off. It was raining outside, but in the first time in more than a week we did not care about the drizzle, sure of drying out later on. Claudio took us to the near-by Falls of the Virgin and Falls of the Virgin´s Vail. The former impressed us more as one could come right up to the gushing waterfall, breathing in the humid vapour and bracing against the strong wind produced by the falling mass of water.The second part of the excursion was of little interest, as Claudio himself also admitted. He took us for a drive through Puerto Aisen and Chacabuco. Puerto Aisen has a local fame for being the suicide capital of the region, simultaneously boasting of the highest depression and alcoholism rate of the area. Little wonder, as it rarely stops raining in this hole of a town.
Chacabuco´s main attraction is a sleepy port with one old fork-lift moving the containers about the yard. It is from this port´s only peer that the first-class catamarans carry the wealthy people of this world to a one day excursion to Laguna San Rafael. The $400 price tag includes million year old ice cubes from San Rafael Glacier in your whiskey glass and a party with an open bar after the tour.
When we came back home, Claudio had a ten-minute snooze and rushed for his post, being a little late. We had ourselves a warming cup of tea and a slice of yesterday´s pizza. We veggied in front of a computer screen for some hours before we got bored. ¨What to do, what to do?¨ we asked ourselves. Drink mate!
We headed to the ¨Casa del Mate¨, once again following up on Fidel´s invitation. This time we showed up at the busiest time of the day and Fidel was rushing between attending to his customers and serving mate. The conversation had a hard time taking off, but as the flow of people decreased towards the evening, Fidel, his brother Samael and the shop employee Andrea relaxed, sat in the chairs around the stove and we talked about all manner of things. After we closed the shop, Fidel took us to a beautiful vista overlooking the town. We shared a beer and contemplated the severe sky and the landscape shivering from an unexpectedly freezing wind. After the first beer we gave up and hopped inside the truck, continuing our conversation there. Fidel drove us home after dark. We hugged our new friend, wished him farewell and ran up the stairs.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Long waits on the Carretera Austral

We waived good-bye to the happy trio and walked a few kilometers out of Cholila. The evening was gorgeous and as usual, we happened to be passing by a perfect camping spot right when it was time to set up camp. We boiled tea, contemplated the sunset and went to sleep.
After a late rise and another pot of hot tea in the morning, we were sure of getting a quick ride to Esquel. This did not happen. That day we walked about 15 km on the dirt road and about 6 autos passed us, none of them willing to give us a ride. We camped near a cristal clear stream, once again passing a pleasant evening in the middle of nowhere, but already in Patagonia.In the morning we did not walk for 5 minutes before a pick-up screeched to a halt and gave us a lift straight to Esquel.
In Esquel our CS request was turned down so we had no desire in sticking around. We went over to the tourist office to inquire about the ancient Alerces and our hopes of seeing them were quickly reduced to dust: the only way of getting to them is by boat, 110 pesos ($40) per person... The boat does the trip once a week, two days for us to wait for the next trip. No chance, said we. We stoped by the camping ground to get a quick hot shower and walked out of town fresh and happy. 3 minutes of thumbing produced a quick ride to Trevelin. The guy was very friendly and went the extra bit to drop us off on the far side of town, near the police post.
We waved to the policemen as we walked by but apparently their official gazes do not register friendly gestures. None of the three acknowledged our presence. Ok, not the first time:)
We installed ourselves a little ¨down the stream¨ from the checkpoint and hitched in vain for about half hour. The traffic was light and mostly consisted of locals going to their local farms, some of them on horseback.
In a little while we got hitch-hiking company: two locals with small backpacks walked up to the police post, chated with them and started hitching 100 meters in front of us, thus bluntly violating the hitch-hiking etiquette. We got a little upset at first but later we wholeheartedly wished them luck. A few minutes after our change of mind we got a ride with a truck, leaving the other two hitchers behind.
That evening we reached the border. It started raining with hail as we approached the customshouse in the back of a pick-up. Luckily, there was a brand-new toilet building nearby (toilets closed for the season), with generous roof overhangs. We camped under it for the night, falling happily asleep listening to the sound of rain that was not getting us wet:)Since that night until now our main priority was keeping dry, as it never stopped raining. We looked for covered bus stops to hitch from and for roofs to sleep under. So far it worked, as there are many roofs in this rain country!
Having crossed into Chile once again, we headed to Chaiten, to see the town covered in ashes. Two years ago Chaiten had a population of about 5000, but now only 500 people live there. The authorities still consider it a ¨danger zone¨ (the volcano is still smoking) and discourage people from returning to their homes. There is no electricity in town, and no water supply. The few residents who live there run generators to produce electricity.
We arrived to Chaiten just after the night fall and it was creepy walking the deserted town under heavy rain. You could tell the inhabited houses by the buzz the generators were making. There were lots of roofs for us to choose from, and we chose the biggest of them all - the abandoned police station. There was a layer of about 20 cm of ash inside, rendering the building unfit for occupation. We camped in the main hallway and when we turned off the flashlight, the darkness was absolute. The silence was almost as intense, only the sound of falling raindrops audible.
In the morning we walked through town a bit. The scene was empressive, but we were surprised to learn that it was not the ashes themselves but the river that did most of the damage: When the ashes started falling, they dammed up the river, causing it to rise. The silt flooded the north part of town, but did little damage in the south part.Hitching out of this ghost-town was not easy. It was raining and the ¨one car per hour¨ schedule had us thoroughly bored and a little wet. Finally, we got a ride with the salmon farmers for some 70 kms. They explained us the farming process and dropped us off in ther middle of the forest near their turn-off. We spent some more hours there, contemplating the rough landscape and the low-hanging clouds that dispersed rain once in a while. The ditch near-by proved to be entertaining too, as it was home to the biggest Nalca plant (Giant rhubarb) we have ever seen!And a view from the inside, from the point of view of a Smoking CaterpillarWe were rescued from our wilderness meditation point by a VW bus. It was freshly painted light green and white, it moved extremely slow (40 km/h being the maximum cruising speed) and contained two ¨hippies¨ inside. Claudio the chilean and Mark the german. Claudio listened to Los Jaivas, had a big smile on his face and was friendly and talkative. Mark did not understand much Spanish (the two spoke German between themselves) and concentrated so much on the road that he never said a word. We wandered how long this oddly-paired partnership will last, as the guys were embarking on a round-the-South-America road-trip, this being their second day! They drove us to La Junta, where they were to spend the night with Claudio´s aunt. She went out to meet them at the main street of town, but turned out to be unresourceful to us. When Claudio asked if she had a roof under which we could pitch our tent, she shook her head and suggested to us that we look for a cottage to rent for the night instead. We thanked her and headed over to the abandoned gas-station at the entrance of town.The roof was solid and it looked like generations of travellers found shelter there. A part of the floor was swept cleen of rubbish to provide just enough space for our tent. We cooked lentils and drank cognac-sweetened tea (the cognac was of a very classy brand - Tres Palos (Three Sticks), made in Chile), listening to the sound of rain falling outside.
In the morning the road was as empty as the day before. It took us about three hours to get a ride to the next town of Puyuguapi. It was raining there, too. We did a tour of town looking for an acceptable roof to camp under. No luck this time! There were no abandoned houses there, so our only option was to head to the camping ground ¨La Sirena¨. We were the only guests there and easily convinced the owners to let us camp in the ¨kitchen facility¨, as the tin-covered shack with a wood-stove inside was proudly called. The aging owners Elio and Magdalena were very hospitable, they put on a roaring fire in the stove for us right away and even left a good-sized bundle of firewood for our use later on. Too bad there was about a foot-wide gap between the roof and the walls all around, otherwize we could have had a warm little space. We managed to dry most of our clothes around the stove though and went to sleep admiring the impermeability of the tin above our heads.In the morning Magdalena peeked in to start the fire for us (nice!) and told us that they were going to Puerto Aisen later on that day, and they could take us there, too! We were incredibly grateful to them for that, as we did not have to leave the side of the warm stove to miserably hitch in the rain:) A ride with the couple was slow over a wet rutty dirt road. Elio took it easy and we even stopped to collect some Nalca stems at a good spot.We loaded the harvest in the back of the van and continued on our journey. About 5 hours later they dropped us off at the intersection towards Coyhaique.
We walked to the other side of the road, downed our green ponchos and mentally prepared to get soaked, but the universe had arranged it otherwise: the very first car pulled over and we travelled to Coyhaique in warm comfort of a taxi off-duty. In town, the clouds cleared for the first time in a little while and a bit of the blue sky appeared.
We had a few contacts in town from before but none of them produced a shelter for the night. Unsure of what to do, we started walking out of town, eyeing up different roofs. When we were passing a house with a very agreeable car port, we asked if we could camp under it. The lady of the house had no problem with it. Half an hour later, she emerged once again and offered us to relocate to their guest cottage, that also doubled as an asado room. There was a fire pit in the corner and all the things needed to roast a BIG piece of meat were found therein. Once again we dozed off under a sweet tin protection from the elements raging outside.
In the morning Eleana and Fidel invited us to their kitchen to share some mate and converse a bit. We spent about an hour happily sipping on the ¨bombilla¨ and then Fidel drove us back to town and dropped us outside of his shop called ¨Casa de Mate¨. As soon as we finish posting this post, we will be on our way to share an afternoon mate with him there:) Chao.P.S. We were thinking lately: should we change the background colour of the blog to white? A few people told us that it is easier to read. What do you readers say?