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Ch. 5

Chariots of Fireland

By Patagonian standards, Rio Gallegos and Punta Arenas are located practically on top of each other, the distance between them being a mere 250 kilometers or so. Nevertheless, the bus ride between them lasts for quite a few hours, including the rather slow-moving process of crossing the border between Argentina and Chile. When the bus stops at the Argentinian border post, all the passengers have to get out to get their exit stamps from the Argentinian post, after which the bus proceeds through a few kilometres of no man's land, where only sheep and cattle are allowed to walk around in a landscape heavily dominated by the "Danger! Mine field!"-signs. Shortly the bus arrives at the Chilean border post. Here all passengers, including any 90+ years old great grandmothers whose legs ceased to function decades ago, have to disembark and show their passports and luggage to the border control. The officers all carry a serious face, but it is easy to see that they are delighted to see strangers, as they don't get too many people passing through here. They spend a long time admiring and comparing all the stamps in your passport before adding the official stamp of the Monte Aymond border crossing on top of the nicest stamp you have. Sorry. Had.

Then you all get back inside the bus, which rolls on for several meters more before stopping for a major meal break at a small cafe in the middle of nowhere. Here, suddenly, everything costs thousands of local currency money, instead of the generally one digit prices you got used to in Argentina. Slightly confused and/or worried you settle for a cup of tea and patiently awaits the driver to announce the continuance of the journey towards Punta Arenas, and a couple of hours later you are finally there, likely to end up spending the night in a room that costs you tens of thousands pr night. You are in Chile.

My first night was spent in a 15,000 pesos room at the local YHA, which turned out to be a Bed&Breakfast that is run, and furnished, I have to say, by a real life grandmother, Sonia. She is so old she never sleeps, so that no matter how late you need to get in or out, you can rely on her being alert inside, ready to push the button that unlocks the electrical gate and doors. I did neither see nor hear any other guests, which was a bit creepy for a "hostel".

When I had breakfast in the morning, it was served in a grandmothery sitting room with flowery wallpapers, tea cups so thin they would make Callista Flockhart envious, kitchy pictures on the walls and London Philharmonic Orchestra muzak filling the air. I knew I had to leave immediately. In the rush I left my shampoo there, something I handled fairly well, since it really was the first serious mishap of the trip.

From this Geriatric Park I went straight to the other end of the scale; A run-down dump where a fifth of the room rate Sonia demanded of me bought me an insistent promise from an old tooth-less man, that even though Adventure Backpackers Hostal might look utterly full right then, there would most certainly be a bed available for my use later on. I felt much more at home here anyway, so I left my backpack in the least cramped corner of the house and went out to explore Punta Arenas.

My first mission in Punta was to figure out what possibilities I had for getting from there to the Antarctica for less than all the money I had. It turned out the options were not very attractive. Apart from a Chilean Navy 60 day expedition which is close to impossible to get onto and which had left for the season weeks ago anyway, the only way to get to the deep south was to go by aeroplane, on sight-seeing tours run by the Chilean airline DAP. For US$2,500 I could get on a plane to a Chilean station, spend a few hours walking around there and return in the evening. For US$3,800 I would even be welcome to spend the night down there. For a moment I saw the hopes of any Antarctic Adventures on my behalf vanish. Luckily there are many interesting things to see in and around Punta, so soon I was in a good mood again.

One of the first details about Punta you are likely to notice is the large number of small, green squares and centre strips in the streets, full of very nicely kept trees. The city gardeners are doing a great job keeping the trees from looking natural, and especially so at the cemetery. The trees here look like rows upon rows of spectacular clorophyll-filled obelisks, growing tall thanks to the steady stream of human landfill arriving. Wandering down the aisles of trees and gravestones is an excellent way to spend a couple of hours taking in the short but rich history of the area. In one corner you find the graves of the natives that used to live here, wearing nothing but seal blobber to keep the cold away, their graves being kept as simple as the lives they used to live. In another corner you find the "royal family" of Patagonia, the wool baron families, Menendez and Braun, have built themselves a few graves that could easily pass for castles in many parts of Europe even today. And in between the indians and the barons you can find literally heaps of poor laborers and sailors that came here in the hope of earning fortunes, finding only the same life they left in Europe, only in a much harsher climate.

A cheerier experience is to go on a Pinguineras (yes, that's right; penguins) safari to the Otmay Sound. A short minibus ride from Punta there is a small Magellanic penguin colony, while there is a much larger one at Isla Magdalena, which is a bit harder to get to. I was here at the time of year when the new penguins appearantly still had not learnt to walk. This leaves us with lots of penguins who A: can't fly and B: can't walk. While penguins even normally are great fun to watch, having them falling over ALL the time makes it even more fun. I spent hours just watching birds trying to walk up or down small hills, falling on their beaks and sliding to the bottom of the hill, where they would get up really quick and with much coolness pretend nothing just happened, hoping noone saw. But I did.

I also saw ņandus/rhea, the local, smaller version of ostrich, which isn't really an ostrich, but it looks close enough to it to me. Quite beautiful, elegant beings, here only beaten in elegance by the flamingos that were wading around in the subarctic ponds nearby. If I'd been a flamingo, I'd stay in the tropics, but they sure make a welcome pink addition to an otherwise colourless scenery.

Back at the hostel the unbelievably old-looking man had of course failed to remember me, so all the beds were full of other filthy backpackers, but he let me sleep in my sleeping bag under a broken ping pong table and apologized for the slight inconvenience this caused me. I paid 5 dollars for the service, which came to just about one dollar per hour slept, as I had to get up really early to get on the bus to Tierra del Fuego. I did not mind having to sleep on the hard floor, but I was quite bothered by the kibbutz that was going on in the room. Dozens of Israelis were sitting around with guitars, singing Hevenushalomalechem, Halleluja and whatnot, telling each other jokes, in Hebrew, mainly about grumpy Norwegians, I suspect, having the time of their lives. I found my earplugs and left their little world of joy, only to return at about five in the morning, celebrating this glorious morning by cheerily singing Norwegian folk songs, real loud, while packing my backpack with lots of crackling plastic bags. It was a wonderful morning, and I was going back to Argentina.

Whichever way you go to Tierra del Fuego, it carries with it a very special feeling that you are now leaving the real world and going to its very borderzone, where nothing is certain and anything can happen. My first journey there has so far been the most memorable one. It all started just an hour or so from Punta Arenas, where the roads changed from straight and nicely paved to really bumpy and turning. Only Olympic class athletes can recreate the wonder I was fortunate to witness here. What happened was that I was sitting in the back row of the bus, having totally misunderstood the seat overview drawing the nice women at the ticket counter presented to me when I bought my ticket, so I was rather gloomy about missing the great views I thought they must be having at the front row. All the windows on the sides were completely covered by dirt, as part of the bus company's routine maintenance, I think. Anyway, as I was sitting there, we came to a particularly violent bump'n'turn in the road, so that the whole bus for a moment was heading for liftoff. And then it happened; Just as we were coming back down to planet Earth, the toilet door blasted open, and this serious-looking middle-aged man came flying into the aisle, with his trousers around his knees, looking infinitely astonished. His mood was changing very quickly, though, as he started cursing (this was a major boost for my Spanish vocabulary, you can imagine) the road, God, the holy Father and the driver's mother, while he frantically tried to get onto his feet and get dressed, all the while fighting against new, sudden unexpected moves on behalf of the bus. Needless to say, I was thrilled by this new vista, making a mental note that if I on later trips could not get the front row, I should definitely opt for the back one.

I fear that the whole incident may have been just the start of a short and dramatic fall in the victim's self-respect and confidence. We were still some 6 hours away from our destination, and for the rest of the trip he just sat in his seat, looking blankly straight ahead, wearing not only his trousers but also a very remarkable red colour on his face. We who had witnessed the whole incident could not help laughing for at least the next 30 minutes or so, and as the story spread towards the front of the bus, row by row of passengers turned around, pointing and laughing wildly. Ah. The traumatic joys of life.

The second climax of the day occured when the bus stopped at a beach where the road just ended at a beach next to a lighthouse. We had reached the Straits of Magellan. I had read up on this, and seeing it it was not difficult at all to understand how this narrow channel between the mainland and Tierra del Fuego have sent so many proud ships (and a few stupid captains) diving for the bottom of the sea. There is a very strong current going through the straits from west to east, and on this particular day it was accompanied by a wild wind that sent me flying towards the sea when I left the bus. I managed to get onto my feet before I became seaborne, and with some struggle I could look at how the ferry zig-zagged towards us, keeping an almost perpendicular angle towards the beach. The ferry landing here is of the same architecture as the one used for the battle of Normandie; They just drive the ferry onto the beach and then drop some metal plates onto the beach so that the vehicles can get off and the next load can get on.

The bus got onto the ferry's deck, and we set off on our crossing with dolphins and penguins playing side by side in the stormy water around us. It was a slow journey, but after about 40 minutes we landed on the other side. The first thing that met me there was a sign that could have been just a piece of sort of cute, bad English put there by a local farmer, but sadly it was not. Instead it very much added to the Normandie feeling: "Danger! Mine fields!" with lots of barbed wire around. It's only 25 years or so since Argentina and Chile were at the brink of war over the control over some glaciers and islands here in the south. In the last minute the Pope told them to behave, and so they did. But there are still thousands of mines lying around on Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia that noone seems to be in a hurry to remove. Make sure you get a good map with these areas well marked if you want to go trekking here.

After a not so brief border-crossing into Argentina again at San Sebastian, we arrived in Rio Grande on the island's east coast. I had been smart enough to not realize that my ticket was for here and not for all the way to Ushuaia, so while the other passengers on the bus had to wait for 3 hours for the "corresponding" bus, I could just transfer to a pirate minibus which left as soon as everyone on board had paid their 10 Argentine pesos. As a bonus I got to sit in the front and have a conversation with the driver for the next 3 hours. And it went pretty well! I was so pleased with myself about that, finally I was beginning to master Spanish. I'm not sure what we talked about, though, but I think it was something about his kids, and he did not seem to notice that it was actually him doing most of the talking.

Arriving in Ushuaia quite late in the afternoon I was a bit worried about whether I would find a nice place to stay, but I was lucky enough to wander straight onto the YHA youth hostel here and got a bed for ten pesos per night. The hostel has an excellent location fairly high in the hillside, with a splendid panorama view of the harbour. By a cosmical coincidence my bed was a bunk bed where the other bed space was occupied by none other than the Belgian wandering cloud of dust; Daniel. He had indeed gotten onto a plane from Rio Gallegos and arrived in Ushuaia probably even before I had crossed into Chile two days ago, the cheater. We traded stories about each other's doings since we split, and the most interesting story he had to tell was the one about the boat for Antarctica which had left for a 14 day cruise just half an hour ago, where last minute tickets at US$2.000 had been available. I sighed a bit, wishing I was on that boat, but I was quite happy about having arrived at yet another end of the world (I even got a passport stamp saying so) and having secured myself a clean and comfortable bed as well.

Ushuaia is very, very, very beautiful in exactly the same way that the Lofoten region in Norway is beautiful. There's a small harbour full of fishing boats, behind it there is a mixture of large number of colourful houses and grey storage buildings, surrounded by dramatic scenery capped by snowy peaks and an everchanging sky. The view is never boring here, but one can be a bit disappointed arriving here in the middle of the summer and still be met by fresh snow just a couple of hundred meters up the hillside or even in one's face. Down by the sea, though, the parks and gardens are very green and lush, with many beautiful flowers to see. I felt strangely at home here. Looking back on my trip so far, I found I had spent 75 hours on the road getting here, and it truly felt like being a world apart from the hustle and bustle of hot Buenos Aires. It gave me a feeling of having accomplished something, which I think I would not have felt if I had just gone for the option of a five hour direct flight from Buenos Aires.

My mission on my first full day in Ushuaia was to figure out how to get to Antarctica. I went down to the harbour to see what ships were there, and a couple of them were actually going there. Unfortunately, they both were tiny, in my eyes, sailing boats which I reckoned were probably mentioned specifically by name in my travel insurance as huge no-no's. The next option was to try the local shipping and travel agencies, and I got lucky at Rumbo Sur; By handing over US$1,600 they were willing to fax my name to their main offices in London, where someone quite possibly could get me on a boat leaving for the South sometime in the near future. So I put my trust and my money in the hands of the agency woman, who clearly had learned all her English from Russian sailors, speaking with the most amazing B spy movie accent. First thing in the morning on the following day I went to the office again and received the happy news that in two weeks time I would be on a two week tour on the Russian vessel "Mariya Yermalova". Oh joy!

I got a more detailed description of what my journey would be like, and it was quite nice, although basic package. The boat would be 30 feet long, and I would get to sit in the front, so that I could relax a bit on the rowing, since none of the others would see what I was doing. We would get to catch our food ourselves, and we could help ourselves to as many penguins and seals as we would like, both were said to be delicacies, especially after a week or so on the sea with no other food available. We were advised to stay off the whales, but when they heard I was Norwegian they said I could just decide for myself.

No, really, the trip was to be with a quite nice and iceberg-proof (heard that one before somewhere?) Russian boat, especially designed for use in Arctic waters. Since there is no use for boats in Arctic waters in the middle of the northern winter, the Russians send their boats to the other end of the world and lease them to various adventure trip companies targeting mainly the kind of tourists that are extremely old, wealthy and generally out of their minds. The company in charge of my trip was Marine Expeditions, a Canadian-based operation. At the time of writing, the company has ceased to exist, due to problems in the aftermath of September 11 2001, but there ARE other similar options for people that are interested. Mail me if you need more information on this. By the way, in order to participate on a boat trip to Antarctica, you need to sign a document where you promise that neither you nor any others of your country's citizens will do any damage to the fragile wildlife and scenery on the White Continent. Just do it.

After jumping up and down for a while in the excitement, I realized I now had two weeks of void to fill. Back at the hostel I met Alix, a French girl whose skin turned a nice shade of green when I showed her my ticket to the boat. She went very silent and just disappeared. The evening before I had made a deal with Daniel, who was to get up early to go for a daywalk in the nearby national park, that he were to wake me up before he took off, as I was pretty sure I would be really sleepy after my whole day journey from Punta Arenas. I felt that this entitled me to waking him up now, since he had overslept quite a lot by now. I think I actually made him wake up just by standing next to the bed and beam my enormous grin right at him. Since I do not speak Belgian fluently, I just have to assume that the muttering that escaped from him before he turned his back to me and went back to his dreams, must have been his warmest congratulations.

Still grinning from ear to ear I went back to the lounge where Alix had returned after two intense cigarettes outside; She had decided to go to Antarctica as well, and I was to show here where she could get her ticket. So off we went and soon there were two Cheshire cats walking through the main street in Ushuaia, Avenida San Martin, smiling even at the American cruise tourists that had just arrived at the End of the World, who seemed to think about it more like the Butt of the World.

By now it was noon, and Daniel had finally decided to leave his dreams, in which I am sure even he stood a chance of hitching a ride across the Pampa. We went for a short hike in the hills above the city, past fairly friendly-looking fences and lots of "Propiedad Privado" signs, to a spot where we could enjoy a great view of the Beagle Channel on one side and majestic, white-capped mountains on the other.

The evening went by with interesting conversations, first with an American whose ideas of Scandinavia as the perfect society got smashed (by me), and later with Diego, a long-haired guy from Buenos Aires who heard not voices in his head, but drums beating, continuously. After lots and lots of beats and drumrolls I retreated to bed, in order to get up early next morning without having to trust Daniel's wake-up call abilities. I succeeded, and had an excellent day hiking up to El Glaciar Martial. I met drifting snow just two hundred verticals meters or so from sea level, and eight hundred meters higher up I found myself on years old snow, where the local snowboard hobos kept their skills sharp on the steep, snow-covered mountainside. I spent the day feeding on one piece of chocolate, seven hours of extremely fresh air and several litres of crystal clear water, straight from the glacier.

I decided to go north and then return to Ushuaia just in time for the departure to Antarctica, and found my only option to be to get on the 05:00 bus back to Punta Arenas. So I got up really early and went to the bus lot, only to find that all seats were filled by invisible men. I tried to strike up a conversation with one of them, and although he said I could have his seat, he would be glad to stand in the aisle, the driver refused to let me go with the bus. I'm always up for a challenge, and immediately stuck out my thumb and prepared for a day of hitch-hiking. The first car that came by stopped and took an extra look at me to make sure I did not look the least bit like Daniel, and then let me in. It was actually a cab driver who had finished his shift and gave me a ride for free to the police road station, where all trucks have to stop and report on what their cargo is and where they are taking it. It was a beautiful morning, but also a freezing cold one, so I told the police officers on duty my miserable story, and they took pity on me and instructed the very next truck driver to come along to give me a ride.

The driver was very interested in what life in Norway is like, and I tried really hard to answer all his questions using pretty much all the Spanish I had picked up so far. Four hours later he dropped me off in Rio Grande, where he told me that he was now pretty sure he would never ever go to Norway if it was up to him. It may have been something I said. That was no problem, since I had arrived in Rio Grande well before the bus from Ushuaia, and after a change of driver all of a sudden I was very welcome to join the party in exchange for 25 dollars. The first driver probably just had a bad day. Nevertheless, I was now going back to Chile.

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Ch. 5