April 18th, 2012: End of the World, Argentina
So I left Asia. I flew from Vietnam to China and then crossed the Atlantic to Los Angeles for my brother’s wedding. Congratulations Nick and Reagan! After some drunken hijinks and a short fist fight that removed one of my brother’s friend’s teeth, I flew down to Montevideo, Uruguay. I flew to this little visited region because it was far cheaper for some reason and I didn’t have to pay any taxes. See, a lot of countries in South America aren’t so happy with the way the US treats them. One of the things we do is charge a hefty fee for them to enter the US on a tourist visa. So these countries, like Argentina and Bolivia, for example, charge the same rate to US citizens who fly in. Uruguay doesn’t, so I went there.
I know why Uruguay doesn’t charge this fee. It is a torturously boring place. It’s pretty pricey and I know of nothing that I want to do here. Apparently there are some incredible beaches, but I still contend that the polluted waters and syringe infested beaches of New Jersey are just as nice, so I feel no compelling reason to visit these. I did spend a few days walking around Montevideo to see what it was about. Uruguayans walk the streets drinking the popular drink Mate. It’s a bitter tea and requires a hilarious amount of effort to consume. There are special wooden mugs specifically designed for the beverage with a shiny metal straw that dips into it. They carry these around with 2 liter thermoses of hot water and a 4 pound bag of the tea stuffed in their arms. The ascetic is very much that of the Native Americans but it’s ridiculously out of place in the hands of a business man in a suit dodging traffic.
The Uruguayan capital is a quiet city that makes golf seem exciting. Try as I might, I can’t seem to find anything that really interests me. Though it’s not a particularly dangerous city, the crime is the only exciting thing and also the experience I’d like to avoid. In one of the plazas, some school kids stopped me to tell me that I’d probably get robbed since I was out taking photos. Well, I didn’t, so that was a nice thing about Montevideo.
Eventually, I gave up my attempts to enjoy Montevideo and caught a bus with my pathetic Spanish skills to the port town of Colonia. This is supposed to be a beautiful place, but I had no time to explore since I was catching a ferry across the Rio Platte to Buenos Aires. The appeal to this is that I get to enjoy a different method of transport, the ferry workers give me a free glass of champagne, and I avoid the $140 fee for flying into the country (suck it Argentine government!).
Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as the Paris of the south, sharing a large population descended from Europeans including a large Nazi expat community since WWII. Its history started with Spanish colonists taking over the land, planning a city, and incurring “resistance from savages.” It’s one of those fun histories of colonialism with a lot of murder and similarities to the manifest destiny mindset of North America, but that’s neither here nor there (sorta like the Incas, right?!?!). BA, as I’ll call it, is the second largest city in South America and the capital of Argentina. Just under 3 million people crowd the frustratingly small sidewalks where it’s impossible to walk next to someone for more than 30 seconds. Many of the original neighborhoods have a European architecture and the city itself is the most cosmopolitan in all of South America. The best steaks in the world, abundant wine, and tango are just a few of the draws here. For all of this, no toilets accept toilet paper. There is always a crusty trash can next to it where you leave your “waste.” Even in a city as large and cosmopolitan as Buenos Aires, this is the case. I hope that their business moguls, celebrities, and politicians have to endure this wondrous plumbing.
I arrived late at night, fresh off the ferry, and found my way to a hostel in the center. For the next week or more, I walked all over the city and bounced around on the subway, exploring what I could with my limited Spanish. I spent a lot of time talking with other travelers at my hostel while in BA. A few of them convinced me to go out “clubbing” with them since BA is known for some of the best night life in the world. My opinion of clubbing is as follows: it is not my thing. Gelled hair and tight shirts, Argentinean pop music, and Spanish speakers don’t make it all that more impressive or enjoyable. Club music to me sounds identical no matter where I am, drinks are overpriced, I can’t dance, and you can’t talk to anyone. A majority of Porteños (Buenos Aires residents) eat dinner around 10 PM and will go out until 8 in the morning, dancing away the night. Most people are impressed with how late everyone stays out to party, but equally impressive is how infuriating the 4 hour siesta in the middle of the day is while businesses shut down so the party goers can nap. I had no need of a daytime nap since I spent about an hour at the club. I’m absolutely no fun anymore.
Argentineans are famed for their partying, yet it is easily surpassed by their love of the protest. Within a few days of arriving in the capital, I witnessed a gathering of roughly half a million people on Avenida Nueve de Julio (Avenue of July 9th – named for the Argentine Independence Day and the second widest street in the world). The protest itself was hard for me to comprehend but was obviously political. Thousands of protesters of many different parties were grouped together with signs, costumes, bullhorns, and flags. The communists, Perons, and anarchists were the only ones I recognized, but I couldn’t figure out their grievances (though it’s easy to guess since the government is notoriously corrupt). This protest coincided with a longer and more regular protest run by the Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo. Every Thursday for the past 30 years, a group of mothers have gathered at Plaza De Mayo in protest. During the Dirty War from 1976 to 1983 and under military dictatorship, thousands of people were “disappeared” for any sort of dissent or activism. The mother’s of those who “disappeared” come together as human rights activists and continue to lobby to find out the fate of their children. Most will never realize that dream.
After spending time by myself wandering, clubbing and protesting, Bridget arrived for her second visit since I left Philadelphia back in August. We stayed in San Telmo, a charming neighborhood in the center of the city. It has a great Sunday market that stretches down a cobblestone street for roughly a mile. It’s like one giant yard sale with musicians on corners and food vendors showing off the impressive ways they can incorporate meat into any type of dish you can think of. Not long after Bridget’s arrival, we took off to see some of the sights in the city.
Our first stop was the famous Cementerio de la Recoleta. It’s a miniature city of mausoleums and streets (complete with road signs) dominating a whole city block in the very upscale neighborhood of La Recoleta. People pay a lot of money to be buried here. I wonder if it’s some kind of voyeuristic desire to be gawked at by strangers for all of eternity (or roughly the 30 years max we have left on this rock). Celebrities, politicians, and generals have bought and erected monuments to themselves and their families here. Among the presidents and other important people you’ve never heard of, Eva Peron is buried here. She’s the lady that Madonna played in that movie Evita, which I never saw. Even though I don’t know enough about the dead Argentinean movers and shakers, it was an interesting place to walk around for the afternoon.
Later, we went to see the Floris Genérica, which is a giant metal sculpture of a rose not far from the cemetery. Instead of calling it by the scientific name, most people just call it that “big metal rose thing,” or so I assume. This thing is huge, over 70 feet high, built out of airplane parts, and one of the new symbols of Buenos Aires. It opens using hydraulic pistons each morning and closes at sunset but we weren’t around at that time to see it happen. There is some deeper meaning to the sculpture, but I missed it. I just think it’s impressive.
Buenos Aires, and large swaths of South America have an abundance of sex hotels called Telos. These less-than-puritanical “lodges” are of the pay by the hour variety. The consensus from talking to Porteños, is that they are an extension of the South American family culture. People here will live with their parents until they are 30 or older in most cases and sometimes even after they are married. Telos are the convenient choice for getting some time away from your parents or grandparents. They’re also convenient for high school prom goers who don’t want to pay for the whole night. Some of them are apparently pretty classy establishments, featuring jacuzzis, wardrobes of costumes, and uniquely branded condoms. I imagine there are even more of the truck stop variety that exist in the dark alleys of America’s underbelly as well. Before I learned this, I just assumed that all the young men with significant others had to make amazingly daring escapes each morning from their girlfriends or repeatedly suffer awkward mornings with the girl’s parents.
Among other shady areas of interest is the neighborhood of Boca. Famous for it’s football team La Boca Juniors, it’s a working class residential area that is generally dangerous and home to groups of stray dogs digging through garbage. The notable charm is a stretch of street called Caminito, hidden behind decaying factories and surrounded by even rougher neighborhoods. Most people visit this colorful area by bus, but Bridget and I walked. On our way, some guy blew snot into his hand and flicked it on me. I don’t know if he was crazy, trying to provoke me, or accidental, but he kept walking like nothing happened. Maybe we should have taken a bus. Gross. Anyway, Caminito is a small street museum of houses and corrugated steel walls, painted in bright solid pastel colors, Tango dancers performing on corners, artists selling their crafts, and restaurants pushing over priced food. For such a shady area, it’s remarkable that this place exists in the heart of it.
The following day, Bridget and I flew down to Ushuaia.
We crossed over the 3000 kms of Argentina between Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. From the air, cruising over the last bit of land before Antarctica, you could see thousands of icebergs dotting the water. The city is in Tierra del Fuego (The Land of Fire) on Isla Grande, separated from the mainland of South America by the Straight of Magellan. It is known as the Land of Fire because when Magellan (the first European to explore the area) laid eyes on the coast about 500 years ago, it was lined with thousands of bonfires. He believed the natives were waiting to ambush and kill him. How an ambush can be effective with such an obvious display is never explained.
Ushuaia is the most southern city in the world and the starting point for expeditions to Antarctica. It sits on the north shore of the Beagle Channel and serves as a fishing and trading port for cargo vessels. The city is not an attractive one. It looks like what you’d expect for a fishing and trading port, isolated and at the bottom of the world and pummeled by harsh weather. The surrounding mountains, channel, and ominous skies are terrible and beautiful, however. The weather is temperamental and regularly resembles what I’d imagine Armageddon looks like.
With our coats and hats and multiple layers of clothing, we got on a boat to make like Darwin and navigate the famous Beagle Channel (something I’ve always wanted to do). The day started out clear and our small crew sped along the channel with almost no other vessels in sight and the tail end of the Andes mountains jutting up around us. Somehow, without even noticing it, dark clouds rushed in on us. In a period of 10 minutes, rain started streaking across the deck, winds began gusting with force, and swells rose up and crashed over out tiny boat. I tried to hang out on the deck for as long as I could, but that lasted about 3 minutes before I was in the cabin, bouncing up and down over 10 foot swells.
And like the way it came in, it just sort of disappeared and we were back in calm weather and a sun shining low in the sky. I don’t know why it is, maybe it has to do with being so far south in the southern hemisphere, but the sunsets hang on for hours down here like they don’t want to leave. The light is a brilliant gold, intensifying the already rugged and expansive environment. All the while, we circle around one of the southern most lighthouses in the world and dock at the tiny islands on the channel. We go for short hikes, stunning views, and dig around archeological remains.
Cormorants (birds that look like penguins) cover islands along the Beagle Channel, sometimes intermingling with the sea lion colonies. The accumulation of their waste over powers the smell of the salt water and diesel exhaust. With the calm weather, the sea lions swim parallel to the boat as we head back to Ushuaia. We have pints of Beagle beer on the boat with our friendly crew and they let us take a shot at driving the boat.
Back in town we look for a restaurant that doesn’t have the ambiance of a hospital but have little luck. I’m ecstatic over the great day we had on the channel even though we spend hours crisscrossing Ushuaia looking for food. Along the streets, curbside trash cans are elevated in metal bins so that the packs of stray dogs don’t rip into them like they do in other parts of Argentina/South America. There are a lot of them around but they seem friendly. Hilariously, 4 or 5 of them trailed us everywhere we went on our food search, like an honor guard. Bridget named them all after awhile.
The rest of our time on the “Grand Island of the South” was spent exploring and driving across Tierra del Fuego, cutting through colorful and simultaneously barren landscapes. The place is magical – harsh, threatening and remote, but compelling and striking. Our last days were spent tracking down some of the remaining penguins who hadn’t yet migrated north. We got incredibly lucky to catch the last day of the penguin observations since they would all be gone within a day. These tuxedo birds, Magellanic penguins, will spend the next 6 months in the north at sea before they return to have some more baby penguins. Like real life, the penguins have mating habits that tend to be decided by the woman. With incredible evolutionary instinct, they make their way back to their exact nest, traveling thousands of miles with unwavering accuracy and clockwork timing. The males are on hand early to make sure that the nest is in order. If it isn’t, the female nags the man and makes him clean it up again or she won’t mate with him. Ahhhh… Nature. Unfortunately, we only had a couple hours with the penguins. This is intentional so that human effects and interactions are minimal.
With that, we left and put Ushuaia behind us, heading the only direction that remained to us – North. We got on a bus and spent 18 hours crossing the whole island, jumping borders into and out of Chile before crossing the Straight of Magellan. A ferry takes us and our bus across while we walk the gangways in gusting wind. We landed on the other side and officially entered Patagonia.