50% report

Dear Watson HQ,

David Waggonner is a New Orleans-based architect who works closely with Dutch urban planners as he tries to prevent the horrors of Katrina from reoccurring in his city. About a year ago, I had a phone call with Waggonner while my application was under review and completely out of my control. Although a significant amount of time has passed, I think about that phone call often. He spoke about his work with enthusiasm. His passion for addressing the risks cities face inspired me. Writing this 50% report, a remark he made—in his soft-spoken and amiable southern drawl—came to mind: “You know, the problem with starting in the Netherlands is that it’s like eating the icing off the cake. You’re doing the best part first.”

After the Netherlands—where flood protection is built so flawlessly into the cityscape its presence goes unnoticed by the majority of Dutchmen—anywhere could be seen as a letdown. The Dutch have been managing water for 800 years; Argentina has only been a country since the end of the 19th century. There aren’t architects and planners thinking about climate adaptation; there is no flood protection infrastructure to sketch.

That does not mean that I haven’t had an important three months here. I’ve learned heaps about a new country, a new culture, and a new a city. It’s been a powerful experience. In fact, spending time here only complicated and expanded my insights on the intersection of cities and climate.  Living in Buenos Aires has reinforced the notion that there is no universal solution to these climate problems; the problems that need to be addressed are as diverse as the geography, cultures, and histories of the cities themselves.

The Netherlands is the northernmost country I’m visiting and Argentina is the southernmost. In many regards, the two countries are just about as polarized on this issue as their geographies. The Dutch have implemented projects that protect their citizens for the risk of a once in 10,000 years flood event. The government of Argentina struggles to provide vast swaths of Buenos Aires with basic amenities like light and water.

The Argentine government has neglected to upgrade the city’s faulty power grid and supply does not nearly match the demand of the growing metropolis. The city has been struggling with power outages during one of the hottest summers on record. Many Porteños spent their Christmas and New Years holidays in the dark, boiling in 40-degree (Celsius) heat. Riots have ensued as a result. I’ve listened to the negative public opinion of the city’s direction; I’ve witnessed street blockages and the riots. Buenos Aires has showed me how climate problems can be exacerbated by government mismanagement.

Government inaction not only causes hot problems, but also wet ones. When it rains, water piles up on the curbside rather than flowing through the runoff sewers. The existing system hasn’t been updated since the 1960s.

To complicate these problems, Argentina has an unstable economy, and is tapering towards a financial crisis. How can Argentine citizens plan ahead and invest in climate adaptation, how can they pay a premium for risks that are predicted to occur in the next 50 years, if they are not able to save their income from one year to the next. Inflation rates are as high as 40%. Prices change every couple weeks. There’s a feeling of instability.

I am more personally affected by the black market exchange rate. The Argentine valuation of the U.S. dollar is about 150% of the official ‘pegged’ government exchange rate. I’ve had to exchange currency behind the veil of drawn blinds and within the security of double chain doors and security cameras. These concepts are so foreign to me having grown up where I did. I learned a lot from adjusting to a cash economy with numerous exchange rates for a few months. But I’ve learned more from living among people who have this tattered economy as their reality.

The level of poverty in Buenos Aires was new to me. (I’m sure extreme levels of poverty will become more exposed to me in the next six months as I enter the megacities of the east). One of my first days in South America, I saw a man sitting on the curb on the fringe of a Buenos Aires’ villa, a shantytown community squatting on Retiro station’s railroad property. He finished a plastic bottle of coke and threw it onto the street. I knew that the bottle had a good chance of flowing into the Rio de la Plata River, one of the most polluted in the world. Had this been at Bowdoin, I might have immediately confronted this man, aggravated by his action. But, being vocally crippled near a rough neighborhood, I kept my silence. Here, I was also more sympathetic.  How can someone care to be a steward of our planet, if the world hasn’t necessarily been a steward of him? I have no idea what his background was, but I knew for sure that he lived within a world of poverty and destitution that I have only really ever experienced within the binding of books. Is environmentalism only a concern of the privileged? How do we balance economic progress and environmental stewardship?

Learning a new language was one of the main themes of my past three months and one of the most rewarding parts of my experience here.

I got to Buenos Aires a couple days after I sent in my first quarter report. On the plane ride here, I sat next to a very pleasant couple from Buenos Aires. At least they seemed pleasant. I couldn’t engage in conversation, past telling them my name and proclaiming that I was ‘good!’ Standing out on the street for the first time, I remember feeling as though the world was spinning faster than it normally does. ‘Is this just a physical sensation of being tipped upside-down in the Southern Hemisphere?’ I joked to myself. I was hyperaware of signs, voices, and traffic patterns. It was all unknown and misunderstood; everything was curious. It was like being a child once again.

Being such an outsider teaches you humility that I would imagine is hard to learn elsewhere. I was raised to be capable– if not excel– in social, physical, academic arenas. When I came into Buenos Aires, I didn’t have the vocabulary to buy fruit and vegetables. The simplest everyday tasks were challenges. I tried to take on the tasks completely unabashed and eager to learn. Along the way, I gained important lessons in patience and humility, everyday was a blank page and I saw the world with a newfound attention to detail.

In my first couple weeks, I felt that it was especially important to try to rebuild (‘re’ is generous) my Spanish skills. I took classes for my first three weeks here. Now, after three months of immersion, travel and time spent living with an Argentine family, I’m proud to say that the world has stopped spinning so fast.  Earlier today, I had a conversation with a Columbian man on the 152 bus. We talked about the differences between Buenos Aires and Bogotá. I learned more than I had ever imagined by immersing myself in a new place. I wouldn’t say that I’ve reached any level of Spanish fluency, but I’m capable of asking questions, stating my opinions, and recently I’ve even been able to make some people laugh. Well—I’ve made people laugh since the first day, but recently I have a feeling they are laughing with, not at me. I know for a fact that if the October David met January David, he would greet me with a high five and a pat on the back. I’ve learned more than I had imagined and exceeded my expectations. I count that as a success.

The second theme of this second quarter was actually ‘experiencing’ the science of climate change I had only ever read about before. In Buenos Aires, I’ve lived in a heat wave. I spent sleepless nights, rolling around half-naked above my sheets in sweltering heat and dreaming of getting buried in fresh snow.

I stared down three separate tongues of the Southern Ice Field, the third largest reserve of fresh water in the world. I felt the glacial wind knock me back onto my heels. I traveled the length of the ice field. The first tongue I saw was eight hours, and 900km from the third one. All three were connected by one great spine through the Andes. I experienced the size.

I witnessed a calving event that made the rocks I was standing on rumble. The breaking ice emitted a minute-long growl, like thunder’s sound waves looming over me for an eerily long time. I looked out over the glacier expecting to see a mountain of ice tumbling into the lake, but only saw car sized-boulders rolling off the top that looked as insignificant as pebbles. Something as relatively minute as that had such sheer force. I saw the size, volume, and power of the glaciers in the flesh.

Traveling through Patagonia was enlightening and inspiring. I traveled from Buenos Aires by bus, so was able to put a scale on the world that you can’t achieve by air travel. I was moved by the magic of traveling, staying in 10 different places in 12 nights, meeting families, shopkeepers, seeing the country outside of the capital. I felt like I was on the frontier. I was able to read more than ever before and taught myself how to juggle. After the Netherlands, which isn’t much bigger than New York City, Argentina introduced me to the wonders of travel.

Glacier spotting in Patagonia, I had an internal moral debate about my plans for January. I was accepted to paint in an artist residency in Buenos Aires, but the only caveat was that it was expensive, so much so that I would have had to be much more cautious about my budget in the second half of the year. Traveling introduced me to a bohemian way of doing things and taught me to take advantage of new acquaintances fresh opportunities that are presented ‘on the road’. Through connections, I found the owner of a ranch in San Martin de los Andes who invited me out to stay with her and paint in her barn. The opportunity turned out to be fantastic.

For two weeks, I lived with a family. It was a homestay where I learned more about the Argentine way of life than I would have staying at the artist residency, likely living in an apartment alone and working in a international setting studio space. The ranch was 30 miles removed from Internet, cell service, and groceries. It doubled as a lunchtime restaurant so the staff there was young and welcoming. It was remarkable, the food exquisite. It was certainly one of the highlights of my year and I was able to be productive painting and drawing, disciplined with my homemade artist residency.  If that stretch was the highlight of these months, yesterday I experienced a low.

Yesterday, while crossing the dauntingly wide twelve lane boulevard, 9 de Julio, I witnessed a collision between a car and a motorcycle. You usually need to cross in three segments. I was standing on a middle island when I saw a motorcycle speeding through trying to catch a yellow light before it turned red. My eyes followed the speeding bike. I saw a car illegally maneuver out of one lane into the path of the bike. Time slowed as I watched the bike collide with the driver door, ripping the handlebars off the bike and tossing the man like a ragdoll twelve feet into the air and land on his head. His sneaker flew about five lanes and slapped the tarmac as the busiest and loudest road in the city fell silent. I almost threw up as I thought I just witnessed someone die. He lay on the ground, but after a couple minutes began to shake his leg. There were masses of people around, many trying to help. Knowing I was useless I continued towards home, unsure of the outcome. That experience was shocking and rattling. It was a reminder of the unpredictability and fragility of life. It was a gruesome reminder of risks and vulnerabilities that can appear in a flash.

As in my 25% report, I’m writing to you at a point of transition. I’m starting to solidify plans for Mumbai half a world away. I’m excited for what’s yet to unfold, but I’ve also been nostalgic for the past: not only the distant past with friends and family in the U.S, but also time from earlier on this year. I’ve been ecstatic traveling, but at times also longing for stability. I assume the roller coaster of thoughts and feelings are natural, and right, and probably can only enrich my experience.

Thanks for everything.

Best wishes,

David

Quechuquina

I’m in love with Dulce de Leche. I need no mistress in my life. I have Dulce. It’s delectable on toast, bananas, ice cream, apples, and many many other things. I once mixed it with avocado. That was surprisingly off-putting. Not recommended. The girls at Quechequina introduced me to taking full spoonfulls of it. The stomache-wrenching ache you get 10 minutes later is totally worth it. Drinkers deal with headaches after a night out; I’ll deal with bellyaches.

__________________________

I got back to Buenos Aires yesterday after a 20 hour bus ride across the country. I booked my ticket early, so I was able to claim the best seat on the whole bus. I was on the top deck, in the solo aisle, right above the cockpit. I had a 270 degree view out the front windows to look out over the dust-blown desert, stagnant farm towns of La Pampa and look out at the constellations of the night sky. There are pretty much three segments of the trip back to Buenos Aires. The first part is through the void, the Andes’ rain shadow. Next are expansive farms of La Pampa, and finally, as you cross into the Buenos Aires province, where over 75 percent of the Argentine populous lives, the landscape starts to look inhabited.

IMG_6265

This is quite a sight. It’s about two and a half hours east of the Andes in a small desert town.

I’d like to remark on the institution that is Argentine bus travel. Middle to long distance bus travel is much more popular in Argentina than it is in the United States. Most Americans tend to fly with discount plane fairs–or drive themselves– any distance that is over 8 hours by road. Here, cheap flights don’t exist. There are only two airlines that fly domestically. For the majority of people, taking a sleeper bus is the only way to cover ground within the country.

Here are notes from my book:

“At Retiro station–the central bus terminal in Buenos Aires–the departure deck is lined with about 60 double decker coaches that line up and stretch out into the horizon. Perfect for a drawing 1 exercise in perspective.

The station is always filled with a mix of locals, foreigners, rich and poor. All barrios come together. The young the old. It’s a sample size of the country. Walk here through Recoleta, then past the villas. The thin line bordering huge economic disparity.

The calming voice of the announcer over the PA system contrasts with the impassable throbs of people.

Relaxing warmth of a cloudless summer day at dusk.

I remember the first time I was here–going to Iguazu–sensed a chaotic disorganization in the bus system. Nothings really on time. Now I understand it and feel at home here in the gateway to other parts of the country. I know the system. Comfortable in the chaos. Anything less would feel eerie. It’s real. It’s departure, arrival. Tears, hugs, love, loneliness, excitement.

Someone next to me is bringing a fishbowl back from the capital back to home, I assume some place he can’t buy a fishbowl in town.”

My time spent on these buses has reached close to a full work week. (36 hours to Iguazu and back, 20 hours to Bariloche, 8 hours from Calafate to El Chalten and back, 16 hours from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia, then 42 hours from Buenos Aires to San Martin and back). I don’t really think of it as lost time. I get to read, think, draw, write. The worst parts of the trip are the meals. Likely plastic and more foul than any airline meal, the nice buses serve you wine and alfajores, though. All buses have some sort of mix up between the wiring of the AC and the audio system. Either sounds come out the air vents or air comes out of the speakers. The former is much more of a nuissance. You can always throw on another layer, but you can’t do enough to muffle the noises of the atrocious movies they play.

The buses never run on time, but they are always ‘on time.’ Once, my bus ran about an hour and a half late, but the clock inside said it was running 3 minutes ahead of schedule. Disorganized travel is a theme here. Things usually tend to work out as planned but if they don’t, it is not a big deal.

___________________________

I feel like I got a lot accomplished during my three weeks in San Martin de los Andes. I went out there on a spur of the moment, last minute decision. My original plan was to participate in a three week artist residency that I got accepted to in Buenos Aires. As I was hiking around Patagonia in December, I rethought that plan, as it was signifcantly expensive and didn’t include room, board, or materials. The idea of having to pay that much to paint seemed ludicrous.

I explored other options and found Jeannine Facht and her estancia in San Martin. She invited me down to her property on a lake in the Andes and said that we’d be able to find a place where I could post up and make some work.

I tripped out west, slightly weighed down with guilt from having cancelled on the artist residency just a week before it started. The director was severely ticked off. She told me I was making an extremely unwise decision by forfeiting the networks and resources of the residency, but she said she wasn’t surprised given my young age and immaturity. The other reason that I should have stuck around, she claimed, was that they already taken the time to make a page for me on their website, but copying and pasting what I wrote into google translate isn’t really too hard.

Screen Shot 2014-01-03 at 9.08.14 PM

All being said, I felt awful that I had changed my mind so late and upset the other party. But you can only be young, wild, and free once, right? I have no regrets whatsoever. My two weeks in San Martin were some of the most remarkable of my entire year.

I stayed on a ranch 30 miles outside of San Martin de los Andes. The property had a couple thousand hectares with trails through the woods, lake-front with amazing hidden coves, a saw mill that manufactured pieces for log cabins, and a lunch-house where long-time customers and tourists alike visited for lunch.

The tea house was run by Jeannine and four Argentine girls, two my age were cooks and bakers and two 19 year olds served the tables. The place was open for tea, drinks, lunch, and pastries from noon until nine. There was no TV, internet, cell service, or anything out there. The place had the vibes of Camp Nor’wester. One of those amazing places out in a beautiful part of the world that relies on good old-fashioned human interaction, good food and good company.

Speaking of good food. I was served all sorts of culinary marvels: tongue that was boiled for two days, peeled, soaked in tangy onion, pepper, basil, oil sauce, venison milenesa, flank steak boiled in milk, home made pizza, I was taught how to fold an empanada, home made gnocci, blood sausage…just to name a few things. It was delicious. We ate all our dinners family style, besides empanadas that we took out to a field to eat under the full moon, and the home made pizzas that we ate around a fire.

They taught me how how to bake bread.

I taught myself how to juggle.

There was a ranch dog there, Bones. She looked like a super fit and skinny black lab. But she was some sort of mutt. Bones was a fantastic dog. One day, almost a decade ago, she showed up as a puppy. Someone had left a box with stuff on the side of the road near the ranch and she was in there. Living at the ranch, she has become one of the most capable, least domesticated dogs I have ever met. Bones was an outstanding jogging companion. As I’d weave through the forest trails, she’d keep up but not get in my way the way my dog Ollie does. She would also go off on her own pursuits and adventures to find water, take a quick dip in a pond, or catch a snack. I once saw her craftily catch a rabbit by pretending to maneuver one way behind a tree, but then speedily sidestep and come around the other side to freeze the rabbit in stride. I let out a supportive cheer for bones, and hurried back to the tea house to promote Bone’s accomplishment. It was nothing new, Bones is an expert rabbit catcher, she snacks on a least one or two a week and doesn’t even bother to cook em! She takes them down whole, hair, bones, and everything. Bones lived outside in a bush that one of the girls, Fleur called the portal. She would disappear in there for hours during the heat of the day.

IMG_6192

During the day, I’d paint in my abandoned stable studio, read by the lake, or go swimming. I got to read a lot in the past three weeks. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, about life in a Mumbai slum. Tales of a Shamans Apprentice, stories of ethnobiologist Mark Plotkin’s adventures in Surianme’s rainforest living among natives to understand medical and spiritual uses for plants. In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin’s tales of his Patagonian adventure. City of Thieves, a story of two Russians looking for a dozen eggs during the Nazi blockade of Lenningrad. It’s more than I’ve ever read in my life.

Here’s what I put together there:

My last day there, I hiked up to a peak on one of the hardest of all the trails I’ve done in Argentina. It was vertically straight up for 2.5 hours. At times I was keeled over on my knees huffing and puffing. I got to the top to a 360 degree panoramic view of the Andes range, but strong winds and ominous black clouds prevented me from reaching the peak. The rocks up top were soft, the footing was bad, and I didn’t want to get myself into any sort of trouble as I was hiking alone and I was the only person on the trail.

My nickname at the ranch was Boobs. Here’s why. Before I showed up, Jeannine told the girls that they were going to have a visitor, an artist/ traveler named David Bruce, David ‘Booze’ one of the girls heard and asked his name is David Booze?! A second girl was in the other room and heard David ‘Boobs’ then questioned, his name is Boobs?! They broke down into a hysterical fit of laughter, as they did about eight times a day and the name stuck. For the first two days, they called my boobs when I wasn’t around. After they figured out that I had a sense of humor, they let me in on the joke and it stuck.

San Martin de los Andes

20140114-111026.jpg

At the moment I’m living 30 miles away from San Martin de los Andes, a Brunswick sized town. I’m staying on a ranch where there is a saw mill that manufactures components for log cabins. There’s also a tea house run by five Argentines. They feed me and make fun of my spanish. I’m painting inside of a decrepit stable. I only have ‘un ratito’ on the internet so take these pictures, theres at least 30 so I owe you 30,000 words when I get back to the Buenos Aires sauna. 20140114-111035.jpg

An incomplete water color of the barn I’m painting in. The roof has caved in in the middle and plants are growing through. 20140114-111043.jpg

The tea house. 20140114-111052.jpg

The Thames Barrier, watercolor. 20140114-111100.jpg

Dordrecht, Netherlands boat builders, watercolor. 20140114-111114.jpg

20140114-111123.jpg

Usuaia20140114-111135.jpg

A 26 hour delay.

20140114-111153.jpg

Long boarding BA, che boludo. 20140114-111002.jpg

20140114-111203.jpg

20140114-111215.jpg

20140114-111228.jpg

20140114-111235.jpg

20140114-111248.jpg

The living room inside the tea house.

T20140114-111241.jpg

20140114-111257.jpg

20140114-111312.jpg

20140114-111319.jpg

20140114-111327.jpg

20140114-111333.jpg

20140114-111356.jpg

20140114-111305.jpg

20140114-111342.jpg

20140114-111405.jpg

Acrylic painting, waterfront construction, Venice.

20140114-111418.jpg

20140114-111426.jpg

20140114-111446.jpg

On board, he who does not work, doesn’t eat nor drink.20140114-111457.jpg

Retiro terminal, night buses at dusk. 20140114-111511.jpg

Wild horses visit the barn. 20140114-111437.jpg

20140114-111525.jpg

20140114-111537.jpg

20140114-111605.jpg

20140114-111549.jpg

20140114-111615.jpg

Hannah Bruce on Salta, Cafayate, Cachi.

This is the voice of Hannah Bruce; David’s interjections are in bold. 

This is only part 1 of our vacation. There is more to come. But here are all of the photos. Sorry about the Ken Burns effect. I know its super annoying. 

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKpp-Zl0Zc0
I land at 730AM a little disoriented after flying overnight. Argentine customs was a breeze, since I remembered (was reminded over and over) to pay my reciprocity fee (a bribe to let gringos like me [You are exceptionally gringo. No one is like you] into the country). I grab my bag, clear customs and head out to find the car that’s meant to take me to meet David, whose just made it back from Ushyia [Ushuaia. Way to sound it out, though], the southernmost part of the continent. There was some worry he wouldn’t make it in time to meet me, so ever the planner, our father booked us a room for one night at the Intercontinental as a Christmas gift/contingency plan. [This information embarrasses me]  I walk into the arrivals area in a daze [A daze? This is how to best describe it—imagine Mike Tyson’s pet tiger, for the sake of the story we will call him Leonard. Leonard has been fed filet mignon and Häagen Dazs every day for meals. But one day, an animal rights group breaks in, dodges Mike’s punches, captures Leonard and releases him into the wilderness for the first time ever. Can you imagine how scared he must have been? The fear in Hannah’s eyes was about a 1/10 of that. I was standing right there with a big grin on my face, and she walked right past me, blinded by intimidation] when I hear my name shouted through the crowd. There is David to surprise me. I almost don’t recognize him. His hair is the longest I’ve ever seen it, and he’s got a thick beard. He seems older [#foreveryoung], more mature as a result of traveling on his own for the past 5 months. We drop bags at hotel and go to exchange dollars to pesos. Quite the experience, but I’ll tell you the story in person rather than put it out on the internet [you’re fine, you’ve left the country, I’m the one who will be kidnapped]. We return to the hotel with a large roll of money [I’d call it a stack]. I quickly learn that in Argentina cash will get you twice as far as charging a credit card. With our rolls of 50 peso bills [5 USD] locked in the hotel safe, we venture out. David’s Spanish is great, although he doesn’t think so. He’s able to engage people in conversation, ask for things he needs and is able to order from a café or restaurant. I was impressed. I have my first empanada of the trip, a food that will soon become a staple in my diet for the duration of the trip. [oink] We walk from hotel to San Telmo, one of Buenos Aires’ many neighborhoods. We browse antique markets and fruit stands. We pop into a few shops to find me a hat – the summer sun is strong and I desperately want to avoid sunburn. From San Telmo, we head to La Boca, a bohemian part of the city. Restaurants and bars line the cobbled streets where tango dancers trying to make tips put on shows for tourists. All of a sudden I am tired and we take bus back to hotel for a little siesta. I’ve always loved a good nap. We eat dinner at Francesco, a fancy Peruvian restaurant (ironic, I know) with David’s friends Luchu, Maria and Paddy. [Maria and Luchu dressed up like they were going to meet the first lady. Way to be an intimidating big sister Hannabee!] We trust Luchu [She manages the daily schedule of the Argentine minister of health, so she can order food for a couple of Bruces] to order for us and all eat family style. We feast on ceviche, salmon, grouper and steak fried rice. David chooses a wine from Salta, in the NW part of the country and where we are headed on the 25th. After dinner, we cram into Patty’s VW Golf [He gave us a sweet rundown of the city. As always, it’s awesome to ride around windows down on a warm summer night, packed with music, friends and family. It was good, really good]. and grab a drink at an underground bar, Atlantic Flower Shop (Floreria Atlantico). You walk into a flower shop, tell the woman behind the register that you’d like a drink and she points you to a large refrigerator door concealing a set of stairs down to the bar. Well worth the trip if you’re ever in Buenos Aires.
December 24th – David and I have a Christmas Eve breakfast feast at intercontinental #thanksdad [I had a buffet with five courses I think #bellyache]. We almost leave all of our pesos in the hotel safe. [But someone brilliant remembered before it was too late] Not a good start. [Could have been much worse] Christmas Eve is a quiet day in BA. [good rhyme Eminem] Xmas Eve is a day for people to be with the families and isn’t the large commercial ordeal that starts at Halloween, which I am grateful for. It’s 90 degrees out, so it’s hard to remember that it actually is Christmas. Museums and stores are closed, but David and I set out to walk around the Recoleta neighborhood [Hannah’s impressions of neighborhoods: In La Boca, “this is nice, I like it!” San Telmo, “Ohhh! This is my new favorite!!” Recoleta, “I think this is where I would live” and I said, “yes, of course you would, this is the nicest, wealthiest, safest neighborhood in Buenos Aires”] and the Cemetery. The Cemetery is [an] incredible [waste of space]– a small village of intricate and ornate mausoleums and graves.  I had to snag a look at Eva Perons grave. I’m such a tourist. Many of the tombs are very intricate complete with stone and marble cravings and detailed wrought iron gates. David’s favorite is one made of wood with a corrugated tin roof. It doesn’t fit in at all among the splendor, but it is clearly meaningful to the owner of the plot. [or could just be the landscaper’s shed] Sweaty [speak for yourself, please] and tired, David and I caved and sat on a shaded patio at a Starbucks [this is so embarrassing] to cool off. David was thrilled about the chance to indulge in an iced coffee after a month of travelling in Patagonia [trudat]. Feeling recovered, we continued to walk towards the Japanese Gardens, which were closed for the holiday. Tired of walking and disappointed the gardens weren’t open we hopped in a cab and headed to the Palermo barrio, the soho of Argentina. Cute boutiques, restaurants and cafés line tree-shaded streets. We find a place for lunch – gazpacho and split a salad. On the way home, we stop to pick up a pint of ice cream from Freddo, David’s [Argentina’s] favorite ice cream shop, and a popular chain in Buneos Aires. We drop the pint in the freezer of the apartment one of David’s friends has let us crash in while he’s home in the States. Thanks Misha! [Thanks buddy!] Since everything is closed, we decided to cook dinner at home. We rush over to the Disco, the local grocery store before it closed to get food to make our Christmas Eve feast. [I didn’t check the expiration date of any of the food I got. Rookie move.] We (David) spent the evening cooking, planning our adventures in Salta, looking at photos from David’s month in Patagonia (newly added to my bucket list of places to see) and enjoying some wine. David cooks chicken, grilled eggplant and large bell peppers with egg inside. David has brought back glacial melt water to drink, which of course I’m skeptical of #citykid. [she looked at it as if there was a cockroach giving birth inside] We open some stocking presents from our parents and watch Despicable Me 2. It’s bad [But the minions crushed it] so we give up half way.  I’m happy to be with David over Christmas. [heart warming] I would have hated for him to be alone over the holidays. And this wasn’t exactly a sacrifice on my part to be away from home. We both head to bed feeling quite ill. [My stomach was performing the opera] Food poisoning had to happen at some point.  Argentine eggs aren’t refrigerated at the store, but we ate them anyway. Or maybe it was the chicken… [Benjamin Bruce and I were chatting via Face Time when the food poisoning made itself known—a bonding moment for all!]
December 25th  – Off to Salta!  After little sleep we are up early to catch our flight. We down some coffee and a bite of granola, lock up the apartment and we are on our way backpacks in tow. Argentine airports are like bus stations. Security is lackadaisical at best.  You don’t need to remove liquids from your bags or your shoes. [What liquids were you carrying in your shoes, Bee?] No one checks your ID. The flight is delayed. Typical. We post up for a nap on the floor. The flight gets delayed again. We grab a bottle of wine from a Cafeteria by the gate and indulge in some snacks the ‘rents sent over from the States. Thanks for the beef jerky, mom. We play cards to pass the time. David is [so good he seems like] a cheater! [#cantlose] The gate attendant admits the airline he works for is crap. I appreciated the honesty, but not sure his airline would. [I started chatting with the agent responsible for our flight, and share my story about my 26-hour delay two days ago. He laughs about the lack of organization of Aerolineas, suggesting that a toddler could run the airline more effectively then assures me his dimwitted airline will get us to Salta at some point today].  It’s 1:30PM and our flight is finally ready to leave. It’s a two-hour flight and I sleep [‘sleep’ also known as ‘fear-filled body shutdown’] for most of it. The plane comes down for a landing with mountains on either side. It’s a beautiful view of the Andes, but of course all I can think about it the plane going down in the mountains and David and I will never be seen again. Irrational. We share a cab into Salta with two Canadians. Rule #1: always look for backpacks when traveling in a foreign country. It usually signals people on a budget, who are happy to help make life cheaper for you. We arrive in central Salta and find the hostel. David has booked a place he heard about from people he met in Patagonia. We are sharing a quad with two young French men. Co-ed hostel accommodations are new to me, but I try to take it all in stride. At $7/ night, [$6] who can complain? I came to Argentina to experience how David has been travelling, and while I would love to be in a nice hotel [#bratty], it would completely defeat the purpose of my trip. David and I drop our bags and walked to Plaza 9 de Julio. It’s Christmas Day so very little is open and no one is around. We grab a beer and some lunch on the square. We try a local beer, Salta Negra, that quickly becomes a favorite. [Riquísimo!] We also share a milonesa, a thin slice of steak that’s breaded with cheese and ham on top. Can’t go wrong. We continue to walk around and explore town. We visit a few of the local churches and then walk back to the hostel to read and nap. At 9 we venture out for dinner – Argentineans eat late. Salta has come back to life by now and stores, bars and restaurants are opening. We sit down for dinner at a spot clearly designed to entice tourists. Music is playing and a couple dances around the tables in traditional dress. David and I share empanadas humanitas and tamales. We stop for some soft serve on the way back to the hostel. I’m embarrassed to admit it was from McDonalds. [Never! They serve soft serve dulche de leche ice cream. I’d eat it for breakfast it’s so good.] 

December 26th  – We grab coffee con leche [fine spanglish] and medialunas, like croissants, but better, for breakfast and walk to the town square to pick up a rental car from Hertz. It’s manual. David has driven manual before, but is by no means a pro. We drive around a few city blocks while he gets the hang if it. I don’t think I took a breath for about 15 minutes. [Her tension made me tense, it was like she became Jean Grey from Xmen and controlled my thoughts and feelings]. After a couple stall outs and some wrong gearshifts, we hit the road. Our destination is Cafayate, a small town south of Salta. Words can’t do justice to the drive, so you’ll have to check out the pictures. We stop along the route for pictures. Most of the road is paved, but it’s slow going. Lots of sharp curves. We stop at la gargantua del diablo, and natural cave built into the rock. It looks just like you’re staring down someone’s [el Diablo is probably a little ticked off you refer to him as just ‘someone.’] throat. About 100ft high. Maybe more. It’s very hot. There is no refuge from the desert sun. [Except the air-conditioned car.] We arrive in Cafayate. The town is small, built around a central square. Some roads are paved. Others aren’t. Beautiful church on the plaza, which is dotted with cafés, bars and artesian markets. We find a hostel to stay at – not knowing where I’m sleeping at night is new to me, but I trust David. We find a hostel a block away from the plaza, leave our backpacks and head out to walk around town. It’s about 4 and the town is quiet. Siesta. Not much is open, so we decide to get back on the car and check out some of the surrounding vineyards. [We had hoped to rent bikes and cycle around to the vineyards, but all the bikes in the town had already been checked out, unfortunately]. This is Argentina’s wine country. [The beginning of it. Wine country stretches all the way down through the epicenter in Mendoza to then its southernmost region is around Bariloche. Cafayate is pretty far north, but it’s high altitude makes up for its latitude.] The desert climate is perfect for growing grapes and rainwater coming down from the Andes is enough to keep the vineyards hydrated without having to pump in water. 3 varietals are grown in the regions torrentes (white) Malbec and cabernet sauvignon. My first wine tasting. We learn to first check color then smell. Wine should smell different after you swirl it if it’s good. The vineyard is stunning. Sits on top of a hill overlooking Cafayate. [My favorite part was the cactus-lined driveway. The cactuses in this region got huge, up to 20 feet or more! Senior year, I had a cactus named Neil. Apparently he’s getting super big at home. This definitely made me miss him.] We get a tour and learn how to make wine. [You know how to make wine after that? This lady is spectacular!] It’s almost 5 and the vineyards are closing. We head back into town and walk around artisanal markets. Pick up two mini bottles of Malbec [One was called ‘Don David’] and go sit on the hostel’s roof to drink and read. Treat ourselves to a nice dinner on the square. Restaurant is called Turrantes [Amazing you remember this stuff] and came recommended by someone at the vineyard. We dine on empanadas, steak, and raviolis and indulge in a bottle of organically grown Malbec. We sit next to two Canadians at dinner – an elderly couple who are spending a month in Argentina. That’s the life. No obligations – can just pick up and travel. Back to hostel for a good nights sleep. Off to Cachi tomorrow

Ushuaia

I was the first one stirring. I woke up especially early, way before my 7am bus to Ushuaia, so I went out and walked around Puerto Natales before departing. The sun was rising, but still low in the sky because we were so far south. It cast horizontal shadows onto the facades of the corrugated metal buildings. It’s fun being the first person awake in a place. I returned to the hostel, cooked myself some chorizo that we had left over from the hiking trip and complimented with avocado and cheese on crackers. After, I ate a second breakfast that was provided by the hostel, then made my way up to the bus station.

It was a long bus ride through the desert. I was reading The Kite Runner, which was a strong emotional contrast to the landscape. I looked out at the sheep, condors, and the usual sights of the Patagonian abyss then returned to a boy desribing his native Afghanistan in violent turmoil. The bus got on a ferry and crossed a small channel to get us to the Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

IMG_8446

The landscape here was called Tierra del Fuego because the region’s first colonial visitors looked towards the coast from their ships and saw small fires all over the place. The natives would walk around naked and keep all the fires burning to keep warm. Solid central heating system.

Image 10

As we crossed the channel, some dolphins plopped about chasing the ferry.

Remember my story when I first arrived in Argentina about my trouble with the border control? If not here it is: https://citiesatsea.com/2013/10/31/buenos-aires-travel-to-and-first-thoughts/. That story hadn’t ended yet. It turned out, for want of a better phrase, that the guy who completed my file for the reciprocity tax completely fucked up that morning of October 29th. It all came steam rolling back to me here in late December. As it turned out, the nice young man who typed in my file, typed in someone else’s passport number. I had no idea, but I found out very quickly from the border control officer whose eyes pierced right through me like lasers. It got sorted, eventually after a little less than an hour. At that point, my bus was waiting–I was shocked it didn’t drive away–up the road close to the gas station. I had a great walk of shame towards it as all 50 passengers sneered at me.  I nodded my head in thanks as I slumped to my seat in the back. The whole way, I received snotty remarks from the ‘organized travelers with their leather important documents folders.’

We eventually made it to Ushuaia. It was an 11 hour trip. Tierra del Fuego turned from barren land into pine forests and we got to the port town of Ushuaia on the Beagle Channel. I was in the southernmost city in the world on the second longest day of the year. Ushuaia is surrounded by snowcapped mountains. It’s harbor is filled with fishing boats. A few are now washed ashore, infested by seagulls and rotting away.

The next day, we did a tour out to an island that was inhabited by penguins. The ride out there was on an inflatable zodiac that cruised through the bay with its twin 250 hp motors. The captain let me into the back and said I could hang off the side of the boat. We blurred past swimming penguins. In the background, a glowing light illuminated the mountains. It was pretty special. On the island there were thousands of Magellan penguins, hundreds of Genko penguins, and three King Penguins (March of the Penguins kind).

Armony was being sassy on the way to the store to get food to cook for dinner, so I put her in the trash can.

IMG_8469

On my last day in Ushuaia, I hiked up a ski hill to get a view overlooking the town. I sat there and stared off into the horizon, beyond the snowy mountain tops towards the southern abyss towards Antarctica. I wished that I could get down there, being so close. But that would have to wait. I drew a picture of the scene and had this overwhelming wave of contentment. Although I, more or less or completely, abandoned my project for the past three weeks, I felt invigorated, like I had succeeded in travel and discovery. I had never felt more comfortable in my own skin. That felt like an accomplishment. I look forward to going down to the ranch in San Martin and connecting back to the project with a new energy for research. I look forward to have a space and great environment for painting.

My flight back to Buenos Aires was on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the southernmost city. I walked to the airport because I had completely run out of cash at that point of my travels. On route to the airport, I passed the southernmost rugby field in the world. Above the gate, the banner read, “If rugby is only a game, then the heart is only an organ.” I continued to walk about an hour and twenty minutes, not minding the mountainous view off the road at all. Eventually, a taxi driver pulled over and offered to take me the rest of the way for free. I didn’t say no.

I passed through security and sat waiting at the gate, enjoying watching the setting sun on the longest day of the year. I watched the airplane technicians outside patch up a brown spot on the nose of the plane with a large metal bandaid. Society already is engrained with a fear of flying, so I thought it was an imbecile move to do work in front of all the passengers. Then the inevitable happened.

IMG_8778

The voice of Aerolineas came over the PA system and I was informed that the flight at been cancelled. It was struck by lightning as it was coming down to land. That explained the spot. I felt gutted when I heard the announcement. I was eager to get back to BA because I was out of money and wanted to organize things before my sister flew in the next day. I waited for my bag and ended up last in line to get an accommodation. As it turned out, all of the 2, 3, and 4 star hotels got filled up, so I was stuck, along with all my other cronies in the back of the line, headed to Las Hayas, the nicest hotel in Ushuaia.

I was treated like a king to a 3 course meal of spinach soup, king crab ravioli, and raspberry tart and I didn’t mind taking a hot shower, and snoozing off in a king sized bed. The value of that one night alone, was worth more than my three previous weeks. I was on top at the bottom.

The airline wasn’t getting anything sorted out, so I into a cab and headed towards the airport. I waited in line and explained how my sister had just spent 10,000 pesos (of course exaggerating for dramatic effect) to come down and see my for Christmas and told them they were doing a whole lot of damage to a longstanding plan. They got me on a flight. Lucky for me. I heard that the others who waited idly in the hotel didn’t make it out until the next day, but they got another night in Las Hayas.

I got into Buenos Aires at three in the morning, relieved to make it back to the city. I took a nap at Paddy D’s apartment then headed to the airport to surprise Hannah at 7.

Puerto Natales–Torres del Paine

From El Chalten, I took a four hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, a small harbor town in Chile. PN was my favorite of all the small towns in Patagonia. It was less touristy, less expensive, and had the most village dogs. The houses were mostly made out of corrugated metal and were painted all kinds of great colors. I made my way down to PN because it’s the best gateway into Parque Nacional de Torres del Paine.

“Compared to my experience getting into Argentina a month and a half ago, this was an especially relaxed border crossing. The Chileans are super uptight about bringing livestock and agricultural goods over, but other than that, they seem to let people pass freely. I heard that you needed to pay a fee to pass into Chile, but I didn’t have to cough up a cent. We passed through a sleepy old mining town that was rusting away. The majority of the drive was along route 40, the road that cuts Argentina along its Andean spine. (Little did I know that I’d get to drive along the same road in the country’s northwestern province of Salta in only a few weeks). Plains. Cows. Horses. Giant birds of prey. Colossal walls in the backdrop. In and out of sleeping.”

“Chatting with a dutch aerospace engineer sitting next to me. He’s traveling in South America before going to design jet engines for Rolls Royce in Berlin. He had the classic Dutch look about him: slicked back and groomed hair, colored khaki pants, and a v-neck. He told me about a 3 o’clock meeting at Erratic Rock about the trekking loop.”

There is basically no good information about trekking in Torres on the web, so a bar/hostel called Base Camp/Erratic Rock takes the lead with an info session every day at 3pm. They’ve been running the information session for the past ten years to ensure that people who set off into the park have all the information they need and don’t pull any joey moves, such as burning half the trees down like some idiot Israeli kids did three years ago in the park. Torres del Paine translates to towers of blue, the bright neon blue color that you see in the lakes in the park.

The mountain range is much younger than the Andes, in fact it was all formed underground in a magma chamber, then shot upwards into the sky at some point in recent geologic history. The mountains here are not nearly as tall as the Andes get around Mendoza, Argentina, Bolivia, or Peru, but they appear to be much taller because they basically erupt out of the earth as vertical rock walls. From Torres-del-paine.org: The “Macizo de Paine” (the central massif) was formed when hot volcanic magma cooled and turned into granite. Over millennia, this area was covered by layers of sediment, compressing to form rock cap over the harder granite below. Over thousands of more years unbelievable geographical pressures forced the entire area to rise up. The area was then covered by glaciers and as they retreated the ice carved away the softer, sedimentary rock to reveal the harder granite columns below. The result is the jaw-dropping site of almost vertical columns of rock that shoot up from the ground like towers, rising to just below 3,000m in height.

“Puerto Natales is  an amazing place, on the broken up islands of the Pacific. It looks the way I’d imagine a small town in Alaska to look like. More stray dogs than I’ve ever seen. Wolf like about territory. The main street is run by 8 golden dogs, they look like family. They work in a pack to make sure no other dogs get onto the street.”

“At the info session a French woman, Armony, walks in 15 minutes late and sits down on the floor next to me. I share my dried fruit with her and she starts asking me questions. All her questions would have been answered if she came to the meeting on time. Her relentless barrage of questions pisses off other audience members. After the meeting, we started chatting and decided since we were both traveling solo, we should team up and split the costs. We were joined by two other guys and the legendary group was formed.

  • Armony, a 30 year old French engineer. She had a stereotypical type-A personality, and commandeered the trip planning, which I didn’t necessarily like, but I would go along with because she was attractive
  • Dan, a 26 year old Californian who grew medical marijuana plants professionally. He had a stereotypical type-B personality.
  • Bill, a 32 year old advertiser who was pretty clueless. He lived on a different planet.
  • and Me.

Buying food for a 4 day trip with people you met 15 minutes ago is a magnificent wet blanket, but we got it sorted. I demanded that everyone in the group elect their spirit animal. So Armony, the pit-bull, Dan, the eagle, Bill the wolf, and myself a black bear cub got ready to hit the trails. We couldn’t have been more different personalities– it was a very strange hiking experience compared to what I had been used to, just hitting the woods with friends–but it worked out great.

We woke up at 6 the next morning. All the hostels arrange a breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, because they know that most people get up and prep for a big day of hiking. There was a two and a half hour bus through to the park.

I knew immediately when we had arrived. As you stroll up alongside the entrance, the park’s mountains are hanging off in a circular formation in the distance. I could make out three distinct valleys, each one had different weather. I couldn’t decide whether it was more like a Disney Land for Outdoor Recreation or like a hunger games arena. Whatever it was, that sight got me amped. We were just one of five coach busses that dropped people off into the wilderness of paine. The coach busses then filled the seats back up to return back to Puerto Natales. It was like clockwork, a factory line for getting people onto the trail. The park was swamped with people. But still insanely beautiful. I can only imagine how sublime the experience would be if there were fewer people there.

DSCN0972

The roads leading into the park were infested with Alpaca.

DSCN0980

Here are my notes from my experience in the park:

  • Azule of the Lago Torres. Carribean color.
  • Before we caught the ferry to the other side of the park and begin our hike, ran up to check out a waterfall. In the sky, there was an alfajor shaped cloud. (An alfajor is a classic argentine snack–an oreo type cookie filled with dulche de leche).
  • Standing facing Glacier Grey (the glacier in the park is connected to Perito Moreno, hundreds of kilometers away, through the Southern Ice Field) the winds are sweeping off the glacier and knocking me back. Staring down into a vast icy wind tunnel. From a distance the glacier looks like the great wall of the north from game of thrones.
  • Dan the Mt. Shasta pot grower had terrible blisters, told me he has worn nothing but chacos for the past four years. I treated his blisters–then told him to hike in his chacos for a bit. It was as if he had put wings on his feet.
  • Hanging glaciers–> waterfalls coming out of the clouds. Falling from the sky.
  • The rocks and mountains were formed from magma intrusions, vertical walls that were shot out of the earth. Multicolored with distinct lines. Purple to tan.
  • On the trail, we kept on running into a 70 or 80 year old Italian man. I got to talk to him a little bit in Spanish. He doesnt walk fast, but he never stops–like the way old timers play golf. They don’t hit it far but they hit it straight. He walks with a walking stick. He’s got a red LL Bean style jacket, ray bans, and a north face backpack that hangs low over his back like a 3rd grader. Hope I’m that radically awesome and am able to do this kind of thing at an age like that. As soon as I get to a point where I cant get myself out in the wilderness or force myself up a mountain to ski, its probably time to tap out.

DSCN1069

  • Last night, I met a woman who told me she has a great friend who did a Watson some years ago–something with painting and drawing. Now, she draws and records scientific expeditions. She just got back from Greenland where she artistically rendered a study on narwals.
  • The refugios here are incredible. Ski-lodge status. We’re hanging out by the fire here, but camping out tonight and every other night. There are comfy couches and even a bar in the other room. Just smoked Armony in chess. Checkmate after 8 moves.

Day 2:

30km today. 19km with a backpack to Campamento Italiano, the rest was a side trip up Valle Frances (the French valley lies between the English and Italian campsites–nice). Up to our left, there was a hanging glacier with waterfalls running off. The wind was so strong that the waterfalls never hit the ground, just blew off in a spray. Turned to mist by the wind. Climbing uphill. Beside us is a stream of intensely powerful whitewater–glacial runoff. Elegant violence. I always think of my friend Sarah Johnson when I see whitewater. On our trip through the swamps of Georgia and Florida, she would sit for hours just watching the rapids. Striking verticality of the mountains. Granite walls. So far on the trip, we haven’t been blessed by the weather. There’s been a relentless light drizzle. Just bring on the rain! As we ascended the French Valley, a pocket of light broke through the clouds and illuminated the Torres. Real treat. Writing this the tent on my mat. Legs numb. Feel great.

Pot-grower Dan is really funny. At one point he was talking about how much he loved American Spirit cigarettes and how he felt like the warrior on the label when he smoked them, “Grab my war paint and my peace pipe,” he remarked, “they dont really go together but f*** it.”

Day 3:

Long day hiking from Italia to Campamento Torres. Dan and Bill were a bit slow and injured so Armony and I cut ahead to claim campsites. The 3 valleys of the park are three microclimates. Today, we lucked out with the weather. Sunny day today. After the 8 hour hike, we set up camp then hiked 45 minutes directly up the ridge to the Laguna de Los Torres. Exhausted. Legs jelly, but I ran up to make sure I caught the Torres before the sun set. When I got up there, the sun was passing through each of the three towers, casting a triangle of light onto the lake, like a sun dial, as it passed between each of the towers.

We were up that same ridge again only 7 hours later. Hiked up in the dark to watch the sun rise up and over the ridge and light up a corner of light on the tip. Just the tip.

I cooked dinner that night, a three course meal of meat and lentil soup, mashed potatoes, and grilled cheese–or as Armony called them croque-monsieurs. I ran into Audrey Sherman at that last campsite, a Dartmouth ’14 who is good friends with one of my Hanover homies, Matt and great friends with Clare Sutphin from Bowdoin. The next day, we were back to Puerto Natales and met up for burgers and beer with everyone I met on the trail. Early the next morning, I hopped on a bus to Ushuaia. Armony decided to accompany me. It was fun traveling with a companion for a week.

El Calafate–El Chalten

“Booked into the Calafate Hostel. I was looking for a dorm room to stay in. Somehow I got stuck in a double with a lone German–a 40 year old man, boozed up and reeking of cigarettes. His first observation once I met him was that I didn’t have a tent. How did he know such a thing? Was he ruffling through my bag after his 8th beer? He then proceeded to give me an airline safety demonstration of his tent, taking it out from under his bed and showing it to me. He explained how it fits 2 and suggested that since I was alone, I should join him on his hiking trip. I haven’t been back to my room since.”

He continued drinking then snored all night like a huffalump. I was up at 6am and out of the room. I sprung out of bed. Usually I’m terrible at waking up, but I was excited to get as far away from this man as possible.

“Calafate looks like a western frontier town. It had one tree lined high street, the rest just looked like cubes that were arbitrarily thrown onto the plain, the way lego bricks tumble out of a box onto the floor. Except this wasn’t a very big lego box. Just a small one. The flat-topped mountains in the background look like they were designed for the woman who will be coming around the mountain when she comes. Yee-haw.”

The first thing I did when I arrived in Calafate was visit a bird sanctuary. It was really windy and pretty cold. But there were flamingos and other really unique birds flopping around. I was surprised to learn that flamingos set up shop in the Patagonian plains. I’ve always thought of them as residing exclusively in Lakes of Africa. A pleasant surprise, surely.

The next day I did a day long tour of Perito Moreno Glacier. The Glacier is an extension off the second largest ice sheet on the planet, second only after Antarctica. Perito Moreno is the most popular of the 47 glaciers that extend off of the Patagonic Continental Ice sheet. PM is incredibly accessible and is so staggeringly large and expansive that an impressive tourism infrastructure has profited off it. Off of the continental sheet, 13 glaciers melt into giant lakes towards the Patagonian desert. The tens of thousands of year-old ice melts into a beautiful turquoise blue and flows into small streams and rivers which cut the desert and eventually flow out into the Atlantic.

The ice field is the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water.

The park is about an hour and a half from Calafate. I took a bus to a ferry dock, got an up-front and personal look at the glacier on boat, returned to the designed walkways on the cliffs facing the expansive glacier, then returned back to town. Half of the walkways were shut down because the glacier had been calving and massive blocks off ice were tumbling dangerously close to where spectators could hypothetically stand. There were opportunities to walk on top of the ice, but in no means was that cheap, so I passed it off.

That afternoon, I caught a bus to El Chalten. Chalten is dubbed the hiking capital of Argentina. I got there on a three hour bus ride around two of the large glacial lakes. The bus ride was from 7:30 to 10:30, but the sun was hung low in the sky for the whole ride. I arrived in Chalten late that night, spent a night in a hostel, very relieved to see that the German man was not my roommate. I stayed at the Rancho Grande hostel. There, I ran into about four different groups of people I had met at different stages throughout my time in Argentina. The most rewarding encounter was with two Middlebury girls I met out at a bar in BA. They just got off a 3 day trip and gave me their left-overs–a gift box of maple and brown sugar oatmeal, peanut butter!!!, a slew of delicious energy bars, powdered coffee, and toilet paper. They have no idea how happy these gifts made me. Really happy. I got up the next day and rented a tent and a stove, ready to go and spend the night at the foot of Mount Fitz Roy, the tallest mountain in Patagonia. Heres what I wrote at my campsite, reflecting on the previous two days:

“I’m sitting on a sandy patch of land in Parque Nacional de los Glaciares. Its 6pm but the sun is still high in the sky here in the deep south of Patagonia. Mount Fitz Roy is a kilometer from me, towering up in the sky as the tallest mountain in Patagonia. It is marvelous to be sitting here in a cozy patch of soft sand with the warmth of the sun and a cool breeze. Like all of my hiking days in the Andes, today was spectacular. I hiked with Victor, my seat mate on the tour from El Calafate to Perito Moreno Glacier. Victor is a great, unabashed guy from Barcelona. We traded off, taking turns practicing Spanish/English as we hiked up to the spectacular lakes at the foot of the Fitz. As he left my campsite to hike back to Chalten he said, ‘Thanks for making my travels better.'”

“Perito Moreno was amazing. I kept it simple by taking an hour long boat ride and walking the ready prepared trail. No glaciar walking…too expensive. The glacier is staggering. Not only are the 60 meter faces, but the whole thing extends into the horizon, through a valley that the glacier itself carved through a string of mountains. Every once in a while, you’d hear a massive rumbling, louder than if there was a thunder-strike right above you. You’d look out over the ice expecting to see a significant chunk of the glacier falling into the lake triggering a tidal surge. I’d look out wide-eyed expecting to see the beginning of the world end, but be disappointed by barely noticing boulder sized chunks, which looked like pebbles in contrast to the sheer size of the glacier. Just the pebbles falling off the top would cause the ground to shake. The ice was very much alive: cracking, crumbling, and even roaring at unknown and unpredicted intervals. ”

“The bus between Calafate and Chalten was a gorgeous ride through the desert. Alpaca were hopping over fences and running off into the sun, there were turquoise rivers cutting the sandy desert, the sun was piercing through the window of the bus refusing to set. I’m at the bottom of the world, and I feel it.”

That night camping out alone was brilliant. I got to sit out, listen to the wind and watched the clouds that just hung over Fitz Roy. I cooked myself a pasta dinner and watched the mountain. That evening, clouds beheaded the top of Fitz, but couldn’t ever pass over it. The mountain was an impenetrable barrier.

Image 6
A day in the life: solo hiking. Campsite. Peanut Butter & Glaciers. Books. Relief. Built a home. Sweet smells of home.

The next day, I got up early and went on a hike through the wilderness to find a hanging glacier hugging a rocky ridge. I climbed up a mountain to observe it only to find a raw, wind-swept terrain. I couldn’t stand up without getting knocked over, so I had to lodge myself up against a rock behind me so that I didn’t fall off the mountain. Brilliant stuff. I was the only person up there, an eerily isolating feeling. I was staring down a natural force that outdates dinosaurs. The thought was sickening and in that isolation, my imagination started taking control. I pictured an earthquake ripping up the mountain beneath me and sending me into a molten magma crevasse, I thought the giant rocks would get set into motion by the wind and flatten me like a looney toon, then I worried that the glacier would slip off its millenium-old perch and add me to its records of time. I wasn’t ready for that–yet–so I went back down to camp to pack up and hit the road.

After returning my gear, I found a place that made a banana, avocado, and honey milkshake. My favorite thing.

That evening, I took the bus back to Calafate, booked a bus to Puerto Natales, Chile, then found a hostel for the night. Here are my notes from the bus back. I asked for a seat right up front so I could watch the desert.

  • Condor drags carcass of road kill off the road, fearless of the bus hurtling towards it.
  • Desert. Fences. Nothing but a road.
  • Dead alpaca caught on a barbed wire fence. Head and hind legs intact with fur, ribs are exposed, eaten from the inside out. Preyed on by the desert.
  • Sandy plain, snow capped mountains in the mist.

In Calafate, there was a street dog that I was particularly fond of. This dog was a bundle of energy. He wouldn’t ever stop doing what it loved to do. His favorite activity, in the whole wide world was to wait on the street until a car came by. The dog would run next to the car, barking at it. The dog would then get a step on the car and stick its head out in front of the bumper and try to bite the tire. Right before the dog would get smushed, he would dip out and run back to the starting position. Time after time after time. I stood on the curb and watched this pup do this over fifteen times in a row. It was homeless, but knew how to have a damn good time. Fearless.

At this point in my trip, I only had 60 pesos (6 dollars) and 50 US dollars in cash to get my through Argentinian Tierra Del Fuego. I knew that was going to turn out to be a problem, but not something to worry about for now. I was heading to Chile, a country without the same currency controls so I would be able to use my debit card, rather than just rely on cash that I had exchanged a world away in Buenos Aires.