I’ve spent the past month in the Andes. In 30 days, I slept In 24 different places. It was the most movement this year, and thereby the most intensive traveling I have done in my whole life. I traveled light–only with a couple t-shirts, a pair of shorts, jeans, and winter layers. I knew I was traveling south and I new penguins lived there. In school I was told that penguins liked the cold, so I brought a winter coat. My goal was to reach Ushuaia, the end of the line; the end of the continent.
I left my computer, and half of my backpack in Buenos Aires. I know I abandoned the blog. I know I abandoned you. But, I kept notes and now I’m ready to share my past month. The text in “quotations” is directly from my little black book.
I ventured southwards via Pinamar, a small coastal town south of Buenos Aires.
Buenos Aires is also the name of the province that the capital is in. Buenos Aires Province is the province that is most tangled up in the effects of climate change and sea level rise. The coastal aquifers are endangered by salt-water intrusion, which would taint the freshwater supply to the densely populated Buenos Aires metropolitan region. In addition, the low-lying suburbs of Buenos Aires’s and the stretch of small coastal towns down the Atlantic coast are on the lie on the front and take the largest beating from the sea. These coastal towns, which are visited by many of the capital city’s residents to between December and February, the staggeringly hot and humid summer months are also vulnerable to the impacts of coastal flooding. Pinamar is one of those towns.
“I’m in Pinamar, a small beach town only three hours south of Buenos Aires. It took us six hours to get here though. I came down here–the long way–with Misha last night. We left the capital on a 1:45 AM sleeper bus to Mar Del Plata, then we took a two hour shuttle to backtrack. The Long Way Around—I understand what the Dixie Chicks were singing about. There was a midnight bus that went directly to Pinamar, but we got to the bus station too late to get seats on it. Instead we had to overshoot our destination then reverse course on a new bus. We’re with Mike, a South African guy who seemed significantly lost at the Mar Del Plata bus stop. Being the only other gringos there at the bus station at 5 in the morning, he came up and chatted to us about our plans. He changed his plans and followed us to Pinamar. He was wearing a bowling hat and holding a plastic boo-boo-zeila (I’m not even going to attempt to figure out how to properly spell that word) blow horn. Since he completely redirected his plans after he talked to us, and ended up in a 3 bed dorm room with us in Pinamar, I got slightly weirded out that he was going to rob us or hurt us, but we haven’t been robbed or hurt yet, so it’s probably cool.”
In retrospect, that guy was a totally useless traveler. He had no idea how to find a hostel, no idea how to get around Argentina. We even cooked him dinner that night because he didn’t know how to do that.
“We dropped off our stuff, then went out to search for a place to rent surfboards. Just strolling across the beach on the hazy morning, we came across the lifeguard clubhouse. It was decked out with couches, radios, and lifeguard supplies inside of an abandoned cargo container. Misha took the lead and started asking the happy-go-lucky life guards where we could rent a board for the day. We were told of a place in the next town over, a fabrica de tablas in Valeria Del Mar. We hopped on a bus and headed over to the next town. We rented boards, got smashed up in the waves, swallowed lots of seawater, and had very little luck surfing. The ocean won, as it usually does, so I retired to go and have a nap on the beach.”
I’m seriously afraid of getting chomped by a shark. We were the only two people out in the water, so that was probably good exposure therapy for me.
In the crevasses between my head hairs, I brought sand from the Atlantic shores into the Andes. I thought that was pretty cool.
I spent the next day, every single one of its 24 hours on a bus from Pinamar to Bariloche. We crossed La Pampa, a province south of Buenos Aires. In La Pampa, the scarcely populated ranches turn into endless plains of shrubbery, then the plains just turn into a void. It was surreal to go to sleep in a landscape of recognizable countryside farms and wake up in a sandy abyss. Around every corner I was looking out for the Andes, anticipating them to rise up abruptly from the desert around each bend.
“I’m reading Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonia Express. It’s a surprising comfort. I’ve found something that I can relate to: the voice of another solo traveler. He’s an entertaining writer, got good stories—although he must be partly bluffing. He’s traveling by train from Boston to Patagonia in ’79 when the world was very much a different place. Countries were ending their dictatorial regimes, the U.S. ran the Panama Canal, and Jorge Louis Borges was still alive. Theroux spent his days in Buenos Aires reading to the blind writer. The book is good stuff, also fun to have him catch up to me as he was zipping down by train and I was rumbling by on a dirt road through the desert. No matter how much you talk about and share your experience traveling—no one can relate to such an individual experience. But Theroux is able to connect. Maybe I need to look more to books for company during these stretches of solitude.”
On that note, here’s a Theroux quote I found in the book:
Reading alters the appearance of a book. Once it has been read, it never looks the same again, and people leave their individual imprint on a book they have read. One of the pleasures of reading is seeing this alteration on the pages, and the way, by reading it, you have made the book yours.
Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest. Have a nice time, people said to me at my send-off at South Station. It was not precisely what I had hoped for. I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort, an experience of my own company, and in a modest way the romance of solitude.
Back to my solitude and my black book.
“Driving across the desert. For 10 hours, no tree or shrub higher than ankle height. Occasional towns, few trucks, saw a pack of alpaca, or llama. Not sure. Only signs of human life are of what has come before. There are doghouse-sized mausoleums on the roadside memorializing people who set across the desert, but never made it to the other side. I’m on the top floor of the bus. All but four got off this morning, before we left to pass through the void. Sleepy cabin. Nothing has stirred all day, mirroring the lifelessness outside. There are fences and gates marking property, but no signs of habitation. Dust. Swirling dust. The bus rumbled. The driver drove over the siding of the road, and onto the safety strip. Brrrrrrmmmppppp. He must be exhausted looking out into nothingness. How often do the drivers switch? No way this guy has been driving straight for 20 hours. I hope.”
“Its dry. Dried up riverbeds, drainage canals with no drainage. As far as I can see through the dust, there are no Andes. Outside of Baires, everyone is much friendlier. Tranquilo. Slower pace of life. The man from Bariloche is sitting in front of me asked me what I was taking pictures of. I guess he’s used to the landscape outside. To him it’s probably boring. To me, it’s like laying eyes on a new species. He told me about a volcano that erupted here two years ago. See some of the detritus scattered.”
I remember when the Andes appeared, like a curtain hanging from the sky to change the set. The landscape changed. Mounds turned to hills, shrubs turned to bushes. Then eventually hills became impressive ridges and bushes became trees. There was a shallow river with crystal clear water.
“Bariloche is a gorgeous place, the love child of Jackson Hole and an Alps ski town. Bariloche itself looks like a cozy swiss town, but the red sand stone rocks in contrast with the snow capped mountains behind remind me that I’m in America.”
In Bariloche, I met up with Ollie and Elliot, two Bowdoin juniors who opted to take a semester off of college and make up their own curriculum rather than do one of the recommended semester abroad courses. Elliot worked at a dude ranch in Uruguay while Ollie took buses from Mexico to Peru, and then hopped on a flight to meet me and Elliot for Thanksgiving in Buenos. When I arrived after my 24-hour bus ride, they greeted me at the bus stop with cured meats, and an 8-peso (US 80 cent) bottle of wine. They weren’t sure when I was getting in to Bariloche, so they had been waiting at the station for me for a little over 2 hours. When I pulled in on the bus, I saw them before they saw me. They looked like sad, lost dogs not sure whether or not I was still kicking it in the game. In fact they were very happy to see me, since I hadn’t gotten in touch with them for the past three days, they had doubts about whether I was alive and headed in their direction.
That afternoon, we got right to planning for our days spent out in the Nahual Haupi national park. Our plan was to do a four-day hiking circuit between two of the park’s Refugios. I’ve spent time hiking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming and the also in the Maine Mountains and Woods. The landscape in Bariloche was up to this point the most magnificent I’d ever seen. On top of the ridges, we could see lakes, snow capped mountains, sandstone slopes, dunes, volcanoes, expansive valleys, and a cloudless sky only interrupted by the daytime moon. At night, it was a treat to look up at the stars and see recognizable constellations that were there, except flipped upside down from the northern hemisphere’s orientation. The big and little dippers were the wrong way around, dumping their contents into space, and Orion’s sword was pointing upwards. There were shooting stars and even comets. The climate would turn from being in the high 80s to falling close to freezing at night.
“Tomorrow, Ollie, Elliot and two Israeli girls they met last night are heading up those mountains. They both served in the military for the past two years and now are enjoying their freedom for a year. They worked at a Jewish summer camp in Texas and now are working their way south.”
Little did we know that these girls would turn into being the biggest toothaches. For myself, Ollie, and Eliot, living and hanging out in beautiful places in the wilderness is a kind of sanctuary. It’s a time and place to appreciate a slower flow of things and enjoy being in sweet places with sweet people. That’s the sort of attitude we picked up at the Bowdoin Outing Club and I think it’s absolutely the right one. On the contrary, these girls were concerned about everything, making a trip that was ingeniously engineered by Mr. Eliot Taft to be chilled out and gnar-filled into something uptight, on a military-like schedule.
All they ever wanted to do was eat corn and make coffee. One of them would stop in the middle of the trail and say, “do you want mee to maaayyke caaauufffeee?” I’d think, ‘What? No. That’s the last thing on my mind. We’re in the middle of a hike and we will be at the Refugio in 20 minutes.’ Their other defining habit was asking constantly how long it would take to get from point A to point B. For starters that a childish question because it depends how fast you walk.
Over dinner of quesadillas and thick mashed-potato soup that we cooked up in the bathroom to avoid paying the Refugio kitchen fees, they were starting to fret about our food supply. To dismiss their concerns, I propositioned that we could dine on the plethora of wood that was lying around. That was the beginning of our breakup. We split up lunch food and hiked separately to the next Refugio. But, the trip got much more fun after that point. Wood. Gets you out of sticky situations.
The hike between the Refugio’s was only about 12 kilometers, but it was by far one of the most brilliant hikes I’ve ever done. It was up a ridge, down a ridge, through a valley, then up a ridge and down a ridge. Every part was different though and the panoramic views we got off the tops of the mountains were stunning. We hiked through snow, past untouched snowmelt lakes, over mars like sandy surfaces, skidded down sandy dune like slopes, walked through dried out drainages, across grassy valleys, and whacked through thick brush.
A 28-year-old Canadian man, Gerome, who was traveling solo around Patagonia, accompanied us. He was one of the many delights of our trip. He had some epic tales of adventure, travel, mischief, and was plain and simple a good-humored guy to have around.
There were only about 4 or 5 other hiking groups around that we would weave in front of and behind as each of us trekked towards the Refugio. One of the other groups that was particularly enjoyable to have around was a 60 year old British couple that ran a bed and breakfast in the Lake District of England, up towards the Scottish highlights. They both traveled a lot when they were in their 20s, and now that they both felt they were getting older, they wanted to get back into it. The man, I never caught his name, used to travel around Europe, play the guitar on the street until he made enough money to get to his next location. He also spent a couple of months in India, in just about every place I’m heading in February so it was great to get his outdated impressions of India. He spent a considerable amount of time in Varanasi, where I’ll be living for the month of March.
The last night, since we were running short on cash, we opted to sleep outside for free. It was damn cold and I only had a thin summer sleeping bag rather than my heavy duty zero degree bag that I sent home before flying into Argentina’s summer season. That bitterly cold last night got us more than ready to get back to the hostel and get a hot choripan sandwich from a vendor in town.
We hiked out of the park the next day. A slow 18 kilometer downhill strut. Spending time in the bush without phones, computers or connectivity, its always interesting to see what happened in the world upon reconnecting to the modern world. In our time away, Nelson Mandela died. More personally, I found out that my grandmother fell, broke her hip, had half her hip replaced, and recovered remarkably well from surgery. She is an amazing strong and resilient women; a role model for everyone in our family. I felt removed and useless being half a world away. In the past year, Nonnie has been lost in a mental haze, a sort of time warp, confused beneath the vice of 104 years of history and memory. Saying goodbye to her before I left for the year, she thought I was off to fight in the Second World War. She’s lucky to have the exceptional care and support of my parents who have barely left her side in the past few weeks. And the Bruces are extraordinarily lucky to have her. A fine matriarch.
That afternoon we started hitch-hiking, our preferred mode of transport for the remainder of our time in Bariloche.
We got rides with:
- An argentine snowboarder our age. He spoke the least and drove us the shortest distance, only a couple of kilometers down the dirt road to the main access road to the town. It was a great relief to get picked up after walking all day, and it got us closer to the choripan sausage sandwiches we had been craving.
- A 30 year old yoga instructor driving a pick up truck. She was amazing. A lot of the hitchhiking was a great opportunity to practice some of my spanish. Those short, mostly introductory rides were right in my powerhouse, completely in line with my level of (or lack of) proficiency. We got her to recommend a place to grab choripan and she dropped us off right there. She had my sold on yoga teachers. I’d sign up for one of her classes.
- A 70 year old ex-physics professor. The next day, we went down to the bus terminal to explore ticket fares to our next locations. This gentleman in a really shabby red sedan picked us up. The car was almost as creaky as this man was. After Elliot explained who were were and what we were doing here, he told us his story, how he lived in Miami about 20 years ago and taught Physics. He returned back to Bariloche when he had a heart attack. His english was non-existant, so I was a little suspect of his professorship, but there’s a huge spanish population in Miami, so maybe so.
- A 40 year old resident of La Pampa drove us back from the bus terminal. He was explaining the currency controls and inflation rates of Argentina to us. He was speaking really fast and I was too tired to try to keep up. On this ride, I just zoned out and enjoyed the brilliant views out over the lake and snow capped mountains.
- A 40 year old wood sculpture at the Swiss Colony of artisans gave us the best hitchhiking trip of Bariloche. He picked us up in a white rusty pick-up truck. Elliot got in the cab and Ollie and I hopped in the truck bed. We shared the bed with a couple rusty chainsaw blades and some odd looking tools and gave each other the ‘lets hope this goes okay look.’ The bed of the truck didn’t feel entirely stable. I think the screws connecting it to the chasis were a little loose. But, we made it, and it was a beautiful ride, especially out in the open air on the lakeside ‘chico circuit’. The roads are lined with bright yellow flowers, that contrast brilliantly with the blues of the mountains, lakes, and sky. This wood sculptor jerry-rigged his car so that the clutch, brake, and accelerator were finger pedals behind the steering wheel rather than foot pedals. Through the rear window of the cab, it looked like Elliot and this guy were really hitting it off. You never know where you find soulmates, right Elliot?
- A 70 year old retiree. The wood sculptor gave us a ride to a trail head, way out there about 25 miles from town. Getting back was a lot harder. We had to walk for about an hour, until eventually a nice old retiree in a toyota SUV picked us up and gave us a ride to the grocery store half the way back to town. He had no patience and no time to listen to me try to small talk in Spanish.
- A 50 year old womanizer. The last guy was obsessed with women. He’d slow down behind a girl jogging, never cease to point out when there was a girl passing us on the other side of the road, and always talk about the best bars and dance halls to find Argentines. It was like he just got out of an all boys middle school dance.
Running off our creative juices from cooking Thanksgiving dinner, we continued the trend and rocked out every night cooking delicious food in our Bariloche hostel. Our meals were limited to a create your own pizza night and competition, a cuban pork and avocado salsa that Ollie man threw together, chorizo pasta, and brownies. Good food and good people. A winning combination.
In the final days, we enjoyed spending time around Bariloche, rented bikes, and explored opportunities to fish. We weren’t able to fund a fishing expedition, but we did learn that in Bariloche, the Rainbow Trout in the lake come from California and the Landlocked Salmon come from the Sebago Lake in Maine. In the 1890s, the fish were brought down to Argentina by Train to the harbors of the east coast, Shipped by boat (via London) to Patagonia then brought by oxen to Bariloche. The transport was attempted three times before it was successfully completed. For any readers who are ES majors and taking Professor Klingle’s Environment and Culture in North American History class. I think this is a bomb research paper project.
From Bariloche my plan was to just work southwards. My next stop was Cafayate and El Chaltan to see Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and see one of the third biggest ice sheet in the world, behind only Antarctic and the Arctic.
In retrospect, looking back on spending time in Bariloche with Ollie and Elliot in the great outdoors was very important for my psyche. They helped me rediscover what a special opportunity I have to travel and discover disparate corners of the world this year. Before getting to hang out with these guys, I was definitely getting a little down and intimidated by what I had gotten myself into. But they, without even knowing it, helped me get my head right and renew my spirit of adventure for the road ahead.
This trip also got me to re-think my plan for the month of January. As it stood before I went out tree hugging, I was going to return back to Buenos Aires and work in an artist residency in the Belgrano barrio. ‘Ace, the artist residency had super fancy facilities and seemed like a great community of artists. But it was also expensive and I decided in Bariloche that I strongly disagreed with the prospect of having to pay to paint. In late December, I discovered a ranch in San Martin de Los Andes, a town two hours north of Bariloche where the owner has offered to take me on as an artist in residence. I’m heading out there tomorrow on a 20 hour bus. It should be a great opportunity to take a lot of the themes I’ve been thinking about over the past five months and turn them into paintings. I hope I can be productive with my time there.
To end this post and get you excited about the rest of the Patagonia adventures that follow, here’s a terrific Walt Whitman quote that a good friend shared:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,Healthy, free, the world before me,The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,Strong and content I travel the open road.
While the Russians and Americans were investing in their nuclear program, the mexicans on the other hand were putting billions into the development of a really really tiny horse.