Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Argentine Atlantic coast (and a bit of Uruguay)

A tail of a Southern Right Whale in Puerto Madryn, Argentina.
South America. A new continent. I’ve dreamt of coming here since forever, and now I’m here. It feels as like I’m starting travelling all over again, as if the last seven months through Asia and Australasia were another adventure entirely. Here is a whole new world waiting to be discovered.

I arrived in Buenos Aires a few hours before I took off, the dateline playing havoc with my body- and actual-watch. It was 1am, and the journey from the airport to the hostel was dark but nowhere near as difficult as it had been in other countries. One major difference compared to other places hit me straight away: there was not much English about. And a lot of Spanish. Although in Central Asia and the like not many people speak English, the first thing people do when they see you’re a foreigner is attempt some words in English; it’s an assumption that you speak it. But here, the presumption is that you speak Spanish. And if that doesn’t work, Portuguese. My phrasebook is going to come in handy.

Buenos Aires is big and busy, but not in a bad way. Its grid-like streets teem with dark-clothed, dark-haired and dark-eyed people in a rush, spilling out of cafes and patisseries, talking with each other in exaggerated manners. The buildings are old and grand, the streets wide and long, rolling gently towards the river which runs straight to the Atlantic. Lined along this river – Puerto Madero – are red-brick buildings looming over the water, surveying the passing ships as they sail out to the ocean. A glinting pedestrian bridge comprising dead straight chords like a harp straddles the canal, forming the shape of a woman’s leg in a Tango pose. Huge, colourful cranes stand gleaming in the bright winter sunlight, nodding their heads in welcome to new arrivals and goodbye to old.

Puente de la Mujer, a bridge across the water in Buenos Aires.
Throughout the city wafts the smell of empanadas. These small pastry parcels of chicken, ham and cheese, or the worryingly vague ‘meat’, are always available, always hot and always cheap. They pretty much form the staple diet of Argentina along with pizza and steak. Ah, steak. Here it’s thick, fresh and juicy. Me gusta.

There’s a cemetery in Buenos Aires. Actually there’s a few, but one in particular is worth visiting. La Recoleta contains many tombs of apparently important people – at least that’s what the size of their eternal homes would imply. They’re massive concrete structures complete with doors and steps leading to the coffins, adorned with sculptures and engravings, scary statues of Jesus hanging overhead. It’s a town for the dead – the tombs form a maze of streets where every corner brings you face to face with another figure of a long-dead fellow, or another window into a musty, cobwebbed space filled with rows of coffins for a family long forgotten. Many of the inhabitants, however, have clearly not been forgotten – or rather their money hasn’t: their tombs are sparkling, the flowers replaced and the candles relit daily. I’m not sure that having a big tomb is going to increase your chances of going to heaven, but at tens of thousands of pounds per year in fees it had better get you somewhere. Eva Peron’s tomb, on the other hand, is relatively modest, given away only by the people in front of it laying roses.

The city is made up of districts, all with their own personalities but all gelling to create a coherent soul. La Boca is a colourfully eclectic little neighbourhood full of brightly painted houses, artistically graffiti-ed walls and balconies containing smiling mannequins waving to the passersby. San Telmo buzzes with locals chatting in the open-air antique markets while painters sit amongst their wares in the sunlight. And by night the streets of Palermo hum with the sound of Latin American music: a closer look into the pockets of people reveals couples dancing Tango, as if the rest of the world were nonexistent.

Colourful scenes in La Boca, Buenos Aires.
I had a chance meeting with a local girl at a bizarre open-air magic show (we were both thoroughly confused) who subsequently showed me inside the world of late-night Buenos Aires. Despite being a vegetarian, she took me to eat steak (she only told me of her disposition after we’d sat down.) A very strange, slightly embarrassing thing occurred in this restaurant. I excused myself to use the bathroom and discovered that someone before me had either had a terrible, inexplicable accident or had carried out some form of dirty protest. The walls and floor were covered in faeces. I retched as the stench seeped past my fingers into my nose and down to my throat. As I stood there trying to fathom what could have happened, another customer entered. He started uttering a string of expletives (I imagine) while I desperately tried to convince him it wasn’t me. I don’t know if I succeeded because he stormed off and summoned all the staff, descending the restaurant into a state of commotion. I pleaded with my host to tell them it wasn’t me; I only hope she believed me. I spent the rest of the meal deciphering more words for ‘poo’ than I ever thought possible.

We went on to a Tango-after-party, where the students of a Tango class continued with their new skills deep into the night (and morning). The faces on the participants were fierce with passion, bodies twisting and jerking in a manner more akin to fighting than to love.

Tango in the streets of Buenos Aires.
Just an hour by catamaran across the bay from Buenos Aires is Colonia del Sacramento, a peaceful village in the south of Uruguay. The old town is a tiny, laidback place, full of narrow cobblestone lanes all leading down to the sea past old clock towers and eccentric cafes patronised by old men playing chess. As I was looking around I caught a glimpse of a face staring back at me from the other side of a bridge. I turned slowly and sure enough there was a white-faced man, frozen in time. A mime artist. Why is it ok for these people to stand in a weird position, stare at you gormlessly, and then ask for money? It’s not ok.

Colonia del Sacremento, Uruguay
Just up the road is Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay. It’s said that the name comes from a Portuguese sailor who, upon their initial arrival, shouted (and mispronounced) the saying ‘Monte vide eu’, literally ‘I saw a mount’. Unfortunately this theory is probably incorrect, not least because there is only a very small hillock.

Plaza Independencia, Montevideo, Uruguay
Even on a sunny weekend, the city was quite peaceful. The small centre maintains an air of grandeur with its main square flanked by the magnificent Palacio Salvo overlooking a statue of José Artigas, hero of Uruguayan independence whose ashes are guarded by serious men in a dimly lit underground cavern. Best of all, there’s a covered market in the centre cooking up freshly grilled meat of all varieties and not much else.

A meaty market in Montevideo, Uruguay.
Then it was back to Buenos Aires to begin the descent south along the Antarctic coast of Argentina. I and my two travelling companions took a twenty hour overnight bus to Puerto Madryn, halfway down Argentina at the top of Patagonia. Given my experience with buses in much of Asia, I hadn’t been looking forward to it, but to my pleasant surprise my expectations were far surpassed: the double-decker had just three seats to a row, all of which were soft, wide and reclined almost flat. We were served lunch when we boarded and a three-course dinner at one of the stops, followed by a light breakfast the next morning, with permanently available hot coffee on board. There are legally enforced standards for the different classes of travel, meaning that the companies compete to provide the same standards at the best prices – privatisation at its best!

I don’t normally spend much time describing the hostels I stay in, but I’ll make an exception for this one. Not only was La Tosca cosy, warm and beautifully decorated, but the staff went out of their way to make us feel incredibly welcome. Best of all, breakfast (yes, breakfast is standard in all hostels in Argentina!) consisted of lots and lots of freshly baked cakes. It’s not what I’d usually choose, but boy was it delicious.

The next day was without doubt one of the most memorable of this trip so far. At the break of day we donned wetsuits and snorkels and sped out across the bay to a point fifty yards or so from the shore, whence a guide led us into the water – right amongst a flock of thirty or so sea lions. I had previously assumed these creatures to be dangerous (they do have rather large teeth), but it turns out that in the water they’re inquisitive and highly friendly. Perhaps they thought we were overgrown members of their family or just something different to play with, but either way they swam around us, under us and into us, sniffing our faces and nibbling our knees. We ran our hands over their smooth bodies, felt their whiskers on our cheeks and looked into their wide eyes as they stared right back at us, just inches away. When we dived under they followed us, gliding gracefully through the freezing water. On land they’re loud, obnoxious and territorial, but in the water they’re some of the most affable and gracious creatures imaginable.

They’re not alone in their splendour. We went straight to nearby Puerto Pirámides and out into the natural harbour by boat. All around us were the unmistakable shadows of whales, many upside-down with their tails sticking out above the surface – a birthing position. The Southern Right Whales come here to mate and to give birth, the rough waters of the open ocean to dangerous for such delicate activities. And then, as if to say hello, a whale came swimming past us, shooting out a spray of water as he dived back into the depths. And then another one emerged, and another. They were all around us, swimming around and under the boat, no danger whatsoever. (Indeed, they’re called the ‘Right’ whale because they were known as the correct whale to hunt: being so naturally curious there was no need to go looking for them! Fortunately those whaling days are now over and they’re free to show their inquisitiveness without fear of callous death). Occasionally, one would rise to the surface, pointing his huge head directly towards us, its incredible jaw seemly forming a smile.

A Southern Right Whale up close - incredible.
The next day we visited the beach of Doradillo, from where we could observe the same whales from just a few feet away, the shore dropping off very suddenly. They would come up close and glance at us, squirt a greeting and disappear again. I’ve only rarely felt so intertwined with nature as I did that day with both the whales and sea lions. Here are these massive creatures, so different from us and inhabiting a very different world, but making contact nonetheless. I felt as if I was looking back in time to a land ancestor far away, some of whose children went up into the trees and then down again to beget us, some of whom wandered back into the sea to evolve into these glorious mammals.

We celebrated by gorging ourselves on a ridiculous amount of fresh meat in a restaurant decorated with maps of the area and pictures of sea creatures. The town itself is fairly non-descript, but it doesn’t matter because it’s the home of some of the most amazing wildlife the world has to offer; something the locals are evidently very proud of.

We popped over to the nearby settlement of Gaiman, an old Welsh colony. Yes, people from Wales came here in the 1870s to start a ‘Little Wales’, struggling through the hardships that the inhospitable land dealt up. Now the tiny village is home to several tea shops, all of which serve, erm, tea and cake. The only thing on the menu is never-ending tea and cake for a set price: we drank a lot of tea and ate a phenomenal amount of cake. In fact, cake was the only thing I ate for about 36 hours.

A lot of tea and Cake in Gaiman, Argentina.
From there it was another couple of long bus rides to get to Rio Gallegos, home of not very much. The trip took us through eastern Patagonia, which is a vast, flat, featureless land where nothing grows and the wind blows hard and cold. We visited a strange science museum obsessed with rotating objects, and discovered a monument dedicated to the fallen pilots of the Falklands (Las Malvinas) conflict, this being the closest city to the islands. The whole place had a very sunken, depressed atmosphere to it, where dogs, tied up in front yards, barked angrily at passersby and the people failed to smile as they hurried to their destinations.

Sunset across the flat lands of eastern Patagonia.
We left quickly to make the final leg down as far as we could go. It took us briefly through Chile, where one of my companions discovered to her great shock that Chile doesn’t like people taking fruit in. She was interrogated for an hour and fined heavily for her misdemeanour. What should have been just a couple of hours in Chile – as we passed through their half of the island of Tierra del Fuego – turned into a whole night, but not because of the fruity mistake. No, my bad luck with transport has apparently stowed away in my bag and reawakened here: our bus broke down in the middle of nowhere and had to limp its way to a kind of junk yard. We spent the night there waiting for help to arrive, but I didn’t care too much because the drivers (a Laurel and Hardy pair who delighted in winding up those passengers who were visibly upset by the situation) somehow rustled us up steak and various other treats. I don’t want to know where they found beef out there – it’s highly probable they killed a cow and cooked it over the heat of the engine.

Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
The next morning we crossed back into Argentina and watched as the tall mountains of the southern end of the Andes loomed. We wound our way through them, past vast fields of snow and smiled as there emerged Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world. South of here are not many people, a lot of penguins and a lot more ice. It being winter, the only way from here is up. I wonder how far I’ll get.

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