Monday, November 11, 2013

Bus to the end of the world

I took a bus from Bariloche to Ushuaia. It took 36 hours, and covered over 2000 miles of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. For my U.S. friends, that's like taking a bus in a straight shot from the border of Canada to the border of Mexico, with about 80% of the drive through scenery reminiscent of the mojave desert (but a good portion of that was at night). It was pretty rad.

36 hours watching Argentina go by in my La-Z-Boy on Wheels. My seat was the one in the window at the upper right.

What follows is the 36 hours in all of their detail, as narrated by the voice in my head. In case you've ever wanted to spend 36 hours inside my head. Also a lot of pictures of bus food because most of the photos I took of the landscape didn't turn out but the pictures of food did.

Or, for the scenery without the words, here's the video (cut down significantly from 36 hours to 4:20 minutes, you're welcome).

The play-by-play

06:15  My friends at the Green House Hostel had thrown an asado the night before my departure, and so I was full of wine, beer, and Fernet when I went to bed, and still full of it when I woke up 40 minutes before my alarm when the sun rose. I showered, then attempted to pack without waking up the six snoring guys and two not-snoring girls in my hostel dorm room.

08:35  Brian the hostel owner called me a taxi as I scarfed down my breakfast in my normal frantic way. I have Brian a hug, "Voy a te extraño!" The Green House people had been my family for the month, and I really was going to miss them.

08:50  I arrived at the bus station, dropped my backpacking backpack in the luggage bay, and boarded with my remaining two bags: my backpacking backpack, my little school backpack full of Spanish homework and my computer, and a third bag full of food for the 36 hour journey: bananas, water, chopped up bell peppers, mandarins, crackers, cookies, and a half kilo of good dark chocolate from Bariloche's legendary Mamuschka. I settled into my VIP seats (the advantage of booking early--you get to pick your seats) on the top deck of the double-decker Marga bus in the front, my glass bubble for the next 24 hours. The bus was empty so I "nested" by spreading my mountain of stuff all across the front row. Anyone who has ever been on a road trip with me can guess what this looked like.

And for those of you who have never been on a road trip with me, "the nest" looked something like this.

09:05  The bus departed and rolled through Bariloche. The upper deck gave a different vantage point on the city that had been my home for a month. We passed the slum part of town, which I hadn't seen before, small shacks squished up against the huge city garbage dump just north of town, with Cerro Cathedral and Cerro Otto in the background as the bus joined the legendary Ruta 40.

The view as we pulled out of Bariloche

09:20  OMG Road trip!!! I love road trips!! There were lakes and pointy snow-capped peaks streaming past my windows on all sides. My excitement built, I couldn't contain a grin, and might have even let out a squee. As each minute brought new and more spectacular peaks with storm-colored lakes at their feet and hills and meadows full of scotch broom and dandelions accenting the layers of green, purple, red, orange, and magenta of the mountains and the sky with pinkish clouds. I kept thinking "most spectacular effing road trip ever!" (and I've been on some pretty spectacular road trips).

09:45  The bus passed the turnoff to Tronador. I felt a pang of sadness about leaving my splitboard behind. I wondered where my badass guide friend Melitta was in her Patagonian adventures.

10:00  Passed a pair of cyclists. What an incredible trip that would be, I thought. I thought about the shoulder injury I developed during my last big cycling trip (a month through the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Eastern Germany), realized it was over 7 years ago, felt sad that I haven't managed to heal my shoulder yet and get back on a bike, and nostalgic about what a great way to travel it had been. I had done that trip and other memorable adventures around Europe with my boyfriend of the time, a long relationship that was difficult and rocky from the start but held together by the glue of our mutual love of outdoor adventures. Although after the breakup both of us had felt bitter about all the time (6 years) we had "wasted", I realized in retrospect I wouldn't trade that time for anything. I did so many cool things with him and I learned so much. He didn't mean to be a confidence-shattering, insufferable asshat. He had done the best he knew how to do, and gave me some very happy memories. At the same time, I felt very glad that relationship was long over and that both of us had moved on in our lives. As I thought about the cyclists with the mountains rolling past my fishbowl windows, I felt layers of scars, having healed, dropping off.

Mountain, viewed from my Fishbowl of Awesome

10:30  When dreaming about this South America trip, I had originally had big plans to drive the whole way, and would often daydream of driving for endless hours in the wild wasteland of Patagonia. Dreamed of the music I would listen to, the things I would see, the freedom I would feel. Here I was on a bus, certainly a different experience but, I thought, far more comfortable and relaxed. I realized that I was sitting there, watching my childhood and adult dreams come true as the mountains continued to roll past. I felt achingly happy.

10:40  Crossed a turquoise-covered river with views of distant mountains covered in snow. There were a few wood lean-tos announcing a small human population, but not much else.

More mountains. Curva peligrosa = dangerous curves.

11:20  I woke up from a short catnap to a caramel-filled dark chocolate on a napkin on my armrest, a gift from the Canadians sitting behind me. The bus arrived in El Bolson, with horses being ridden down the main streets, little hippie shops, lupine lining the road in their pink and purples, and huge mountains looming at the outskirts of town. "Mom would love it here," I thought, as I savored the chocolate.

11:40  The Canadians and I made lunch, combining our food stashes: baguettes smeared with butter and meat pate with some of my sliced bell peppers. It was filling and we felt clever, having brought such a nice picnic with us.

11:45  The bus steward came upstairs with trays to serve us lunch: raviolis, cornbread, little savory pastries, rice with carrots and peas, and juice. This came as a complete surprise to the Canadians and me. Not one to ever waste food, I shoveled it in, and felt utterly and overly stuffed.

Lunch #1

12:00  Uuuuuuhgggghhhhhh why did I eat so much? But I still couldn't keep my hands out of my bag o' chocolate. Someone please take it away!!

12:10  Chubut. The landscape looked like Wyoming with big snow-topped mountains on the right side and rolling steppe to the left. This was the Patagonia of my imagination. Road still paved, despite rumors of this trip being a poorly-maintained dirt road nightmare.

12:20  The driver's assistant curtained off half of my fishbowl windows, reducing my view to half. Tempted to open them back up, but don't want to be That Entitled Jerk who keeps the rest of the bus from napping.

12:40  Now I'm napping, too. Zzzzzzzzzzzz

13:45  Stop in Esquel with a 10 minute bathroom break. It took me 5 just to extracate myself from my seat-nest. No toilet paper in the bathroom. Good thing I had my tissues on me.

14:00  On the road again. There's some movie playing in the background involving the pope...and aliens? There's a stargate or something. And religious opera music. Ooooh, I hear Tom Hanks, I know what this is.

14:20  Flamingos! Hanging out in a salt pond. No photos, blew by them too fast.

15:00  Tubut. There's a big Argentine flag and a road sign: Las Malvinas son Argentinas. This would not be the last of these huge signs I'd see on the trip. I had been warned: never ever ever call them the Falklands in Argentina.

15:30  Now I'm suddenly driving south on Hwy 395 with desert on my left, snowy dry mountains on my right, driving south along the Eastern Sierras. I've been here dozens of times before. Except this time I'm in the magic rolling La-Z-Boy that I always wished I had for the drive. I pulled out my Spanish books, I schlepped four of them with me, hoping to do enough review so that I could abandon them somewhere and stop hauling them around. Over 6 weeks later as I finally write this post, I'm still hauling them around.

Hi, Eastern Sierras. Except in Argentina.

16:00  Stop in Chubut.

17:00  It's now a less-dry version of the Mojave. The road is smaller and older, but the scenery is the same. I flew across the world to road trip through California.

17:30  Pavement ended. Dirt road started.

18:10  Back on pavement in scrub desert.

19:00  The road signs no longer say Ruta 40. Still in the desert, but still pavement. Braved my first on-bus toilet experience since I brilliantly timed this trip for a heavy day of my period. Dealing with the DivaCup on the bus was a surprisingly non-unpleasant experience.

19:20  Lake! Big lake! Looks like the sort of place that would have good microbial mats. Alas, no stop.

20:20  Desert desert desert. Onto Kindle reading now: Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Downloaded this out of curiosity when I saw it mentioned in her list of books after finishing Wild (her bestseller about her time on the Pacific Crest Trail). Admit to crying several times at particularly touching stories and responses. Say what you will about Cheryl Strayed, but we could all learn from her empathy and kind way of viewing humanity.

Oil derrick at sunset in Patagonia

21:00  Now it really looks like California, oil derricks everywhere. They kind of look pretty at sunset.

21:20  Dinner served. The food on this trip has been surprisingly good (if very benadryl-requiring for this allergic-to-milk-products-and-eggs little defective human)
. All that's lacking is a bottle of wine.

The final rays of sun reflected in the bus window.

21:30 that the ocean? Where are we?

21:45  Now the ocean is on my right. This is all wrong. I am so confused.

21:50  Okay, ocean is back on my left. I think this is acceptable...

22:45  Sleep.

01:20  Stars! Look at those stars!!

05:15  Sunrise over the pampas.

07:20  Breakfast.

That's right, breakfast. Cake, cookies, and candy.

08:30  We were supposed to be in Rio Gallegos by now. We're still in the Pampas. My bus connection to Ushuaia is in 30 mins. Will I make it?

08:45  Still no Rio Gallegos in sight.

08:50  In the outskirts of Rio Gallegos. Asked the bus driver if I'll make my connection or what my options are. Bus driver briefly panicked, then called ahead. My bus will wait for me.

09:00  I am packed and ready to jump off this bus.

09:13  Bus pulled into the bus station at Rio Gallegos. I was quickly ushered off, my bags found and thrown into the bus to Ushuaia, and swept onto the Ushuaia bus. My Canadian friends still sleeping, I didn't get to say goodbye.

09:15  Ushuaia bus departed, the assistant handed out Chilean immigration cards. in Argentina... Chile? I looked at a map. Oh, duh. I suck at geography. Do I have any food products to declare? Yeah, only a giant grocery bag full. Let the frantic eating fest begin! Also, if they confiscate my chocolate I'm going to throw a screaming crying fit.

This is a photo of the sun starting to go down the day prior, but I ran out of photos for this part of the story.

09:30  Reading Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, which seemed appropriate reading given my destination. I now have an easy answer to that "If you could go back in time and meet any person, who would it be?" question: I would go back and apply for the job of cabin wench on the Beagle and relentlessly follow young Darwin around on his adventures. I love the mix of nerdy observation and absolute joy he takes in the beautify of the natural world. Charles Darwin, I want to look at your slightly phosphorescent self-regenerating jumping pyrophores in your cabin with you.

Prior to being one of history's most recognized names in science, Charles Darwin was a kid who loved being outside, loved collecting beetles and studying geology, and annoyed his father by not being too interested in medicine. One day during summer break he comes home to a letter offering him a spot as a 'gentleman naturalist' (i.e. his dad would have to pay his way) and companion to Captain Fitz Roy aboard the H.M.S. Beagle for a planned 2 year voyage (it ended up being 5) around the world with a focus on developing hydrographic maps of and surveying coastal Brazil, Argentina, and Chile as well as returning a few kidnapped natives of Tierra del Fuego to their native lands.

He was 22 when he left aboard the Beagle. He was still learning: studying books--especially on Geology--given to him during the voyage by Fitz Roy. Reading the Voyage of the Beagle is like watching a movie of Darwin's formation as a scientist. The best part is he was young, and had a passion for adventure, asking Fitz Roy to let him off on land to, say, ride a while across the pampas with gauchos or climb a mountain. While sitting in the bus reading, I developed a serious crush on young Darwin (even if he was only 22...).

Here's one of my favorite endearing passages, about Darwin playing gaucho and trying to use bolas:

"One day, as I was amusing myself by galloping and whirling the balls round my head, by accident the free one struck a bush, and its revolving motion being thus destroyed, it immediately fell to the ground, and, like magic caught one hind leg of my horse; the other ball was then jerked out of my hand, and the horse fairly secured...The Gauchos roared with laughter; they cried out that they had seen every sort of animal caught, but had never before seen a man caught by himself."

10:00  Border. Saw and chatted with a Korean guy I met in the hostel in Bariloche, random. I got another pair of stamps in my passport, bringing the South America count to six. We will get at least two more today and even more in the days to come. This is starting to look like my previous passport with the pages full of Slovakia/Poland stamps from biking back and forth across the border along the Tatras. So far, I still have my chocolate. The world is safe.

10:45  Still at the border. Made a bathroom stop. This one was less fun with the DivaCup: hovering over a shit-smeared toilet seat in a bathroom with no soap and non-working sinks while trying to wipe out and empty the cup with nothing but kleenex without getting my hands too bloody...ick. It's been nice on the bus trip generally but the changing thing is still a trick I haven't quite gotten used to. Those assholes better let me keep my chocolate or heads are gonna roll.

11:10  Border checks complete. They let me keep my chocolate. Thank God.

11:15  I'm in Chile. Plains, ocean, sheep, and guanacos. This is the other side of Patagonia!

11:45  We arrived at the end of mainland South America. Loaded the bus onto a ferry to cross the Strait of Magellan (another one of those almost mythical places that I am totally geeking out about visiting). We didn't even get out of the bus, bus just drove right onto the ferry, no big deal, ferry crosses the Magellan, as we cross lunch is served. We offload from the ferry into Tierra del Fuego. Tierra del Fuego! I made it!!

Lunch. Eaten, of course, in the fully-reclined La-Z-Boy position. Not sure what half of this was, but I'm pretty sure it was egg and cheese. More benadryl.

12:10  Phone battery died. Using my solar charger for the first time on this South America trip. Lunch must have had cheese somewhere I didn't see, loaded myself up with Benadryl. Naptime.

12:50  More flamingos! Still no photos, though.

13:10  Dirt road begins.

13:30  And now...I'm in Scotland? Sheep everywhere. Except there are also guanacos.

14:50  I really, really have to poop. But No Pooping Allowed on the Bus (there are actually signs that say this). Popped a mystery blue pill (not so mystery: immodium to stop me up for a while).

15:00  Border crossing number 2 at San Sebastian, the air is significantly cooler here. They have bathrooms! Hooray! After doing my business (and, yes, washing my hands) I ran into the Mainguys--my French friends from the Green House hostel. Friends! Also heading to Ushuaia on a different bus! I was so busy chatting with them that my bus almost left without me.

16:00  Still in the Land of Many Sheep. Sheep, sheep, nothing but sheep. I am out of water. Do I open up the box of juice? If I open the juice, I'm almost certainly going to make a giant mess of spilled juice everywhere at some point.

16:30  I opened the juice.

The Juice

17:15  Naptime. Sheep sheep sheep sheep sheepzzszzzzzz

17:50  Woke up to a very different view. Is this Darwin's "impenetrable forest"? No more sheep.

18:00  I SEE MOUNTAINS!!!!

18:30  Aaaaand, now I'm in Norway (bus trip: North Cascades to the Eastern Sierra to the Mojave to Patagonia to Scotland to Norway). Oh I love mountains. Love love love mountains. Not just "I think mountains are beautiful and I appreciate them" love mountains but "this bus just turned a corner and there's a  really good-looking mountain and now my heart is beating all crazy and I want to jump out of the bus and run up to it and give it a giant hug" love mountains.

19:30  This place is stunning. Wow. Huge mountains, sparkling lakes and sounds, more huge

19:45  Ushuaia sign, really? We're...early??

20:00  Arrival, a full hour early. Unheard of! Now, to find a hostel...

Ushuaia! The "end of the world" (= fin del mundo) sign.

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