Saturday, March 15, 2014

The long road North Part I: Ushuaia to Buenos Aires

I had a 56 hour journey ahead and a 5am bus to catch in the morning, but I stayed up late sipping appropriately named Beagle beer alone while curled up recovering some of my Antarctica photos as a sort of ceremonial goodbye to the Southlands I loved so much. Three hours after finally going to bed, my 4am alarm went off, and I gathered my packed things as quietly ask could so as not to wake my 7 sleeping roommates (only two of whom were snoring), took a quick shower, drank a quick coffee that the wonderful hostel owner had ordered for me as a goodbye, and left for the bus stop. Just as I walked out the hostel door, the rain started as if my Southlands were also sad to see me go. I walked the long way along the waterfront, along the Beagle Canal, that waterway that was a bookend to two of my life's most special, memorable experiences, and let the rain run down my upturned face like tears as I waited for the bus to come.

Rainy Ushuaia Goodbye
Beagle beer, that's Darwin there (on the bottle...the guy in the background is also very awesome, but is not Darwin)

I always feel lucky when I have a row to myself and was lucky that morning for my 14 hour ride to Rio Gallegos. I slept most of the way, the good part through the mountains in the beginning being in the dark anyhow. I didn't wake up until the border control at that arbitrary line dividing the island of Tierra del Fuego between Argentina and Chile. I quickly ate the fruit and the avocado and ham sandwiches I had packed bit was able to get by with the dried fruits and nuts I had brought as snacks. This was now my 15th crossing across the Argentine/Chilean border and I had figured out how to smile and who to wink at to get away with keeping my bus food through customs.

I slept again until we were offloaded at the Strait of Magellan 9 hours into the journey, my 4th crossing, the hot dog vendor on the ferry even recognized me. I'm a regular commuter. The stretch will forever remind me of Professor Penguin, the only bus seatmate I've ever had who I actually didn't want to just shut up and let me sleep. I wondered how the rest of his Antarctic season went, and where he was now.

Mural decorating the wait for the Magellan ferry

Welcome to the Strait of Magellan
Native fashion

Hot dog, $25. Juice, $25. Coffee, $25. Keeping things simple on the ferry.

I wonder when, or if, I'll be here again? Although I hope and think I'll be back in Ushuaia someday, want to return to Navarino, and am determined to make it back to Antarctica, the next time I go I hope it will be by plane (or better yet, by sea), not the excruciatingly long bus ride from anywhere.

Four hours later spent working a little, reading a little, and napping a lot, the bias arrived in Rio Gallegos, early, for a 2 hour layover. I camped out next to the one electrical outlet and, when it freed up, jumped in to charge my laptop, plugging in my travel charger/adapter kit so that anyone with a USB charger could also use it for their phones and stuff. One Irish guy offered to share his beer with me, he was so happy I had a USB adapter. I worked only talk, terribly distracted by the chatty Dubliners and a very sweet feral border collie who camped out at my feet.

My bus arrived and I got on board. I had paid an extra $15 for more comfortable seats for the 17 hour overnight leg, and curled up in what was essentially a leather La-Z-Boy on the top deck. Dinner was served while a very cheesy and loud teen vampire movie played overhead. The movie featured a lead character who looked disturbingly like my ex-boyfriend, if my ex-boyfriend had been keen on wearing punk leather instead of womens' clothing...the character was clearly conceived to make the panties melt right off the preteen target audience but made me want to shake the female lead and warn her: "See those tight pants and how perfect that curly blonde hair is? He likes men, trust me." Dinner was cheese-soaked and came with wine (yay! finally got to experience being served wine on an Argentine bus), so after that and chasing the Benadryl with the big bottle of Cape Horn Stout I had brought for the trip, I was ready to pass out.

Sunset from the bus.
Bus dinner: fried chicken and mashed potatoes, mystery pastry, lunchmeat and a biscuit, beer, and wine.

We left the city and drove back into the Patagonian steppe and the stars were out. I could see the Milky Way out the bus window. I fell asleep to Jasmine Thompson's heartbreaking" Almost Lover", which explains my sad dreams.

I woke up my feet so swollen that I coldn't get my shoes on, and my legs ached. Breakfast was a dulce de leche fest. Between the bus-sleeping and the benadryl to survive breakfast, I was too groggy to do anything useful. I drifted in and out of sleep and occasionally thumbed through the book I had started: Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende, which grabbed me because it took place in Chiloé, and made me miss my adopted Chilote family there.

The bus arrived right on time in Puerto Madryn, where I had 8 hours before my connecting bus to Bahía Blanca was scheduled to depart. The first hour of my landing was spent trying to find a place to stash my bags, thwarted by an utterly unhelpful and sulky information booth staffer (it appears, after extensive experience in the field, that a prerequisite for working at an Argentine information booth is to be cranky and curt by nature and know nothing that could be of any help to recommendation to fellow travelers is to skip the official info centers and go instead to people at places like the ClubAndino, hostel receptions, travel agencies, or tour offerers). I eventually found success by smiling and batting my eyelashes at a guy working one of the bus ticket booths.

Groggy and grumpy, I wandered toward the waterfront, and decided I should eat, it being past the hour of my normal lunch food pellet, so stopped at the first place that looked acceptable. I lucked out, the restaurant had WiFi and an excellent and artistic fish Menu del Día for $8 that came with a platter of tasty tapenades. I took my time there, watching cruise ship passengers in khaki shorts and polo shirts with popped collars float by, occasionally coming in to order fruity drinks that weren't on the menu and pouting like entitled jackasses with their plastic-enhanced girlfriends when they didn't get exactly what they wanted, when it didn't come with napkins or a spearhead slice of pineapple, or when their table didn't have silverware (although why one needs a fork to consume a tequila sunrise remains a mystery to me and the poor waitress).

I moved on, making it only three blocks farther before being seduced by a beachside shop offering scuba tours. They couldn't get me in that afternoon, but did rent bikes, so off I set on a bicycle to explore the coast. I ran out of road at the Ecocentro, a modern, oceanography-themed museum with a lighthouse tower with panoramic views that made a lovely place to sit and work on my upcoming talk. When the museum closed I pedaled my way back to town, found a diner to sit at while I ate dinner and worked some more. Its always strange eating alone at a restaurant, and I was glad for the work as a diversion. I made it back to the bus station just as my bus arrived.

My rented bike on the Puerto Madryn coast

Whale tails in the museum
Whale skeleton outside the museum

I curled up on the bus and did my best to sleep, but the horror movies (what is it with Argentine buses and the horror movies?) playing at full blast until 3 am made sleep impossible. I was very happy after finally arriving in Bahía Blanca to see Coty, a friend and former student from the Geobio course, who picked me up and took me to her house, where after showering the Bus Filth off, I quickly crawled in bed to nap. "Nap" ended up lasting 4 hours. It was the first time I had had a real bed in a room by myself in over two months, and my first time in such a comfortable double bed since staying at my parents' house in August. Glorious.

When I finally woke up, I had more work to do to finish my talk, then Coty took me to an asado at her brother's house where I met her wonderful older brother and his wife, adorable little curly-haired dancing queen 16-month-old niece, and charming grandmother. The meat was melt-in-mouth perfect, it's true what they say that Argentinians do meat better than anyone, and the company fun. Argentineans also do staying up all night better than anyone, and even though we had a 6:30 am departure planned for a mountain hike the next morning, we didn't get back home until after 1am. 5 hours of sleep never feels like enough, but especially not after 50 some hours on a bus, and I was dizzy and nauseated when my alarm went off and meekly pleaded with Coty to call off the hike so I could go back to sleep. She good-naturedly agreed and called her younger brother, who was going to guide us, to cancel, while I went back to bed. I slept until after 10, I had needed it.

Instead of hiking some of Coty's Ultimate Frisbee teammates came over and fed us lunch (more melt-in-mouth meat), and then we went sightseeing with her younger brother, which ended in a stop at a highway overpass, and not just any highway overpass. Bahía Blancian rocks climbers, lacking easily accessible topography for rock climbing, had installed plastic rocks on the pillars and undersides of the overpass, turning it into a badass outdoor climbing gym. I was out of shape (my perennial excuse for sucking) and didn't have shoes (and my gringa feet being much too big to fit in the girls' shoes and too small for the boys'), but gave it a try and had a ball while watching the spidermonkey locals hand me my ass on a concrete platter.

Among friends
This castle was built to house a power plant. No shit.
Climbing under the bridge
Me, attempting to climb under the bridge.
Mate and climbing shoes
Coty & me! :-)

My talk the next morning went really well. I get nervous and sort of neurotic before giving talks, but once I get going I have fun. It was a pretty decent crowd, with the geology, biology, and oceanography departments invited. I got a chuckle out of the poster with my mug and name--Dra. Carie (where Dra. is short, not for Dracula, which seems logical, but Doctora, the feminine for much for gender-neutral titles here) Carie--on it up in the halls. Coty's advisor Diana introduced me in Spanish. I then explained that my Spanish wasn't good enough to give the talk in Spanish (actually I'd be an intimidated nervous wreck giving a talk in German even though I speak fluent German...major kudos to all of you who regularly have to do this in a non-native language) and promised to try to not speak 100 miles a minute like I usually do. Coty assured me afterwards that I did a good job, and the questions after the talk were insightful, so people must have understood it. Success!

I believe this is the first poster ever made with my picture on it.

Then it was off for a Great Mat Tour, and we spent the rest of the afternoon driving around and slogging through mud to look at...mud. Because we're microbiologists, and that's what gets us off. Microcoleus mats! Stinky anoxic horizons! And the pink icing on the awesomecake: a well full of purple bacteria. I literally almost fell in, I was so excited (as it was, I only lurched forward and submerged my arm).

That evening we enjoyed a delicious dinner of homemade Milanese (and homemade pickled eggplant--a new dish for me and I'm going to have to try to replicate it when I someday am no longer homeless because, wow) by Coty's sweetheart of a mom. And then, bundled up and hugged off, it was back on the bus for another overnight journey.

The Bahía Blancan coastline

What microbiologists do for fun.
It was love at first sight.
I mean, PINK!

A huge THANK YOU Coty, the whole Bournod family, and the folks at the university for the wonderful visit!

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