Wednesday, 8 December 2010

... Patagonia: Well n' Truly Scratched

The sun disappeared and the clouds arrived followed by the driving rain.

Descent into Vancouver... it wouldn't be any other way.

And so my itchy feet have been scratched once more.Temporarily I'm sure.

They were also reminded that we should do one thing a day that scares us. That which matters the most should never give way to that which matters the least. And most importantly dance, sing, floss and travel!

The end of an adventure is actually the beginning of a new one. 2011 is going to be an adventure all on its own!

Sunday, 5 December 2010

... Patagonia: Death By Penne

Someone with a sick sense of humour decided to play "Eat, Pray, Love" for the inflight movie. I couldn't even watch the travel map because I didn't have one of those little personal TV screens. Instead I found myself wanting to ram the nth pasta dish down Julia Roberts' throat. Mmmm these throat lozengers are so appetizing!

This was going to be a long flight.

Despite my buttocks feeling like they were no longer a part of me and my neck mimicking some extreme yoga position I fell asleep about mid-flight. I'm sure I looked a right sight but by this point I'd been traveling for about 13 hours and was beyond caring. Well, for most part. I did still position myself so that I could drool somewhat in private against the window. Particularly useful for any dreams about food should I have any!

I wasn't hungry though, right?

LAX is actually tolerable when you can simply grab your bags and leave. Don't expect to read that statement from me all that often however. Still, it was a welcome perk having already cleared Customs in Miami.

It also meant that any subsequent meal was going to be slightly more fulfilling than a packet of peanut M&M's that I'd been carrying in my backpack for 2 weeks. My stomach gurgled its approval and promised to stop digesting itself.

... Patagonia: I Queue, Therefore I Am - British!

I am convinced that the Boeing 777 is nothing more than a glorified sardine can with wings. When I'd finally walked the mile along the cabin to my usual spot at the back of the bus I found that the seat in front of mine had a metal box secured to the floor underneath it. There wasn't even enough legroom for a midget! Oh... wait....

Basically, if your feet touched the floor you were going to feel like you were anatomically rearranged so that your knees were beside your ears. A rare occasion I know but my feet touched the floor. They would need a shoe horn to get me out of my seat.

We took off on time and they were very quick to get dinner & drinks served. My dinner wasn't bad but it wasn't great either. At least it was veggie. Still, it felt like someone had looked down at the tray literally minutes before it was served and thought "Oh crap, half of this meal is missing" and then they quickly went around everyone for a food collection. This was the first time in the last few weeks where I've not been given bread. I didn't know whether to cheer or cry. My salad had some wilted lettuce and a pickled artichoke heart that someone had seemingly half hacked at in a bid to make it look presentable. In the middle of the tray was a tiny carton of olive oil and... nothing else. No balsamic, no lemon juice. Just olive oil. OK, so what on earth do I do with this?!?! I can only assume that dessert was the packet of crackers unless they were the bread substitute? The most bizarre thing of all was the tiny container that had a screw top and looked like you'd use it to store pills in perhaps. Someone had shoved in two balls of some kind of spread. Yeah I don't think I'll be risking that.

The flight headed north west towards the Andes before continuing north alongside them and over Colombia. For a brief period of time early in the flight I watched a very cool thunderstorm occuring to the north west of Buenos Aires around Rosario. It was huge and very angry looking lighting up the sky & clouds around it. The flight itself was not one of my most comfortable and I usually travel very well. Aside from the leg room issue the person next to me really had no concept of personal space. Last time I checked I didn't look like a pillow nor was I a punch bag for elbows. The flight also had a lot of turbulance. Normally I am able to cocoon myself in with my iPod and drift off to the land of nod. But it took me a long while to get settled on this flight. I awoke as we were flying over Jamaica: it was cool to see Kingston below and a million stars above. We landed in Miami just after 6am EST giving me over two hours before my connection to LAX.

But I hate this airport and it hates me. Immigration were painfully slow especially the line I had picked. Of course the carousel for my bag was right at the other end of the baggage collection room. There was more queuing to hand in your customs form followed by queuing to hand off your checked bag for your connection. More queuing for security which always feels like a violation and last but not least queuing at the gate to get on the flight. Gate 50 was naturally right at the other end of concourse D. I know I'm British but this is ridiculous. And besides I was surrounded by people that have absolutely no concept on how to queue!

There was no time for Starbucks - of course positioned just outside of the very same security that won't let you through with liquids, no time to grab food for the flight and just enough time to empty one's bladder. I reached my gate just as they had started boarding. Over 90 minutes of my life I will never get back. Still, I guess it meant less time to wait to board my connection. A sliver of a silver lining perhaps.

Oh... wait. I'm flying into my favourite airport. And to top it off I've just realised my pink Canon point n' shoot is missing complete with over 200 photos.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

... Patagonia: Just A Little Touch Of Star Quality

There are usually plenty of subtle clues to tell that this is the "last day" of a trip.

You fancy that "one last good meal" before you submit your digestive system to the abuse of junk food at the airport and something that you most likely will have to pep talk yourself into eating on a plane. Choice of breakfast, lunch or dinner is usually based on time of departing flight. So you open your wallet and if you're lucky a couple of notes might fall out along with the shrapnel which has already been allocated a spot in the souvenir draw or the charity collection envelope on the flight.

Great! There's enough here for the downpayment on a Mars Bar. Winner!

My last day in Buenos Aires wasn't quite that bad but my body was telling me it deserved a day off from making any substantial effort. It was, admittedly, greatly helped by the fact I'm still getting over being sick. A day of window shopping, people watching and coffee drinking sounded like a great way to spend the day. And so I did! I expertly ordered my non-fat cappucino and watched the world tango by.

It was time for these itchy feet to bid a fond adios to Buenos Aires and the great Patagonian adventure.

Friday, 3 December 2010

... Patagonia: Could It Be That It's Just An Illusion?

Believe it or not, the world's southernmost international airport is fit to receive planes as large as a 747. That statement however is more for my reassurance after I experienced a departure from Aeropuerto Internacional de Ushuaia - Malvinas Argentinas.

The airport is very tiny but modern looking with lots of wood decor and it is very clean. Food options for myself were extremely limited and I knew that wasn't likely to improve on the airplane either. One might say a diet of ham & cheese in between some kind of flour-based carbohydrate has been the bane of my existence during this itchy feet experience. Seeing as I never travel thinking about food options above more than a "Meh. I'll make it work" this really wasn't that big of a deal to me if any. Check-in was a breeze although there is a departure tax to pay even for domestic flights. There is a duty free shop which is always handy for pre-travel depongification and last minute shopping. Customs was even easier than check-in and quite possibly my fastest for getting through to date! There are a considerable number of airports on my hit list that could learn from this! See! Bigger seldom means better.

The Aerolineas Argentinas Captain didn't waste any time in pushing back once everyone was seated. The plane had arrived a little late but they unloaded and reloaded that bird like someone had lit a fire under the airport personnel. May be someone had purely for warmth?? The engines roared to life and the plane began picking up speed along the runway... yet a few seconds after this fact I nervously exclaimed "I hope this plane is going to start moving a damn sight faster than it currently is!" Something definitely wasn't quite right. And then, as if the Captain handbrake-turned it, the plane slowed and did a 180 degree turn. I just happened to be looking out of the window at that time to see the end of the runway and its drop off into the sea. I guess someone decided I needed one final Ushuaia-borne adrenaline rush or perhaps my oblivion-falling waterfall was at the end of it?

Take off for real then followed and we were up in the air quickly. The air version of the Beagle Channel certainly appeared to exist for the first few minutes whilst we made a couple of tight banked turns and our way through the clouds over the mountains. I am not used to sitting so far forward in a plane i.e row 3, I'm usually a back-of-the-bus rider and so things really sound quite different. Really. Different.

You know those moments you have where you can hear youself speak just as your brain realises it hadn't yet given you permission to do so? What do you mean "no?" Someone really should tell me that I should stop watching Mayday and then I perhaps won't blurt out such utter crap as "why is that engine making a funny noise?" in a mad moment of nerve-induced insanity because I'm convinced for a picosecond that it has stopped. If I'm looking to shift blame in a bid to reduce embaressment, boy-racer pilot's antics earlier hadn't really helped either. I quickly came to my senses though being a lover of all things aviation and enjoyed the view of  Argentina's coastline during the 3 hour flight to Buenos Aires, whilst I picked off the ham & cheese on my sandwich. Thanks for the bread and water AR1892 but I'm LEAVING the former penal colony!

We were making our descent into Ezeiza International when I heard "¿Hay un doctor a bordo?" over the PA system. If I were to list the top 5 things learned on this trip, this statement has to be one of them. I looked to my left and simply stated "I believe they're looking for you". I'm sure my travel companion appreciated being volun-told her medical services so soon after the last incident, even more so when I decided not to go with my gut and asked the bloke behind for confirmation. Thankfully it turned out to be just the pasty clammy looking bloke I'd seen at the back of the plane not long earlier when I'd quickly ran to the washroom. He was probably suffering from what I was likely now in the latter stages of after suffering through the worst of it the previous night with hot n' cold sweats & fever- ridden sleep. Some 48 hour flu-type thing certainly seemed to have been doing the rounds.

Twenty-three minutes after landing a Religious text-whilst-driving cab driver was speeding and weaving towards the city centre fasting than the speed of light. He just happened to have me as one of his passengers for the ride. More than once I looked over at my fellow traveller to see a matching pair of widened eyes and a hand trying to appear like it didn't have a death grip on the door. Comic relief came in a variety of forms during that cab ride that's for sure. Topping the list has to be at the toll booth as you leave the airport. As we pulled up the occupant was totally rocking out to Imagination's "Just An Illusion". Of course I was able to join right in... lyrically that is. I didn't want to steal his thunder after all. This was closely followed by the driver complaining about the way other people drove and finally, when he did the sign of the cross as we drove past a place of worship I sat there thinking "that's rich mate!"

I'm not quite sure how I made downtown Buenos Aires in one piece but I did and it is my belief I left my aura dancing along to Sad FM at that toll booth, not through choice but sheer G-force.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

... Patagonia: (Wo)Men Overboard!

When my shambolic seafaring legs hadn't improved by later the previous evening I figured there must be something more going on than me being a wuss on a boat. Sure enough I awoke in the middle of the night with a raging fever that I was convinced had me bound for Davy Jones' locker.

Surely I'd therefore spend the day in bed, right?

Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego was Argentina's first coastal national park. Only a small part of it is actually open to the public however in a bid to protect the environment. Despite this, there is some beautiful scenery to take in. I guess this is what led me to be on a minibus with a day of canoeing and hiking in store despite my delicate disposition. Or may be there was a touch of insanity thrown in there too? I was actually feeling a lot better after a spot of breakfast even if that was served with a side of self-convincing.

There was a drive of about 20km west of Ushuaia with pick up of a few more adventurers and the canoes. Unfortunately you can't often choose whom you might want to spend a day with. One couple left us at our mini pit-stop at the visitor centre and by the time we were trying to sort through what became a total farce of canoe designation, the remainder of the group were all highly irritated by another couple. We were also running into extreme language difficulties with the tour operator, which concerned a bunch of us given the fact that we had limited experience in a canoe between the group. Safety instructions and even general instructions being given in Spanish was not well received. This led to frustration on all sides and it was getting hard to enjoy oneself. On top of that we then had to deal with the extremely rude and judgemental couple who decided to make the most absurd statements about whom they should be put in a boat with and their reasons why. Laughably it was to do with fitness although sadly there was a hint of bigotry & racism. Quite rightly and most eloquently, if I do say so myself, they were put in their place in true British bulldog style by a member of the group. Winston Churchill would be proud! Go Team Penguin!

The initial portion of the canoeing started at Lago Roca and alas it didn't start off well. One boat went off course and got stuck. Language difficulties and a extreme lack of experienced guides meant confusion and both occupants standing in the water after one yelled at the other to get out of the canoe. You can perhaps guess who the person yelling was despite my thinly-veiled attempt to remain diplomatic and neutral.Innocent But just to clarify, I was watching this unfurl from the safety of my own canoe in disbelief.

What could have possibly passed itself off as extreme black humour then turned into shock and horror when a boat capsized under a bridge in some rapids on Lapataia River. Survival mode in action and a bunch of us running to assist. I didn't envision a day trip dragging soaking wet freezing people off the outer frame of a bridge. Then again I doubt anyone did. The two medics were probably wondering if they were ever going to get any respite. Thankfully people were ok. Just very very cold and suffering the loss of electronics. One thing this company did do well was get them wrapped up with warm blankets and driven off to a place of warmth very quickly, although for one girl the incident led to the end of her day as she hadn't brought a change of clothing with her.

Human resilience is a wonderful thing. Once fed and defrosted, the remaining survivor not only wanted to stay but wanted to partake in the 3 hour hike with the rest of us. Of course two out of the 3 people who got wet were part of Team Penguin.

My main question, no doubt shared by everyone else, was why on earth did we only have one guide with us? Every time I have done something like this there has been at least two guides plus someone in a separate kayak whipping around between everyone telling them what to do.

It really was too bad because when you were out on the waters of the lake, the river and the Beagle Channel (vastly different conditions to the previous day) it was so spectacularly beautiful. The peace & tranquility was amazing. You were surrounded by snow-capped mountains and lush green forests that smelt so fresh. The hike, whilst somewhat tame compared to those previous, meandered along the coastline or through those forests of coihue, canelo and lenga. We even managed to finish it in under 2.5 hours. This was what we had no doubt all signed up for just minus the unnecessary drama I'm sure. I'm all for adventure but this was just a little extreme even by my standards.

I suspect that tomorrow's breakfast is going to be with a healthy dose of "take it easy" for my remaining few hours in Ushuaia before a flight back to Buenos Aires

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

... Patagonia: End Of The Earth

Charles Darwin had exclaimed that the original inhabitants of Ushuaia, the Yaghan (or Yamana), were "the lowest form of humanity on earth". Yet a mission made Ushuaia its first permanent Fuegian outpost and one missionary, Thomas Bridges, even learned the native language proving its complexity. The tribe eventually died out, victims of foreign-brought illnesses and infringement. Today the Alpine-looking-San Franciscan street-mimicking Ushuaia is known more for being a port, an adventure base camp (primarily Antartica-bound travellers) and a former penal colony.  Oh and did I mention it is the End of the Earth??

My quest to find where you would just quite simply drop off into oblivion was to come in the form of sailing the Beagle Channel aboard a boat that resembled something you'd find floating in your bathtub. Would it all just end in a huge waterfall that fell into nothingness?

It had snowed overnight giving a wonderful Christmas feel to Ushuaia & the surrounding peaks but the weather started off nice enough albeit a tad nippy. The waters of the Beagle Channel were quite calm. Nice! My kind of sailing. Close up views of Isla de los Lobos (very cool sea lion colony) and Isla de los Pajaros (extensive cormorant colonies) provided some fantastic wildlife photo opportunities even from the boat.

The boat continued west to a lighthouse and that was when it all started to go a bit pear-shaped. By the time we had come around this small island I felt like I was an extra in the big wave scene that batters HM Frigate Surprise in Master & Commander. My seafaring legs were letting me down miserably. Surely we weren't far from the shore? My stomach was either in my feet or my throat, it kept alternating I think. The problem was there was still another island to visit where you could get off and hike. The thought of stable land and some fresh air sounded appealing but by the time we arrived at Isla Bridges I felt so sick and was practically driven back into the boat by the shards of rain and the wind. No hike for me. I stayed on the boat and drank copious amounts of tea instead. The short hike would've enabled me to look at conchales left by the Yaghan.

My gag reflex believed that we rode every single wave across that Channel whilst the totally unfazed Captain whistled what must've been some Fuegian sea shanty. Arriving back at the wharf in Ushuaia couldn't come quickly enough. Falling-into-oblivion waterfalls? Who cares?!?! I needed to feel like half of my body wasn't following the other half a couple of seconds after the fact.

I suspect that the only reason lunch at the rustic Almacen Ramos Generales was tolerable so soon after was the fact they make chocolate & meringue cakes shaped like Magellanic penguins!