This gallery contains 23 photos.
This gallery contains 23 photos.
On the road—in the buses, in the hostels, on the trails—we all have our Lonely Planets as our guide. Most of us have backpacks that have been repaired multiple times. We carry some of our indulgences whether they’re our music on our ipods, a box of our favorite chocolates, or a paperback book. Some of us pack our memories and our dreams like bundles of laundry, only removing them every week or two until they get tossed back and buried under the heap.
I awoke early this morning, anxious to get a jump on hiking opportunities. When I opened the door, the wind bit into my skin and a light snow fell, so I hurried across the courtyard toward the communal showers desperately hoping there would be hot water today. I was in luck. The warm water felt great, and I grimaced at the thought of going outside again. Today was my last full day in Tierra del Fuego and I wanted to make the most of it. I found a cheap flight that leaves tomorrow and makes a stopover in El Calafate before continuing on to Buenos Aires.
The manager of the hostel, who has grown to like me despite an angry outburst from my compatriot and former roommate, suggested I go to the national park, and she arranged for a shuttle to take me and a few other guests first thing in the morning. There were no other guests in the cab. When I arrived at the park, there were no guests at the park besides the campers who huddled together in their tents. I was alone. Most people did what you should do on a day with forty-mile-an-hour winds and subfreezing temperatures. A few curious rabbits seemed amused by my presence.
There wasn’t enough snow to stick to the ground, but there was enough moisture on the lush, bent grass to soak through my tennis shoes. But my luck had not faded. The snow had kept away the crowds, and less than an hour into my hike, the clouds drifted away and the sun appeared. It was perfect weather, and I was alone to enjoy its beauty. Beautiful channels and lakes scattered over the landscape like footprints. The scenery was dreamy with soft, pressed grass, snow-blanketed mountain tops, dwarflike trees, and countless patches of white orchids. There is no better meditation than to be alone in nature’s glory, and I soaked it in for all it was worth. By the time I reached the lookout point at Lapataia Bay, I was joined by a few dozen Japanese tourists in bright orange jackets who had been bused to this point at the end of Route 3. They were all eventual passengers of the cruise ship docked at the port. The jackets had been an added extra with the purchase of their fare.
I found a secluded spot to eat the lunch I had packed, a ham and cheese sandwich, my specialty according to my cousin Ana. Even the most basic foods taste better in a perfect setting, and I savored each bite with unrestrained delight before moving on my way. Beyond a grove of trees in another secluded area I discovered a familiar family—my Argentinean roommates. They each greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and wide smiles, even the daughter.
“Would you like to hike with us?” asked the mother. “We keep getting lost.”
We had rarely crossed paths in the room. They were asleep when I returned to the room with Kate last night and I was up before them this morning, but out in the wilderness, it was as if we were lifelong friends. I got them back on track and we walked and talked, climbing hills and tracing lakes. Besides introductions, I had hardly used my Spanish since leaving Montevideo and talking to the mother and son gave me a great chance to practice. The daughter, however, either raced far ahead or lingered way behind but wouldn’t join in the conversation. Her reticence concerned me and I strode ahead to catch her. “How are you enjoying the hike?”
She barely acknowledged me and gave me only a fleeting glimpse of her eyes. Then I understood why she had shied away in previous encounters. “I can’t hear,” she said pointing to her ears. Her speech was rough but I understood well enough.
“No problema,” I said. “No hablo bien.”
This time she read my lips and laughed. From then on she was more at ease. After the park, we shared a taxi back to town and the mother invited me to join them on a catamaran in the Beagle Channel. The boat had three levels and we chose a booth on the middle. While we were still moored to the dock, the two teenagers explored the upper and lower levels. My mind filled with expansive empty space. I leaned my head against the window and gazed out at the shore as we finally drifted away.
A dark morning had turned into a perfect day.
WE ARRIVED in Ushuaia last night at 10:30 pm, but the sun remained hovering midway up the sky. The bus came to its final stop by the pier near several medium-sized vessels that were dwarfed by an Antarctica-bound cruise ship. As we got off the bus a crowd of salesmen swarmed us with offers to stay at one of their hotels or hostels, but I had already made a reservation the day I left Montevideo. An Israeli girl I had been talking to since the ferry across the Strait of Magellan jumped at one of those offers and before I knew it, she and her uncle and brother were in a van, out of my life and into my memories. The other passengers dispersed leaving me alone with my overstuffed pack and a crude map of Ushuaia. In Ushuaia the wind blows only from the south and the diminutive trees bow in penitence. And if light could blow in the wind, here it does. It blows into you. It blows through you. It fills you.
I followed the road listed on the map and climbed a steep hill, but the road ended at a cliff before I reached my hostel. Playing in the streets were a couple of kids (What is bedtime in a land that never darkens?) whom I could have asked for directions, but I felt confident in my ability to find my destination. I turned on a street then onto another paved road whose incline was so severe I thought any wind from the opposite direction would send me tumbling down several blocks before depositing me in the water. But the wind was at my back pushing me onward, and eventually I discovered the road restarted atop the cliff. My back ached by the time I reached the hostel, but my body and mind were confused as if I had jumped time zones. All I wanted to do was sleep in a bed.
I was assigned a room with a mother traveling with her fifteen year-old daughter and seventeen year-old son. Two other pairs of unmade bunk beds appeared occupied with clothing strewn over the sheets, so I threw my bag onto the top bunk above the teenage boy. I introduced myself in Spanish, and as it turned out, the family in my room was from Argentina—Mar de Plata—and Spanish was the only language they knew. Oddly, they seemed to be the foreigners. I spoke with the mother and son, but the daughter shied away and hid herself under her covers. Had I interrupted an important conversation or was my presence making her uncomfortable? She didn’t even introduce herself but instead allowed her mother to do it for her. Ultimately, I retreated into my thin, stiff pillow and fell asleep before the midnight sun’s final light receded.
I slept until eleven o’clock this morning and the Argentinean family had already left for their day’s excursion, but two young women were sleeping on the bunks on the opposite wall near the door. A wild night possibly? Their faces had that contorted look that showed how they fell into their bed last night is where they remained until the morning. By the time I returned from taking a shower in the communal bathroom across the courtyard, the two were stirring. We performed our Spanish introductions before settling into English. Lauren was a British university girl on holiday and Julie was a young professional from New York. They had a reasonable explanation for their wild night: they were celebrating Lauren’s birthday.
“It’s my birthday today,” I told them.
“Happy birthday,” said Lauren, “but I don’t think we can do another night like last night. We’ll go to lunch with you though.”
We walked into town for lunch, but it was a hurried affair as Julie had an early afternoon plane to catch back to Buenos Aires and then on to New York City. She was also insistent on visiting a shop to buy a “fin del mundo” t-shirt, so we went shopping afterward. How it could be so hard to buy a t-shirt, I don’t know, but nothing satisfied Julie. She was so tightly wound that any minute it seemed as if she’d spin out of control. Her excuse was a guy. She was not the first of many solo female travelers I’d encountered whose response to a bad breakup with a boyfriend was a trip to a place as far away as possible.
“So if a guy tells you he doesn’t love you anymore and moves out and never returns your phone calls, do you think it’s over?” Julie asked. “We were so good together. Four years! That’s what I gave him before he pulled this on me.” She stuffed her new t-shirts into her luggage. “I just hate putting all those years to waste. For nothing!”
“You enjoyed your relationship then?” I asked her.
“You have good memories?”
“Well, keep those good memories and move on before they turn bad.”
She scowled at me. “I took this trip to put him out of my head. But I can’t.”
“How long have you been away?”
“You should stay.” I told her. “Give yourself at least a month. You’ve already made it this far.”
“I can’t. I have to work.”
“Quit. Relax. Believe me. You need to.”
She dropped her eyes as if in prayer. “I know. I should. I should stay.”
It is here in Ushuaia, the precipice of our hemisphere, where the road ends, you pause, then turn around and start again.
It begins with a gaze
then a clasp
a lean forward
a frame nearly collapsed
in one sweeping step
freedom and surrender
a buried face
legs intertwined until two
love in déjà vu
The popular tale at Iguazú is a history lesson about the guides who used to paddle their tour groups to the top edge of the falls, and then paddle against the current while their clients peered over the edge. This was a common practice until the day one guide couldn’t handle the current and the entire group of European tourists plummeted over the edge. After the deaths of those tourists, the government banned such trips.
We hear so many stories like these that we sometimes forget their sources. They’ve gotten so repetitive that if you start one of them, many people will stop you mid-sentence and say, “Yeah, I’ve read that in Lonely Planet too.”
The waterfalls at Iguazú were spectacular. If it wasn’t for the paved paths and the slow Disney-styled train-ride with Ennio Morricone’s Mission music in the background, I think I would have enjoyed the experience even more. Nevertheless, no photograph or video can capture the feeling of being there—hearing the thunderous roar, following the countless streaks of white through plumes of mist, or feeling the refreshing droplets accumulate on your forehead. I followed the hoards of tourists across the bridges that led to a point at the top of the Devil’s Throat. From there it looked as if the world simply dropped off into an unknown abyss.
For a hundred pesos I took a boat ride to the base of the falls. Of course we didn’t go directly underneath the falls, but we were close enough to be blanketed by a solid white wall of mist. I had never been surrounded by pure whiteness before. It is difficult to measure the canvassing power of water.
As I sat by the pool at the hostel, I met myself in other travelers who are in South America without much real purpose at all. Some are on a rambling journey around the globe. Few have a set itinerary. We find ourselves standing on deserted roads waiting for the next bus or pickup truck to roll by and take us to God knows where. Where our lives intersect we swap stories.