El Fin del Mundo

El Fin del Mundo
I had planned on building my bike right there at the train station, imagining (and telling my eventual taxi driver) that it’d take about 20 minutes.  Cabs were cheap, though, so I decided to take one instead.  As a side note, I got ripped off by the taxi driver.  It cost $10 US for a ride to my bed and breakfast, which was only 8km away.  Later, when I asked a different taxi driver if I could pay him in US, he said, sure, each $100 Argentine pesos is $3 US.  The actual exchange rate is $100 - $8.  I paid that second driver in pesos; the first had already made out like a bandit.  After I checked into my hotel on Monday, I wandered down to the main drag, San Martin.  It was fairly chaotic.  Only one way traffic so it wasn’t the cars that made it seem that way; it must have been the mish mash of empty shells of buildings with graffiti mixed in with warm boutiques of cedar.  Every restaurant boasts king crab, every outdoor store seemed to have some random brand like Reef and definitely Converse or Vans but none had Patagonia or North Face or any of the others that you’d expect to find in a place as epic and romantic as the southernmost city in the world, on the doorstep of Tierra del Fuego.  The name alone – Tierra del Fuego – makes my hairs stand on end.  I ate at a place called Banana, recommended as a quick place to eat by the owner of the bed and breakfast.  Service was piss poor, there was a soccer match on tv between Argentina and Peru with literally no one in the stadium (was it an exhibition? Why would it be tv worthy if it isn’t spectator worthy?), and I had my first taste of the local beer, Beagle.  It was shockingly good, and not in the way that Belikin or Pilsner or Gallo or Cruzcampo are good; it was good in the way that, say, Rogue Dead Guy Ale is good.  The sandwich, not so much.  Arabe vegetariano, they called it.  It was slimy – roasted red pepper, roasted eggplant, sundried tomatoes, thick slathering of aioli, slices of cheese.  Demasiado. Solo podia comer media.  The café con leche wasn’t bad, however, I read later in the guide book that café con leche is only for the morning; you drink cortados in the afternoon.  My mistake.  I decided on a whim that I’d give Glacier Martial a go, even though everyone, including the guide book, said to allow for 2 hours in each direction, and it was already 7pm (sunset was at 9:45).  I had hardly slept the night before, being on the plane, and had just had that half of sandwich, but, sliminess usually equates to highly caloric, and I was feeling revved up and ready to charge that mountain, which I did, crushing slow bovine couples as I made it to the base of the glacier in 50 minutes.  The clouds were wafting down from the shadowy mountains above and it was at times, at the top, difficult to tell if it was raining or if I was just feeling the clouds themselves.  This is misleading, I can tell.  The views were still there, glorious, Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel below, the mountains of Chile rising up in serrations beyond.  It was a wafting of clowd from above and behind.  A hint of something ominous on its way.  

After writing in my journal at the top, I headed down.  The chair lift was not working, but the tea shack across the street at the base of the chair lift was open.  I entered just as a downpour started, intending to buy a cup of tea and ponder my options.  A couple from Israel  that had been descending from the top as I reached it was sitting at a table.  They proved to be the best option, as they had a taxi on the way.  We shared it with a German girl, and, as it seems to happen while traveling in South America, they were all on inspiring trips.  The Israeli couple was near the beginning of a 4 month tour of South America, the German girl in the middle of a 3 month stint of working in various places in Argentina.  I got out of the cab on San Martin and got overpriced gnocchi (rookie mistake: you had to pay for the sauce and the pasta separately, which doubled the cost that I expected).  Got into the hotel at 11, tried to sleep.  The room was hot as a furnace and the guy in the room next door was blasting a soccer game.  A million Spanish words per second.  Intermittent howls of Goooooooooollll.  I periodicalyl knocked on the shared wall, what I assumed to be the universal signal for, Pipe down bud I’m trying to sleep over here.  Most times, I’d hear his feet on the floor, then the rattle of the skeleton key in the door (the rooms had finicky skeleton keys), then silence, then back to the game.  I must have drifted off at one point because I suddenly found myself jerking the skeleton key back and forth in my own room and knocking on his door in a rage, with no recollection of any sort of decision making process.  It was 1:40am and the announcer was going fucking nuts in there.  It was like there were no walls at all.  I heard his feet, then waited the ten seconds or so it took for him to get the door open.  Si, he said.  A guy about my age or younger.  No puedo dormir, hombre, I said..  Puede abajar la television?  Mucho rudio.  Mucho.  No puedo dormir.  I’m sorry, he said with an accent that, I suppose was better than the equivalent of mine in Spanish.  He seemed genuinely sorry, actually, and I realized later that I think he was actually sleeping himself, despite the noise, and had been generally confused as to why someone kept knocking on his door and disappearing when he answered it.  20 seconds later we had both managed to lock our doors again, waking everyone else up, I’m sure, and the sound was gone.  

The next morning, I slept through breakfast and had to catch a cab to the dock in order to make the sailing trip.  The trip itself was largely unevenftul.  The woman who booked me made a big deal about how trips frequently get canceled because of the wind, and of course there was so little wind that we didn’t even put the sails out.  Fool me once and all that.  This isn’t the first time I’ve prioritized sailing only to more around on a sailboat. Well, as W said, You fool me once you can’t fool me again.  That’s probably not true.  I did, however, get to see some beautiful views that recalled Puget Sound, if the mountains were close the to sea, and Seward, Alaska, and one island claimed by birds (Isla de los Pajaros, claimed by cormorants) and another claimed by sea lions (Isla de los Lobos - sea lions = wolves?).  The male sea lions get up to 650lbs. and keep a harem of 15 or so women.  They mostly seemed to lie there with their women draped over them and cuddling with each other.  Occasionally, there'd be some likely territorial barking.  Apparently, after they feed on fish, they lounge for a couple of days.  Not a bad life.  OK, so then I built my bike which was a bitch.  I thought, for some reason, that I’d just have to put the pedals on, drop the seat in, put on the handlebars, which TN Valley bikes showed me how to do, and throw the front wheel on.  BAM! Done.  Ready to roll.  They forgot to mention they were going to take the brakes and deraileur off.  Fucking through me for a loop and confused the shit out of me.  Of course, wifi was down in all of Ushuaia and my cell phone was reception was weak at best (not to mention expensive), so it took me a solid hour and a half of messing around with it to finally get everything all good.  I only realized I had the fork turned around backwards because you couldn’t turn the wheel without it thunking into the pedals.  Idiota.  So I took it for a casual spin to Tierra del Fuego national park.  It was raining when I started and picked up steam for the first 10 miles, then disappeared altogether.  Suddenly the roads were all dust and winding through the forest like a path on Whidbey.  The trees would fall away suddenly and the mountains would be there looking more ferocious than their 1500m, valleys below with a surprising allotment of orange.  The clouds would grow suddenly from a peak like some malignant tumor or mushroom, a reminder that this, at heart, was a hostile environment.  I don’t care that the natives supposedly lived naked year round, merely rubbing seal fat on their skin when they swam.  This was not a particularly friendly place.  I took a picture at the end of Ruta 3, symbolic to me for being the southernmost connected road in the world.  I was not, unlike some people I have met, biking north from there to the top of the world.  I got lost on the return, losing faith in my path even though I was on the correct road.  Ended up wandering a bit through the slum section of Ushuaia.  Even at the end of the world, in a place that conjures Norway, it feels like Latin America.  Houses, habitated at their base, with spires of steel poking up, a preparation for a second story that did not come to fruition.  Little shacks with endless teeming masses of dogs dogs dogs.  Barking and loud blasting music and people roaming on bicycle on foot in car in bus.

This morning, I packed up and hit the road late at around noon.  There were two distinct climbs, the second being a true pass, Pasa Garibaldi, after which there was a huge drop down toward the lake.  I met three cyclists, Marcos (Mexico), Gustavo (Brazil), and Mikah (Holland).  All three had cycled a ways, but Gustavo had cycled by far the most.  Three fucking years.  Plus four months.  He’d been cycling so much that the 4 months is hardly worth mentioning, even though that’s 4 times as long as I’m going to cycle.  He started in Buenos Aires, tooled around South America, flew to Miami, biked to Alaska, biked down from Alask to Ushuaia, and was headed back up to Buenos Aires.  Que loco.  I got my ass kicked today.  Legs are trashed.  Bike is heavy.  Glad I’m going to have to bus to Puerto Natales the day after tomorrow in order to get it all in.  Not that the Torres del Paine Circuit will be easy.

So I finally got to Tolhuin at 9pm and go to the Panaderia La Union.  I asked about camping and the woman mumbled something incomprehensible, then disappears to the back.  A little guy comes out and inquires suspiciously about my bike.  Yes, I say, I’m touring by bike.  Where is your bike, he says.  Right over there.  We look at it.  Vale.  He told me that bike tourists sleep there and shows me to a gym area around the corner.  There were bicycles and camping shit strewn about.  6 other bicycle tourists are sleeping there, including two French women, a man, and their baby.  It’s unclear whose the baby is or if the foursome is a family unit.  In the U.S., I’m fairly confident CPS would have picked that baby up by now.  But to the people that thought bike touring Patagonia was dangerous, exhibit A: a baby bike tourist.  I had heard there was nice camping, but I decided to crash with my brethren instead.  Plus, it was down by the water, and I couldn’t stomach a mile of climbing to kick off tomorrow.  Just crushed no less than 6 empanadas of two varieties, queso y cebolla y verduras, and drank 3 beers.  Feeling nice and full.  Feeling like I got some sun. Feeling like my legs are trashed.  Feeling like I am a pissant compared to that son of a bitch who has been touring for 3 and a half years.  This world is full of crazy people.

Lifes moves fast.  Travel slow.