(This blog is in an unconventional format: The dates displayed are actual trip dates - not post dates.)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Landing in Ushuaia

January 22, 2010
54°48′0″ S, 68°18′0″ W

They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My journey, however, would begin as many journeys do these days: sitting on my arse. While you might argue about when this journey started, or exactly which chair I was sitting on when it started, but the chair I'm actually talking about is a blue and grey tiger-striped reading chair with a matching foot-rest, on board the MV Fram. Indeed, as the boat parted ways with the pier, I was seated in the observation lounge on deck seven, obediently lounging. And observing. The room was a lavishly decorated bar area, enclosed with full length glass windows and a partial glass ceiling over the front. But given the situation, my full attentions were drawn to the image of Ushuaia, now falling into the shadow of the Andes, slowly drifting to the left of my vision.

It was a day that had begun unpleasantly at 4am in a Buenos Aires hotel room. After a largely sleepless night, it wasn't a happy face that greeted the hotel staff tending to breakfast - it was a face reflective of the many other faces struggling through the same ordeal with consciousness. The roads to the domestic airport flashed by under the opening dawn sky. I can't remember much of that flight because I spent the time recovering some of the sleep lost starring aimlessly at the ceiling the night before. Somehow my jet-lagged body felt more comfortable sleeping in a car-boot-sized economy seat than a plush five star bed. Stupid body.

I awoke again not too long before we started our descent into Ushuaia... long enough to have spent a few moments drinking in the captivating sight of the Andes and the Patagonian wilderness sliding beneath the plane. Dropping down through a smattering of cloud, the Andes filled the windows on the far side - so close that it was almost like the wingtip should have been stirring the snow from the side of the peaks. To hear this, you might well be imagining it amazing or beautiful, but you would be more correct in saying it was breath-taking, in a slightly less complimentary sense. For the next twenty minutes, the plane would be hammered by the powerful updrafts flowing off the side of the mountains, in an argument that would quite often have my seat-belt catching me as I drifted from the seat. It left me with a case of traveller's bottom usually not noted with such a short flight (you know... when you've been stuck sitting down all day in an uncomfortable position, on seat materials that are just a bit too abrasive?). The plane touched down on the narrow peninsular running alongside the Beagle Channel, and feeling began to return to my left hand (my wife having taken the seat that side of me).

Ushuaia's claim to fame is that it's the southern most city of the world. The validity of this claim is maybe somewhat contentious, because while Ushuaia does sport a population of over seventy-odd-thousand inhabitants and is therefore technically a city, it instead has the feel of a country town (as one of my fellow travelers would later say "its a bit more like Ulladulla than a city"). And if you're looking for the world's southern-most country town, there's a fair few Chilians who will start an argument with you here. The sprawl is like a Pro-Hart of different colours splattered across a photo of the Andes. Moving amongst the houses really doesn't give you a feeling of urban planning, and that's largely because many of the pioneering 20th century Argentine inhabitants didn't actually own the land - they were taking a squat. As I would soon learn, Argentinians generally like to be in the Guinness Book, and legislation can be a means to an end here. Ushuaia is a tax-free zone, which brings industry here in their droves. And a lot of people who hate the weather but need money and work. A city is born!

The main street (...a bit more Queenstown than Ulladulla in my mind) is filled with outdoors/adventure stores and ice-cream stores, which says two things to me. This "city" holds its own; a) as a gateway to patagonia, and b) as a short stop-over for the thousands of fat, rich tourists visiting Antarctica annually - who, subsequently, like ice-cream. Ahem... and sometimes the thin, recently broke tourists who are working on their weight. The ice-cream, by the way, was very good.

A half-day of bus-window tourism through the surrounding Tierra del Fuego national park was fittingly spectacular. Winding between the snow capped peaks, I found myself at stops along the Beagle Channel (such as the unashamably incorrect "southernmost" postoffice) and the sweeping Lapataia Bay. Like most tours of their kind, there were a few 30-second intervals to jump off the bus and snap a few hastily composed shots in some stunning wilderness areas, and in contrast a 45-minute stop at the over-priced and decidedly unscenic gift and coffee shop. The sweaty ham and cheese sandwiches they sold were the climax of the anti-climax.

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Back in the "city", the MV Fram stood halfway along the dock of Puerto Ushuaia, and I soon began to go through the motions of boarding, receiving a ticket to mindless expenditure (ship card), and a complimentary blue jacket which would serve largely to mark the sheep from the shepherds henceforth (but also to keep us warm, dry, and shamelessly advertise said boat).

I was pleasantly and unexpectedly surprised to find our hostel-budget-cabin that cost the price of a small car was actually quite a bit bigger than a small car. It also wasn't right below the engine room, or a dingy being towed on a long rope behind the stern of the ship. A good outcome, in my books. In fact, our inside cabin even had a 19" LCD window over the bough of the boat. All these surprise features even distracted me from the suspiciously uncomfortable-looking fold-down sofa beds attached to the walls. I held my head high as I walked past our neighbours with stern balconies and plush king-sized beds, who obviously decided the holiday over the Ferrari.

The only really annoying feature was one that everyone copped regardless of status, fame or number-of-mortgages: air conditioning that could, and would, suck the moisture clean out of your body. They say Antarctica is the windiest, dryest place on earth - and to give you the full experience, we're bringing that to your cabin.

But with some wariness, that was largely forgotten as the Fram blew its trumpet with the neighbouring vessels, and backed slowly from the conversation - finally turning into the open arms of the Beagle Channel, grandly lined with the mountains of Argentina on the left, and of Chile on the right. Now, partially from fatigue, partially from rapture I was stuck to the comfortable chairs for the show. I'd be sitting here for the next few hours; through the captain's welcome, crew introductions, and the complementary glass of champagne that was bound to make you pay for more. But mostly for what was going on out the front windows. The weakening orange gradually faded to pinks and blues, in tempo with the Andes dropping lower toward their resting place in the southern oceans. With the passing of the light, I discovered just how comfortable my sofa-bed could be.

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