Paradise by the Dashboard Light

Our first problem with leaving Puerto Madryn was knowing what time the bus was going to arrive. Since the little daylight savings debacle, we were unsure whether the tickets that we had bought in Buenos Aires stated the earlier or later time. Rather than trying to puzzle it out in Spanish, we just went to the bus station an hour early. What’s another hour of waiting when you have 36 hours of bus travel coming up?

We had to buy two different tickets from two different bus companies to get to Ushuaia. One ticket was from Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos and the other from Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia. We had about a three hour layover in between, so we thought that would be plenty of time. It would have been except: 1) The bus was almost an hour late coming from its previous destination. 2) We inexplicably had to completely switch buses at one of the stops which caused mass chaos and confusion and another delay of almost an hour. 3) When we stopped for breaks at rest stops and the driver would say five minutes we would be there for ten. When he said ten minutes we would be there twenty or thirty. 4) In the early hours of the morning, one of the passengers, a young girl, got sick and they took her to a hospital and waited for her to be checked out. I’m no doctor, but when they brought her back after almost an hour she looked fine to me. 5) When crossing the border from one province to another, an officer boarded the bus and took everyone’s name and passport number by hand.

All of these delays made for a harrowing morning. We were supposed to get in at 5:00 AM and catch the next bus at 8:30 AM. We got there at 7:40, luckily in time to catch the bus. I felt like I might be getting an ulcer. But I kept in mind what a woman on the bus had told me as we proceeded from one delay to another: “Don’t worry. Once you get there you’ll forget all about this. Ushuaia is paradise.”

Well, we still had a while to go before paradise was found. Contenders for, and quite possibly winners of, the most pointless exercise award are Argentina and Chile for their handling of the passengers traveling overland to Ushuaia. A good three hours of our travel time was spent standing in line getting our passports stamped to get out of Argentina, getting our passports stamped to get into Chile, getting our passports stamped to get out of Chile, and getting our passports stamped to get into Argentina. At one of the border stations we had to have all of our hand luggage x-rayed while all of our checked luggage stayed put in the luggage hold of the bus. At another, we stood in one line to give an officer our passports, and another to get the passport back from a different officer. Of course there were several forms to fill out as well which I can only imagine went straight from our hands into the garbage. Not to mention the fact that if you really wanted to sneak in or out of Argentina all you would have to do is walk around the border patrol station.

As we crossed the Straits of Magellan on the ferry, we got out of the bus to take a look around. It was an incredibly windy day, but we braved the gusts to take in the view and to take some pictures. And here is where the saga of the camera continues. In a previous post, I wrote about how my camera had been stolen in Buenos Aires just after we arrived there. Seeing that the cameras in Argentina are very pricey and that to ship one to Argentina from Amazon.com costs almost as much as the camera itself, we bought a camera on Amazon, had it shipped to my mom, and she sent it to us thereby saving us some money. Unless the camera got “lost” in transit. Which it did. So now two people in Argentina have a new camera paid for by me. On our last day in Buenos Aires we spent the day looking for yet another camera. We spent twice as much for a camera half as good, but being on our third camera, there wasn’t much else to be done. So on the third day of using our new camera, we took it out on the observation deck of the ferry and we promptly got smacked with a huge wave that came gushing over the side as the ferry tossed on the rough water. My eyes did that cartoon-like popping out of their sockets thing. New camera…covered in salt water…ho-ly shit. I rushed back to the bus, frantically popped the batteries out, and dried it off. I thought about whether we would purchase a fourth camera or we would just take this as a sign that the Universe wanted us to travel sans photographic equipment. Fortunately, the camera dried out and has not exhibited any ill effects from the dousing…yet.

I wouldn’t say that the scenery on most of the east coast was very inspiring. It’s fairly flat and brown. The exception is when the sun sets and the sky turns a brilliant orange which is contrasted with grape colored clouds over the darkened fields. The bus drivers must have felt compelled to relieve us of our boredom because I was forced to watch Get Smart twice, once in English and once in Spanish and I laughed exactly once during the entire movie (twice if you count the fact that I saw it twice) at Alan Arkin’s reaction to almost getting his head pierced by a giant taxidermied swordfish.

When we got further south the scenery got much more interesting. As we drove along the coast sand dunes piled up on either side of the road. We passed hillsides of trees permanently blown sideways by the wind. Then the hillsides turned to mountains and the sea to lakes as the bus climbed upwards. Then the bus came around the side of the mountain and the entire valley was laid out below us and everyone fell silent. Even the French guy with the stupid hat who had followed us from Puerto Madryn shut his trap. The last remnants of the late evening sun shining on the glacier blue lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains gave the impression that we were driving through a panoramic postcard or perhaps a National Geographic coffee table book.

We arrived in Ushuaia around 9:00PM and went straight to the bed and breakfast, La Casa de Alba, which is literally what it is. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about Alba upon our first encounter. She seemed a bit brusque as she ushered us into the room, but we came to realize that she was just sizing us up. First, she discovered that we have the same name (Alba means “dawn” in Spanish) and then she discovered that as guests we were not going to be needy pains in the ass. Being a teacher, I can sympathize with Alba. She denounced the guests that rang for her all hours of the day to ask her ridiculous questions. Questions like, “Can we drink the water?” and “Can we throw the toilet paper in the toilet?” reminded me of questions like, “Can I write in pencil?” or “Can I write on both sides of the paper?”

But once she realized that we are the kind of people who tend to try to figure things out on our own, she softened up considerably. She asked if we understood Spanish, and we said that we did, but she appeared to think that this claim was dubious. “A lot of people say that they understand Spanish and then I talk and they say I talk too fast. It’s too hard for me to speak slowly. So I can either talk in fast Spanish or bad English, it’s your choice.”

Since it was late and we didn’t feel like chancing it, we opted for the English which is 100 times better than our Spanish. After a few days we would come to realize that we could understand her perfectly in Spanish, so she gamely let us practice. We came to be quite fond of La Casa de Alba and even more fond of Ushuaia itself which had more than a few delightful surprises in store for us.

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