Ice Ice Baby

The cabin that we checked into in El Calafate at 1:00 in the morning was something that I would have dreamed about living in as a child. It was a fairly tiny A-frame cabin, but it was so cute with its little dining area and loft bed and it was situated in a small neighborhood of similar cabins amidst a garden of lavender—I couldn’t help being charmed by it. Slightly less charming was the shower which was one of those that soaks the whole bathroom so that you have to squeegee the entire floor when you are done. But did I mention how cute it was? The owner was nice enough to speak English with us after we had been awake for almost 24 hours, but in the morning we told him that he could speak Spanish to us since we could actually process thoughts after a good night of sleep. He replied that he would go ahead and continue with the English because it was good practice for him. This seems to be a running theme.

The main street in El Calafate is full of every service that you need, but unfortunately that means it is also full of tourists. I don’t hate tourists, I am one, but what I absolutely detest is the tourist walk. Trying to get anywhere in a reasonable amount of time on a street filled with tourists is an exercise in futility. Inevitably you will find yourself walking behind hundreds of people who are all doing the exact same thing: shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, STOP, shuffle, shuffle, veer right, STOP, shuffle, veer left, STOP, speed up, slow down, STOP, consult map in the middle of sidewalk, shuffle, shuffle. There are slight variations, but basically the tourist walk means that a person has no inclination whatsoever that there is anyone else on the sidewalk but him. Which is why I’ve started to walk in the gutter. (The author admits that she, at times has been guilty of the tourist walk, but she is at least aware of the fact and actively works to inhibit such behavior in herself).

If you are like me and tend to like dogs better than people, Argentina is the place to be. Argentina is full of dogs, and nowhere that we have been has more dogs than El Calafate. Dogs do not live indoors here, so people’s pet dogs mingle with the stray dogs and can be seen moving in packs of two or three, but sometimes as many as nine or ten. Since there is little to stop the dogs from practicing free love, you can see some very interesting breeds on the streets. Labpoodach Retriever? Got it. St. Bullweimerpug? Yep. All of the dogs seem to have a rough idea of their territory, and you can see the same dogs patrolling their areas daily. Generally as you walk the streets and the waterfront, one or two of these dogs will take on the task of being your guide. The dog will trot merrily in front of you, pretending to pay little attention to you while still making sure that you are going the right way. Try as you might, you cannot shake these guide dogs until they are ready to part from your company. At that time, at some unseen border, the dog or dogs will stop and watch you walk away, apparently satisfied that they have done their job.

The place where you do not want the dogs to follow you is out to the reserve where they will gleefully bound after the very birds you were trying to get a picture of all week. The reserve is full of gorgeous black-necked swans, blue-billed ducks, small hawks, and best of all, flamingos. The flamingos were always wisely situated far away from any possible human interference and any attempts by me to lure them closer were surprisingly ignored. Since there isn’t a whole lot to do in El Calafate itself, we walked out there quite often. The best sights are not actually in El Calafate; the places that are just outside of it are the places that you want to see.

When I walked out of the bathroom on the morning of our trip to Perito Moreno glacier, Adam stared at my brown pants and asked, “Are you going to wear those pants today?”

He did not ask this because he was offended by my fashion sense, but rather because he had already put on his brown pants. “Yes,” I replied, “I am going to wear these pants because these are muddy on the bottom and they are now my hiking pants.”

He sighed and went to grab his other pants. “You know,” I said, “they’re not the same pants, they’re just the same color. We can wear the same color pants.”

He shook his head gravely. “Next thing you know it’ll be matching jackets,” he said with a cautionary tone, and changed his pants.

If I wasn’t very impressed by the Martial Glacier in Ushuaia, the Perito Moreno Glacier more than made up for it. Looking at it from the observation platforms you can’t grasp the scale of it, but the glacier is, on average, taller than a 20 story building and that’s only the part that you see above the surface of the water. Besides the height, the sheer scope of it is incredible as it stretches down the mountains and extends into the lake looking like the top of an enormous meringue pie. Every 30 minutes or so, a huge piece of the ice would break off and crash into the water in what seemed like slow motion. Occasionally the impact of the ice was so massive that the ground would actually shake. You cannot listen to an Ipod while watching a glacier. The sounds—the rumblings, creaks, and crashes—are just as much a part of the experience as the sights.

I talked about seeing glacier blue for the first time in New Zealand and it is still as amazing no matter how many times I see it. You just can’t reproduce that color because it’s not just the color, it’s the glow. The entire glacier looked as if it had been lit from underneath with one of those blue party light bulbs. The spires that jutted out from the structure gave off an eerie light so that you could imagine that some wizard from Tolkien mythology made that particular spot his home. I was absolutely mesmerized by this natural wonder and all I could do was stand there gawking at it, trying to wrap my head around the sheer volume of ice in front of me.

We came to the realization that we had been standing there for hours watching ice fall into the water. And we were heartily entertained by it. So too was the rest of the crowd who, upon witnessing a big chunk of ice come crashing down into the lake, would hoot, whistle, and even applaud as if there were tiny people inside the glacier with hammers and chisels creating the spectacle for the enjoyment of the tourists.

I asked Adam if we could get a glacier. “Come on,” I pleaded, “we could keep it in the freezer and just take it out at parties.”

Adam gave me the same look that he gives me anytime I start a question with the words, “Can we get a/an…” and ends with: “wombat, armadillo, polar bear, kangaroo, guanaco, koala bear, flamingo, miniature bat, waterfall, moat with hippos, rhinoceros, penguin, tiny monkey with a mustache, coral reef, cow, pig, pony, platypus, komodo dragon, otter, emu, capybara, ewok, etc.”

The look tells me without words that I needn’t have asked such a silly question and an answer, therefore, will not be forthcoming. Every once in a while instead of the look he will burst out with something like, “Who do you imagine is going to be taking care of all of these things?”

To which I reply, “Well, I haven’t thought about that yet. I can’t be expected to think of everything at once, can I?”

The drawback of staying in El Calafate, is that if you don’t have a car, you must spend lots of money getting bus tickets to places where you can go hiking. After Perito Moreno, we wanted to go to a place where we could walk somewhere outside of designated viewing platforms, so we chose to go to Lago Roca, also part of Los Glaciares National Park. We started by walking out to the lake through a herd of cattle that eyed us warily the whole time. It was an easy little amble past some beautiful patches of thistle and the most adorable bees I have ever seen. These bees looked like the kind of bees that you might see buzzing about on Sesame Street. Their jet-black heads and bodies were covered with a coat of bright orange fur which made them look très chic. I thought about asking Adam if we could get a beehive full of these bees, but I was pretty sure that I knew the answer.

Next we headed up to a giant rock that still had remnants of paintings from the times before they charged 11 pesos to use the bathroom facilities at the park. It was interesting, but most of the paintings were long since erased by time and we could only make out bits and pieces of them. I tried unsuccessfully to interpret them. “OK, OK, I got it. That amoeba right there is hunting this snake right over here with this…um…poison dot over here.” Or something like that.

Our last hike was uphill to a lookout, and sure enough, only 15 or 20 minutes into it, my calves were burning like they were going to spontaneously combust, I was out of breath, and I was wondering if I was ever going to be able to walk on an incline without feeling like the world’s worst hiker. An old man and his young grandchildren passed me and I cursed them. If they can do it, so can I, right? After a while I thought that the answer might be no. But Adam very patiently coaxed me up much further than I thought I could go by making enthusiastic comments on my progress. (Luckily he loves me enough not to respond to me the way either of us might respond to another person: “You can’t make it any farther? OK, see you later.”) As it got later and we had to contemplate heading back down to catch our bus, I volunteered to hang out and rest with the bags while Adam did a quick sprint to the top. Even though I didn’t get all the way to the top, I was rewarded with astounding views of the valley, of the stunningly blue lakes, and of the Perito Moreno Glacier, imposing even from 25 kilometers away. Then it was back down to the bus where I almost fell asleep despite the bumpy, dusty ride.

Since we had unknowingly booked more time in El Calafate than was necessary, our last couple of days there were spent mostly reading and studying. I picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Spanish, and have been picking my way through it. It helps a great deal that I know the basics of the story so that I can focus on picking up new words. Though I do realize that wizardry terms may not turn out to be all that useful.

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