Not quite the End of the World

If you had mentioned Ushuaia to me before this trip, the mental image I’d have of the southern-most city in the world would be a snowed-out and deserted one-salon town; our accommodation would be a log cabin that was miles away from everywhere else – kinda like Walter White’s hideaway cabin in the last few episodes of Breaking Bad, and we would have polar bears and penguins roaming right outside. (yeah yeah… I know… Polar Bears live in the North Pole… Nerd…)

This belief that we were heading to the ends of the earth was further reinforced by our monstrous bus-bus-boat-bus transfer to get here.

We are definitely far from everywhere else...

We are definitely far from everywhere else…

So you can imagine my surprise when the first thing I saw upon pulling into town was a HUGEASS casino… followed by whole shopping streets with bright lights, bustling restaurants and… a Carrefour (??)

Ushuaia is definitely not the one-horse town I was expecting.

I guess as Ushuaia slowly gained the reputation of being the “Gateway to Antartica”, more and more tourists have started to “discover” it.

Gateway to Antartica

Gateway to Antartica… ONLY 1000km away!

Of course, on one end of the spectrum, you still have us – the “explorer-wannabes” who will be shocked by how… “developed” the city is.

We were the ones who showed up in our flip flops after traveling in shaky buses for 32 hours.  Along with us (I mean that quite literally… these guys took the same bus as us into town), we had a cool Spaniard who was on a year-long trip, but somehow managed to get by carrying a backpack that was half the size of ours. We also had a Brazilian who stepped into town in the middle of the night and proceeded to ask around for the nearest campsite.

The ambient temperature then was just near freezing.

We felt we gained that little bit of street cred just by hanging around them.

We must have been quite a sight as we dragged our scruffy selves across town, looking for a place to stay.

It certainly didn’t help that we were surrounded by the pre-Antartica-trippers who were wearing their warm, furry designer winter gear. THESE travellers were hanging out in the upmarket micro-breweries and restaurants, drowning themselves in beer and devouring chunks of bloody steaks, giant Alaskan King crabs and entire roast lambs.

However, regardless of the mode (or price) of travel, there was an undeniable sense of adventure in the air.

I think it must have been the amount of posters in the store windows, advertising the activities that could be done around town. Of course, there was the headliner – the cruises to Antartica, but there were also other activities such as going on husky-sled rides to the country side, treks up to glaciers, penguin-watching tours on fishing boats, snowboarding expeditions down deserted mountainsides, visits to National Parks, and…

and puppies!

and puppies for adoption!

The crisp Antartic air, the busy sea channel and the towering mountains around us made the possibilities seemed endless!

View from the hostel

View of the Beagle Channel from our hostel room

Advertisements

Keep the Faith

mary jane hit jackpot

Yup… This is exactly how I’ve been feeling every morning for the past three years since we got married… (Fine… I mean the mornings when I can actually get Jo to get out of bed on time)

A bit of history: We had been dating for eight years before we eventually got married. During those eight years, we’d been on some pretty wild adventures and did a fair bit of travelling together.

You’d think that there would no longer be any surprises after the wedding… that nothing would change, except that we would have an additional marriage certificate with our names on it.

Boy, was I wrong.

Almost immediately after we took out a mortgage on our new place, I started floating the idea of leaving our jobs and going for an extended trip around the world. (Impeccable timing, I know…)

But kudos to Jo for listening to me calmly, taking it in her stride and said… “THAT SOUNDS AWESOME! LET’S DO IT!!!” (sidenote: Jo is not exactly the best person in the world to talk you out of an impulse buy)

And that’s basically our story for the last three years.

At a time when we are supposed to “settle down” and build a life together as “responsible adults”, Jo encouraged the whims to run away together and live a life that we dream about. She suggested ways that we could (further) thumb our nose at the established norms of what married life should be like and set out to blaze path that is strictly our own.

But more than being just a cheerleader and co-conspirator of our many harebrained schemes, Jo has this seemingly unshakable faith that things have been thought out and that things will work out for us (even if it involves 30-hour bus rides, forays to remote villages, getting into dark vans with burly strangers or sleeping at the oddest of places).

Even at times when I am not sure what the hell we are doing, she would be there with the belief that all will be well. I get the warm and fuzzy feeling that she believes that I will make the “right” decisions for us (except for the one to wake her up in the morning), and this drives me to dream up bigger and wilder adventures.

So, as we start on our fourth year together as a married couple, I would just like to thank Mrs Toh for being the rock in the marriage. This faith (and that slightly insane streak) is what allowed us to embark on this truly crazy journey.

Happy Anniversary, Mrs Toh.

Journeying to the end of the world… wearing a pair of slippers

One of the things about travelling long-term is that after a while, we noticed that we were slowly losing our senses.

The first sense to go was definitely whatever fashion sense we used to have. Initially, this was planned and kinda borne out of necessity. We agreed we should just pack one nice set of “going out” clothes because we didn’t want our pretty stuff ending up in dubious laundromats. But after a period of living out of a backpack, wearing colour-coordinated clothes started taking a backseat to finding something that does not have (too many inconveniently placed) holes in them. Also… we must’ve been quite deluded to think that we would actually go to laundromats.

Fortunately, at this point, the next senses to go were our sense of smell and any sense of shame.

This was essentially the state of mind we were in as we prepared to embark on the 32-hour-long journey from Puerto Madyn to Ushuaia (apparently pronounced ooh shoo ahhhhh ya)

So far removed, even Google don't know how to get there...

A journey so long that even Google doesn’t know how to get there…

We figured that since we were gonna be spending a lot of time on the bus, the smartest thing we could do for ourselves was to get as comfortable as possible. We happily packed our warm socks, boots and heavy winter-wear in the backpacks and stuffed those un-laundered packs of stink into the luggage compartment of the bus. We were gonna make ourselves super comfortable, sipping red wine on the toasty bus in our t-shirts, thin jackets and our bathroom-going flipflops, thank you very much.

We were actually pretty smug at first. We were watching the hostile Patagonian landscape pass us by outside. We were in one of those infamously comfortable Argentinian buses, happily watching Robocop 3 (in Spanish), playing yet another game of Bingo and having one too many glasses of red wine.

Probably some of the harshest living conditions around... if you were OUTSIDE

Probably some of the harshest living conditions around… if you were OUTSIDE the bus

I think we kinda forgot that we were journeying TOWARDS the city closest to the South Pole (or as it is known by its less dramatically foreboding nickname, Fin del Mundo – END OF THE WORLD!!!!!)… a journey that would see us go through three-buses-one-boat-transfers, as well as four-custom-post-crossings.

Yup, the first time we realized how stupid we were was when we had to get off the bus very early the next morning to change to another bus in Rio Gallegos… and then we were reminded again when we had to get off THAT bus to go through a veeery long custom check at the Argentinian border… this reminder went on for the entire day when we had to pass through the Chilean Checkpoint, another Chilean Checkpoint and then again through a final Argentinian Checkpoint. Somehow, Chile had (why not?) laid claim to a teeny strip of land on the road between Puerto Madryn to Ushuaia.

The proverbial (and pretty literal) icing on the cake was when we had to swap from the bus to a ferry ride across the Strait of Megallan.

Outside...

Outside…

Ever wonder what it is like to have sub-zero, wintery winds blowing against your very exposed appendages? I will be the first one to say… it doesn’t feel very good at all.

Not feeling the heat... literally

Not feeling the heat… literally

So was it worth it?

We got into Ushuaia around sunset, and I just snapped these shots with Jo’s Samsung phone…

ushuaia sunset lake 2

ushuaia sunset mountain range

ushuaia sunset lake

At that moment… Our trip was starting to look really good.

There was one other little problem…

We had a 2km walk to our hostel in the cold, dark wintery night… and we couldn’t get our boots out of the backpack.

Patagonian Small Towns

Jo and I sort of fell in love with the small town feel of Puerto Piramides when we went there for our ocean safari. And since we had a day to spare in Puerto Madryn before moving all the way to the southern tip of Argentina, we decided to just hop on some buses and explore the nearby townships of Trelew and Gaiman.

What’s there in Trelew and Gaiman? To be honest, if you’d asked us that at the start of the day, we would not have been able to tell you (It’s one of those things that we do without putting too much thought into it… #funpartoftravelling). But we do think it is pretty cool to go to a town that shares a name with one of my favorite authors (author of American Gods and the Sandman series – Neil Trelew).

That’s why we thought it was pretty cool that one of the first things we saw when we arrived in Trelew was…

A DINOSAUR MUSEUM! Yeah… I know we’ve been to one before. But they are kinda friggin cool!

There are dinosaur fossils EVERYWHERE. Is it only me? Or did anyone else ever wonder why they NEED to put all the dinosaurs with the open-mouthed ROOOOAAARR pose?

There are dinosaur fossils EVERYWHERE. Is it only me? Or did anyone else ever wonder why they NEED to put all the dinosaurs in the open-mouthed ROOOOAAARR pose?

Altogether now.... ROOOAAAAAARR!!!

Altogether now…. ROOOAAAAAARR!!!

And the one thing that made this Paleontology Museum different from the one in Cordoba was that we got to be really up close and personal with the fossils.

Dinosaur - to - us size comparison

Dinosaur – to – us size comparison

Apparently, Trelew is really near one of the biggest fossil excavation sites in the world. To this day, there are still active digs going on, and this Paleontology Museum is a key centre to store and restore the fossils. A big bonus for us was that we were able to see real-life Paleontologists at work.

Like I said... kinda cool...

Like I said… kinda cool…

Of course, there is more to Trelew than dinosaurs… To us, it feels like one of those towns where everyone knows everyone else. The main drag is along four perpendicular streets and beside the odd Starbucks and McPancho (NOT a real thing) outlet, the rest of the shops are Mom & Pop establishments… We kinda felt like we were in Stars Hollow on the set of Gilmore Girls.

Small town with a quaint town hall

Small town with a quaint town hall

with a charming train station...

with a charming train station…

with its own non working train... at least not in real life. We can still imagine the train chugging along

that comes with its own non-working train… at least it is not working in real life – like that has stopped us before…

As for Gaiman… It is a half hour bus ride away from Trelew. According to the various write-ups, Gaiman is supposed to be a quaint little Welsh town on the Argentinian countryside. While we did see a lot of signs pointing out how Welsh the different places are…

A Welsh garden.

A Welsh garden.

A sign advertising the Welsh town of Gaiman

Welsh Culture Town

Another sign with the Welsh coat of arms

Welsh farm with Welsh coat of arms… yes, the color Green is a very prominent theme in the town… wait… isn’t that Irish?

But to be honest, it was a little too… “small town” for us…. Apparently, we do have a limit to how small a town is before it loses its charms (Population of Trelew: 100,000, Population of Gaiman: 6,000).

We are City Folks.

The most fun we had in Gaiman? Sniggering at a giant robot playground where kids slide out of the robot’s bazooka boobs…

A dose of Awesomeness

A dose of Awesomeness

We are childish that way…

The Head that Shattered a Thousand (ok, ONE) Window

One thing about reading travel blogs is that most of the time, you only get to see the best part of every traveller’s journey – the whale-watching at sunrise, the mouth-watering cuisine, the jaw-dropping mountain scenery and the crystal clear seas.

But the truth of the matter is that these moments make up about 20% of every journey. The rest of the 80% is spent doing the very mundane chores of sleeping, eating and… getting from Point A to Point B.

Nothing very much happens during this 80%… except when things happen.

So… you know that we took the ocean safari while we are in Puerto Madryn… We traveled to the Peninsula Valdes, took a boat, saw some whales… but what I left out in the previous posts is that it’s a good 3 hour drive from Puerto Madryn to the Peninsula.

At the travel agency, we were promised that it would be an exciting ride where we would be kept busy looking for/at land animals that make the Peninsula their home; animals like rheas (small weird ostriches), guanacos (small weird llamas), grey foxes (small weird foxes) and maras (small weird ermm… mouse/rabbit/guinea pig mutants???). There were also SUPPOSED to be “at least 181 bird species, 66 of which migratory, live in the area, including the Antarctic Pigeon”. And every once in a while, we were SUPPOSED to be able to get out of the vehicle to see “large colonies of sealions and elephant seals basking in the sun”.

To be fair, our guide tried VERY hard.

He would very suddenly get the driver to stop the vehicle and point in a general direction, shouting very dramatically “SEE!!!” (Now that I think about it, maybe he meant “¡Sí!”… it’s hard to tell with his ridiculously cute accent… complete with the inverted exclamation mark).

At the start, every time he did that, we would enthusiastically peer out into the distance, trying very hard to see what it was that got him so riled up… Most of the time, we would see nothing (I mean the guide is a trained nature guide so that means he has mutant telescopic eyes), but every once in a while, if we were lucky, we would be able to make out two black dots bouncing in the distance.

After an hour of seeing these…

SEE!!!

SEE!!! The Patagonian landscape is notoriously harsh… this means dried grass plains for hundreds of kilometres all round with strong winds of up to 30kns being the norm here.

Si!  Si

¡Sí!
¡Sí!

and these…

Our first sighting of maras...

Our first sighting of maras… kind of…

And guanacos... kindof... suffice to say... we saw the backview of many animals

And guanacos… kind of… suffice to say… we saw the back view of many animals that tried to run away from our mini bus

To put it mildly, it was a bit hard for us to keep up our enthusiasm.

We had more luck with flower, since they can't.... move

We had more luck with flowers, since they can’t…. move

What we were "Supposed" to see...

What we were “SUPPOSED” to see… at a “museum” of Peninsula Valdes at the entrance of Peninsula Valdes…

It didn’t help that at the few pit stops we made to see “beaches covered with colonies of elephant seals and sea lions”, we saw this instead…

Hardly a colony...

Spot THE elephant seal… Hardly a colony…

Apparently, we were too early for the mating season, so what we saw were essentially the horniest of the elephant seals…

Horny The One

Horny The One

I suppose THAT is something we could brag about.

So… while the guide managed to keep a VERY upbeat attitude throughout the whole journey, we gave up. On the bus ride back to Puerto Madryn, our disease of being able to fall asleep anywhere/anytime/anyhow caught up with us. Believe me, it is not easy to fall asleep with someone who aspires to be a Brazilian football commentator shouting in your ears, but somehow we managed to do it.

And that was when it happened.

I had just been woken up by an exceptionally loud “SEE!!” by the guide, and I was peering into the distance, slowly being lured back into dreamland when I heard a loud “CRAAAAASSSSSSHH”.

The window beside Jo had shattered into a thousand pieces. The amazing thing was that EVERYONE in the bus got woken up by the loud crash… except for Jo.

I had to gently wake her up and tell her not to move about too much (not a big problem – just-woke-up-Jo has the mobility of a drunk garden slug) because of the loose glass shards that were all around her.

There were many theories as to what caused the window to break. The favourite one was that a loose stone on the road flew at the window, causing it to shatter. I think that is possibly the case too, but I also want to say that our heads tend to roll about a lot when we fall asleep on moving vehicles (A LOT)… but that’s all I have to say about that…

Anyway, we had to make a quick pit stop and through sheer Patagonian resilience and South American ingenuity, the driver and guide managed to sweep up all the glass shards and fix up the window….

Glass is for wimps. Here in Patagonia, they patch broken windows up with cardboard

Glass is for wimps. Here in Patagonia, they patch broken windows up with cardboard

So yeah… Out here on The Road, 80% of the time nothing happens during the journey. But when they happen, they do so with a CRASH.