Once in a Lifetime

It was 3am, and the outside temperature was hovering just above -10°C. For the 100000000000th time since we woke up to catch our 15-hour bus ride out of Ushuaia, I found myself asking Jo… “WHY THE HELL ARE WE DOING THIS AGAIN???”

We were heading for El Calafate, and we had a choice between taking the Infernal-Bus-Journey-with-the-Ridiculous-Border-Crossing AGAIN or we could take a two-hour flight (at a more humane time) that would not even require us to go through international customs.

The obvious answer to my rhetorical question is… “Because we are cheapskates”.

It’s easy to convince ourselves we are doing the right thing when we see how much we’ve stretched our travelling cash by taking the “stupider” option, but there is always a part of me that is nagging… “You are on a Once-in-a-Lifetime trip around the world, why are you pinching pennies??”

“Once in a Lifetime”…. it is a phrase I’ve come to hate since the hordes of flyer-waving bridal studios sales staff swarmed us with over-inflated wedding packages when we were planning our wedding all those years ago. #anotherstoryforanotherday

On some level, I do understand that this is probably the only time in my life that I will be travelling like this, (probably) the only time I was going to get married. I would also only be celebrating my 18, 21, 30, 40, (insert-other-culturally-significant-age-here) birthday once. 

However, I also believe that every moment is an opportunity for us to do something that we will only do Once In Our Lifetime.

For example, I only got to write this because I am going to be stuck in a hellishly long bus ride to El Calafate for the only time in my life, just as you choose to read this (and I hope you are) for the only time in your life. (It’s ok if this is not the first time you are reading this… I don’t judge…)

I guess my point is.. outside of the “significant” birthdays, you are only going to be XX years, XX months, XX days, XX hours and XX minutes old once in this lifetime. I think it is easy to lose sight of how precious every moment is if you only focus on those supposed once-in-a-lifetime “milestones”.

At the end of the day, it is a personal choice to make any moment your personal milestone.

For us, we chose to travel. We think it is the lazy man’s way of making almost every waking moment a milestone (without trying exceptionally hard).

But I guess a milestone could be as simple as deciding to spend more time with the people that matter, or as difficult as saying “sorry” because it is stupid to spend time being resentful and angry. It could mean telling someone how much they mean to you. It could also mean standing up for yourself and finally saying “no” to unnecessary drama in your life. Or saying “fuck it” to the opinions of random strangers and just boogie to that catchy tune coming through your earphones right now.

You can choose to be happy, or you can choose to sulk and make every moment as mundane as possible. Truth is, no matter what moment it is, you are almost certainly never, ever going to get it back. Every moment occurs only once in your lifetime.

That is why… after this rant, I think I am going to get immersed in a world with two moons, secret Japanese cults and beautiful assassins in Murakami’s incomprehensible 1000 page monster “1Q84”.

Why? Because I can.

Also… because I think both Jo and I are secretly at least a little masochistic. (Jo had decided to take on the challenge to sleep through the whole bus ride)

Why else would we choose to spend 15 hours in a bus?

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

Will the real Grafficity please stand up?

IMG_20120813_105657

“If you are staying for the night, you probably don’t want to go down that area, that area and that area after dark”, Francisco said, pointing in three directions around us ,”If you wander away from the city centre, you DEFINITELY don’t want to go up any staircases and alleys alone, even during the day.”

“But don’t let that put you off”, he quickly added, “This is a really beautiful city.”

And that was our introduction to Valparaiso (pronounced “Bel-pa-rai-so” because of the wrong way the Spaniards pronounce “V”… Question: do you think the Spanish-speaking world watch “B” for “Bendetta”??? I digress…).

We had taken a day trip from Santiago to the port town and our first impression of Valparaiso was what you would’ve imagined from Francisco’s description. The city was dirty and grimy with numerous dark alleys and shady staircases that would not have looked out of place on the set of Sin City. Electrical wires crisscrossed haphazardly over rundown graffiti-covered colonial buildings. The streets were littered with garbage and many broken bottles of beer. And then there was that perpetual stink of urine in the air.

It was not a good first impression.

Honestly speaking, if we were left to our own devices that day, we probably would not have enjoyed Valparaiso all that much. Good thing we went on a free walking tour (yes, another one) from Tours4Tips Valparaiso with Francisco and Chris.

Jo and Francisco... According to the Tours4Tips website, we were supposed to look for "Wally".  I think Jo was trying to match the guides' outfit, but she somehow got the color scheme wrong...

Jo and Francisco… According to the Tours4Tips website, we were supposed to look for “Wally”. I think Jo was trying to match the guides’ outfit, but she somehow got the color scheme wrong…

Francisco is a native of Valparaiso and Chris is an American who loved Valpo so much that he decided to stay for a (very long) while. Together, they showed us the lifestyle of the Porteños (people who live in port cities) as we walked through the city.

It’s hard to believe from the state that Valparaiso is in now, but it used to be one of the major ports in South America. It was a key stop for ships crossing the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean. This brought about a deluge of immigrants that helped create the Golden Age of Valparaiso, bringing with them “Latin America’s oldest stock exchange, the continent’s first volunteer fire department, Chile’s first public library, and the oldest Spanish language newspaper in continuous publication in the world” (Source: Wikipedia). The opening of the Panama Canal swiftly brought an end to this Golden Age.

True story... the people of Valparaiso aggressively petitioned for Valparaiso to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site so that modern buildings like these can no longer be erected in the city

True story… the people of Valparaiso aggressively petitioned for their city to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site so that modern buildings like that shiny blue one can no longer be erected

They much prefer the crumbly colonial buildings (some of which comes attached with their own 90-year old inhabitant) that reminded them of the glory days when Valparaiso was a thriving port city

They much prefer the crumbly colonial buildings (some of which come inclusive of their own 90-year old inhabitant) that reminded them of the glory days when Valparaiso was a thriving port city

Over the four or so hours, we went up and down (and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down) the cramped alleyways of the cliffside city built beside the sea.

The first of many (VERY colorful) steps

The first of many (VERY colorful) steps

Francisco and Chris would point out the quirks that makes Valparaiso such an endearing place for all those who can see past the gritty streets (and smell through the pungent stink).

Even though Valparaiso is “just” 120km away from Santiago, the citizens of Valpo are a lot poorer and “street-ish” than those in the capital city. Along with a huge university population, they felt that the Porteños are more politically aware, and the integrity among the people in the port cities is much stronger than those in the capital. (Apparently the districts of Valparaiso are divided by the numerous hills within the city. The denizens of each hill are supposed to have their own “characteristics” and it is not uncommon for people to have extended shouting matches across the different hills)

The “street art” within the city reflects all these characteristics. While there is a lot of amazing graffiti in certain districts in Santiago, the ones in Valparaiso are somehow infused with a hell of a lot more humour of the gallows-y nature. There are also a lot of “installation art” made from the most random of material that are found on the streets.

A lot of the adobe houses in the cities are covered up with steel sheets cannibalized from the numerous container ships that call in the port. The graffiti artists waste no time in claiming these surfaces for their own

A lot of the adobe houses in the cities are covered up with steel sheets cannibalized from the container ships that call in the port. They are used to protect the houses from the corrosive sea breeze, but graffiti artists wasted no time in claiming these surfaces for their own

Actually... no surfaces are spared...

Actually… no surfaces are spared…

Do you have problems? Installation art made from one of the many electrical cables that run feral throughout Valparaiso

“Do you have problems?” Installation art made from one of the many electrical cables that run feral throughout Valparaiso

Of course, there are the more "common" graffiti as well..

Of course, there are also the more “common” graffiti…

valpo picasso

And some of the graffiti are not exactly SFW... but my point is... if a 4 year old can enjoy the art, no one else should be too prudish about it

And some of the graffiti are not exactly SFW… but my point is… if a 4 year old can enjoy the art, no one else should be too prudish about it

No... I didn't really know what I was doing...

No… I didn’t really know what I was doing…

Even historical monuments are not spared the Portenos' cheeky humour. This French sculpture of the Lady Justice was donated by a citizen who had been wrongfully imprisoned. The statue is not wearing traditional blindfold that symbolizes her impartiality to class/color/race. Her scales of equality had also been tucked away. More importantly, this Lady Justice is a lot more sluttily posed than any others that we've seen before signifying her willingness to put out... va va voom

Even historical monuments are not spared from the Portenos’ cheeky humour. This French sculpture of the Lady Justice was donated by a citizen who had been wrongfully imprisoned. The statue is not wearing the traditional blindfold that symbolizes her impartiality to class/color/race. Her scales of equality had also been tucked away. More importantly, this Lady Justice is a lot more sluttily posed than any others that we’ve seen before, signifying her willingness to put out… va va voom. Oh yeah… this statue is audaciously placed right outside the city’s court house

The city's famous ascensores, where for a princely 100 pesos(25 cents), you can spare your legs the pain of walking up the infernal stairs

Francisco and Chris also brought us for a (free) ride up one of the city’s famous ascensores, where for a princely 100 pesos(25 cents), you can spare your legs the pain of walking up the infernal stairs

Francisco and Chris were amazing guides and we fell in love with an unlikely city. Best of all, we ended the day at an artist colony, sitting on a rooftop and having a sip of Chile’s famous pisco sour with the two lovely fellows…

where we were joined by an unexpected friend

where we were joined by an unexpected friend. I think he has secret dreams of being Godzilla

Sunset over a great day

Sunset over an amazing day

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Tours4Tips runs free walking tours through Valparaiso twice a day at 10am and 3pm. The meeting point is at Plaza Sotomayo, a 15 minute walk from the bus station.

Market Day

aka More Fun than I thought I’d Have at Markets.

We’ve always enjoyed Free Walking Tours in the cities that we visit. Firstly, it’s one of the best ways to get to know a place that is totally foreign to us through the eyes of a local. It’s nice to have someone explain the significance of places and tell us about events that shape the cities. It kind of puts everything into context when we are wandering the cities on our own. Secondly, it’s FREE? What’s not to like about free?

Anyway, for our first day in Santiago, instead of going for a generic city tour, we went with Spicy Chile for their more specialized “Popular Santiago” tour that brought us through the major markets in Santiago.

I know… I don’t normally like markets too. Most of the time, they are wet, dingy and smell just a shade nicer than our week-old socks (don’t ask).

Sure enough, the first market that we went to, La Vega Mercado was just that. It was a sprawling assault on all our senses. The narrow aisles of the market were crammed with an assortment of produce from vegetables to fruits to intestines to pickles and cheese. Watch makers and shoe repairmen lined the side of the market while little old ladies peddled Peruvian/Chilean cazuela in a corner cordoned off for cooked food at al fresco “restaurants”. Vendors shouted at each other across the dim passageways, trying to agree on the best price for their wares.

The 100++ year old La Vega is probably the oldest market in Santiago and locals flock to the various family-run locatarios for their daily grocery needs… and when we were there, it seemed like it was shopping day for all 5 million of them.

The fruits of Santiago

The fruits of Santiago

It was a good thing we had the lovely Francesca to guide us around. Tour guide by day and theatre actress/director by night, Francesca was charismatic and really sweet. She expertly navigated us through the mazy corridors of La Vega, knowledgeably pointing out all 20 different types of Peruvian potatoes and charming the gruff store owners into letting us sample their impossibly fresh avocados and tomatoes.

Over the course of the three hour tour

Jo, Francesca and… empanadas??? Nice currypuff-like pastries that we tried, along with other local specialties such as the Mote Con Huesillo, a peach drink with wheat… or is it a wheat drink with peach?

For the rest of the tour, she brought us through other major markets in Santiago, each with its own unique produce and personality. This included La Vega Mercado Chica (the bastard offspring of La Vega situated just next door), the Tirso de Molina Mercado (where craftsmen of dying trades such as basket weaving and leather tanning sell their wares), the Flower Market (La Pér­gola de las Flo­res) and the biggest (and most touristy of them all) the seafood market, El Mercado Central.

The narrow alleys of Tirso de Molina Mar­ket

The narrow alleys of Tirso de Molina Mar­ket

La Pér­gola de las Flo­res — Flower Mar­ket

La Pér­gola de las Flo­res — Flower Mar­ket

santiago market lightThe Mercado Central was the one place where we were really glad we had Francesca with us. Built in 1872 by President Federico Errázuriz Zañartu for the unlikely purpose of housing the Arts Exposition at that time, the structure of the Mercado Central is considered to be an engineering/architecture wonder of its time.

santiago central market mercado centrak

These days, the Mercado Central (or Central Market) is essentially a seafood market. Creatures of the deep, both familiar and unfamiliar ones are hawked at every store.

El... what???

El… what???

The lethal combination of fresh seafood and great architecture makes the Mercado Central one of the biggest tourist magnets in Santiago.

Banking on the literally “fresh from the sea” freshness of the seafood on sale at the market, numerous restaurants set up shop in the Central Market. Touts stand at every corner of the market, waiting to assault you with offers of cheap locos (abalones), sea urchins and whatchamacallits. Some were even prepared to go the extra length and tried to hug these two smelly backpackers.

Francesca was unfazed. She was like a linebacker and blocked off all the touts with her disarming smile and some friendly banter. I’m pretty sure our foray into the market would have been a lot less pleasant without her around.

GraffiCity

As budget travellers, one of the main things that we scrimp on is our accommodation. However, being married and generally old(er than the standard backpacking crowd), we’ll normally pay the extra $5 for little “luxuries” like private rooms instead of squeezing into dingy,underground 50-men dorm rooms (a feat that we have actually accomplished before. True story).

But other than that, we would still search for the cheapest accommodations possible. This has led to us bunking in at some pretty “unique” places. So far, we’ve stayed in little villages on the outskirts of cities, hostels with tiny rooms stuffed under the stairs, South American suburbia, icy cold monasteries in Tibet, and of course the unholy tripartite of cheapo lodgings: love motels, druggie streets and red light districts in various permutations. Of course, the stays vary GREATLY in terms of comfort and… pleasantness, but we are almost certainly guaranteed a unique experience.

Our cheapness was also what brought us to the bohemian neighbourhood of Barrio Bellavista when we were in Santiago.

Framed by Cerro San Cristóbal and radiating out from the house of Pablo Neruda (more about wacky Pablo in another post), Barrio Bellavista is a kaleidoscope of funky restaurants/cafes, new-age art galleries, weird boutiques, beer joints, dance studios and high octane dance clubs. With a high concentration of students and artists in the area, you can almost feel the whole place pulse with raw energy.

Walking from downtown Santiago into Bellavista is like tumbling down the rabbit hole into Burton/Banksy’s bastard child’s vision of Alice’s Wonderland. Graffiti covers every open surface… and I mean that in a good way.

It was definitely a lot better than the “tags” that we saw in other parts of the city. A local told us that these “street artists” of Bellavista have an unspoken agreement amongst themselves – They would never paint over each others’ works.

When word of this got out, shop owners in the area who were sick of having to constantly whitewash the unsightly “tags” from their store fronts commissioned graffiti artists to draw murals onto the exterior of their buildings. The hipster residents of Bellavista quickly followed suit.

That way, they have control over what goes on the walls AND honestly speaking, in my (not too) expert opinions, the murals look A LOT better than any tags would anyway.

We do what we normally do when confronted with fine art pieces. We take hammy shots

And for Jo, hamming it up is A LOT more fun too

MAYBE a little too much fun. #alittletoomuchescudo