Happy New Year from Ushuaia
It is 31/12/2015. Im in Ushuaia.
From the open window of my hotel room the sun is glaring on my computer screen. It is 7pm and the sounds and smells of mid summer pour in. In the garden opposite, yellow and orange horned poppies whip in the ever present Patagonian breeze, for even in mid summer there is a wind in Ushuaia, flowing down from the snowy peaks of the Southern Alps behind the busy town.
My first visit here was in 2000 when I travelled over land from Punta Arenas in Chile to deliver climbing equipment for an expedition to South Georgia. My driver and I made the mose unlikely pair of climbers. We weren't climbers of course, we were delivering gear to a ship that meant the company we were working for paid less tax. Hmm. DIdn't really appreciate that way back then. Ramon, the driver, was approx 25 stone - 200kg maybe - and I was a svelt 80kg. We were climbing buddies. Yeah, really. Still, at the border crossing between Chile and Argentina our plans were taken seriously and after a day or two skimming through dusty fields spotting Guanacos, oil dereks and flat calm lakes, we arrived through mountain passes to this most beautiful city and delivered a dozen or so ropes and harnesses to the waiting ship.
Ushuaia is almost ringed by snowy peaks. Only to the south is there open water, but even that does not linger as Patagonia is divided into myriad fjords and choppy mountain ranges that have a clear snow line above which trees do not grow. It seems remarkably neat in that sense at least.
As a city it is as concentrated as any I know. A main drag of toursit shops and restaurants with a neat grid pattern of roads dotted wtih colourful hostels, houses and new-build flats that encroach in an ever determined manner into the aforementioned woodland. An air of dust hangs over the untarmacked roads to the west that seem never ending. Beyond the main grid the town is ever more welcoming with gardens rich in lupins, roses and exotic shurbs.
I simply dont know where the west of Argentina and the east of Chile meet in these parts - the fjords seem endless and oh-so inviting. To sail into them in a small vessle must be truly incredible. Ill do it one day. You and I both know that.
I had a GOOD lunch today. After a couple of days travelling across vast distances in the air, one requires a GOOD lunch.
Rabbit legs, slow cooked and finished with a little cream and grainy mustard and shallots, a simple green salad with sweet onions and ripe tomatoes, lots of unbelievably good French bread and a few glasses of Patagonian Malbec.
I sat for hours drinking in the atmosphere in Almacen, a bar that combines the best of Patagonian rustic charm and top quality ingreditents that makes it a go-to for me whenever I am in town. It is also frequented by almost all the expedition staff of the cruise ships that work out of the port here. Conspicuous in their matching jackets. As I sat down today on my corner table, the homme of a French couple whispered a little too loundly that I must be an AUTHENTIQUE which made me chuckel, salute them, and carry on with my book. I think it was the beard, as I don't currently smell that badly (of penguins).
Today was day three of my journey here.
When it comes to flying, I like to be early, I simply don't mind waiting, it is a control issue. Dont usually relinquish it. I chew a lot, as a result. Keeps my mind occupied in between griding teeth - a most unappealing habit. But only when I fly.
I will admit tthat I find travelling, flying especially ( once I am through security) completely fascinating. I'm an invetorate people watcher (dont get out much). From the moment I arrive in departures and can stop chewing, I start to focus on the absurdity of it all. Groups of people - lets be honest - drinkers if you are travelling from the UK, washing down their boccancicni in ultimate sophistication with a pint of Stella Artois for such is the subtlety of Manchester airport that although you can't get a cooked English anymore, you can still find some fizzy beer with which to eash down your mozarella balls. FYI I had stuffed field mushrooms with a glass of red Italian. Not good.
Of course, once on board, people watching takes on a whole new level of curiosity. It is impossible not to be a voyeur on any flight as the sheer proximity to others ensures this. Fierce, sharp debates ensue inches away from your hearing and gaze - confused arguments on the meaning of ABCDEFGH rows and whether the number ABOVE the row of seats REALLY means that IS the CORRECT seat row. An exposed midrift pops over your head as an all-too heavy carry on bag crushes your neighbours neatly packed rucksack. Eyes redden at the prospect of a lost camera/tablet. Crushed in the rush to sit down really near to someone else, to touch and yet not to speak.
The most bizarre moments come in the early hours, post-prandial when halfway though the second movie of a trans-Atlantic flight the combination of travel chaos, dehydration and exhaustion ensure that most travellers are immune to falling to sleep left or right onto the shoulder of their neighbour (friend or not), dribbling a weakly dissolved merlot onto their no-crease travel fleece. Stains that appear in the night.
I dont sleep on flights. I'm just too excited about my destination. I think that even if I were heading to Alcatraz, I wouldn't settle. Ive been awake for 36 hours or so. So apologies.
My other, for now, observation on the past two days is on the subject of air hostesses.
Air France was my carrier. Hmm. where to begin. I dont think that I could live with an air seward/ess. I imagine a home life where even the tiniest space is organised in micro fashion - every pin in its correct orientation, even the dust falling in neat patterns. Pets/children always smiling, lest they be locked in aluminuim cabinets in the walls, clearly but inexplicably labelled.
The ablity to smile thorugh the worst is REAL talent. To have to wear their abonimable outfits must reel for a start - and it shows on their faces. On a large plane - this was an airbus big-thing or something ther might have been 14 or 15 hosts/esses. All bar two as neat as a dissecting kit. Upright, red lipped in company colours with scarlet sashes of a regulation size around their neat waists. Think Patsy in the air before the vodka. Hair tighly bound at the back of the head, dyed to blond perfection. It couldn't last, the binding anyway, but it was fun to see how it tired as clearly it must during the journey. By morning the neat buns were as loose as my beard, if far less attractive.
Does one have to be a control freak to work in such a confined space - you can't free ball in these conditions can you? Sure-footed, they operate quickly around queues waiting for the (two) working loos for 400 passengers, pouring chapagne in first class while simultaneously changing a nappy in coach. Smiling all the way with those waxy red lips.
For the first time, I had exercised my option to choose my own seat - with leg room! I had not factored into the equation that my two neighbours would be slightly too affectionate throughout the 12 hour flight - tossing and turning at regular intervals, throwing me into the path of an incontinent septugenarian that knocked me across my seat to join the turmoult every time she plodded past to the loo. This, I can assure you, happened every 10 or 15 minutes for the first four hours of the flight.
She slept, finally. I had to pee, as one does. On my return to the seat-with-leg-room I could see the woman in question, flopped back in her seat, legs akimbo and mouth gaping. I had in my posession a pack of wasabi peanuts. Just one, inserted at an appropriate break in her snoring would have caused a severe eruption. I pondered, and then sat down to consider my options.
'Yes of course I'm fit and don't mind the responsibility of being in an emergency escape row' I has said when checking in. And my thoughts turned to that red handle. Despite its colour, so innocent - just a little lever. Just one accidental lurch. I could belay myself into seat 25J using my blanket and hold on tight as I loosened her seatbelt, flopped against the door and she'd be gone. But you see, I'm a coward. The wasabi nut cured her. And then, for good measure, I had a wrestle in First class, as is my want.
Arriving in Beunos Aires is always a pleasure. The city is exciting. Huge boulavades, tight narrow streets leading from them, chaotic with motorcyclists, taxis and garbage gathering men and women dragging enormous trolleys behind them. The smell of woodsmoke from a thousand Parillas (BBQs) fugs the air into a delicious smog that is tinged with soot and fuel. It is rough at the edges, but primal and thrilling. My hotel last night was in San Telmo - at the heart of the city but in a district I dont know well. I wasn't adventurous - being there for just one night and having an early connection, so I drifted out for a bite to eat and a siesta.
My bite to eat was far more fascinating that I had planned, but I should have known better as the Argentineans are very friendly and an intriguing people. From my hotel, I wandered just a couple of blocks, up and down and around to get my bearings. Hungry. Smelt wood smoke, and saw a couple of tables by the side of the busy town centre carriageway. Wide but not too noisy. As soon as I wandered into the tiny shop I knew I had found a gem. Four guys at the table to the left of the door, drinking a large bottle of beer lifted their glasses. 'Felis Navidad'.
To the to rear of the shop a counter on the left and behind it a sixty-something man in white shirt and blue jeans, a coffee machine, a fridge full of lager and a red-hooded Parilla - wood smoke escaping from the edges of the metal cover. A metre or so across, the smells emerging were mouth watering. A rack or two of lamb ribs sat in the heat to one side. Just resting or sweating. I couldn't tell, but they looked good. Having ordered an insalata mixta and some lamb, and a beer, I took a small card table outside and sat by the road. Within ten seconds I was in conversation with a table of students - one in particular who wanted to know where I was from and why I was in BA. An engaging lot, Argentineans. We shared stories of the city - my time with veteran Argentinean Antarctic division men from my years at Rothera - we used to drop the mail from the back of oue of our planes over their island as they had no post. I had a blast with them in Beunos Aires a year later when we all got out. Back in 2000. She - the student of law - talked about how she saw the world as a mixture of cultures but not of national boundaries. How she wants to explore - to travel, to make Argentina a place for women as well as men. One might have thought it could have been that already given its two prominent women presidents.
We wondered what the future might hold for this nation, rich as it is in natural resources. The new president is an economist - not for the people I was told. This country has huge natural wealth. It is a young country, I guess, and as its deocracy falters has become open to abuse and conflict from abroad as well as from within. If it could keep its wealth, avoid the exploitation of its resources by external multinationals as well as China, it might be able to invest in its own economic freedom. Speaking to my friend Nick Tozer who runs the Mercopress news agency, this is an open question. He was the Telepgraph's Falklands war correspondant and we met in Antarctica in 2006 at Port Lockroy. He introduced me to the politics of this fascinating country. It is as rich and complex as the whole of Europe in many respects. Don't just think of Argentina in terms of the Falklands/Malvinas. It is far more than that. Its people are just like you and I - just as open to political manipulation and just as friendly to strangers. Just as human.
The headlines each of our countries sees about the other bely the deeper truth, as headlines always do. In a week or two I'll be in the Falklands, no doubt with Argentinean friends, witnessing the complex history betweek our contries writ large.
Happy New Year to all friends past, present and new.