Friday 7 November 2014

Dodging falling glacial ice, grumpy travellers and badly grilled vegetables

I've learned three big things in the last 24 hours. If an Argentinian bus driver doesn't want you to get on his bus, it doesn't matter how cold you are, it's not happening; the local parilla's are amazing at cooking lamb, but cannot for the life of them figure out how to grill an onion; and no matter how you travel, someone will always think that they're doing it better than you.

I met another type of traveller today: the ones I nickname the slow-goers. A Swiss couple who are hitchhiking between Argentinian villages with a tent, camping where and when they please. It's surprising really, for some, it seems that the slower you go, the 'better' you are at 'travelling'. They were of the opinion that someone who moves around as quickly as I do is clearly doing it wrong, and I'm just wasting my time. Odd, I've always thought that some people are shockingly dismissive of those who go faster than them (and at times, of anyone but themselves); I've caught myself sneering at tourists in the past, before a friend back home observantly pointed out that I too, was just a tourist. We all have our ways of going about, but at the end of the day we're all tourists in our own way. For those that believe this is a race, then really the locals win. For me, it's less about the destination and more about the journey; I just like being on the road.

Then again, to them I was the odd one, travelling with only my Minaal. Each of them had a 70 litre rucksack stuffed full of everything you could possibly ever want. Three pairs of shoes, enough clothes to re-house an army; they hadn't even brought the tent (they were buying one here). Each to their own.

Travelling of any type is surprisingly selfish, it would be nice if I could find some way of giving back to the countries I'm visiting. Still pondering how.

Yesterday, still mildly in shock from the beauty of the countryside here, I jumped on a bus to the Moreno glacier. You would think it would be obvious, but I vastly underestimated the cold here. When I left El Calafate, it was a mild 13 degrees and the sun was shining. I, in my ignorance and slight stupidity left only wearing a jacket. When we arrived, the rain had started up, and was spitting on everyone below. This, combined with the cold wind blowing over the ice left me requiring several stair runs in order to keep myself warm.

The bus journey was 150 pesos each way, with a 5 peso bus tax just to leave the bus station. I'd highly recommend grabbing sandwiches in the town before you leave, the restaurant on site is distinctly lacking in any decent food, and will leave you in tears when you realise how little change you'll get back.

As we powered out of town and onto the highway, the soft and gradual hills of El Calafate gave way to vast plains at least 50 miles across, interrupted by gigantic mountains thrust out of the earth and scraping the heavens. The scale was deceiving: everything so large and imposing it seemed so much closer than it actually was. The air is so clear I was easily able to look 30 miles in either direction (thanks to google maps, I know how wide the lake is, so this is not an exaggeration) and at first I honestly thought the mountains could be climbed in 10 or 15 minutes flat. Then again, they were capped with snow, so perhaps not.

We pulled up at the park entrance, and two miserable attendants boarded. Why they were so grumpy I don't know. Here they were working in a location with views so gorgeous that people come from all over the world just to glimpse it for a few hours, yet here they were so glum the magic was obviously lost on them. I was astounded to find they wanted a further 215 pesos just to enter the park for the next 5 hours, which I parted with a tad reluctantly. Hell, they could have at least said thank you.

And so, grumbling to myself a little, the bus headed on down the side of the lake, taking me to see if this glacier was worth the 515 pesos it took me to get there.

It was. This is not a static monument to nature, but an active, magnificent, monstrous beast that took my breath away. The walkways that have been installed are a stroke of genius, starting high above the ice but gradually leading you through the forest to below the leading edge, leaving the visitor both astounded by the sheer size of it and awed by how small they were in comparison. At first I was so awed I honestly didn't feel the cold, though the wind did it's best to convince me otherwise. Between every 2 to 20 minutes, a crack like a gunshot would explode through the air, and I'd spin my head to see chunks of ice cascading into the water below. Then, with distinct, echoing explosions that ricocheted around the valley, magnifying every time they rebounded off of the various gullies and peaks of ice and rock, huge sections of the behemoth would slide and topple away. I was utterly transfixed.

I managed to catch it on video too:

If only the weather had been warmer, I would have likely remained a zombie at the lower balcony for my full 5 hour time limit, but eventually the wind and rain managed to convince me to finally take refuge in the restaurant and shiver over a warm cup of coffee. This cost me the exorbitant sum of 30 pesos, but like everyone else who was cowering inside, we weren't so much paying for the coffee but for the shelter that the room provided.

When the coffee failed to warm me up much, I checked my watch and decided that since it was past 6, I would go for a good shot of whisky to triple glaze my soul against the cold. This isn't a usual decision of mine, but they were offering to sell it with glacial ice, and I thought that would always be a story worth telling.

When I ordered, the guy manning the bar gained a ridiculously happy grin, and pulled an ice pick out from under the table. Donning a pair of goggles, a freezer was slid open and he hacked away at a large chunk of ice for 45 seconds or so, sending shards of freezing water past him to cover half the kitchen and causing the cleaner with the mop in the corner to cry out in anguish.

Then, seemingly pleased with my choice of the 12 year old scotch (as opposed to the Jimmy Walker Red Label that appeared to be the most popular), a wine glass (oddly enough) was placed in front of me with a flourish, glacial ice tipped into it and he poured in a good third more scotch than the measure strictly said was the correct amount. You know when your partner gives you a slightly disapproving glance when you pour a bit too much wine into the glass? Yeah, that much.

This and a book entertained me for the next 90 minutes while I waited for the bus to show up. The restaurant closed during this time, and the waiters started to come out and start stacking chairs up onto the tables. I had a feeling they sensed there would be a riot if they tried to make the 30 or so of us leave, and so just ushered us into a corner and switched off the lights. At least it was warm enough by that point for us to no longer need the heating. The bus pulled up 30 minutes later, but the driver of course wanted a cigarette first, so we piled back into the restaurant until he was finished.

Of course, as soon as we boarded the bus and headed back towards town the sun came out, which caused the windows of the bus to steam up and agonise the photographer in me. Though after a few minutes of heavy scrubbing with the curtain I managed to snap a few pictures of the sky outside.

In the evening, I headed for the nearby parilla and was encouraged - urged even - to try the Patagonian lamb rather than the steak. I'm glad I did, because while the vegetables it came with were undercooked, and the sauce around the base was sickeningly sweet, the lamb itself was heaven on a plate. Argentina seems determined to try and prove that the only thing better than its scenery is it's fantastic culinary skills, and honestly it's doing a very fine job of that indeed.

It arrived spectaularly, and the waiter returned with the pepper just in time to catch me taking a picture of it, giving me a half confused, half disappointed look in the process. It was a look I myself give when I see people taking pictures of food, but I appear to have succumbed to the dark side.

Tonight I leave for Bariloche along route 40. The weather is awful, a mixture of rain and cold temperatures, and I'm hoping as I start to head back north it'll gradually improve.

Thanks for reading!


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