Posts Tagged With: mountains

Waterfalls, Glaciers, and Life in a Shipping Container

Before I begin my report of today’s travels, I would like to backtrack by a day to point out an important fact that I left out when reporting on yesterday’s buffet breakfast, the one overlooking the cows being milked. Tim has reminded me of an important buffet offering that I forgot to tell you about, namely that among the delectable offerings that included smoked Arctic char, lamb, geyser bread, and local cheeses, there was also….cod liver oil. Yes, the legendarily foul tasting dietary supplement and laxative was proudly offered alongside a row of gaily decorated shot glasses. This raises the possibility of playing the worst drinking game in history.  And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

We arrived close to dark last night at our destination, the oddly steampunk town of Seydisfjordur, population 700. It is accessible — when accessible at all, which in the winter months it is not — via a truly harrowing drive over the mountain separating it from the larger town of Egilsstadir (population 2200). The drive is a 15 km collection of steep hairpin turns and switchbacks with no guardrails, through utterly impenetrable fog. At night. Kudos to Tim for getting us there safely while poor Janet alternated between fearing for her life and fending off carsickness. (In her defense, it probably didn’t help that after each curve I remarked, “Wow, we could’ve died on that one!”)

I’ll tell you about Seydisfjordur in a moment but feel obliged to first expand upon Egilsstadir, or more accurately its location. That is to say, that it sits on the shore of the Lagarfljót fjord, home of the “Lagarfljót Worm”, Iceland’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. The story goes that a little girl had a gold ring that she wanted to make much bigger, thus having more gold. By same arcane logic known only to Icelanders, she attempted to do this by putting the ring in a box with a slug (the snail kind, not the fake coin kind), and throwing it into the lake. Yeah, I know. Stupid. But this is how the story goes. Anyway, instead of the slug making the gold ring bigger, the gold ring made the slug bigger. Lots bigger. So now there is a magical slug the size of Godzilla lurking at the bottom of Lagarfljót fjord. Consider yourself duly warned.

Back to Seydisfjordur. It has three important properties: (1) it is the departure port for the three-day (!) ferry ride to Norway. (2) It is the home of a well-known art school, whose steampunk-ish post-industrial sensibilities pervade the “rust chic” aesthetic of the town. And (3) after repeated failed attempts, Janet discovered that she can pronounce “Seydisfjordur” only when affecting an atrocious and culturally inappropriate fake Swedish accent, like the Swedish Chef Muppet character.

Seydisfjordur nestles at the base of the inlet from which the ferry departs, as you can see in these aerial photos.

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-008-Edit

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-013-Edit

In the lower photo, our lodging is the cluster of buildings right of center with the gymnasium-looking building. It’s a good example of the “rust chic” that I mentioned earlier. Basically, every single structure in town looks like it was constructed out of discarded ship parts, shipping containers, or industrial detritus. Here’s a closer view of our apartment complex:

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-016

We were in the upper floor of the building on the left, which, though nicely appointed with hardwood floors and the like on the inside, looks from the outside suspiciously like it had been constructed out of shipping containers. And a little right of center in the photo you can see a structure with an orange roof. That is the rusty, discarded ship’s bridge from a long-demolished tugboat or fishing vessel.

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-005

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-013

All peeling paint and flaking rust, its interior has most incongruously been furnished as a child’s playhouse, complete with board games and brightly colored tables and chairs.

This is the playhouse where Stephen King’s grandchildren probably hang out. If you were to construct such a thing for children in the US, you would need to have an EMT and a lawyer stationed there at all times.

We left Seydisfjordur at about 11 AM after a leisurely morning photographing the Playhouse From Hell and flying the drone to get the aerial shots above. We spent the rest of the day making the drive to the southern part of the island, past stunning volcanic vistas — craggy mountains lining the fjords, pendulous gray clouds above — and more roadside waterfalls than we could count. Here are some samples of the terrain.

Iceland Terrain 2018-048-Edit

Iceland Terrain 2018-052

The weather was raw with an occasional drizzle, but when conditions permitted I flew the drone to get some aerial videos of the waterfalls. I’ll post these in a few weeks after we’re home and I have had the chance to edit them.

Our destination was an isolated guesthouse in the southeast corner of the island, at the edge of the enormous Vatnajökull glacier. And I do mean enormous: it is the size of Delaware and occupies 11% of the land area of Iceland. You can see it from many places in this part of the island because it has numerous “tongues” that protrude like amoebic pseudopods out from the main body of the glacier down towards the coast. Seeing such a tongue from the road at a distance of several kilometers, it looks like this.

Iceland Terrain 2018-063

Such a scene pretty much begs for an aerial view. After a few more minutes of driving brought us to within about 5 km of the face, we could get a good view with the drone, which I sent about 3/4 of the way to the face at an altitude of about 300 m (1000′) to get this photo:

Iceland Vatanjokull Glacier Drone 2018-01

The threatening clouds that you see here have been pretty typical for this trip, aside from the few sunny days we have had. But mostly the rain has held off when we needed it to, so that I could capture pictures like these.

Tomorrow we head to the town of Vik, about 200 km to our west and thus on the southern side of the island. We’ll be visiting a glacial lagoon and doing other volcanic stuff, so stay tuned.

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ever Northward

We are now near the town of Sauðárkrókur, which if you’re allergic to the weird typography is written as Saudarkrokur in non-Icelandic. That’s actually a little misleading since the third character, the ð, looks like a d but is actually pronounced th. But the main point is that it is at a latitude of 65.7°, which puts us about 55 miles (90 km) below the Arctic Circle. You wouldn’t know it from the weather, which was mostly sunny and mild today, reaching about 15 C (59 F). The relatively balmy temperatures and the sunshine, combined with much milder winds, made it a fine day to continue our drive to the north and take in the scenery, which at its most idyllic looked like this.

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-017-EditIceland Grabrok and North 2018-026Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-029

I took the top two via drone; it was a good day for that too. All three shots were taken about halfway into today’s journey, when we stopped for lunch at a turnoff from the road next to the river in the picture. Our company was a team of sheep herders and their dogs and ATV, rounding up an enormous flock on a nearby hillside.

Our first stop of the day had actually been an hour earlier, at the Grábok (the name means “gray rock”) cinder cones, the remnants of a not-completely-ancient volcano. It’s setting is a stark volcanic landscape with close greenish-yellow ground cover, as you can see here.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-012

This particular environmental motif is typically Icelandic: if you live outside of the city you are morally obliged to build a white farmhouse with a red roof on an otherwise desolate landscape with mountains in the background. If you don’t believe me, compare that last photo to the first one in this post after the lead-in paragraph. See?

Grábok is about 100 meters tall and has a convenient boardwalk leading up its side and around the crater rim. You can see it clearly in this drone view, taken from about 100 meters above the crater rim:

 

Iceland Grabrok and North Drone 2018-016

(I also shot a nice video of the drone flyoner, which I will post at a later date.) You may also notice a few rows of stones, about a quarter of the way up from the bottom of the image and about a quarter of the way in from the right. That is an archaeological site, the remains of a settlement dating from the 10th century, when the Norse first arrived in Iceland. In the century or so after those initial settlements, the locals were building sod houses like these.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-062

 

The walls and the roof are all made of chunks of sod as advertised, and since plants like to grow upwards, the roofs sprout. These particular guys are found at the  Glaumbaer Folk Museum, a little ways south of Sauðárkrókur. They are surprisingly sophisticated dwellings, extending two stories underground and containing kitchens, storage areas, and dormitory-like bunk bed sleeping quarters. The fronts of the buildings are made of wood as you can see (now reconstructed, of course), which raises the obvious question of how you build with wood when there are no trees around. The terrain is bleak and treeless, with not a lot of promising building materials. But we are very close to the coast, and so the answer is: driftwood! The early inhabitants gathered enough driftwood to build houses, furniture, and (I presume) horse carts.

Speaking of horses, there are a lot of them around. Small in stature but nimble on the rough ground and on ice, Icelandic horses are all the descendants of the initial cargoes of ponies from Norway, brought over in the 10th and 11 centuries. They still look like ponies, and according to my dictionary definition they are ponies, being barely 5 feet  (1.5 meters) high at the shoulder. However, you must not call them ponies here. To Icelanders they are horses, dammit, and if you call the horses “ponies” the locals will throw you into a fjord with your hiking boots tied around your neck.

I should also mention that they all have gorgeous manes; they all look either blow-dried or carefully windblown. You can admire the mane that this not-pony is sporting against a dramatic background.

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-056-Edit

Beautiful, yes, but what are all these horses for? There isn’t a big demand for draft animals in Iceland these days, and a horse this size would hardly do the job anyway. The answer is that most are pets or used for riding, and the ones that aren’t suitable for either of those or for breeding are… eaten. (Do not tell my niece, who is a very avid and experienced horsewoman.)

I mention all this horse stuff because our lodgings this evening are a beautiful 3-bedroom guest house on a working farm about 10 km south of Sauðárkrókur. And by a “working farm” I mean that the owners were out all day gathering sheep into this pen:

Iceland Grabrok and North 2018-066

(The horns notwithstanding, these are all ewes. The males are kept separately.) Like most farms it is kind of in the middle of nowhere, so we returned to town for dinner, driving northward along the fjord around sunset as a sharply-defined cloud layer formed a few tens of meters over the water, hovering like a gigantic UFO.  The town itself is very small, with a only a couple thousand inhabitants, and just about the only restaurant was the suspiciously-named “Hard Wok”, whose two-page menus offered cuisine from about five different countries, including Chinese, Italian, and Mexican food. Our meals were surprisingly good.

Tomorrow, we fuel up — with actual diesel this time, thank you very much — and continue eastward and a little farther north.

 

 

Categories: Europe, Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Victoria, Victoria

The waterfront city of Victoria (population 86,000 in the city proper) is the capital of British Columbia and sits on Vancouver Island, about 30 miles south of Vancouver city across the Strait of Georgia.  I mention the distinction since most Americans can barely find Canada on a map, and a large majority in a recent survey identified Argentina as “a kind of dessert.”

It’s a gorgeous 1 1/2 hour ferry ride across the strait, threading among dozens of verdant islands, each a few miles across, most nearly uninhabited. The terminus is Swartz Bay near the resort town of Sidney, where our old friends Larry and Jean met us.

Victoria is a cheerful seaside town whose ambiance is a genial hybrid of British government colony and American seaside resort, the former generally classing up the latter. The waterfront area is overlooked by assorted government buildings sporting ornate Victorian architecture, but the piers themselves are dotted by both fishing and pleasure boats of various sizes — including lots of open-air whale watching boats — as well as street artists and restaurants. Seaplanes buzz surrealistically back and forth overhead and land and takeoff theatrically in the middle of all the port activity. (We watched one seaplane have to taxi out of the way of the departing Seattle ferry.)

A mile or so further up the coast is Fisherman’s Wharf, which is a whole lot smaller but rather more charming than the identically named tourist trap mecca in San Francisco. It sports a number of floating restaurants, including the heavenly-anointed Barb’s Fish and Chips, which serves that and little else, and rightly so.

Fisherman’s Wharf’s most unusual feature is its houseboats, which are not what you think of when you see the word. I think of a houseboat as a boat that has been retrofitted into house-like living quarters; these, however, look more like houses that have been retrofitted to float, e.g.:

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“Honey, the roof and the floor are both leaking again.”

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Most are two stories tall as you can see, and they vary somewhat in floor area but ~900 square feet (~ 81 sq m) is pretty typical. You can pick one up for roughly US$350,000. The property taxes are very low, there not being any actual land underneath them, but be prepared to shell out six or seven thousand dollars a year in moorage fees (yes, really), plus an unknown amount for seasickness tablets. And for God’s sake don’t try and install a man cave in the basement.

Another lively Victoria neighborhood is (inevitably) Chinatown, the oldest one in Canada. Like every other Chinatown in western North America, it dates from the mid-19th century Gold Rush.

Victoria BC 2017-014 Victoria BC 2017-015

In addition to the expected panoply of Chinese restaurants, temples, produce stores, and souvenir shops, Victoria’s Chinatown boasts a number New Age-y innovative art galleries and non-Chinese restaurants in a maze of hip-looking side streets like this one.

Victoria BC 2017-027-Edit

Larry and I got very excited when one of these — a chocolate and sweets store — trumpeted “Creamsicles” on the advertising blackboard in front of the store. This was very exciting because Creamsicles were treasured icons of our childhood: a Popsicle-like ice cream bar consisting of highly artificial and suspect vanilla ice cream coated in a shell of some kind of petrochemical-based orange sherbet. They were wonderful (and may even still exist), so we skipped happily through the door.

But alas. This sweets shop was far too progressive for our childhood tastes. The beloved additive-laced artificial-everything treat from our boyhood had in this particular establishment been replaced by a politically-correct adjective-laden impostor: vegan, fair trade, non-GMO, artisanal. We didn’t have time to take the sensitivity and diversity training courses that were required to actually eat the things — plus they were made sacrilegiously with coconut instead of vanilla ice cream — so we went Full Curmudgeon and left. (Now get those damn kids of my lawn!)

This being an island, another important feature of Victoria is of course the beach. Views from the coast are all striking: deep blue water, crystalline sky, and — on the eastern-facing coast — the Olympic  Mountains lining the horizon, some 40 miles away.

Victoria BC 2017-003-Edit

(This photo was taken yesterday; the sky was cloudless today.) The beach itself is not the white sand strand of, say, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, being more pebbly than sandy and heavily strewn with bleached driftwood.

Victoria BC 2017-008-Edit

Victoria BC 2017-039-Edit

The ubiquity of driftwood — and the impossibility of building sand castles — does not deter the locals (and countless vacationing mainland Canadians) from sunning themselves, jogging, and doing all the usual beach stuff. This does not include a lot of swimming, though: the water temperature is a blue-lipped 53 F (12 C).

But we were here to stroll, not swim, and it was a beautiful sunny day. So I’ll close with a shot of my own personal total solar eclipse, four days early thanks to a gentleman on the earthbound end of about four very impressive kites.

Victoria BC 2017-037

 

 

Categories: Canada | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Running for Vancouver

We were in Vancouver, British Columbia for all of half a day before continuing on to Victoria to stay with friends, but even a whirlwind 4-hour city tour is enough to whet our appetite for the place. Vancouver is ranked as the 4th most livable city in the world (“Hey! Let’s move here!”)… accompanied by the 6th most expensive real estate in the world (“Hey, Let’s each sell a kidney and move here!”). So there went that fantasy in a hurry. Still, it’s a gorgeous, diverse, and generally interesting place.

Vancouver BC 2017-003-EditI shot the cityscape above looking across Coal Harbour from Stanley Park, one of the most popular green spaces in the city. It’s named after Lord Frederick Stanley of Preston, Canada’s first Governor General and the man after whom professional hockey’s Stanley Cup is named. (His lordship would not be pleased to know that it has been 25 years since a Canadian team actually won his eponymous cup.)

Stanley Park includes an aquarium, horse-drawn carriage tours, bike paths, and similar idyllic activities, none of which we had time for on our flash tour. It also boasts a pretty cool collection of nine totem poles, carved out of red cedar by artisans of several indigenous tribes (known in Canada as the First Nations) whose territory included this area. The totem-makers’ tribes include the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Watuth, which I include because the names are cool to type and make me sound erudite. Here are a couple of examples from the park.

Vancouver BC 2017-013-Edit

Vancouver BC 2017-015-Edit

In addition to Stanley Park, one of Vancouver’s other iconic locales is the Lion’s Gate Bridge, which connects the city proper to the mountainous area to the north. You can see the bridge for many vantage points around the city, but this one, near the north end of Stanley Park, gives a good sense of the stunning local geography. You can see the bridge on the right.

Vancouver BC 2017-028-Edit

As you look out over the bay, the sky is occasionally crisscrossed not only by the usual big jets, but but by small seaplanes ferrying passengers to Victoria (to the west), Seattle (to the south), and Whistler ski resort to the north.

Vancouver BC 2017-048

Vancouver is very much a city of neighborhoods, which include the original part of the city (Gastown, now a trendy, restaurant-rich area) and an extensive Chinatown, second only in size to San Francisco’s in the Western Hemisphere.  One could actually make a case that the entire city is Chinatown: due in part to a large influx of Chinese after the handover of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997, nearly 30% of the 2.3 million population of greater Vancouver is ethnic Chinese. (If you include South Asian as well, e.g., Indian and Pakistani, the fraction goes up to 40%.) The suburb of Richmond, where the airport resides, is so heavily Chinese that almost all of the business signage is in both English and Chinese; as the airport shuttle took us to our hotel, I briefly wondered if we had been diverted to Hong Kong.

Sadly, among all this demographic tumult, only about 2% of the population is First Nation. Such is the way of the world, it seems.

Another trendy neighborhood is Granville Island, a former industrial area that has been hipsterized and gentrified till it begs for mercy, much like similar harbor areas in Baltimore, Cleveland, Capetown, and I suppose lots of other places as well. It was a fishing area for the First Nations but in the early 20th century became a factory area: machine shops, corrugated tin manufacturing, and other non-Starbucks businesses. Today the only remnant of that era is an appropriately — and literally — gritty cement factory immediately adjacent to all the shops, art galleries, and so forth.

Vancouver BC 2017-050But notice those cement silos to the left of the tower. They’ve gotten into the local artistic swing of things too:

Vancouver BC 2017-052

The local cafés and shops operate literally in the shadow of the Granville Street Bridge, giving the area an unmistakable but pleasant Urban Hipster Tourists Welcome vibe.

Vancouver BC 2017-056My snark notwithstanding, it’s a fun place, with a large indoor farmer’s market whose outdoor seating area is adjacent to the False Creek canal, bustling with colorful “Aquabus” water taxis.

Our final stop was the Vancouver Lookout, a 553 ft (169 m) tower and rotating restaurant that affords a 360° view of the city with its impressive mountain vistas. (The white tent-like structure in the panorama below is the cruise ship terminal. The fan-like white pattern at lower right is the heliport.)

Vancouver BC 2017-057-Edit-2

So there are our four hours in Vancouver. On to Victoria!

Vancouver BC 2017-017

 

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Riding on the Marrakech Expre…Oh Never Mind

Our hotel in Ouarzazate (there will be a spelling quiz later) was quite the place, by far the nicest of the our lodgings so far. In fact, it felt like we were trespassing, but I’m not complaining. The decor was Desert Movie Prop; remember that Ouarzazate is the “Mollywood” of Morocco, the center of the film industry, and…

WAIT! WAIT! I just had another can’t-miss idea for a locally produced, Moroccan-themed TV show. It’s a reality game show called “Survivor: Sahara”, and the idea is that contestants get voted off the oasis, one by one, like in the American version except that unlike in the American version they are kicked out into the Sahara where they actually die. Pure ratings gold! But anyway…

The hotel lobby and common areas are decorated with the actual movie props from assorted desert epics that were filmed in the area, including Gladiator and the granddaddy of them all, The Ten Commandments. And indeed, just off the lobby is a familiar-looking seat, namely Yul Brynner’s pharaonic throne! You can even sit on it and pretend to be pissed off at Charleton Heston. Although on reflection I realize that because of his gun control views I am in fact pissed off at Charleton Heston. But I digress. Here’s the throne:

“Moses, you may lead your people to the breakfast buffet by the pool.”

As our luggage was getting loaded onto the bus we realized that ours was not the only vehicle departing the hotel. There is an auto rally going on, a Madrid-to-Marrakech race by a British group, and they were all revving up their beautiful but pretty beat up classic cars in preparation for the final leg. Here is one of the cars: notice the Sahara Challenge tag in the front.

Here’s another, with their route painted in the side. They had been underway for 10 days and were in their next to last leg.

They were all very dashing looking, and I fell into one conversation with a handsome cigarette-smoking throwback to the 1930’s, complete with aviator scarf. He asked about our trip and I explained that we were in a small group touring the country for three weeks. He responded slightly ruefully, “I’ll bet your vehicle is all comfortable and air conditioned, isn’t it?” I agreed that it was, and observed that though it might be a lot less romantic than their means of travel, it did have its virtues.

The rally cars, about a dozen of them, went roaring away amidst much din and exhaust smoke and adjusting of goggles, and we pulled out rather less dramatically a few minutes later. Not far out of town we passed the two largest movie studios, both set back from road and both marked at roadside by very retro-looking movie scene clap-boards (or wherever those things are called):

This particular studio was in a compound that included a hotel, surrounded by an adobe wall and gate that was guarded by giant Egyptian statues that I assume were left over from one or another movie. You can see them here (though not very well since the studio was a ways off the road). Notice the scenic Atlas Mountains in the background; this whole country is one giant movie set.

The movie industry brings in something like $100 million per year into Morocco’s economy, much of it spent in the Ouarzazate region, which as a consequence sports a lot of very modern looking apartment buildings, wide streets, and of course our hotel. Morocco is an attractive place to film a movie: the weather is pretty reliable, labor costs are low, and if you need a lot of extras for (say) a battle scene, you can rent the Moroccan army. Yes! This is true! I have no idea how much it costs to rent the Moroccan army — I assume they charge per soldier — but you have to agree that it opens up a world of possibilities.

We didn’t have enough cash with us to rent the army, so we continued driving for another hour or so until we reached the hilltop village called Ksar Ait Ben Haddou. The ksar is a fortress-like warren perched on a hilltop overlooking the town across a nearly dry river, otherwise surrounded by desert. It makes for quite the panoramic view from the top, as you can see in the two photos below. 

The ksar as seen from town


…and the other way around.

It took a couple hundred steps to get to the top, but the view was worth it. When we finally did reach the summit, we were serenaded by a beggar playing a stringed instrument with a haunting, almost Asiatic melody, a perfect background to the view.

Berber families have occupied the ksar since 11the century. It can hold 20 families but there are only only seven there now. Vendors line the narrow twisting, uneven, up-and-down streets, selling drawings and paintings of the ksar, movie-related postcards, and assorted merchandise — clothing, knives, musical instruments — that unlike in the northern part of the country have a strong sub-Saharan theme. These include the instruments and castanets that we had seen the Sudanese Berbers play.

We spent most of the rest of the day driving….slowly. In order to get to Marrakech we had to once again cross the High Atlas Mountains, the road being tortuous in the extreme and sometimes more than a little scary both for its extreme narrowness and for the occasional gaps in the guardrails. The narrowness in particular seems like a an act of extreme traffic engineering insanity; passing an oncoming bus on a tight curve involved clearances of inches, a very small distance indeed especially when compared to the several hundred foot drop that awaits you if you get it wrong. Here’s a view of the terrain, not far from the 7400′ (2260 m) crest of the road at Tichka Pass.

At one point we faced a truck in what can only be called a Moroccan Standoff since the road was clearly not wide enough for both. The problem was solved by the truck driver folding in his outside mirror and innnnnchhhhhhing forward, oh so slowly, and squeezing past us with perhaps two inches of clearance.

We arrived in Marrakech around 5PM, cruising past golf courses and expensive hotels — there is clearly a lot of investment going on here, and more of a sense of both money and Westernization than in most places we have seen in the country. But it is very unevenly distributed, as you might expect; our lodging, a very beautiful riad, is located on a rather seamy looking side street about halfway between the royal palace and Marrakech’s famous souk, known for its 5000 shops and 500,000 pickpockets.

We’re a straight 5 minute walk from the main square outside the souk, and so Momo matched us there for dinner on the street. I’ll post some pictures of it tomorrow, but it was an extraordinary sight, an utter madhouse of people and food stands and smoke and beggars and street performers. It is energetic in the extreme, an overwhelming cacophony of shouting and smells, and getting variously bumped into by people or brushed by motorcycles. It’s a vast plain of Third World free enterprise, a cauldron of people buying, selling, begging, stealing, cooking, eating, strolling, dancing, playing, and probably a whole lot else that I never even saw.

Momo led us to a favorite food stand (number 55, if you happen to be in the area), known to be honest and acceptably hygienic. We crowded onto benches under the open air tent, sandwiched among the other crowded stands, and had quite a good meal — kabobs, couscous, tagine, etc — for about eight bucks a person including tip. There were other kinds of food at other stands — escargot seems to be popular — as well as fruit places, and hijabi women pushing around desert carts loaded with cookies and baklava-type sweets. It was, in short, total sensory overload, and we had a grand time. More tomorrow!

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Atlas Drove

…and drove, and drove. Today was a travel day, and we spent a total of 11 hours working our way from Fez to Erfoud, the gateway to the Sahara. The distance is about 260 miles, but we made some stops along the way, and at no point did the road resemble an interstate highway. We were in addition slightly slowed down by another one of our group falling ill and requiring a number of impromptu pit stops. Everyone takes this in stride, recognizing that it literally goes with the territory, and happily she is already feeling somewhat better. But the bottom line is, that there was not a whole of jam-packed activities today other than watching the scenery go by (which I will describe in a moment). 

We headed due south towards the desert, our first geographical landmark being the Middle Atlas Mountains, which are only a few thousand feet high (they peak at about 5000′). That is more than enough to notice a significant change in climate, though: the air is much cooler and drier, and the hills forested with cedar and pine. Indeed, this region is rather incongruously referred to as the Switzerland of Morocco, a metaphor made even weirder by the fact that there is in fact a ski resort. They don’t get an enormous amount of snow, but it is apparently enough to ski on; we could see a couple of trails and lifts on the hillsides. It was in this area that we made our first rest stop/coffee break in the town of Ifrane, whose architecture, signage, and heavily German tourist population indeed suggest that we somehow stumbled through a wormhole into some bizarre Islamic corner of Bavaria.

Once we crossed the crest of the Middle Atlas, we were on a high plateau, the plain between the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains; the Sahara is on the far side if the High Atlas. This plain is a rocky desert with scrub vegetation, the road mostly straight and way too narrow: a single skinny lane in both directions with no median strip, guardrails, or shoulders. It was clearly built in an era when this region had no traffic at all, but now that the Moroccan government is investing in a number of southern towns there is a steady two-directional flow of passenger cars, trucks, and buses like our own. The narrow highway and generally marginal road conditions make every oncoming encounter — and they are frequent — an opportunity for terror, as the clearance between northbound buses and our own is about 6″.

All in all the terrain closely resembles much of the American Southwest, albeit with more terrifying roads. However, the Southwest does not have nomadic tribes shepherding herds of sheep and goats across the rocky scrub. The nomads construct makeshift-looking compounds of varying permanence out of a wide variety of scrounged materials, and these constructions are visible on the hillsides every hour or so as we drive. We stopped at one, that you can see here.

The ground surrounding the structures was rough with coarse grass and stones, and littered with animal bones. Dung beetles about 3/4 of an inch long wee all over, diligently rolling up balls of animal dung about the size of acorns and popping into their burrows when our footsteps alarmed them. The rocks were peppered with pretty little orange beetles with geometric hourglass patterns on their backs, looking like robot ladybugs.

The compound itself consisted of a few dimly lit rooms — they do have electricity, courtesy of a solar panel — adjacent to some corrugated metal paddocks variously holding turkey’s and sheep. Seven people live here, from two families; that’s one mother and child in the photo, and there was a grubby looking second child running around on his own. The families vacate this compound in the winter, leaving two of their number behind to keep squatters from occupying it. They return in the spring. They are illiterate, unwashed, and of low life expectancy: the woman above was 22 years old, looked about 40, and had been married since 13. But she baked a mean loaf of bread: she shared some with us that was still hot from the oven, and it was delicious.

Now here’s the strange part: completely belying this otherwise primitive existence is the fact that they have television. A modestly sized TV with one of those ubiquitous pirated cable boxes was fed by a small satellite dish and powered by the solar panel. They probably only have enough juice to operate the TV for a small part of the day, but sure enough, she turned its on for us and we could see the channel guide from the satellite (which she, of course, does not know how to read). But she also flipped through a couple of stations with some kind of soap opera going on, which kind of put a dent in my personal mental image of the isolated nomad.

We crossed the plain between the two mountain ranges and ascended into the High Atlas, where the road became twisty as we climbed and not any wider. There were at least guardrails, although frequently damaged or broken through by what we can only assume was some prior horrific accident. The terrain also became even more sparse, the soil turning redder and the vegetation becoming even more sparse. But there is enough water to be found in wells and the occasional shallow river to allow the construction of bricks and adobe, and the architecture in the towns by the road reflect this. Take a look at the image below: the town is made from adobe, and if you remove the tall structure at right, which is the town minaret, the scene could very well be somewhere in northern Arizona. 

If you’re not altogether in agreement with that statement, then check out the next image and tell me that it couldn’t equally well be in Arizona or New Mexico.

What you will not find in Arizona or New Mexico, however, is groves of date palms like you see in the picture below. The trees sit in a strip of land a few hundreds yard wide in a valley below the winding road, and they follow it for miles. Dates are a major part of the economy here, and the are a number of varieties with a wide range of quality and corresponding price. At the top of the line are Medjool dates, which are quite expensive (and not the ones in this grove).

We arrived at our hotel in Erfoud at a little after 7 PM and upon entering it immediately felt like desert travelers encountering an oasis. Below is the courtyard. You can see the pool in the middle of the photo; what you cannot see is the white camel that they keep on the grounds. This place is nice, and will doubtless in retrospect stand in sharp contracts to the more primitive lodgings that we will have for the next couple of days. We head out into the Sahara for real tomorrow, leaving behind most of our luggage and abandoning our bus for several 4 x 4’s that will take us to our tented camp for the next two nights. There, we will be riding camels into the dunes, meeting desert Berber tribes, and — my astronomer self smiles — enjoying some truly spectacular night skies. What I will not be doing, however, is transmitting any blog posts for the next few days, as we will be well and truly off the grid. I hope to be back online with suitable Rich and Alice of Arabia stories in a few days.

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No Relation to Rita Moreno (Oct 13)

Today is our last day in Patagonia before moving on to Iguassu Falls (warm! tropical!) via a day back in Buenos Aires tomorrow. We spent the night in a nice hotel in El Calafate, as I mentioned yesterday, and awoke this morning to cloudless skies and a crisp beginning-of-winter bite in the air, plus dusting of snow on the ground, cars, rooftops, and of course the distant mountains. But it isn’t winter: this is what passes for springtime here. It hardly matters; as I’ve already mentioned, the weather changes dramatically about every 20 minutes.

Our goal today was Perito Moreno glacier, a significantly larger chunk of ice than those we have see so far. (My previous posts  misspelled the name with too many R’s.) It is one of several enormous glaciers that fill a strip roughly 10 miles wide and 100 miles long, running north-south along Argentina’s border with Chile and collectively comprising Glacier National Park.

Julio and our Argentine local guide (a talkative local named Sebastian, stocky, bearded, and jolly) decided to take a slightly indirect road to the park in order to avoid the most heavily traveled tourist route and show us some scenic byways. This was a real good move; we drove past dramatic snowy mountains and cyan lakes, past herds of horses and flocks of sheep on the snow covered, windswept ground. Here is the scene, in two photos a few minutes and miles apart:

Home on the Argentine range


Ditto. Note the color of the lake at the foot of the mountains

The temperature was brisk, probably around 40F, and the wind typically ferocious, blowing so hard that it was very difficult to hold the camera steady enough to take pictures.

The hillsides were dotted with sheep, and this (being spring) is lambing season, with lots of young frolicking around, or at least frolicking as much as one can in weather like this. We were grateful for the sun.

No Greeks around here, so he must be Basque

The animals all come from assorted estancias, or ranch estates, in the area. Some raise horses or cattle, some sheep, and some a combination. (This is actually unusual in our very limited experience: in New Zealand we experienced a lot of hostility between “sheep people” and “cattle people”, and no one raised both. The same was true in the American West in the mid- and late 19th century; in fact, that was part of the impetus for the invention of barbed wire in 1874. That is today’s Fun Factoid.)

We made a brief stop at a small estancia, which had a cozy little restaurant and café. It was owned by a Basque family; for reasons that are not altogether clear to me, Argentina has a significant Basque enclave. But Basque they are, and if you don’t believe me then take a look a look at the portrait at left that I took of one of one of the owners, and tell me that he does not look like everyone’s idea of a Basque.

The house had a couple of nearly newborn lambs running around (inside the house), and the restaurant was heated by a wood burning stove, so the operative word was “rustic”. (The bathrooms were fully modern, happily.) The scene went momentarily crazy when one woman in our group — one of the “Boise girls” — stood too close to the stove while still wearing her quilted down coat. One side of the synthetic coat instantly melted, releasing a large cloud of down feathers that swirled around the room on the air currents from the stove. Chaos erupts! Everyone who didn’t see it happen suddenly wondered why it was snowing tiny feathers indoors. The baby lamb went crazy, chasing after the floating white whisps, apparently under the tragic misapprehension that its mother had exploded.

The owners happily took the disaster in stride, sweeping up the feathers and patching the afflicted coat with — wait for it– duct tape.

We arrived at Perito Moreno at about noon, stopping first at a vantage about 4 miles from the face of the glacier. Simply stepping out of the bus was a challenge: although the sun was still out, a 2 billion ton ice cube sitting at the confluence of two lakes is pretty much guaranteed to create a local microclimate, which in this case meant a freezing monster wind that could practically tear your ears off the side of your head. Our 4 mile distance from the face probably made things worse instead of better, since we were on a high lookout across the lake, which gave the wind plenty of space to pick up speed and energy from the thermal gradient off the ice. And indeed, as we got closer to the glacier the conditions — though still fiercely windy — were not nearly as ablative. (But of course, the sun went away; a completely sunny day is always too much to ask in Patagonia.)

There are a number of metal walkways that define paths of various lengths along the face of the glacier and through the woods on the hillside facing it. This gives you the idea:

One of several walkways that afford views of the glacier face

That is a narrow ice-choked river in front of the glacier, connecting the two lakes at whose junction Perito Moreno sits. As usual, the perspective in the photo gives a deceptive sense of scale, since the walkway is in the foreground, nearly 1000 ft in front of the glacier. The ice wall is 200 ft high, and the full width of the face (you see maybe 1/4 of it here) is about 3 miles. It also extends something like 8 miles into the distance, which means that from the initial distant vantage point at the park entrance you are looking at something like half a cubic mile of ice. And this is just one of the glaciers in the park, the most accessible but not the largest.

The path itself is a relatively recent addition, constructed in the late 1980’s. Prior to then, you could walk all the way down the hillside to the river in front of the glacier, and if the river was frozen you could walk the few hundred feet across it and actually touch the face of the glacier….at which point several tons of ice would fall on top of you, thereby spoiling the fun. Remember how I reported that we saw calving events on all the glaciers we saw? This one is no exception, and after losing about two idiotic tourists per year over a 20 year period starting in the 1960’s, they finally built the walkway. 

And speaking of calving events, here are two that we saw, both accompanied by thunderous echoing reports as hundreds of tons of ice fell perhaps 100 ft into the river; they look rather like waterfalls of ice as the chunks tumble down the face:

Do not be hiking underneath when this happens


I said DON’T WALK ACROSS THE RIV…oh, never mind.


We’re having fun! We’re freezing!

We walked a number of the paths, spending about 2 1/2 hours gawking at the glacier from various vantage points. It was spectacular and a fitting end to our Patagonia sojourn before we move on to warmer climes. Tomorrow is a travel day and unless something exciting happens in Buenos Aires I may not post anything until we get to Iguassu Falls. (Or, being longwinded, I might.) So I will close this entry with the photo of the two of us (right) enjoying the comfort and convenience of the six layers of clothing we are wearing against the wind and cold.

But hey, it’s a GLACIER! Awesomeness quota fulfilled.

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The Windiest National Park Anywhere (Oct 11)

A few hour bus ride brought us to Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park, and we spent a good part of the day hiking around, so this post will be longer on pictures than words…lucky you.

The park is pretty big, a little under 900 square miles, and is dominated by a spectacular craggy mountain range that looks like it should be part of the Andes but actually isn’t. (It’s a younger range than the Andes and runs east-west instead of north-south.) Here’s the view as we approached the park; the buildings in the foreground are a ranch.

The big peak is called Almirante Nieto

The weather today was uncharacteristically sunny, at least to start out with since conditions in Patagonia are astonishingly and notoriously changeable. (The locals like to say, with unfortunate accuracy, that weather forecasts are useless here since every possible weather condition representing all four seasons will occur at least once every day.) But the clear skies brought out some very exotic visitors: Andean condors, the second largest flying bird in the world. (The “flying” codicil excludes ostriches, which of course are enormous but flightless; the largest flying bird is the wandering albatross.)

One of 36 Andean condors that we saw today

Andean condors are normally sighted in small numbers, but we saw groups of up to five of them soaring all over the place, a glorious and exciting sight. In the end we counted 36 of them including a juvenile, a huge number that amazed our trip lead Julio. Here’s one of them at left.

Although the weather was sunny — a condition that son changed, as promised — the winds were gale-force. Stepping out of the bus was stepping into a wind tunnel, and the was at least one viewpoint where the driver would not even let us out of the vehicle for fear that we would be blown off the lookout and into the valley below. Sounds unlikely but his concern was not unwarranted; during our long hike later in the day the woman I was walking with — a fellow photo hobbyist who like myself lingered behind the rest of the group — literally got blown over onto her back by a strong gust. In short, winds are a seriously big deal here.

(I asked Julio whether any serious efforts have been made to capitalize on wind power to satisfy Chile’s energy needs. The short answer is no: though very strong on average in this part of the country, they are also unreliable, and nearly disappear altogether for about half the year.)

The wind also ensures that fires can get very quickly out of hand, and there have been a couple of serious wildfires that have damaged the extensive beech forests in this part of the park. One fire, set by a careless Czech backpacker who knocked over a camping stove in 2005, burned 20,000 acres. A second, started by an even more careless Israeli camper who decided to burn some trash, burned 40,000 acres in 2011. Both accidental arsonists were fined $200 and kicked out of the country. Interestingly, both became very active in the reforestation effort, raising money and planting trees (and eventually being allowed to return in order to help, and to educate the public to the dangers).

“Hey, I ordered by beech trees rare. These are well done.”

The upshot of all this is that our hike took us through some seriously blasted landscapes. The burnt areas used to be the home of herds of guanácos, who,love to eat beech bark. You may remember them from my posts for the Atacama desert: they are camelids, closely related to llamas. This is about as far south as they are found, and we saw large numbers of them grazing on the hillsides as we drove into the park. To our surprise we encountered one moving hesitantly among the burnt-out beech trunks; I left the hiking trail to stalk him for a couple of minutes to get the shot that you see at right.

The park has a number of lakes of various sizes, and they host large concentrations of Cyanobacteria. Those are very ancient and primitive organisms which back in the day (the day being billions of years ago) helped convert the Earth’s atmosphere from carbon dioxide to oxygen. The other thing about them is that they are a striking blue color, and so the lakes practically glow with a deep cerulean blue. There are a number of small waterfalls in the area too, so the effect is striking, as you can see in the three photos below.

Blue lake, happy non-campers

Striking contrasts in the terrain

Postcard scenery amidst devastation from wildfires

The happy skies in the above pictures did not last; they never do around here. The clouds rolled in and we got the authentic Patagonian variable-weather experience, which is to say that it started to snow. Not very hard, and not for very long, but…c’mon. The temperature eventually climbed to about 50 but the clouds stuck around, and of course the wind never left.

We arrived at a hiking trailhead at about 2 PM and set off over an occasionally rocky path through the burnt out beech forest, towards some peaks collectively called Cuernos del Paine. (“Cuernos” means “horns”, from the shape of the peaks.) the goal was not the peaks themselves, which are high and forbidding and many miles away, but rather a lookout point from which to view them. We covered about 4.5 miles in total, fighting a howling wind for much of the time. The clouds moved in and swirled around the jagged peaks, giving us the sense that we had undertaken some quest through Mordor that no one had told us about. Here’s a scene from along the way:

Did someone lose a ring?

Notice how the branches on the tree have grown: the wind blows pretty much all the time here, and it is never a gentle breeze.

We are spending the night at one of a small number of rustic but comfortably appointed hotels (with wonderful mountain views) that are within the park boundaries. They’re hard to get into because the total number of rooms is small and so reservations must be made far in advance. But thank you, OAT, and here we are. 

Tomorrow is mostly a travel day. The are no roads over the mountains so we will be taking a lengthy roundabout bus ride on a counterclockwise semicircular route around them, south to north, to reach the city of El Calafate where we will be spending the next two nights (hopefully with wifi again so I can actually post this).

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I Go, You Go, Tierra del Fuego (Oct 6)

“You are here”, quite precisely

I am dating these next few entries because we are aboard ship as I type this and will not be be able to send them out for at least another few days. (Our ship, the Via Australis, is a small (126 passenger) “expedition” passenger ship devoid of a lot of big cruise ship amenities: no internet, no swimming pool, no movie theater, etc. It does however have an open bar; this ain’t exactly the Shackelton expedition. Anyway, more on the ship shortly.)

Ushuaia (pronounced oosh-WAH-yuh, by the way) takes its reputation as the southernmost city on the world pretty seriously, to the point of indicating the latitude and longitude of the major intersections on its street signs, as you see at left. One second of latitude is about 100 feet, and one second of longitude is only about 55 feet or so at this latitude, so you can actually see the differences in the coordinates on the signs as you walk from block to block. (The main drag of Ushuaia is a single street of crappy souvenir shops and much better restaurants, about 16 blocks long.)

The problem with the whole “southernmost” self-image — we drove past a sign advertising “the world’s most southernmost golf course” today — is that unless you are actually in Antarctica you are always on slightly shaky ground. And indeed, there is a Chilean town called Port Williams that is slightly further south than Ushuaia (which is Argentine). But Port Williams has only 1500 inhabitants versus Ushuaia’s 65,000, and so a gentlemen’s agreement — and I swear this is true — was reached whereunder each gets uncontested bragging rights:  Port Williams bills itself as the world’s most southernmost town, whereas Ushuaia is agreed to be the southernmost city. Chile and Argentina have a contentious and sometimes bellicose history, so this counts as a small victory for peace.

This is our southernmost picture, until the next one

Our main activity on Monday morning was a visit to Tierra del Fuego National Park (proof at right) which in the spirit of things I suppose is the world’s most southernmost national park. The are a number of cool things about the place, but one of them is the entrance sign itself. Note the third line from the bottom, which means “Here is the end of National Route #3”, that being the designation of the Argentine portion of the Pan American Highway. In other words, this sign sign is REALLY the end of the road.

The park itself is beautiful, the vistas strongly reminiscent of both the Pacific Northwest and many parts of Alaska: glacial moraine, cold clear lakes, snow capped mountains. We made a few easy hikes, ogled the views, got educated by our local guide Laura and the flora and fauna. The vegetation is noticeably different than the temperate zone stuff that we are used to: lots of orange-colored spherical edible fungi on the trees, Calafata berry bushes (from which one makes Calafata Sours, Patagonia’s answer to the otherwise ubiquitous Pisco Sour). The picture below gives a pretty typical sense of the place:

Nature at its almost southernmost

There was a little bit of conversational confusion with Laura as she kept referring to “Fire Land”. She was trying to be helpful, since that is the literal translation of “Tierra del Fuego”, named after the fires lit on the beach by the native Yamana and first seen by Magellan. We assured her that we called the place by its Spanish Name.

The Yamana were a hardy crew, though not hardy enough to avoid being wiped out by the Spanish. They were master canoe builders, and their designs have not yet been successfully duplicated. They were also naked, since clothes in this environment tend to get wet and stay wet, thus keeping you cold. They smeared animal fat on their bods instead. (It makes me wonder if, much as the Inuit are said to have many words for snow, the Yamana had dozens of ways to say, “Holy crap, I’m freezing my butt off.”) 

Speaking of being wiped out, another member of our traveling party did more or less that at about by tripping on a step as we were boarding the bus to leave the park. Broken wrist — she flew home from Ushuaia today. That’s our second loss, which brings the group down to 19. Julio’s not happy about it; he’s never lost two before. (And though he doesn’t know it, he’s going to get more bad news tomorrow: one of our party took sick with a cold or flu and is having trouble shaking it off. She has pretty much isolated herself in her hotel room and boat cabin, and told us in the hallway an hour ago that she is punching out too as soon as we come into port in Punta Arenas in two days.)

La specialité de maison, medieval but quite delicious

We got back from the park in time to have a late lunch before boarding the ship and decided to go full native in much the same way that we ate a whole fresh king crab for dinner the night before. The local specialty this time was barbecued lamb, and there are a large number of local restaurants dedicated to cooking mammals over wood fires and displaying the process in their windows as at left.

The waiter told us that a portion was suitable for one person, so we ordered two portions plus an appetizer. But as soon as we mentioned the appetizer (empanadas) he backpedaled and suggested that one portion of lamb might be enough, and we went with that. This turned out to be about 3 lbs of lamb on the bone, and we couldn’t finish it. But it was really good…

After lunch we walked all 16 blocks of downtown, then to the port to rendezvous with our group and board the Via Australis, which you see at right.

De boat, boss, de boat!

It’s a small, attractive ship that as I mentioned carries about 126 passengers. It has four decks plus an open top deck for panoramic viewing if you enjoy being out in the open in 40 degree weather in a 20 mph wind. The interior is quite beautifully appointed, all dark wood and brass. Our cabin is comfortable, about 11′ x 16′, on the lowermost deck right down the hall from the main dining room. (The rooms are identical on all decks, so lower down is good: less rocking.) One of the ship’s prominent features is not visible in the photo: a row of 4 Zodiacs in the back, to be used to ferry us 12 at a time to islands and glaciers. (As we shall see in our next installment.) Here we are looking back at Ushuaia as we leave port at about 7pm. Note the sterns of the Zodiacs at the bottom.

Cape Horn, here we come

 

 

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(Fire) Truckin’ Back to Santiago

Yesterday was our last day in Santiago, and today our first in Buenos Aires. It wasn’t a huge touring-around day, but it had its share of ups and downs. First the downs:

The oldest member of our group — June, age 83 — has with some gentle encouragement from Julio pulled the metaphorical ripcord and decided (correctly) that she has bitten off more than she could chew in selecting this trip. She has traveled around the world multiple times on QE2 cruises, but the physical rigors of this trip were way too much for her; she’s the one who nearly fainted on the street on our first day in Santiago, last Sunday. A stout, grandmotherly woman, she was a real sweetheart but always a few steps behind the rest of the group both physically and conversationally. (She does not have a cell phone or email, and asked Alice what the simplest smartphone would be for a techno-naïf. Alice suggested an iPhone and she responded, “What’s an iPhone?” So you know what we’re dealing with.)

Julio spent a fair amount of time scrambling around yesterday getting her booked on a flight out of Santiago today. She flies home this afternoon (Friday), to her own — and to be honest, everyone else’s — relief.

Our second bump in the road was a delay in our flight from Calama back to Santiago, due to heavy fog at the latter airport. (Which was strange to hear, since Calama is up in the Atacama desert and the skies were cloudless there when we were informed of the problem.) But one of the virtues of this kind of group travel is that once you write the check you magically transform such glitches into Somebody Else’s Problem. We had nothing waiting for us in Santiago yesterday afternoon, any logistical rearrangements were Julio’s job, and so we took the news with Zen-like equanimity. The airline shuttled us all to a nearby hotel where we had a nice buffet lunch. So no biggie.

But in between those two events we enjoyed one of those offbeat experiences that are the rewards of traveling with an open mind. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut (in Cat’s Cradle): “Unexpected travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” And in the words of Julio Llamos, our tour lead: “You gotta bring the magic.”

It happens that Mario, our driver in San Pedro, is a volunteer firefighter in that tiny place. He is rightfully proud of that, and asked (via Julio, since he speaks no English) whether we would like to see the fire station en route to the airport in Calama. The collective sentiment was sure, why not? And this turned out to be quite the gem of an experience.

When I asked for a pole dance, this wasn’t what I had in mind

The fire station was small but modern and well equipped, thanks to a government grant and a number of fund raisers. Mario showed us the break room (complete with pool table), the crew quarters, and the garage with the trucks. And then the real wonderfulness started, for the entrance to the garage was on a mezzanine overlooking the engines, which you could get to either by walking down a ramp or — and who among us has not wanted to do this — sliding down a fireman’s pole. And so like screeching 6 year olds we slid one by one down the fireman’s pole, thereby checking off a bucket list item that we didn’t even know we had. It was great. See Alice in action at left.

Mario next marched us into the equipment room, where we got to try on the stuff. This was also cool in the extreme: I got to don the whole ensemble: boots, coveralls, coat, oxygen tank, and mask. Here I am in full regalia.:

Burning building, anyone?

Finally we climbed onto one of the fire trucks, and Mario ran the siren for a few moments to complete the experience. The whole thing was a like a decades-buried childhood fantasy, and everybody loved every minute of it. We all donated some money to the station as we left, which was very gratefully received. We definitely brought the magic.

We arrived at our hotel in Santiago at 6:30pm or so, about three hours later than originally planned. No matter. The hotel desk gave us a list of recommended nearby restaurants, and at about 8:00 — people eat dinner here very late — Alice and I struck out on our own to find a seafood restaurant that was on the list. We failed; turns out the place was no longer there. So we ambled around the area looking for someplace suitably inviting, and eventually settled on a tiny and very authentically local place where no one spoke a word of English but where we were heartily welcomed. We had a perfectly nice seafood dinner for about $30 for the two us and, feeling very self-satisfied, retired back to the hotel.

I am typing this on our flight to Buenos Aires, about a 90 minute hop from Santiago. But that 90 minutes takes you straight across the spine of the Andes, and the view is dramatic. Here is a shot that I took with the iPad a few minutes ago while typing this:

The Andes from above

When we arrive in Buenos Aires we will meet up with the rest of our group, another 13 people, for the main leg of the trip. That’s sort of a shame, since it’s been really enjoyable having an intimate 8-person group this far, small enough that everyone gets to know each other and Julio very quickly. But I will at least no longer be the youngest person in the group: Julio informs me that the larger group includes a couple traveling with their 43 year old daughter.

I have not said much about the our fellow travelers, so I’ll belatedly introduce them now. (This isn’t going to be very travelogue-y and is more for my own mental record, so feel free to stop reading here.)

I have already described Julio, our tour lead, who as it happens turns 34 today. (I am planning on exhorting the full group into singing a doubtless painful rendition of Happy Birthday at dinner tonight.) He is a real gem, and addresses us as “team”. Every briefing begins with the words, “Okey dokey, team…” When I return home I plan on having an “Okey Dokey Team Julio” tee shirt made for him as a belated birthday gift. On the back it will say “Bring the Magic”

I also described poor June, who bailed out this morning. In addition, we have:

  • Dick (75) and Jean (75), from near us in Maryland. Jean is compact and bustles around, and by virtue of their long history (22 trips, as I mentioned earlier) often has some interesting anecdote to contribute from their own experience. Dick is tall and fit-looking and appears to be filming practically every moment of the trip on video. He speaks almost not at all — it’s so extreme that we actually tease him about it — but is genial and knowledgeable on the rare occasions when he actually opens his mouth.
  • Christie and Becky (~65, inferred from a conversation about high school classes), close friends from Boise whose husbands/significant others declined to make the trip. Becky has about the same physique as Alice, while Christie is taller and thinner. Both have short gray hair and glasses, and since I am genuinely lousy at names and faces it took me two or three days to tell them apart. Before my prosopagnosiac brain (look it up) finally sorted them out, I simply referred to them as “the Boise girls”. They’re lively, good-humored, and outgoing, certainly the ones we’ve connected with most strongly so far. Christie is a dedicated diarist, always writing in a notebook and always asking for details to include. (Last night after firelding a bunch of questions about an observatory in the mountains that we passed in the van — the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA — I commandeered her notebook and wrote a 4-page treatise on millimeter-wave astronomy and how ALMA works. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence on our trips.)
  • Lynn, mid- to upper 60’s at a guess. She’s divorced, with short curly gray hair and a wry sharp tongue and an appealing (to us) “do not suffer fools gladly” outlook.

So that’s who we are. It’s a good group, and I hope the remaining 13 click as well. We’ve arrived in Buenos Aires since I started typing this (weather is upper 50’s and cloudy with some light drizzle) so I guess we’ll find out tonight.

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