Sunday, February 27, 2011


'Hotch, hotch, hotch."

There is a good moment to watch the movie 'Teeth' but right before a Pap (UK: smear) test is not one of them. Especially since the above verbal direction from the gynaecologist to shift my hips lower down on the exam table was the exact wording used in the film during the protagonist's own cervical examination. The outcome was the doctor loosing four of his fingers to the teeth in her vagina.

Well no, perhaps there is never truly a good moment to watch a film that involves the unexpected castration of almost every male character. I mulled this over and grimaced at the ceiling. Still, there was no denying that this test was a good idea and it'd been part of the lightening-quick orders issued to me in this post. Also yes, if you found that entry too-much-information, you're really not going to like this one!

Apart from her rather unfortunate instruction above, the doctor was a cheerful individual who did her best to set me at ease. A Pap test isn't usually painful, but it's not exactly dignified. I was sitting perched on the exam table with a blanket flung over my legs when she rapped on the door.

"Is it safe?" she enquired as she opened the door. "You'd be surprised about some of the things I see in this job! Oh yes!"

I watched nonplussed as she arranged containers on the counter. What exactly had she seen? I mean, I was about to show her basically everything I had. We did a brief run-through of my medical history and the doctor asked if I had any questions about the leaflets I'd been given to read. The one I'd worked through had informed me that I might unknowingly have HPV, that I would probably be upset to discover this but ... tough. It wasn't curable. I didn't feel there were any obvious questions one could have to this, so I shook my head. I did get big points from her for having had the Gardasil vaccine against a couple of different types of HPV. This started a mini-rant about people who refused to have vaccinations that ended abruptly with:

"... well, at least I don't need to tell you about their worth!"

At this point, all my questions were now directed at the sort of the people who came to this clinic. Apparently, they were annoying the medical staff.

"My aim is to make this as easy as possible for you," the doctor told me once I'd manoeuvred myself into the required position. "So this will be a test you won't fear coming back to."

"Sounds good," I replied through gritted teeth as I waited for the expected discomfort.

"Breath, Elizabeth. If you faint, this has not gone nearly as well as it might have."

The undeniable truth of this statement caused me to start laughing and the resulting few minutes were entirely painless. As a reward for showing up (apparently another uphill battle with the local populous), I got a year's prescription for the pill, rather than just a three-month batch, with instructions to take a few packets back-to-back if I was still experiencing a lot of pain menstruating.

"It won't do your body any harm to skip cycles," the doctor said. "A hundred years ago, you would have missed continuously because you would have been pregnant ALL THE TIME."

Pregnant all the time?! Now there was a concept even more scary than vagina dentata.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Gaskets and biddies

It was with some apprehension that I stepped off the plane in Toronto and headed towards border control. Three things were bothering me:

The first was that I wasn't at all convinced my luggage would have made the journey from Santiago. Since my flight involved a change in Atlanta, I had expected a brief, emotional reunion with my case where the tears would have been due to being dog tired after queueing through USA border control after a 9 hour flight, only to have to carry my three-week-trip backpack through customs to drop it back onto the checked luggage conveyor belt.

Instead I had been handed a small purple tag at Santiago, which I completely ignored until I was standing in line at the USA border and literally driven by boredom to read it. It stated that I was participating in an international to international (ITI) checked baggage transfer and that I wouldn't have access to my bag until my destination. Of course, there was absolutely no need to go through American customs if the bag wasn't staying in the country, so this sounded both convenient and entirely reasonable.

It therefore didn't sound remotely likely.

In all other countries, bags are always checked through to your final destination regardless of where you make your connections. The difference in the US came in the wake of 9/11 and perhaps, nearly ten years down the line, it was time to reconsider this time consuming process. However, the fact the tag phrasing suggested you were undergoing some type of clinical trial did not help my confidence level.

My second concern was that I wouldn't be able to find my car in the airport car park. I had received an email while I was away that had said the university had been closed, suggesting a snowpocalypse had struck Hamilton in my absence. Having a bright yellow car is only helpful if it isn't under a giant snow drift.

Lastly, I was worried that even if I found my car and dug it out, it would then fail to start. Since it had been decidedly reluctant to move on my way out to the airport, I couldn't see that three weeks parked outside would have improved its condition.

As it turned out, all my fears were for nothing. My bag was ready and waiting by the time I cleared Canadian border control, my car was free of snow and started first time. Why, it was great to be home!

Once I reached my house, I parked on the road so that I could dig my driveway clear of the accumulated snow. This was quite a job, especially since hard blocks of ice had formed between the sidewalk and road. I chipped away at them with my metal tipped shovel and scooped the driveway clear. It was pretty good exercise after spending all night on a plane. Pleased with that day's efforts, I left to collect my cat from the boarding cattery in the early evening.

As the sun set, the temperature dropped. The thin layer of snow and water left on my driveway turned to ice.

I tried to pull back up to my house ... and got stuck. My driveway is inclined and the ice on its surface caused my tyres to spin uselessly. Worse, the chunks of ice still on the edge of the road meant that I couldn't go backwards either. I was off the road, but blocking the sidewalk. After repeated tries I gave up, snapped my hazard lights on and took the cat inside. Then I called the CAA.

The CAA promised to send around a tow truck and told me they would be there within half an hour. Feeling I ought to stay with my car, I sat in the driver's seat and waited. After about fifteen minutes, a woman approached and rapped on my window. I rolled it down.

"You're blocking the sidewalk," she shot angrily at me. "and I'm a senior!"

I blinked. Did she honestly think this was my idea of a fun Monday night? To sit in a car with all the lights flashing?

"I'm very sorry," I said politely. "but as you can see my hazards are on." I gestured to the front and back of the car where all the lights were flashing widely. "I've broken down."

"What?!" the woman didn't seem to find this either acceptable or believable.

"My hazard lights," I explained patiently. "I can't move my car. I've had to call for a tow truck."

She gave me a look of total disbelieve and marched off without another word. I stared after her. The temptation to leap out of my car and confront her was rather high. I strongly desired to point out that the polite response in such a situation would be to ask if I needed help, especially since I was clearly by myself and she had no way of knowing the house in front of us was my own. I consoled myself with images of meeting her once I was back on the road and simply mowing her down.

Sadistic? No. She had totally asked for it.

The truck from the CAA rolled up with its unphased driver. A tow wasn't necessary; he just gave the car a push as I reversed, letting it drop back onto the road. I thanked him and scooted away.

Now, to find that woman....

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Happy penguin feet

The shale tumbled and crunched under my walking boot as I gingerly took another part-step, part-slide down the mountain side. This steep decent from the look-out point consisted of crumbling flinty pieces of rock that made a compressible surface that you still wanted to avoid landing on with anything short of a thick-soled shoe. I was moving down carefully, with one walking pole anchored in front of me, the other behind as I maneuvered sideways down the route.

Our pace on this walk had been fast, so much so that we had caught up with a second group from the hotel that had left half an hour before us. Within this second group were a young family with two girls, aged 9 and 7. Completely unperturbed by this death-drop decline, they bounced passed me, laughing wildly.

"They have a different sense of gravity," one member of our group suggested as the two blond heads shot passed him.

"They have a different sense of mortality," corrected his wife.

The smaller of the two girls turned out her toes in a ballet-esque first position. "Happy penguin feet!" she declared.

I caught up with my Dad as they disappeared out of sight.

"You don't have happy penguin feet," he said, sounding fractionally disappointed.

If it was possible to look even more unimpressed than I had been two minutes ago, I just achieved it.

Sugar rush

It was crazy talk.

We were perched on a cluster of rocks at the end of the French Valley in Chile's Torres del Paine national park. Just behind us was a spot known as the Italian base-camp; now a free camp ground for tired hikers. Ahead of us, the path wound upwards to an area known as the plateau and, beyond that, the climb increased to reach the British base-camp. The route ended there and climbing ropes had to be employed if you wished to continue.

Judging by the names, nothing much had stopped the British and the walk to the highest base-camp was the hardest offered by the Explora hotel. The Italians, meanwhile, must have hiked the length of the valley before setting down while the French seemed to have entered the valley, viewed the peaks, declared "Mon dieu!" and cracked open the sauvignon blanc.

Personally, I felt the Italians had it about right, although there was a lot to be said for eating a picnic lying sprawled in the valley. Our group, however, seemed to feel the plateau needed to be considered. This meant I needed to eat more. I polished off my sandwich and moved onto a brownie followed by a chocolate bar. Sugar was the key.

While our previous hotel in Argentina was all about comfort, the Explora hotel in Chilean Patagonia is all about the hikes. Based in the centre of the national park, the hotel provides everything from accommodation, three meals a day, drinks, snacks and --its main feature-- daily expeditions around the park. The guides lead groups of up to eight people, providing direction, local information on geology, plant and wild life, first aid and, it transpired, extra lunch. Miraculously, a hot Thermos of soup had appeared. I downed it with my chocolate.

The seriously hefty price-tag of the hotel meant that it attracted a certain clientèle. We were currently walking with a couple who were both past the age of retirement but showed no indication of stopping working. They were in medicine, working near Atlanta, with the husband researching diabetes and the wife in clinical trials involving cancer genes. The wife also --in her free time-- played tennis three times a week and competed in Grand Prix horse competitions. The other couple with us worked for the World Bank and were currently based in DC, although the husband was Austrian and his wife British. They had lived all over the world, including Jamaica and Nigeria. It was about half-way along this route I became exceptionally glad I had a career to talk about. Fortunately, astronomy sells well to even the harshest of critics: stars, twinkle, pretty. Everyone likes it.

I swallowed my last mouthful. OK, major sugar high! Let's go! Behind me, a pow-wow was in progress which broke up to announce that the plateau was perhaps a stretch too far, since we'd end up returning late to the hotel.

Sugar sugar sugar sugar....

I hopped down the rocks and bounced around for about half an hour as we decended before the whole effect completely wore off and I had to be permanently plugged into my water bottle to make it the rest of the way back.

The plateau probably wasn't the best idea. Turns out I only have the ability to control my energy levels equal to a seven year old.

Monday, February 21, 2011


"... and we'll take a bottle of the sauvignon blanc."

"Perfect!" The waiter at the hotel in Buenos Aires seemed ecstatic with our dinner order. Clearly, we had not only picked the absolutely best choice on the menu, but we had combined the starter, main dish and wine choice in such a way that not even the chef himself could have imagined such a fantastic combination.

We left the table with full bellies and even fuller egos. Why, all restaurants should be hiring us for their set menu design!

As we moved south to Patagonia, we discovered that not only was our dish selection second to none, but in fact all the choices we made for our trips and outings were equally 'perfect!'. Evidently, we were experts at this travel business from beginning to end! I began to be concerned that returning home might come as an unpleasant shock to the system, especially when faced with the referee report on my next paper.

At the start of our second week, we left the Argentinian side of Patagonia to cross into Chile. This was a slightly strange process since the border control posts for Argentina and Chile were separated by several kilometres. If the roaming guanacos were tempted to pick-pocket passports, you could end up trapped in a no-man's land in a cross between the TV show 'Surviver' and the movie 'The Terminal'.

Having beaten off the thieving wildlife to successfully make it to the other side, we were met by the organiser for the transport to our new hotel. She caught up with our group in the border-stop cafe just as I was using the restrooms.

"Where is Elizabeth?" she asked, having ascertained that three out of the four people she was expecting were in front of her.

"She's just using the toilet."

"Ah, perfect!"

You know ... that's maybe taking it a bit too far.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Through the valley of death

"Is everyone confident about this walk? Now is the last chance to change your mind!"

All of us shook our heads. For my part at least, this determination was less to do with confidence in my fitness ability and everything to do with refusing to get back into that van. This organised hike was part of a round trip to visit the Upsala Glacier, north of where we had walked on Perito Moreno the day before. We had taken a boat out to Estanica Cristina, a sheep ranch named after the daughter of the British family who originally owned the land in the early 20th century. She had died at only 20 years old, for reasons unspecified. Maybe it involved a van ride.

The boat had weaved through large fields of icebergs before depositing us by the Estancia where we were picked up by a four-by-four which drove us up the mountain. The van was designed like a safari vehicle with open-sides and a canvas top. We sat on two long benches and held onto ropes strung along the cloth roof for support.

That support was needed.

Taking a van to the mountain top and then hiking down through the canyon sounded like the ideal, relaxing walk. What we hadn't taken into account was exactly how rough the journey uphill would be. The steep dirt path was only just passable by the four-by-four which bumped and rocked at it climbed. The wind was also strong, whipping through the open sides as we clung to the safety rope. I pulled the hood of my waterproof over my woollen hat and tried to avoid looking at the road ahead. Or vomiting over it.

Even the hardiest people we were travelling with looked relieved when we finally tumbled out of the vehicle. No one volunteered to take the ride back down. I wondered if anyone ever did. Maybe people extremely keen on roller coasters. Ones without seatbelts.

Shortly beyond where we had been dropped was a look out point for the glacier. It spread before us like a scene from the movie, 'The day after tomorrow'. The ground we were standing on was a red rock that extended down into Fossil Canyon. Here we could see imprints of ammonites and small white fossils of sea creatures from when water had once flowed millions of years ago. The lakes that we saw were either glacier fed or from rain water. Interestingly, you could tell instantly by looking at them (although a quick paddle would also have confirmed this effectively). Rain water lakes were a dull blue-grey shade whereas glacier water had a opaque milky turquoise colour from the tiny pieces of ice suspended within it. There was also the occasional hulking big iceberg which provided another clue.

We exited the canyon via a steep drop over piles of shale to end up in the valley leading back to the boat. Our guide pointed to the distant shoreline and said this last stretch would take us about an hour. My Dad waved this away and said it didn't look more than 15 minutes walk. I remember him telling me such things during my childhood when I was tired while we were walking in the Lake District. Then, as now, it proved to be a complete lie. It was almost exactly an hour. I was glad our guide at least was not of a similar disposition to my father in such situations.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Sugar coated iceberg

Walking boots are a serious piece of equipment. Made of sturdy leather with a sole thicker than a steak sandwich, the damage they could potentially inflict makes it worth ex-boyfriends not accompanying me on hikes. Add to this a set of inch-long spikes and you had nothing but solid, vengeful, win.

The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of 48 glaciers fed by the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. The ice field is a 350 km long band of snow and ice in the Patagonian Andes and is the third biggest ice mass in the world, with Antarctica and Greenland taking the top two positions. Despite this, the glaciers stemming from it are all smaller than any of those found on Antarctica. The Perito Moreno glacier is the only one of the glaciers that is not receding. Humid air rises over the mountains from Chile and falls as snow on the peaks, creating a renewable stream of ice that pushes the glacier forward by roughly the same amount that it melts each year. On average, the glacier advances at a sizable speed of 2m a day.

Unlike European glaciers, many of the glaciers in Patagonia stretch down close to sea level, with Perito Moreno ending in Lake Argentino, the largest fresh water lake in the country. This naturally makes these sites major tourist attractions which we shamelessly supported by signing up for a 90 minute ice walk across the rough frozen surface.

The ice walk takes place at the glacier's far end, closest to the lake. Here, the ice is only moving a few inches a day, allowing the sharp peaks and troughs to be worn by weathering into a series of smoother (if granular) paths than can be more easily navigated. Nevertheless, this was not the surface to sprint along and going downhill, it was worth slamming your crampon-encased boot down with sufficient force to ensure a good grip.

I found that satisfying.

The surface of the glacier was like walking on thousands of ice cubes. Not everyone found this a comfortable experience. Some, precariously balanced on their spikes, found the deep drops that periodically appeared to our sides unnerving. These holes plummeted down into the heart of the glacier, encased in sparkling blue dripping crystal. Others were clearly ashamed of their footwear. Well, I had no evidence for this, but if I'd strapped a pair of crampons onto the light plimsolls one member of our group was wearing, I would feel daft. It was like attaching a bullet proof vest to a butterfly.

One lady (not plimsoll wearing) decided that the final uphill was more than she could manage and took advantage of our path's close passing to the bare hillside to step off the glacier and head back to the camp. This proved to be an error since the 'last great view' we were promised on this ascent turned out to be a large chest of whisky.

Why yes, I would like some 400 year old glacier ice with my drink.

400 years was our guide's estimate of how long it takes for the glacier ice to work its way down from its pressurised formation on the mountain top to the lake's edge.

The end of the glacier is a vertical 40m drop into the lake. As it melts, huge vertical pillars can break away and tumble in a crashing pile of ice dust into the water. We saw several chunks meet their doom this way, becoming icebergs that sail down stream, looking for Titanic vessels to sabotage. Even when the end sections were not falling, creaks and cracks could be heard throughout the glacier as it inched along its path.

A few days later we would see the Grey Glacier on the Chile side of the ice field, taking a boat that would weave through an entire lake of icebergs. Even though ice is lighter than water, only 5-10 % of the iceberg is visible above the surface of the lake.

As we approached some of the larger bodies, I felt someone somewhere should be rather more concerned about this.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The classic British drink is of course the 'English Breakfast' tea. Quite why it becomes associated with a morning meal once you cross the pond is a mystery. Don't you get it, America? We drink tea all the time. ALL THE TIME.

The Argentinean equivalent to this, frankly, perfect beverage is the 'mate tea'. Unlike English Breakfast, however, its preparation and consumption resembles that of an illegal drug.

Mate is a shared drink, apparently because it is universally acknowledged to be utterly undrinkable until the third or forth addition of hot water to the bitter yerba mate leaves. These leaves are in the form of a ground powder which are put in a small round pot until it is 3/4 full. There is then some complex rearranging of yerba so that the hot water can be poured down one side of the pot. The tea is then drunk through a metal straw that also acts as a strainer.

So, in the end, you have a small round pot, filled with a greenish powdery liquid being passed around a group of people who take it in turns to take a long drag from the metal straw.

See what I mean about drugs?

I was relieved the process had been demonstrated to me by the hotel staff before I saw our taxi driver drinking one the following day.

Because the first serving of the mate will be the most bitter, it is often drunk by the host. As more water is added, the taste weakens. I found the mate's taste bitter, but not unpleasant, though I couldn't honesty say I noticed any significant weakening over time. It had a smokey aftertaste that reminded me of a hot islas whisky, such as Laphroaig.

I'm not sure it'll be replacing the excellent British brew in my life quite yet (not least because I'm sure I'd be arrested if I was spotted drinking such a concoction in Canada) but it was interesting and --despite appearances-- less deadly than horse riding.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Pink feathers

"A short hike from the hotel leads down to the lagoon."

We had moved north from Ushuaia to the Argentinean Steps; a mountainous country punctuated by wide, wind swept plains and icy glacier fed lakes. This was the day before I tested an alternative career as a horse-backed gaucho and we were sitting in a wide windowed lounge, listening to a member of the hotel staff describe the area.

"You can see the flamingos on the water." The lady explaining this to us gestured out of the window towards the small patch of blue.

Flamingos?! I looked out at the wilderness around us. Small runty trees dotted the plains, their branches all stretched out to one side due to the shaping force of the harsh winds that whistled over this land. How could wild flamingos exist in a landscape where the vegetation looked like it was in front of a high speed fauna hairdryer? That didn't sound remotely likely. Flamingos should belong in hot tropical countries. The kind with wooden shacks on the beach selling cocktails in the half coconut with brightly colored drink umbrellas.

I clearly wasn't the first person to treat this pronouncement with complete disbelieve. On the table in front of me sat a pair of binoculars. I snatched them up and leveled the bins at the patch of blue. Sure enough, scattered around the lagoon edge in smudges of incongruous pink, were a flock of flamingos.

It was just ... just ... WRONG.

It had to be seen up close. In fact, I had to catch a flamingo and have my photo taken cuddling it.

The walk to the lagoon took about an hour. That was apparently long enough for each and every one of nature's barbies to move to the far side of the water. We skulked around the lake edge. For creatures that spend most of their time on one foot, it's surprising how adept flamingos are at subtly shifting beyond the reach of a really good photo. In the end, I had to settle for a lot of water and a string of pink blobs. Arty landscape shot.

We had marginally more luck with other wildlife in the area. The mountain side was stuffed with llama-like guanacos. This was hardly surprising since, as I have previously established, South America is FULL of alpacas which they use as their primary form of transport. Sometimes disguised as BMWs. Guanacos were the wild cousins of alpacas. They could probably be trained into skodas.

There were also the buff-necked ibis whose head, with its long curved beak, resembled its white American relative, but with the body of something closer to a vulture. It looked at as though someone had had far too much fun with a sewing kit and a bird encyclopedia.

Then there were the small emu-like rheas and the armadillo with its baby which resembled a mutantly sized earwig too closely to be cute. There were also hares everywhere --spawning from the introduction from Europe in 1888-- including in my dinner that night, served with chocolate sauce.


It almost made up for the lack of hugging-a-Chilean-flamingo shot. The afore mentioned, incidentally, are more commonly found in Argentina.

Horses are not go-carts

"What about hats?"

"Your hair is short. You will be fine."

I looked up at the horse in front of me and then across at the rough trail that led up into the hills. Oddly, the wind blowing through my hair was not what I was primarily concerned about.

With the exception of those connected to the budding tourist trade, the main inhabitants of Patagonia are the rangers or 'gauchos'. These horse-backed loners heard sheep and cattle through the mountains and plains normally with the help of just their mount and dogs. In their account of travels with the Beagle, both Darwin and FitzRoy mention the gauchos, with the former traveling with them when he wished to go inland. Clearly, riding was the way to conquer this wide, open space so it seemed churlish not to give it a try.

Due to being a somewhat accident-prone child, I had never taken riding lessons when I was younger so my equine experience to date came from the occasional beginner-level hacks while I was on holiday. I had been assured that this outing would be similarly suitable for a complete novice, apparently so much so that hard hats were deemed completely unnecessary. The saddles were also small and largely concealed by a large thick blanket. This meant the only options for holding on were the reins (which were held in just one hand and you couldn't exactly pull on them) or the horse's mane (I wasn't too keen to pull on that either). I tried to reassure myself that this was the traditional gaucho experience and wasn't that exactly what I had desired?

I wondered how many gauchos-in-training died horrible deaths on their first outing.

We set off walking in a line up the track. My horse was third in the string, behind a small five year old and her mother. As the only non-Spanish speaker in the party of five, I was unable to exchange reassuring comments with my fellow riders. The stable-hand in charge of our group spoke excellent English, but obviously wasn't the slightest bit nervous of DEATH BY BAZURK HORSE. However, as we moved through the first gate I heard the international squeak behind me of someone feeling anxious. I felt better.

The path wound upwards but had a series of steep trenches that must be crossed. On foot, they were an uncomfortable scramble; maybe two careful steps down, a jump and then a two step leap up. This didn't look like a remotely good idea on the much larger horse with four legs to maneuver. We approached the first one.

I swallowed.
Looked around desperately for something to hold onto.
Wished I had a hard hat.

Then with a slight jostle we were over.

"When you go down, lean back on the saddle," our guide called out, first in Spanish and then in English.

Wait, why hadn't he mentioned this before we went over the first drop? Was the decent coming up INFINITELY WORSE? Perhaps no one had ever stayed mounted before on this crossing. Maybe it was six foot deep and be more bone shaking than your average roller coaster. The type whose last safety test on its wooden frame had been 1970. Before the infestation of woodworm.

"Um....!" I called out.

"Don't worry! It's exactly the same as before!"

Just before you felt no need to offer us life-saving advice.

It was at this point that I reached an important conclusion that was going to affect me for the rest of the ride:

A horse is not a go-cart.

There was no way I could have gone over that steep trench in anything with wheels and come out unharmed. I would have been thrown to one side, spun head-over-heels, ended up in a lot of pain and someone somewhere would have laughed. My horse, however, was a sentient being who knew full well how to negotiate such a drop. It picked its way carefully down and up without any change in speed. Even though it looked a highly precarious process when watching the animal in front of me, the ride itself felt almost completely smooth. One of us in this trekking unit knew what we were doing. It just wasn't me. I could live with that.

From then onwards I realized all I needed to do was trust the horse.

The only slight problem with this was that my horse hated being number three in our line. Perhaps when it saw the wide open land before us it just wanted to run. Maybe it was in a blood feud with the forefront bicolored pony. It could be that it just felt it was undignified for both of us to have to follow a five year old. I didn't know. I did know that I wasn't quite prepared to take an ad-libed route across this mountain which would culminate --in the best scenario-- with a small child being thrown to the ground.

Well, actually, I probably was, but the likelihood of the brat staying mounted and me falling to my doom was rather higher.

For the majority of the ride, a few tugs on the rein kept us in position. We rode up along the trail, stopped for a brief photo shoot and then began our decent. Seeds of worry started to blossom in my mind as we reached a prolonged steep decline.

Just trust the horse.

Right. I kept my hand as loose on the rein as possible, allowing my horse to amble comfortably down the pitted ground ... until it seized its opportunity and took off at a trot.

This ALWAYS happens to me on beginner hacks. At some point, my horse gets bored of walking and decides a brisk sprint is in order. It was, however, the first time this had happened on a sharply declining hillside.

Did I mention I wasn't wearing a helmet?!

I yelped a protest.

"Pull on the reins!" our guide called to me.

I'd thought of that before making a noise like a fretful three year old, but had dismissed it in favor for the toddler distress call because I thought pulling up on a horse when it was running downhill might go badly. Apparently though, it was still the thing to do. I pulled. My horse reluctantly came to a graceful stop.

"I see you know how to trot your horse," the guide said, jovially.

I tried to smile. It came out somewhere between a snarl and a grimace.

Any thoughts that I might have had regarding my anxiety being an overreaction were put to bed a few days later when we crossed the border to Chile. While hiking in the Torres del Paine national park, we were passed by a group of four riders ... and one horse sans rider.

Clearly, not only had one poor novice gaucho met their demise, but the group had just carried on, probably leaving the rotting corpse to be eaten by pumas.

Patagonia is a harsh harsh place.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

You say tomato...

"We'd like to go to the port. Puerto?"

"Puerto?" The taxi driver looked baffled. Clearly this was not a word in his vocabulary. Moreover, it was not a word that any other passenger in the tourist town of Ushuaia had ever used in his cab before.

"Um, yes. Puerto? The port? With the boats?" We tried again, making a hand gesture that hopefully suggested some kind of water vessel.

"..... Ah, Puerto?"

"..... Si."

There were three possible causes for the reoccurring communication bar we were having with our Argentinean taxi drivers. The first was that our pronunciation sucked. While Spanish is a reasonably phonetic language, there are differences in the pronunciation of some letters from English and indeed, differences between European Spanish and Latin America Spanish. This had been our problem the day before, when we had asked to return to our hotel, 'Los Yamanas', whose pronunciation is closer to 'Los Shamanas'.

The second possible cause of error was that we simply couldn't hear the subtler sounds in the locals' speech. Since we had all been brought up as purely English speakers, there would inevitably be tones in foreign languages that would just slide right by us. For instance, while living in Tokyo, I never really managed to differentiate between the Japanese word for 'hospital' (byouin) and 'hair salon' (biyouin) -- potentially unfortunate. It was just about possible that this was the cause of our difficulty in directing our current cabby to the watery destination of our choice.

The third option was that the taxi drivers in Tierra del Fuego were bored of carting around touristing gringos and were just having a laugh.

The following day, we set out to go to the train station.

"The train station, please. Tren?"

"... Tren?"

...... totally option three.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The train at the end of the world

"Welcome to the train at the end of the world!"

Well, that wasn't something you heard everyday. Our guide book had been somewhat disparaging about this train trip. It claimed that it was ridiculously touristy and the only way of reaching Ushuaia's national park at a slower pace would be to walk the distance. On both accounts, it had a point. It was rather like walking into a live-action 'Thomas the Tank Engine' set, with small carriages pulled by a steam train with an additional diesel engine for reinforcement. The countryside though, was beautiful, and since the main aim of the trip was to admire the scenery, the speed hardly mattered.

The train attracted a variety of passengers. While waiting to buy our tickets, I found myself standing behind an elderly lady in pointed patent leather shoes dragging heavily on her cigarette in the cold morning air. As the line moved forward, she dropped her handbag which spilled its contents over the gravel to reveal a lighter, more cigarettes... and an asthma inhaler.

In contrast to this sight, a man boarded the carriage in front of us in serious walking gear. Dressed in luminous yellow from head to toe, his waterproof trousers came up to his arm pits and his heavy duty jacket dropped to his hips. We speculated as to whether he actually hiked, or just spent his time traveling on cute little tourist trains telling smoking grannies with asthma inhalers thrilling tales of his fabricated climbs up all the peaks visible from the window.

Tourist trap or not, it was fun to think you were on the southmost train track in world. I had discovered a large globe in our hotel and, by lying on my back, had appreciated for the first time exactly how far south Patagonia stretches. Its tip is considerably lower than bottom of both Africa and Australia, at a latitude of 56, compared with 35-40. The equivalent northern latitude is around Newcastle and one member of our group tested the temperature of the Beagle Channel and declared Tierra del Fuego identical in every way to his Geordie homeland. The rest of us felt there were some small differences.

The rail road had originally been built for the transportation of prisoners, feeding a prison that had been built when Argentina wanted to establish a firmer presence in their lower borders. If desired, you could buy a full prison uniform from the shop by the ticket office. I considered getting one for my brother.

The hour long train ride ended in the park, where we hiked along the water and spied on Chile. In the center of the channel separating the two countries was an island on which someone had planted an Argentinean flag. Rather pointed, I thought.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tracing Darwin

On 27th December 1831, the HMS Beagle set sail from the UK on a journey that would ignite a change in the way we view the human race forever. Led by Captain Robert FitzRoy, the Beagle's primary objective was to continue the work of its last expedition in conducting a hydrographic survey of southern South America.

FitzRoy had been known to suffer from bouts of depression (a disease that would eventually lead to his death in 1865) and it was partially to help counter this that he invited a naturalist to join the crew to make observations on the creatures and geology of Patagonia. The young scientist would be FitzRoy's equal in rank and keep him company with lively intellectual debates.

The naturalist chosen was the 22 year old Charles Darwin.

Darwin's observations led to the publication that is the source of all modern evolutionary theory, 'On the Origin of Species', the contents of which drove a wedge between himself and FitzRoy who never accepted the idea.

Also aboard the Beagle were three indigenous people from the southernmost tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego. The Beagle had 'collected' these individuals (possibly rather unintentionally) during its first voyage around the coast and had brought them to the UK to be educated. The plan was now to return the Fuegians to their former home accompanied by missionary Richard Matthews, to start the bulk enlightenment of the Yaghan natives in Christian and British ways.

The only real suspense in this tale is how long this took to fail. The answer to that is nine days.

After that time, all three Fuegians had returned to their former (undoubtedly country appropriate) habits and Richard Matthews begged transport back on the Beagle.

It was reading a fictional account of this journey in 'This Thing of Darkness' by Harry Thomas that had led me to suggest this trip south. I was therefore VERY EXCITED(TM) to touch down in Ushuaia and see the Beagle Channel for the first time.

Ushuaia's claim as the southernmost city in the world makes it a tourist town, with much of its human traffic passing through on cruises to the Falkland Islands (sorry, sorry, in my current location I naturally mean 'Islas Malvinas') and Antarctica. Its port, however, is on the banks of the Beagle Channel, named by FitzRoy as he recorded its location on the first voyage to Tierra del Fuego.

While a catamaran might not have been an exact replica of the HMS Beagle, it was a pretty good alternative. We hopped onboard to cruise down the Beagle Channel and see the local sea life. I stood on the metal bridge linking the two hulls and pretended I was captain.

Then a huge wave swamped me and I was forced to beat a tactical retreat.

I should mention that even though February is the height of summer for Patagonia, the weather isn't super warm, hovering around the mid-teens in centigrade. We were extremely lucky that we had a series of clear, dry days (although the latter was now rather academic for me) even though the forecast had predicted rain.

The wildlife was spectacular and apparently completely unconcerned by the presence of a large boat full of pointing people. We saw islands of cormorants --declared 'fake penguins' by our tour guide due to their black and white colour-- and sea lions as well as real penguins that bounced out of the water while swimming in a similar manner to dolphins.

Our cruise ended at the small farmstead of one of the first successful missionaries, Thomas Bridges, who settled and raised his family there later in the 1800s. Part of the site is a small museum displaying the skeletons of sea mammals. It is run by a marine research team that is based in Ushuaia and it was possible to visit the shed where the bones were being cleaned.

This delightful job appeared to be a task for graduate students.

One of the most amazing sights in the museum was the comparison of the skeletons of a specked porpoise and a leopard seal. While the porpoise's tail consisted of the expected single line of bone, the seal had two separate limbs contained within the tail (bottom right image). It was amazingly human-esque and a beautiful example of a half-way step in evolution, from land animal to sea animal.

While it is true that FitzRoy was not greeted by a seaside town selling stone penguins (in fact, he was greeted by Fuegians who stole his boat), the landscape of the area would have changed little since the Beagle's journey. I woke up in the night to hear the wind howling down the mountains and turning the channel into a continuous crash of white crested peaks.

It was around then that I concluded that a hotel room in a tourist town was probably as authentic as I wanted this historical recapturing to be.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

City of the dead

While Santiago's wealth is expressed in its gleaming glass sky scrapers, Buenos Aires displays riches in the form of old stone mansions... and graves.

There is a saying in Argentina that it costs more to die than it does to live. If it is your final wish to be laid to rest in La Recoleta Cemetery then there is no denying that you better have done some serious financial planning.

The 4800 above-ground vaults that form Buenos Aires' most exclusive departed neighborhood produce a marble city of individualistic tombs adorned with domes, statues and pillars. The streets of these unique graves are truly a remarkable --if slightly creepy-- place to walk among.

About half of the vaults display a small alter with flowers, Christian art or even a photo of the deceased behind their glass pane doors and windows. There is then a trap door or steep flight of stairs that leads below ground to the small crypt that contains the coffin. Other monuments, however, have the coffin openly on display, covered with just a white lace burial shroud. Presumably, the bodies are all embalmed and this negates the need for a six foot deep grave.

Not all of the buildings are in a state of good repair. A number have had their glass facades broken and gravel scatters their floors, dirtying the white cloths over alter and coffin. Whether this is from the city equivalent of tomb raiding or merely a product of neglect is not obvious. It was these broken vaults I found the most disconcerting. The idea that your family line might dwindle away, yet your remains still endure, was unsettling. Personally, I plan to fade with the daises. (Everyone take note of that. No million dollar crypts. Thanks.)

What I found most surprising was that not all of the vaults are old. Some are very recent including the resting place of Raul Alfonsin, the Argentinian president who died in 2009. Originally, the desire to preserve the body in such a way came from belief in a bodily resurrection. The marble entrance to the cemetery reads "expectamus dominum", we wait for God. Now, the exclusiveness of this burial grounds acts more as a status symbol for the living than suitable preparations for the dead.

For most movie-going non-Argentinians, the most famous person in La Recoleta Cemetery is Maria Eva Duarte de Peron or, to use her more common nickname, Evita (top right photo). It is perhaps ironic that she is placed here, among the richest in Argentina, since she was deeply unpopular with that demographic due to her support of the lower classes. Indeed, the fact her family have a vault here at all is surprising, since her father left when Evita was one year old to return to his 'legal' --that is the woman he was married to-- family, leaving her mother and four siblings impoverished.

Evita grew up to become an actress before marrying Juan Peron, who was shortly after elected president of Argentina. Through him, she became interested in politics and was a great advocate for the rights of the poor. There was huge support among the less wealthy for her to run for vice president but she declined due to ill health; a condition that saw her dead from cervical cancer only months later at the age of 33.

After death, Evita's body continues to lead an exciting... existence. At first, it was displayed in Argentina but, with her husband's fall from power, was secretly moved to Milan in Italy and buried under the false name, Maria Maggi. This was revealed 16 years later and the body was exhumed to take up residence on the dining table of her husband and his new wife in Spain. Personally, as the new wife, I might have found this a problem, but perhaps it made a talking point at breakfast.

Finally, after her husband's death, Evita was laid in La Recoleta Cemetery. Due to fears that her body would be stolen, her coffin is under two trap doors and below two other coffins. The other occupants of the vault are presumably family members... or decoys ... wikipedia at least appears vague on this point.

It is odd to say that the most fascinating location in a city is its cemetery. However, there is no denying one spectacular advantage of this location, given our experiences the day before:

The departed do not pick your pockets.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Even light-er fingers

The trip to the Argentinian capital had not started well. I had contracted a stomach bug that resulted in me requesting an airplane sick bag before take-off and upon touching down in the city, I was met by an agent from our travel company who imparted more bad news:

"Your father's had his wallet stolen."

Well it perhaps was the typical Buenos Aires experience, but they had only been there a few hours.

It transpired that the newly arrived state had in fact been the cause of the problem. Having taken an overnight flight from Europe, Dad and our family friends reached Argentina at nine in the morning, which was too early to check into their hotel rooms. They decided to leave their bags behind the front desk and go for a short walk. Unfortunately, this meant that they were carrying pretty much all their valuables, including passports, cash and credit cards. Given that, we should perhaps be grateful that Dad ended up loosing only his cards and some cash.

I confess, three days later, he's still not feeling particularly grateful.

A google search revealed that the trick used on them was a common one in Buenos Aires. This wasn't a simple snatch from an unguarded pocket, but rather a diversion scam. A grey gunk was dumped on the party from high up, probably from a balcony. A few passers-by then exclaimed in consternation that bird poo had splattered these poor visitors' clothing and rushed forward with napkins (that they just happened to have) to help them clean up.

When I saw Dad back at the hotel, the backs of his trousers and jacket were splattered with this mess. Evidently, pterodactyl-sized diarrhetic fowl flock to the skies in South America.

Even though they suspected a scam, my Dad and our friends weren't able to escape this 'kind' cleaning process until they were down one wallet.

Their first step was to cancel the credit cards before returning to the hotel. They were then directed to a police station around the corner only to find that they couldn't report the crime at that location. Apparently, in Buenos Aires, crimes must be reported in the district in which they occur. This deeply unhelpful legislation led to a taxi ride back to the literal scene of the crime and a visit to a second police station.

Here, they had more luck. After a wait for an officer who spoke English (during which they watched a match between two English football clubs on the TV), they explained what had unfolded.

"So you did not actually see those men take your wallet?" the officer confirmed. "It could not have been them."

"There isn't really much doubt," one of our friends remarked in dry humor.

The officer had looked amused.

Two days later found us all packed and ready to leave Buenos Aires for our journey south. Our travel agent met us again to take us to the local airport for domestic flights.

"It's so unfortunate!" she said in disbelief. "Our company hasn't had anyone loose a wallet since..."

Two years ago? Five years ago? That one summer in 1986?

"....since November."

November?! It was only the end of January now and how many people honestly booked a trip over Christmas?

The insignificance of this crime-free duration was confirmed one night later when we sat down for dinner at a restaurant in Ushuaia, the southernmost town in South America (or indeed, the world). We were dining at the ridiculously early 'gringo' time of 8pm and the table next to us was therefore likewise composed of foreigners; a group of five Americans. Half-way through the meal, a snatch of their conversation reached us:

".... the most defining moment was getting mugged in Buenos Aires!"

I suppressed the urge to high-five them. Dad poured himself another glass of wine.

Still, it was only one member of our group who lost their cards. This meant the only person really inconvenienced is ... my Mum. She's still in the UK but most of Dad's credit cards were joint between them and they've all been cancelled. I doubt she'll be buying anything from Argentina for quite a while

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Dolphins and whales and penguins, oh my!

"You should leave early, since I'm not sure what time the boats leave."

I looked up quizzically from the large slice of home made pizza I was devouring. "Can't we just google it?"

"No," I was told. "This isn't something you can google."

This wasn't something you can google?! How was this possible? Was this a boat trip off the ends of the Earth? I just wanted to see some penguins. Surely you can google penguins.

By the time we'd driven two hours across the rough desert road to the small seaside Chilean village, I had to admit that a fully interactive webpage where you could view a timetable, book and then pay for your trip with your international credit card was perhaps a trace unlikely.

The village was in the middle of nowhere and that was after it redefined my definition of 'nowhere'. For miles around there was nothing but dusty beige hills on which cacti emerged in roughly even spacings like a particularly unpleasant version of chicken pox. The town itself consisted of squat wooden huts and a pile of small fishing boats pulled up against the shoreline.

This then, was the Chile I had been expecting! Why, there was bound to be an alpaca around the next corner. In fact, we'd probably find our car had been replaced by a four-seater alpaca by the time we came back.

Awesome! Wonderful! Gre....

Then I saw the boat we were to be on for the next two hours.

It was been held by a mooring rope as it bounced wildly in the waves by the pier. The size of a large row boat, it seated maybe a dozen people on benches going across its width with a motor on the back. For reasons I didn't understand, the particular vessel we had signed on with was also flying a pirate flag.

I swallowed.

The crewman holding the pier end of the mooring rope decided it was too rough and loosened it, allowing the boat to be buffeting out into the sea before trying once again to pull it back in. Up and down. Up and down.

I started to back away up the pier.

"It's not as rough in the open water," I was assured.

Unfortunately, images of a boat ride equivalent to the WORLD'S WORST ROLLER COASTER had now firmly seized my mind. We would all die. Worse, we wouldn't die, but be made to endure two hours of hurricane-level sea conditions in which the small dingy would be hurled up to a height of at least 90 meters before dropping below the surface of the Earth to smolder in the molten lava only to rise again and loop-the-loop on circular waves that had taken on a nightmarish corkscrew formation.

Look, I wasn't too sure of the exact mechanics but that was totally what was going to happen.

I tried to explain rationally that, since I didn't wish to suffer unrepairable mental trauma, it would be best if I just waited here on the dock and.... tried to lower my heart rate.

My friends --being disinclined to use physical force against a girl they all knew was capable of howling like an abused three year old when she got irrationally scared-- reluctantly nodded their understanding. The Spanish-speaking crewmen, however, knew none of this, were unable to understand my hand gestures for 'unbelievably-scared-of-this-water-roller-coaster-of-death' or 'meeeeeeep!' and gabbled at me in excited Spanish that almost certainly translated to: "Yes, you will die, but get on this pirate vessel anyway", before leading me onto the boat.


The boat set off. I clung to my friend and tried to decide if I'd picked the right religion and if it was too late for a change.

Away from the pier, the sea went calm.

Then there was a whale. Followed by dolphins and sea lions and penguins and a nest of baby fluffy birds and a strange island with a rock formation that looked like a super ugly woman and bird dung that is apparently so valuable that countries fight over the right to collect it.

Then we ran out of gas.

After refilling from a spare container, we headed back to land where I ate a large empanada with shrimp.

It had been awesome. I was relieved. My friends, doubly so.