Beunos Aires… wow.

December 28th, 2009

It’s been a very long day, and I’m struggling to balance the need to record my emotions and experiences with the sheer volume of exposure I need to assimilate and the more pressing fact that I haven’t slept for far longer than usual.  However, I have to jot down some thoughts about the journey so far, as it has already been fantastic.

I departed from the newly revamped terminal at Cape Town International.  It was slick, impressive and efficient… except for the hopeless service in the Spur where we had our breakfast.  A pox on your house, lazy daft waitress.  She is NOT proudly South African material.  On the bright side, Customs and security were effortless and I strolled through within a few minutes – literally.   The Air Malaysia flight was very pleasant, with good staff, a half-empty plane (always a bonus) and seating that was not unreasonable.  I resisted the unsubtle hints to nap and worked through the 5-hour time difference, getting quite a lot done and then fitting in two movies and some reading.

First impression of the South American continent:  Where’s my paraglider? As we came over the coast the wonderfully flat patchwork of farms was decorated with a matching patina of perfect thermic cumulus clouds, in long blissful cloud streets… no wonder the boys from Sol have been clocking good distances in style while the SA crowd bust their guts and lose sphincter control in the turbulence over De Aar.  (Non-glider-pilots, just roll your eyes and move to the next paragraph, ok?)

Second impression, as we swung round and Buenos Aires came into view:  eet’s beeeg!  The city goes on and on, and the only ‘topography’ is at the ‘waterfront’ on the Rio Plata where there are high-rise buildings.  However, from the air BA looks lovely, with plush green foliage everywhere and a network of neat roads… but then, as you come lower to approach the airport, it begins to dawn.  The rose-tinted roads are mostly dirt in the periphery, and the industrial sprawl of a developing-nation capital is there amongst the greenery.  Still, I was very excited to feel the wheels touch down on the second-last continent I have to reach (of course, that is if you believe the ‘conventional’ continent theory… see here for why there may be as few as four continents).  In any case, South America is ticked off and only Australasia remains.

I had a small degree of trepidation regarding the Customs and Immigration coming into Argentina, as I am carrying a medical kit and some drugs which are in short supply aboard the ship.  To this end I have all forms of signed prescriptions, letters of accreditation and copies of my medical qualifications.  All proved to be a pointless encumbrance, as the cheerful border guard stamped my passport without a second glance and Customs barely paused from their rapid-fire conversation to scan my bags.  Within 40 minutes of landing I was strolling out of the terminal with bags, pesos and a vague plan to get into town and find the Hotel Savoy, my digs for the night.

A minute or two later I was no longer strolling, but rather sloshing along in my own sweat.  29C and almost 100% humidity is a sudden adjustment after the hermetic interior of both aircraft and airports.  However, shunning the overpriced taxis I caught a bus into the centre of town, from where I was promised a short connection to the hotel.  Bonus on bus:  aircon.

The ride into the centre of BA was fascinating.  The airport is quite far out of town; far enough that it still feels like country, and there is plenty of open space.  Curiously, the wide road reserve was doubling as a recreation/picnic area for car- and bus-loads of locals, who had pulled up under trees by the side of the highway and were merrily having their Sunday picnics, quad-bike rides and blanket-in-the-shade-snogs.  I warmed immediately to a country whose people take such pleasure in outdoor pursuits…  not to mention the clear lack of stigmatism if that pursuit happens to be amorous.

As we moved into the urban area, Buenos Aires began to show it’s colours.  Of course, the poorer parts appeared first:  tenements lacking paint but bedecked with balconies of washing; semi-detached housing schemes and plenty of creative use of second-hand building material.  What struck me immediately, however, was the amazing variety in age and architecture of the buildings.  Converted colonial homes rub shoulders with concrete block monstrosities which sandwich churches of every description.  Steep gables abut flat roofs with Heath Robinson water tanks interspersed with rooftop gardens and patios.  Electric and telephone cables snake everywhere, as if a drunk Spiderman has chased some agile menace across the eves.  Hand-painted signs are overlooked by pristine neon; graffiti is ubiquitous.  There is a vibrancy in the air:  one can feel that this is a living city, where boom and bust are both familiar and fortunes are frequently made and lost.  In a word, the place has character.  I was hooked before the bus stopped.

A quick verbal scuffle (myself assaulting the poor travel clerk with my Spanish learnt on the plane) got me into a car and off to the Hotel Savoy, my digs for the night.  I had no idea what to expect (the expedition company made the booking) and as we cruised away from the plush waterfront area back into the depths of the city I watched the buildings get shabbier with a small degree of trepidation.  We arrived at a nondescript piece of pavement in front of a nondescript building, and I beginning to think a night of feeding Argentinean flees was before me, when the outer doors were opened by a bell-boy in full livery to reveal a marble antechamber and slick glass doors beyond.  My bags were stripped from me and I wandered into the humble hovel.

Yeah… that’ll do.

First business was supposed to be a shower, but I rapidly discovered the Savoy has wireless internet in the rooms, so I chose to connect with home more urgently.  What a pleasure.  The second bonus was being able to hit Google Maps and Earth to get better city info than the tourist map.  With a plan in mind, camera on back and a spring in my step, I went off at 18h00 to see Buenos Aires in one evening.

Just down the road was the first stop – the Plaza de los Dos Congresos, home of the National Congress building and a fitting place to begin wandering the city, as this is the spot designated as Kilometer 0 on all Argentinean road maps.  The Congress is an imposing Roman building reflecting the background of it’s Italian architect, and it looks out across the Plaza decorated with fountains and statues down the Avienda de Mayo, Argentina’s first avenue, towards the distant house of the national executive, Casa Rosada.  The Avienda hides beneath it the first subway built in the southern hemisphere.

That is was Sunday afternoon it was plain to see; the streets and parks were full of families, children chasing pigeons, old men basking on benches, and everywhere there were couples entwined in wholehearted kissing.  I’m sure some might find this public display of affection unsettling, but I realised rapidly that this is how things are done in this city:  if you love her, let her know.  I suppose, in the tango capital of the world, it should be no surprise.

Also ubiquitous in the city is graffiti.  The political fervour and hot-blooded Latin temperament is palpable, throbbing from the city’s walls on every street.  Monuments and public buildings are not spared.  Yet, there is also a gentler side; much of the graffiti is indeed beautiful and colourful art.

The Avienda de Mayo was vibrant, with cafe’s opening for the night and well-dressed revellers off to find a tango club, but even on the first avenue the curious mixing of rich and poor was evident.  High-heeled girls in short dresses with perfectly tanned calves stood and smoked thin cigarettes beside the entrances to their swank apartments while street people napped in nearby doorways.  I strolled along, unable to keep one lens on my camera for long as the incredibly photogenic city unfolded.

The other end of the Avienda is the Plaza de Mayo, perhaps the most historic spot in all of Argentina.  This has always been the meeting place of the people, and the scene of almost every political demonstration and celebration since 1580.  Two structures predominate:  the Mayo Pyramid and Casa Rosada.  The pyramid is more of a spire, but is the city’s first monument, built to celebrate the 1810 Mayo Revolution which lead to independence from Spain in 1816.  Every Thursday evening, the mothers and wives of “The Disappeared” (victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War”) gather here wearing signature white headscarves to remind both the government and the people of the cost of eschewing democracy.

Looking out over the Plaza is the Casa Rosada, seat of executive power in Argentina for centuries.  Originally built as a Spanish Fort, it later incorporated other smaller buildings (including the first Post Office) to become the home of the national government.  It, too, has played many historic roles, but is perhaps best recognised for it’s balcony from which Evita addressed the “shirtless people”… or more honestly, where you saw Madonna in the subsequent movie.  Of course, this being Argentina, I found enthusiastic youths using the statue in front of the Pink House as a skate rink.

Not yet satisfied with the exploration achieved, on the suggestion of Columbus and his cronies I wandered on down to the trendy Puerto Madero area.

This is one of the youngest and most opulent parts of the city, consisting of docklands that have been converted and remodelled into 5-star hotels and apartments, with glossy shops and restaurants beneath.  The town was out in force, strolling and roller-blading along the broad walkways.  I bought myself a Coke, proud to achieve the entire transaction in Spanish (even if it did exhaust most of my vocabulary).

The prominent structure is the Women’s Bridge, thankfully not so named because only those not cursed with a Y chromosome may cross but rather because all streets in Puerto Madero have women’s names.  I suspect the locals don’t know this; they seemed to believe it is the place to kiss with even more fervour.  (Really, I am not exaggerating all this buccal activity).

Past the yacht club I turned back into the city, heading for the famed Florida Road, a narrow but long lane which is famed for its street sellers.  Unfortunately, by this time it was past 23h00 and the few that were left were packing up to leave, but a few buskers and performers remained.  Further on I crossed what is reputed to be the widest avenue in the world.  Avienda 9 de Julio is quite likely deserving of the accolade; I counted 20 lanes of traffic and several walkways.  Where it meets Avienda Corrientes there stands an impressive obelisk, 67m high.  It is erected on the spot where the Argentinean flag was first raised after gaining independence.  In recognition of the season, a sparkling Christmas Tree shared the arena.

Walking further, I moved from the widest avenue to narrow streets with piles of litter on the pavement and tattooed characters drinking on the corners.  It wasn’t threatening, but instead heightened the feelings of vibrancy and contrast that I’d been feeling since arriving in the city.  Buenos Aires is a place rich in history that has been well stirred and shaken; it is a paella made from vastly differing ingredients, complex in flavour but very pleasing.  Around the corner from a tango club, replete with slinky girls in slit-leg dresses and tight buns I found my hotel, glistening lobby hidden beneath a gargoyléd facade.  I traipsed straight to the bar, rank with sweat and the midnight humidity, and ignoring the highfalutin couple drinking expensive Argentinean wine ordered a caipirina for the my first time on it’s home turf.  Beunos Aires… wow.

(Postscript:  That’s hair in tight buns, guys.  Really!)

Here we go… again

December 21st, 2009

Neat, not-so-neat and chaotic piles of equipment, clothing, books, paperwork, electronics and camera equipment are scattered across most of the furniture and various floor spaces throughout my apartment.  Three seperate computers are connected to a pletora of portable harddrives and flashdrives, all frenetically downloading and creating backups.  A list of lists of things to do is at my side, with items being added faster than they are crossed off.  Amongst it all, I’m experiencing potent deja vu.  Yes, it’s packing-for-Antarctica… again.

Before you dial the local psychiatric services on my behalf, be advised that I am not repeating the 15-month overwintering expedition.  Phone down?  Good.  What I am doing is taking all my year’s leave from my real job and embarking on a working holiday of sorts as the expedition/ship’s doctor for an eco-expedition to a plethora of the most environmentally, hisptoric and geographically important places in the South.  Yes, that’s right – this time we are going to take pictures of cutesy pengiuns, and lots of them 😉

I’ve been blessed to join the crew from Cheeseman’s Ecology Safaris, a well established team who have been leading natural history oriented expeditions around the world for the last 30 years.  Their frank and foremost ethos is to provide their participants with the most indepth and immersive wildlife and wilderness experiences possible, and they seem to succeed grandly.  This expedition will take us aboard the MV Polar Star to the Islas Malvinas (Falkland Islands), South Georgia and Antarctic Peninsula.  Read about the trip, staff and itinerary here.

This promises to be a very different experience to my previous expedition with SANAE; although there will be considerable scientific input the focus is more upon the wildlife and natural beauty of the area than on investigation itself.  The participants are multinational: a brief scan of the manifest shows that they  hail from Canada, right across the USA, UK, Ireland, Germany, RSA, Thailand, Finland and Australia.  The expedition team are fantastically diverse, most with tertiary qualifications in fields ranging from biology, ecology, and geology to wildlife photography, art and polar history.  I can barely contain my excitement at picking this collection of minds and experience.

I will be posting updates from the ship throught the expedition, with photographs and video to follow as soon as I return.  Hopefully, you will be able to share in the trip :)

I leave on Saturday 27 December… watch this space!

Breaking the silence

July 20th, 2009

As is so readily apparent, I have been very silent since returning from Antactica.  For this I apologise.

Life moved swiftly on; I still have had precious time to dwell on the experience and what it means to have been and returned.  I think of Frank Hurley’s words after the epic adventure he endured with Shackleton: “After the vastness of Antarctica, civilisation seemed somewhat empty“.  I miss the ice, and look forward to returning, but life is not empty by any means.  On my return I was offered and accepted a fantastic job in anesthetics and critical care at a great trauma and emergency hospital; I’m back to flying my glider at every opportunity; the mountains and sea are just where I left them and begging for attention.  Life is good.

I will be trying to continue writing and photographing and putting it up for perusal on another blog – www.wildmedic.co.za – until I amhead south for the summer.  Yes, I’m going back (more briefly, mom!).  Details to follow…