Saturday, February 26, 2011

Fin del Mundo

By Alex Mehlin

"So this is it." Mike and I sat looking out to sea, his face dripped with depression, "Yup, that’s all it is." Tourists milled about, snapping photos, artisans pushed carts filled with wooden penguins, the sound turbo diesel engines rumbled ready to escort their passengers to the next point of interest, while yachts sat anchored to the southernmost city in the world.

For the last nine months The Gypsy Train has driven roughly 20,000 kilometres spiralling down the Andean spine. Since the fateful morning of Friday the 13th when we pulled out of Quito, the distant thought of reaching Patagonia hung in the back of our minds.

Here we were sitting at the end of world with no real idea of what was to become.
Imagining life without the Gypsy Train is hard. It has become so much a part of us that the ridiculous life style we live has become normal. We live day to day, travelling where and when we want, we meet our simple needs of food, shelter and drink. Reaching Ushuaia was a sad wakeup call that one day we will have to return to average life.

As we walked the city littering it with flyers, gringo grabbing in hostels, drinking in bars, each and every person we met was a reminder that it all could end and we could be boarding some tourist transport in the morning just like them.

Zach, Alaena and I dabbled with the idea of selling the bus in Ushuaia, but we quickly learned that because of Chilean and Argentine import tax laws it would be impossible. Selling the bus would require us to falsify the documents and make a sale in no-man’s-land. Without finding bold and brave buyers, most likely other travellers, it seems a near impossible task.

Daily we lost Gypsies, some left by north bound busses, others thumbed it out of town and in the end we had only 4 Gypsies; Alaena, Mike, Jake and I. We all knew after 2 months of living together in a small bus that it was a time for a change. As they left, two by two, and we failed to recruit new people, it became apparent that it was going to be a quiet ride north.

We walked the city streets avoiding the hoards of cruise ship tourists flocking to duty free stores and gift shops that occupy the main drag through town. At times Ushuaia gave us a glimpse of her rugged past, a ship wreck sat just off shore, tin roofs rusted down the side of small square shacks, whale bones decorated the pier and interpretive tour leaders dressed in prison outfits walked the streets.

We spent our last few days as a group watching the sun set and drinking beer as it rose, we dined on King Crab, eventually we hugged and parted ways setting vague plans of meeting in Buenos Aires.

We loaded the bags on the newly repaired roof rack, grabbed some snacks and turned our backs on the last piece of land before Antarctica. Nostalgically we drove over the mountains.

Mike thumbed through our played out ipod, "There are two reasons to visit Ushuaia," he said between songs, "to drive your car there and say you did it or you are there to take a cruise to Antarctica".

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The Day I Left the Gypsy Train

By Zach W. Watson

I walked along the bay at the end of the world, a storm behind me, the bus behind me. My backpack hung heavy with everything: my tent, my six hundred and seventy pesos, my passport, a camp stove, some rice and tuna, and my sleeping bag. These were my valuables.

My plan: to hitchhike to Buenos Aires. 3040 kilometers to the north.

I was walking out of town to the police checkpoint, the only exit from Ushuaia, to wait. I had a thick moustache, pants with holes in them and long hair. Was I a dirty vagrant hippy, hitching rides, begging for handouts? The answer was yes. But that’s probably a whole other blog.

I got my first ride to Tolhuin. We didn’t talk much due to the language barrier. He dropped me off. And I waited again, this time longer, maybe two hours, the storm still behind me. Then Elbio picked me up. He told me the Falklands were Argentinean. We talked a lot, mostly just pointing and saying words like Guanaco, llamas native to southern Patagonia, which happened to be abundant on the sides of the roads.

He dropped me off in Rio Grande. I sat by the road again. I eyed out a nice place to put up my tent in some high grass, invisible from the road. I was tired.

In the distance I saw it coming my way, the toaster with the chairs strapped to the roof. I couldn´t believe they caught me. They stopped. We talked for a minute.

Alaena asked, “When you get into someone’s car do you tell them that you own a bus that is heading in the same direction as you are?” We laughed.

“I don´t think they would understand.” I said

“No one really does.” We laughed again.´

It was a personal journey, I decided, to have only myself to rely on to get me from point A to point B using my wit and resourcefulness.

They left me on the road. I was tired, so I set up my tent in that tall grass I had eyed, the Atlantic Ocean meters away. The sound of the wind whistled through the sea grass between the overpowering sounds of the crashing sea and semi-trucks.

Once I pitched the tent, the walls sagging from extensive use, I made chicken noodle soup under the vestibule and fell asleep before the sun had set, between Ruta 3 and the sea.

I awoke to a grey sky, packed up the tent, and hit the road, thumb in the air. It began to rain. Luckily, I hitched a short ride to the truck rest stop where Carlos eventually picked me up and there was shelter.

Carlos and I struggled communicating but managed to understand some things about each other. He was from Mendoza and was driving five thousand kilometers to see family. Also, he had a bag of cookies which we snacked on.

We crossed the border and headed to the ferry crossing at the straits of Magellan. I thought, that would be funny if the bus was here. And then, right in front of Carlos and I, somehow, sat the toaster with the chairs on top. They were waiting for the ferry. I told Carlos I wanted to say hi to my friends and walked over.


“We thought we would see you here! Who are you with?”

“Carlos. He´s my friend.”

We talked a little when the cars began pulling onto the ferry. I ran back to Carlos´s car. Carlos and I just sat in his little blue car waiting. He couldn´t grasp what the bus was and why I was not with my friends. And neither could I, looking at the bus from the passenger seat of some stranger.

I just kept saying contradicting things about where they were going. He thought me a halfwit. I knew this because he kept explaining to me the geography of the borders.

“Argentina. Chile. Argentina. Mexico. Estados Unidos.” He said followed by laughter. Then he would say, “Estamos en Chile.”

And I would look at him blankly and say, “Ahh.”

We crossed into Argentina again, after our short stint in Chile. He dropped me off in the middle of Rio Gallegos. I walked for an hour and a half to the outside of the city, asking my way to the north. I stopped at a gas station to fill up my water, so I could cook my dinner of rice and tuna.

I waited on a northern stretch of highway by the airport for a ride, hoping to get a ride before I had to see the Gypsy Train again. I sat. I stood. I sang songs. One went like this, “It is getting cold out, someone pick me up now. My jacket is getting thinner and thinner and thinner and thinner.”

I had made it four hundred kilometers in two days by this point and had waited for three and a half hours in that spot when I saw the toaster again, encroaching. It pulled over quickly under an overpass, five hundred meters to the south. It didn´t move. It just sat there, so I walked to it.

When I came closer, I noticed the hood up and Alex, working the same routine, filling up the radiator with water out of his blue nalgene. A panicked look on Alaena´s face accompanied the sweet smell of diesel lingering in the air.

I opened the door. “Perfect timing for a problem.”

They smiled. I couldn´t get away from the bus no matter how hard I tried. We talked, establishing that Alaena´s birthday was the following day and it wouldn´t be right for me not to stay in Rio Gallegos, where they were to wait due to the gasoline leaking from the engine. I jumped in. We camped, ate and drank for two days.

After the party, I hit the pavement.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Torres del Paine

By Alex Mehlin

We stood shoulder to shoulder like cattle in the one shelter that our free campsite offered. The rumble of camp stoves echoed off the tin walls grinding in with the murmurs of foreign tongues. It was our first night on trail in Torres del Paine and it was just as we expected, packed.

Like refugees, late arrivals scrambled to find a flat piece of mud to lay claim for the night. We arrived safely before the influx and leisurely sat back watching the show. Every sort of tent ripped out of stuff sacks, the few experts put together their well worn middle of the road tents with ease. The majority struggled to figure out their rental tents, while the Patagonian Elite stood puzzled looking at their top of the line structures unsure where to start.

Over our travels we have become jaded and judgemental. Sitting back and stereotyping has become a Gypsy pastime, all of the campsites on the ‘’W’’, the most popular offering 3-4 days hikes or single day outings, offered us great subject matter. Mike and I stood examining tents comparing and contrasting designs, weighting the benefits of the four season designs and poking fun at the people who obviously walked into their local outfitter and picked the most expensive tent possible for their great Patagonia adventure. The Elite stood glimmering in matching blemish free apparel while the rest trudged through the mud mismatched and patched together.

We spent the next 6 days hiking the Paine Circuit, looping around Torres del Paine. Going into the hike we were aware that it was the most visited park in South America, averaging 200,000 visitors a year, but we were not prepared for freeway like atmosphere that waited on the trail.

There is no question as to why the park is so popular. Granit massifs dominate the skyline, giant glaciers empty into turquoise lakes, hardwoods lead to alpine shrub and it is impossible to escape the sounds of rushing water and thundering avalanches. There is no point along the trail that is not photo worthy and awe inspiring.

We pushed our bodies to the limit. Logging ten hour days we pushed past pay camping and flew past other hikers. The Paine Circuit is not so much a walk with nature, but a social appreciation of travel and natural beauty. Our first night on the circuit we met the crew we would be leap frogging down the trail for the next few days. Of the 30 odd people we met our first night, five made it through the Circuit in the same time and efficiency as the Gypsies. Each time we passed one another and each night around the sheltered table we traded stories of Antarctica, our bus, swapped favourite sights and views of the day. By the end of our journey we had become friends with our trail companions.

We sat with only three kilometres left of or 101 kilometer journey. We ate the last of our food while overlooking two distinctly different lakes, three snow-capped mountain ranges and a waterfall. On the opposite side of the ridge a luxury lodge and parking lot filled the vista. I arrived first sitting cropped up on a rock enjoying the serenity of the moment, eating my last bits of trail mix and watching the traffic pass below me. The Gypsies came around the corner, I heard Ben’s distinct laugh before I saw them and I knew it was over.

As we drove out of the park I could not help but to think that we missed something. It seemed too easy, the sights were immaculate, but there was little sense of adventure. Five fully loaded tour busses rushed past us leaving a cloud of dust obstructing the reflection of the Paine massif in my rear-view. The busses disappeared as we crested a hill, giving way to another spectacular snow-capped range. I wondered how long it would be before the media made it the next big place to be and the flocks of tourist would be carted in and out of the new picture book adventure destination.