Monday, February 1, 2016

Fireworks over Copacabana, Penguins in Ushuaia and a Wedding in India

The New Year began rather auspiciously and appropriately on the Copacabana beach with a bunch of good friends. In Rio, folks dress in white and go to the beach to see the spectacular fireworks, meet the new year and generally be very, very merry. The beachside boulevard, which runs along the entire beach through dontown, Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon is closed, which cases fantastic traffic jams in the rest of the city and 10-times surge pricing on the 6 or so Uber cabs cruising the streets. So, the Diplomat and I donned some crispy white linen, left Son with an overpaid babysitter, and prepared to join in the merriment with our friends at a party in Copacabana. After 10 futile mins, we realized that at 10 pm on New Year’s Eve getting a cab was simply not an option. This is, however, how Rio de Janeiro is awesome – the whole bus system network was working all night long. So, we hopped on a bus stuffed with hordes of alcohol-soaked people and a mere 15 minutes later got spit out, wrinkled and sweaty, into the balmy night and into the throngs of white (ish) clad Cariocas. We joined the party at our friends’ place, drank kilos of champagne and at 11.30 headed out to the beach in one jolly heap to join the one million or so folks ready to greet the new year.

The thing to do after midnight is to go to the ocean, throw a flower in it and jump 7 times over the waves, each time wishing a thing. By doing so, you are paying your respects also to Iemanja, one of the old Brazilian deities from the Afro-Brazilian religion of candomble. And so, we made our way valiantly down to the water, an exercise, which took over 8 minutes as the Copacabana beach is frankly humongous and got there just in time for the countdown and the fireworks. Our smart friends M+K had just arrived from the U.S. that morning and had cleverly purchased a bottle of champagne from duty free, which was then duly opened and consumed with much new year’s gusto by all of us. Then we all ran into the water and started jumping like confused rabbits over the waves. That exercise soon eroded into blatant jumping into the water and stripping down to skivvies by all kinds of hysterical tourists, followed by mad splashing, screaming and all around excellent time-having.

Soaked and excited, we went back to dry up, liquor up some more and then begin the journey back home. This time, there was no bus either so we had to slowly walk the 6 kms or so along the beach to get home. All said and done, a fabulous experience, which I plan to never repeat again unless I have a chauffer-driven car.

Having greeted the new year in such blissful style, the Diplomat and I decided that it was time to explore the end of the world, just in case, you know. So, a couple of weeks later, we packed in our skiing jackets, mittens and thermal underwear (ok, no thermal underwear since we got none, but a whole suitcase of sweaters) and flew down to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego to gawk at penguins and check out harsh wilderness. I have been dreaming about going to Ushuaia ever since I was a little girl in Bulgaria and watched religiously some awful Fearfactor-style reality show predecessor on TV, which took place there. I was so excited on the way down that I actually squealed a few times on the plane to the underslept Diplomat’s horror. Son, as usual, slept through every single flight – the child has been quite well inculcated by his obsessively traveling parents.

Ushuaia is quite the modern, functioning little town. It is indeed considered the southernmost town in the world (although the Chileans beg to differ) and the weather is certainly indicative of that – we went in the height of summer and it was a cool 3 degrees Celsius on a sunny day. It looks and feels like a hippie ski town. There are a few good restaurants serving lamb BBQ (cordeiro asado) and king crab (OMG!!). It is windy and cold, courtesy of the Beagle channel on which it is located. The Channel connects the western and eastern parts of South America and thus part of it lies in Chile and part – in Argentina. The highlight of the trip was a much coveted walk among the penguins of Ushuaia.

Now, if you come to Patagonia to see penguins, there are generally three places you can do that – Puerto Madryn, Ushuaia and the Falkland Islands. To visit the Islands costs my annual salary so no matter how badly I wanted to see the controversial speck of land, I had to decide against it. In Ushuaia, while there are many tour companies that can take you to the island in the middle of the Beagle Channel where the cute critters live, only one company is allowed to actually plop you on the island itself so that you can walk among the curious penguins for a freezing hour. The company is called Pira Tour and they are a nightmare to get in touch with via email, mainly because the internet at the end of the world is not what it happens to be, say, in the middle of Manhattan. Frankly, it is astonishing to me that there is indeed internet there. 

Walking with penguins is magical – there is something so humbling about having the clumsy adorable creatures accept you among themselves, coming right next to you because they are curious like small children and even trying to peck your shoes. When we went there, it was the end of the baby season so all babies were already rather porky but till covered with a ton of fluff, which the adults were dutifully plucking off them. It was an hour I will never forget. I admit to plotting to steal a baby penguin but the lead lady was onto me so I came home empty-handed. In Ushuaia, we also spent a day in a 4x4 vehicle off-roading the muddy end-of-the-world roads and then being treated to a most lavish and tasty asado in the middle of nothing. The Diplomat, true to form, insisted on playing golf on the rather picturesque Ushuaia Golf Club where he tough it out for 5 holes before his ears fell off from the sub-zero temperatures and he gave in.

From Ushuaia, we flew to El Calafate to see the famous Perito Moreno glacier. I had my eyes on a tour offering a 45 min trek on the glacier topped off with a glass of scotch in the end. Sadly, kids under 10 are not allowed and despite the Diplomat’s gracious offer to let me go by myself while he stays with Son, I decided to stick with the group.
The glacier is indeed spectacular, like nothing you have ever seen really. All around it there are massive metal staircases so that you can prance up and down to see as much as possible of it. The best part is when a chunk of ice dislodges and falls in the water with massive thunder. We did board a catamaran boat, which took us as near the glacier as possible and we spent about an hour floating about 50 meters from the wall of ice, staring at it. For one hour. After the first 8 minutes, you have pretty much seen all there is of it. Then the boat floats up and down again and you take some more pictures, and then some more. And then you start taking some goofy pictures and your child begins to climb up and down the boat and lean all over the rails to your utter horror. And then the boat floats again up and down the glacier to make sure you have REAAAAAAALLY seen it all. You have. You already saw it 50 mins ago. Oh, we are going back. Yey!!! Massage time! That said, it was worth it.

It was in Calafate where I also had the genius idea that we had to go for a hike. See, I had read that one goes to Patagonia n order to hike (as opposed to eating lamb and drinking Malbec, which came as an unpleasant surprise to me) and so I was determined to do what one needs to do. Hiking happens about 3 hours away, in a place called El Chalten, a tiny town seemingly built solely to cater to hiking maniacs. From El Chalten begin many trails into the Los Glacieres National Park, which offer gorgeous view of the park, its lakes and glaciers. I chose what was supposed to be an easy hike of 4 kms up and 4 kms down. It was said that it should take about 2 hours in each direction. Sure. About 20 mins into the hike, I thought my life was over. Son agreed. The Diplomat just kept sighing pensively. We ploughed on. I will never forget that day till I am alive. The heat, the fatigue, the old people who kept passing us by gamboling up the path like frightened goats, the way back when I did not remember getting back to the bus. In the end, according to my pedometer, we had walked 16 kms (10 mi).

The last evening in El Calafate we went to a dinner and a show in an estancia (think an animal farm), where we watched a sheep being sheared with massive shears by a fierce looking gaucho, drank some shagadelic mate, ate kilos of lamb asado and watched a folkore show of dubious cultural value but Buenos Aires, where to my shock I sat next to a Bulgarian lady. We were probably the only two Bulgarians in El Calafate and happened to sit next to each. Seriously.
much enjoyment. With heavy hearts, we bid Patagonia goodbye and flew back to

The one thing that struck me in Patagonia was the demoraphics of the tourists. Sure, there were the occasional absurdly buff and severely sunburnt German 20-somethings who probably climb the glaciers with bare hands, the Brazilian families with selfie sticks and the American backpacking college girls who look like they haven’t taken a shower since Ohio. But the predominant group were hordes of pensioners, mostly from Argentina and Spain. Anywhere you turned, there were old people in large gaggles, dressed in orthopedic shoes and most fantastic polyesther pants with knitted vests, taking group pictures and munching packed sandwiches. In the end, I decided that there must be some sort of deals for pensioner clubs – not a bad way to spend your retirement, I must say.

We made is back safe and sound, and a day later, the Diplomat took off for India to see the In Laws and attend a fabulous family wedding. I remain back to hold down the fort. I expect grand presents.