- April 3, 2013
PzW in Antarctica: Buenos dias, Buenos Aires!
On March 10, all of the Neko Harbor was covered with ice floe. The Zodiac inflatable boat was slowly clearing the way, crumbling the smaller pieces of ice and carefully bypassing the bigger pieces. One last purr of the engine and the rubbery bow of the boat hit the shore covered with small stones of the Antarctic Peninsula. I jump to the ice-cold water, I take three steps and… here I am! First Pole from Vilnius or how they jokingly call me – Pulak z Wilni (PzW) in Antarctica!
To be honest, I don’t know whether I am the first inhabitant of Vilnius on the White Continent. Nobody actually gathers such statistics, however even if there were some before me (I haven’t heard of them), one can count us on the fingers of one hand and surely there will be some fingers left. Each year Antarctica is visited by merely 25 thousands of tourists.
It wasn’t even the journey of my dreams. Becasue one can only dream about something that is possible to fulfil. I haven’t dreamt about Antarctica. Indeed, for a few years I have been reading with envy accounts of those who have been there, I have been looking at the travel agencies’ offers, I have been counting the money in the bank account and with a heavy sigh I have been putting it for ‘later’ which (as we all know) never comes. Suddenly, approximately six months ago I found an information about the Second Lithuanian Antarctic expedition. I volunteered but I didn’t counted on anything. Rightfully so, there was no place left for me. But the organisers unexpectedly offered me an alternative: a trip on an expedition’s ship which takes a small group of tourists and scientists to the Ukrainian research station on the Galindez Island. On the way there are stops in the most interesting places for tourists. And, of course, a big discount. I thought: YOLO (you only live once) – if I ever am destined to visit the White Land, there will not be a better opportunity. And that’s why on the beginning of March I found myself on board of the expedition’s ship M/V „Ushuaia”, berthed in an Argentinian port of the same name. To those who maybe will want to repeat my voyage, I will give you one piece of advice: do not believe everything that is written in travel guides and do not buy expensive as hell equipment for an Antarctic expedition. In the summer (November – March) the sun is shining in Antarctica, and temperature oscillates between +2 and -5 C, so all you need is waterproof and wind – resistant (ski or snowboard) pants and a jacket, thermal underwear and socks, a sweater, a hat, gloves and sunglasses. All landings in Antarctica are ‘wet’ which means from the Zodiac inflatable boat (a small inflatable boat with an outboard motor created by Jacques Cousteau) one jumps to the water near shore and then trudge to the dry land. You can’t do it without high wellington boots, but you can get the boots on the ship for free. It’s worth to remember that with a fine sole of the boot feet freeze even with -3 C. Leave all the other recommended gadgets to Japanese and Americans, they can afford it.
Most of the trips for tourists to Antarctica start and finsih in Ushuaia, an Argentinian port, the southernmost city in the world, the gate to Antarctica that 90 % of people and goods need to cross to find themselves on the White Continent. But first, you need to find your way to Ushuaia. According to shitty logic of contemporary airlines, the more connecting flights – the cheaper the ticket. It took me almost a week to get to this proverbial ‘fin del Mundo’ (this is how Ushuaia promotes itself on posters) via Frankfurt, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires, not to mention Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay…
Buenos Aires or No hablo espanol ingles
It’s worth to know one thing about South America – NOBODY speaks English there. I’ve read about it, my friends – vagabonds have told me about it, but with my experiences in Mexico and Cuba, I didn’t realize that in this case, nobody means actually nobody. Even in the airport, even amongst the air hostesses from transatlantic flights (sic!) it was difficult to find a human being who speaks English at least „pocito”. Argentinians and Brazilians, similarly to the representatives of other so-called great nations (read: Russians and Americans) are very convinced that everyone in the world should know their language, that you need to just speak to foreigners a little bit slower and they will understand. They are a bit right – if they say something three times in Spanish and add some meaningful gesture – nolens volens you’ll understand.
And the second thing that it’s worth to know while planning a trip to that part of the world – nobody is in a rush here. If a flight, let’s say from Sao Paulo to Buenos Aires is planned for 1:40 pm, we can be sure that if we show up at the airport at 2 pm, the plane won’t even be ready to be on the taxiway. Also, it is totally normal that the flights are cancelled at the last moment. Because of Aerolineas Argentinas and TAM Linhas Aereas cancelling two flights, I had to shorten my stay in Capital Federal a.k.a Buenos Aires.
Today the capital of Argentina, established in 1536 by the Spanish expedition looking for gold, is one of the biggest agglomerations in South America, it stretches on 200 square kilometres and has 10 millions of inhabitants. I focused on the center: Florida and Lavalle Streets, Plaza de Mayo, Avenida de Mayo, Avenue 9 de Julio where is located the icon fo Buenos Aires – El Obelisco. It is 67 meters high and it was built to commemorate the fourth centenary of the foundation of the city. Divine Buenos – a mixture of wealth and poverty, of old and new. A place when tango is played on the streets, where the whole nation lives and breathes football. Also, omnipresent steaks (maybe I wasn’t lucky but I wasn’t impressed with these), red wine and yerba mate…
Buenos Aires is called ‘Paris of South America’. I understand it when I’m walking from the obelisk towards Casa Rosada which is the residence of the President of Argentina. Evita Person used to make fiery speeches from the balcony of ‘The Pink House’ which now serves Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and is enclosed by a small fence where everybody can put a poster with their own demands. Effect? The fence is plastered with claims to legalize abortion or to make accounts for military junta that governed the Argentina between 1976-84.
Cathedral Metropolitana is located on the other side of Plaza de Mayo, the oldest square of the city which is surrounded by the impressive buildings from XIX century. The cathedral was built between 1687-1729. Inside there is a mausoleum of Jose de San Martin who liberated Argentina from the Spanish. I was able to be there when the Argentinians celebrated the new Roman Pontiff – the archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio. So the cathedral and all the nearby bulidings were decorated with white and yellow flags of Vatican and the whole Argentinian capital was covered with posters announcing that urbi et orbi Francis is ‘Argentino y peronista’. ‘Personista’ becasue the new pope once supported Argentina when it wanted to gain back the control over the Falklands or in Argentinian version – Islas Malvinas. And even though the habitants of the Falklands (Malvinas) repeatedly said that they prefer to be subjects of the British queen, the ‘queen’ of Argentina wants the archipelago back. Great Britain occupied this archipelago in 1833, consequently chasing a few Argentinians shepherds away.
Colonia del Sacramento
What Paris and Buenos Aires have in common are not only the architecture or wide promenades, but also traffic. In rush hours in the center of the city, you need sometimes 30-40 minutes to drive one kilometre. Where is the best place to take a break and relax from the congested Buesnos Aires? As an answer to such a question, every Argentinian will say… a trip to Colonia des Sacramento in adjacent Uruguay. It is only an hour by ferry and you find yourself in a completely different world. It seems that the time stopped many centuries ago in this town. Narrow and tortuous streets, charming bars and restaurants and wonderful views on Rio La Plata. It reminds me a bit Trinidad in Cuba. But Trinidad (in my opinion) is more authentic, there are less tourists and maybe becasue Cuba can’t afford to recondition the tourist attractions.
You only need an hour to walk through the center of the town (Barrio Histórico), but it is worth not to rush in this oasis of calm and serenity. You should start with the remains of ramparts and walk toward the main square of the town Plaza Mayor 25 de Mayo, look at the Spanish and Portuguese buildings (the town was founded in 1680 by Portuguese and during the following centuries it was governed by both Portuguese and Spanish in turns), the oldest church in Uruguay, sit in the cafe and drink beer called ‘Patricia’… There is no need to exchange the Argentinian peso to the Uruguayan one, becasue in this town since 1920s when it became the favourite resort of Buenos Aires habitants (or maybe becasue the gambling was allowed there while it was banned in Argentina), everybody lives off the Argentinian tourists and prices are given in both currencies in the restaurants and souvenir shops alike. At the end of sightseeing, you should climb the lighthouse that overlooks the town, look around and take a series of panoramic photos with La Plata waters in the background.
Ushuaia or the town at the end of the world
The Falkland issue is as important to Argentinians as the Vilnius issue is for Polish or Lithuanian people. You can see it in Ushuaia, the port from which 90% of trpis to Antarctica start. The name of the airport in Ushuaia – ‘Islas Malvinas’ – already remind us that we are in the capital of la Provincia de Tierra del Fuego, Antártida e Islas del Atlántico Sur or Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and the South Atlantic Islands (also known as The Falklands). It is true, Argentina does not only claim the Falklands but also the piece of Antarctica (including among others: South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula). Despite the fact that according to the Antarctic Treaty all territorial claims were frozen. „You know, the Argentinians even try to colonize the King George Island in Antarctica and recently they have opened a school for children there!” – Oleg Kurus from the Ukrainian research station ‘Akademik Wernadskij’ laughs at Argentina’s imperial abitions. „They are funny, everybody knows that if one day the Antarctic is divided, it will be the Americans and Russians, and maybe even Chinese who will decided about it. And the Argentina will get only as much as the great powers will let it…”.
The power of Spanish Crown has never span to the Tierra del Fuego, even though it was Ferdinand Magellan who discovered it in 1520. So at first, independent Argentina wasn’t much intrested in the southern piece of Patagonia inhabited by wild Yamani Indians. The situation changes in the twilight of the XIX century when the British started to be keenly interested in these lands – Anglican missions appeared in Tierra del Fuego and the gold was discovered in the mountains. The Argentinian government decided that they need to make some serious steps to manifest their presence in this region. The idea to built there a top security prison for especially dangerous criminals (manianc, killers and anarchists) was born. All in all, the prison was was built in 1896 and functioned until 1947. A town gradually formed around the prison. In the 1930s Ushuaua had less then one thousand permanent inhabitants. The town developped rapidly after the war when the prison was closed and in its place the Navy Base was established, and since the 1950s Ushuaia became the main port to Antarctica. Today, the town has 50 thousands of inhabitants. There is only a few streets and around, there are high mountains, sea and the ice bergs. Church, cementary (reminiscent of the Moldova cementaries because of the size and richness of the tombs), the ex-prison building where today one can find a museum and anart gallery, a few restaurants and souvenir shops…
Next morning I treat myself to a few hours long trip to Tierra del Fuego national park where you can admire the viriginal natural world of Tierra del Fuego: lakes, mountains, wilderness and bays. To get to the park we get on a renovated train which used to take prisoners to work – they were felling trees. Back in the day the route was 20 kilometers long but now the working section leading to the center of the park is only 7 km long. You can observe the raw beauty of Tierra del Fuego from the windows of the train and the shorts stops along the way. Herd of horses in the clearing, mountain streams and waterfalls, beavers’ dams and forests as dense as the jungle…
But in my mind I am already on the ship that will appear in the morning in the port. M/V ‘Ushuaia’ is a ship adapted for travel among the ice bergs. It was built in 1979 in Ohio and for many years it served American scientists who studied the Arctic. In the 1990 it was sold to Argentinians and since then it is used to transport goods and people to Antarctica. It will take several dozen passengers: in our group the majority is American and Malaysian, but there are also Australians, Chinese, Dutch and Slovaks. At six in the evening we cast off to sail on the calm waters of the Beagle Channel in the direction of Atlantic and Antarctic.
Tłumaczenie by Justyna Kaczmarek w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Justyna Kaczmarek within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.