Stranded in El Calafate, Argentina: Day Two

30 01 2012

We’re supposed to be leaving on a mid-day flight to Ushuaia. We’re told to gather about 11:00 in the hotel for our flight out. When we gather, the concierge announces some news in Spanish…I cannot understand, but the crowd gathered in the lobby is not looking happy…and then Saskia darts out the hotel door…headed for downtown!

The concierge, speaking in English, tells us the airline is completely shut down today! The strike is continuing and we are not going anywhere today. He says that it is possible the President of Argentina may intervene – might order the Army to take over the airline. There will be an authentic Argentine barbeque tonight at the hotel. That sounds interesting to me, especially since it’s free!

Rumors are that it is spreading beyond the airlines. A general work stoppage for higher benefits. Saskia was headed downtown because that is where the airline offices are. She returns and gives us news. She demanded assurances we will really get on the next flights out. But we do not really know, we are pawns in the greater political game right now!

Some decide to head downtown for dinner, but Elwyn and I try for the complimentary meal. We see the staff firing up the barbeques, getting the wood and charcoal going. We share a bottle of wine to pass the time. But then the concierge announces that dinner will not start until past 9:00 p.m.! It seems they have it timed for some other group arriving. We cannot stand it! We need to eat right away! We cancel our dinner and walk downtown to a pizzeria, which is pretty busy.

Our table is right by a flat screen TV showing a soccer game. It’s Chile vs Paraguay, and this couple at the table nearest us are intensely interested. When Chile scores, they are all excited but try to conceal their delight. Elwyn asks them a couple of questions, and it turns out they are from Chile. They look Argentinian (look European) but they do NOT want the Argentinians to know they come from Chile! Too funny. The girl is super nice.

This night was a complete wash. We stumbled down the avenue to a bar we’d seen the day before and went upstairs, and what do you know? We found others in our group – Patricia, Eray, Angelique, Yap, and more. More drinks…and before long I felt “tanked” up, I could not have any more! All of us just want to get to Ushuaia…it’s difficult. We’re trying to make the most of it!

We’ll just have to see what happens in the morning…!

Standed! Aerolineas Argentinas Airline Strike! We Wait for Tierra del Fuego

29 01 2012

Before I went to Argentina, I visited the United States State Department Website for its country brief on Argentina. Here is a quote, one which borne out to be true for us:

“Domestic flight schedules can be unreliable. Occasional work stoppages, over-scheduling of flights and other technical problems can result in flight delays, cancellations, or missed connections. Consult local media for information about possible strikes or [work] slow downs before planning travel…”

Our trip’s fate was about to fall victim to Argentine politics. Nothing like experiencing the good, bad, and the ugly of your host country for real, right?

We leave El Chalten, and head back for an evening in El Calafate, staying at Calafate Hostel. Our flight is to depart for Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, the next afternoon. We’re really excited to be there!

Breakfast done, we are free to spend the morning roaming El Calafate. Basically, our aim is to burn some time waiting for the flight. To be frank, El Calafate is a kind of “oasis” in the middle of high desert-bleak steppe Patagonia. There is nothing around but for this town. As it has access to the southern part of Los Glaciers National Park, the city is a magnet for outdoor freaks from all over the Earth. That means it’s mostly a city catering to travelers. There’s not much local culture. So roaming El Calafate means roaming restaurants, gift shops, tour guide offices, banks, and it’s even got a casino. The one thing we found interesting is that there is the Laguna Nimez bird sanctuary on Lago Argentina.

We paid it a visit, and were impressed! While not something worth driving hours for, it’s surely something good to do, if you’ve got an afternoon to spend in El Calafate. It’s more than it appears at first glance. Its value is discovered in the subtle side trails along the shore. There, you can see a surprising variety of birds. The reserve lightly financed, but big bang for the buck. A trail wends its way around wetlands and we could see Flamingos, Geese, Caracaras, ducks, Black Necked Swans, and many others. As it’s late spring many were tending eggs or chicks. The caracaras were not bothered by us one bit – they’d perch on bushes just beyond the trail and wouldn’t flinch if you got within ten feet of them.

We gather back at the hostel, board a bus and head for the airport. Once there, we check in, get our boarding passes and check our luggage. We’re going to the “end of the earth”! We are going to the farthest south anyone can go before Antarctica. 15 minutes pass. Then something goes horribly wrong. There is a commotion stirring in the airport. We’re delayed an hour. And then  we hear that Aerolineas Argentinas has suddenly gone on strike! We are not going to Ushuaia today. We do not know when we are going.

The airline puts us, and other passengers, on a bus to a hotel they have contracted for such situations. We head to this hotel, which is just outside the end of the town’s main strip. There, we learn the whole country is stranded! This isn’t just an airline strike, it’s a strike that started in the general labor sector. It may even spread to Chile. We’re informed we’ll have a table-service three course dinner tonight. That’s a far cry from what one gets on a cancelled flight in America! We all take it. It is a chicken schnitzel. Not bad!

So tonight, we wonder when we will get to the “end of the world.” We don’t even know how our connection back to Buenos Aires from Ushuaia will go. The airline tells us we will be leaving tomorrow.

To entertain ourselves, we walk away from the city lights to look at the southern constellations. One strange thing is moving across the sky, and it’s the International Space Station! It moves steadily from southwest to northeast. It is very bright and does not blink. We see other orbiting objects like satellites. And we see in full view the iconic Southern Cross plus hazy cloudy things we think are the Magellenic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are micro galaxies just outside the Milky Way – they can only be seen from the Southern Hemisphere.

We’ll just have to cross our fingers that we will leave tomorrow….

We’re hopeful that tomorrow the strike will be over and we will be on our way to the bottom of the world.