I can’t recommend my room in Ushuaia. The room I was assigned at the hotel was the loudest place I’ve ever slept in. The window opened right on the main drag on the harbour and so there were cars and people going past all night.
Why is it that people who are awake and walking around streets in the middle of the night seem to speak at double the volume than they normally would?
I didn’t know it then, but in rooms right near me, two people on my tour, Morgan and Baptiste, were also tossing, turning and thumping their pillows in frustration at the noise.
By 5 AM I’d given up on getting any meaningful sleep so I got up and threw back the curtains. It was sunrise and the harbour looked beautiful. I took a quick shower, grabbed my phone and went out to explore.
It was so quiet. There was hardly anyone around. I carried my fleecy jacket with me but I didn’t need it. A cruise ship was slowly coming into the harbour. “That’ll be me in 10 days,” I said, not knowing that I was getting my first look at the Hondius, which would be my home for the next little while.
The air was crisp and cool, but only my face and hands were feeling it. I couldn’t believe that there were tulips blooming in the ground in summer!
As I was walking, my thoughts turned to coffee. Surely, even on a Sunday morning, there’d be somewhere open? I cut into the streets of the town and asked a passing policeman. Sadly, no. Shops here open at 10 AM. So I wandered back to the hotel, hoping like hell that there’d be someone there at reception to let me back in.
Once I was done with breakfast, I went back to the room and looked at the photocopies of the emails I’d been sent by the travel company. Something suddenly leaped out at me.
“Passengers need to take their bags to a drop-off point between 8 and 11 Am. It was already 9… I was waiting for the meeting we were supposed to have at 10, but what if everyone else had dropped their bags off??
I went to the reception desk and asked the girl to call Morgan’s room. He’s our tour leader. He came down to me and said that he was going to be dropping his bags off in 5 minutes and I was welcome to come with him.
Fortunate Frogdancer strikes again! I knew booking a room in the same hotel as the tour leader might come in handy! In a few minutes time he was back, along with his friend Baptiste.
Morgan and Baptiste are from Paris and are in their early 30’s. Morgan is a journalist who is an avid traveller. He went to North Korea 4 years before me in 2014 and we think we might have had the same Koren guide. Baptiste is a policeman, who quietly notices everything that happens around us. You know how you can read in books that someone’s eyes dance when they’re amused by something? Baptiste’s eyes actually do! (And considering some of the people who were on this trip, there were lots of times when our eyes met in mutual appreciation of the ridiculous.)
Morgan was offered a sweet deal – this was his first tour as a leader. He has been travelling with YPT (Young Pioneer Tours) a lot over the years and went on the Antarctica trip that Late Starter Fire and I were supposed to go on last year, before covid locked Australians into not being able to travel overseas.
YPT contacted him and asked if he’d lead the 2022 group, in return for a free trip. What a bargain! Of course, he grabbed it with both hands. He’s no fool!
While we were getting our bags checked in on the waterfront, a small Asian guy with an American accent, wearing a yarmulke came up to us. He was in our group. On the FB group he was called Sam Sampson, but it turns out his real name is Frank.
Morgan introduced us and we briefly chatted, with Frank telling us that he was not allowed to be seen on social media, so he invented the alias “Sam Sampson from New York, New York” to become a member of the FB group. Seemed a little strange, but ok…
Once Morgan and I were looking after our suitcases, he sidled up to Baptiste and said in a low voice,“ We’ll have to compare notes on law enforcement during the voyage. I work with a branch in the states called The Federal Bureau of Investigation. I’m a captain.”
As Baptiste said later, as the three of us were laughing about it, “ Seriously dude, we’ve all heard of the FBI!” My take on it was that it was total BS, but then again, what do I know? (When I got home I looked up ranks in the FBI. Turns out that unless you were a Captain in the military, retired and THEN joined the FBI, there was no such rank. Stay tuned, though. SamFrank, as we called him, is quite the character.)
We had around 6 hours before we had to board the ship and the guys kindly said that I could hang out with them: that day we did a LOT of walking. Ushuaia isn’t very big, so there wasn’t much scope for adventure.
I spotted this soft toy in a shop window. Why on earth would anyone want to buy a kangaroo (with a joey) in Ushuaia? It’s funny what catches the eye, though. None of the others spotted it but it leapt out to the only Aussie in the group.
This is Morgan and Baptiste as we were walking around a lake on the outskirts of town. Did I mention that we did a lot of walking that day?
Around the lake. All over the town.
We stopped for lunch and Corinna joined us. She’s a very confident Italian girl in her late 20’s, who speaks with an English accent. She has the cutest, kittenish face, with a smile and a zest for life that is utterly contagious. Turns out that she was one of my cabin mates, which was a stroke of luck. Again, like Morgan, she has travelled extensively, often to places that not many people go to.
Seriously, Argentina needs to drop a few zeros from their currency. All of these notes were to pay for lunch for 4 people. It was crazy.
After lunch, we still had a couple more hours to fill before we could go to the docks to board the ship. We went to a supermarket to fill in time. Look at the price of this wine!
After walking for a couple more hours after lunch, we were finally able to board the ship. In the queue to board, I met Liga from Riga, Latvia, who was also going to be sharing our cabin. At first meeting, I was intimidated by her. She has an ultra-serious demeanour, coupled with an air of not seeming to take fools gladly and an accent that had very Russian-sounding overtones.
After we’d spent some time talking in the cabin though, I warmed to her. She’s an incredible young woman who has achieved so many things in her life. She was part of her country’s army reserves, she has been a truck driver, and she voluntarily dunks herself in icy cold water every fortnight – (I’ve seen a video of her going into a stream in the middle of winter and breaking the ice on the surface to submerge up to her neck in the water) – and she has also, like the rest of the group, travelled extensively, doing such things as hiking to Everest base camp, carrying everything she needed on her back.
She’s in her late 30’s, fiercely independent and is a single mother to a 5-year-old daughter. Her dry sense of humour was an absolute delight, though, true to my first impressions – what you see is what you get with Liga. There’s absolutely no bullshit about her – she says what she thinks and if you don’t like it? Too bad.
It was wonderful.
Then there was the fourth member of our cabin – Ming . She was a Chinese woman in her 40’s, already dressed in her polar layers. At first glance, she was very nice and friendly with no obvious shortcomings. But there was something that would make itself very obvious over the next few days…
This is the third time Morgan has been on the Hondius and he told us two things:
- The food is so good that you’ll leave heavier than you arrive
2. If the captain cancels the Welcome drinks on the first night, then the Drakes Passage is going to be rough.
Anyway, the welcome drinks were lovely and so was dinner.
Afterwards, our little group settled into the lounge on the 5th deck. Liga mentioned at Sam/Frank had told her that he was in the special forces and he can’t tell her what mission he was on. We all had a laugh about that, especially when I said, “Gee, things change swiftly in the special forces world. This morning he wasn’t allowed to speak about his job in the FBI and now he’s in the special forces starting to talk.”
Just then, a young Spanish guy walked up and sat down.
“ Frogdancer?” he asked. When I nodded, he said seriously, “ I’ve been investigating you on FB.”
“WHAT?” I said. I certainly wasn’t expecting that! (I hope he enjoyed the Dad jokes I post every day.)
“ Eneko is a member of the group,” Morgan said.
“Of course,” Eniko said. He shook my hand. “ I’m a private investigator.”
I shot a glance at the boys. First Sam/Frank and now this! Eneko fished his phone out and showed us his official card. Baptiste, being the policeman that he is, had a good long look at it, enlarging parts as he read.
“Of course, “ said Eneko, “ I only do this for fun. I’m really an online poker player.”
After a while, he left and the boys, Corinna, Liga and I collapsed with laughter.
“What is going on? ” laughed Baptise. “ First we have the FBI and special forces and now a private investigator! You know, this is the perfect place for a murder on the orient express. By tomorrow morning there’ll be a body.”
We weren’t sure what to make of Eneko, but it was soon clear that he’s a great guy. He has a special way of viewing the world and has been smart enough to build a life that absolutely suits what he wants to do. He has an apartment in Spain, with a window that only looks out onto an internal courtyard “so I don’t have to see the people” and he stays there for a few weeks at a time playing online poker.
He has the sort of brain that loves numbers, patterns and statistics (which I decidedly do NOT!) and so he’s able to play 10 people at a time. I’ve seen a photo where it shows his set-up – it’s incredible.
Once he’s made enough money, he leaves the apartment and goes travelling. He is a terrific photographer. When that particular trip is over, he comes back and does it all again. He has a 20-year-old car that looks brand-new, which made me think of the FIRE lifestyle. We only spend big money on the things that we value and we minimise spending on the things that don’t interest us as much. In many ways, Eneko is living the dream!
While we were talking in the lounge, someone mentioned that the doctor was over the other side of the room selling seasickness patches for 4 euros each. That sounded like a bargain to me. The ship was moving through the Beagle Passage out towards the Drake Passage, about which Wikipedia says: “The Drake Passage is considered one of the most treacherous voyages for ships to make. Currents at its latitude meet no resistance from any landmass, and waves top 40 feet (12 m), hence its reputation as “the most powerful convergence of seas”.
The ship was rolling a bit, which actually seemed quite pleasant, but I didn’t want to risk getting sick if we emerged from the Beagle Passage into the “Drake Shake”, which is what the Drake Passage is usually like. Personally, I had my fingers crossed for the “Drake Lake”, which is rare.
Because the sun doesn’t set until nearly midnight this far south, we stayed up really late without realising it, sneaking into our cabin after 1 to see Ming peacefully sleeping in her upstairs bunk above mine.
Later that night, I was woken by a mysterious “swish, swish” sound in the cabin. I stirred, then rolled over and went back to sleep. The ship’s rocking was beautifully soothing.
More on that mysterious noise later…