Monday, April 19, 2010

Yet Another Reason Why Cats are Better than Dogs

I already have a lot of reasons, but here’s another one. Cats won’t follow you down the street in a pack, growling and snarling and snapping at you. If a cat really wants to hurt you, it will stalk past you haughtily, nose in the air, and ignore you completely; this, it is sure, will devastate you.

There are a lot of dogs running around freely in South America, and they’re usually large (German Shepherd-sized). But walking back to the hostel from the Ecocentro in Puerto Madryn today was the first time I’d encountered them in a pack, rather than just one or two, and with them not feeling particularly friendly. I don’t speak “dog” terribly well, but even I could translate those noises!

I ducked into a snooty hotel on the way to get away from them, and it took some tricky manoeuvring to keep the dogs from following me; the hotel had automatic sliding doors which one of the dogs appeared to figure out how to work. But once I’d managed it, the very nice lady at the reception desk commiserated with me and escorted me out a side exit, well away from the frustrated pack of canines.

People will generally come through for you, I find, when you really need them. If it wasn’t for her, I’d probably still be sitting in that hotel lobby, waiting for the pack glaring balefully at me through the glass to disperse.

But aside from that little adventure on the way back downtown, the Ecocentro was very cool. It uses a variety of art, sculpture, film and conventional displays to hammer home its point about the vital importance of the oceans and the necessity to protect the marine life within it. One display says, mincing no words, that we “must not let the destiny of the sea ... be its destruction.”

Another display is a figure of a life-size whale, constructed from rubbish discarded in the ocean and washed up on the nearby beach: tires, plastic water bottles, even old sneakers. An installation in a darkened room simulates the depths of the ocean and plays haunting whale sounds all around you. On the wall of one gallery, there’s a Pablo Neruda poem, in letters half a foot high proclaiming the “Ode a un albatros viajero” (``Ode to a Wandering Albatross”).

Most of the displays had English translations, but the Neruda poem didn’t. So I sat there for a while, dictionary at hand, trying to puzzle my way through it. I got the gist, I think, but poetry loses something when you take it word by word and interrupt the rhythm of the language.

There was a room sided entirely of glass right at the top of the tower attached to the Ecocentro building. Squashy white couches faced out to the sea, and the low table in the middle was scattered with books on photography, wildlife, natural history and environmental issues. I got immersed in a book by Rachel Carson that I hadn’t read, and came back to reality with a start about an hour and a half later.

Fortunately, i was not on a schedule today, so lingering over a book was entirely fine. I got to Puerto Madryn at 7 a.m this morning, having left Bariloche at 6 p.m. the night before. I sat at the front on top of the double-decker bus, which was always my favourite seat on London night buses and will now be my requested seat on all Argentine long-haul coaches. Seats were comfortably large and plush, with plenty of room – two seats on the lefthand side of the aisle, and one on the right. I was on the right, so I had lots of room to spread out.

This bus was “cama economico”, which I’ve decided means that you get a comfortable, almost fully-reclining bed (that’s the “cama” part) but the food is terrible (that’s the “economical” part). There are other classes of Argentine buses, and the most deluxe – coche-cama or cama ejecutivo –will get you good food as well as a completely flat bed once your seat’s put down. I may get the opportunity to travel this way to Buenos Aires (my likely next stop).

As it was, I was presented with a plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray of two tiny sickly-sweet muffins and a chocolate cookie, together with a lukewarm Styrofoam cup of tea. About quarter to 11 (nearly five hours after getting on the bus), the attendant brought around dinner, which included plain boiled chicken and spaghetti with just a hint of sauce. Some reasonably tasty quesadilla-type things were included too, though, so it wasn’t all bad. Dessert was bright red jello, so no more need be said about that.

A very loud movie went on immediately after dinner was served, and I tried to follow for a while to practise my Spanish (there were English subtitles, but the screen was at an awkward angle for me to read). To the best of my knowledge, the movie was about a guy named Javier, who was being chased by other guys with guns, for some reason that I don’t fully understand but I think had something to do with drugs. There were a couple of female characters, one who seemed to be the boss of the guys with guns and who liked to parade around on screen wearing very little. The other girl looked frightened a lot and eventually got rescued by Javier and (I think) went on to live happily ever after with him.

(Or something like that. Hey, it was an action movie, they’re all basically variations on the same theme, aren’t they?)

The landscape between Bariloche and Puerto Madryn was awesome; not in the Valley girl, like, totally awesome sense of the word, but awe-inspiring. It grew dark a couple of hours outside Bariloche, but until then it was mountains brooding under clouds and rain; after it got dark, the mountains would loom suddenly out of the blackness when struck by the highbeam headlights of the bus. As we got nearer Puerto Madryn, the landscape flattened out into broad open pampas, empty of any sign of habitation except for one tiny town about 4 a.m.

No lights in any direction, and no sign of moon or stars under the cloud cover above, so the blackness was absolute -- just the headlights of the bus pointing down the two-lane highway as the driver barrelled along. Highways in Argentina don’t have reflectors as North American roads too, so it was very difficult to tell, in the pitch black, where the centre – or even sometimes the edges – of the highway really were. Our driver seemed to be just pointing the bus down the middle and hoping for the best; fortunately traffic was very light and we rarely met any other vehicles.

At any rate, I made it to Puerto Madryn in once piece, and reasonably well-rested if a little bit hungry. Today I wandered the town, and tomorrow I’m off to the nearby Peninsula Valdés. There I will get to see sea lions and elephant seals, fur seals and (if I’m really lucky) orcas ... and perhaps even another penguin or two. A different species this time, but I’m sure just as amusing as the ones I’ve already encountered.

So lots of animal life tomorrow ... and as long as the canine variety stays well away from me, we`ll get along just fine.

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