Vancouver 2010: an Olympic Party

The fireworks set off outside BC Place, where the closing ceremonies took place inside

The fireworks set off outside BC Place, where the closing ceremonies took place inside

During the winter olympics that just passed, Vancouver experienced the biggest party of its life. It traditionally has no festivals, concerts or carnivals that are large-scale enough to bring hundreds of thousands into the city, causing every hotel, resturant and bar to be packed to capacity 24/7. In addition, road closures and traffic bans were made, allowing the same thousands of people to flood the streets for any combination of shopping, walking, dancing, drinking or celebrating, and overflowing all the buses and sky-trains, and sea-buses despite increases in frequency.

On big game days, mostly men’s Canadian hockey, but also some skating events, and other days for no reason at all except that it was the olympics, you would feel the Canadian love simply by the sheer masses in the streets wearing red, screaming “Go Canada” and being overly happy. Everytime Canada won a medal, one of the large cruise ships parked in the harbour would blow its horn loud and clear, so that everyone in the streets erupted in cheers, whether or not they knew what medal or event they were yelling for. During the qualification playoff, quarter final, semifinal and gold medal hockey game, this would happen every single time Canada even scored a goal, so the entire city, whether they wanted to or not, followed the game’s progress until Canada won, and the same chorus of cheers lasted just a bit longer and louder to let everyone know the game was over and subsequently, that is was party time.

On the last day of the Olympics, Sunday February 28th, the combination of the Men’s hockey final and the explosive, impressive closing ceremonies sent the city into a full day (I’m talking an 8 am party start time) and night (til 4 am the next morning) long celebration for the most successful Canadian Olympics ever, with Canadian pride pouring thick and the colours of red and smell of alcohol inescapable in all the streets of downtown Vancouver. Im sure this happened in other Canadian cities too, but what was so suprising was the intense silence that followed Monday morning. No more fans, no more athletes, no more red, no more Canada cheers; the entire city seemed like a ghost town as businesses and people returned to their regular, every day lives, and traffic began to fill the pedestrian-empty streets.

Goodbye Winter Olympics, we loved having you!

Patagonia: Terra del Fuego & Ushuaia

To actually get to Antarctica, I had to fly south from Buenos Aires to the small port of Ushuaia, affectionately called the Southernmost city (not town, which is in Chile) in the world. Not so proudly, it was also once the city of condemnation for criminals, where all of Argentina’s worst criminals were sent to be isolated in the cold, lonely island province of Terra del Fuego. It was called ‘Land of Fire’ because the first european explorers to discover it sailed along its shores noticing many fires and smoke rising from the land since the indigenous population there used fire often in their day-to-day lives. More than using fire for heat, they used it to cook, since they were actually an evolved type of man that barely felt cold – despite the cold temperatures and snow, they lived in small, uninsulated huts made of wood, wore no clothes, and ate over 10,000 calories a day that they easily burned up without being overweight at all.

Ushuaia, also nicknamed the End of the World, is the only city in Argentina that is actually on the west side of the Andes, forcing people to cross the massive mountain range and all its glaciers to get to mainland Argentina. Since the province is also technically an island, they have to cross into Chile before being able to sail across to mainland Argentina. Their tourist season runs all year round and is the main industry there, since they have the ski mountains to appeal during the winter months, and the 40,000+ cruise passengers visiting in the summer months to board their ships that sail to Antarctica. It still has a small-city feel, with unpaved roads, and the little bit of ‘rough-around-the-edges’ underdevelopment that still exists probably disappears under a blanket of snow every winter.

the andesTerra del Fuego National Park was one of the most beautiful parks I have ever seen, lush in mosses, vibrant flours, big forests, with colours of green, blue and brown dramatically lit by the long sun-hours. There is only about 1/3 of the park that you can access by car/bike, and the rest you could get lost in hiking around for weeks. The andes, glaciers, and not far-off Chile creates a spectacular backdrop, and without any fences or farms, horses seem to roam freely in open fields, bunnies hop around grazing, and breeding ducks and big hawks litter the ponds and air everywhere. If i could do it again, I would have given myself a lot more time, supplies and film to have spent weeks there, roaming the coast, fields and mountainsides for days on end trying to capture the natural beauty I find myself having a hard time trying to explain now.

Uruguay's Many Sides

Punta del Este's Atlantic beachAfter a week in Argentina, we traveled for 5 days through Uruguay which required almost as much travel time as actual down time since we ferried from Buenos Aires to the historical town of Colonia del Sacramento, bussed to Montevideo, and then finally onto Punta del este on the South East corner or Uruguay where the beach actually opens to a mixture of river and the Atlantic Ocean before coming all the way back to Buenos Aires in only 5 days.

Colonia was a beautiful small town, with cobblestone streets and colonial architecture, old vintage cars and a sleepy feel which was slightly disrupted by the really windy day we had there. It is only a 1 hr ferry from Buenos Aires to get there, and many tourists from Buenos Aires make it there just for a day trip to say they set foot on Uruguaian soil.

The entire downtown core is walkable in 5 mins accross in either direction, so after one night and a day there, we carried on to Punta del Este, a much larger, metropolitan and modern tourist destination that lies on a peninsula of land surrounded almost 360 degrees by water. The beach on the west side technically sits on the Rio de la Plata, and the beach half a kilometer away on the east side is the Atlantic side, with big waves, great surf, and a bluer tinge to the water. The main strip down the centre of town almost feels like Miami beach even Vegas, or some smiliar, busy, bright-light party town, with lots of shopping, nightlife, casions and tourist-infrastructure.

Prices were not cheap here, or atleast not comparable to the rest of Uruguay, and because of this, in addition to being there during the height of tourist season, we paid $25 per person for a hostel bed each, my bed being the top bunk in a set of 3 (inches from the roof) with 9 people in a small, windowless, basement room, and Steve’s bed being a mattress in the hallway beside all the storage lockers. We made the most of it by trying to cook a delicious steak dinner in their kitchen (also in a hallway) but ran into some complications when their only knife broke and we barely had enough pots, plates or utensils to prepare a meal for two.

Finally there was Montevideo, a big, sprawling city that was much more developed than I expected, with an old, historical core and then a new, more european-feeling, modern area surrounding it. We couchsurfed with a couple people who lived 3 blocks from the beach – the crowning jewel of Montevideo which makes it almost a better city to live in than Buenos Aires. The beach had perfectly soft sand, made of the tiniest grains that sparkled like pieces of gold in the sunlight, and the water would change from shades of brown to blue depending on how much river water could reach the banks after mixing with the open ocean water  a few kilometers away. It was strange to see the murky river water acting tidal, small waves of the Rio de la Plata crashing on the shore.

Uruguay definitely impressed, feeling just a little warmer, cleaner, and more expensive than Buenos Aires, but perhaps it was just my bias from loving the beach time I had while in the city when Buenos Aires’ Puerto Madero riverbank teased as the only waterfront area with no swimming access.