Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Long Way Down

Nice house in Ricoleta, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaArgentina is a change, and it's not just the (relative) wealth. For one thing, I’m back to being just above average height instead of being a giant among men who doesn’t fit in bus seats or doorways. There’s clearly much more European blood here. Argentina had massive waves of immigration from Europe, especially from Italy. They imported not just skin tone and stature, but also pizza, pasta, and ice cream. Also a bit of the accent, Argentinian Spanish doesn’t sound quite like its neighbors. The food is different- aside from the famous steaks and great Italian food, there seems to be a national obsession with hot dogs (known here as panchos) and these crust-less white-bread ham, cheese, and mayo sandwiches, often triple decked. Then of course there's the Alfajors-- glazed cookie sandwiches. Everywhere.

An Argentine day’s schedule takes its cues from Spain—it runs late. Dinner is usually around ten pm at the earliest, often as late as midnight. Don’t bother going out to bars or clubs before two am. Also, don’t expect anything to be open between noon and three in the afternoon, everybody has collapsed from being awake until five am and getting up again to start the day at nine.

Speaking of time, so you know though it isn’t marked as much on most maps, Buenos Aires is one hour ahead of the rest of the country, during summertime (December, January, and February on this side of the planet).

I'm taking the express route through the country. I've hit the border town of La Quaica, spent midnight hours in the streets of Jujuy, passed a day in Salta, then shot across and down to Buenos Aires in time for Obama’s inauguration (something I wanted to be somewhere with TV access for, instead of on a bus, even if, as a puzzled Brazilian friend of mine pointed out, I could’ve just youtubed it later).

Of all the cities I’ve been to so far, Buenos Aires gets the most hype. Usually when something gets that much hype, I actually lower my expectations. Chances of it living up to anything like how its described seem slim. But BA did not disappoint. I wouldn’t call anything with a lit-up 16-lane main drag (once again, named after my birthday!) the “Paris of South America,” but that isn’t a strike against the place. I understand why it gets the nickname. You wander past the numerous dusty bookstores, the parilla grills, the statues, cobbled streets, pizza shots, designer clothing stores, wide streets and skyscrapers both old and modern, and you, too will be trying to compare it to any and all of the modern cities you’ve ever seen in the “developed world.” Cross in front of the deep-dish pizza being served across the street from the theater featuring Phantom of the Opera and a Harold Pinter play on the secondary stage and it’s Chicago, or maybe New York (if you ignore the deep dish). Exit a Gothic church to find a helmet-less motorcyclist roll down the street listening to white iPod earbuds and smoking a cigarette and you could be, well, just about anywhere in Western Europe.

The whole place looks and feels like the 1st world but with this exotic edge to it. It’s not in the polish, it’s in the crust and dirt. It’s the things you find that are at odd, black angles, bits a pieces that remind you that you are still in Latin America, peeking out from the dark street corners at night. That’s another thing, from a theater perspective, this city has mastered light design. It knows what colors need to hit what spots and where the shadows need to be cast for best effect. It’s everywhere from public parks to little corner stores. Reminds you of all the little things tucked away in corners to find. Needless to say, I’m coming back to this town. There’s more here I want to see.

I’ve left for now. I got tickets straight down as far south as you can get direct from BA, then a little bit further. A double-decker bus marathon to Rio Gallegos and from there through Chile, across a ferry with black-and-white dolphins riding our waves and treeless hills dotted by sheep, llamas, and pink-flamingo filled lakes back across another border to the crags and forests of Tierra del Fuego province, Argentina. Also as a bonus, for the second part I sat next to a French guy my age who didn't know basically any English or Spanish but who had both a French-Spanish dictionary and phrasebook. So, I now know some very very very basic French. Enough to survive by in a French speaking country, I think. I hope. I'm looking through a "Franc├Ęs para todos" to reinforce a few things while I'm here.

I called the part before that a "marathon," but “Gauntlet” might be better. I bought a $6 pocket radio with batteries and earbuds on my way out. When I stepped off the bus at a pit stop among my iPod and cell phone toting fellow passengers, I figured my cheap radio would be safe for a couple minutes unobserved. It wasn’t—it and someone else’s bag were reported missing shortly after we got back on. A couple hours later, our pirated, dubbed Stephen Seagal movie was interrupted by the announcement that the A/c had stopped working. In the Pampas and upper Patagonia in the summertime, this is a big problem. Three sweltering stops later, our bus had been replaced (though not after I’d searched it again for the radio and bag—finding a pillow and someone else’s jacket and bag). The second bus had two unexplained stops in a garage, then pulled over on the side of the road ten minutes out of town. I wandered up to the front of the upper deck, and took my time getting a cup of water. When we still weren’t moving, I went downstairs and asked the other passengers. They didn’t know what was going on either. So I poked my head into the driver’s compartment. Nobody there. I opened the passenger side door to the driver’s compartment and stuck my head out, finding both drivers looking at the back, who finally told me the engine had overheated. Half an hour later, we had pulled over a second time, and this time the main passenger door opened and everybody was told the bus was broken and we had to get off. We watched it get dark on the side of the road as a new bus took half the passengers on board and sped off. A second bus pulled over, then left. A third empty one pulled over and took the rest of us. I get a nice seat, and found out that the window is cracked and leaking. That’s about the time that I realized that my fleece had gone missing with my radio. I hadn’t seen it in the search that afternoon. We finally pulled into Rio Gallegos late, meaning I had to wait two more days to get a bus to Ushuaia.

As one woman in the first line on the first side of the first of two border crossings to Tierra del Fuego told me two days later, “Patience. When travelling Patagonia, you always need to bring your patience.”

I’m writing from Ushsuaia now, the self proclaimed “end of the world.” I’m spending a week here before a boat trip I booked. The views here in any direction, when not obstructed by a hotel or tourist shop, are magnificent. The hiking and camping opportunities are first class, and there are chances to see penguins, seals, and glaciers. Should be a good week.

And waiting at the end of it, that little boat trip I mentioned? It’s going to Antarctica.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Border Contrast

Salar de UyuniThat's not ice. That's a missive layer of salt, stretching in every direction. Same kind of salt you find in the ocean, the Great Salt Lake, or used liberally in almost all Bolivian food.

Still feeling a bit congested, I figured a three day jeep tour into a 5000 m high desert might do the trick to dry out the sinuses a bit. So I went to the Salar de Uyuni in a dilapidated Toyota 4Runner with two Argentinian politicians, a daughter of one of them, three other backpackers (two from Bavaria, one from Minnesota), and hard-of-hearing guide/driver/cook with a mangled right ear who stuffed fist-sized wads of coca leaves in his mouth to stay awake.

We weren't one of the lucky groups that got to see the Salar after it rains. It's a very flat surface which, after rain, turns into a gigantic mirror that you can walk and drive on. When dry, it looks like what you see to the left. Because of the flat white expanse, it turns into one of the world's best places for trick photography. Search around the web and you can find some great shots. Like this one. We even tried a hand at it ourselves, though the results were less than perfect given we had only five minutes at the time and our driver was honking his horn at us so we'd get back to the car.

Looking around, if you took the same artist god metaphor from a couple posts back, all you could think of is that he just decided he didn't like this massive piece of land and took a gigantic eraser to the thing, leaving flat white cracked nothingness in its wake, dotted with islands with some of the biggest and oldest cacti in the world (one purportedly more than 1,200 years old). Just plain bizarre.

After that, even the surrounding desert looked like it was lush and full of life, just from the scrub, occasional quinoa fields, and wandering llamas. We drove from rocks to flamingo filled oasis lakes, to more rocks, and saw bizarre mineral effects, like the Laguna Colorado, a lake that's a dirty pink color instead of blue in the middle, and surrounded by steaming geysers.

The geysers we got to visit up close on our way to bathing in thermal waters at dawn on the last day. It was freezing at night in the desert, but as Drew, the backpacker from Minnesota pointed out, all the two of us had to do was remember what it was like back in the Midwest right now and we would be right at home. Still didn't stop me from being impressed when my swimsuit, towel, and even my hair all froze a few minutes after getting out of the hot spring. But relaxing in steaming water a few yards away from white and pink flamingos dunking their heads to stay warm in the face of the sunrise isn't something I'm going to forget.

It was a long drive back to Uyuni that day, and the semi-functioning tape deck was blasting Bolivian cumbia all the way. Cumbia is a kind of music my guidebook describes as sounding like a "three legged horse." It's from Colombia originally, and I've tended to like the versions I've heard from there on North. But for some reason, the further south you go, it seems to deteriorate somehow, until you get the music made up of an old Casio keyboard, a singer who can't stay on key, a drum that's just slightly off rhythm and these random shout-outs like you'd hear in American rap music. I've gotten a little tired of it.

The trains out of town were full, so everyone was going on the rickety buses running on dirt roads to get south. I got on mine, found my seat to be the middle seat of the very back, at the end of the aisle. The seat ahead of me and to my right was taken by a mother and baby. Then, when the cumbia started blasting and window-rattling decibels, as it sometimes does on these buses, I realized that I was seated directly under the only speaker. I looked around me and found the other passengers reacting the same way I felt. So I calmly took off my fleece and stuffed it into the uncovered speaker (to cheers and claps on the back).

As we went along the road, I had leg room, I made faces at the baby to keep it amused and most importantly, not crying until it fell asleep. The road was rough enough that the rattling obliterated what you could still hear of the music through my fleece, and I spent the rest of the time chatting up my Brazillian and Argentinian row-mates in a mix of Portuguese-tinted-Spanish and English. If anything has made me feel like a veteran Latin America backpacker so far, that ride was it.

We crossed into Argentina. I think I'm in a whole different world. A day or two ago I was looking at this. Now I'm looking at this. Everything is bigger, cleaner, and nicer. I'll have much more on all the differences soon. I'm in the city of Salta and getting on an overnight bus to Buenos Aires soon. I took a little turn around town and noticed something on the map. A square with a date for a name. Pretty common here, often things are named after the dates of saints days. I walked into the tourist office and asked about it.

"Hey, I'm curious about this square, what's the date signify?"
"What?"
"The date-- it's my birthday. Is it also a saints' day?"
"Oh wow! No, that's Argentine independence day!"

...this country and I have the same birthday. I think this might be a good match for me.

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Health, Money, and Love, pt 2

"Cripes. Time. Right, skipping several important and amusing bits..."

I should have known that sentence would come back to haunt me. Now I have to remember all the stuff I was going to write. Funnily enough, I don't.

Mostly what I remember are images and culture differences. One of the images of course was just walking around the Inti Wari Yassi park and wondering where the jaguar was. Julio and I spent most of our time there without saying a word. It wasn't any awkward social circumstance, we'd just both agreed without even mentioning that we wanted to hear what was around us. Never did see or hear any cats, but what we did hear was pretty impressive anyway.

Speaking of cats, watching how the family treated pets was another experience. Four dogs, were occasionally tolerated in the house for a while, then shooed out with a large stick. The cat and kitten weren't shooed out, but their treatment was actually a bit more startling for me. Ever seen one of those new families in a park, the one where the dad is tossing the baby around in ways that make the baby squeal with glee and the mom squeal with shear terror? That's kind of how I felt about what they did with the kitten, only I'm not sure he was actually filled with glee either. There was a lot of squeezing, tossing and holding the poor little guy in ways I'm pretty sure he didn't appreciate. Funnily enough, I turned out to be the one person who could put him in his or her lap and have him stay there. Seemed scared of the others for some odd reason. No idea why. Really.

All it was though was a another way of showing what kind of a family they were: very tight knit, very loving. As Julio and I got up at 4am to go out to the rain forest, his parents insisted on going out with us and trying to give Julio all kinds of  dvice. They never said it, but they were clearly worried about their (twenty-one year old) little boy going out into the wild world without them. For the record, Julio gave them no real grounds for concern, he's very much capable of taking care of himself and others along with him. But that's the way things were.

I got invited to the youngest grandchild's baptism, (they insisted on having me be part of the family portrait). Afterwards, I fell into conversation with one of the cousins in her late 30s who told me she was still living with her parents. I said something about how I couldn't imagine doing something like that myself, unthinkingly adding something like "I needed my independence", and she explained that she too was independent-- it's just hard to leave her little sisters behind. They need help. So for that she stays with the family.

Sometimes that's just what's needed. I was there when Nico, the oldest grandkid, bought a pair of fish from the pet street market in town. A couple days later, I went up to the room of him and his mom to say hi and found him in tears. One of the fish had died. Within minutes, every female member of the family was in the room with him to comfort him and give him advice, talk to him about what they would do with the body, when and how they would get a new fish and what they would do to make sure it didn't happen again. There's a lot to value there.

I promised an explanation of the title of the post. Somebody visiting the house turned out to be one of those people who, when they sneeze, always sneeze three times. The usual polite response to a sneeze in Spanish is "salud". It means health. They told me in that in Cochabamba, when someone sneezes three times, they say that for the first sneeze, "dinero" (money) for the second sneeze, and "amor" (love) for the third. Some of them tended to tease me a bit for always only sneezing twice, saying it's a good thing because finding love on a trip like mine would "get in the way of things." But watching them all watch out for and worry about each other, it all seemed to fit in. It's the kind of family where the second grandson would take one look at you and without saying anything, walk over and sit in your lap. All the men hug, all the women kiss on the cheek. That's the kind of people they are. And they're there to wish you the best; health, money, and love.

And that's just when you sneeze.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Health, Money, and Love, pt 1

(FAKE UPDATE, 1/18/09: I've decided to just make a part two for this entry instead of changing this one-- makes it easier for you subscribers out there)

I've got a lot less time than usual to write this entry-- trip to the Salar de Uyuni leaves in less than an hour and a half. Likely I will update this later when I have more time. Stay tuned.

I stepped off the bus at around 11:30 at night in Cochabamba expecting the usual friendly touts to meet us as we got off ushering us to their hotel/restaurant/bus. Sure enough I saw three guys standing outside and heard them yelling out names of the next big town west. First guy approaches me: "Santa Cruz?" I shake my head. Second guy: "Santa Cruz?" I ignore him. Third guy: "Joel?"

That was how I met Victor, patriarch of the family I had come to visit in Cochabamba. He and his wife, Rosy drove me to their house, rousted half their adult kids out of bed to say hi and stuff me full of as much food and drink as they could get their hands on. Before I went to bed at midnight, the youngest kids (fraternal twins my about my age) already had plans with me to go out the next night.

When I rolled out of bed the next morning, I came down fully dressed, but barefoot. The family was shocked. Not because of any taboo against bare feet but because they were sure I was going to catch a cold. Ten minutes later, I'd been handed a pair of nice sandals that were (almost) my size. Once again stuffed full of food, I was warned vigorously against the ills of the climate-- if I was out in the "cold" (roughly 60 degrees F by my guess) without warm clothing, I was sure to get sick. Same with the rain, same with walking barefoot on their tile floors, it would be sure to do me in. Coming from much colder cities with much more rain, I assured them that I was going to be just fine. I always thought the whole cold-bringing-on-illness thing was a dumb superstition anyway. Viruses and bacteria make you sick, not air temperature. As we were making the empanadas pictured above, I assured them that I didn't feel cold in the least and that, coming from Seattle then Chicago, I didn't think I was likely to go and get sick.

Sure enough, I went and got sick. I think it was the flu. Cold symptoms plus mild fever and general weakness. When a local doctor at a pharmacy examined me, she said that I should "hurt all over", and tried putting me on antibiotics. I pointed out that I already had some in the form of anti-malarials, so she relented with some anti-flu combos.

If you ever get sick abroad, get sick while you're staying with a family. I had to fend off so many offers of tea, medicine, entertainment, and general care that it started getting silly. Part of it is that the family also just happened to be a big family of fantastic hosts. In the three-story house were the parents, the oldest daughter, Judy, and her 8-year old son, Nico, the oldest son (named after his father of course), and the youngest son and daughter (fraternal twins), Julio and Mary, space for the middle daughter to visit with her husband and two sons, the apparent servant who came six days a week, four dogs, and two cats. Plus me. The house was the classic echoing Latin dream place: big open rooms, white (marble?) tiled floors, and white walls liberally sprinkled with pictures of Jesus, Mary, and a few selected saints.

Aside from generally being a lot of fun to hang around, the family was exceptionally generous, and I don't juist mean the mountains of food I had to fend off. By the time I finally left (after they convinced me not once or twice but three times to extend my stay), they had given me an artisan leather wallet, a handcrafted messenger bag, two key chains with hand painted miniature traditional flutes, a special eucalyptus balm for apparently everything, and a hand-woven traditional belt. On my way out the door they tried to get me to take the sandals as well until I finally convinced them that, while I was very grateful, I just didn't have any room left.

I already sent home half of what they gave me. I'm hanging onto the bag as a replacement for the part of my pack that got stolen, and the wallet's a great replacement for my old duct-tape model which was falling apart at the seams anyway.

Cripes. Time. Right, skipping several important and amusing bits, halfway through my stay, I medicated myself up enough to take a trip into the Amazon. I had my eye set on a particular nature reserve, but just before setting out, we found that a landslide had taken out the road there. But I chatted with Julio and we decided that wasn't going to stop us. We got a bus to the landslide, crossed it, walked a bit further, and a got transport the rest of the way.

So much green. Everything was green, everything was snared or connected to something else somehow. I have a good friend who looks at these things, smiles, shakes her head and says "God is an Artist." If that's how you look at the world, then when God made the Amazon, he just took a green pencil and never lifted it from the brown-red page. No cat sightings unfortunately, but we did see a ton of monkeys, including one that specifically guided me up the path a ways (I have pictures), a turtle, and massive parrots. Plus I got to cross a swinging rope bridge in the jungle to get to a waterfall. If my day hadn't been made already several times, that would have done it.

Anyway, much much later, I've left Cochabamba and am now in Uyuni, looking at a tour that will take me through the Salt flats and on to Chile. Leaves in minutes. I'll update this entry later to at the very least explain the title and what it has to do with sneezing three times. Right, for now, gotta dash!

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Machu Picchu

Llamas on Machu PicchuI'm not usually the type to buy Christmas presents for myself. I made an exception this year.

This picture was taken from just below the "guard house" in Machu Picchu. I took it after getting myself soaked and filthy by mountain biking downhill across rock slides and rivers and then trekking three days across Inca trails carved straight into the side of a cliff face. It ended with an hour's trek just before dawn straight up the side of a mountain to gain entrance to the Incas' most famous ruin in one of the most spectacular settings in the world.

When we first started, I looked around at the mountains and forest and thought that this was all kind of familiar, like hikes I'd done at home. But after a steep uphill climb that brought us out to the side of the Sacred Valley I realized this was like nothing I'd done before. Everything but the path was vertical. If the spectacular views of the mountains and river didn't make you dizzy, vertigo would instead. Just try going up and down the steep craggy stairs. I'd handled much more steep and rickety stairs back in the Mayan ruins, but the sheer drop hundreds of feet to one side was like having someone very large breathing down your neck hissing "don't mess up, don't mess up, don't mess up" into your ear the whole way through. Absolutely worth every step though.

I can't pretend it was all hardcore rough and tumble adventuring. Yes, we had plenty of that, but the most challenging thing for a couple of my Australian friends in our group was being told by a security guard that they couldn't drink their beer in the hot springs they were relaxing in. Against the rules apparently. Also challenging was trying to convince our guide that, no, we weren't going to spend all night in the tourist discotec, because we were going to sip rum and coke with the locals in front of a tienda, while some of us played soccer with kids on the street instead. Though somehow we ended the night by astonishing everyone else in the club by showing up later, making complete fools of ourselves with a chair, a pole, and several dance offs, and then conga lining out of the place. Funny how that goes.

Machu Picchu was great for fantastic views and ruins of incredible size. But it was also great for people watching. I was the first in my group to the top, around 5:45am. There were maybe fifteen others milling around. Within less than 45 minutes, a line of more than a hundred was standing outside the entrance pouring in from the stairs and the buses that had started to arrive. More than half seemed to be either American or Japanese. When I took that photo up there with the alpacas, I was surrounded by a mob of at least fifty vying for the same shot. Hundreds and hundreds of people of all ages were pouring in, from babies to people using walkers. It was big enough not to feel crowded even though at least 500 people were on the site at any given time.

One thing that struck a personal chord for me when I was walking around the ruins comes from my grandfather. When he was in the US Army in WWII, he looked around in Germany and made a simple observation. The houses and buildings made of stone still stood where others made of other materials had fallen. Some of these houses were quite old. So, when he came home to eastern Washington State, he decided he was going to build himself a stone house. They lasted longer. So, over the next few years, he did it. Looking closely at some of the structures on Machu Picchu, most of them were made in kind of a similar way to my grandpa's house. That's more than 500 years through storms and earthquakes. Perhaps my Grandpa's house will last a bit longer than he originally realized.

As usual, this whole account is a few days behind where I actually am. I'm sitting in La Paz, Bolivia surrounded by slightly hung over travelers unforgivingly awake again after new years eve. I realize I haven't really updated in detail what I've been doing since the Galapagos. The quick summary runs as follows: I spent some time in the Ecuadoran mountain town of Otavalo, including a haunting nighttime solo hike to my farm stay hostel through thick fog my flashlight could barely handle. I then booked it down the coast of Peru, stopping long enough to have some amazing ceviche and chat up some Lima natives before heading up to Cuzco. After Christmas and my trek, I moved on to Bolivia, stopped by Copacabana and lake Titicaca, and then headed to La Paz to ring in 2009. Next on the agenda, with any luck should include a visit to some family friends, my first real foray into the Amazon rain forest, and a trip to see something called the Salt Flats of Uyuni. If only I could start every year this way...

Happy New Year, everybody!

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